Tag Archives: science and technology studies

Heterogeneity in the sciences: Production, Suppression, Interpretation—Draft of a graduate seminar

This draft of a graduate Seminar was collectively constructed by participants of the 2009 NewSSC workshop on “Heterogeneity and Development: Methods and Perspectives from Sciences and Science Studies”

  • material in <carat brackets> indicates uncertainty during transcription.  [Readers interested in more detail can contact me to connect with the authors of each session (indicated by the initials in parentheses)]

Heterogeneity in the sciences: Production, Suppression, Interpretation

1. Appreciating Extrinsic Heterogeneity in Developmental Biology

  • Concepts to convey
    • Discriminate & understand the intrinsic (within) vs. extrinsic (affected from without) processes that contribute to stages of development — dependent on level of complexity (prokaryotic unicellular -> multicellular eukaryotes)
    • Especially an awareness of the heterogeneity of the extrinsic environment
  • Assignments
    • Background readings that prepare students to answer the question: Are organisms closed or open systems? Is there a developmental program? How does this affect the notion of heterogeneity?

2. The Gene for X: Genetic Determinism as Suppression of Causal Heterogeneity
(Jake Metcalf)

  • Core theme: genetic determinism operates by relieving scientists of the responsibility to provide adequate causal stories and evidential support
  • Exercises
    • 3 Case studies of hyped claims about the discovery of a gene for some important trait: IQ, Speech, and Maleness
    • Assigned readings
      • primary (include journalistic coverage of original papers)
      • background literature (STS, about genetic causality & history of gene concept)
        • Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do
        • Scott Gilbert, Ecological Developmental Biology
    • Students responsible for presenting cases to the other students

3. Helicobacter pylori and its modes of existence

  • Concept: How Microorganism is Constructed as Heterogeneous / Non-Heterogeneous Entity
    • Bacteria in the stomach as non-existent entity (demonstrated by experiment in 50s)
    • Production of H. pylori as a pathogen, on the specific design of research whose intention is to show that it exists and it is a pathogen. (In context: no research of other types, such as symbiotic relation)
    • Return of heterogeneity through a range of strains of H. pylori; Each phenotype is characterized through its ‘virulence’. Less virulent strains are being used to transform <…> as pathogens. Is a carrier of vaccines)
    • Looking at H. pylori from point of view of public health policy: to socially study the suppression through <…>
    • Show historically how predominant policy generates over <h…> becomes resistant to interventions
    • Discussion whether Helicobacter pylori <…>
  • Readings
    • Pioneers (first-hand practitioner accounts, historical)
    • “Biography of Objects… Discovery of Biomedical Sciences.” STS-type study of the whole case study by Portuguese researchers.

4. Heterogeneity in Epidemiology

  • Concept
    • Convey historical perspective on epidemiology, and shift from acute to chronic infectious diseases
  • Class Exercises
    • Case study built around AIDS: Ask whether there’s more of a social or more biological roots of epidemiology
    • Field trip to contaminated community–
  • Background Readings
    • Levins & Lewontin, Biology Under the Influence
    • ?, Critical Epidemiology
    • Peter… Social Epidemiology

5. Understanding Different Concepts of Ecological Heterogeneity and the Limits of Models

  • Objective:
    • Convey how difference concepts about ecological heterogeneity both produce and suppress the understanding of heterogeneity in ecological systems
  • Concepts to Convey
    • Spatial Heterogeneity:
      • Suppresses:
    • Genetic
      • Differences in underlying molecular codes
      • Produces: many things…
    • Structured Interactions:
      • Can induce differences in individuals…
    • <> Structure
  • Readings
    • Lee Worden, … (tragedy of the commons)
    • Lee Worden, … (exposing differences in power)

6. Landscapes

  • Objectives
    • For students to know how to read their own landscapes (communities) through “textbook” knowledge
    • To understand the evolving sciences of/about these places; changing of paradigms
    • See the concrete power of the ideas that the sciences was struggling for
    • To be able to link changing scientific paradigms to specific communities of scientists
  • Format
    • Big lecture class
    • To adopt case studies that were ‘close to home’ for them
    • Nested scales
    • Focus on the themes, the heterogeneities that the scientists are encountering.
    • (would not normally use term such as ‘heterogeneity’ in front of undergrad class; will choose an existing definition; will explain the definition at the outset of the lecture)
    • Case studies
      • Day 1:
        • Michigan Dunes (Frederick Clements; Climax theory; primary sources (requires warning students about limits of primary sources))
        • Reading Forested Lanscapes (idea of succession; disturbances; move through… fire as an intrinsic part of heterogeneous landscape mosaics)
      • Day 2:
        • Silent Spring: Paradigm from focus on carcinogenesis to endocrine disruption
      • Day 3:
        • Aquatic ecology: Invasive species and persistent pollutants.

