Paradoxical Roots of "Social Construction"
- David Kaiser
Michael Polanyi and His Generation Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011. 427 pp. $45, £29. ISBN 9780226610634.
- The reviewer, the author of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, is at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
- E-mail: dikaiser@...
Fifteen years ago, scientists, historians, and sociologists traded salvos in what was termed the "science wars." Passions ran high; "social construction of science" became a battle cry. Critics like physicist Alan Sokal pointed an accusing finger at various humanists who had suggested that science was an inherently social phenomenon riven by rival interests rather than a rational pursuit of objective facts about the natural world. Some blamed the French sociologist Bruno Latour and his writings from the 1980s. Others highlighted members of the Edinburgh school of the sociology of scientific knowledge and their writings from the 1970s. Still others singled out Thomas Kuhn's remarkably influential little treatise, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1), first published in 1962.
How remarkable, then, to learn in historian Mary Jo Nye's Michael Polanyi and His Generation that the core notion of the social construction of science antedates the eras of Kuhn, the Edinburgh school, or Latour by several decades. Not only is the idea of social construction considerably older than usually recognized, as Nye deftly demonstrates, it was developed as part of a passionate plea for the autonomy of science from societal meddling. The hue and cry in the 1990s represented what Nye calls a "paradoxical legacy" of the earlier work.
Polanyi in the late 1950s.
Nye's book centers on Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi, who became a principal architect of the notion that science proceeds by something other than strict rationality or algorithmic procedure. Born in 1891, Polanyi joined a generation of Central European scholars whose thinking about science and knowledge took form amid the political riptide of the early decades of the 20th century. Polanyi experienced the bloody crises of World War I and its after-math, as the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire gave way to a short-lived Bolshevik regime, itself toppled by a right-wing, counterrevolutionary revolt. By 1920, rampant antisemitism forced young Polanyi to leave his homeland
and to pursue his career as a physical chemist in Berlin. In that cosmopolitan, intellectual setting, he rubbed shoulders with Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Fritz Haber, and others. Their tight-knit community fell apart once the Nazis rose to power in 1933. Within months, Polanyi fled to Manchester, England.
Polanyi had always enjoyed debating politics, economics, and social theory with other energetic thinkers from his childhood circle, including his older brother, the economist Karl Polanyi, and the sociologist Karl Mannheim. Yet he began to turn more squarely to philosophy soon after his relocation to Manchester. Like his geographical migrations, his professional shift had everything to do with politics. Polanyi made several visits to the Soviet Union during the early 1930s to visit scientific colleagues. He came away convinced that centralized, planned economies, symbolized by Stalin's Five-Year Plans, led inexorably to widespread privations and misery. Polanyi was therefore scandalized when in 1939 the prominent left-wing British crystallographer J. D. Bernal proposed that Britain adopt a kind of national planning for science. Bernal called for scientific efforts to be more overtly steered toward addressing societal needs. Around the same time, Polanyi grew suspiciousâearlier than mostâof what came to be known as the â"Lysenko affair": the heavy-handed intrusion by Soviet authorities to squash research into genetics (on charges that genetics diverged from the official doctrine of dialectical materialism) and instead to prop up agronomist Trofim Lysenko's vaguely Lamarckian notions of inheritance.
To Polanyi, each of these episodes revealed the treachery of central planning, for science or any other part of society. He became convinced that advocates of central planningâeven scientists like Bernalâmade their political error because they had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of scientific practice. Central planning of scientific research could only work, Polanyi argued, if scientific discovery was the product of specifiable, rule-driven methodsâthat is, if it were wholly rational. Reflecting on his own scientific career, Polanyi concluded instead that scientific knowledge arose from a mélange of social processes that no purported method could capture.
In place of scientific method, Polanyi trumpeted the importance of "tacit knowledge." No practicing scientist learned the craft of research from books or articles, Polanyi argued. Rather, they had to practice craftlike skills, which they internalized via social relationships like apprenticeship training. Scientists developed an aesthetic sense for what counted as good science, according to Polanyi, and used any means available to convince colleagues from rival research schools to believe a given result. Scientists often formed their beliefs from an immersion in particulars that resisted explicit articulation; he likened the experience to religious conversion. To Polanyi, the routines of scientific research could never be captured by recipes, and therefore any effort to steer the direction of research, or subject science to central planning, was bound to fail.
Polanyi developed his philosophical program in a series of books and articles in the 1930s and 1940s, culminating in his bestknown books, Personal Knowledge (2) and The Tacit Dimension (3). Kuhn read several of these works while writing Structure; so did early practitioners of 1970s-style sociology of scientific knowledge, including Harry Collins. To later interpreters, Polanyi's insights into the social foundations of scientific practice spoke to different political priorities: not the midcentury fears of totalitarianism, but the 1960s and 1970s disenchantment with the military-industrial complex.
In assessing the "paradox and irony" of later scholars' appropriation of Polanyi's ideas, Nye concludes, "Each generation of readers can select what it likes from the past." Her rich, impressive book recasts the science wars barbs of the recent past by illuminating the searing politics, intellectual passions, and spirited debates that drove Polanyi and his generation to think about science in social terms.