Ideology and Science

beliefs in society

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Natasha
  • Created on: 12-01-10 12:00

Ideology and Science

Science as a belief system

  • many sociologists see modern science as a product of the process of rationalisation that began with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th C.
  • some sociologists, such as S theorists argue that this has underumined R by changing the way we think and see the world.

impact of science

  • science has had an enormous impact on society over the last few centuries.
  • its achievements in medicine have eradicated many once fatal diseases.
  • many basic features of daily life today - transport, communications, work and leisure - would be unrecognisable to our recent ancestors due to scientific and technological development.
  • perhaps most strikingly, science and technology have revolutionalised economic productivity and raised our standard of living to previously undreamt heights,
  • this success has led to a widespread 'faith in science' - a belief that it can 'deliver the goods'.
1 of 21

  • more recently, this faith has been dimmed by a recognition that science may cause problems as well as solve them.
  • pollution, global warming and weapons of mass destruction are as much a product of science and tech as are space flight, 'wonder drugs' and the Internet
  • while science may have helped to protect us from natural dangers such as disease and famine, it has created its own 'manufactured risks'
  • yet in fact, both the good and the bad effects of science demonstrate the key feature distinguishing it from other belief systems or knowledge-claims- that is, its cognitive power.
  • it enables us to explain, predict and control the world in a way that non-scientific ot pre-scientific belief systems cannot do.

Open belief systems

  • according to Sir Karl Popper, science is an 'open' belief system where every scientists theories are open to scrutiny, criticism and testing by others.
  • science is governed by the principle of falsificationism - when scientists try and falsify existing theories, deliberatly seeking evidence to disprove them.
2 of 21

  • if the evidence from an experiment or ob contradicts a theory and shows it to be falce, the theory can be discarded and the search for better explanation can begin.
  • in science, knowledge claims love or die by the evidence
  • in poppers view, discarding falsified knowledge-claims is what enables scientific understanding of this world to grow.
  • scientific knowlegde is cumulative - it builds on the achievements of previous scientists to develop a greater understanding of the world around us.
  • however, despite the achievements of great scientists such as Newton, no theory is ever to be taken as definitely true- there is always possibility that someone will produce evidence to disprove it.
  • in poppers view, the key thing about scientific knowledge is that it is not sacred or claim an absolute truth - it can always be questioned, criticised, tested and shown to be false.
3 of 21

The CUDOS norms

  • if popper is correct, this still leaves question of why science has only grown so rapidly in the last few centuries.
  • the functionalists Robert.K.Merton argues that science can only thrive as a major social institution if it receives support from other institution and values.
  • he argues that this first occurred in England as a result of the values and attitudes created by the Protestant REformation, especially Puritanism.
  • the Puritans this-worldy calling and industriousness, and their belief that the study of nature led to an appreciation of Gads works, encourages them to exp
  • Puritanism also stressed social welfare and they were attracted by the fact that science could produce technological inventions to improve the conditions of life.
  • the new institution of science also received support from economoic and military institutions as the value of practical application of science became obvious in areas such as mining, navigation and weaponry.
  • Merton also argues that science as an institution or organised social activity needs an 'ethos' or set of norms that make scientists act in ways that serve the goal of increasing scientifc knowledge.
4 of 21

  • he identifies four such norm, known as 'CUDOS'
    • Communism - scientific knowledge is not private property. scientists must share it with the scientific communist otherwise knowledge cannot grow.
    • Universalism - the truth or falsify of scientific knowledge is judged by universal, objective criteria and not a particular race, sex etc of the scientist who produces it.
    • Disinterestedness - this means being commited to discovering knowledge for its own sake. having to publish their findings makes it harder for scientists to practice fraud, since it enables others to check their claims
    • Organised Scepticism - no knowledge-claim is regarded as 'sacred'. every idea is open to questioning, criticism and objective investigation

Closed belief system

  • in this respect, science appears to differ fundamentally from traditional religious belief systems.
  • while scientific knowledge is provisional, open to challenge and potentially disprovable R claims to have special, perfect knowledge of the absolute truth.
  • its knowledge is literally sacred and religious orgs claim to hold it on G's divine authority
5 of 21

  • this means that it cannot be challenged - and those who do so may be punished for their heresy.
  • it also means that religious knowledge does not change
  • unlike scientific knowledge, therefore, it is fixed and does not grow
  • Robin Horton puts forwards a similar argument. he distinguishes between open and closed belief systems.
  • like Popper, he sees science as an open belief system - one where knowledge claims are open to criticism and can be disproved by testing
  • by contrast, religion, magic and many other belief systems are closed,
  • wherever its fundamental beliefs are threatened, a closed belief system has a number of device or 'get-out' clauses that reinforce the system and prevent it from being disproved- at least in the eyes of its believers.