<7. qq
8. Production and Suppression of Heterogeneity in Reproductive Narratives

  • Readings:
    • Emily Martin: <Egg and Sperm article… stereotypes>. How stories about
  • Assignment:
  • Tell students to read the article carefully, give detailed account of the article
  • Present different textbook examples
  • Write their own ‘story’ about how eggs and sperm meet, with demand for ‘political neutrality’
  • Discuss how this ‘political neutrality’ is impossible; how language can homogenize stories.. (suppress heterogeneity)
  • Reflexive writing exercise:
    • What would be a feminist reading of the dilemma?

9. Looking at Heterogeneity in Science & Science Education

  • Concept to convey
    • How we know science through ourselves; how we know ourselves through science
  • Course Materials (Reading + Interview Material)
    • Case Study 1: “Mr. Swain is Gay”
      • Look at the kind of highschool biology texts that he’s teaching. (10th grade texts: sperm, egg, heterosexual assumptions)
      • Personal narratives collected through interviews: “I didn not see myself in what I was teaching”; experimentation in classroom about behavioral genetics; leads to doubt about whether God would create genes for simple behaviors.
    • Case Study 2: “Jim’s Flip Flop”
      • Kuhn on science education
      • From personal narrative (interview data): Distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how,” Similar to Kuhn.

10. Mapping Intersecting Processes

  • Topic / Objective
    • Understanding means of mapping intersecting processes in order to have a tool for dealing with complexity
    • (Via case study of Oaxaca Mexico)
  • Background Reading
    • Introduction
      • Provide simple population growth models
    • Themes: Subvert this through other themes
      • Heterogeneous elements and scales
      • Differentiation among dynamic agents are implicated; inequality among people
    • Practice
      • Individual exercises:
      • Collective: (“historical scan“): Getting group of people looking back on whole semester, elicit a lot of different (heterogeneous) ways of responding to experience; relate to course objectives; personal objectives; academic career objectives; analyze the responses to look for patterns; and to steer this towards engagement

Social Constructions IV—Process In Time Vs. Correspondence With Process Backgrounded


The preceding discussion of co-construction vs. separate things being constructed has, at many points, drawn on science being seen as a process in time.  Let me explore further the implications of this perspective.

In describing his second constructivism, the one closest to his basic realist sensibility, Sismondo employs the image of construction of a geometric proof.  Geometric construction, however, involves not just a static arrangement of fixed points (as Sismondo describes the idea), but steps, each building on the previous ones, to achieve the proof.  When we downplay the associations construction has with a process over time we are more easily pressed to answer the static question of what, ‘after all is said and done,’ scientific knowledge corresponds to.  Sismondo, for example, in supporting some version of realism, argues that, if theoretical ‘assumptions were not sometimes approximately true [did not map reality] then it would be extremely difficult to understand how scientists achieve the pragmatic successes they do.’[i]   He considers this a strong argument by itself (as do leading realist philosophers[ii]).  From the perspective that science is co-constructed, however, the argument lacks a crucial component: what the practices of agents in real time are through which (approximate) truth leads to the pragmatic success (or lack of truth to failure).[iii]  In contrast, studies of co-constructional processes generally draw attention to the diverse practices of agents in the process of science in the making, and avoid tracing pragmatic success back to truth.  So, although some established theoretical assumptions could be true, the contribution of any of these assumptions to the process of co-construction is difficult to separate; it remains contingent on how the other components are linked in the production of the success.

When philosophers do address the issue of process, they usually invoke or imply some evolutionary scheme in which ideas that map reality best will best survive through experimental tests and disputes over correct interpretations.  But what do scientists do in this scheme — surely not vary their ideas randomly like genetic mutations?  What are the processes through which agents can bring about this “survival of the realest?”  Without such details evolutionary schemes tend to collapse to a tautology of conceiving realest as those surviving at any given point of time, or, at best, the schemes have to stress the current function (realness) of ideas, as if a history of the ideas surviving because they were realer can be inferred from the current function alone.

