The Sociological Roots of Science

Edgar Zilsel is considered one of the pioneers in the social studies of science and among the earliest to identify the sociological conditions which led to the development of modern science. In his seminal article “The Sociological Roots of Science”, Zilsel attempts to trace the emergence of modern science as a sociological process in the early stages of European capitalism. While acknowledging the influence of other “half-scientific” (oriental and Arabic) cultures on Western civilization he submits that he has attempted only a “greatly simplified analysis” of the sociological conditions which made modern science possible.

41UjwyXduBLThe necessary conditions for the rise of science

The transition from the feudalism of the Middle Ages to early capitalism in Europe (of 1600) has been seen as one of the fundamental shifts in human society. Zilsel claims that this shift created the necessary conditions for the rise of science.

  1. Early capitalism established towns, and not castles or monasteries, as the centres of culture. This enabled the spirit of science in ordinary townsfolk and not just clergymen and knights.
  2. The use of technology in the production of goods and in warfare weakened magical thinking and strengthened causal thinking.
  3. Economic success during early capitalism was characterized by the individual’s entrepreneurial spirit, as compared to the traditions of the “guilds” of medieval towns. This individualism has expanded to the modern scientist’s tendency to rely on her eyes and brain to make critical observations.
  4. The traditions and customs of feudal society were replaced by the rationalism of early capitalistic society. This led to the development of rational scientific (quantitative) methods in book-keeping, whose applications were extended to the administration of public finances.

The three strata of intellectual activity

After outlining a few general characteristics of early capitalistic society which formed the necessary conditions for the rise of the scientific spirit, Zilsel distinguishes between three strata of intellectual activity to understand the development of science sociologically (from 1300 to 1600).

  1. Universities: While trained to think rationally, theology and scholasticism still dominated the methods of university scholars. Their opinions on mundane or secular matters were generally to explain the ends and meanings of phenomena. They never ventured to investigate causes and physical laws. Sociologically, universities remained rigidly resistant to the influences of development of technology and humanism in the external world.
  2. Humanism: The humanists could be considered the first representatives of secular learning. They were the officials in the service of municipalities, princes and the pope, who chiefly had to conduct the foreign affairs of their employers, through erudite writings and eloquent speeches. In the later centuries, they entered academic engagements through patronage. While their methods proceeded rationally, they focused more on literary forms than in causal investigation.

Both the university scholars and the humanistic literati were proud of their social rank. They preferred liberal arts over the mechanical arts, shared the upper-class prejudices of the nobility and despised manual labour and all those who were engaged in it.

  1. Labour: Manual labour of the Renaissance was influenced by the social distinctions between the work of hands (professional activity) and tongue (intellectual activity). Therefore, university trained medical doctors were contented with commented on antique medical writings while surgeons had a social position similar to midwives. Likewise, artists and other craftsmen were treated on par with whitewashers and stone dressers.

The social barrier between the components of the scientific method

While ranked socially beneath the scholars and the humanists, the labour “class” of artisans, mariners, carpenters, miners, etc. worked silently to advance modern technology. They invented tools for navigation, constructed mills for production, introduced machines in mining and warfare. Yet, they receded into the background socially because they were uneducated. However, Zilsel identifies them as the real pioneers of empirical observations, experimentation and causal research. Few of these groups required more knowledge in their work and received better education. These groups, whom Zilsel refers to as “superior craftsmen”, contributed to the rise of various professional groups, such as:

  • The artist-engineers, who not only painted pictures, but also cast statues, built cathedrals, constructed lifting engines, canals, guns and fortresses.
  • The surgeons learnt anatomical knowledge from their colleagues, the artists.
  • The artificers of musical instruments
  • The makers of nautical and astronomical instruments

These superior craftsmen obtained their education as apprentices in the workshops of their masters and wrote manuscripts in the vernacular for use by their colleagues. They later made contact with the learned astronomers, medical doctors and humanists. This complemented the theoretical knowledge they had gained through their professional work. But the isolated, non-systematic nature of their professional discoveries prevented the public from being acknowledging them as respectable scholars (like the university scholars and humanists).

Social factors therefore separated the two components of the scientific method (before 1600) — methodological training of intellect was preserved for the upper-class learned people, while experimentation and observation were left to “plebeian” workers.

The birth of modern science

Before 1550, scholarly literature (written mostly in Latin) did not acknowledge the achievements of the superior craftsmen. After the end of the 15th century, literature on mechanics, mathematics, and dialogues on commercial and technological problems started appearing in the vernacular to be read by craftsmen, merchants and their colleagues. These were widely circulated, frequently re-printed and gradually stoked the interest of the learned scholars because of their utility economically.

Eventually, the social barrier between the intellectual and experimental components of the scientific method was broken and real science was born around 1600 with the arrival of Gilbert, Galileo and Bacon. They were academically trained scholars who adopted the methods of the superior craftsmen and addressed their writings to non-scholars in the vernacular. Gilbert attacked authority and Aristotelism. Galileo lectured at a university but established workrooms in his house to collaborate with artisans. Bacon describes the achievements of the artisans as models for scholars.

Scientific progress, cooperation and the bridging of social barriers

Zilsel submits that Bacon’s real contribution to the development of science was to substitute the individual glory sought by humanists with the goals of progress. According to Bacon, progress could be achieved by ‘control of nature’ by science and the ‘advancement of learning’. Thus, the humanists’ personal ideals are substituted by the scientists’ goal to bring about the progress of civilization.

Central to the idea of modern science, Zilsel proposes, is the idea that scientists must cooperate towards progress. This idea of cooperation among scientists was institutionalized in the founding of societies, institutes and academies in London and Paris. This was followed by scientific periodicals and other organizations.

Eventually, the rise of the manual workers to the ranks of academically trained scholars is the decisive event in the genesis of science. The intellectual, logical contributions of the “upper” stratum and the causal, objective spirit of the “lower” spectrum were finally bridged in the late 16th century. Finally, the decline of slave labour and the appearance of free labour in early European capitalism contributed to the development of modern science.

The sociological study of the rise of science

In his article, Zilsel has shown that the genesis of science can be studied not only through the history of scientific discoveries, but also as a sociological phenomenon. The occupations of scientific authors, the sociological functions of their occupations, and the succession of relevant sociological groups can be analyzed in comparison to those of other cultures in India, China and elsewhere.

Do you agree that the origins of science are “social”?


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