Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Geoff Cooper (1999) 'The Fear of Unreason: Science Wars and Sociology '
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 12/8/1999      Accepted: 27/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


This paper considers one recent and continuing set of arguments about the representation of science, the so-called 'Science Wars', and argues that, for a number of reasons, this dispute has particular strategic value for raising questions about the discipline of sociology today. These reasons include: the participation of the sociology of scientific knowledge; the fact that the dispute is explicitly concerned with disciplinary boundaries, competence and legitimacy; and the ways in which the dispute connects to related arguments within sociology. It is argued that whilst much of the debate focuses on an alleged crisis of reason, the most interesting issue to emerge may rather be a questioning of the salience of disciplinarity.

Academic Left; Disciplinarity; Reason; Relativism; Science; Sociology Of Scientific Knowledge (SSK)


To reflect upon the discipline of sociology, as contributors to this issue have been invited to do, is to consider its relation to cognate disciplines within the academic field, even if this consideration may remain implicit: for (disciplinary) identity is necessarily bound up with - if not constituted by - relations, differences and oppositions. Such a formulation may be heard as poststructuralist in tone, but can also serve as a valid description of key moves made within classical sociology to establish disciplinary identity: one thinks of Durkheim's preface to 'Suicide' for example, where the definition of a problem in sociological terms is in part the distinction between such an approach and a psychological one (Durkheim, 1952). Similarly, evaluations of the status and health of a discipline usually have at least some recourse to comparative judgements.

Sociology, in other words, is located within an academic field (Bourdieu, 1975). It can legitimately be argued that any adequate evaluation of the state of the discipline should focus on its relation to its object of study, for example in terms of empirical research (Bulmer, 1999); but it is also the case that analysis of its position within this field is vital. In this respect, a recent and continuing dispute in which sociology has been involved - the so called 'Science Wars' - would appear to have particular strategic value: for not only do we see sociology in relation to, in interaction with other disciplines, but the very topic of the dispute revolves around questions of disciplinary boundaries, competence and discretion. However, it is also the case that this dispute is not simply an argument between unitary disciplines occupying spaces on an even plane; for the metaphor of field has some limitations for conceptualising the eddies, flows and cross-currents of argument that have taken place within, across, between and past traditional disciplines, or indeed for affording a proper perspective on the groupings and identities that are formed in this fluid space. Thus, analysis of the dispute can raise some interesting questions about the state of sociology as a discipline, but also about the continuing value or relevance of disciplinarity per se.

The paper is organised as follows. First a brief account is given of the salient features of 'Science Wars'. It has already been the topic of extensive discussion and analysis, for example within Science Studies, and I do not wish to repeat the many able defences of sociological work that have been put forward; however the dispute may not be familiar to all readers The key charges and some counter-arguments are reviewed. I then go on to consider firstly how this dispute can be understood in general terms and then, more specifically, what its significance might be for our understanding and evaluation of sociology today.

Science Wars: The Charges

Science Wars is the term given to a set of arguments that have followed some relatively high profile criticisms of work in the social sciences and humanities which is seen to be attacking science. Sociology is implicated in at least three ways: first because the sociology of scientific knowledge (hereafter SSK) is seen as one of the key contributors to the attack on science; secondly, because work within the related area of cultural studies is similarly perceived[1]; and thirdly, because some of the points at issue are also contested within sociology.

The arguments have an extensive and varied ancestry; discussions of the dangers of relativism in turn of the century thought (Hughes, 1958); the two cultures debate (Snow, 1962); the positivist dispute on the possibility or desirability of a truly scientific sociology (Adorno et al, 1976); debates within the philosophy of science in the 1970s and 1980s about rationality and the attempt to explain knowledge in sociological terms (Wilson, 1970; Hollis and Lukes, 1982); and, its immediate precursor and to some interpreters the larger debate of which it forms a part, the so called 'Culture Wars' about canons, the value or threat of multiculturalism, and associated issues (Bloom, 1987).

The key charges were made in a book published in 1994 entitled 'Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science' (Gross and Levitt, 1994). Although subsequent publications, and one in particular, acquired a more public profile, this text is seminal and frames much of the subsequent debate; it also, unfortunately, sets the tone of much of what follows. Gross (a biologist) and Levitt (a mathematician) define their target as the 'academic left': a diverse constituency incorporating, inter alia, SSK, postmodernism and literary theory, feminist critiques of science, radical environmentalism, and certain other forms of activist-oriented forms of knowledge such as work on AIDS and animal rights, and explicitly afro-centric perspectives on knowledge production. What they all have in common, in Gross and Levitt's eyes, is a 'hostility' to science.