Philosophers are by no means alone in backgrounding process or relying on notions of correspondence.  A formulation of social constructivism, more common in talk than writing, holds that if knowledge is not given by Nature, it must be given by Society — or, with similar effect, by historical context, class structure, social location, social interests, ‘form of life,’[iv] or membership in a ‘relevant social group.’[v]   Construction evokes an image in which Society, external to science, determines, penetrates, or is reflected in the content of accepted scientific theories.[vi]  The resulting science then corresponds to the Society in which it is generated or accepted.  Admittedly, most published work is more subtle.  The literature generally presents the society-science relationship as refracted, allowing for the observation that not all of social group X believe Y and not all believers of Y come from social group X.  Scientists (and others) should not, in this view, be seen as ciphers for society or dupes for interests.  Instead, for example, they are described as producing and judging knowledge according to how it furthers goals (over and above establishing knowledge) of their social group (Shapin’s “instrumental model” of sociology/ sociological history of scientific knowledge[vii]).  While process and practice seem to be in the foreground, construction in the simpler correspondence sense has not been banished in such accounts.  If one asks how they explain why this knowledge was accepted and not that, and how this knowledge was generated in the first place, the implicit explanatory structure is more often than not one of correspondence between knowledge and interests.[viii]


The directions co-constructivism point us may not be to everyone’s liking.  For many scholars reduction of complexity and some backgrounding of on-going process would seem to be necessary if they are to say anything clear, systematic, general or useful about science.  Although I recognise that there is a lot more work to be done defining, developing and establishing co-constructivism than this note could accomplish, I disagree with the assumption or pre-judgement that such a project is unworkable.  In fact, the challenges of co-constructivism seem difficult to avoid once we ask the question: What does it mean practically for agents to modify scientific activity?  The terms just highlighted conjure an image of construction as a process of agents building  by combining a diversity of components (as in people building or remodelling a house).  So, given that the question captures in very broad outline the project of science studies, let us highlight the building sense of construction and weed out the persistent idea that science reflects or corresponds to something.  Any scientific product is part of a complex achievement; science as it is being made is being co-constructed.  In this light, the metaphor of construction can yet be productive of theory, method, challenging questions, and new perspectives on long-standing debates.

[i]  S2, p. 565

[ii]  R. Boyd, ‘On the current status of scientific realism’, in R. Boyd, P. Gasper, and J. D. Trout (ed.), The philosophy of science  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 195-222.  See p. 207.

[iii]  See D. Hull, Science as a process: An evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).  For a relevant critique of natural selective explanations even in biology see P. Taylor, ‘Historical versus selectionist explanations in evolutionary biology’, Cladistics , Vol. 3 No. 2 (1987), 1-13.

[iv]  H. M. Collins and T. J. Pinch, Frames of meaning: The social construction of extraordinary science . (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

[v]  T. Pinch and W. Bijker, ‘The social construction of facts and artefacts; or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other’, Social Studies of Science , Vol. 14 (1984), 399-441.  See also P. Rosen, ‘The social construction of mountain bikes’, Social Studies of Science , Vol. 23 (1993), 479-513.

[vi]   See the diagrams in N. Wise, ‘Mediating machines’, Science in Context , Vol. 2 No. 1 (1988), 77-113.

[vii]   S. Shapin, ‘History of science and its sociological reconstructions’, History of Science , Vol. xx (1982), 157-211.

[viii]   S. Woolgar, ‘Interests and explanation in the social study of science’, Social Studies of Science , Vol. 11 (1981), 365-394; A. Pickering, ‘The mangle of practice: Agency and emergence in the sociology of science’, American Journal of Sociology , Vol. 99 No. 3 (1993), 559-589

Social Constructions III — Co-Construction Vs. Separateness

(Continued from previous post) We can consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process.


While Knorr Cetina may agree with Sismondo on some issues, she strongly opposes him when she insists that a phenomenon does not meaningfully exist, in the sense of being ‘out there,’ until we represent or reach closure about it.  Explanation seems to be the issue here; Knorr Cetina’s definition of existence has the effect that we cannot invoke pre-existing reality when explaining what happened as science was being made.  Excluding unobservables from our accounts is a strong explanatory stipulation in any science, one very difficult to maintain consistently.  Sismondo’s island analogy gently reminds us of the explanatory economy we can derive from invoking something having causal effects before any person had represented (or misrepresented) them.  The reason Knorr Cetina favours Sismondo’s rejected fourth constructivism is, I suspect, defensive.  Give unmediated reality an inch and realist philosophers will take a mile; unless she banishes unmediated reality from explanations, everything sociological becomes vulnerable to being discounted as secondary distortion of an underlying state of affairs, namely that we have ended up with theories that get it right (approximately) about how nature works.  Ironically, however, her move to insulate sociology from being so discounted by philosophers makes their work easier.  All they have to do is convince themselves that existence without representation is, in fact, meaningful, that is, one can, in principle, invoke it in explanations.  Then they can relax and continue to discount sociological challenges to philosophy.