Witchcraft among the Azande

  • like Westerners, the Azande believe that natural events have natural causes.
  • however, unlike most Westerners, the Azande do not believe in coincidence or chance.
  • thus, when misfortune befalls the Azande, they may explain it in terms of witchcraft.
6 of 21

  • in such cases, the injured party may make an accusation against the suspected witch on the matter may be resolved by consulting the prince;s magic poison oracle,
  • here, the prince;s diviner will administer a potion to a chicken, at the same time asking the benge whether the accused is the source of the witchcraft and telling it to kill the chicken if the answer is 'yes' . if the chicken dies, the suffer can go and publicly demand the witchcraft to stop
  • this is usually enough to end the problem, because the Azande regard witchcraft as a psychic power coming from a substance located in the witch's intestines, and it is believed possible that the witch is doing harm unintentionally and unconsciously.
  • this allows the accused to proclaim their surprise and horror, to apologise and promise that there will be no further bewitching.
  • Evans-Pritchard argues that this belief system performs useful function.
  • it not only clears the air and prevents grudges from festering, it also encourages neighbours to behave considerably towards one another in order to reduce the risk of an accusation.
7 of 21

  • in addition, since the Azande believe witchcraft to be hereditary, children have a vested interest in keeping their parents in line, since a successful accusation against the parents also damages the child's reputation.
  • as such, the belief system is an important social control mechanism ensuring conformity and cooperation.
  • as Evans-Pristchard points out, this belief system is highly resistant to challenges, that is, it is a closed belief system that cannot be overturned by the evidence.
  • the 'test' doesn't disprove the belief system in the eyes of the believers, instead, it actually reinforces it. the believers are trapped in their own 'idiom of belief' or way of thinking.
  • because they accept the systems basic assumptions, they cannot challenge it

self-sustaining beliefs

  • Polanyi argues that belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves in the face of apparently contradictory evidence,
    • circularity - each idea in the system is explained in terms of another idea within the system and so on, round and round
8 of 21

  • subsidiary explanation - e.g if the oracle fails, it may be explained away as due to the incorrect use of benge
  • denial of legitimacy to rivals - belief systems reject alternative worldviews by refusing to grant any legitimacy to their basic assumptions.

science as a closed system

  • despite Poppers view of science as open and critical, some other writers argue that science itself can be seen as a self-sustaining or closed system of beliefs.
  • for example, Polyanyi argues that all belief systems reject fundamental challenges to their knowledge claims - science is no different
  • one explanation for scientists refusal to even to consider such challenges comes from a historian or science.
  • Kuhn argues that a mature science such as geology, biology or physics is based on a set of shared assumptions that he calls a paradigm.
  • the paradigm tells scientists what reality is really like, what problems to study and what methods and equipment to use, what will count as evidence, and even what answers they should find when they conduct research
9 of 21

  • for most of the time, scientists are engaged in normal science, while Kuhn likens to puzzle solving - the paradigm lays down the broad outlines and the scientists job is to carefully fill in the details.
  • those who do so successfully are rewared with bigger research grants, professorships, nobel prizes and so on.
  • scientific edu and training is a process of being socialised into faith in the truth of the paradigm, and a successful career depends on working within the paradigm.
  • for these reasons, any scientists who challenges the fundamental assumptions of the paradigm, as Velikovsky did, is likely to be ridiculed and hounded out of the profession.
  • indeed others in the scientific community will no longer regard him or her as a scientific revolution, when faith in the truth of the paradigm has already been undermined by an accumulation of anomalies - results that the paradigm cannot account for. only then do scientists become open to radically new ideas.
10 of 21

