The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast the social theories of science as proposed by Merton, Barnes and Feyerabend; and to determine if these theories support the suggestion that science is part of Weber’s rationalisation process. In order to achieve this aim, Weber’s account of formal rationalisation will be summarised. Additionally, Weber’s paradigm case, the structure of modern bureaucracies, will be used as an illustration of this process. Evaluation of the social science theories as proposed by Merton, Barnes, and Feyerabend will follow with conclusions being made for each theory as they appear in the text.
Weber’s concept of rationalisation can be referred to as a variety of processes that scrutinise all human action reducing it to calculable, measurable and controllable regulation; its main purpose being to reduce inefficiency, waste and overcapacity. One specific form of rationalisation, formal rationality, is unique to the modern West. Although no specific definition is given for this term, Ritzer suggests that formal rationality “means that the search by people for the optimal means to a given end is shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures”. In suggesting how these actions are exhibited within society, one can refer to Weber’s fourfold topology of actions. Of specific relevance is the notion of Zweckrational or rational goal-oriented action which, as suggested by Lee and Newby, “involves individuals constructing their own ideal-type in the form of a calculated predictive plan”. It consists of actions that are rationally evaluated and executed in order to achieve particular goals with the foresight to identify potential consequences or conflict before action commences.
An illustration of formal rationality, identified by Weber as a paradigm case, is the structure of modern bureaucracies. Zweckrational or rational goal-oriented action (i.e., formal rationality) is exhibited through the conduct of individuals within the bureaucratic system. Previously these individuals had to identify and seek out for themselves their own means to a given end, sometimes with the added assistance of larger value systems for example, religious institutions. The process of formal rationality as exhibited in modern bureaucracies, replaces this process. The optimum means are predetermined and have been institutionalised in rules, regulations and structures. This means individuals are simply required to follow these rules, regulations, and predetermined processes in order to meet the optimal means to an end. As such, there is less room for individual choice in how means to ends are met.
Having considered Weber’s notion of formal rationalisation, we now turn to the social science theories. Robert Merton is considered one of the founding fathers of the science theories of sociology. He argues that scientific knowledge is superior to other forms of knowledge; and that its high regard is justifiable because of the rigorous testing and scrutiny scientific knowledge receives. In his essay ‘The Normative Structure of Science’, Merton describes his ethos of science as being comprised of a complex system of values and norms. These values and norms are expressed within society via scientists’ conduct (scientific conscience) and legitimised by institutional values and social mores. These norms include: rational; empirical; methodological; and efficient actions that strive to extend certified knowledge. His ethos of science is comprised of four institutional imperatives – universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. These notions are addressed next.
The underlying logic of universalism is to allow for the introduction of new scientific knowledge without bias or reference to the colour or creed of the scientists advancing such knowledge. Although this is the experience for democratic societies, some non-democratic societies allow discrimination, bias, and ethnocentrisms to impede the merits of scientific advances.
The communal ownership of scientific knowledge is referred to by Merton as communism. This knowledge is often the product of social collaboration, and as such, these findings are shared with the community. This concept promotes and rewards “original” scientific work through recognition and esteem of the researchers. This is why there is much competition among scientists to be the first to make a discovery, or breakthrough in their research.
Disinterestedness refers to the institutional control that ensures scientific work is pure and empirical. Its main objective is the prevention of scientific fraud and upholding the integrity of scientific research and the researchers themselves. One’s work being one’s passion, curiosity and striving for the benefit of humanity are said to be attributes of scientists. The role of scientific institutions ensures these standards are adhered to with non-adherence resulting in criticism and sanctioning.
Finally, organised scepticism refers to the way scientists address social phenomenon. Whereas other institutions (e.g., religious, economic, or the state) may view social phenomenon from a traditional, customary, or religious point of view, scientists are empirical, logical and critical in their assessment of such issues. Because of their approach, it is not uncommon for conflict to eventuate between scientific and religious, economic, or state institutions. Such conflict is most likely to occur in situations where scientific research is being conducted in areas where pre-existing institutional attitudes and authority has previously been prominent.