Attention to the process of science in the making as a co-construction, however, has the virtues of allowing us both to admit unobservables into explanations and not to let philosophers off the hook so easily.  Let me explain this by extending Sismondo’s own uninhabited Pacific island analogy.  The existence of the island before we encountered it does not by itself explain how we found it, nor tell us how to find others.  And the fact that now the island can be located in many ways and by many people other than those involved in the original finding does not warrant giving its existence special status in understanding the original finding.[i]  I am not claiming people can individually or collectively wish an island into or out of existence, but little follows from this concession to unmediated reality by itself.  The claim to have found an island might be vulnerable if the island were not there, but this would not automatically be the case.  If would-be debunkers decided to revisit the contested point on the globe, they would need to get support to launch their expedition  — no trivial exercise.  They might have to cultivate patrons, lay in stores of food, procure maps, calibrate chronometers, and so on.  Their efforts in any one of these areas would influence efforts in the others, either facilitating or hindering them.[ii]   The realist (about the existence of islands) could give them little advice about these stages of the debunking process, save telling them, for the sake of credibility, to leave behind hallucinogenic drugs.

Leaving the analogy to return to the co-construction of science, I am quite prepared to believe that some deep underlying unmediated reality is fixed and to concede that social resources are only firm at best.  This does not, however, warrant a realist philosophy  Instead we should abandon the dichotomy of realist vs. relativist (idealist, conventionalist) explanations, because, when an outcome is the result of diverse fixed points and resources being linked and built upon, it is difficult to partition relative importance among the different contributing points and resources.  In other words, as science is being made, the importance of something, whether fixed, firm or malleable, is a function of the other things with which it is being linked.[iii]

Co-construction also undermines Sismondo’s political justification for maintaining a realist position.  I agree that incorrect scientific knowledge may inform social practices that we, as social critics, may want to change, and it may sometimes be effective politics for us to focus on contesting that knowledge as misrepresentation of reality.  Nevertheless, it does not follow that such critique is always necessary or even important for producing the desired social changes.  If we are to identify where and when science-centred critique could be linked into the reconstruction of the social practices we oppose, we need to understand the on-going construction of those practices.  Again, nothing follows from the truth (or from the falsity) of knowledge claims by itself.  While it may be galling that our political opponents invoke as truthful what we see as misrepresentations, there are no logical reasons either to assume that their practices are most vulnerable around those misrepresentations, to think that we can contest those misrepresentations without simultaneous attention to other contributing strands of their practices, or to fear that we weaken our politics by focussing our efforts against such other strands.

(continued in the next post)

[i]  Such a many-one relationship does, however, raise issues about whether we can generalise about science in the making and how we would do so.  In particular, we need to be able to acknowledge regularities across different makings of the science (analogous to the island’s existence being affirmed by ever more expeditions being able to locate it).

[ii]   For example, with patrons comes money, and how much money influences what food can be bought.  Similarly, potential patrons might become excited only if the promise were made to bring back slaves, requiring the expedition to plan a diversion to visit islands known to be inhabited.

[iii]  See R. C. Lewontin, ‘The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes’, American Journal of Human Genetics , Vol. 26 (1974), 400-411.)

Social Constructions II—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term (cont.)

(Continued from previous post)  Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science. While he asserts that his constructivisms are separable and claims clarification will result from distinguishing a focus on social objects from a focus on the natural world, his argument, examples and footnotes suggest such separateness cannot be sustained in practice.  Again, taking each of Sismondo’s first three constructivisms (but flipping the order of 2 and 3 for expository reasons):

1) His examples of large social objects (or projects) are ‘genders, power, emotions… cities, economies, legislation and knowledge.’[xiv]   As social objects, cities and economies are clearly very material as well as being actively represented and full of meanings.  The degree to which representations of them render their material aspects more difficult to construct differently (or acrete upon differently), and vice versa, is an obvious question for investigation.  Surely knowledge is not the odd thing out in his list of examples, being the one meaningful thing (social object) that has a relationship only in the direction from material/natural to representation/ social.

3) The ubiquity of manufactured reality in laboratory science confirms that knowledge is not the exception, as Sismondo makes clear in a footnote: The ‘phenomena that science studies are extremely dependent on thoughts and theoretical commitments, for often these would not exist were it not for the experimental development of these theoretical commitments.’  The question then arises, why is it important to try to place a line to keep manufactured reality strictly separate from some deep underlying unmediated reality?