The main charges can be summarised as follows. The academic left is undermining the credibility of science; for example, by arguing that social factors play a role in determining what is currently accepted as true or dismissed as false knowledge, it directly challenges the status of science as a source of reliable information about the world. It proposes theories of knowledge which explicitly contribute to this undermining process; for instance, by claiming that there is no simple correspondence between reality and our representations of it, or by minimising the role of nature in determining the content of scientific knowledge. It is heard as advancing an unacceptable form of relativism, claiming that knowledge is a social construct, even that reality is a social construct, and therefore that all forms of knowledge are therefore in principle equivalent.

Another angle of attack, whose direction and implications are in some ways quite different, is that the academic left makes use of certain scientific ideas, concepts and theories (such as chaos theory, or Gödel's incompleteness theorem) in an attempt to bolster its own (usually postmodernist) arguments; moreover, it does so incompetently. It writes jargon-ridden and pretentious prose which does not meet scientific standards of clarity, rigour and logic. It is part of, and plays a key role in a new irrationalism which threatens science and society. Finally, a subsidiary theme is that this work's espousal of non-realist epistemologies is politically undesirable; that is to say, the academic left is turning its back on the traditional left wing project of objectively grounding social criticism.

These themes recur, with different emphases, throughout subsequent arguments. The main unifying threads in Gross and Levitt's polemic are the identification of a hostility to science, and the assertion that the academic left lack the competence to adequately represent science (although they have no such qualms about their own crossing of disciplinary boundaries in the other direction). There is no space here to cover all the events and publications that have followed, and continue to proliferate in the wake of this first text. I will note some key moments and illustrative examples.

A conference was held under the New York Academy of Sciences banner, which took place in 1995, the proceedings of which were published as 'The Flight from Science and Reason' (Gross et al, 1996). The call for papers makes the tone clear, and also highlights some quite practical issues underlying the anxiety:

'Science is Under Attack'. Formerly the attacks came from outside the academic and scientific disciplines. Increasingly, now, they come from within. These attacks are dangerous: they undermine public confidence; they alter directions of research; they affect funding; they subvert the standards of reason and proof.

There is an interesting question about why the Science Wars have flared up now, given that few of the points at issue are new. If some form of structural explanation is needed, Ziman's 'science in a dynamic steady state' thesis is suggestive; he argues that the post-war expansion of financial support for scientific research has ceased in recent years, and has been replaced by a more volatile stasis in which there is increasing competition for finite resources (Ziman, 1994). This can explain the heightened anxieties about the public perception of science which is manifest both here and in concerns about the public understanding of science[2].

The book that emerged from this event comprised polemics not just from those in the physical and mathematical sciences, but from scholars in a range of disciplines who addressed the general issues identified by Gross and Levitt as exemplified in work in their own fields; or, in the case of a number of contributors, who were prepared to frame particular intra-disciplinary disagreements in which they were involved by adopting the position of a defender of reason and identifying their opponent as one of its enemies. To someone whose sympathies - as must be apparent - lie primarily with those attacked, the hubris and dogmatism which is evident in this strategy, and which pervades the volume, is one of its most unpalatable features. The most startling example of this is Bunge's contribution 'In praise of intolerance to charlatanism in academia' which argues, with tongue at best only half in cheek, that those who subscribe to existentialism, phenomenology, phenomenological sociology, ethnomethodology or radical feminism circulate 'cultural garbage', have therefore not 'earned' their right to academic freedom, and should be expelled from the academy (Bunge, 1996).

This volume was however overshadowed by another text, published in the same year, which achieved considerable celebrity. The cultural studies journal 'Social Text' devoted a special issue to Science Wars, which contained contributions from scholars who, in different ways, study the practice of science and were thus the object of attack; but which also included an article from physicist Alan Sokal entitled 'Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity' which professed appreciation for forms of contemporary philosophical theory which adopt a relativist stance towards knowledge and science, and argued that work in 20th century physics supported such a position. Immediately after publication, Sokal announced to the American academic magazine 'Lingua Franca' that the article was a hoax designed to expose, via the fact that it was deemed suitable for publication, the half-baked work that passes for legitimate argument in this area. The article comprises a tissue of overblown claims and non-sequiturs, extensive and gratuitous quotation from 'trendy' philosophers, impenetrable jargon and a massive number of footnotes. Inspired by Gross and Levitt, it was aimed in particular at extreme constructionist arguments, as exemplified in the infamous sentence, 'It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality" no less than social "reality", is at bottom a social and linguistic construct' (Sokal, 1996: 217). The episode was reported on the front page of the New York Times, garnered a lot of subsequent media coverage throughout the western world, and remains the most widely known event of Science Wars. Its impact has been undeniable, and it was unquestionably an own goal by Social Text[3]; its meaning however is less clear[4].

