It was the summer of 1986 in New York City, the location of that year’s American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting, when a group of innovative scholars in attendance met at a nearby apartment to discuss the formation of a new ASA section. The subject of this new section was, at the time, a relatively underrepresented topic in the wide-ranging scope of those under sociological study, a fact that seemed particularly inconsistent with the current state of the world and society at that time, if not at all times. However, the scholars at this gathering represented a new generation of sociologists on the leading edge of a fundamental, paradigmatic shift, in effect a transformation in the ways in which the study of science is approached.
Both the catalyst and consequence of this new approach was recognition of the previously undervalued yet critical need for sociologists to assess, analyze, and, ultimately, better understand the profound effects of science, knowledge, and technology on individuals and the societies in which they live. The previous approach to the sociological study of science, in the form of what was deemed the “sociology of science,” had been dominated by its founder, Robert K. Merton, a seminal and pioneering sociologist who studied under Talcott Parsons. Working from the theoretical foundation of viewing science in an idealist form, Merton’s functionalist approach to the sociology of science focused on the institutions of science and the structures associated with those institutions, such as the scientists and the norms associated with their work. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, scholars of science began to challenge this Mertonian sociology of science for what it failed to study – the actual content of science and how that content is both influenced by and itself influences social conditions. Spurred by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), these challenges generated an intellectual shift towards a critical, sociological approach to science, an approach that was further advanced by the cultural and social constructionist frameworks emerging from the sociology of knowledge. One of the first practical outcomes of this transformation was the founding of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in 1975, demonstrating an early recognition of the utility and relevance, as well as the multidisciplinary nature of this new approach.
This intellectual shift towards an epistemic study of science was further signified by Latour and Woolgar’s 1979 study, Laboratory Life, which, in the following decade, generated a series of similar ethnographic studies by scholars such as Karin Knorr-Cetina (1981), Michael Lynch (1985), and Sharon Traweek (1988), in addition to other empirically-based research such as case studies and discourse analysis (Clarke and Star 2003). As evidence of the unbounded nature of this new era, symbolic interactionists situated in the sociology of work subfield expanded the scope of this new approach to include their own work, subsequently becoming active participants in its progression (Clarke and Star 2003).
With this new approach to work with, it was then particularly evident that the revolutionary changes in technology just beginning to make a discernible presence, not to mention an almost unavoidable impact in the ways in which individuals live their daily lives, were exceedingly ripe for sociological analysis. In fact, 1986 also marked the launch year of NSFNET, the platform developed and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide interconnectivity to several national supercomputing centers at universities. NSFNET served as the core communication service for the Internet until restrictions against commercial Internet providers establishing private connections were removed. Indeed, by 1988, as the Internet was just beginning to enter into the offices and schools of the U.S., the first official SKAT section newsletter, published that spring, noted the option to send announcements “through electronic mail,” indicating the need for users of BITNET (a cooperative computer network linking IBM mainframes in universities across the U.S.) to “check at your computer center to determine how you link up with Internet.”
The sociologists who met that summer were a veritable “who’s who” of sociologists of science, knowledge, and technology, demonstrating that not only were these scholars responding to this fundamental transformation in the social study of science, many of them were also included in the cadre of scholars responsible for it. Susan Cozzens, who at the time was an assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, would less than 10 years later assume the title of Director of the Office of Policy Support at the NSF. She currently holds the titles of Professor of Public Policy, Director of the Technology Policy and Assessment Center, and Vice Provost at Georgia Tech. Sal Restivo, who like Cozzens was a Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was also a founding member and future president of 4S, as well as a founding member of the Association for Humanist Sociology, established in 1976. Tom Gieryn, Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, studied under Robert K. Merton at Columbia University, graduating in 1979. By 1986, he was already known for developing the concept of “boundary-work,” a term used in science studies to describe how the delineation of boundaries between fields of knowledge is essentially an ideological endeavor in which scientists have a vested interest in distinguishing their science from non-science, an interest manifesting Merton’s idealized model of science (Gieryn 1983). Also invited to this meeting was Adele Clarke, who at the time had just finished her PhD at University of California, San Francisco. Clarke would soon become a pioneer in the social and cultural study of science, technology, medicine, as well as women’s health and qualitative research, for which she is responsible for developing the method of situational analysis. In addition to her many other awards, Professor Clarke was awarded the 2012 J. D. Bernal Prize for Outstanding Contributions from 4S.
