Captivity and Commitment

The original version of this article was published in Technoscience, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1998, pp. 8-9, omitting footnotes. Due to an oversight, Technoscience published the article as originally submitted. The revised version is given here.


Brian Martin


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From informal meetings with science studies scholars, it is my observation that most of them are highly committed, variously to particular social causes, methodological positions, styles of discourse and, not least, their careers. However, formal scholarly acknowledgment of such commitments is not popular in spite of ample rhetoric about reflexivity. Here I illustrate the scholarly distrust of commitment by focusing on the May 1996 special issue of Social Studies of Science on the politics of SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge).



Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and I (SRM) in our paper 'Captives of controversy' spelled out three main conclusions. The first was that 'sociological studies of contemporary controversies must be viewed as potential resources in social struggles over scientific or technical knowledge claims'.[1] No one seems to have questioned this point; it is affirmed by Sheila Jasanoff.[2] The third conclusion was that 'intervention by the analyst perturbs the dispute'.[3] Again, there has been little questioning of this point.[4] By contrast, the second conclusion has been both disputed and misinterpreted. It has two parts: (2a) 'an epistemologically symmetrical analysis of a controversy is almost always more useful to the side with less scientific credibility or cognitive authority'; (2b) the 'side with fewer scientifically or socially credentialed resources is more likely to attempt to enroll the researcher'.[5] We reached this conclusion as a result of our experiences in studying three controversies and also found it compatible with theoretical expectations. Note that neither 2a nor 2b posits an ironclad rule: 2a contains the phrase 'is almost always more useful'; 2b contains 'is more likely'.

SRM's conclusions are less about what the researcher does and more about what the 'subjects' (participants in the controversy studied) do. SRM make no major point about whether the analyst should be neutral or take sides.[6] The paper is about how social analysts and their work are used by participants in controversies, whatever the intent of the analysts.

Harry Collins says 'SRM argued that one ought, therefore, to commit oneself to the weaker side' and that according to SRM, the analyst 'was bound to be captured by the underdogs'.[7] The first claim misrepresents SRM and the second replaces SRM's likelihood with a claim of certainty. Dick Pels says that, according to SRM, 'neutrality is wrong in principle'.[8] This was not a central conclusion of SRM, though it might be extrapolated from SRM's position.

Malcolm Ashmore presents two hypothetical case studies -- dying smokers sue a tobacco company, and Challenger's O-rings -- to suggest that a symmetrical analysis can end up supporting the side with more money or power.[9] Contrary to Ashmore, this is quite compatible with SRM's conclusions. SRM predicted that a symmetrical analysis would support the side with less epistemological authority. Tobacco companies have less epistemological authority, so a symmetrical analysis of a dispute between dying smokers and a tobacco company would quite likely help the tobacco company. The issue of the money and power of the company is secondary.

Brian Wynne refers to 'SRM's argument that SSK practitioners should deliberately side with the underdogs'.[10] Again, this was not SRM's argument. Part of the confusion by Collins, Ashmore and Wynne may be due to their use of the expressions 'underdog' and 'overdog'. SRM did not use these terms, but rather referred to 'the side with less scientific credibility or cognitive authority'. This side may be an 'underdog' epistemologically but not necessarily in terms of power and money. Jasanoff says that 'Symmetrical analysis of scientific controversies, they [SRM] charge, necessarily strengthens the weaker party' and 'the analyst may as well embrace commitment from the start by choosing sides in the controversy'.[11] Again, this is a misreading of SRM.

If SRM's claim had been that a symmetrical analysis always helps the side with less epistemological authority, then just one counterexample would be sufficient to reject the generalization. SRM's actual claim is obtained by replacing 'always' by 'almost always'. To test it, an enumeration of cases is in order. Among others, consider:

Each of these cases is compatible with SRM's generalizations 2a and 2b and none goes directly against them.

Collins, Ashmore and Wynne raise a number of points about SRM's conclusions, such as that 'sides' in the controversy were not problematized and that it is impossible to know in advance how a social analysis will be used. True enough. Whenever one makes a generalization, it is possible to quibble with concepts, propose hypothetical exceptions and raise picky objections. But it seems to me that there is a reasonable group of case studies showing the value of SRM's conclusions. Just because these generalizations do not hold in every conceivable case and are a bit rough on the edges does not mean that they are useless. I view them as a fairly reliable starting point when undertaking a controversy study.