2)  In the light of Sismondo’s expanded lists of ‘fixed’ points, the answer becomes uncertain.  When these points included only data and observations one could argue that some ‘geometrically’ constructed conceptual entities come to be accepted over others because they map reality better, because they are approximately true.  But the ‘because’ is more difficult to sustain when construction builds as well upon ‘resources and the like,’ that is, upon social objects; acceptance of knowledge (or reliability of technological interventions) becomes, instead, a part of a more complex achievement.  (I develop this point further below.)

Linked together in this way, Sismondo’s conclusions invite us to subvert his own distinctions by considering the co-construction of knowledge and material reality, extending from laboratory manufactured reality to larger social projects.  It is true, as he says, that in social studies of science different things have been described as being constructed — the natural world, scientific phenomena and techniques, acceptance of facts and theories, on-going scientific activity, ‘social objects,’ or society or more generally.  At the same time, however, the literature has increasingly described practices in which these things are interlinked: scientific objects appear to be resources for people building networks to support theories; theories resources in the organisation of scientific work; language, tools, and scientific work relations resources enabling particular manufacturings of reality, and so on.  This kind of constructivism shifts perspective not just from separate things to jointly constructed sets of things, but from thinking mostly about the constructed state of the outcomes to examining the processes of their co-construction.[xv]  Of course, from the point of view of the philosophically minded, sociologists of science have provided stories about such complexity, but have yet to tease out the causal or explanatory claims implied in descriptions of such interlinkings.  An examination of the implications of such an explanatory co-constructivist project is beyond the scope of this note.  We can, however, consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process.  (Continued in the next post)


[xiv]  S1, p.547

[xv]  Sismondo’s focus on the status of outcomes leads him to address Latour’s and Woolgar’s work only in terms of the fourth category of constructivism, the one he rejects.  Both Latour and Woolgar are constructivists also in the sense of co-construction (see note 8).  Cf. Sismondo’s description of Latour’s work on scientists as accumulators of resources (op. cit. note 3) as “not obviously constructivist” (S1, p. 537).

Social Constructions—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term

The Social Construction of What? (Harvard UP, 2000) by philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, critically reviews the possible meanings of social construction in the context of scientific knowledge and technology.  However, there is one meaning of construction that he does not consider, perhaps the most obvious one to the common person, namely, the process of building a structure from diverse materials, as in the foundations, frames, walls, roof, plumbing and electrical circuits, and so on.  Several years before I had raised this point in “Co-construction and process: a response to Sismondo’s classification of constructivisms,” Social Studies of Science, 25 (2): 348-359, 1995.  (My title was “Heterogeneous construction and process,” but editor insisted on substituting “co-construction” wherever I had “heterogeneous construction.”  Sismondo is another Canadian philosopher of science, at that time a student at Cornell University where I worked.)  I am not aware of other commentaries that examine this omission.  This post and the following, therefore, extract from that paper.


Any classification into types can clarify our view of the whole while, at the same time, distracting our attention from hybrids and the processes by which they are formed and sustained.[i]  In this light, the recent review by Sismondo, which teases out some of the multiple meanings given to the term ‘construction,’ and his subsequent exchange with Knorr Cetina,[ii] should leave us troubled.  Many of us are interested in the processes of science in the making, in which scientific theories, materials, tools, language, institutions, and wider social relations are being co-constructed, and are trying to analyse the diverse ‘resources’ drawn upon by agents in such co-construction processes.[iii]   Sismondo’s classification makes little space for that strand of social studies of science, focussing as it does on the type of thing being produced, not the processes of their production.  Knorr Cetina does not take issue with him on that account.  She applauds his review as an overdue clarification of constructivisms (constructionisms) and, after a brief plug for philosophers to become more sociological, centres her response on defending a conceptual claim about representations preceeding existence (more on that issue later).  If clarification means providing distinctions we should work with, we should be less satisfied with Sismondo’s taxonomy.  I feel like a misfit, and so, I suspect, do the many who have over the last decade been attracted to ideas such as ‘ecologies of knowledge,’[iv] ‘intersecting social worlds,’[v] ‘heterogeneous engineering,’[vi] and actors’ ‘networks’ of resources.[vii]   This note, however, does not criticise Sismondo just for the omission of a major category of constructivism,[viii] but argues that, from the perspective of what is omitted, his classification scheme breaks down.  The distinctions do not hold in practice and Sismondo’s conclusions about reconciling social studies of science with philosophy and about politics are not justified.


