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Science in Society. First Edition - Science, Culture and Society
February 24, 2006

Science studies, or sometimes science and technology studies, seems the least contentious way of describing the effort to understand the meaning and significance of the natural sciences from the point of view of other disciplines. Which ones? The choice ranges over history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, law and literature. Yet the number of specialists in the field is still not that large. Science studies is a broad church but a small world.

So a sole-authored introductory text needs strong anchoring - which will vary from author to author. Both of these books benefit from standing a little aside from science studies and taking a cool look at its small schools and sects from a broader perspective, traditional sociology in Matthew David's Science in Society , and sociology with a helping of cultural studies in Mark Erickson's slightly more expansive (and cheaper) Science, Culture and Society .

David sets himself the slightly easier task, taking an inventory of sociological approaches to science and arguing for a sort of principled pluralism. No one research tradition, he suggests, has superior insights to the others. All of them, whether they study social interests, analyse discourse or adopt Marxist or feminist positions, have something to offer. So his job is to describe them clearly and critically, and to persuade the reader that what he dubs "reflexive epistemological diversity" is the most advantageous stance.

This he largely succeeds in doing, organising his discussion of major theories around two key questions. Does science offer universal knowledge, or is it always culture bound? And does the knowledge it offers increase security and freedom or promote domination and destruction?

All this is rooted in an appreciation of the founding figures of sociological theory and a wide acquaintance with more recent thinkers from the Frankfurt School to Mary Douglas and Ulrich Beck. This is a strength of the book, but will also limit its use among students who are not already well schooled in sociology. Some of the treatments are too cryptic to make sense without elucidation from other sources. Occasionally, the same is true for the treatment of key ideas from within science studies. David pronounces Bruno Latour's actor network theory a failure after a single paragraph of exegesis, for example.

However, this density of exposition does leave him room for three closing chapters of case studies from the contemporary life sciences, treating genetic modification, human nature, and medical genetics and health. These are accessible and well-judged summaries that could offer many students and their tutors a happier starting point than the sophisticated but at times inaccessible matter in the more theoretical part of the book.

Science, Culture and Society offers both more and less than Science in Society . Erickson focuses more closely on those who have written about science, but broadens his discussion to embrace a whole range of cultural forms in which representations of science are fashioned and refashioned. After a brief opening section that begins with Eduardo Paolozzi's sculpture and offers glimpses of Donna Haraway, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ludwig Fleck, he gives an account of a laboratory study of his own - following a molecular biology experiment. This gets somewhat technical but does at least ensure that readers who have no idea at all what scientists do have something to go on when the discussion gets more theoretical in the subsequent chapters.

There follow chapters on scientific knowledge, history, and scientists and scientific communities - in essence on philosophy, history and sociology of science. This is not a particularly fruitful scheme and produces some organisational problems. Thomas Kuhn, not surprisingly, is treated in all three chapters, which seems frankly unhelpful. Fleck, who David is especially keen on, also makes repeat appearances. But the individual chunks of exposition are clear, and he writes more elegantly than David. There is even, a little arbitrarily, an exemplary mini-essay on the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics.

He then fulfils the promise to consider wider culture with chapters on popular science, treated rather selectively, and one on science fiction - which is rather longer and better informed than its companion. Like David, Erickson's book concludes with a useful case study that tries to bring all the approaches he summarises together. This time the choice is not biotechnology but the rather more elusive nanotechnology. He gives a useful list of hints for further analyses that can be attempted as this trendy area continues to develop, whether in policy discourse, industrial investment, environmental campaigns or pulp fiction.

Which book you prefer will depend on the aims of a course and the background and interests of the students. Erickson's treatment of pop science and science fiction has obvious appeal, but the rest of the book seems harder to teach from, and all of it would demand a good deal of supplementary reading. David's text offers a higher level treatment of sociological approaches but declines to provide any other ways into the subject.

Given that both books are described in the cover blurbs as introductions to science studies, it is also striking how much both leave out. The beginning reader will find little or nothing here about the economics of innovation, science education, debates about scientific literacy, intellectual property, North-South relations in science and technology, the politics of regulation, policy-making under uncertainty, indigenous knowledge or citizen participation in science.

But it is hard to see how any solo author could do justice to the range of inquiries into the many worlds of science and technology in modernity. Perhaps the area is now large enough for some enterprising publisher to commission a larger, multi-author introduction with the breadth that existing books lack.

Jon Turney is a visiting senior fellow in science and technology studies, University College London, and leads the MSc in creative non-fiction writing at Imperial College, London.

Science in Society. First Edition

Author - Matthew David
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 199
Price - £55.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 333 99347 0 and 99348 9

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