Sokal went on to write, with physicist Jean Bricmont, 'Impostures Intellectuelles' the following year. Originally published in France, where most of its targets are based and where it has had considerable impact, it was translated and published in English the following year (Sokal and Bricmont, 1998)[5]. The book's central argument is that continental philosophers and theorists have misused science - have referred to scientific theories but in the process have revealed their misunderstanding of them and thus their incompetence - in order to give a spurious legitimacy to their arguments. A secondary but important argument which, as the authors concede, is not logically connected to the first, denounces theories of knowledge which threaten their preferred form of objectivism. For some, the book represents a long overdue exposure of charlatanism in the work of, for example, Lacan. For others, it is an unimpressive piece of pedantry which misunderstands the use of metaphor and analogy in the humanities and, with respect to its second argument, blithely proceeds in complete ignorance of at least two hundred years of philosophical debate. It was also read in some quarters as advocating a general anti-intellectualism, a reading from which Sokal distanced himself (Swain, 1998).

This selective summary merely notes a few key high profile events and publications, but there have been many others and the argument shows no sign of abating. In the UK, Lewis Wolpert made similar accusations in discussion with sociologist of science Harry Collins at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in 1994; subsequent discussion took place in the Times Higher Education Supplement, in the press and on national radio[6]. There has been extensive debate within science and technology studies, and other intellectual areas involved in the debates; it has featured in the pages of such science journals as Nature, and Physics Today; and has received considerable coverage in the national presses of many countries. A number of conferences, edited collections and journal special issues have been devoted to the issue. Many exchanges have been acrimonious, others more constructive[7]. In terms of the impact on the public, it is fair to say that the attacks have been far more effective than the defences.

Answering the charges

I will briefly note a few of the points that could be and have been made in defence of the work being attacked. One problem with summarising defences derives from the extreme breadth and, in my view, incoherence of the category 'academic left'[8]; I will therefore concentrate, in the main, on the sociology of scientific knowledge.

At a general level, there are a number of features that merit comment. Many regret the fiercely polemical and derisory tone that has been adopted (see for example MacKenzie, 1999). Others have noted the ironically poor level of scholarship found in the work of some of the defenders of reason and science. Plotnitsky, in the course of an erudite defence of Derrida's work in the face of ill-informed criticism from scientists, states of Gross and Levitt that

scholarly problems of monumental proportions are found in the immediate vicinity of just about every point of Higher Superstition. It is not so much embarrassing errors [..] that are most crucial (we all make mistakes, sometimes absurd mistakes) but the intellectually and scholarly inadmissible practices and attitudes that pervade - and define - this sadly irresponsible book. (Plotnitsky, 1997: 9)

Here and elsewhere, there is a concern that the authors' certainty about the justice of their cause has justified a failure to read properly or to attempt to understand different intellectual traditions in their own terms, dogmatism, a tendency to quote out of context and/or to misquote, and numerous other forms of 'irresponsibility' which border on bad faith. Some of these problems may be seen as inevitable features of debates such as this which, as Lynch notes, frequently result in a form of rhetorical simplification in which, for example, sociologists of science are seen as claiming that the content of scientific knowledge is purely arbitrary (Lynch, 1993: 72). It is certainly the case that the positions that SSK adopts in its work are both more subtle, and more subject to variation than the debates suggest.

Anxiety about relativism derives in part from SSK's espousal of epistemologies which deny any simple correspondence between representation and reality. There are, even within SSK, a number of positions on this question: but even the most 'extreme' constructionists, if read carefully, do not make the kinds of ontological claims attributed to them[9]. In particular, the claim that 'reality' is nothing but a construct, as parodied by Sokal, is one that few within SSK would endorse. Bloor (1998) states that SSK has always been most careful to distinguish knowledge from reality, and are thus interested in the construction of the former; the conflation of the two, on the contrary, takes place within some of the realist theories that SSK's critics espouse[10].

