The sociology of science

The processes of scientific discovery

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The processes of scientific discovery.

In contrast with an individualistic, "heroic" conception of the processes of scientific discovery that has prevailed in some quarters, though less now than formerly, the sociology of science has sought to redress the balance of our understanding of these processes by demonstrating that they have essential social components. Starting with the fact of the cumulative nature of science, sociologists have pointed out that the established body of scientific ideas and methodologies at any given time itself has the most important influence on setting problems for scientists to solve and on providing leads for their solution. This determining effect of the established ideas and methods is the source of the innumerable examples of the pattern of independent multiple discovery in science. Given the prerequisites of a discovery in the established body of science, it is almost inevitable, as Ogburn (1922) and Merton (1961) have argued and demonstrated from the history of science, that independent multiples will occur. Some discoveries, of course, break somewhat more sharply than others with the fundamental notions of the established science; they have more emergent novelty. These are what Kuhn (1962) has called "scientific revolutions." However, even these are far from ex nihilo. Although cumulative in important measure, they also set new directions for the relevant fields and specialties in science.

Recent theory and research in the sociology of science have also qualified the older picture of the processes of scientific discovery as based entirely on foresight, planning, rationality, and ready acceptance. These characteristics certainly can be seen in large measure in mast discoveries. But, in addition, in many discoveries there is an admixture of the unplanned, the nonrational or irrational, and the obstructive, contributed by the discoverer himself or by others. These characteristics manifest themselves in the pattern of serendipity in discovery and in the pattern of resistance by scientists themselves to certain scientific discoveries. The serendipity pattern occurs, and in actual research it occurs very often, when the researcher comes by happy chance on something he was not looking for, that is, some anomaly that presents him with the unexpected opportunity to change his preconceptions about his research and make a new discovery (Barber 1952. pp. 203-205). The resistance pattern occurs when the scientist refuses to accept his own or someone else's discovery because of theoretical or methodological preconceptions, the force of superior authority or prestige, or the prejudices of particular schools of thought (Barber & Hirsch 1962, chapter 32).

Of course, there has always been some resistance to scientific discoveries on the part of cultural and social institutions outside science. Religion, political and economic interests—indeed, the whole range of social factors that interact with science— have under some conditions opposed one or another scientific idea or requirement, just as they have also supported others. An important task for the sociology of science is to analyze specific sources of acceptance and resistance for specific types of scientific ideas and needs.

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