Role of Sociocultural Factors in Scientific Change

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What is the role of sociocultural factors, such as economics or politics, in the process of scientific change?

According to Hakob Barseghyan in The Laws of Scientific Change1p. 235 the process of scientific change is affected by sociocultural factors in one of two ways: either changes occur in the mosaic due to sociocultural factors in accordance with the Laws of Scientific Change, or they occur in violation of the Laws of Scientific Change.

An example of a circumstance where the scientific mosaic is influenced by sociocultural factors in accordance with the Laws of Scientific Change is as follows: If the employed method of the time dictates relegating the task of theory appraisal to a political or religious authority, then the community will adopt beliefs according to what this singular authority tells them. This example circumstance is sometimes referred to as the “High Priest” scenario.1p. 235-236

Another circumstance where the influence of sociocultural factors may affect the scientific mosaic in accordance with the laws of scientific change is when the results of a theory assessment by the employed method of the time is inconclusive. In this case, sociocultural factors may be employed to select the theory which is preferable to the community according to political, economic, and religious standards, or other forms of individual and group motivations. In this case, the application of sociocultural factors to theory assessment does not violate the laws of scientific change.1p. 238-239

It is also possible that sociocultural factors influence the accepted scientific beliefs of a community in violation of the laws of scientific change, such as, for instance, during a period of social instability. An example of sociocultural factors influencing scientific change in violation of the mosaic could include a case where a government uses violence to impose beliefs on a community as a way to forward its own political agenda. There are numerous historical examples of such a scenario, the most famous being the case of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union in 1940.1p. 238-239

Historical cases where the laws of scientific change are violated reaffirm that the theory of scientific change is still inevitably local, in accordance with the accepted “Nothing Permanent” principal. Under certain conditions such as societal instability, or the loss of the conditions necessary to form a scientific mosaic (such as for instance an adequate system of communication between individual members of the community), the theory of scientific change cannot apply. The specific circumstances under which the Theory of Scientific Change is not expected to hold have not yet been explicitly identified.

The process of scientific change is broken down into two elements, and therefore sociocultural factors can affect scientific change in two different ways. These two ways can be formulated as two different questions:

1. Can sociocultural factors affect the process of theory acceptance, and, if so, under what conditions can they affect the process?1p. 235

2. Can sociocultural factors affect the process of method employment and, if so, under what conditions can they affect the profess?1p. 235

At this stage, Scientonomy is excluding the question of what the role of sociocultural factors are in theory construction.1p. 234

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan in 2015. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community.

In Scientonomy, the accepted answer to the question is:

  • Sociocultural factors can affect the process of theory acceptance insofar as it is permitted by the method employed at the time.

Broader History

Whether or not sociocultural factors are the sole agents in bringing about scientific change, whether they are partial agents, or whether sociocultural factors have no influence at all over scientific change has been a topic of contention throughout the history of philosophy of science. Currently, it is generally accepted that sociocultural factors possess the ability to influence scientific change. However, this has not always been the case.

Sociologists of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) believe that scientific propositions are either fully or partially social constructions, rather than solely based on reason and evidence. The more radical version of this notion is referred to as the “Strong Programme,” which dictates that sociocultural factors are the cause of all changes in the scientific mosaic, and that evidence and reason play no part in the acceptance of scientific propositions. This is the view held by David Bloor, who was motivated by the search for a uniform approach to studying science. A more traditional version of sociology of science is the “Weak Programme,” championed by (among others) Robert Merton. According to the Weak Programme, when rational explanations fail to account for changes in scientific beliefs, we can use sociocultural influences to fill in the gaps.2p. 121-123. What the two have in common is a naturalistic approach to science studies. Naturalists hold that the only type of knowledge in the world is scientific knowledge, and therefore that the only approach to understanding scientific change is by employing the methods of science themselves.2p. 118-120

Thomas Kuhn understood paradigm changes to be influenced by social factors. For Kuhn, this type of scientific change was different from that of the normal, every-day enterprise of science. It is only within the paradigm that reason and evidence drive changes in scientific beliefs.2p. 144-145 This is somewhat similar to how sociologists of scientific knowledge understand the role of sociocultural factors in scientific change. These sociologists believe that reason and evidence are purely context-specific concepts, and that their power as agents of scientific change are dependent on the sociocultural environment in which they are employed.2p. 156-157

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record of the Question

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Scientonomy2015The question became de facto accepted by the community at that time together with the whole theory of scientific change.Yes

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In Scientonomy, the accepted answer to the question is Sociocultural Factors in Theory Acceptance theorem (Barseghyan-2015).

Role of Sociocultural Factors in Theory Acceptance

Sociocultural Factors in Theory Acceptance theorem (Barseghyan-2015) states: "Sociocultural factors can affect the process of theory acceptance insofar as it is permitted by the method employed at the time."


Sociocultural factors can impact the process of a theory's acceptance when the employed method of the community allows for such factors to affect the process. This is derived by the Second Law alone. For example, a community which ascribes infallible power to a leader or a group of leaders is in a position to accept a theory in virtue of the leaders. Furthermore, such factors can guide a scientific community to reject a theory based on the acceptance of another social theory with which it is at odds.

Barseghyan’s Laws of Scientific Change break from the traditional language used in philosophy of science, of internal versus external factors in the mosaic. External factors, a term that has traditionally referred to the influences of societal trends, politics, religion, and so on, if defined as “elements not included in the mosaic” then we must accept that these do not affect the mosaic at the time by the the very definition. This is the result of the fact that the 2nd law introduces new theories in the context of the accepted methods at the time. As a result, the language of “external” factors is problematic.1

Socio-cultural factors ought to be defined more explicitly. The question is, instead, whether factors such as economics, politics, and religion can influence the theories accepted in the mosaic. It follows from the Second Law that theories are assessed by the method in the mosaic at the time. Therefore, if the method at the time mandates economic, political, religious, or other social requirements to be met by a theory before it is accept, only then do socio-cultural factors influence theory acceptance.

Barseghyan provides the example of a hypothetical religious community, with an accepted belief (i.e. theory) that holds that the religion’s High Priest always grasps the true essence of things. By the Third Law, a method may be employed the mosaic that states that any proposition is acceptable, given that the High Priest utters it. In this case, it would appear as though socio-cultural factors are influencing, if not dictating, the course of scientific change in the community. This should not be confused with a case where a High Priest or other elite enforces their beliefs unscientifically, through threats, bribery, or otherwise. Should this happen, the change would be unscientific, as it would violate either the method employed at the time (and thereby the Second Law), or it would be creating a method in the mosaic which does not follow from the accepted theories at the time (and thereby the Third Law).1

Related Topics

This question is a subquestion of Mechanism of Scientific Change. It has the following sub-topic(s):


  1. a b c d e f g h i  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
  2. a b c d  Brown, James Robert. (2001) Who Rules in Science? Harvard University Press.