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Research cultures as an explanatory factor

Forschungskulturen als Erklärungsfaktor

Abstract

In this article, we explore the potential of culture as an explanatory concept, using the sociology of science as an example. We first argue for a concept of culture that is sufficiently narrow to represent specific factors influencing human actions, and also propose such a concept. We then demonstrate that specific cultural assumptions can be derived from observations of researchers’ practices and subsumed to our concept of culture by analysing Knorr-Cetina’s comparison of epistemic cultures in high energy physics and molecular biology (Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. 1999). In a third step, we use our own empirical material to discuss cases in which cultural factors contribute to explanations of researchers’ behaviour. We conclude that cultural factors are rarely needed as contributions to multicausal explanations of research actions. If they are required, our approach provides a workable solution in the form of heuristic guidance in the search for cultural assumptions, a framework for comparing cultures and a basis for integrating cultural assumptions with other influences on action.

Zusammenfassung

Das Ziel des Artikels besteht darin, das Potenzial des Kulturbegriffs in soziologischen Erklärungen am Beispiel der Wissenschaftssoziologie zu erkunden. Wir zeigen zunächst, dass ein zu Erklärungen beitragender Kulturbegriff eng genug sein muss, um spezifische Einflussfaktoren auf menschliches Handeln zu repräsentieren, und schlagen einen solchen Begriff vor. Wir benutzen diesen Begriff in einer Sekundäranalyse von Knorr-Cetinas Buch über epistemische Kulturen (Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. 1999), in der wir aus Beobachtungen der Praktiken von Hochenergiephysikern und Molekularbiologen deren spezifische kulturelle Annahmen rekonstruieren. In einem dritten Schritt nutzen wir Fälle aus eigenen empirischen Studien, um mögliche Beiträge kultureller Faktoren zur Erklärung des Verhaltens von Wissenschaftlern zu diskutieren. Aus diesen Schritten lässt sich die Schlussfolgerung ziehen, dass kulturelle Faktoren nur selten zu Erklärungen des Forschungshandelns beitragen. Wenn sie herangezogen werden müssen, dann bietet unser Herangehen eine Heuristik für die Suche nach kulturellen Annahmen, einen Vergleichsrahmen für Forschungskulturen und eine Grundlage für die Integration von kulturellen Annahmen mit anderen handlungsbeeinflussenden Faktoren.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Following Mayntz (2004, p. 241), we define a social mechanism as a sequence of causally linked events that occur repeatedly in reality if certain conditions are given and link specified initial conditions to a specific outcome (for a similar but less precise definition, see Merton 1968, p. 42–43).

  2. It is important to distinguish these assumptions from the theoretical and methodological knowledge applied by the community. Scientific knowledge is explicit, formalized to a significant extent and constantly addressed in scientific communication. Only part of it turns into taken-for-granted assumptions about objects and their behaviour.

  3. In the transcripts of interviews taken from Knorr-Cetina’s book, double parentheses indicate comments by the transcriber (Knorr-Cetina 1999, “A Note on Transcription”). The explanation “[Monte-Carlo simulation]” was inserted by us.

  4. The following examples are taken from a project on visual communication in science funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (KN 298/8-1) and a project on the development of cyber-infrastructures for science (01UG1005) funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research. We gratefully acknowledge contributions by René Wilke and Sonja Palfner, who conducted some of the interviews. All interviews were conducted in German; quotes were translated by the authors.

  5. In the quotes from interviews, [text in parentheses] indicates omissions and changes that were necessary to protect interviewees’ identity.

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Correspondence to Jochen Gläser.

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Gläser, J., Bielick, J., Jungmann, R. et al. Research cultures as an explanatory factor. Österreich Z Soziol 40, 327–346 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11614-015-0177-3

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Keywords

  • Research cultures
  • Sociological explanations
  • Research practices
  • High energy physics
  • Molecular biology

Schlüsselwörter

  • Forschungskulturen
  • Soziologische Erklärungen
  • Forschungspraktiken
  • Hochenergiephysik
  • Molekularbiologie