More fundamentally, anxiety about relativism derives from a systematic misunderstanding of what a sociology of knowledge is, and what it sets out to do. A key maxim of the sociological project, at least in some of its variants, has always been to make the social world, including its taken for granted features and its self-evident truths, into topics for investigation. Such investigation, involving as it does a (partial) suspension of one's own commitments, beliefs and investments as a member of that social world, is not analogous to criticism, attack or an attempt to undermine. Shapin addresses this issue in relation to the question of 'truth', pointing out that certain communities need a 'restrictive' version of truth (in which it is clearly distinguished from belief), but that those studying the historical and social dimensions of knowledge have quite different requirements. For the latter

the treatment of truth as accepted belief is a maxim of method, and rightly so. If one means to interpret variation in belief, then it seems prudent to ask how it is that truth speaks in different voices, how it is that what 'they' account to be true comes to be so accounted, and to approach those inquiries with a methodological disposition towards charity. (Shapin, 1994: 4)

And he continues that 'nothing in this book counts as an argument against the legitimacy of a restrictive version of truth' (ibid). The argument here is that proper and rigorous analysis requires some cognitive distance, but that this need not have any critical implications with respect to the value of a different, restrictive, conception of truth for participants. SSK is critical of certain idealised descriptions of scientific practice, but not of the practice itself. SSK's maxim of symmetry is important in this respect: whilst it is the underlying cause of much of the anxiety about relativism in Science Wars, it is primarily a methodological device. Bloor's argument was simply that currently accepted belief about the truth or falsity of a knowledge claim should be put to one side for analytic purposes (Bloor, 1991). Indeed, the refusal to endorse particular beliefs, within scientific controversies for example, can more convincingly be interpreted as appropriate epistemological modesty than as a form of hostility towards science.

On the other hand, SSK is critical in the sense that it takes science, reason, rationality as topics for investigation rather than as definitive, normative precepts of method. Derrida, in a different context, suggests that to do so is to be more faithful to 'the call of reason' than to treat rationality as sacrosanct:

Is it rational to worry about reason and its principle?Not simply; but it would be over-hasty to seek to disqualify this concern and to refer those who experience it back to their own irrationalism, their obscurantism, their nihilism. Who is more faithful to reason's call, who hears it with a keener ear, who better sees the difference, the one who offers questions in return and tries to think through the possibility of that summons, or the one who does not want to hear any question about the reason of reason? (Derrida, 1983: 9).

This provides another useful justification for SSK's approach, although the latter has the perhaps more modest aim of looking, empirically, at how rationality and science work, in practice, and are invoked in particular sites and contexts; and moreover, of doing so in as rigorous a manner as possible. However, SSK's arguments about the intention to study science carefully, systematically, empirically - scientifically - have not been conclusive: for not only have the accuracy and validity of particular exemplary studies been contested (Koertge, 1998), but also defences of method only partially answer the fundamental question of who, in disciplinary terms, has the right to represent science?

Before looking at this question, it must be acknowledged that, notwithstanding the defences outlined in this section, it is would be disingenuous to suggest that the scientists and their allies who perceive this work to be critical, even hostile, are simply the victims of their own misunderstandings and bad faith. As Gilbert and Mulkay (1984) showed, relating knowledge claims to social circumstance (the 'contingent repertoire') within scientific discourse, is associated with attempts to denounce or refute: it is unsurprising then that a similar move by social scientists is interpreted in the same manner. It is also the case that SSK has, perhaps particularly in its early days, taken a delight in provocation: although again it must be stressed that the target was invariably rationalist philosophies of science, not science itself. Finally, the variation within the field on such questions as what is meant by constructionism, or whether relativism should be understood as methodological or ontological is significant, and is perhaps underplayed by some in SSK in the course of these disputes; if positions are 'misrepresented', it is in part because there is sufficient interpretive flexibility to allow for this. To put it this way is to begin to use the conceptual tools of SSK to analyse Science Wars. SSK has specialised in the analysis of controversy: what does it have to say about this one, in which it is itself involved?

Interpreting Science Wars

Gieryn (1999) offers a useful analysis of Science Wars[11]. He suggests that it follows a classic pattern that can be found in certain recurrent forms of argument within science that can be described as boundary disputes, and which can be analysed with what he terms cartographic methods: that is, a form of analysis which maps out the disputed terrain.

Boundary disputes, according to Gieryn, have five elements. First, they constitute a form of credibility contest, an argument about who can legitimately describe the disputed object of analysis, in this case science. As I have already indicated, credibility involves both perceived technical competence, and the disciplinary frameworks in which evaluator and evaluated are located: are the forms of analysis carried out within, for example, SSK adequate for understanding science? Second, this credibility contest always involves a rhetorical drawing of cultural maps: the discourse used implies a drawing of boundaries. Third, there are competing invocations of the defining qualities of what science is or should be. Fourth, these invoked qualities are context specific and locally produced, rather than given. Finally, this 'map drawing' activity is closely connected to outcomes, and the maps are themselves crucial resources in the attempt to successfully enrol audiences (Gieryn, 1999: 29-30). Put in a more summary form, disputes of this kind are battles over the representation of the object, and over who has the legitimacy or right to represent it.