It is well known that scientists prefer to publish reports of original investigations rather than replications of previous work. Does the same apply in social science? Is it more attractive to criticize someone else's generalization than to undertake a study that is likely to confirm it?



SRM did not say that analysts should make a commitment to a particular position yet, as noted above, several commentators have attributed such a claim to SRM. Furthermore, attributing advocacy of commitment to SRM is taken as a criticism. It is well known that hostages sometimes come to identify with hostage-takers. Perhaps, to speculate, there is a fear that a 'captive of controversy' might similarly develop a commitment to the capturing side. It can be anticipated, then, that open advocacy of commitment is likely to encounter scholarly hostility.

In my paper 'The Critique of Science Becomes Academic,' I presented an interpretation of social influences on the development of the academic critique of science, including SSK, essentially seeing it as shaped by academic imperatives. I pointed out that there is relatively little analysis in the field that addresses pressing social issues such as war, repression, poverty and patriarchy. I commented on the limitations of theory for aiding social action and provided some suggestions for a critique of science oriented to activists.[19]

On the other hand, I did not say that everyone undertaking an analysis of science should address pressing social issues, nor that anyone is obliged to be committed to one particular side on an issue. The paper is a comment on the uselessness of much social analysis of science to social activists and some reasons why this is the case.

Collins says that in this article I argue for SSK practitioners to be committed, and then undertakes a critique of 'commitment to commitment'.[20] This was not my argument. I asked for more scholars -- not all -- to deal with pressing social issues. I presumed that most scholars studying torture technology, for example, would oppose its production, trade and use, though of course there are arguments on the other side. My assumption is that more attention to these issues will be a good thing.[21] Collins also contested my interpretation of the history of SSK, arguing that SSK drew its inspiration from 'academic questions' without any significant social contextual shaping.[22]

Pels, as part of his sophisticated critique of the use of symmetry in SSK, argues the case for a 'third position' beyond the 'neutralists' such as Collins and the 'politicals' such as myself. He says that 'professional autonomy and the institutional distance it measures out remain a crucially important precondition for any kind of serious critical work', both for science studies and science.[23] This sounds good in principle, but what does it mean in practice? Few fields of scientific research can be said to be professionally autonomous, given extensive funding by militaries, governments and corporations plus the dependent position of scientists as employees.[24] Does Pels' 'serious critical work' mean intellectual work? What is its relation to social action? Pels' paper is too abstract to provide clear answers to such practical questions.

Evelleen Richards says that 'Brian Martin has recently urged the obligatory politicization and commitment of all S&TS analysis'.[25] This was not my argument: I offered suggestions for 'those who favor a more activist critique of science'.[26] Certainly I did not -- and could not -- attempt to impose 'political correctness or activism' on colleagues, as Richards implies.[27]

The responses of several writers suggest that it is risky for an SSK analyst to be seen as committed. SRM didn't argue for commitment but are accused of doing so. I argued the value of addressing pressing social issues and have been interpreted as arguing for 'commitment to commitment' and 'obligatory politicization'. Unfortunately, 'commitment' is not a very useful category to address the issues involved, since it is oriented to the psychology of the analyst. This is why SRM focussed on capturing, a process in which the psychology of the analyst is not crucial, and why I focused on the relevance of science studies to 'crucial social issues'.

Why do authors of scholarly articles in science studies distrust commitment? One explanation is that overt commitment can undermine the status of research which derives in part from its apparent neutrality. It is well known that scientists are highly committed to particular theories and methods, but that this apparent violation of objectivity is well disguised through standard portrayals of science.[28] How different is science studies?

I would never have bothered with my critique of science studies except that I know that there are many students and academics in the field who are keen to be involved in current issues. This also applies to a number of scholars who, whatever they consider their commitments, have played a prominent role in public debates about science.[29] Whatever our disagreements, I am pleased to be part of a professional network in which people are concerned about the social uses of their own work.

I thank Jim Green, David Hess and Stewart Russell for helpful comments.



1. Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, 'Captives of Controversy: The Myth of the Neutral Social Researcher in Contemporary Scientific Controversies,' Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn 1990), 474-94, at 489.

2. Sheila Jasanoff, 'Beyond Epistemology: Relativism and Engagement in the Politics of Science', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 393-418, at 409.

