Scientific Community

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What is scientific community? Can it be defined as more than simply “the bearer of a mosaic”?

As soon as discussions about the laws of scientific change and the field of scientonomy began, scientonomists have consistently asked two questions; how to define, and how to identify scientific communities. Although the term scientific community is constantly used by scientonomists, it currently lacks a scientonomic definition. Among other things, a proper scientonomic definition of the term would help clarify the scope of scientonomy.

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Nicholas Overgaard and Felix Walpole in 2015. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. At the moment, the question has no accepted answer in Scientonomy.

Prehistory

Scientific communities have been defined and identified variously by historians, philosophers and sociologists of science. In what follows, three waves of interpretations of scientific communities will be presented. It should be emphasized that these waves are not indicative of all attempts at defining scientific communities.

Classical sociologists like Max Weber and Robert K. Merton represent the first wave of theorists to define scientific communities as objects of study. The likes of Weber and Merton adopted a normative approach towards analyzing scientific communities – they described how the scientific community ought to conduct research. Weber’s stance on scientific communities is known through his lecture “Science as a vocation”, in which he analyzed science from the perspective of its value as a profession.1 Similarly, Merton defined scientific communities according to a so-called ethos of science. For Merton, the ethos consists of four norms: universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.2 In both cases, we can see that the earliest interpretations of scientific communities studied them normatively, rather than descriptively. Additionally, the first wave of theoreticians accepted that the overarching scientific community, encompassing all scientists, formed a singular sociological object.

The second wave of theorists to study scientific communities effectively denied the unity of an overarching scientific community, adopting instead an analytic framework based in incommensurability. Thomas Kuhn popularized such analyses of scientific communities, suggesting that scientific communities are only capable of communicating with and understanding others within the same community and by extension, the same paradigm; cross-community discussions could only lead to misunderstandings. Kuhn’s interpretation of scientific communities – indeed, of science more generally – was highly influenced by Ludwig Fleck who, in the 1930s, proposed the notion of a thought collective acting according to a shared thought style.3 A thought collective is a group that shares a thought style, through which Fleck held that scientific facts are socially constructed. For both Kuhn and Fleck, scientific communities emerged from such specific contexts that they developed a way of thinking only shared by those in the same context and community.

The third wave of theories about scientific communities arose out of the realization that scientific communities could be divided into such small units of analysis that the concept of scientific community would become nearly meaningless. Theoreticians of the third wave either regarded scientific community as a mere metaphor or accepted that only highly localized, micro scientific communities existed. In the former case, sociologists like Karin Knorr Cetina argued that scientific communities did not actually exist, rather they were “taxonomic collectives” or theoretical constructs imposed onto a group that did not recognize itself as such.4 In the latter case, sociologists like Peter Galison did not deny the existence of scientific communities, but acknowledged that meaningful scientific practice arose only out of collaboration and competition between micro-communities (Galison).

History

There have been many attempts by scientonomists to define the term, and two are of note: the Fraser-Walpole Model and the Supradium Model. Though these models were proposed in the early history of our discipline – prior to the development of a system of proposed modifications to the theory of scientific change – they are worth discussing as early attempts at defining a scientific community as something other than the bearer of a mosaic. As it turns out, both the Fraser-Walpole and Supradium models are deficient because they emphasize neither the necessary nor sufficient characteristics of a community.

According to the Fraser-Walpole Model, by overlapping different features of scientific communities – the theory only identifies two features: discipline and location – we can figure out which parts of a mosaic certain communities share with others. For instance, we can look at the mosaic of the physics community across all locations, including physicists in France, Britain and other countries; we can look at the mosaic of the French community across all disciplines, including French physicists, chemists and other French scientists of a period; finally, we can look at the mosaic of the community of French physicists in particular, perhaps to compare and contrast with the community of British physicists at a given time.

Identifying a community based on discipline, location, or both, however, became problematic for the Fraser-Walpole Model. Admittedly, discipline and location are useful guiding principles for identifying scientific communities. But they are also ill-defined notions in the context of scientonomy. Furthermore, a case study would necessarily have to show that, say, all physicists in France were actually a community and not some accidental group.

The Supradium Model functioned identically to the Fraser-Walpole Model, in the sense that it allowed a scientonomist to select and even overlap multiple elements to identify a scientific community. It differed from the Fraser-Walpole Model, however, in that it proposed an alternate set of elements: interests, institutions, and networks.

According to the Supradium Model, an interest community was a group that shared a particular perception of a given concept, object or proposition (e.g. a community of Copernicans); an institutional community was a group committed to and recognized as members of the same community (e.g. the Royal Society); and a network community was a group directly and indirectly in communication with one another (e.g. the Republic of Letters). The main purpose of the Supradium Model was to overlap the elements of interest, institutional and network communities so as to identify a community as clearly as possible and in turn bring the content of its mosaic into sharper focus. In theory, a scientonomist could confidently ascribe a set of theories and methods to a scientific community that shared the same concepts and areas of research, considered itself a community, and facilitated the communication of its theories and methods.

The failure of the Supradium Model was that it never consistently defined the notion of a scientific community using necessary and sufficient characteristics. An interest community was, in essence, a redefinition of the community as “bearer of a mosaic” in the sense that any interest community simply shares a set of theories and methods. Proposing interest communities offered nothing new to scientonomy. Network communities seemed important – indeed, they remain important for understanding the social elements of science – but lacked a formulation that could be incorporated into The Laws of Scientific Change. They were deemed an unnecessary, but possible feature of a scientific community, to be explored – pursued, if you will – in some other way. Lastly, we had institutional communities. Institutional communities seemed the most feasible direction for defining a scientific community given The Laws’ adaptation to changing historical contexts because institutional communities truly recognized themselves as communities, rather than being arbitrary characteristics imposed onto a historical case study by a researcher.

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this question (it includes all the instances when the question was accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by a community):
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 January 2016This question was acknowledged as legitimate in the Scientonomy Seminar 2015.Yes

All Theories

According to our records, no theory has attempted to answer this question. If a definition of this term is missing, please click here to add it.

Accepted Theories

According to our records, no theory on this topic has ever been accepted.

Suggested Modifications

According to our records, there have been no suggested modifications on this topic.

Current View

There is currently no accepted answer to this question.
Currently, scientific community refers to the bearer of a scientific mosaic. At the moment, the term lacks a proper definition. It continues to be referred to as “the bearer of a scientific mosaic”.5p.249 Yet the concept remains fundamental to the field. For, every time a scientonomist refers to a theory that is accepted or a method that is employed, they actually mean a theory accepted or a method employed by the scientific community.

Related Topics

This topic is also related to the following topic(s):

References

  1. ^  Weber, Max. (1946) Science as a Vocation. In Gerth and Mills (Eds.) (1946), 129-156.
  2. ^  Merton, Robert. (1938) Science and Social Order. Philosophy of Science 5 (3), 321-337.
  3. ^  Fleck, Ludwik. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^  Knorr Cetina, Karin. (1982) Scientific Communities or Transepistemic Arenas of Research?: A Critique of Quasi-Economic Models of Science. Social Studies of Science 12, 101-130.
  5. ^ Barseghyan (2015) 

Contributors

Paul Patton (28.4%), Nicholas Overgaard (47.8%), Hakob Barseghyan (23.7%)