Science as a Cultural System: the institutionalization of revolution

April 2, 2007

I tend to view science in terms of the larger cultural context of human institutions. As I wrote in an earlier post, I think culture is best understood as a complex network of symbols. I’m not pretending that this is an especially unique perspective, since it’s largely borrowed from the preeminent cultural anthropologist of the late 20th century, Clifford Geertz, who, incidentally borrowed it from Max Weber. For example, Weber was famous for saying that man was caught in “webs of significance that he himself has spun.” Symbols are, in a sense, the units out of which culture is built. Viewing culture as symbol is nice, because it encompases an important aspect of human interaction: it is fundamentally interpretational. Is my wink an indication of a secret understanding between the two of us, or is it a half-joking bursleque wink? Or am I pretending it to be a half-joking burlesque wink? As Geertz himself put it, culture is a series of “winks, upon winks, upon winks!” Symbols, and subsequently culture, are contested territories of meaning. The realm of the beaten path of meanings constitutes the mainstream of a given culture. Why do we as a species gravitate to a unified, shared system of meanings? Well the honest answer is, yeah right! no one knows. A more exciting, and therefore probably wrong answer, is that we strive for consistency of intepretation because it simplifies matters. The behavior of humans, to far higher degree than probably any other animal, are not as dependent on their genes. When we are faced with a difficult decision, be it behavorial or interpretational, we filter it through a culural complex of meaning to arrive at the conclusion.

Now what does this have to do with good ol’ hard-nosed science? Science, it is (perhaps) often said, is above the relatively banal matters of culture. In it’s most arrogant formulation it is said that science is trans-cultural. Poppycock. Science is another cultural system in just the sense discussed above. True, science does cherish falsifiability and predictability, but these are just particular ideals that a subculture of Western civilization has chosen to venerate, albeit ideals that I happen to enjoy. That being said, science is indeed unique as a cultural form. It has enjoyed unparalleled success in its application to technological improvement and the expansion of a falsifiable system of knowledge. Certainly, all cultures are dynamic, ever-changing institutions, but only in science I think is change the name of the game. As far as I know, science is the only cultural form to paradoxically, institutionalize revolution. This leads to what I’d offer as the natural definition of science (see the earlier post on definitions too):

A particular cultural form which has uniquely institutionalized revolution. The status of these revolutions are formalized by experimental confirmation of a parsimonious theory.

In science, all knowledge is built on sand, and the whole goal is knock down the previously exisiting sand castle and build one that’s more stable!

I know definitions usually come at the beginning rather than the end, but hey, every exit is an entrance and versa vice, right?


5 Responses to “Science as a Cultural System: the institutionalization of revolution”

  1. whig said

    Does science give regard to compassion? Love, happiness, these are things science cannot create nor discover.

  2. pieceful said

    Whig –
    I think my comments may have been misunderstood. Part of the whole point of my post was to say that I don’t think science is outside of culture, or “better” than any other cultural form. You’re quite right though to point out that there are things for which science doesn’t offer any advice. Things like how to live one’s life, or how to interpret the love that one feels. In fact, perhaps that is another rather unique element of science: a cultural form that does not purport to explain every event in one’s life. This is to be contrasted with certain religious forms and pseudo-scientific dogmatisms like Freudian psychology, which purport to explain everyting. Said another way: science builds exits, whereas other similar cultural forms like religion do not.

  3. whig said

    Religion builds exits too, but the truths which are understood by some are kept from the many by intent. It is as if scientists closed ranks and kept their knowledge for themselves, revealing only enough to maintain their power.

    And so we do, because some secrets are too dangerous to know, like how to build an atomic weapon, yet some know them.

    I hope you’re seeing the problem and it is the same for all systems of human knowledge.

  4. whig said

    Here is an exit. Laughter.

  5. pieceful said

    Are scientists really “closing ranks” and protecting their knowledge? Seems quite the opposite to me. Anyone can go to a university library and look up a journal article. Or even better yet, in physics at least anyone anywhere in the world can look up and read a physics paper for free on the arXiv ( It seems to me that science is more open today than it’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. A lesson which hopefully the great religions of the world will learn soon.

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