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An Unrequited Love

Social Sciences and STS
Pablo Kreimer
Traduction de Luis Felipe Murillo
Cet article est une traduction de :
Un amor no correspondido [es]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Un amour non partagé [fr]


The relation between STS and the social sciences is far from simple. While including STS in the field of social sciences is an object of dispute for certain researchers, others have tried to involve, seduce, or debate with colleagues in other subfields to establish bridges across these two disciplinary fields. The majority of social sciences researchers however know very little about current developments in STS and some question or even attack it directly. In this article I take up the debate about these relations to ask why sociology has paid scant attention to the contributions of sociology of science. For the conclusion, I advance certain hypotheses to offer clues for the interpretation of these tensions without claiming to explain them in a more definitive manner.

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1In the culture of Río de la Plata (a term referring to the cities of Montevideo and Buenos Aires, both located on opposite sides of the river), the Uruguayans represent an ideal of “best civic practices” in the Argentinian imaginary. They are educated, polite, have low indices of corruption, the most equitable economy of the region and the most liberal, proven by the fact that marijuana consumption and abortion are legal. They have other qualities as well. A presentation of the Uruguayan musical theater group “Brace yourself, Catalina” in Buenos Aires summarized well this imaginary, interpellating the public directly:

Don’t like us so much because the sentiment is not reciprocal: We don’t like you at all. When your national soccer team plays against any other, we want you to lose!

2In general, something similar seems to happen between science and technology studies (STS) and the social sciences. Maybe it has less to do with unrequited love than with indifference.

  • 1 Various authors have documented this “scant attention” to science studies from the social sciences. (...)

3In conversations with colleagues in the vast field of STS, it is common to notice how little attention sociology has paid to the sociology of sciences, history to the history of sciences, and political science to the politics of scientific research.1 This intuition is corroborated by the fact that most STS texts are not read or cited outside the field, and have little impact in other branches of the social sciences. Evidently, there are exceptions: on the one hand, there are those whose questions concern directly one of the domains of the social sciences, such as marketing, transportation, or environmental systems. The work of Bruno Latour is another exception, a particular phenomenon whose magnitude has well surpassed the borders of the field, cross-cutting and influencing various other fields of intellectual production. In general, however, we should note an absence of influence.

  • 2 We are not using the parenthesis out of whim. The question of whether STS belongs to the social sci (...)

4In the past decades different STS representatives have been more or less explicitly engaged in the task of “seducing” and showing how the development of science studies could, or better should be taken into account by (the rest of) the social sciences.2

5My goal in this article is to examine the diverse strategies to build relations between STS and the social sciences, the multiple dimensions and tensions which traverse both, to conclude with three hypotheses for understanding their asymmetric relations.

6I will start by presenting the problem from diverse perspectives in order to proceed with the disciplinary question and potential answers regarding STS and its demands in the field of social sciences. Finally, I will propose my hypotheses which allow for explaining this relation before offering a short conclusion.

7Important disclaimer: To illustrate each perspective, I select only a few authors who express a determined position instead of offering an exhaustive presentation of all related analyses. I leave aside various interventions and the nuances they would impart. In addition to the economy of argumentation, there is a certain “theoretical saturation” in providing too much detail, a multiplicity of voices which does not add much to the main argument in the end.

  • 3 Curiously, this formula of the “subfield” is employed by Bruno Latour (2000: 107) who refers to the (...)

8A first perspective is expressed by the authors we could identify as more “sociological” within STS. These authors attempt to situate STS as a subfield of sociology and, from this position, try to establish a dialog with neighboring subfields. The argument consists in affirming that findings, theories, and methods in the social studies of science could be considered or, better, utilized in other fields of the social sciences.3

9The first perspective in this sense is that of Karin Knorr-Cetina who has treated this question in various texts. In one of her first pieces (Knorr-Cetina, 1981) this idea appears in the form of a classic sociological question: the attempt to surpass the divide between practices and interpretations, micro and macro-sociological scales. Evidently, the micro-sociologies coincide with the emergence of laboratory studies in the same period, searching for legitimization beyond their situated findings. In an article published in 1995, she proposes that instead of asking “what can the social studies of science borrow from sociology in general?” it would be more productive to ask “what sociology of science can offer to sociology in general?” According to Knorr-Cetina “what we learned from the laboratory studies about the ‘situatedness’ of knowledge may be applicable to larger questions about the localization of experience in multiply embedded and varied sites.” (Knorr-Cetina, 1995: 163) She concludes that, given the theoretical novelty of the elaboration on the pertinence of locality, “the laboratory as studied within STS might help in focusing the many issues implied when we talk about situatedness and localization, and aid in producing the above theoretical formulation” (ibidem).

10Harry Collins has developed his ideas in the same direction. In his classic book, he points out (in the afterword to the 1992 edition) that

a new ‘knowledge science’ would study what communities know and the way knowledge is collectively made, maintained, disputed, transformed, and transferred. It would contribute to other sciences that study knowledge while maintaining its own fundamentally distinctive character. It would have new things to say about how and where knowledge can be transferred within the human sciences […] I hope I have transformed the ways in which we study and understand history, sociology, and philosophy (Collins 1992: 190-191).