Certainly, Science Wars can be plausibly seen as an attempt to police the boundaries of science (Collins, 1999). In their worst moments, science warriors seem to claim the exclusive right to describe science. As Latour argues, 'scientists always stomp around meetings talking about "bridging the two-culture gap"' but also advocate that 'only scientists should speak about science!' (Latour, 1999: 17). It is also the case that disciplinary imperialism can be seen to be taking place on each side, as viewed from the perspective of the other. SSK, in arguing that the social organisation of science is consequential for what is taken as valid knowledge, can be seen as defining science in terms that warrant the relevance of its own expertise (although it can claim that the principle of symmetry, amongst other things, guarantees that it does not intervene beyond the limits of its competence). Conversely, there is a worrying tendency on the other side to pronounce on areas of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences in ways that suggest the limits of their competence are not being recognised (although they can claim that scientific rigour knows no boundaries).

There are other aspects of this argument which look less symmetrical when viewed from a disciplinary perspective. Reading some of these texts one can discern an underlying assumption that while some areas have the right to a specialised vocabulary, others do not. Too often, ridicule relies upon the notion that social scientific or philosophical texts should be immediately transparent to the reader who has no training in the area; difficulty here can be taken as a sign of charlatanism, elsewhere as a sign of rigour[12]. There is also an inconsistent reliance on common sense. For instance, the notion of social construction, taken too far, is self-evidently counter-intuitive and thus flawed; but modern physics is not held to account in this way. Bricmont for example has been a forceful critic of the recent work of Prigogene, which has taken up some very unorthodox positions, one of which is the argument - controversial in this intellectual context - that time exists.

Gieryn's framework appears to account very well for these features. However, in one respect, the notion of a struggle for legitimacy between two competing groups over who has the right to define can be slightly misleading if the groups are taken as given entities. For one feature of Science Wars, which for the sake of exposition I have not yet addressed, is the way that it sprawls over and across disciplinary boundaries, and, in that it connects to other disputes and arguments, is difficult to demarcate. Attributing the following quotation gives some sense of this. The author argues that a 'deep-seated mistrust of reason' has become widespread and has surfaced in philosophy; it manifests itself in a distrust of 'universal and absolute statements especially among those who think truth is born of a consensus and not a consonance between intellect and objective reality'. As a result, philosophy has lost sight of the important issues and questions to which its should be addressing itself. The author is in fact the Pope (a philosopher by training) in his 1998 Encyclical, 'Fides et Ratio' (Bunting, 1998). There are, in other words, difficulties in deciding what is and is not part of Science Wars; and complications introduced by the fact that it takes place within as well as between disciplines. With this in mind, let us consider the place of sociology in these debates.

Implicating Sociology and its Crises

In what way is this of interest to sociology? As with any attempt to reflect upon sociology as a discipline, the answer is not straightforward. Certainly, SSK is a form of sociology and as I have argued, its sociological stance towards its object of study is central to the dispute; and as I have argued, a plausible interpretation of some of the hostility directed towards SSK is that it rests on a failure to understand elements of the sociological project in general, and sociologies of knowledge more specifically[13]. However, it is of course not the case that SSK, or any other subset of the discipline with a relatively distinctive epistemological position, finds unqualified support from the discipline as a whole. There are a number of aspects to this.

First, we have to take account of the ways in which this debate maps on to divisions within sociology itself. Stephen Cole's contribution to Gross et al (1996) is indicative: a sociologist of science, Cole allies himself with the attacks on the 'academic left' because, from his Mertonian perspective, the social constructionist approach of SSK overstates its case, illegitimately minimises the role of the natural and physical, and allows its envy of science's relative prestige to distort its judgement. Here, a long standing division is articulated in a new and more acrimonious context. It is manifestly not the case that sociology therefore takes its place on only one side of the debate; for sociology, there are external and internal dimensions. In the same way, there are complicated resonances with criticisms of constructionism within the discipline, for example from ethnomethodologists (Button and Sharrock, 1993), and even with debates within SSK (Collins and Yearley, 1992; Latour and Callon, 1992; Winner, 1993).

