Paradoxical Roots of “Social Construction”

David Kaiser reviews Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye.

Fifteen years ago, scientists, historians, and sociologists traded salvos in what was termed the “science wars.” Passions ran high; “social construction of science” became a battle cry. Critics like physicist Alan Sokal pointed an accusing finger at various humanists who had suggested that science was an inherently social phenomenon riven by rival interests rather than a rational pursuit of objective facts about the natural world. Some blamed the French sociologist Bruno Latour and his writings from the 1980s. Others highlighted members of the Edinburgh school of the sociology of scientif ic knowledge and their writings from the 1970s. Still others singled out Thomas Kuhn’s remarkably influential little treatise, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962.