3. Scott et al., op. cit. note 1, 490.

4. Both these generalizations are supported by J. Stephen Kroll-Smith and Stephen R. Couch, 'Sociological Knowledge and the Public at Risk: A "Self-Study" of Sociology, Technological Hazards and Moral Dilemmas', Sociological Practice Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1990), 120-27.

5. Scott et al., op. cit. note 1, 490.

6. There may be implicit suggestions about taking sides, but we certainly didn't make a point of arguing this openly.

7. H. M. Collins, 'In Praise of Futile Gestures: How Scientific is the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge?', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 229-44, at 235 and 236.

8. Dick Pels, 'The Politics of Symmetry', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 277-304, at 288. Pels (at 289) quotes SRM's statement that the analyst 'should be critically involved, the role of citizen' but does not note that SRM in this quote are interpreting the weak programme of SSK, not formulating a rule.

9. Malcolm Ashmore, 'Ending Up On the Wrong Side: Must the Two Forms of Radicalism Always Be at War?', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 305-22.

10. Brian Wynne, 'SSK's Identify Parade: Signing-Up, Off-and-On', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 357-91, at 360.

11. Jasanoff, op. cit. note 2, 398.

12. Gabriele Bammer and Brian Martin, 'Repetition Strain Injury in Australia: Medical Knowledge, Social Movement, and De Facto Partisanship', Social Problems, Vol. 39 (1992), 219-37. We originally set out to attempt a symmetrical analysis that would help the side with greater epistemological authority (in Australia in the 1980s: those who said RSI was real and work-related) against those with greater power and money (companies and governments trying to minimise payments to workers). Our assessment was that constructivist analyses in this area in practice were more likely to be used by the latter side, the one with less epistemological credibility.

13. H. M. Collins and T. J. Pinch, 'The Construction of the Paranormal: Nothing Unscientific is Happening', in Roy Wallis (ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge, Sociological Review Monograph No. 27 (Keele, Staffs.: University of Keele, 1979), 237-70.

14. David J. Hess, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 150-54. Hess makes a major contribution to the issue by working with multiple boundaries -- rather than two sides -- and arguing that capturing can occur in multiple ways.

15. Scott et al., op. cit. note 1, 480-84; Brian Martin, Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 160-68.

16. Brian Martin, 'Nuclear Winter: Science and Politics', Science and Public Policy, Vol. 15, No. 5 (October 1988), 321-34. In circulating drafts of this paper, I received a welcome response from a prominent critic of nuclear winter and hostility from more than one proponent. In this case the proponents of nuclear winter had more epistemological punch but less political power: the opponents included the US Department of Defense. This case is analogous to Ashmore's hypothetical example of the dying smoker (and medical experts) versus tobacco companies.

17. Scott et al., op. cit. note 1, 484-89. See also Evelleen Richards, Vitamin C and Cancer: Medicine or Politics? (London: Macmillan, 1991).

18. Scott et al., op. cit. note 1, 477-80. See also Pam Scott, 'From Jewel in the Crown to White Elephant: The Australian Animal Health Laboratory', in Pam Scott (ed.), A Herd of White Elephants? Some Big Technology Projects in Australia (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1992), 30-44.

19. Brian Martin, 'The Critique of Science Becomes Academic', Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1993), 247-59.

20 Collins, op. cit. note 7, 231.

21. Perhaps I also assumed that science studies scholars would be unlikely to be employed by groups manufacturing, selling and using torture technology. If this were the case, then their studies would be more likely to be of service to their employers.

22. Collins, op. cit. note 7, 230. I find it intriguing that a practitioner of SSK, who would be skeptical of a scientist's internalist history of scientific ideas, can be so confident that the history of SSK can be written exclusively as a history of ideas as expounded by a leading practitioner. My analysis may be a bit 'vulgar' but does that mean that a history of SSK can be written without careful assessment of the influence of the wider social milieu?

23. Pels, op. cit. note 8, 295.

24. An insightful examination is given by Chandra Mukerji, A Fragile Power: Scientists and the State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

25. Evelleen Richards, '(Un)Boxing the Monster', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1996), 323-56, at 347.

26. Martin, op. cit. note 19, 256.

27. Richards, op. cit. note 25, 355 n.95.

28. Ian I. Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Psychology of the Apollo Moon Scientists (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1974).

29. Not least is Collins, through Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What Everyone Should Know about Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and many other channels.

Brian Martin has carried out research on scientific controversies, suppression of dissent, nonviolent alternatives to military defence, and information in a free society.