11A second perspective advances in another direction: studies of science and technology necessarily implicate the study of the society in which they are inscribed. In this case, sociology of science would not provide the elements to feed other branches of sociology, but rather to render STS a study of society. Before we proceed it is important to remark on the origin of this observation, even if it sounds familiar and a bit redundant for those who are part of the field. Science studies assumes that science is not a separated activity from society with its own rules, proper language, and specific institutions, but one which hybridizes and dissolves itself as an entity, transforming itself into industrial technoscience, forms of political action, justification mechanisms, and incorporated knowledge into objects and processes (Pestre, 2006). In sum, it is impossible to separate it from the vast social web it constitutes. Studying science has not been perceived since then (at least for some researchers) except as an entry point for the examination of much more complex questions. In this sense, it could be imagined as an “entry way among many others” where a determinate series of questions could be raised from different access points, given that all the present objects constitute complex and multidimensional entities. To put it in Latour’s words, the most renowned supporter of this position without a doubt:

  • 4 Emphasis is mine. I removed Latour’s citations to facilitate reading.

When MacKenzie describes the central inertia of intercontinental missiles, when Callon describes the electrodes of fuel cells, when Hughes describes the filament of Edison’s incandescent lamp, when I describe the Anthrax bacteria attenuated by Pasteur or the Guillemin’s brain peptides, the critics imagine we talk about sciences and techniques […] However, this research does not deal with knowledge, nature, or things in themselves but their engagement in our collectives and subjects. We do not talk about instrumental reason except as a matter in itself of our societies.4
MacKenzie deploys the whole American Navy and congressmen to speak of the inertial guidance system; Callon mobilizes EDF and Renault as well as large portions of the French energy politics to understand the ion exchange at the tip of his electrode; it is the entire America that Hughes reconstruct around the incandescent filament of Edison’s lamp; it is the whole French society of the 19th century which arises when we deal with Pasteur’s bacteria, and it becomes impossible to understand brain peptides without attaching to them a scientific community, instruments, practices, and everything else which resembles very little with gray matter and calculus. (Latour, 1991: 10-11)

  • 5 There have been several discussions about this question of attribution of causality and types of ap (...)

12Various authors share this perspective according to which the study of technoscientific questions cannot be considered separately as it ensues a double movement: on the one hand, all the scientific controversies and technoscientific developments are, in fact, sociotechnical controversies and developments. Despite the great diversity of approaches, this is a shared point of agreement.5 Another aspect of this observation is that the social sciences should not ignore technoscientific developments as if they were produced by the norms of objectivity, neutrality, and rationality. To the contrary, their study must take into consideration social dynamics like any other social object.

Disciplinary nature of STS

13Another difficulty in the relation between STS and social sciences resides in the nature of the domain in itself. Even though Latour (2000: 107) has suggested it is a “minuscule sub-field of sociology, called ‘science and technology studies’ (STS) [which has] for the last twenty five years shed some light on what is a natural science and put into question what a ‘society’ is,” the importance of this field is neither clearly perceived nor shared in the social sciences. Definitions of “science, technology, and society” and “social studies of science and technology” are only used in an interchangeable manner when, in fact, the importance of the latter to the social sciences is clearer than the former.

14Susan Cozzens (2001) argues in a well-known piece that STS is not much of a field or a discipline but a movement composed of multiple actors –academics, professors, politicians, public servants, etc.– surpassing traditional disciplinary boundaries. In what she calls a post-disciplinary perspective, Cozzens distinguishes between “Problem-STS” and “Response-STS” to address different types of mobilized knowledge. In one of the relevant passages for our argument, she suggests that “researchers with a strong background in science and engineering represent a promising sign that they are capable of bridging the gap with the social sciences and humanities” (2001: 58).

  • 6 We could say in passing this was not only a concern of the CNRS but the intellectual environment at (...)

15This question is rarely posed as Cozzens did. It would be therefore an advantage for STS to count on these individuals who have scientific training to contribute to the formation of a diverse field. The question comes from a long way: The difference between transitioning from a traditional sociology of science (functionalist and normative) to a sociology of knowledge –where a paradigmatic theoretical and methodological shift operates in the same disciplinary field (as in the “strong programme”)– has to do here with new space. In the 1980’s, CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) created a program to fund and support the nascent field of STS in France with a thematic publication (Les Cahiers STS), conferences, etc. The first call for proposals, between 1982 and 1984, required research teams to be composed of social scientists and natural scientists or engineers (Kreimer, 1992). However, once funding had been obtained, projects would be carried out mostly by social scientists as scientists and engineers would quickly drop out.6

16It should be noted here a distinctive characteristic of STS in relation to the other branches of the social sciences: beyond institutional goals for research programs, such as the ones of the CNRS, an important number of researchers-practitioners come from the natural sciences and engineering at times with doctoral degrees from their discipline of origin. We could list highly active personalities in the field, such as: David Bloor, mathematician; David Edge, Trevor Pinch, Evelyn Fox Keller and Dominique Pestre, physicians; Arie Rip and Isabelle Stengers, chemists; Wiebe Bijker and Michel Callon, engineers; Brian Wynne, material science; Steve Shapin and Donna Haraway, biologists. I do not mention them at random: all of these authors have received the John Bernal prize from the 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science). In Latin America, the first projects in this field were proposed by scientists or engineers, such as Jorge Sábato, Amilcar Herrera, Oscar Varsavsky, and José Leite Lopes.

17These perspectives –for which Susan Cozzens has served as spokesperson– are highly visible, and the expression “science, technology, society” (STS) has increasingly gained ground with respect to the importance of the word “society.”

