One of the most important characteristics of the development of the Western societies since the times of the Industrial Revolution was the key role played in them by science and technology, which had transformed almost every realm of their life. The gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge (Kuhn, 1996, pp.1-2) has lead to the situation that today technology enabled by scientific findings forms the backbone of the civilisation. In this regard, it is hard to overestimate the importance of the careful investigation of the processes and mechanisms that keep scientific endeavours going, and one of the outstanding figures of the twentieth century in this filed was Robert King Merton, an American sociologist who, among other things, is renowned for his elaboration of what has been termed as the sociology of science. Let us overview the contributions of Robert K. Merton to the development of the sociology of science.
The investigation of the social circumstances that enable or inhibit the process of obtaining of scientific knowledge was among the chief interests of Merton. In the first half of the 1940s he formulated the notion of the ‘ethos of science’ that pertains to the internal social context with its own values in which scientific activities are taking place, and which shape the behaviour of scientists. What is important in this respect is that Merton viewed scientists as concrete individuals with certain motivations, aspirations, and fears, which offers a way for micro-sociological interpretation of scientific activities.
Among methodological innovations introduced to the field of sociology by Merton are his explanation of some of the causes underlying the scientific revolution, and the Mertonian norms that describe peculiarities of science as we know it. In relation to the first problem, Merton, akin to the well-known study by Max Weber linking Protestant ethic to the rise of the capitalist economy, claims that a similar connection existed between the German Protestant pietism and English Puritanism, which were branches of Lutheranism that in the seventeenth century protested against what they viewed as the dry and too general nature of orthodox religious doctrines, and the establishment of the methodology of science based on the experimentation (Merton, 1993). Also, among the reasons that promoted the rapid development of science Merton mentions the amassment of observational data, and the improvement of experimental techniques (Merton, 1996, pp.223-240).
In their turn, the Mertonian norms stem from Merton`s interest in the culturally prescribed rules and values within the modern scientific environment which constitute the ethos of science. Merton singles out four imperatives of science formed on the basis of the institutional aim of science that is to expand knowledge, and which correlate with the technical and methodological means used to achieve this goal. These imperatives are:
Ø Communalism as the principle of sharing of scientific knowledge in contrast to secrecy. From this principle a bunch of related ones follows, such as the intolerance towards dishonesty, and the practice of peer reviews.
Ø Universalism as the two-sided maxim that on one hand makes science open to contributions without considerations of social, ethnic, or other inessential criteria of contributors, and on the other hand demands that facts and theories that pretend to be scientific must be fully consensual.
Ø Disinterestedness as the principle that guards objectivity by separating scientific findings from possibility of being influenced by religious, political, or other forms of personal interests of researchers. This principle is even manifested in the neutral and impersonal voice of scientific presentations of research findings.
Ø Organised scepticism as the methodological approach grounded in doubt, scrutiny, and numerous rechecks. The aim of this attitude is to delay judgement until enough evidence in support of a certain scientific claim is collected.
According to Merton, the outlined institutional norms turn into values and are maintained and reinforced by the fact that scientists internalise them and perceive them as a kind of a scientific conscience (Merton, 1979, pp.267-280).
Besides, in addition to the mentioned norms Merton deals with the issue of how aspirations for humility and originality interact in a contradictory way when debates over priority take place in scientific communities. In this connection, Merton points out that even though the system of rewards in science has mostly the function of honouring, when the striving for a reward is not fulfilled deviant behaviour may follow. The scholar separates two forms of deviance – active and passive. The notion of active deviance pertains to instances of fraud, purposeful selective reporting that generates unbalanced information, plagiarism, and other malignant actions. Passive deviance relates to cases when scientists are overtaken by apathy, fantasy, and other psychological states that may influence the process of scientific investigation (Merton, 1979, pp.286-342).
On ground of what we have discussed, we may conclude that perhaps the main contribution of Robert K. Merton to the development of the sociology of science was that he showed how the perception of the scientific community as a kind of a sub-culture with its own values and principles may help us better understand how science operates in the modern world. And while some might accuse Merton of being overly institutional in his approach and of sometimes missing the real variety of scientific practices, it can be responded that considering the dynamics of change that we witness today on the global scale it would of course be impossible for him to provide a complete account of such a complex filed as the sociology of science. For this purpose, the constant attention must be paid to all new scientific developments and tendencies, but for this task the theoretical background created by Merton would be of much help.
Kuhn, T., S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University Of Chicago Press.
Merton, R., K. (1979). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations.
University Of Chicago Press.
Merton, R., K. (1993). Puritanism, Pietism, and Science. Irvington Publishers.
Merton, R., K., and Sztompka, P. (1996). On Social Structure and Science. University Of