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Merton's differentiation and presentation of institutional norms of science

Robert Merton elaborated and studied the institutional norms of science in several contributions. His contributions started in the mid-1930’s with his doctoral thesis and ended with a book decades after his thesis. According to him, “set of cultural values, and mores governing the activities termed as scientific” (1968b: 605) (Berger et al., 1966). The question is that was or is there such values which impacted the behavior of scientists? According to some researchers, Merton miss-interpreted the ideas confusing the concepts of, “ideology and practice.” But such criticism besides being widespread is wrong. Merton fully understood the issue, and his work was important in the history as well as in today’s world (Berger et al., 1966).

Despite being famous classical works, they are missing some essential elements like he conducted a distorted analysis of scientific values. The works of Merton lose the elements like empirical evidence, positivism, and theory of action. The mid-20th-century experts like Merton focused on the norms, sanctions, and roles. Merton’s works lack micro-sociological understanding of the scientists as decision making individuals behind the scientific processes. There are new approaches used in the sociology of science which can facilitate us in overcoming the points missed by Merton as well was the major criticism of Merton’s work (Berger et al., 1966). In this essay, Merton’s work is revisited using new sociological ideas.

Merton’s distinguishes between the science as technical and social processes and products. The science can be regarded as a technical activity while the social activities and values that impact the scientific activities. According to Merton, the social and cultural values of science serve as binding on the man of science. He presented the social terms like communism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized spectrum commonly referred to as “CUDO” in the modern literature (Brew, 2001).  Merton was able to relate his works to the developments made in the Nazi Germany (Brew, 2001).

2.2    Difference between Technical and Social Norms

Merton focuses on dividing the professional and social standards related to the science. The primary goal of the scientific institution is to extract a certified knowledge through experimentations and analysis. The processes and techniques used for this purpose are identified as “technical” norms by Merton (Brew, 2001). On the other hand, he is not able to identify the social perspectives associated with these professional standards in his works. In his later works, the terms “cognitive” and “social” were replaced by “technical” and “moral.” In the later works by the experts in the scientific sociology, it is claimed that there no real difference between “professional” and “social” norms (Brew, 2001). The researchers elaborate that the technical and social standards are inter-connected with each other. The cognitive, as well as social norms, are the values which influence the interaction between the scientific communities at a global level.

Difference between technical and social norms

Merton after the year 1942, expanded his number of norms to solve scientific and social problems. The new standards were “originality” and “humility.” In the view of the researchers, the value of the two new norms is so important that they should be discussed about the previous and largely known “four” norms (Lucas, 2006). So one cannot discuss CUDOS in the absence of CUDOS. Merton was unable to provide any significant typologies of the “six” he had identified in his works.

In the later years, after a significant criticism on the Merton’s work, it was admitted that the exhaustive typologies of norms cannot be identified easily. When the science is bounded by institutional limitations like that of a university, the social concepts binding the scientific processes should be defined and addressed (Lucas, 2006). Moreover, the counter-norms should also be developed and met to increase the “originality” of the scientific process.

Merton notes the lack of “casual” explanations in the sociology of science. A researcher, Lucas, (2006) in the later years admits that these lack of comments can be regarded as the lack of “nerve” and will.” The simple reasoning between rational and sociological explanations is misplaced. Cultural and social beliefs can be true or false, and they can be morally right or wrong. But one has to consider the actors behind the scientific processes, attentions, and discourses in their institutional and historical contexts.

It is admitted that “emotions” and sacred areas of the research are important but they, should not be considered as the only elements to be considered (Lucas, 2006). It is admitted by the later researchers that are normal to give the possible and definite normative reasons in scientific research. These reasons should be analyzed by the researchers taking on the same scientific exploration at a later time. The high differentiation among the norms of the scientific procedures is also categorized as communism, universalism, and disinterestedness of the academic or research works (Bourdie, 1989). The criteria like personal, financial, and intellectual interests can be attributed to communism. The urge to make knowledge free of any boundaries is known as universalism. Disinterestedness can be regarded as interests like financial benefits and intellectual rights.

Merton’s normative values have been widely criticized as ideological theories, but it also admitted that it is due to the work Merton we can establish a persuasive formulation of the academic, methodological, and committed to research models (Bourdie, 1989). The works of Mentor gives as traditional accounts of the university life as a vocation. However, due to a rapid expansion of the higher education in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries mean that the disciplinary and professional traditions of those who now are getting higher educations in the universities have been widened. The subject basis of the universities are not the only things that have changed in the 60 years since the introduction of Merton’s four institutional norms. The social and scientific values have changed dramatically over the past few years (Bourdie, 1989). There are refining processes in place facilitating in removing the social limitations of the researchers. The papers and researchers are also globally evaluated for originality before being considered as valid.