One of the key points of discussion at this meeting in 1986 concerned the potential name of the section, an important decision considering the extent to which the social study of science of science has shifted in focus, form, and scope to produce a number of new variations of the original field. Because the sociology of science, broadly speaking, was the field of study that had originally brought them together, it was a name considered. However, it quickly became evident for these scholars that the need to distinguish this section’s subject from a Mertonian sociology of science was a priority. The inclusion of the term, “technology,” became a viable and promising option as a way not only to ensure that those who specialize in the burgeoning field of science and technology studies (STS), which included most of them, would be represented, but also to capture the fact that this paradigmatic shift was one of the catalysts for the development of STS in the first place. In addition, considering the range of social problems beginning to emerge with the ever advancing field of technology, the dawning of the age of the World Wide Web, and the impending revolution in the way the world communicates and interacts with each other, the inclusion of technology as a component of this section was even more significant. As for the third term, “knowledge,” in spite of the importance of the sociology of knowledge for the intellectual shift that had served as a platform for the work of many of these scholars and for the move to form this section, for unknown reasons, “knowledge” was not initially included in the name of the section as it was proposed to ASA.
From this first meeting, those attending worked for the next several months to generate interest in forming a section, which would later translate into signatures on the petition required by ASA to form a new section. By that December, the petition had been written and was circulated by Cozzens to gather the required number of signatures needed for submission to the ASA Committee on Sections. Once the petition was approved, the committee then referred it the ASA Council, recommending its approval. Grounds for approval of a section include the assurance that the “proposed section represents a sub-field that has intellectual merit and that the vision for the section will benefit the profession” (ASA 2013). By the following annual meeting in Chicago in 1987, the founding members’ petition effort was met with success as the ASA Council gave their approval and granted it the status of section-in-formation. At the time, this section-in-formation consisted of approximately 60 members, several of whom were elected to positions on the “interim” council. The first chairperson of that council was Henry Etzkowitz, an Associate Professor of Sociology at State University of New York, whose postdoctoral work at Columbia University was mentored by Merton, and who would go on to formulate the models of “Entrepreneurial University” and “Triple Helix,” linking the university with both industry and government with the potential of enhancing innovation in knowledge-based societies (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorrf 1995). Etzkowitz would also serve as the first
official chair of the section from 1989 until 1991, when Susan Cozzens was elected chair for the 1991-1992 calendar year. Other members of the interim council included Jim Beniger, Adele Clarke, Susan Cozzens, Robert McGinnis, Nicholas Mullins, and H. Gil Peach.
As described above, the term, “knowledge,” was not included in the proposed name of the section found in the petition. However, the term did find its way into the section’s final name, most likely due to the realization of its importance and integral place in the focus of their section. The event that might have led to that realization can perhaps be explained by one of ASA records supplied by its Program Coordinator for Governance and Information Systems, Justin Lini. According to a memo dated August 5, 1987, from George Maddox, the chair of the ASA Committee on Sections, sent to the committee’s members concerning the agenda for their August 20th meeting, one of the items up for discussion was a “jurisdictional dispute” between a proposed change to the name of the section on Environment to the name, “Environment and Technology,” and the proposal to create the Science and Technology Section. Concerned that this would create an “unproductive competition for membership,” the committee member handling this issue indicated that she had discussed this with leadership from both sections, who had then spoken with each other about “some kind of accommodation,” although she had not yet been notified of its outcome. The Committee on Sections, Annual Report, dated August 20, 1987, indicated that this accommodation must have been the inclusion of the word, “knowledge,” to the section’s name, given the statement, “New Section recommended. The Committee recommended to Council the authorization to organize a new Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology.”
A noteworthy feature of the petition is its articulation of the ideas and goals that drove the efforts to form a new section. The petition highlights the societal impact of science and technology in statistical terms, as indicated by the following statement: “The professions of science and engineering include over three million people, and the activities of research and development consume over $100 billion annually in the United States.” Beyond these more quantitative measures, the petition also points to the significance of science and technology in political and cultural arenas as well as their roles in “shaping industrial production, commercial activity, and household organization.” In addition, it emphasizes the interactive relationship between social forces and the influences of science and technology.
By the following spring of 1988, membership in the section had skyrocketed to the 200 members required to become an official ASA section. The opening sentence of the section’s spring 1988 newsletter, in fact its first newsletter, announced this achievement along with the notice that this status required several actions by the section, including the preparation for the two official sessions allocated each section of that size at the upcoming annual meeting in Atlanta, the approval of bylaws, and the holding of elections. Subsequently, the first official election of SKAT officers was held in 1989 and resulted in the following officers and council members: Henry Etzkowitz as Chair, Susan E. Cozzens as Chair-Elect, Secretary-Treasurer, H. Gil Peach, and Council members, Mary Frank Fox, Tom Gieryn, Willie Pearson, Jr., Judith A. Perrolle, James C. Petersen, William A. Snizek, and student member, Kathy Slobin.
