Sociology of Science: a sociological pilgrimage

I have always been fascinated by Mike Mulkay’s studies of sciences. The Sociology of Science: a pilgrimage was written by Mulkay towards the end of his career. Several of his publications were attempts to separate the characteristics of specific studies of science (astronomy, biochemistry, health economics) to arrive at a generalizable explanation for sciences. This book sums up the fact that he failed, according to his own high standards. The following text in blue is taken from the back cover of his book:.

Sociology of Science: A sociological pilgrimage

Michael Mulkay

Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana (1991)

The author of this book takes the reader on a journey through the social production of scientific knowledge in modern society. This journey proceeds simultaneously at several levels. At one level, we travel with the author as he visits selected disciplines across the full range of scientific activity. We move with him from the offices of a physics department to the research stations of radio astronomy. We linger in the laboratories of biochemistry before seeking out health economists giving assistance to the medical community. After each trip, we return to the realm of sociology with a new understanding of that discipline’s place in the wider scheme of intellectual endeavour. 

At a second level, we move from one to another basic feature of the culture of science. We examine in turn, the social structure of a university department, the overall pattern of scientific growth, the relationship between norms and ideology, the nature of scientific consensus, the practical usefulness of science, philosophical thought and scientific practice, theory choice, experimental replication, social science and social control, science and the women’s movement, and the contribution of science to the future of human society. 

At a third level, the book depicts the author’s pilgrimage in search of a state of intellectual grace which he comes to know is mythical, yet which he cannot entirely abandon. We follow him on his quest, beginning with the standard procedures of interpretative sociology, passing through the strict disciplines of discourse analysis and finally accepting the textual challenge of unconventional literary forms. In the process, we move from the constraints of the customary empiricist monologue to the delights, and temptations of dialogue, parody and a general sense of analytical playfulness.

This book is a delight to read. I have often wondered why his last books became contemplative yet laced with humour, or as Mulkay puts it (above) “a general sense of analytic playfulness”.

He remains puzzled by the way it always seems to prove impossible to pull out from the scientific analysis a common denominator that gives sociology of science coherence and stability. a sort of Rules for the Sociology of Science.

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