In summary, Merton is suggesting that science is highly rationalised and that scientists behave in a rational manner. The norms of science ensure that scientists conform to certain standards such as having a clear aim for their research, carrying this research out in an empirical way, and critically analysing their findings before deciding if the data supports or contradicts a theory. Thus, it can be argued that Merton’s account of science strives for the same goals as Weber’s rationalisation process.
In his monograph “About Science”, Barnes suggests that in an ideal world science would be rationalised, but that we do not live in a rationalised world. Instead, our concepts of science can be addressed by answering the questions ‘who counts’, ‘what counts’, and ‘how are those who are counted perceived’. Although Barnes accepts that formal rationality is a part of science, he also argues that there are additional factors, these being tradition and authority. Barnes commences his discussion by giving his account on ‘who counts’ and possesses credibility in science. For Barnes, only individuals who have specialist ‘scientific’ training or are known for their prestigious scientific findings are considered credible authorities on scientific issues. One classic example is the case of the prestigious physicist, Lord Rayleigh, who presented one of his papers for reading at a meeting of the British Association in 1888. In the submission process, the physicist’s name became detached from the paper and a referee who read the paper dismissed its content as “nothing but nonsense” . When it was later discovered that Rayleigh was the author of the paper, it was reconsidered and accepted for reading at the meeting.
In addressing the question ‘what counts’, Barnes is referring to the introduction of new ideas in science that are considered ‘unorthodox’, or incompatible with existing knowledge. New ideas and research are more likely to be accepted and viewed as credible if they have the support of specialised, senior or prestigious scientists. Thus peer support and pre-existing knowledge, appear to have a direct impact upon how research is accepted and thought about. An example of such a situation is the Mpemba effect. This research produced results that were inconsistent with current scientific knowledge and as such has never been regarded as a fully accredited research report. The reaction to this phenomenon gives illustration as to why Barnes’ interpretation of science can not be considered formally rational. The research findings of the Mpemba effect were merely disregarded and never fully accredited as opposed to being critically analysed and empirically scrutinised – elements of rational scientific practice.
It is further suggested by Barnes, that tradition and authority are central factors in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Illustration is given to this proposal in Barnes’ suggestion that practitioners of science are strongly influenced by their education and training. Furthermore, the teachers and curriculum (both considered sources of authority) educate students in accordance to preconceived, traditional doctrines. Generally students are encouraged to accept this material as ‘gospel’ and are not encouraged to challenge either the curriculum or their predecessors.
Another issue that Barnes addresses is the amount of trust and authority society invests in scientists. Barnes illustrates this extent of trust and authority through the mention of Milgram’s “shock therapy” experiments. In this study, Milgram demonstrated the extent participants would go to in order to conform to and obey “scientists” (they were actually stooges) requests. The experiment illustrates the potency of trust and authority ordinary individuals place in scientists and additionally highlights the potential dangers such trust could produce.
Although, as Barnes has suggested, there is potential for this trust and authority to be abused, he also recognises its necessity in society by identifying how difficult it would be for society to operate without scientists having these traits. In consideration of the roles, scientists fulfil within our society (e.g., their role in medical institutions; their participation in courts; their role in military defence, etc.) it can be seen how difficult it would be for a scientist to communicate information to other members of society and for this information to be accepted as credible without trust and authority. As Barnes says “trust and authority are the wires of a great system of communication which makes the specialised knowledge of society widely credible and widely usable”.
From Barnes’ account, it is difficult to see how science can be likened to Weber’s rationalisation process. Firstly, only the prestigious are recognised as producing credible ideas, with advances in science more likely to be accepted if supported by a scientist of high standing. In other words, scientists are not judged by the merits of their research, but by their status within the scientific community. Secondly, the doctrines of science are firmly based on traditional, preconceived ideas. These ideas are supported by teachers and reflected in the curriculum in teaching institutions. Not only do students readily accept the curriculum as it is presented to them (which is often a one sided account of an issue), they are not encouraged to challenge these doctrines. Finally, in addressing how scientists are regarded by society, Barnes’ account is contrary to the rationalist approach of science which would have the public critically examine and question the policy recommendations of scientists, and their role in society.