Also within that newsletter was what could be considered the first “Chair’s Column” by the section’s interim council chair, Henry Etzkowitz. In his first column as chair, Etzkowitz wrote of a paradox of the discipline – that in spite of the observable fact that science, knowledge, and technology are constitutive elements of our society, directly influencing so many areas of our lives in significant ways, they, at the time, had been the subject of “relatively little” study. Recounting the statement of a fellow sociologist who said that “too much attention has been paid to such ‘dependent variables,’” Etzkowitz countered that the recruitment of over 200 members in such a short period of time served as an excellent rebuttal, effectively demonstrating the insular, misguided nature of such sentiments and a naiveté about what the future held for the world and society at that time. As this successful recruitment demonstrated, however, at least one sector in the profession of sociology recognized the imminent shifts in the domains of science, knowledge, and technology on the verge of initiating transformative social change in the U.S. and around the world. Citing as examples of these imminent or ongoing shifts in social life, Etzkowitz noted the significance of the “World War II alliance of science with the military” and its “profound” effects on the “social structure of science,” which have had a lasting impression in the postwar era; the seemingly breakneck speed at which the movement towards universal use of personal computers, just beginning at that time, was sweeping the nation; the emergence of the “information” age, in which the proliferation of “universities, think tanks, and the media” have increased the production of knowledge and its dissemination to the public, subsequently increasing the “salience of academics”; and the “present and expected future economic impact of high tech (science based)” economic development. All of these examples, as Etzkowitz made the case, implicated the increasing salience of science, knowledge, and technology in the everyday social lives of those in the larger society, and as such, reinforced the growing realization of a critical need for a new, organized field of sociology of science and technology based in a social constructionist perspective, to examine and promote a greater understanding of its impact in our lives.
This successful movement to form the section on science, knowledge, and technology represented the final outcome of a series of paradigmatic shifts emerging from the introduction of a constructionist approach to the study of science. Daryl Chubin, one of the founding members of 4S, and at the time, a senior analyst in the Science, Education, and Transportation Program in the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress, champions this shift in the social study of science with the following from his “Candidate’s Statement,” written to support his run for the 1989 Chair-Elect position: “I see the fledgling Section of Science, Knowledge, and Technology as an affirmation that a new generation of sociologists recognizes science and technology as problem-creating as well as problem-solving. This is one legacy of the multidisciplinary 4S…It is time to redefine the social study of knowledge, science, and technology as an underpinning of modern sociology, not an arcane research and teaching specialty.”
For scholars studying the burgeoning evolution and rapid-fire progression of scientific and technological advances in the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century, the section on science, knowledge, and technology has promised to serve as a central site within which to discuss research interests and to develop knowledge across specialties. It further promises to promote discourse on “the role of science and technology in other institutions and patterns of social life,” in order to further develop sociological research and, ultimately, a greater understanding of the complex, ever-emerging, and various ways in which science, knowledge, and technology interact with, shape, and, in turn, are shaped by social forces (ASA 1987). As the following synopsis of the size of section membership indicates, these promises have not remained unfulfilled.
Continuing its swift escalation in growth, the section had grown to almost 300 members by the fall of 1988 and close to 400 members by the fall of 1989. With overall data indicating the section has grown steadily in membership, the average number of members annually has been 427, ranging from a low of 292 in its inaugural year of 1988, to a high of 582 in 2014, with the promise of an added session at the annual ASA meeting if the section meets the 600 members required. For reference purposes, in 2014, the average section size was 543, and the three largest ASA sections were the sections of Sociology of Culture with 1,219 members, Sex and Gender at 1,135 members, and Medical Sociology, with 1,070 members.
In the current era of smartphones, social media, 24-hour news channels, and now virtually instantaneous and universal access to an ever-increasing array of news and other information sources, the salience of science, knowledge, and technology studies has reached a new level of importance in society and sociology. In fact, simply refer back to Steve Epstein’s report on new section membership data and statistical trends on page two of this newsletter for confirmation of this ever-increasing salience. In a statement reminiscent of the founding members’ celebration of the achievement of official section status and its implications for the importance of the field, Epstein emphasizes the section’s 7.1% increase in membership from the same time last year as further “evidence of the upward trajectory of science, knowledge, and technology studies.” As Henry Etzkowitz presciently observed in the first “Chair’s Column” in 1988, 27 years ago: “As the action moves to science, knowledge, and technology, so will sociologists.”
Clarke, Adele and Susan Leigh Star. 2003. “Science, Technology, and Medicine Studies.” Pp. 539-574 in Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, edited by L. T. Reynolds and N. J. Herman-Kinney. Walnut Creek, CA: A ltaMira Press.
Etzkowitz, Henry and Loet Leydesdorrf. 1995. “The Triple Helix: University-Industry-Government Relations: A Laboratory for Knowledge-Based Economic Development.” EASST Review. 14:14-19.
Gieryn, Thomas F. 1983. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.” American Sociological Review. 48:781-795.
Knorr Cetina, Karin D. 1981. The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Lynch, Michael. 1985. Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Elizabeth M. Sweeney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Her dissertation research examines the moral complexities of treating chronic pain. She is currently one of the SKAT graduate student representatives and the chair of the SKAT Publications Committee.