Paradigm, No. 6 (October, 1991)


Textbooks and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

Greg Myers

Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language,
The University,
Lancaster LA1 4YT.


 Sociological studies of scientific knowledge have emphasized the importance of textbooks, but have provided little textual analysis. In some sociological studies, textbooks are crucial as exemplars, as formative influences in the life of a scientist. Thomas Kuhn (1963), for instance, takes textbooks as the visible form of paradigms, and Sharon Traweek (1988) is typical of sociologists who take textbooks to represent the constraints on scientific thought. The problem with his approach is that it treats scientists as dupes, capable only of incorporating what they are told. A famous anecdote from James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) shows how researchers learn to be sceptical about the authority of textbook knowledge in the specialized areas that most concern them.

In another line of sociological analysis, textbooks are seen as crucial in the life of a fact. For instance, Ludwik Fleck (1935) argues that textbooks present a different sort of fact from journal articles, a mosaic of claims from which the personal and provisional have been removed and in which the pattem of the whole is constructed. The physicist John Ziman (1984) is one of a number of science studies researchers who would see textbooks, along with encyclopaedia articles and university lectures, as the conclusion of a process of accreditation. This approach suggests that text analysts should contrast textbooks with other scientific genres, such as joumal articles or popularizations.

In the talk I gave a checklist of textual features that might be relevant in such a comparison, including the use of tenses, subjects, hedges, cohesive devices, and illustrations. I briefly tried this checklist on two passages, one from a university textbook of molecular genetics, and the other from an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was one of the first reports related to the facts presented in the textbook.



Some sociological and linguistic studies useful in analyzing textbooks:

Bazerman, Charles (1989) Shaping Written Knowledge. The Form and Activity of the Experimental Report in Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1975) ‘The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason’. Social Science Information, 14, pp. 19-47.

Collins, Harry (1985) Changing Order (London and Newport Beach, CA: Sage).

Fleck, Ludwik (1935) The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, trans. Thaddeus Trenn (1979). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hewings, Ann (1990) ‘Aspects of the language of economics textbooks’. In Tony Dudley-Evans and Willie Henderson (eds), The Language of Economics: The Analysis of Economics Discourse. Modern English Publications and the British Council, pp. 29-43.

Kuhn, Thomas (1962) The Structure ofScientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Kuhn, Thomas (1963) ‘The function of dogma in scientific research’. In A. C. Crombie (ed.), Scientific Change (London:Heinemann), pp. 347-369.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar (1979) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, 2nd edn. (Sage, 1986) (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press).

Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in Action (Milton Keynes: Open University Press).

Lynch, Michael and Woolgar, Steve ( eds) (1990) Representation in Scientific Practice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Millar, Robin (ed.) (1989) Doing Science: Images of Science in Science Education (London: Falmer Press).

Myers, Greg (1989) ‘The pragmatics of politeness in scientific articles’. Applied Linguistics, 10, pp. 1-35.

Myers, Greg (1990a) ‘Making a discovery: Narratives of split genes’ In Christopher Nash (ed.), Narrative in Culture (London: Routledge).

Myers, Greg (1990b) Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction ofScientific Knowledge (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Swales, John(1990) Genre Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Traweek, Sharon (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High-energy Physicists (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).

Watson, James (1968) The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Winstanley, Monica (1976) ‘Assimilation into the literature of a critical advance in Molecular Biology’. Social Studies of Science, 6, pp. 545-549.

Ziman, John (1984) An Introduction to Science Studies (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press).


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