Sismondo claims that social studies of science can benefit from distinguishing four separable uses of the term construction, differing in the type of thing being produced.  The payoff derives in part from clearing up the confusions that result when different authors (or the same author in different places) are arguing from different interpretations of the term.  The rest of the benefit derives from letting go of the last of the four constructivisms, namely that things do not exist until we represent and make them meaningful.  As Sismondo interprets it, this view is metaphysically untenable.  In his analogy, while the uninhabited Pacific island is only meaningful when it is encountered and charted, it certainly existed beforehand and would not have been found otherwise, so we can now meaningfully invoke its existence-before-encounter in our explanations of its discovery.  The fourth constructivism, in contrast, implies that successful accounts of the world are unconstrained by the underlying nature of material reality.  Such relativism should also be opposed, he adds in his reply to Knorr Cetina, because it is an obstacle to politically valuable analyses of the scientific inadequacy of certain beliefs.  Then, once Sismondo has rid us of this troublesome beast, he is quite relaxed about the other three senses of constructivism he discerns in sociology of science; each can be reconciled with the realist and politically motivated philosophy of science he favours.[ix]

Consider, however, the fine print of the reconciliation that follows rejection of the fourth constructivism.  Sismondo’s three pieces of advice (corresponding to his first three constructivisms) are that we should:[xi]

1) pay attention to the contingent interaction of many agents, possibly in conflict, as they make social ‘objects’ in science (institutions, gender relations, power, and, in particular, knowledge) by acretion from previous social objects;

2) extend our notion of ‘fixed points’ from which conceptual entities are constructed (as in a geometrical proof) to include, not just ‘data and observations,’ but also ‘tools, resources, and the like’[xii]; and

3) explore the conceptual implications of science’s making extensive use of laboratory artefacts, in the production of which (unmediated) nature has been systematically excluded from the manufactured reality.

Given that these are directions already taken in sociology of science, he is, in effect, advising philosophers of science to follow sociology of science’s lead.  If this constitutes a reconciliation it is not one in which philosophy preserves its own terms, the separateness of its turf, and its status as arbiter of ‘plausible positions.’[xiii]

But Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science (continued in the next post).

[i]  Of course, some hybrids disappear when the particular classification can be refined or replaced by one on a different basis.  (Orange and purple are hybrids if colours are divided into red, yellow or blue, but not if we subdivide the colour spectrum further.)  But even when re-classifying is possible, one still has to address users of the original, hybrid-entailing classification.  This note is concerned with just such a situation.

[ii]  S. Sismondo, ‘Some social constructions’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 515-554 [S1]; K. Knorr-Cetina, ‘Strong constructivism – from a sociologist’s point of view: A personal addendum to Sismondo’s paper’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 555-563 [KC]; S. Sismondo, ‘Response to Knorr Cetina’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 563-569 [S2].

[iii]  B. Latour, We have never been modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) discusses the challenges of hybrids for science studies and social theory, but his book does not deal with the conceptual implications of treating construction as a process.  A recent (post-Sismondo) article by A. Pickering, ‘The mangle of practice: Agency and emergence in the sociology of science’, American Journal of Sociology , Vol. 99 No. 3 (1993), 559-589, shares with this note an emphasis on process and co-construction (his ‘mangle’ and ‘impure dynamics’).

[iv]  C. Rosenberg, ‘Wood or trees?:  Ideas and actors in the history of science’, Isis , Vol. 79 (1988), 565-570.  See also S. Star, ‘Introduction: The sociology of science and technology’, Social Problems, Vol. 35 (1988), 197-205.

[v]  A. Clarke, ‘Social worlds/arenas theory as organizational theory’, in D. R. Maines (ed.), Social organization and social process: Essays in honor of Anselm Strauss  (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1991), 119-158.

[vi]  J. Law, ‘Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion’, in W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, and T. J. Pinch (ed.), The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 111-134.

[vii]  B. Latour, Science in Action:  How to follow scientists and engineers through society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987).

[viii]  We might also use the label heterogeneous constructionism, to capture an emphasis on the heterogeneity of elements or resources drawn into the practice of science in the making.  Under this general label, I would distinguish two strands, the first emphasising rhetorical, interpretive and textual tactics in securing belief, and the second centred on asking what it would mean practically for agents to modify scientific activity.  It is beyond the scope of this note, however, to develop the meaning and implications of heterogeneity, so I use the simpler label, co-construction and will not make anything of the distinction between rhetorical/textual practices and a more general sense of practice.

[ix]  In S1, note 6, Sismondo states a “minimalist” definition of realism: “scientific terms often refer to antecedently existent entities in the world,” and, by implication, our explanations of science can refer to the (pre-)existence of such entities prior to our accounts of them.  In practice, his (and other realists’) arguments use a stronger version, namely, that this fact is central to making sense of science’s successes.  It is this stronger version that I call into question here.

[xi]  S1, pp. 547-8.

