Logan Lounge

A Collective Blog for Current and Former Members (and Friends!) of the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Neo-Institutionalist Turn in Sociology of Science

Here at the Max Planck Institute, we just concluded a wonderful visit by Prof. Tom Gieryn of Indiana University. Another postdoc and I invited him in order to lead an Institute-wide colloquium on the past and future relationship between the history of science and sociology of science. After reviewing his own version of the past several decades in the field, he argued that a new movement coming from mainstream sociology--which he and others call "neo-institutionalism"--is now displacing the constructivist/STS-style sociology of the 80s and 90s, at least within the United States.

How is the neo-institutionalist approach different from contructivism? As Gieryn presented it (and he admitted himself this is a necessary oversimplification), constructivist sociology of science offers case-based analysis celebrating contingency and locality, favors archival and ethnographic methods, emphasizes agency over structure, and often focuses on issues related to epistemology and knowledge. Neo-institutionalism, on the other hand, searches for patterns over time and space, is more enthusiastic about using statistical and quantitative methods, emphasizes how structure can constrain actors, and returns in part to a sociology of scientists and organizations that was more characteristic of the pre-constructivist, Mertonian era. Now, of course, there are plenty of exceptions--such as some of the Edinburgh School SSK research that connects knowledge to social structure (e.g., MacKenzie's work on the history statistics), and the sophisticated neo-institutionalist case study work done by Daniel Lee Kleinman on how the larger structural context has shaped what goes on at a Wisconsin plant pathology lab. But Gieryn's overall dichotomy did prove quite engaging and useful for our discussion at the MPI. While taking something of a middle position, Gieryn himself seemed more concerned than excited about these new trends in American sociology of science.

Both of us who co-organized the colloquium had the chance to present brief commentaries. Not surprisingly, given our many fruitful debates over the past several months, we found ourselves taking opposing points of view. My colleague, who was/is a student of Bruno Latour, the turn in American sociology away from agency-centered constructivism is not at all a welcome development, and she ably presented the case for continuing to focus on how actors of all kinds (including non-human actors) engage in construction, enrollment, and network-building. On the other hand, my talk was much more favorable towards the neo-institutionalist turn. While admitting the enduring benefits of the constructivist approach--and, indeed, continuing to work broadly in this tradition in my own work--I advocated the welcoming of a more structural, larger-scale, or institutional turn in the history and sociology of science. I argued that many recent trends in the history of science--towards the macro-scale and "big picture"--are actually tending in a sympathetic direction, and we need to place more emphasis on how actors are constrained by the historically constructed but partly stable institutional instructures--norms, power relations, etc. I do think that historians of science must involve ourselves in the neo-institutionalist turn, so that our hard-won insights about how identities, categories, and practices have changed over time can be properly incorporated into the big picture. (And of course to keep issues of knowledge/epistemology on the front burner!) Otherwise, there is certainly the risk that neo-institutionalist big pictures will lack the historical and geographical subtlety required to account for variability over time and space.

Okay, enough of my own commentary. I just wanted to summarize what Tom Gieryn had to say, because I think the issues involved will be of great interest to many in the Penn HSS community. We had a wonderful visit from Tom, and I highly commend him to anyone who has the chance to hear him give a talk sometime or to engage with him in small group discussion.