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Science: a puzzling profession?

Professor Robert Dingwall
University of Nottingham
Email: robert.dingwall@nottingham.ac.uk| 

Date: 9 November 2004
: 1:00pm - 2:30pm
: CARR Seminar Room, H615


This presentation will review some of my recent work on the sociology of professions, most of which has been published in places sufficiently obscure as to sneak under the radar of the rest of the field. In particular, it will look at some arguments that I have been developing about the need to give greater weight to the supply of professional regulation and about the particular relationships between this and areas of cultural and social uncertainty. This project has been particularly influenced by the writings of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer. More recently, I have become interested in the implications of current thinking in the sociology of organizations on isomorphism and the extent to which professions are susceptible to the repertoire of pressures identified by DiMaggio and Powell in their classic discussion. The profession of science poses some interesting and neglected problems, which may be illuminated by this analysis. Current work in STS has written off the study of scientific workers and their organizations as part of its repudiation of the Mertonian paradigm and its assertion that STS is essentially a branch of the sociology of knowledge. For those of us old enough to have been trained in a more materialist intellectual world, this seems to leave aside important questions about the conditions under which knowledge is produced. While we may not want to resurrect Mertonianism, we may still want to acknowledge that it asked some good questions of continuing relevance. Who does science and under what conditions are important precursors to the important issues about how science may be regulated and made socially accountable without destroying the essence of what it does in dealing with innovation and uncertainty. Science is a profession without a license, in the legal sense. If anything, its organization seems to have more in common with medieval guilds, where masters - I use the gendered word advisedly - are surrounded by journeymen (and a few women) and apprentices. Guild membership follows recognition by the masters of the craft rather than the public processes that we are used to. This lack of a license, in the legal sense, seems to be raising problems for its license, in a social sense. There is an apparent public mistrust of science and scientists. Conventional, isomorphic, regulatory responses seem unlikely to be satisfactory. However, there are no obvious alternatives around. Listeners may want to consider whether this analysis also has implications for the academic profession more generally, although I do not necessarily plan to spell these out in the presentation.