Taxonomy at a crossroads
Department of Sociology, County College South, Lancaster University, LA1 4YD, UK
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Home > Sociological and Anthropological Studies of Science > Social and Public Dimensions of Science and Policy

Sociological and Anthropological Studies of Science

Science as Social

As Sismondo has summarised (2004), Science and Technology Studies (STS) begins from the assumption that science and technology are thoroughly social activities. STS is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of social scientific approaches to understanding science and technology and their relationship and interdependencies with society. As sociologists and anthropologists have long understood, scientists and engineers are members of communities, trained in those communities and working within them. Communities set standards and evaluate knowledge claims. They engage in resource struggles and need to present science rhetorically in order to convince their peers and sponsors. Values, conflict and the politics of knowledge exchnage are therefore inherent to science. In addition, the tensions and dynamics of wider societies – e.g. class, gender, and national culture – tend to shape scientific trajectories and can be mirrored within scientific endeavours. A commonly accepted way of describing this is to recognise that many diverse social groups are also knowledge-actors, users and contributors. Their different ideas of purposes help shape what counts as working, valid knowledge.

STS and anthropology of science therefore take an ‘anti-essentialist’ position with respect to science and technology. This means that science and technology are not defined or constrained solely by nature. Science and technology, and what we call scientific ‘facts’ are, these approaches argue, shaped both by society and nature.

What does this mean in practice?
For STS and anthropology of science, science and technology are active processes in which the social and the natural are mutually co-produced. For example, as scientific standards evolve and change, social standards correspondingly change, and vice-versa. These approaches suggest, therefore, that science should be studied ‘in action’. One practical benefit of this perspective is that it highlights the complexities, materialities and relationalities of real-world science and technology. This can be particularly helpful when thinking about science in the public sphere. Whilst it can be argued that, essentially, all science takes place in the public sphere, barcoding can be seen as a case in point, in that one of the underlying assumptions of the initiative is the need to create and facilitate a ‘biodiversity commons’. So here, we have a cluster of scientific endeavours (the taxonomic sciences) in the process of innovating in both method and purpose, and in doing so, making clear linkages to public policy. Within that scenario, STS and anthropological approaches, because they do not take for granted any given trajectory for the taxonomic sciences, can potentially make room for creative and critical reflection about what kind of science is being produced in the world. In the case of the ‘Barcoding of Life’ project, this could mean reflecting about different and/or improved future trajectories for taxonomy, bioinformatics and biodiversity.

Sergio Sismondo has written one of the most accessible introductions to Science and Technology Studies: Sismondo, S. (2004) An introduction to Science and Technology Studies, Oxford: Blackwell.



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