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There can be little doubt that, with the publishing of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn transformed the nature of the debate on the sociology of science. For many, Kuhn not only managed to implicate a new focus for the sociology of science, but also to strengthen the external legitimacy of sociology’s place in the understanding of science. In contradistinction to the beliefs of the empiricist tradition in the philosophy of science: of timeless logical rules assessing and validating claims, Kuhn denied the universal nature of scientific method, supposing instead that a scientific paradigm was subject to breakdown and subsequent revolution.
Moreover, Kuhn accepts that much of the theories and standards contained within the paradigm will be open to the influence of the scientific community – a stark indication of the potential for sociological analysis. Therefore we could say that, for the sociologist, the greatest areas of interest in Kuhn’s work lie in his study of the sociology of scientific behaviour and, in turn, its bearing on the relative scientificity of sociology as a discipline.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn shows the progression that a scientist will take in his attempt to achieve knowledge. Beginning within the framework of an excepted ‘normal science’ characterised by the dominant paradigm – the universally favoured method, the scientist will compete with his fellows to solve puzzles which, by and large, are soluble. Crisis occurs when a build up of pressing anomalies – insoluble problems, throws the present paradigm into doubt, this then results in a scientific revolution which shifts the perspective of the entire community of scientists to the degree that they will adopt a new paradigm, the principles behind which may well be completely alien to the previous, resulting in incommensurability: a lack of theoretical common ground or measure.
The concepts of paradigm and incommensurability are vital to the understanding of Kuhn’s theory. The concept of incommensurability is not easy to define quickly: incomparability is close but insufficient in that the word is not meant literally – it must be stressed that to say one paradigm will be incommensurable with another is not to say there will be no area of association. This is displayed in Kuhn’s reply to Popper’s attack that ‘It is just a dogma – a dangerous dogma that the different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages… totally different languages (like English and… Chinese) are not untranslatable.’ Keeping to Popper’s analogy, Kuhn answers it by making the distinction between the relative simplicity of learning a second language and the difficulties in the precise translation of meaning. In short, the argument is that translation “always involves compromises which alter communication”, and such is the case with the comparison of scientific paradigms. It may be true to say there will be areas of overlap but the parameters will change to a degree that correlation will be impracticable. It is the essence of the Kuhnian model that generally there will be a smooth communication and understanding between a community of scientists – it is only during the collapse of an interpretive framework due to internally generated inconsistencies that the basis of scientific interaction will be a matter of contention. There is a great deal of opposing views and criticism of Kuhn’s theory of a tendency towards a single dominant paradigm: Feyerabend, 1975; Scheffler 1967; Gilbert, 1976 or Ravetz, 1971 will all give opinions on the unique and subjective perspectives that scientists will develop in their research area. Each scientist’s framework of belief will leave him ‘trapped in the web of his own meanings’. This question of the plurality of paradigms leads us to think that incommensurability may not be limited to the natural sciences – if we seek to apply it to the social sciences and sociology in particular then we could see the scientific Durkheimian sociological method as one paradigm and perhaps the Marxist dialectic framework as another. We might also note (if somewhat tentatively) that the nature of the subject is such that more than one sociological model will exist at any one point, there will be no one dominant paradigm, which maybe bears a closer resemblance to the ideas of Feyerabend than Kuhn. This is dealt with in more detail below with the idea of sociology existing as a set of nascent “pre-paradigms”. The idea of sociology as a set of competing pre-paradigms is more in tune with Kuhn’s thought, in that in science, two paradigms could not exist at once – there could only be one dominant mode of thought. How convincing this concept of the universal scientific paradigm is, is a matter of contention. Great importance is attributed to the rewriting of text books and other trappings of the paradigm shift, but is this convincing? The advanced nature of research scientists might lead us to believe that there would exist a great deal more individual thought and mixed opinion. Feyerabend does not believe it to be the case that there will be a strict adherence to the pervading scientific method, and discourages it “Science needs people