the sociology of scientific knowledge

  • interpretivist sociologists have developed Kuhn's ideas further. they argue that all knowledge - including scientific knowledge- is socially cosntructed.
  • that is, rather than being objective truth, it is created by social groups using the resources available to them
  • in the case of science, scientific facts - those things that scientists take to be true and real - are the product of shared theories or paradigms that tell them what they should expect to see, and of the particular instruments they use.
  • thus, Karin Knorr-Cetina argues that the invention of new instruments, such as telescopes or microscopes, permits scientists to make new observations and construct or fabricate new facts
  • similarly, she points out that what scientists study in the laboratory is highly constructed and far removed from the natural world thwy they are supposedly studying.
11 of 21

little green men

  • according to the ethnomethodologist Steve Woolgar, scientists are engaged in the same process of 'making sense' or interpreting the world as everyone else.
  • when confronted by evidence from their observations and experiments, they have to decide what it means
  • they so do by devising and applying theories or explanations, but that then have to persuade others to accept their interpretation
  • for example, in the case of discovery of pulsars, the scientists initially annotated the patterns shown on their printouts from the radio telescope as 'LGM1' 'LGM2' and so on - standing for 'little green men'.
  • recognising that this was an unacceptable interpretation from the viewpoint of the scientific community, they eventually settled on ther notion that the patterns presented the signals from a type of star hitherto unknown to science
  • however, more than a decade later, there was still disagreement among atromonomers as to what the signals really meant.
  • as Woolgar notes, a scientific fact is simply a social construction or belief that scientists are able to persuade their colleagues to share - not necessarily a real thing 'out there'
12 of 21

marxism, feminism and postmodernism

  • other critical perspectives such as marxism and feminism see scientific knowledge as far from pure truth
  • instead, they regard it as serving the interests of dominant groups - the RC in the case of marxists, and men in the case of feminists.
  • thus, many advances in sup.posedly pure science have been driven by the need of capitalism for certain types of knowledge
  • similarly, biological ideas have been used to justify both male domination and colonial expansion. in this respect, science can be seen as a form of ideology
  • in a different sense, p-modernists also reject the knowledge-claims of science to have the truth
  • in the view of Lyotard,for example,science is one of a number of meta-narratives or big stories that falsely claim to possess the truth
  • other meta-narratives include R, marxism and psychoanalysis
  • in lyotards view, science falsely claims to offer the truth about how the world works as a means of progress to a better society, whereas, in reality, he argues, science is just on more discourse or way of thinking that it is used to dominate people
13 of 21

  • similarly, rather like Marxists, some p-modernists argue that science has become technoscience, simply serving capitalist interests by producing commodities for profit


  • a basic definition of ideology is that it is a worldview or a set of ieas and values - in other words its a belief system.
  • however, the term is very widely used in sociology and has taken on a number of related meanings.
  • these often include negative aspects such as
    • distorted, false or mistaken ideas about the world, or a partial, one-sided or biased view of reality
    • ideas that coneal the interests of a particular group, or that legitimate their privileges
    • ideas that prevent change by misleading people about the reality of the situation they are in or about their own true interests or position
    • a self-sustaining belief system that is irrational and closed to criticism
14 of 21

  • therefore, very often when someone uses the term ideology to describe a belief system, it means that regard it as factually and/or morally wrong.

marxism and ideology

  • sees society as divided into two opposed classes: a minority capitalist RC who own the means of production and control the state, and a majority WC who are propertyless and therefore forced to sell their labour to the capitalists.
  • the capitalists class takes advantage of this, exploiting the workers labour to produce profit.
  • it is therefore in the workers interests to overthrow capitalism by means of a socialist revolution and replace it with a classless communist society in which the means of production are collectively, not privately, owned and used to benefit society as a whole
  • for this revolution to occur, the WC must first become conscious of their true position as exploited wage slaves - they must develop class consciousness
  • however, the RC also control the means of production of ideas through instituions such as edu, mass media and R.
  • these produce RC ideology - ideas liegitmating the status quo (existing social set up)
15 of 21