Secondly, the debate can be related to wider intellectual currents that go beynd disciplinary confines that have had considerable impact on sociology and social theory. Indeed for some writers, Science Wars, and in particular the Sokal episode, are viewed as part of the wider debate about postmodernism within social theory. Antonio (1998) sees the episode as a dramatisation of what is at stake in relation to postmodern perspectivism and representation. Lemert (1997) uses it to demonstrate the disproportionate fear of postmodernism, and the tendency to avoid engaging with the wider social developments that the term can more profitably be seen to signify.

Lemert's argument usefully directs attention back towards the issue of the fear of unreason which is apparent in Science Wars, and which finds its counterpart in social theory, often articulated in terms of a 'crisis' that social theory is undergoing. Alexander's (1995) text is one of a number of recent reflections which see sociology and social theory as undergoing a crisis[14]; and it construes the issue of reason as central. He characterises 'fin de siecle' social theory as undergoing, and being part of, a crisis of reason in which relativism and reductionism threaten 'more reason-centred forms of thought' (Alexander, 1995: 5). This sense of a current crisis of reason is intriguing for, as Antonio (1998) amongst others notes, postmodernism is in many respects a recent manifestation of a set of issues many of which have a comparatively long history within social thought (see for example Hughes, 1958). If Science Wars represents, to certain scientists, a new awareness of certain forms of thought, it also represents to social scientists a reprise of some familiar themes.

One is tempted to wonder what purpose talk of crisis serves in this context. A recent book jacket (Sica, 1998) states that the authors 'seek to help alleviate some of the crises that have recently afflicted sociology as it has struggled to accommodate postmodernism, feminism, moral philosophy, and other challenges to its classical analytic tradition'. As is often the case, this does not reflect the tone of the book particularly well, but is clearly seen as a gloss which will be of interest to readers. Crisis talk appears, to publishers at least, to hold a certain attraction. One could write a history of sociological discourse in terms of its recurrent formulation of itself as responding to crises: either the crises of social development, such as industrialisation, post-industrialisation, capitalism, late capitalism, postmodernity; or the crises of sociology, such as late 19th Century relativism, positivism, political quietism, unsatisfactory dualisms, as evidenced from Durkheim and Weber to Gouldner, Alexander and beyond. Perhaps 'crisis' is one of the tropes by which sociology and social theory sustain their own sense of vitality[15].

Lemert argues that, with respect to postmodernism

like those in the village of a child's story, many - and not by any means just sociologists - are at risk of becoming a people who organize their wide-awake lives with respect to a subject they wish would go away (Lemert, 1997: 7)

But perhaps the very recurrence and longevity of this fear within social theory should not be taken at face value. The debate about postmodernism is, after all, well established even, one might argue, stale. Hassan stated as long ago as 1985 that 'postmodernism has shifted from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining the dignity of a concept' (Antonio, 1998: 24). Within the discipline, Science Wars has perhaps helped give life to something that one might have thought was exhausted[16].

Conclusion: Disputes and Disciplines

Attempts to assess the significance of this dispute for sociology have first to deal with the very phenomenon that might be of most importance: the complex nature of disciplinary identity in this context. On the one hand, the dispute appears to be centrally about the legitimacy of a sociology of knowledge, and the question of whether it is deemed competent, whether it is entitled to represent science. On the other hand, the dispute has analogues both within the discipline itself, and between intellectual currents which are not confined within particular disciplinary boundaries. What emerges is a somewhat imprecise picture of sociology.

There are three factors worth noting in this respect. First, as widely recognised, even if ignored thus far in this paper, social theory and sociology (or sociological theory) are not identical as Mouzelis (1995) has argued; the boundaries of the former being considerably wider than those of the latter. Secondly, an area like science studies, even given the relative importance of the sociology of scientific knowledge within it, is not defined in disciplinary terms. Sociology provides a crucial resource, but the field is defined more in relation to the object of study. The same could be said of a number of substantively oriented areas in which sociologists participate, and has been identified by some as a defining feature of contemporary research (Gibbons et al, 1994). Thirdly, and most intriguingly, theoretical development in such an area is often non-disciplinary. In science studies, Latour's work is exemplary in this respect; although sociology and anthropology provide indispensable resources for its development, his theoretical framework can be taken as deconstructing some of the foundational assumptions of sociology in ways more profound than does the 'crisis' of reason[17].

In some respects, the question raised here - what are the boundaries of sociology? - is an old one, and has always been one of sociology's central questions. However, the intellectual and social context is perhaps different. The importance of the issue does not of itself merit talk of crisis unless one speaks from the vantage point of a commitment to the retention of disciplinary boundaries; but what, one should ask, is the intellectual justification for their retention?

