Merton’s Theory of Scientific Ethos
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Published: Wed, 01 Aug 2018
Robert Merton and the institutional imperatives of organised science. Do you think that the normative structure of science is working today? Why?
Robert Merton has been hailed as the most important American sociologist of the 20th century. His oeuvre includes works on the theory of knowledge, the sociology of science as well as functional and structural analysis. This essay will examine one of the most significant claims of Merton, that is that science is regulated by four distinct norms. While his work has arguably to the foundation of a whole academic discipline, the normative notion of science itself unites various strands of enquiry that are testament to the diverse personal and scientific interests of Merton. In nuce, Merton’s claim that science is essentially a normative endeavour conducted to the tune of shared ethical rules, straddles the fields of the philosophy of science and theories of knowledge just as it draws on assumptions located in the domain of moral philosophy and the theory of truth.
The essay will approach this complex in the following way. First, Merton’s claims will be outlined in as much detail as possible. Second, the essay will sketch the main lines of criticism that Merton’s theory of scientific ethos has attracted. Finally, an example of scientific debate will be examined in view of Merton’s claim that will allow us to assess the validity and usefulness of Merton’s theory.
Merton’s thesis about the normative structure of science goes back to an article he published originally in 1942, early on in his career. The essay is short and, with the exception of mentioning two works by Talcott Parsons, makes no references to its immediate philosophical context, the emerging sociology of science. Furthermore, Max Weber is not mentioned at all throughout the piece. Nevertheless the article has become one of the most celebrated and debated publications in the theory of science.
Merton contends that science is characterised by four interconnected but distinct organisational principles. These principles are ethical in nature and function as structural imperatives for science. First, science is universal insofar as contributions to it are ‘assessed on merit and significance’. Second, scientists judge scientific theses against empirical material that is available, and ‘suspend judgement’ until all the facts are known. Merton calls this ‘a methodological and institutional mandate’. Third, Merton maintains that scientists are committed to disinterestedness, and do not regard self-interest as a viable motivation for scientific work. The objective for scientists is to advance scientific knowledge rather than personal interests. Fourth, scientific knowledge that has proven to be reliable and accurate is to be readily available to every member of the scientific community, a phenomenon that Merton calls ‘communism’. 
Merton’s sketch of all four principles in the article is brief. Organised scepticism receives especially short shrift with just about two paragraphs. In these two paragraphs Merton conspicuously fails to provide a definition of it altogether and instead discusses the wider context of this ‘methodological and institutional mandate’ for scientists. The question is whether Merton has presented a picture of science that is accurate today. The problem is that it is not quite clear what Merton actually says. He has been praised for his eloquence, but his admirable articulacy sometimes obscures the meaning of his thesis. The essay will now examine some of the more obvious criticisms.
The first difficulty concerns the main thrust of Merton’s argument. In arguing that four normative principles organise scientific endeavour, is he making a normative or descriptive point? Are these observations of empirical nature or do they outline prescriptive ideals that ought to guide scientists in their work? We may take Merton’s thesis to articulate some more general prescriptive standards of science, which ideally ought to be applied in the scientist’s work in order to facilitate scientific progress. 
Merton makes a point then which requires empirical verification. He has to show that science conducted in this way promotes scientific advancement which scientific work conducted contrary to these norms would not. Understandably this is hard to prove. It requires a historical argument, a narrative of successful scientific development, which to a certain degree he attempts to provide in his article.
So what does Merton try to say with his four criteria? The list of norms does not allow us to differentiate between valid and invalid science. It also fails to provide us with guidance as to what good and bad science is in a more general context. Perhaps at some time in the future, science requires secrecy and the exclusion of some parts of the scientific community from the results of scientific work. In fact, critics pointed out that Merton’s thesis works on the peculiar assumption that only academic science is science. Industrial research must by nature fail to comply with his standards of enquiry and hence cannot aspire to be science. A nonsensical conclusion since much of sciences progress is owed to research in an economic and entrepreneurial environment, conducted for reasons of profit and the furtherance of self-interest.
Yet, perhaps all these interpretations of Merton’s argument overlook the obvious. Possibly, his four standards of scientific discovery only make an observation on the nature of science in general. In this way Merton must be understood to make a simply descriptive point that scientific conduct is regulated by norms that may not always be explicit and unarticulated. If we would take him to argue this, his argument then all of a sudden fits into the wider functional theory of science that he was keen to advocate.
Merton argues that the adherence to the four norms produces a system of knowledge that has features that we associate with science, and which have subsequently have come to be synonymous with science. The scientific ethos is then only a historical by-product and Merton’s succinct formulation of this ethos in four principles of scientific behaviour simply describes the way in which science is done. Research that does not comply with these standards may still be science but does not contribute to science as a coherent system of human behaviour. Merton’s normative structure of science thus tells us something about the way in which science has come to sustain itself as a system of knowledge. The four standards of scientific enquiry fulfil a function in generating systematic knowledge that contributes to the advancement of science as a coherent system of human interaction within a (academic) community.
Critics have pointed out that this vision of science is not less problematic than the ones we have sketches above. Two general accusations have been levelled against this Mertonian notion of science. The first criticism argues that Merton is simply stating the obvious or, even worse, that his argument is tautological. The second criticism is of different calibre and claims that Merton’s normative vision of science advocates one particular type of scientific endeavour that de-legitimises other forms of research. Both criticisms warrant some closer examination.
