Reading Robert K Merton: Normative Structure

date: 2013-09-19 12:50

This post follows the earlier post on Reading Robert K Merton.

Some notes on reading “The Normative Structure of Science” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations 1), by Robert K. Merton.

Note: Scientists are dependent on social structures, specifically:

Incipient and actual attacks upon the integrity of science have led scientists to recognize their dependence on particular types of social structures“ (p. 267).


Manifestos and pronouncements by associations of scientists are devoted to the relations of science and society. An institution under attack must reexamine its foundations, restate its objectives, seek out its rationale (p. 267).

Note: This reminds me of the current *debate* about climate change, between some parts of the public and scientists.


Crisis invites self-appraisal. Now that they have been confronted with challenges to their way of life, scientists have been jarred into a state of acute self-consciousness: consciousness of self as an integral element of society with corresponding obligations and interests. A tower of ivory becomes untenable when its walls are under prolonged assault (pp. 267-268).

I'm reminded, from the above passage, of things such as the public responsibility that land-grant institutions have. Such may be a positive result of such self-consciousness, even though the land-grant institution may pre-date the growing “challenges” Merton speaks to.

But also, less positively, these challenges have resulted in such a heightened or “acute” level of self-consciousness that the result can't be anything else but an ”'audit culture' 2)“ (pay walled) that is composed of self-promotional scientists.

Note: Nice definition of science, but one that should be revisited:

Science is a deceptively inclusive word which refers to a variety of distinct though interrelated items. It is commonly used to denote (1) a set of characteristic methods by means of which knowledge is certified; (2) a stock of accumulated knowledge stemming from the application of these methods; (3) a set of cultural values and mores governing the activities termed scientific; or (4) any combination of the foregoing” (p. 268).

Note: Here's an important definition (albeit brief, but Merton provides footnotes for more reading) of the ethos of science:

The ethos of science is that affectively toned complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science. The norms are expressed in the form of prescriptions, proscriptions, preferences, and permissions. They are legitimized in terms of institutional values. These imperatives, transmitted by precept and example and reenforced by sanctions are in varying degrees internalized by the scientist, thus fashioning his scientific conscious … (pp. 268-9).

A few important points about the above–the norms are expressed in the form of:

  • prescriptions
  • proscriptions
  • preferences
  • permissions

They are legitimized through:

  • institutional values

And internalized by:

  • scientists

Note: Another important point:

The institutional goal of science is the extension of certified knowledge [emphasis added] (p. 270).

Thus, I emphasize the term *certified* because it's an essential qualifier of the term *knowledge*. Philosophers might argue that it's an unnecessary term–that scientific knowledge entails justification, but I think leaving the term out enables a forgetting.

There are four sets of institutional imperatives:

  1. Universalism
  2. Communism
  3. Disinterestedness
  4. Organized skepticism (p. 270)

Note: On universalism:

Universalism finds immediate expression in the canon that truth-claims, whatever their source, are to be subjected to preestablished impersonal criteria: consonant with observation and with previously confirmed knowledge (p. 270).

There's an important note in this section on how deviating from this norm sometimes “presupposes the legitimacy of the norm” (p. 271).

Note: On Communism

“Communism,” in the nontechnical and extended sense of common ownership of goods, is a second integral element of the scientific ethos. The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community (p. 273).

There's an important point in this section about “recognition and esteem” being the “sole property right of the scientist in his discoveries” (p. 273).

This norm has obvious copyright related issues, which I'll get to in a moment, but violation of this norm may come in the form of secrecy:

Secrecy is the antithesis of this norm; full and open communication its enactment (p. 274).

Of course, it's well known that “recognition and esteem” are only acquired when dissemination of scientific findings are done so in a legitimate and institutionalized approved fashion, such as publishing in a scholarly journal rather than publishing on a blog (such as here). Therefore, scientists are secret until they can disseminate in the legitimate way, per the institution of science.

The other factor:

The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as “private property” in a capitalistic economy.

Merton then speaks to issues with patents. But let me digress and use copyright as an example.

  1. The dissemination of scholarly information costs money.
  2. Transferring copyright to a publisher gives the publisher an incentive to disseminate scholarly information.
  3. But this works against the norm of communism because copyright in this case limits access.

The Open Access movement thus seems to align itself to the norm of communism. More thoughts on this later.

Note: On Disinterestedness

This is probably the most controversial norm and is probably the most complicated, which is why I'll pass over it for now. Ha. I have a lot to say about it, but I'm still working through the ideas.

Science, as is the case with the professions in general, includes disinterestedness as a basic institutional element (p. 275).

Note: On Organized skepticism

It is both a methodological and an institutional mandate (p. 277).


The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed (pp. 277-278).

This is another important aspect of the norms. Consider those fields that are closely tied with the profession, such as law, medicine, and in my case, librarianship. Can a library scientist internalize this norm and still be an agent for the promotion of libraries. What if repeated findings, in truly scientific studies, showed that libraries were obsolete?

Merton, Robert K. (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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