  • RC ideology included ideas and beliefs such as:
    • that equality will never work becuase it goes against human nature
    • vistim blaming ideas about poverty, such as what Bowles and Gintis call 'the poor are dumb' theory of meritocracy, everyone has an equal chance in life, so poor must be poor because they are stupid or lazy, not because of capitalism
    • racist ideas about the inferiority of ethnis minorities, which divide black and white worker and make them easier to rule
    • nationalist ideas that workers and capitalists of one nation have more in common than do the workers of the world
  • thus the dominant ideas are the ideas of the RC and they function to prevent change by creating a false consciousness among the workers.
  • however, despite these ideological barriers, Marx believs that ultimately the WC will develop a true class consciousness and unite to otherthrow capitalism
16 of 21

hegemony and revolution

  • Gramsci refers to the RC ideological domination of society as hegemony .
  • he argues that the WC can develop ideas that challenge RC hegemony.
  • this is because in capitalist society, workers have a dual consciousness - a mixture of RC ideology and ideas they develop from their own direct experience of expolitation and their struggle against it.
  • it is therefore possible for the WC to develop class consciousness and overthrow capitalism.
  • in Gramscis view, this requires a political party of organic intellectuals - that is, workers who through their anti-capitalist struggles have developed a class consciousness and can spread it throughout the WC
  • however, some critics argue that it is not the existence of a dominant ideology that keeps the workers in line and prevents attempts to overthrow capitalism.
  • for example, Abercrombie et al argues that it is economic factors such as the fear of unemployment that keep workers from rebelling.
17 of 21

ideology and utopia

  • Mannheims work on ideology was done between the two World Wars (1918-39), a time of intense political and social conflict - and this undoubtedly influenced his views.
  • Mannheim sees all belief systems as a partial or one sided worlview.
  • their one-sidedness results from being the viewpoint of one particular group or class and its interests.
  • this lead him to distinguish between two broad types of belief system or worldview:
    • ideoloigcal thought justifies keepings things the way they are - it reflects the position and interests of privileged groups such as the capitalist class. these benefits from maintaining the status quo, so their belief system tends to be conservative and favours hierarchy
    • utopian thought justifies social change - it reflects the position and interests of the unprivileged and offers a vision of how society could be organised differently. e.g. the WC are disadvantaged by the status quo and may offer radical change to a classless society. Mannheim sees Marxism as an example of utopian thought
18 of 21

  • Mannheim sees these worldviews as creations of groups of intellectuals who attach themselves to particular classes or social groups. e.g. the role of Gramsci's organic intellectuals is to create a WC or socialist worldview
  • however, because these intellectuals represent the interests of particular groups, and not society as a whole, they only produce partial views of reality.
  • the belief system of each class or group only gives us a partial truth about the world.
  • for Mannheim, this is a source of conflict in society.
  • different intellectuals, linked to different groups or classes, produce opposed and antagonistic ideas that justify the interests and claims of their group as against the others

free floating intelligentsia

  • in Mannheims view, the solution is therefore to detach the intellectuals from the social groups they represent and crate a non-aligned of free-floating intelligentsia standing above the conflict
19 of 21

  • freed from representing the interests of this or that group, they would be able to synthesise elements of the different partial ideologis and utopias so as to arrive at a total worldview that represented the interests of society as a whole.
  • however, many of the elements of different political ideologies are diametrically opposed to one abother and it is hard to imagine how these could be synthesised.

feminism and ideology

  • sees gender inequality as the fundamental division and patriarchal ideology as playing a key role in legitimating it.
  • because gender difference is a feature of all societies, there exist many different ideologies to justify it, for example, Pauline Marks describes how ideas from science have been used to jsutify excluding women from education.
  • she quotes 19th C male doctors, scientists and educationalists expressing the view that education females would lead to the creation of a new race puny and unfeminine females and disqualify women from their true vocation, namely the nuturing of the next generation.
20 of 21

  • in addition to patriarchal ideologies in science, those embodied in religious beliefs and practices have also been used to define women as inferior. there are numberous examples from a wide range of R's of the idea that women are ritually impure or unclean, partially because of childbirth menstruation.
  • however, not all elelements of religious belief systems subordinate women. for example, there is evidence that in the early history of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, before the emergence of the monotheistic patriarchal R's, matriarchal R's with female deities were widespread, with female priests and the celebration of fertility cults.
  • similarly, in Hinduism, goddesses have often been portrayed as mothers or creators of the universe.
21 of 21




Nothing that can't be found in an up-to-date AQA textbook. Useful, but almost word-for-word the same.

Pete Langley - Get Revising founder


Well, possibly - except that this is in the form of cards that you can print as cards - oh yes - and it's free.

Abbie C


What does RC mean?

Very helpful notes :)

Marianne Mills


Thank you such a help!

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »