„The System of Science and Democratic and Authoritarian Social Structures in the Twenty-First Century“

Workshop and Special Issue

Winter 2023/24—Berlin or Bonn & hybrid

“The persistent development of science occurs only in societies of a certain order, subject to a peculiar complex of tacit presuppositions and institutional constraints,” wrote sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1938, in one of the essays that contained his reflections on science and democratic social structure. Merton was deeply convinced that science could only thrive in democratic societies, since only they would be able to uphold the ethos of modern science—universalism, communism, disinterestedness, organized skepticism. Corroborated by the most obvious empirical examples of totalitarian regimes of his time, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Merton’s hypothesis made its career in the sociology of science. Later, it seems, the so-called global “waves of democratization” of the outgoing twentieth century rendered questions of the incompatibilities of non-democratic structures and scientific growth and excellence irrelevant for scholars.

Today, Merton’s hypothesis no longer seems that evident. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, half of the world’s countries are labelled as non-democracies, though they are no longer necessarily “totalitarian regimes,” and there are several cases of so-called hybrid regimes or illiberal democracies. Science, scholarship, and mass higher education are important societal institutions also in autocracies, as cases such as Iran, and Russia illustrate. Some authoritarian regimes, most significantly in the People’s Republic of China, and also Singapore, which choose a technocratic approach to science policy and targeted investments, are able to produce world-class research and universities. Saudi-Arabia’s leadership ambitions to follow in their footsteps and to become a leading player in the global system of science.

Does this call for a revision or rejection or reaffirmation of Merton’s hypothesis? Do we need to further elaborate the dichotomies of political regimes to which Merton pointed, in line with their evolution since the twentieth century? Is the scientific ethos really incompatible with authoritarian political structures today? Is there a looser coupling between political structures and science, scholarship, and technology today than was envisioned in the classic Merton hypothesis? That is, do we require a fundamentally different conceptualization of the scientific ethos and of academia’s interrelations with different types of polities in the twenty-first century?

We are convinced that they are still the most challenging theoretical contribution to a political sociology of science, and will revisit the Mertonian hypotheses of the normative structure of science in its specific interaction with democratic and authoritarian social structures. We are therefore inviting you to contribute to our workshop with in-depth contemporary case studies, comparative analyses, and theoretical reflections that will subsequently be published as a special issue of a scientific journal and (or) an edited volume.

If you would like to participate, please send a paper abstract of circa 250 words to office-ahlers@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de by July 15, 2023.

Once we have a list of participants, we will use a calendar tool to jointly select the best date for our hybrid conference in January 2024. Draft manuscripts will be due about three weeks before the workshop date.


Anna L. Ahlers (LMRG, MPIWG) & Rudolf Stichweh (FIW, University of Bonn)