18As we can see the nature of the field of STS and its reflexive character render its boundaries fluid without precise definition. For this reason, the question of its boundaries is posed recurrently. Cozzens alludes in the same text yet to another problem: the difference between academic work and political engagement. According to the author, in order to avoid new problems, STS should “open itself” as a movement “to new voices and new questions, even if takes it to new directions”. Sergio Sismodo (2008) recasts the (questionable) distinction between “low” and “high” church proposed by Fulller (1993) to propose a framework based on two variables: “fundamentality” (which we could describe as “theoretical complexity”) and “political values.”

19The graph (figure 1) describes a space of four quadrants and two variables: from the lowest point of the two axes we find “description and documentation;” at the highest, theoretical complexity with little commitment to political values, “theoretical studies of the construction of science and technology”. “Traditional activism” is situated at the highest point of the axis of political values and the lowest at theoretical work. In opposition, engagement is situated at the confluence of the two key dimensions, an ideal model Sismondo calls an “engaged program.”

Figure 1. Engagement in STS according to Sismondo (2008: 20)

Figure 1. Engagement in STS according to Sismondo (2008: 20)

20I commented elsewhere (Kreimer 2015) on the issues underlying this classification in comparison with its “neighboring” field entitled “public understanding of science” (the study of public perception of science), but let’s retain here only one question: who are the actors who practice these four activities on the diagram? And, consequently, as the model suggests its universal applicability, what consequences does it have in different contexts with lower or higher development, for example? To the first question, I answered the actors constituting the field are very diverse to the point that it is difficult to imagine an ideal model with the convergence of the two dimensions. Regarding the second question, the forms of articulation are quite diverse depending on their context –notably in hegemonic and non-hegemonic countries– to the extent in which the theoretical production of the latter might be quite dependent on the former, even though to “document and describe” might entail an engaged public intervention in certain contexts.

21Unlike the CNRS intervention –which could be classified as external to the field, translating the disposition to create a new research field in France–, there have been several initiatives to extend the boundaries of STS in agreement with Cozzens’ idea, who saw as promising the arrival of those who came from science and engineering. We could interpret it as an extension within as well as outside of the social sciences. Although this is not a new question, the last two conferences of the EASST and the 4S, the most important on an international level for STS, have clearly shown their intention to include questions which have not been traditionally part of the “core” STS themes. These two events, held in Copenhagen in 2012 and Barcelona in 2016, had the respective titles of “Design and Displacement” and “Science and Technology by Other Means.” In the brochure for the Copenhagen event it was written that “design has become a key concept across a multitude of disciplinary domains and social spheres. […] It locates design practices in broader political contexts and focuses attention on how design facilitates or hinders social inclusion, locally and globally.7

  • 8 Ibid.

22From the start, the intention to open the field to less traditional themes is clear, unlike the joint meeting in Rotterdam in 2008 entitled in more classical terms, “Acting with Science, Technology, and Medicine.” In order to avoid overtly scaring or disorienting our STS colleagues, the call for papers suggests that “Papers which address the central theme of the conference ‘Design and Displacement’ are especially relevant, but papers in any other STS topic are welcome.8

  • 9 This expression refers to Latour’s conception of the relation between science and politics which we (...)

23In the last 4S congress the expression “by other means9” was explained at length:

… (a) such as the fact that all of these transformations usually take place in blurred everyday spaces and not in those enclosed established spaces for science and technology development, such as laboratories or industrial R&D departments; (b) or, in a similar way, the fact that research and innovation processes are increasingly organised in networked, horizontal assemblages where the traditional hierarchies in science are put into question and where science and technology are being co‐produced by different actors in different, sometimes antagonistic, ways; (c) and, finally, the fact that traditional boundaries between the public and the private are no longer confined to state and for‐profit actors, care practices taking a preeminent presence in most of these everyday situations. We think that ‘by other means’ is a label, a description, a statement and even a category, but it is much more. It is a vindication, a feeling and a tribute to all those people engaging with science and technology practices in very precarious and non‐institutional ways. People without funding, people outside their country, people outside the academy.10

When STS interpellates the social sciences

  • 11 There are numerous publications on the “sociology of social sciences,” such as the classic work by (...)
  • 12 According to Bloor, “mathematics and logic are seen as being about a body of truth which exist in t (...)

24STS research on the social sciences is rare. On the one hand, this is due to a “relatively natural” way the major part of the 1970’s research was concentrated on the social studies of the “hard sciences” or on technological or technoscientific development. Few of them have taken the social sciences as an object.11 It is possible that this skew is connected with the proposition of Bloor’s (1973) strong programme for whom the “existential determination” of knowledge in sociology was easy to perceive. The term refers to the way in which Mannheim introduces the idea of social determination of knowledge in the first decades of the 20th century. Bloor was inspired by Mannheim, but also reproached him for not taking an extra step to extend this form of determination to every form of knowledge. It is precisely for this reason that he decided to start from mathematics, the field he defined as the most fundamental, providing the basis for all the exact sciences. If one succeeds in establishing the social foundations of mathematics, then one could do the same for the other sciences.12

25As we will show next, in Mannheim’s pioneer formulation we find one of the clues to answer the question we formulated in the beginning of this article.

