The Sociological Perspective

It is important to appreciate the difference between the professional perspec­tive of the sociologist and the perspective that prevails, and perhaps comes naturally, to social actors themselves in the course of everyday life. I refer to these as the “analyst’s perspective” and the “actor’s perspective.” The concerns of those engaged in sociological analysis are usually not identical to those of the social actors they study, though, of course, analysts themselves will some­times occupy the very roles that they investigate professionally. Conversely, sociological perspectives are sometimes invoked in the course of everyday interaction. (Major Low adopted such a stance when he speculated on what would have happened if Rayleigh had backed the circulation theory. He was reflecting on the role played in British aerodynamics by Rayleigh’s authority.) Despite this overlap and interweaving, it is the differences in the perspectives of the analyst and the actor that I want to emphasize.

In everyday life much of our curiosity centers on deviations from what normally happens or from (what we feel to be) our justified expectations. We want to know why things go wrong more than we want to know why they went right. Going right tends to be taken for granted. It is the failure of the airline to keep to its schedule that makes irate travelers demand to know the causes of the delay. They do not demand to know how and why a punctual departure was achieved. If they were to pose such a question, it would be heard as a hostile comment rather than a disinterested inquiry. The structure of everyday curiosity can be remarkably one-sided. Using a terminology that has become current in the sociology of science, such everyday curiosity may be described as “asymmetrical.” For the sociologist, however, the atypical is not the only thing that needs explaining. The typical is as interesting as the atypical, and the normal or the expected course of events is at least as im­portant as the deviations. The professional curiosity of the sociologist may therefore be called “symmetrical,” in contrast to the “asymmetry” of much commonsense curiosity.4

If an “asymmetrical” curiosity prompts us to ask for causes for half the story, then a “symmetrical” curiosity must lead us to demand causes for the whole story. If the commuters only want to know the causes of delay, then sociologists must risk the resentment prompted by their wanting to know the causes of nondelay. They must ask the questions others don’t ask or don’t want to answer. If sociologists were to study the workings of an airline, they would try to grasp its organizational features and see how its various parts related to one another. There are pilots and crew to be trained, maintenance schedules to be established, fuel supplies to be arranged, safety standards to be adhered to, duty rosters and wages to be negotiated, and shareholders to be satisfied. These dimensions of the organization would be common to all or most airlines, so the sociologist could construct a general model of such an organization and note the difference of practice between different instances of the model. This airline might devote twice as much time to safety training as that one; this one might repeatedly demand more flying hours between checks and repairs than that one; this one might meet its schedules by taking more risks. Such an investigative procedure would bring both the successful and the unsuccessful, the efficient and the inefficient, the safety conscious and the risk takers under the scope of the same model. By casting both sides of the story in the same terms, it is possible to use the different performances to probe the working of the general model, and hence to explore more deeply what it is to have a social organization capable of producing the range of ob­served outcomes.5

These considerations, drawn from the practice of general sociology, also apply to the sociology of knowledge. The central thrust of the Strong Pro­gram is that explanations in the sociology and history of science should be both “causal” and “symmetrical” in the sense that I have just explained. The same type of cause should explain the attractions of both true and false the­ories, and both successful and unsuccessful lines of work (where the judg­ments of truth and success derive from hindsight or are the analyst’s own). I have said that this approach has informed my case study, but when I asked “Why did the British resist the circulation theory?” I may seem to have ad­opted the asymmetrical stance of common sense. It is true that the question could be posed in a purely commonsense way. This, I suspect, is how Major Low meant it when he asked why Lanchester had been ignored. Despite his sociological insight, he primarily wanted someone to take the blame. Stated in isolation Low’s question is worded in a way that is consistent with either a symmetrical or an asymmetrical stance. What differentiates the two stances is the purpose behind the question and the distribution of curiosity informing the answer. The evidence I have presented indicates that it was local cultures, and the institutions sustaining them, that explain the reactions to the theory of circulation exhibited by both the British and the German experts. These

were the causes of the phenomena that I set out to explain, and the causes were of the same kind in the two cases. Cambridge was not Gottingen, but both were influential and brilliant research institutions. Mathematical phys­ics was not technical mechanics, but both were based on rich, mathemati­cal traditions. Lamb’s Hydrodynamics was not Foppl’s Vorlesungen, but both were much-used textbooks that, respectively, encouraged and transmitted their own characteristic, mental orientation.

The scientific study of a complex phenomenon, or the development of a complex technology, typically calls for the cooperation of specialists from a number of fields. The creation of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos involved physicists, chemists, metallurgists, engineers, and experts in fluid dynamics. An episode in the history of science and technology of the kind I have ana­lyzed likewise counts as a complex, real-world phenomenon, and its study will involve specialists from different fields, for example, historians, sociolo­gists, and psychologists. The psychologist studies the mental capacities nec­essary for learning about the world and becoming a competent member of society, perhaps even a member of a specialist subgroup—for example, a subgroup whose members are able to read Foppl’s textbook or sit the Tri­pos examination. The sociologist studies the social processes without which, ultimately, there would be no professional identities such as “the engineer” or “the physicist” and no institutions such as “the textbook,” “the examina­tion,” or “the university.”

It is evident that the episode I have described in my case study cannot be called “purely” sociological any more than it is “purely” psychological or “purely” a matter of grappling with the world. Likewise, the desire for a “complete” description or a “complete” explanation of the episode can be dismissed as utopian. But it is not unrealistic to hope for insights into parts of the problem, and some aspects of the episode may call for psychological study, while other aspects may call for sociological study. The one does not exclude the other. My emphasis on the sociological dimension is not a denial of the psychological dimension or any other naturalistic dimension. Rather, the emphasis on society arises because sociological variables are the ones most relevant to the question I am asking. British and German experts did not diverge because their basic cognitive faculties differed or because their personalities were different or because one group engaged with the material world while the other turned its back on it. As far as the present episode is concerned, they differed primarily because their education and professional lives were different. They worked in different disciplines and institutions whose traditions and reward structures diverged from one another.

One final feature of the sociological approach must be emphasized. It is central to my account that the actors involved were not detached intel­ligences moving in an abstract world of thoughts, theorems, and deductions. Nor did they move exclusively in a world of committee meetings, personal confrontations, status conflicts, and power struggles. These things were part of their world but not the whole of it. The experts in my story experimented in wind tunnels, built models, observed and measured the forces on them, flew airplanes, and sometimes died in them. The sociological variables to which I have drawn attention are not to be conceived in a way that excludes these practical, experimental activities or diminishes their importance. The sociological processes I have identified do not stand between people and the material environment with which they are engaged. Contrary to the claims repeatedly made by their critics, those who follow the Strong Program do not treat the social world as something to which scientists respond instead of re­sponding to the natural world. The cultures, institutions, and interests that I have identified did not block the active involvement with material reality but were the vehicle of that involvement and gave a specific meaning to it.6