The strong programme is a variety of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) particularly associated with David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald MacKenzie, and John Henry (historian)|John Henry. According to Bruno Latour, the strong programme's influence on STS is without parallel (Latour 1999).
The strong programme is a reaction against previous sociologies of science, which restricted the application of sociology to "failed" or "false" theories, such as phrenology. Failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers' biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which succeeded because they had revealed a true fact of nature. The strong programme proposed that both 'true' and 'false' scientific theories should be treated the same way -- that is, symmetrically. Both are caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self interest. All human knowledge, as something that exists in the human cognition, must contain some social components in its formation process. The presence of social factors alone is not enough to falsify a scientific theory.
Characteristics of the strong programme
As formulated by Bloor in Knowledge and Social Imagery (1974), the strong programme has four indispensable components:
- Causality: it examines the conditions (psychological, social, and cultural) that bring about claims to a certain kind of knowledge.
- Impartiality: it examines successful as well as unsuccessful knowledge claims.
- Symmetry: the same types of explanations are used for successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims alike (see Principle of symmetry).
- Reflexivity: it must be applicable to sociology itself.
History of the strong programme
Because the strong programme originated at the 'Science Studies Unit,' University of Edinburgh, it is sometimes termed the Edinburgh School. However, there is also a Bath School associated with Harry Collins that makes similar proposals. In contrast to the Edinburgh School, which emphasizes historical approaches, the Bath School emphasizes microsocial studies of laboratories and experiments. In the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach developed by Collin's student Trevor Pinch, as well as by the Dutch sociologist Wiebe Bijker, the strong programme was extended to technology. There are SSK-influenced scholars working in science and technology studies programs throughout the world.
Criticisms of the strong programme
In order to study scientific knowledge from a sociological point of view, the strong programme has adhered to a form of radical relativism. In other words, it argues that - in the social study of institutionalised beliefs about ‘truth’ - it would be unwise to use 'truth' as an explanatory resource. That would be to include the answer as part of the question (Barnes 1992), not to mention a thoroughly whiggish approach towards the study of history. Radical relativism has been criticised, by Alan Sokal as part of the Science wars, on the basis that such an understanding will lead inevitably towards solipsism and postmodernism. Strong programme scholars insist that their approach has been misunderstood by such a criticism and that its adherence to radical relativism is strictly methodological.
- Barnes, B. (1992) ‘Realism, relativism and finitism’ in Raven, D., van Vucht Tijssen, L., de Wolf, J., [eds.] ‘Cognitive Relativism and Social Science’ Transaction, pp. 131-47
- Latour, B. (1999) ‘For Bloor and Beyond - a reply to David Bloor's ‘Anti-Latour’. Studies in History & Philosophy of Science, 30, n. 1, 113-129 ().