26In respect to the interpellation of social sciences, the most enthusiastic formulation is probably that of Latour in, at least, two articles (2000 and 2008). In the first, he starts with the observation that “the contribution of the field of science and technology studies (STS) to mainstream sociology has so far been slim” (Latour, 2000: 1). In another passage, he speaks of “invisibility.” He attributes this situation to a misunderstanding of what it means to generate a social explanation of science or an artifact. The assumption is not that the hard sciences and technologies evade social explanation, but rather that it is not possible to apply the same type of explanation used for religion, art, or popular culture. According to Latour, the problem resides in the operation of substitution in the social sciences of “false objects of faith” for “the real objects of society,” such as power. In this sense, it is assumed that science studies should substitute materiality and objectivity (of sciences and technologies) as the social sciences have done for religion, mass media, politics, etc.

27According to Latour, “science, they say [in the social sciences] (and this in itself is the most damning confession) cannot be treated as lightly as the rest (meaning that they would been ready to treat the rest lightly!) because it lies at the heart of what it is to be a social scientist and the only goal worth sacrificing one’s life: knowledge of what the social is made up” (Latour, 2000: 110). This is the reason why social scientists resent welcoming STS as “another one” among studies of religion, social class, urban studies, or gender. Latour’s conclusion is that, provided that sociologists “destroy” their objects in proposing explanations in the sense that they unmask their “false” character people believe (the substitution), it seems very dangerous to apply the same to the sciences as they could disappear such as religion or, even worse, interfere with the objective character of the social sciences. I disagree with this interpretation as I will show below.

28In 2008, Latour addressed the field of political science directly in a text published in the Revue Française de Science Politique to ensure the impact of his proposal. He begins his argument with a mea culpa that refers again to the fact that science studies has received very little attention: “I already understand the extreme ambiguity –not to say incoherence– of science studies, maybe it is one of the reasons why political science has given until now very little attention to this confusing domain” (Latour, 2008: 669). In a very brief synthesis, Latour’s argument elaborates on five (or six) definitions of politics in various perspectives, from Dewey to Foucault, passing through Schmitt and Habermas. It is worth stressing this last one which is defined by “what is not scientific.” He then proposes four definitions of what is scientific: “what is reasonable and objective” which we can easily associate with a traditional perspective; “what is put to test with their spokespersons” which is the closest definition to science studies, or even as “logistics of data.” I leave at the end Latour’s second definition of politics as it is the exact opposite of his last: “it is scientific what is not political.” This would be the most extreme point: If these two definitions are taken “in one blow, the collaboration between political science and politics of science becomes […] impossible […]” (Latour, 2008: 676).

29Latour’s proposition is that “‘science and politics’ do not qualify as domains of competence or activity but states –as we speak of liquid and gas states– in which it is possible to find controversial objects with the vocation to compose a common world” (ibid.). The misunderstanding, according to him, would be that “certain researchers of the natural and social sciences believed we intended to politicize the sciences when the goal was to study them positively ignoring ultimately the question of demarcation.” (p. 19) Thus, the same way science studies define politics without opposing it to science but by showing its political character, political science would have to redefine the concept to speak about science. He concludes that they could join forces to collaborate in creating an alternative.

30In the following volume of the same journal, Pierre Favre responds to Latour taking up the challenge of representing his disciplinary field. In his response, he seems to clarify the question I pose in this article: in relation to other key critical texts in sociology of knowledge such as Boudon and Clavelin (1994) or Isambert (1985), Favre clearly shows what bothers political science the most (and we could extend this reasoning to the social sciences as a whole) is the “cognitive relativism” which considers that “the scientific fact is entirely constructed, the scientific demonstration is pure rhetoric, the reference to reality is nothing more than illusionist manipulation, and professional success is the only objective of the researcher” (p. 825). If the argument of professional success is highly questionable as a “relativist” argument given that it occupies a minor place in science studies and, in turn, a major one in Bourdieu’s perspective –from whom Favre draws from–, what matters here is elsewhere. Regardless of our acceptance or not of this position, it corresponds to the interpretation of the social sciences which happens to be at the origin of its resistance to science studies.

31In a recent text, Vinck (2016) observes that “science studies have not had, in fact, hardly any influence over sociology. Until now, sociology has influenced the study of sciences, but they have not influenced sociology. Science studies constitutes a world apart, rather overlooked by sociologists” (p. 2-3). He suggests we moderate this judgment for it is possible to find certain influences in various fields of the social sciences, thus providing a few examples from the sociology of public action, work, communication, and organizations. In any case and despite of these influences, resistance, ignorance, and indifference prevail more generally to a great extent.

Some hypotheses

32To conclude, I would like to advance a few explanatory hypotheses which are complementary to those advanced by other authors on the complicated relations between these two spaces.

Persistence of “Mannheim’s Syndrome”

  • 13 References are taken from the classic work by Mannhem, “Ideology and Utopia” in its Spanish version (...)

33Mannheim (195813: 53) observes that “the principal thesis in sociology of knowledge is that there are certain thoughts which cannot be understood adequately if their social origins remain obscure.” He arrives then at the idea that “knowing does not actually develop historically in accordance with immanent laws, that it does not follow only for the ‘nature of things’ or from ‘pure logical possibilities’, and that it is not driven by an ‘inner dialectic.” (p. 351-352). To the contrary, there is “a social determination in the concrete content of knowledge which is important not only for the production of ideas but also for penetrating its contents and forms” (ibid).

  • 14 It is important to highlight here how little attention this idea, premature in Germany, has receive (...)