who are adaptable and inventive, not rigid imitators of “established” behavioural patterns.” In assessing Kuhn’s importance to sociology we are in fact evaluating the extent to which his work fell within sociological boundaries. This sounds simplistic, but many have been criticised for assuming Kuhn’s work to legitimate a wider scheme. John Urry, though stressing its value in the instigation of debate, points to the “limited nature of Kuhn’s discussion of the sociology of knowledge. Urry divides his criticism of (what he believes to be these sociologists of knowledge misinterpretation into a radical and non-radical reaction. The non-radical sociologist accepts The Kuhnian thesis that a science will only gain maturity with the attainment of a paradigm – and that a pre-paradigm must establish itself as dominant for sociology just as it would for a natural science. Sociology, having failed to achieve Durkheimian scientificity is doomed to the competition of “multitudinous pre-pre-paradigms” and therefore “excessive methodological neurosis” unless the adoption of an empirical positivism can be achieved. The first of two radical responses that Urry outlines sees sociology as having achieved a paradigm but that, according to the Kuhnian model, this must be replaced with a revolutionary paradigm in time. The second of the radical responses has been mentioned already as the opinion, held by Feyerabend, Lakatos et al, that more than one paradigm will exist in both natural and social sciences and that subjectivity reigns. Urry legitimately criticises the non-radical response for its assumption that we are at a point where we could achieve a sociological paradigm, but fails to address the question of whether or not a paradigm is possible at all. If sociology exists as a collection of disparate pre-paradigms and has done for a time, where is the logic that says we are driving toward the establishment of a methodology, such as a Durkheimian adherence to “social facts” and sociologist as pathologist? It seems a forlorn hope to try to apply Kuhn’s rigorous method to a subject, the boundaries of which, are increasingly difficult to accurately define. Being, perhaps, unable to apply Kuhn’s paradigmatic system to anything save the natural sciences it was intended for, what does it tell us as a sociology of the development of science or knowledge? Kuhn presents us with a community made up of highly competitive scientists seeking to prove their skill to their peers and themselves through the solving of problems that, within the paradigm, are taken to have solutions. The emphasis is on the drive for a successful display of skill at puzzle-solving, and, of course, the competition is not only made up of the scientist’s contemporaries, but of the many great scientists of the past who the solution has eluded. Urry makes a criticism of what is Kuhn’s perhaps short-sighted claim that there will never exist an intention amongst any of the scientists to affect a shift in the paradigm. However, it could be thought that there may well rest in the community, in embryo, the ensuing paradigm – in dialectical terms, a stalking antithesis waiting to meet the present thesis and produce a new paradigmatic synthesis. A clearer understanding of this might be achieved via the useful parallel between the production of knowledge as a struggle for power and the production of material goods under Capitalism in Marxist theory – both lead to high levels of competition polarizing the community and resulting in inevitable conflict and on the one hand social and on the other scientific revolution. Both revolutions are characterised by the internal contradictions which will inevitably lead to change. Though should we allow Kuhn’s dialectic paradigm to be exempt from its own rules? If we are seeking to apply his method to social theory then should his Structure not be equally riddled with the seeds of eventual paradigm shift? This provides us with the paradox that the truth of Kuhn’s progression is unavoidably dubitable: If we accept Kuhn’s work as our paradigm, then we will eventually, according to it, abandon it. The answer to this problem may lie in the repeated assertion that the Kuhnian model is inapplicable to the social sciences and therefore is, in fact, not judged by its own rules. Kuhn makes the point that the process from paradigm to consequent paradigm may be an evolutionary and unavoidable process but it in no way represents a closer approach to truth. Kuhn does not deal with how it is that knowledge is achieved, he deals with how it is that knowledge comes to be believed to be true, and the sociological significance of the way those beliefs change. If we are to agree with Urry, it is a mistake to attribute more sociological relevance to Kuhnian analysis than is warranted – his treatment of scientific development cannot be applied to other disciplines in the same way: “to argue that social scientific development should follow natural scientific development is, I think, wrong”. However, though we may not, through Kuhn at least, make a science of sociology we must acknowledge Kuhn’s analysis of scientific behaviour: this does indeed have strong implications for the sociologist.
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