Epistemic and Evidential Cultures and the Scientific Ethos

TitleEpistemic and Evidential Cultures and the Scientific Ethos
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsMcLevey, J.
Book TitleSage Research Methods Fundamentals, edited by Sarah Delamont and Paul Atkinson

The concepts of "epistemic cultures" (Knorr Cetina 1999) and "evidential cultures" (Collins 2004) are used to describe how scientists collectively determine what counts or doesn't count as scientific knowledge, and why. Both concepts were developed in the context of long-term ethnographic studies of scientific work (in physics and biology) in the "sociology of scientific knowledge" (SSK). These two related concepts are inherently comparative; they "disunify" the sciences by emphasizing differences in how scientific communities make and evaluate knowledge claims within specific micro- and meso-level organizational contexts.

Historically, both concepts (and SSK more generally) are bookended by approaches to analyzing scientific cultures that unifythe sciences by emphasizing general scientific norms and values across the sciences in macro-institutional contexts. The first was the analysis of institutional norms of science that began with Robert Merton's work on the scientific ethos and its incompatibility with European fascism, and which he and his students and colleagues developed in a series of important empirical and theoretical works. The second is exemplified by recent work on the importance of expertise and scientific values in the context of the growing influence of populism broadly, and anti-science movements specifically. It is part of a new research agenda called Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE) (Collins and Evans 2002, 2017; Durant 2011), which emerged from and remains tightly connected to SSK.

Empirical social scientists can benefit from knowing these unifying and disunifying approaches to understanding scientific cultures even if they are not interested in the sociology of science per se. In the most direct sense, understanding how these cultures work can improve the quality of our collaborations and our research outputs in an age where scientific research of all kinds is increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative. From a more general governance perspective, striving for good science policies often turns on the effort to balance a focus on shared high-level values (e.g. openness and transparency) with an understanding of the complexities of epistemic cultures. Despite sharing general values, specific cultural differences may mean that policies that work for one scientific community may be a non-starter for another.

Below, I briefly describe the research agenda that Merton and his colleagues pioneered on the social and cognitive structure of science, focusing primarily on early work on institutional norms and the scientific ethos, and later on stratification and scientific reward systems. I then describe the emergence of SSK and the introduction of "epistemic cultures" and "evidential cultures" to explain differences in how scientific communities create and evaluate knowledge. Finally, I consider the value of both unifying and disunifying approaches to understanding scientific culture(s), especially as science becomes more collaborative and interdisciplinary, and in an age of populism and anti-science movements and governments.

There is more historical context here than might be found in other chapters. That is because the core concepts are easily misunderstood outside of the context they were developed in. I have attempted to provide just enough context for outsiders to the sociology of science to appropriately understand the concepts, but of course I have had to set aside many important details.