34As observed in Bloor’s preface, Mannheim introduced a fundamental rupture by problematizing the idea of immanent truth, which is to say, without the necessity for a sociological explanation. Mannheim situates the issue in the space of “existential determinations,” but this space seems limited to the social sciences facing the problems of an epistemology originated in the natural sciences. According to the author (ibid, p. 361) “when they were formulated, the typology of objects in the natural sciences, the categories and methods of reasoning which are derived and converted into a model, the notion of stability of the categorical structure of the exact sciences has been obscured considerably if compared with the logics of classical physics.14

  • 15 To give a personal testimony regarding this position: many years ago in a long conversation with a (...)

35After 40 years since Bloor’s proposition of the “strong programme” for the sociology of knowledge, the exploration of causal explanations in the natural and exact sciences has been always a tough nut to crack in the social sciences. Concepts such as class, power, tradition, and authoritarianism, just to name a few, resist comparison with those of gene, atom, catalysis, or alkalinity.15 It is possible that the idea which bothers the most is that of construction or fabrication as Pierre Favre pointed out, or as Bourdieu suggested: “by saying facts are artificial in the sense of manufactured, Latour and Woolgar intimate that they are fictitious, not objective, not authentic. The success of this argument results from the ‘radicality effect’ […] generated by the slippage suggested and encouraged by the skillful use of ambiguous concepts” (Bourdieu, 2004: 26).

36In other words, since the majority of social scientists are willing to accept that knowledge in the natural and exact sciences is also, in the last instance, a construction –as it has to do with social practices developed in institutional contexts with norms, conflicts, interests, and representations–, the problem is situated for each discipline in the distinct epistemic nature of their objects. Given that there are several forms of manipulation and the establishment of truth is subjected to complex negotiations, their referential cannot ultimately avoid the real world; that is, those objects of the natural and physical sciences must be conceived in an independent and objective manner in contrast with the social sciences in which the researcher’s intervention cannot be considered neutral.

37In fact, this question of the objects of the natural and social sciences has been eclipsed by the social studies of science and technology. In an exchange with Latour and Callon, Collins and Yearley (1992: 373) suggest that “researchers in the natural sciences who work on the laboratory bench must be naive realists –this is what guarantees the good execution of their work. Sociologists, historians, and other researchers who are outside of this domain, and the public in general must be social realists. Social realists must live in the social world in a naive way as the everyday foundation of reality, the same way scientists in the natural sciences experience the natural world. This should be the way to comprehend the relations between science and the rest of our cultural activities.” Their conclusion leaves no doubt (p. 377): “we [Collins and Yearley] are only interested in the correct way of explaining the results of the natural sciences, the discoveries of the natural sciences. While they [Callon and Latour] wish to establish categories which divide the natural sciences from the social sciences.”

  • 16 There is a literature on this question but, taken as a whole, the question of the disciplines appea (...)

38The question is startling for the majority of the authors seem to forget the crucial question of structuring disciplinary knowledge –an object unjustly abandoned for the most part by science studies16– and, above all, the arbitrary demarcation of different disciplinary fields. According to Stichweh (1992), modern scientific disciplines are an invention of the late 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Hence Blanckaert’s (2006: 48) poetic and bold affirmation (not without echoing Borges on the subject of the foundation of Buenos Aires) of the relatively recent character of the disciplinary universe: “the disciplinary system was born yesterday. We have falsely believed it was as eternal as the world.” He concluded that modern disciplines were formed through an organized creative dynamic or aligned with projects and practical ends but not as a necessity for accessing the nature of things. Therefore, the distribution of disciplines is not based on “natural relations” or logical classifications.

39For this reason a good portion of the debate leaves out the reference to the division of disciplinary fields as rhetorical, political, and institutional constructions more than cognitive ones. If the symmetry principle is assumed to be methodologically relevant, the difference that is established between the soft and the hard sciences must be subjected to the same type of analysis without presupposing distinct ontologies. In this manner a certain naturalization of disciplines as “natural divisions of the world” appears but not as a form of social organization that is contingent and arbitrary with moving borders. The social and natural world appear as “naturally separated” which is precisely the point of dispute for the most part in the institutionalization of science studies.

40Bourdieu has become the spokesperson also of another critique, relatively common in the social sciences according to which the literature in sociology of knowledge or STS fails to analyze bigger social structures by focusing on modes of knowledge production, negotiations, and controversies. Any attentive reader would accept this as a fair critique when applied to the early work of laboratory studies –such as the first studies by Latour and Woolgar, Knorr-Cetina, or Lynch– but it cannot be applied to an impressive number of projects which addressed, precisely, the complex relations between social, economic, and cultural dimensions in processes of sociotechnical development. It does not concern us here much to determine the fairness of this critique but rather to comprehend to what extent this belief is at the basis of a resistance to STS in the social sciences.

  • 17 This thesis was also questioned by Shinn and Ragout (2005) who pointed out the problems of the “non (...)

41An author who attempted to operate a “mediation” between the two fields was Jean-Michel Berthelot, who had an unconventional trajectory from his formation in philosophy to the study of a more traditional sociology (with research on Durkheim), an epistemological reflection about the social sciences, moving then to sociology of science, field in which his latest work is inscribed (Martin and Marcel, 2011). Berthelot (2008) questioned what he called “social constructivism” with subtle and more interesting arguments than those grounded in the general critique of relativism (Boudon and Clavelin, 1994, among others). The author (2008, chapter 3, II) recognizes the value of empirical work in science studies: “to go and see in situ what happens, not concentrating on ideas but in the practices in the most minute details. This shift in orientation in the description of scientific activities is one of the strong points.” Nevertheless, his fundamental question is that these projects have dismantled the idea of a scientific truth that goes beyond social factors to define it as a “belief among others.17

  • 18 He proposes 5 axioms: 1. commitment; 2. reflexivity and distancing; 3. differentiation of spheres o (...)