Critique of and issues with Merton's work

A web-based survey was conducted by the investigators, to check out the extent to which the academics of the world today adhere to Merton’s four institutional norms. The value statements for the survey was designed in a way to represent an equal number of attraction for confirming and not establishing the Merton’s values.  The universities in the UK were selected as the subject material of the studies (HESA, 2006).

The sample was self-selecting with most of the participants from the UK’s universities. The majority of the participants identified their role as lecturer in the universities and so on. The results of this limited survey indicated that the value of communism in higher education by Merton is still accepted by most of the lecturers (Lucas, 2006). The results of the survey for the educational communism can be represented by the following figure:

Figure: Educational Communism Results (Lucas, 2006).

 It is indicated by the results presented in the above figure that most of the educationalists are still adhering to Merton’s values. There is a strong sense of protecting the intellectual rights of the scientific processes and researches taking place at the universities of UK. The academic policies are designed in such a way that they provide maximum commercial advantages to the schools or the organizations supporting the research (Lucas, 2006). On the other hand, many of the educational professionals admit that the technologies like the World Wide Web are acting as a powerful tool for those people who are committed to making education and scientific research freely available at a global level.

The modern scientists and educational experts are acutely aware of the fact that there are several social and cultural aspects which can impact their works but still try to universalize their findings. Today, it is admitted that the research should be international rather than national and should have demonstrable impact. The researchers like Bourdieu (1989), argue that most of the intelligent persons today believe that they have some things to say beyond the geographical, religious, cultural, social boundaries. New words are replacing the norms presented by the Merton in the last century. For instance, today the communism of academic and scientific work has been superseded by the “capitalism.” Today, the researchers are designed in a way to maximize the financial value for the researcher or the institutes conducting the research (Lucas, 2006). 

The following table can represent the alternative norms to the Merton's norms in today's world:

Alternative expressions for Merton's norms

Table 1: Alternative Expressions for the Merton’s norms (Lucas, 2006).

Universalism is the support of the argument that the academic researchers should be shared at a global level without any geographical, social, and cultural values. The 82% of the participants of the survey believed that the academic researches should be shared at a universal level without any bindings. At the same time, 53% of the participants reported that their work was influenced by social and cultural environments and cannot be generalized at a universal level. 90% of the participants believed that there teaching and educational values have been influenced by their values (Lucas, 2006). This statement contradicts with the values of universalism as the people believing in universalism should also be able to generate the knowledge at the universal level. 63% of the respondents of the survey agreed that the intellectual work should not be influenced by the personal interests and beliefs (Lucas, 2006).

Over half of the participants in the survey showed emotional and financial interests to their research works. Most of them linked their research results with some funding opportunities. However, 80% of researchers claimed that they agree to carry on the research by their interest.  The results can be shown in the figure below:

Figure 2: Alignment of research with funding opportunities (Lucas, 2006).

Gender of the participants was also closely related to the responses they generate. 46% of the female participants are more likely to align their research works compared 37% of their male counter parts. The differences in the level of the seniority were not that significant (Lucas, 2006). Most of the research assistants and junior lecturers were interested in aligning their researches with the funding opportunities. Most of the senior faculty members were for placing the academic works in the global arena for discussion.

The results of the survey conducted above do not indicate a significant “shift” in the values presented by “Merton” in the previous century. The sample was consistent of the academic professionals, but it does not represent the academic profession at all. The contemporary issues and pressures in the modern academic lives might be shaping or re-shaping the Merton’s norms. It can be represented by the studying the value of disinterestedness where most of the academic researchers want to align their research results with financial or funding opportunities. Despite the modern norms of universalism the communism in the education still attracts several researchers, and most of them want secure intellectual rights for their works. However, it also is seen that stronger urge of intellectual rights is presented from researchers in the applied sciences. It is firmly believed that such attitude of the academic professionals might continue to prevail in the coming few years.  

References

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. London: Penguin.

Bok, D. (2003). Universities in the marketplace: The commercialisation of higher education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). The corporatism of the universal. The role of intellectuals in the modern world. Telos, 81 (Fall), 99–105.

Brew, A. (2001). The nature of research: Inquiry in academic contexts. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications Translated by A.M.

Sheridan Smith.

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) (2007) Staff Data Tables, 2005-06, Retrieved 7, December 2006, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/dox/dataTables/staff/download/staff0506.xls.

Higher Education Academy (2006). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education. York: HEA/SCOP/Universities UK/HEFCW/ Scottish Funding Council/ Department for Employment and Learning.

Lucas, L. (2006). The research game in academic life. Maidenhead: The Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1942). The Normative Structure of Science. In N. Storer (Ed.) The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations (pp. 267–278). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schwen, M. R. (1993). Exiles from Eden: Religion and the academic vocation in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skelton, A. M. (2005). Understanding teaching excellence in higher education: Towards a critical approach. London: Routledge.

Weber, M. (1919). Science as a vocation. In E. Shils (Ed. and trans.) (1973) Max Weber on universities: The power of the state and the dignity of the academic calling in Imperial Germany (pp. 54–62). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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