Research Paper: Social Constructionism and Historiography

Pages: 13 (4748 words)  ·  Style: Turabian  ·  Bibliography Sources: 15  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Drama - World  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] [footnoteRef:16] Writing from a Soviet Marxist point-of-view, Boris Hessen claimed that Newton's science was a part of the capitalist revolution in the 17th Century and developed to meet the economic and military needs of the new bourgeois elites.[footnoteRef:17] Hessen and Merton could in fact be considered the founders of the externalist school in scientific historiography, with the central thesis that science is socially constructed by outside political, economic and cultural influences rather than the internalist school and its argument that science progresses due mainly to the genius of the great innovators like Newton and Einstein. [13: Helge Kragh. An Introduction to the Historiography of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 18.] [14: Kragh, p. 27.] [15: Kragh, p. 28.] [16: Robert Merton. The Sociology of Science. University of Chicago Press, 1973.] [17: Gideon Freudenthal and Peter McLaughlin (Eds). The Social and Economic Roots of the Scientific Revolution: Texts by Boris Hessen and Henryk Grossman. Springer Science and Business Media, 2008.]

Even in the 20th Century, science has often been highly ideological and politicized, particularly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Philippe Lenard argued for "Aryan science" in Germany and asserted that only Aryans had ever made any real contributions to science while "great Jewish scientists had either carried out bad research or had stolen their good ideas from non-Jews."[footnoteRef:18] Ironically, while the Nazis were dismissing quantum mechanics and Einstein's relativity as 'Jew physics', and attacked Freudianism as 'Jew psychology', all of these were being denounced in Stalin's Russia as 'bourgeois idealist' sciences that should be banned.[footnoteRef:19] In Stalin's Soviet Union, historians and philosophers of science routinely claimed that Russians were responsible for all the great discoveries and inventions in history and that Communism had made this possible. Soviet genetics was also set back greatly by Stalin's support for Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that Mendelian genetics was a 'fascist' theory and should be banned in Russia.[footnoteRef:20] Stanley Jaki, a scientist and Catholic priest, claimed that science was the result "of the Christian faith of the Middle Ages" and that only Christians could be true scientists.[footnoteRef:21] Moreover, the history of science has always been biased in favor of a few Western countries and almost never focuses on non-European cultures. One notable exception, of course, has been Joseph Needham, who studied Chinese science and technology extensively, and the question of why China did not have a scientific and industrial revolution even before the West has long perplexed historians.[footnoteRef:22] [18: Kragh, p. 104.] [19: Marget Szollosi-Janze. Science in the Third Reich. Oxford International Publishers, 2001, p. 6.] [20: David Joravsky. The Lysenko Affair. University of Chicago Press, 1970.] [21: Kragh, p. 109. See also: Stanley L. Jaki. The Savior of Science. Real View Books, 2006.] [22: Joseph Needham. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge University Press, 1974.]

H.F. Cohen wrote that the West was unique if developing a culture of pluralism, critical thinking and constructive skepticism that ancient, medieval and non-Western civilizations never had. Moreover, the great danger to the West occurred when science and technology were used by Nazis, Communists and others who did not share its liberal-pluralist values. For Cohen, science was the "key element" that distinguished the West from the Rest and made the Industrial Revolution possible.[footnoteRef:23] Like Herbert Butterfield, he thought that the Scientific Revolution was more important by far than Christianity, the Renaissance or Reformation, even though the periodization that historians use, including terms like Scientific Revolution, has "deteriorated into an empty label."[footnoteRef:24] Many historians have come to doubt whether these labels can even be revived, although they generally favor Kuhn's theory of multiple scientific revolutions. Cohen maintained that modern science was always linked to earlier natural philosophy -- as indeed science was still called into the early-19th Century -- but also to important developments like the Reformation, the printing press and the voyages of discovery and conquest. As I. Bernard Cohen pointed out, only the Glorious Revolution used the term 'revolution' in its modern (political) sense, while the idea of progress and experimentation did not exist before the age of Galileo, Descartes and Bacon.[footnoteRef:25] Even so, the question remains why science failed to "emerge in any of the other great civilizations of the past."[footnoteRef:26] [23: H.F. Cohen. The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry. University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 3.] [24: Cohen, p. 14. See also: Herbert Butterfield. The Scientific Revolution. Freeman, 1960.] [25: Cohen, p. 22. See also: I. Bernard Cohen. Revolution in Science. Harvard University Press, 1985.] [26: Cohen, p. 16.]