42Berthelot (ch. 1) takes as a point of departure for his mediation process three of the most important sociological currents: institutionalist (Durkheim, Merton), interactionist (Simmel), and intentionalist (Weber) to arrive, in the end, at the elaboration of a sociology of science that is capable of integrating a rationalist perspective with, at the same time, social determinations. This position is, according to the author, indispensable for comprehending science as a knowledge-producing activity. Berthelot’s analytic model “emphasizes the action of situated, intentional agents, the norms they have to adopt to orient their interactions, and the cognitive substrate they must possess to be able to act. For this reason, [he would say] this model is inscribed in a rational pragmatics.18” Beyond the question of empirical application of Berthelot’s proposition we are concerned here with the fact that this is one of the few programs which has attempted to reconcile purely sociological perspectives in the epistemological tradition; the fundamental postulate of constructivism with the social determination of knowledge.

43I cannot end this section without yielding to the temptation of citing a recent novel written by the famous anthropologist, Marc Augé (2016). It could be said that it has to do with fiction, and I accept it. Given the power of the formulation, I believe it goes without a doubt well beyond. A character says on page 65, referring to a new drug that would be administered in a covert and authoritarian way to the whole population, having the effect of converting ipso facto all the people into rational beings:

  • The Panoramix operation is a success, we have attained 99% of the cases.

  • Doesn’t it create a small ethical problem?

  • Not for the scientists, no. They are in favor of truth, against errors and lies. But, for the weak of the spirit, impostors, hypocrites, and certain politicians, yes. Everything is going to pass like a letter at the post-office. Humanity has become rationalist with a blink of an eye.

Taking a Part for the Whole: the “Latour Effect”

  • 19 The number of texts on various aspects of Latour’s work is very significant. Among the most relevan (...)

44A certain indifference or misconception of STS among social scientists could be said to exist. There are exceptions, evidently, such as Bruno Latour. His influence has surpassed the boundaries of science studies to occupy a predominant space in the social sciences more generally.19

45This phenomenon has a double effect: on the one side, it has made science studies more visible as an entry way for the study of science and technology in many fields. Its consequences in this regard are limited given that this exposure has not been extended to other STS authors. The second effect is more paradoxical as it is a consequence of the previous one: many social scientists take Latour’s work as if it represented in a condensed form the whole field of science studies.

46If it is true that many of his theoretical and empirical propositions have seduced many researchers, there are also certain aspects which add to the resistance, in particular with the notion of “actants”, that is, to confer agency to non-human entities. This objection takes us to a second paradox because –similar to many other questions– this one has been the object of heated debate inside the field itself. Returning to Collins and Yearley (1992: 372), they have pointed out this reservation with respect to the best known article by Callon about scallops, one of the most discussed actants: “It means that when researchers says ‘scallops’, we only see researchers saying ‘scallops’. We do not see scallops scalloping or controlling what the researchers say about them.”

47I believe that within the field of social studies of science we have more elements to think about the resistance in the social sciences. Dominique Pestre (2006: 56-59) has addressed it in more convincing terms. According to him, the critique of the super-symmetry between humans and non-humans, in terms of attribution of competence for symmetric action between both, seems to lead to a “naturalization of certain statements in detriment of others.” Therefore, it seems to take a certain distance from what has become clear since Bloor, that is “the entities which humans evoke are controlled in a material way, ontologically defined and rhetorically manipulated by them…”. To accept this critique according to Pestre, it is necessary to consider them within Latour’s bigger project which is to create a new metaphysics, a new way of posing problems, another way of speaking about the sciences and their human and social effects. In fact, this project has “a high political cost, because it does not allow for thinking easily with big asymmetries of power, recurrent forms of domination, and structuring effects which weigh on the weak ones. In more prosaic terms, it allows the sociologist/historian to naturalize the acts of the actors which are considered political (…) it allows for imputing in an authoritarian manner the ‘responsibilities’ to non-human actants and do away with certain humans and the consequences of their acts.” He then concludes: “It does not surprise us these conditions of the Latourian discourse have been misinterpreted and received many rejections.” (Pestre, 2006: 56)

48As a consequence, we have the author who is by far the most well-known outside science studies, whose project has been the most disseminated, the most discussed, and the most cited who, at the same time, is the one most likely to generate the strongest refusal from the most traditional social sciences.

Original Sin

49As we noted a great number of STS researchers have a background in the natural sciences or engineering. Being a distinctive mark of this field, it has been valued for the sake of heterogeneity but it also created prejudice in the social sciences community. The literature before and after Snow (1959) on the “two cultures” has addressed the prejudice of the “hard sciences” with the social sciences for lacking scientific rigor, having competitive and non-excluding paradigms, low entry barriers with blurry demarcation, difficulties to establish valid explanations which are replicable or universal, etc. The last one being the so-called science wars discussed in two main books: the provocative piece by the physicists Alain Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1997) and its response from science studies compiled by Baudouin Jurdant (2010). There is also an extensive critical literature –we have cited Mannheim on how the social sciences have attempted to adopt the scientificity criteria from the exact sciences to generate their own criteria, never solving the question completely until now. Disputes, for instance, between quantitative and qualitative approaches, among others, are still with us.