The first criticism is easily outlined and echoes some points made earlier. If Merton believes that the normative principles structure scientific knowledge then he can be taken to make either of two points which are different in scope and nature. First, he may simply be stating the obvious, describing the way in which science is being conducted. Any future changes to this may result in the end of science as we know it and as a coherent sub-system of human conduct but may give rise to the development of a new system of science, along different, yet unknown lines. Norms and standards, in this scheme of things, are contingent yet critical for the type of science that is currently institutionalised universally. Unless Merton attaches some value to this current form of science, his observation is bordering on the tautological, since it fails to tell us anything about the way in which we ought to do things in science. If he does associate the current state of science with a particular value, he needs to tell us what is so valuable about this specific type of science, an issue that philosophers of science discuss through the lens of scientific innovation. Philosophically, this requires some wider justification, something that Merton fails to do. In fact, there is a plethora of criticism that targets exactly the kind of (modern) science that Merton seems to find commendable. Feminist and environmentalist criticism abounds. So there is evidence to the contrary that he would have to confront.
The second criticism draws on radical theory and maintains that Merton’s normative notion of science acts as a gatekeeper to exclude other, conflicting visions of science. His theory of scientific endeavour thus fulfils a political function that translates into the suppression of deviant forms of scientific conduct. Bourdieu makes this claim forcefully in an article on Merton’s sociology of science in 1990 when in an unflattering way he calls Merton’s work ‘a hagiographic vision’. Further on he writes:
… if Merton takes note of the existence of the work of scientific production, he continues to apply to it analytical categories which hare imposed on him by this very world itself, so that what he present as a description of its positive laws of functioning is often little more than a record of the normative rules which are officially professed by its members. He therefore departs only in appearance from the ‘internal’ reading…
This is a damning observation since the critical content of Merton’s theory of normative science resides in its ability to provide an external as well as internal picture of what scientists do. If Merton, as Bourdieu claims, only replicates in his vision of science the self-understanding of scientists, his theory is little more than self-congratulatory contribution to identity formation in the scientific community. On a more sinister note, propagating these standards of scientific enquiry would deny other scientifically orientated behaviour the badge of honour. Merton’s theory of normative science would then become the main vehicle for defending a particular version of science, resting on values and principles that are far from universal. This is the point where theory spills over into institutional practice and may result in exclusion of scientists that fail to conform to a particular type of scientific behaviour.
A brief example may demonstrate this problem. In 1994 two American professors published ‘The Bell Curve’, a sociological investigation into the link between race and intelligence. Their work presented ample empirical material while their conclusions were particularly repugnant. The book included an argument for and against various social policies and therefore the authors deliberately placed their work in a political context. Although they adhered to all obvious scientific standards critics labelled the book as a political treatise with a foul set of conclusions. One of these conclusions was the authors maintained that there was evidence that African Americans were of inferior intelligence to White Americans. There can be no doubt that this repulsive claim strikes everyone who does not harbour racist attitudes as demonstrably false. Academic critics consequently slated the books’ premises and conclusions and pointed to a whole array of either ethical or methodological inconsistencies in the work.
What does this mean in the context of Mertonian imperatives for scientific discovery? First of all, Merton’s vision of science claims that disinterestedness is a norm of scientific enquiry, hence however abhorrent the conclusions are scientists must pay no heed to the social or political ramifications of their endeavours if they wanted to preserve science as a coherent system of human activity. Given the social context of race studies this is a plea for unethical behaviour while salvaging an internal code of practice that may have repellent consequences. To contend that scientists can conduct their enquiries in a bubble of self-contained norms is nonsensical. It is far more likely that scientists constantly re-negotiate the standards and norms of their work. Science is a social endeavour, yet the social norms that apply to scientific conduct are drawn from wider society not from the reclusive community of academics only.
Secondly, however, it is exactly the violation of the proclaimed standards of scientific behaviour which allows scientists to re-assert and re-evaluate the boundaries of science as a particular type of human conduct. Adherence to the self-professed norms thus does not advance science as a body of knowledge but produces a sterile and eventually inert body of knowledge that lost its connection with the purpose of scientific enquiry, to better the human condition. Thus science is in a constant process of boundary revision and definition, interacting with society and its needs.
Merton’s internalist functionalist vision of science cannot accommodate this aspect of scientific endeavour and hence fails to acknowledge the actual purpose of science in the wider context as well as its resources for constructive change and transformation.
Pierre Bourdieu. Animadversiones in Mertonem. In Robert K. Merton. Consensus and Controversy, edited by Jon Clark, Celia Modgil, and Sohan Modgil. London New York Philadelphia: Falmer Press 1990, pp.297-301.
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein. Seredipitous Science and The Prepared Mind: Merton on the Microenvironments of Discoveries. In Contemporary Sociology. A Journal of Reviews, September 2005, Vol.34, No.5, pp.477-453.
Steven Fraser (ed.). The Bell Curve Wars. Race, Intelligence and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books 1995.
Lowell L. Hargens. What is Mertonian Sociology of Science? In Scientometrics, Vol. 60 (2004), No.1, pp.63-70.
R. Herrnstein and C. Murray. The Bell Curve. New York: Free Press 1994.
John Law and David French. Normative and Interpretive Sociologies of Science. In The Sociological Review, 22 (1974), pp.581-595.
Robert K. Merton. The Normative Structure of Science . In Robert K. Merton. The Sociology of Science. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Edited and with an Introduction by Norman W. Storer. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, pp.267-278.
Nico Stehr. Robert K. Merton’s Sociology of Science. In Robert K. Merton. Consensus and Controversy, edited by Jon Clark, Celia Modgil, and Sohan Modgil. London New York Philadelphia: Falmer Press 1990, pp.285-294.
Nina Toren. The Scientific Ethos Debate: A Meta-Theoretical View. In Sic. Sci. Med., Vol. 17, No. 21 (1983), pp.1665-1672.
Jonathan H. Turner. The Structure of Sociological Theory. Homewood: The Dorsey Press 1978.
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