Thomas Kuhn's history centers on the great geniuses of scientific history, such as Newton, Lavoisier and Einstein, on the basis that they drove revolutionary change and accumulated a phalanx of younger followers who eventually become the new establishment.[footnoteRef:27] In reality, Lavoisier was very adept at portraying himself as a great political and scientific revolutionary, and "ignored completely the works of earlier chemists" so he could claim to have originated the new science. So did Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology, which later historians came to realize was essentially an exercise in "self-promotion." [footnoteRef:28] According to Kuhn, however, all "attributions of genius are ultimately determined by collective response," though he always claimed to oppose his more radical followers in reducing science to a purely historical or sociological phenomenon.[footnoteRef:29] He considered himself a pluralist rather than a radical skeptic or deconstructionist of the scientific enterprise. Structure of Scientific Revolutions ended its historical inquiry in about 1912, because Kuhn doubted that contemporaries could write an objective account about scientific controversies in which they had a personal stake. His account fits in with the familiar Great Man theory of history, and "the popular historiography of science as the succession of trailblazers at the research frontiers, except that the heroic genius is replaced by the self-perpetuating cult."[footnoteRef:30] He was not particularly comfortable in the era of Bid Science produced by World War II and the Cold War, which is perhaps one reason why he preferred to describe science as it existed before World War I. At no time did he mention the effect of the world wars and the Cold War on science, which was more revolutionary than any of the events he described in Structure. [27: Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition. University of Chicago Press, 1962, 1996.] [28: Kragh, p. 114.] [29: Steve Fuller. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for our Times. University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. xii.] [30: Fuller, p. 9.]

While at Harvard, Kuhn's closest personal and professional ties were with President James B. Conant, one of the deans of the American scientific establishment since the Second World War, although this connection did not prevent him from being denied tenure for lack or original publications in his field of physics. Conant wrote the preface to his first book, The Copernican Revolution, which quickly achieved canonical status as well. This was ironic in that Conant was one of the founders and leaders of Big Science, and a committed Cold Warrior who headed the Committee on the Present Danger during the 1950s, frequently warning that the Soviets were surpassing the United States in the arms race and space race. In spite of the fact that Bid Science was indeed very much a part of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about in 1961, "an autonomous science, so Conant and his cohort thought, is science sage both from and for democracy."[footnoteRef:31] He also argued that the U.S. always had to retain its lead in science and technology, both for economic and national security reasons.[footnoteRef:32] During this era, as C.P. pointed out, the gap between sciences and the humanities was growing, while public opinion was increasingly coming to regard modern science as cold, amoral and destructive, and Conant hoped that history of science would help bridge this chasm.[footnoteRef:33] In this sense, Kuhn was also a "normal scientist" in service to the national security state, controlled by a very real corporate and bureaucratic establishment that demanded concrete results for all the billions of dollars being invested every year.[footnoteRef:34] Most unusually for an academic book, Structure sold over a million copies in 1962-2000 and became "one of the most highly cited works in the humanities and social sciences."[footnoteRef:35] It fulfilled a political and sociological function similar to Daniel Bell's End of Ideology in asserting that the great ideological battles were over, replaced by a broad consensus that social, economic and political problems were now more a matter of technocratic adjustments and fine-tuning. [31: Fuller, p. 11.] [32: Kragh, p. 34.] [33: C.P. Snow. The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 1998.] [34: Fuller, p. 5.] [35: Fuller, p. 1.]

Paradigms and paradigm shifts became axiomatic after this time, even cliched, so much so that even Al Gore could claim Structure of Scientific Revolutions as his favorite book. As Kuhn stated, these shifts are uncommon and most scientists have had great difficulty in challenging well-established norms, and therefore "revolutions occur rarely enough to sustain a general faith in scientific progress."[footnoteRef:36] Kuhn… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Social Constructionism and Historiography.  (2011, May 13).  Retrieved April 22, 2019, from

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"Social Constructionism and Historiography."  May 13, 2011.  Accessed April 22, 2019.