Science Wars is about boundaries, but its messages (intended and performative) are complex. It deals with questions of disciplinary legitimacy and competence; it demonstrates, graphically, some of the difficulties in speaking across the boundaries of intellectual communities (MacKenzie, 1999); and it connects with intellectual issues and currents that resonate both beyond and within disciplinary boundaries. Science Wars poses important questions, but perhaps the most important is whether the attempt to assess its significance in disciplinary terms is appropriate. Analysis of the forms of association and affiliation that are in important respects constitutive of the dispute would suggest that the really fundamental questions that are raised take the form, not of challenges or crises that need to be 'alleviated' or 'accommodated' within a given discipline, but of a rethinking of the disciplinary standpoint itself; but such an analysis would also be sociological.


1The precise relationship of sociology and cultural studies cannot be elaborated here.

2It is not however clear that such an explanation is required: the emergence of Science Wars may be adequately explained by saying that the greater public profile of some of the 'academic left' brought their work to the attention of natural scientists who had not hitherto been aware of it.

3That it was published in an issue devoted to critical reflection on the position that Sokal holds (as opposed to the one he feigned) increased the poignancy of the success: there are suggestive parallels with a recurrent narrative structure within urban legends, in which a feared intruder is revealed to have already breached the boundary being defended (see Woolgar and Russell, 1990, Woolgar and Cooper, 1999)

4For example, the relevance of the article's fraudulent status can be interpreted in different ways. Hilgartner (1997) claims that Sokal has unwittingly endorsed one of the claims of science studies with respect to the social basis of scientific publication, and his article can be categorised within a genre of 'experimental' studies on the topic.

5For a critical review which documents some of the extraordinary effects the book has had in France, see Callon, 1999.

6Richard Dawkins now infamous statement on the matter was repeated in the course of this discussion. 'If it gives you satisfaction to say that the theory of aerodynamics is a social construct that is your privilege, but why do you then entrust your air-travel plans to a Boeing rather than a magic carpet? As I have put it before, show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite' (Dawkins, 1994, 17)

7Gieryn (1999: epilogue) gives a good introduction to some of the key events and sources. In addition to the texts referenced elsewhere in this article, see Ross (1996) for defences of the 'academic left', and, for an example of a more constructive exchange, Bloor (1998) and Mermin (1998). The website <> is also a useful resource.

8The alliance between some of the parties under attack barely gets even to the level of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', and there are some major epistemological (and other) differences.

9See Burningham and Cooper (1999) for discussion of this point.

10Latour (1999) argues that the perception that SSK does not believe in reality, comic as it is, results from our continuing failure to break out of the unsatisfactory Kantian distinction between construction and reality.

11An excellent analysis of the configuration and dynamics of epistemological disputes, undertaken from a position of sympathy for relativist arguments, can be found in Smith (1997).

12In a telling episode of 'Third Rock From The Sun', the alien physics professor, after failing to increase the 'public understanding of physics' finally recognises that its impenetrability is essential to its status: "That's the wonderful thing about physics: nobody understands it!".

13On this point, see Douglas (1995).

14Another is Mouzelis (1995).

15This must remain a speculative assertion; but if it has any validity, I would suggest that the notion of a crisis of sociology also depends on an over inflated sense of the importance of theory.

16I am not arguing that particular authors are guilty of bad faith but simply that, looked at as a form of discourse, the recurrence of crisis talk invites us to ask different questions.

17It is ironic in this respect that he has served as a spokesperson for those attacked for excessive social constructionism.


ADORNO, T, ALBERT, R, DAHRENDORF, J, HABERMAS, J, PILOT, H and POPPER, K (1976) The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, London: Heinemann.

ALEXANDER, J (1995) Fin de Siecle Social Theory: relativism, reduction and the problem of reason, London: Verso.

ANTONIO, R (1998) Mapping postmodern social theory, in A. Sica (editor) What is Social Theory? The philosophical debates, Oxford: Blackwell.

BLOOM, A (1987) The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster.

BLOOR, D (1991) Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd ed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BLOOR, D (1998) Changing axes, Social Studies of Science, 28 (4) 624-35.

BOURDIEU, P (1975) The specificity of the scientific field and the progress of information, Social Science Information, 14, 19-47.

BULMER, M (1999) Letter, Times Higher Education Supplement, 9th April.

BUNGE, M (1996) In praise of intolerance to charlatanism in academia, in P. Gross, N. Levitt and M. Lewis (1996) The Flight from Science and Reason, New York: New York Academy of Sciences/Johns Hopkins.