50It is undoubtedly difficult to imagine a social scientist who would want to join an exact or natural sciences department in a scientific institution. In fact, there are no historical examples of sociologists, historians, or anthropologists who have been accepted in a physics, chemistry, or astronomy department. The reverse movement, however, has been much more frequent but it is not immune to problems, and the field of STS is a telling example of this since our colleagues in the social sciences are not exactly permeable to the integration of outsiders.

51STS represents a singular case in as much as many of its practitioners have had previous training precisely in the object of analysis of the field they approach. This is unusual and almost unthinkable in any other field of the social sciences, such as religion, armed conflict, public health, politics, or media. Imagine if these fields were composed of former priests or rabbis, nurses, union leaders or businessmen, journalists or politicians…

52Let’s hear once again what Bourdieu has to say as a spokesperson of the social sciences with respect to the prejudice against scientists and engineers who work as sociologists and historians:

We are trying to understand a very complex practice (made up of problems, formulae, instruments, etc.) which can only really be mastered through a long apprenticeship. I know that some ‘lab ethnographers’ may turn this handicap into a privilege, convert the shortcoming into an accomplishment, and transform the outsider’s situation into a deliberate ‘approach’ while giving themselves the air of ethnographers. On the one hand, it is not necessarily the case that the science of science is better when it is done by the ‘half-pay officers’ of science, defrocked scientists who have left science to go in for the sociology of science and who may have scores to settle with the science that has excluded or insufficiently recognized them: they may have the specific competence, but they do not necessarily have the posture required for the scientific implementation of that competence. (Bourdieu, 2004: 5)

  • 20 I analyzed this program and its outcomes a quarter century ago in my first investigation in this fi (...)

53As we can observe acceptance in the social sciences of those who come from the hard sciences is just a bit more friendly than vice-versa but not much more. Salomon (1984) has put it in a more balanced way at the inception of STS in France in a publication of the CNRS-sponsored STS program for the creation of a “new research space.20” The nature of this field at the time was an object of dispute. Let’s remember that one of the requirements for obtaining funding was that research teams had to be formed with social scientists and researchers from the exact and natural sciences:

One cannot join this field without training, competence, or previous experiences […]. However, previous specialization is not in itself a diploma for conducting ‘good’ research: being a former phycisist or biologist does not qualify any person to do history of science, the fact of being a researcher, engineer, or technician in a given scientific discipline is not sufficient to guarantee that a person will observe from the outset the criteria of seriousness and scientific rigor. The historical and social sciences, like any other, have their own methods, culture, and practice from which one has to pass, learn, cultivate oneself, and ‘suffer’. (Salomon, 1984: 115-6, translated to Spanish by the author then to English by Luis Felipe Murillo)

Brief conclusion

54The most important conclusion we can draw from the distance between STS and the social sciences is that the latter –with the exceptions adequately addressed by Vinck (2016) and others I mentioned above– does not take into account scientific and technical dimensions while developing explanations of any aspect of their objects. As demonstrated by science studies –despite all of its internal differences concerning authors and theoretical currents– these objects are inseparable from their social, economic, cultural, and computational becoming. Only when important technical and scientific changes are produced (such as in the case of human cloning, digital revolution, etc.) they examine some of the technoscientific aspects just to rapidly return to their “central” questions: power, social organization, alliances, social change. They impoverish their analyses by leaving aside key dimensions which are part of these processes.

55An anecdote would be useful to illustrate this: a few years ago at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I was invited to a round-table with other colleagues from the social sciences. I emphasized all the details which are not visible in the images we received from television, that is, the whole set of sociotechnical knowledge which was objectified in different devices. For instance, the food technologies which were necessary to feed astronauts, the development of new fabrics and new materials for their suits, communication and computational systems which were developed; questions of gravity, fuel, studies of psychological and biological conditions. I defended the idea that, in this type of project, knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, psychology, material science, and information technologies converged allowing us to watch it all live. Everything that was hidden behind the image of Neil Armstrong descending from Apollo 11. My colleagues in the social sciences remarked, “how interesting,” and discussed for the rest of the time the Cold War and the national liberation struggles of the 1960’s suggesting implicitly that this was politics and everything else I have posed was “merely a technical question.” As if one was understandable without the other…

56In a study we did with other colleagues on the strategies of scientific publication of CONICET researchers in Argentina (Kreimer et al., 2011) we asked questions concerning “science and technology-related risks.” We observed that, for the themes which are not directly related to one’s field, opinions are very close to those of the lay public. Physicists on GMOs, chemists on the effect of cellphone antennas, biochemists on nuclear risk: They have all expressed fears which are close to popular belief but removed from their scientific position. Colleagues in social sciences seem to have a similar perspective. They understand well the constructed character of their own fields, they question reflexively how knowledge and researchers themselves are constructed and yet they become positivists, that is to say, they approach a certain “positivistic common sense” when the “real sciences” are at stake.

57As Bowker and Latour (1987: 717) have pointed long ago when they analyzed the configuration of science studies in France: “when science appears, these iconoclastic figureheads [referring here to French intellectuals] gather behind its banner.” And add to announce their project: “In the course of this paper we will see the most sociologizing of sociologists (Pierre Bourdieu) and the most historicizing of historical schools (the Annalists) define science as something somehow apart from society and history.”

