The sociology of science

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International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

Edited by David L. Sills. The Macmillan Co & The Free Press, NY, 1968 pp. 92-100


by Bernard Barber


If the sociology of knowledge is defined as the part of sociology that studies the nature of and relations between different types of idea systems, on the one side, and the relations between these idea systems and a variety of institutional (or social-structural) and personality factors, on the other, then the sociology of science is one part of the sociology of knowledge. It is the part that specializes in defining the nature of scientific ideas and in describing their relations both to other kinds of ideas (e.g., ideological, philosophical, aesthetic, religious) and to various institutional and personality factors. Parsons (1951, especially chapter 8) has given us what is still the best analytic definition of idea systems in general and their several specialized subtypes, although further analysis and operational specification of his classification are necessary.

The sociology of science, as is the case with all sociology, general or special, is primarily interested in the construction of a set of highly generalized, systematic, and relatively exhaustive concepts and propositions of relationship. In this enterprise it uses data from all historical periods and all cultures, since its main concern is not with history as such, but with establishing sociological concepts and propositions. The history of science, although it always should use such explicit sociological concepts and propositions, often does not, preferring its traditional, less examined, and frequently common-sense ways of treating its materials. In either case, the history of science, both advertently and inadvertently, may be productive of materials or even of new concepts and propositions for the sociology of science, but this is not its essential task. Thus, the sociology of science and the history of science overlap but do not coincide.

The sociology of science, finally, is interested both in fundamental scientific ideas themselves and in the application of these fundamental ideas, or of more empirical ideas, to technology. In its study of technology, again, the sociology of science uses both historical and contemporary data, drawn from a variety of cultures, regardless of the original purpose for which these data were collected, so long as they serve its primary goal of constructing a system of analytic concepts and propositions.

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