BUNTING, M (1998) Search for wisdom in all cultures, Guardian, October 16, 6.

BURNINGHAM, K and COOPER, G (1999) Being constructive: social constructionism and the environment, Sociology, 33 (2) 297-316.

BUTTON, G and SHARROCK, W (1993) A disagreement over agreement and consensus in constructionist sociology, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 23 (1) 1-25.

CALLON, M (1999) Whose imposture? Physicists at war with the third person, Social Studies of Science, 29 (2) 261-286.

COLE, S (1996) Voodoo sociology: recent developments in the sociology of science, in P. Gross, N. Levitt and M. Lewis (1996) The Flight from Science and Reason, New York: New York Academy of Sciences/Johns Hopkins.

COLLINS, H (1999) Policing science, Social Studies of Science, 29 (2) 287-294.

COLLINS, H and YEARLEY, S (1992) Epistemological chicken, in A. Pickering (editor) Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DAWKINS, R (1994) The moon is not a calabash, Times Higher Education Supplement, September 30, 17.

DERRIDA, J (1983) The principle of reason: the university in the eyes of its pupils, Diacritics, Fall, 3-21.

DOUGLAS, M (1995) Acceptance, Science, Technology and Human Values, 20 (2) 262-6.

DURKHEIM, E (1952) Suicide: a study in sociology, London: Routledge.

GIBBONS, M, LIMOGES, C, NOWOTNY, H, SCHWARTZMAN, S, SCOTT, P and TROW, M (1994) The New Production of Knowledge, London: Sage.

GIERYN, T (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science: credibility on the line, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

GILBERT, GN and MULKAY, M (1984) Opening Pandora's Box: a sociological analysis of scientists' discourse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

GROSS, P and LEVITT, N (1994) Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

GROSS, P, LEVITT, N and LEWIS, M (1996) The Flight from Science and Reason, New York: New York Academy of Sciences/Johns Hopkins.

HILGARTNER, S (1997) The Sokal affair in context, Science, Technology and Human Values, 22 (4) 506-22.

HOLLIS, M and LUKES, S (eds) (1982) Rationality and Relativism, Oxford: Blackwell.

HUGHES, HS (1958) Consciousness and Society: the reorientation of European social thought 1890-1930, London: MacGibbon and Kee.

KOERTGE, N (ed) (1998) A House Built on Sand: exposing postmodernist myths about science, New York: Oxford University Press.

LATOUR, B (1999) Pandora's Hope: essays on the reality of science studies, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

LATOUR, B and CALLON, M (1992) Don't throw the baby out with the Bath School, in A. Pickering (editor) Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LEMERT, C (1997) Postmodernism is Not What You Think, Oxford, Blackwell.

LYNCH, M (1993) Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MACKENZIE, D (1999) The Science Wars and the past's quiet voices, Social Studies of Science, 29 (2) 199-213.

MERMIN, D (1998) The science of science, Social Studies of Science, 28 (4) 603-23.

MOUZELIS, N (1995) Sociological Theory: what went wrong? London: Routledge.

PICKERING, A (ed) (1992) Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

PLOTNITSKY, A (1997) 'But it is above all not true': Derrida, Relativity, and the 'Science Wars', Postmodern Culture, 7 (2) <>.

ROSS, A (ed) (1996) Science Wars, Durham: Duke University Press.

SHAPIN, S (1994) A Social History of Truth, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

SICA, A (ed) (1998) What is Social Theory? The philosophical debates, Oxford: Blackwell.

SMITH, B.H (1997) Belief and Resistance: dynamics of contemporary intellectual controversy, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

SNOW, CP (1962) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SOKAL, A (1996) Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, Social Text, Spring/Summer, 217-252.

SOKAL, A and BRICMONT, J (1998) Intellectual Impostures, London: Profile.

SWAIN, H (1998) The science police, Times Higher Education Supplement, July 10, 17.

WILSON, B (ed) (1970) Rationality, Oxford: Blackwell.

WINNER, L (1993) Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: social constructivism and the philosophy of technology, Science, Technology and Human Values, 18 (3) 362-378.

WOOLGAR, S and COOPER, G (1999) Do artefacts have ambivalence? Moses's bridges, Winner's bridges and other urban legends in S &TS, Social Studies of Science, 29 (3) 433-449.

WOOLGAR, S and RUSSELL, G (1990) The social basis of troubles with software: the case of computer viruses, CRICT Discussion Paper 17, Uxbridge.

ZIMAN, J (1994) Prometheus Bound: science in a dynamic steady state, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999