Like Barnes, Feyerabend places science within the realms of tradition but does so in a rather outlandish fashion. In his essay collection “Science in a Free Society” Feyerabend states that a free society “is a society in which all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power”. By this statement, Feyerabend refers to and criticises the excessive power and authority invested in science by our society. His approach is that of a relativist as he proposes there is no criterion or method of measurement to evaluate the worthiness of any single tradition (e.g., science) above all others and as such, all traditional approaches should be considered “on a par”.
With reference to how scientific authority is dominant within our society, Feyerabend suggests that individuals should not only have the right to accept and practice whatever ideals appeal to them, they should also have the power to form and oversee the operations of democratically constituted committees. When confronted with the issue of how “laymen” would address issues requiring specialised knowledge, Feyerabend responded that maturity, which is learned through active participation in the decision making process, is fundamentally more important than specialised knowledge. In fact Feyerabend suggests that this maturity should be sought after even if it means the success rate of decisions is lowered.
In presenting his views on the expertise of scientists, Feyerabend argues that the opinions of scientists are often prejudiced and untrustworthy. Scientists often disagree with one another in both theory and application; however, when they do agree it is often for the wrong reasons (e.g., critics being silenced in order to preserve the reputation of science as a source of reliability and trust). Another occurrence is that they may accept a theory that is mistaken, whilst “laymen” attempt to expose such mistakes and falsities and allow unorthodox theories to be explored. Feyerabend continues that in some circumstances “specialised knowledge” is the result of gossip or rumours that were previously taken up by someone of authority and have thus become part of the traditional beliefs upheld by science. As such, it is suggested that “laymen” should, through democratically elected committees, evaluate with “painstaking scrutiny” the evidence presented by scientists and decide for themselves if scientists truly deserve the status they hold within our society.
Feyerabend is also critical of the reasons that science is considered the “superior” way of acquiring knowledge these being: use of the “correct” method; and results that demonstrate the effectiveness of this method. The “scientific method” is a process referred to by scientists as a universal and stable method that measures adequacy. In arguing against the effectiveness of this method, Feyerabend states “there is no ‘scientific method’; there is no single procedure, or set of rules that underlies every piece of research and guarantees that is ‘scientific’ and, therefore, trustworthy”. Although Feyerabend agrees that science has made significant contributions for the advancement of our society, and that its continued dominance suggests it has been more successful than other traditions of thought and practice, he doesn’t rule out that other traditions have nothing to offer contemporary society. According to him, they have simply (and perhaps temporarily) ‘run out of steam’. He further argues that the domination of science exists because institutional measures have ensured the continued suppression of alternative cultures and traditions of thought. An illustration of this is the revival of support for traditional medicine in China. Feyerabend was able to show that when given a fair chance, “non-scientific ideologies, practices, theories, traditions can become powerful rivals and can reveal major shortcomings of science if only they are given a fair chance to compete”.
Feyerabend’s account of the social theory of science suggests that science is based in tradition and additionally is influenced by gossip, rumour, dogma, and pressure to conform – all non-rational elements. He also argues that scientists readily accept, without challenge, the scientific theories presented to them as part of their training, and additionally they tend to ignore research findings that contradict widely accepted theories. In consideration of these factors, it can clearly be seen that Feyerabend’s account does not suggest that science is a part of Weber’s rationalisation process.
In summary, it was established that in order for a social theory of science to be likened to Weber’s rationalisation process it would have to be highly rational. This would include being able to demonstrate an ability to meet predetermined goals of research in an empirical, efficient and rational manner whilst adhering to the rules and regulated processes of science. In comparison of the theories presented by Merton, Barnes, and Feyerabend it can clearly be seen that Merton’s social theory of science meets these demands thus suggesting that science is part of Weber’s rationalisation process; but the theories proposed by Barnes and Feyerabend do not.