[xii]  Cf. S1, pp. 516 and 547 in S1.

[xiii]  S2, p.566

Reconstruction of Ashmore’s “Theatre of the blind”

13 April 1993 (Notes responding to a talk by Malcolm Ashmore [12 April ’93 at Cornell Univ. STS department] based on http://sss.sagepub.com/content/23/1/67.abstract)

First pass at reconstructing Ashmore’s argument:

Initial proposition:

0.  I want to apply neo-strong programme “even-handedness,” which directs us to seek a sociological explanation of facts held by most to be true, not just those held by most to be false.  Normally, we apply this to scientific facts, but by reflexivity or consistency we should also apply this also to science studies facts.  If consistency is not a powerful enough argument to make you do this, how can I convince you to bother?  Let me take a hard case and show you there’s a payoff.

1.  One of the hardest facts in science studies is that Wood performed his debunking experiment on Blondlot as he described.

2.  As I have already said, instead of explaining this fact as following from it really happening the way described, even-handedness directs us to seek a sociological explanation of this fact.

3.  But I won’t do this.  Instead I’ll show you that 1. is not the only interpretation of what Wood did (including what he said).

4.  Bulk of MA’s talk, up to but not including Blondlot’s speech.

Second pass:

5.  Showing the mere existence of alternative interpretations (3 above) isn’t really enough to persuade you to do 2.  I have to make the interpretation more plausible -> two approaches (which complement each other, but which could, in principle, stand separately):

a)  Make plausible the idea that N rays did exist (via Blondlot’s speech), and so science studies has been in error.  Sociology of error needs less motivation than sociology of truth.

b)  Give my explanation of why hard fact has been believed, independently of whether or not it is true:  Wood wins because he gets away with using the opposite of good scientific method and we like to stories in which confident method is debunked.


Some problems:

6.  Why, given the initial methodological proposition (0), revert to sociology of error? (5a)  Why, in fact, build a sociological account that refers to the natural fact at all?

7.  Why advance the particular explanation focusing on the micro-site (5b)?  Why not integrate national styles and rivalries (played upon by both scientists and in science studies) etc.?

Third pass:

Two answers to 7 (6 has to wait):

8.  The shift from 2 to 3 is crucial.  Existence theorems are much easier than construction theorems (to use a mathematical analogy).

9.  a) Irony can be very powerful rhetoric (more so to Anglos than to Americans).  Although 5b is a sweeping generalization, you can get away with it because it provides the punch-line for the masterful ironic inversion.

b) The ironic inversion, in turn, enhances the plausibility to your audience of both your interpretations 5a & b.   (It probably also enhances the plausibility to you because you can identify with the trickster who wins the rhetorical contest.)

c) To the extent that people in science studies don’t want to be debunked, you have warned them to be more careful, suggesting that this can be achieved by adhering to the neo-strong programme.

Another problem:

10. This advocacy of method (0 & 9c) does not seem to jive with 5b, i.e., with our supposed ingrained distrust of methodological prescriptions.

Back to 6:

11.  My interpretation is that the strong programme’s emphasis on the truth vs. falsity dichotomy has two problematic (side)effects:

a) It continually draws the audience’s attention back to the issue: “Well, do you or do you not believe that X happens/happened?”  One can be evasive (your guard slipped however (6)), but I don’t know how a strong-programmer can suppress that question.  (Thus your “death and furniture” project.)

b) A strong-programmer can get a lot of mileage (debunking the sociology of error) from the shift to the existence theorem, so there is little motivation to pursue the construction theorem.  Or, in other terms, the EPOR [empirical programme of relativism] is best on the second stage, interpretive flexibility, and offers crude answers when it ventures onto its third stage.  Your explanation of why science studies hasn’t questioned the hard fact (1) is glib (not to mention a tad contradictory (10)).

12.  How to get around these side effects?

Some starting propositions of mine:

a.  In place of truth or falsity of an account, let’s substitute modifiability of a practice.

b.  Of course, rhetoric about truth or falsity continues, so we need to ask what supports that rhetoric, what allows such claims to have effect in resisting/ enhancing modification of the practice.

c.  Modifiability is an issue of heterogeneous webs of resources.  If we notice someone invoking one or a few resources (especially correspondence with some more or less unprocessed/able reality) we can ask how they have obscured, defleted attention away from, taken for granted the others.

d.  Reflexivity becomes a practical matter — what are the practical conditions, not just the textual strategies, that allow us to advance our accounts?

(These are developed in my draft ms. on heterogeneous constructionism).

