School of Social and Political Science

Investigating Science in Society


Science plays a monumental role in shaping many societies. It enjoys high standing and special privileges. Its influence reaches far and has notable impacts. And yet, most of us know very little about what science actually is. Investigating Science in Society delves into the workings of this unique social institution.

This course explores the social nature of science by investigating the goings-on of scientific work and by studying the place of science in broader society. In the first part of the class (The Social in Science), we examine the mechanics of science in action: the social workings of things like scientific observation, experimental craftwork, debates and rhetoric, and controversies about scientific beliefs. We learn about how scientists construct their knowledge claims, and we observe how those truths meet their end.

In the second half of the class (Science in the Social), we study the place of science in relation to, and as a monumental force in shaping, other part of societies. We consider how scientific knowledge is used to order people into groups and to place them in hierarchies. We investigate how science serves public policy, and how it becomes embroiled in political debates. We examine how scientists produce ideas about ‘correct’ nature, and how they use those ideas to intervene in the world. We explore science and nationalism, science, economics and business, and what happens when art and design take on the sciences.

Investigating Science in Society overthrows assumptions about what science is: ideas that are not only inaccurate, but also problematic (maybe even dangerous). The materials and topics of the class enlighten us to the hidden complexities of what scientists do, and the ways in which that work is entangled with the rest of the social world.

Themes and topics include:

  • How scientists make the world visible in scientific ways
  • The craftwork and tools that make experimentation possible
  • How debates and controversies lead to the downfall of facts and the birth of new knowledge
  • Scientific policy and the international politics of science 
  • The making of scientific value(s) and the economics of scientific discovery
  • Artistic representation of science and scientific beauty

On completion of this course, you will be able to:

  1. Question the usual picture of science as something separate from society, and of scientific knowledge as pure, objective truth. You will replace this picture with a more nuanced and empirically accurate understanding of science, scientists and scientific knowledge.
  2. Appreciate and understand the complexities of scientific practice and of scientific judgement.
  3. Understand and make use of the basic tools of the sociology of science and of scientific knowledge. Grasp the central tenet that science is a social institution, and apply this comprehension in exploring the work of scientists, for example in political or in media contexts.
  4. Describe the position of science as part of wider society, and account for the development of scientific knowledge in relation to other major social phenomena. Also, discuss the behaviour of scientists, politicians and other stakeholders based on such social factors.
  5. Be able to use both primary and secondary sources in essays and written analyses.

This is a level 8 course with 20 credits.

There will be 2 lectures and 1 tutorial per week in Semester 1.