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1 Various authors have documented this “scant attention” to science studies from the social sciences. See Latour (2000, 2008), Vinck (2016), among others.

2 We are not using the parenthesis out of whim. The question of whether STS belongs to the social sciences is far from settled. Moreover, I discuss here a great number of authors and ideas which belong to, or are self-identified as belonging to STS and not all the authors who have dealt with the question of knowledge. Lastly, I am conscious of the great heterogeneity of approaches (Kreimer, 1999; Vinck, 2007) but I am not interested in them except for their connections with the social sciences.

3 Curiously, this formula of the “subfield” is employed by Bruno Latour (2000: 107) who refers to the “minuscule domain of the social sciences which is called ‘science and technology studies’ (STS).” It is curious because, as we will show next, the relation Latour established with the social sciences is infinitely more complex.

4 Emphasis is mine. I removed Latour’s citations to facilitate reading.

5 There have been several discussions about this question of attribution of causality and types of approaches. A good example of this debate can be found in the book compiled by Pickering (1992) in which Collins and Yearley propose a certain “social realism” against Callon and Latour, because they defend that “to depart from the axis of the social to assess, from this position, the axis of nature generates another type of asymmetry.” (Collins and Yearley, 1992).

6 We could say in passing this was not only a concern of the CNRS but the intellectual environment at the time. The group around the bulletin Pandore –created and directed by Bruno Latour– was pleasantly surprised to find out that “after its launch, half of Pandore’s readers are researchers in engineering and the hard sciences”.

7, last consultation on March 30th, 2017.

8 Ibid.

9 This expression refers to Latour’s conception of the relation between science and politics which we will discuss next in this article. During the 4S congress in Barcelona, there was a session dedicated to this question.


11 There are numerous publications on the “sociology of social sciences,” such as the classic work by E. Crawford (1971) or Wagner et al. (1991); Ashmore et al. (1989) is dedicated to the sociology of health; Camic et al. (2011) is dedicated to the conditions of production in the social sciences. Barnes (1982) puts Kuhn’s theses to test in the social sciences. Ianni (1991) was interested in this theme with a focus on Latin America. Similar literature is rare however in science studies.

12 According to Bloor, “mathematics and logic are seen as being about a body of truth which exist in their own right independently of whether anyone believes them or knows about them. According to this view even if there were no human beings mathematical truths would still be true […]”

13 References are taken from the classic work by Mannhem, “Ideology and Utopia” in its Spanish version published in 1958.

14 It is important to highlight here how little attention this idea, premature in Germany, has received in relation to the new perspectives inaugurated by Einstein’s relativity and the subsequent theoretical renewal.

15 To give a personal testimony regarding this position: many years ago in a long conversation with a prominent sociologist of culture influenced by Bourdieu, I was told: “But you can’t tell me it is the same to speak about a gene and a social class. There are several ways of conceptualizing a social structure, but a gene, after all, is a gene.”

16 There is a literature on this question but, taken as a whole, the question of the disciplines appears as a problem relatively solved in the dominant current of science studies (Kreimer 2016).

17 This thesis was also questioned by Shinn and Ragout (2005) who pointed out the problems of the “non-differentialist” thesis, that is, those who do not see the separation between theoretical statements, instrumental techniques, and social factors (p. 69 and the following).

18 He proposes 5 axioms: 1. commitment; 2. reflexivity and distancing; 3. differentiation of spheres of activity; 4. social determination and transcontextuality; and 5. control of truth and axiological neutrality.

19 The number of texts on various aspects of Latour’s work is very significant. Among the most relevant, it is possible to cite: Schmidgen (2015); Czarniawska (2014); Blok and Jensen (2011); Chabaud-Rychter et al. (2010); and Elam (1999). Restivo (2010: 520) points out that “Bruno Latour is, with the possible exception of Thomas Kuhn, the most influential scholar of sciences in the past 50 years.” We should highlight that other authors analyzed in this book are, for example, Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Theodor Adorno, Robert Merton, Joseph Schumpeter, etc. There are, for example, Reading books such as the “Reading group for Bruno Latour: An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence” in The Public School, New York:

20 I analyzed this program and its outcomes a quarter century ago in my first investigation in this field. See Kreimer (1992).

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Titre Figure 1. Engagement in STS according to Sismondo (2008: 20)
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Pablo Kreimer

Sociologist with a Ph.D. in “Science, Technology, and Society”, he is principal investigator at CONICET, professor at National University of Quilmes and director of the STS Center at Maimónides University. He is specialized in political sociology of science with a focus on the institutional dynamics and scientific fields, internationalization of research, and relations between production and use of scientific research. His latest work includes: “Does size matter? The multipolar international landscape of nanoscience” (PLOS One, 2016); Contra viento y marea: emergencia y desarrollo de campos científicos en la periferia (CLACSO, 2016); “Co-producing Social Problems and Scientific Knowledge: Chagas Disease and the Dynamics of Research Fields in Latin America” (Sociology of Science Yearbook, 2015); “Los mitos de la ciencia: desventuras en las prácticas científicas, los estudios sobre la ciencia y las políticas científicas” (Nomadas 41, 2015); and Perspectivas latinoamericana en el estudio social de la ciencia y la tecnología (México, Fondo de Cultura, 2014).

Address: Centro CTS, Valentín Virasoro 732, Buenos Aires (Argentina).
E-mail: pkreimer[at]

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