13.  But how can I get you to bother to pursue this path?  Certainly, I don’t expect problems 11a&b to disturb you from what you are skillful, comfortable, and productive doing.  Nevertheless, this reconstruction may provoke some response, and, even if it’s only for my own sake, let me finish with my take-home message:

14.  My overall claim (hypothesis to support, heuristic to explore) is that science studies interpreters who use the ideas truth and falsity, even if they are just quoting the agents they are interpreting, and even if they are trying to be evenhanded, steer attention away from the heterogeneous construction of scientific activity, and will always have difficulty delivering on (i.e. doing the construction not just the existence theorem for) their desired sociology of truth.


15.  Given the substitution of evenhandedness for impartiality + symmetry the following point (lifted from a footnote in the ms. I’m working on) is probably a small one:

Heterogeneous constructionism also implies that the strong programme’s methodological principle of “symmetry” cannot, as stated, be implemented (Bloor 1991, p. 7). This principle requires us to use the same types of causes to explain “correct” and “incorrect” beliefs, that is, ideas deemed by other groups (contemporary or future) as being correct or incorrect.  Given the number and heterogeneity of resources in the construction of science, it is implausible to assume that the networks constructed to support opposing beliefs would end up taking the exact same shape and structure.  Strict causal symmetry is thus an overstated principle, and to the extent that people take symmetry literally, complex causality is avoided and so examination of the heterogeneity of construction processes is inhibited.

Of course, the main point of the principle of symmetry is to avoid explaining the “correct” ideas as the result of good science and the incorrect as the result of bias, ideology or some other “erroneous” beliefs.  This point could be covered, however, under a modified principle of impartiality, which dictated that all accounts need equally serious (non-reductionist) efforts at explanation.



*Hard case is not T or F, but those that require stage 3 of EPOR (replace closure with composure), i.e., a positive sociology of truth.

*Neo- Strong Programme drops explicit reference to causal part of SP, but not implicitly.  (It’s impossible for accounts to be non-explanatory, and all explanations are causal.)  So what are implicit causes?

*Thoroughgoing neo-strong programme is sociology of error (in rhetorical structure).

*Beyond dichotomies: T or F, heroes/ villains; realism/relativism;winners/losers.  (Each of these allows rhetorical flip — a powerful device if you can pull it off.)

The Fifth Branch: Description, prescription, explanation

Notes from 9 Feb. 1993

1.  In The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (Harvard UP, 1990) Sheila Jasanoff (SJ) indicates that she desires stable regulatory outcomes.  She observes that this has been achieved most readily when scientists and policymakers negotiate rather than rigidly demarcate in advance the boundaries of science and policy.  At the same time, “science” and “policy” are used as boundary markers to prevent the negotiation going “too far,” that is, the issue getting opened up to wider political dispute and the public or branches of government derailing the regulatory procedures.

2.  No principles are derived to explain what amount of boundary blurring/crossing vs. demarcation is likely to produce stability vs. instability.  (SJ’s descriptions of the deconstruction of science and policy in cases in which negotiation went too far simply establish the existence of the problem of de/stabilization.)  Explanatory principles would require some framework/ theory of changing economics, politics, and communication in the USA.

3.  Deconstruction of the political dimensions of science should be possible in all cases, not just those in which the parties do so, nor just on their terms.  Ideas of social action, big and small, are built into science through the problems identified, categories chosen, relationships investigated, data collected, degree of confirmation sought, audiences addressed, and so on.  To explain the content and dynamics of science, including science in the regulatory domain, we need to expose this (heterogeneous) co-construction of science and social action.

4.  Exposure of such co-constructedness is potentially destabilizing, but, unless one shares SJ’s commitment to stabilized regulatory results, this is not a problem.  In fact, in the absence of such exposure and destabilization, the discourse about science and policy is likely to remain on the level of science vs. policy (albeit with a negotiated or contested border zone), and technocratic vs. democratic politics.  These categories are too gross to be insightful about the dynamics (see 2) that are producing the science/technology, regulation, and participation in question.

5.  Despite these criticisms, I do not agree with some prominent sociologists of science who dismiss science and policy as boring, that is, overladen with bureaucratic acronyms, swayed by obvious political maneuvring, and breaking no new ground theoretically (i.e., for Sociology of Scientific Knowledge).  We should examine science in the regulatory arena because

a) it differs from both marginal science and basic science on which sociology of science has concentrated; and

b) cases of the closure in regulatory science challenge sociology of science to go beyond micro-studies of interpretive flexibility and tackle the difficulties of explaining closure.  In regulatory science it would be hard to find cases in which influences shaping closure are not drawn from multiple levels, spanning individuals and political economy.