“The persistent development of science occurs only in societies of a certain order, subject to a peculiar complex of tacit presuppositions and institutional constraints,” sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote in 1938, in one of the essays that initiated his recurring 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 example of his time, Nazi Germany, and the science system of the Soviet Union during the Cold War that began soon thereafter, Merton’s concise paradigm made its career in the sociology of science.
Eighty years after the initial publication of Merton's theses, the population of political regimes in world society looks quite different from that found in the mid-twentieth century: the antitheses to a democratic social structure are no longer “totalitarian societies” but resilient modern autocracies, such as the PR China, Iran, and Russia. All are major participants in the global system of science. Does this call for a revision of Merton’s theory, or do we just need to further differentiate the original dichotomies to which he pointed? Is the scientific ethos really incompatible with authoritarian political structures today? Convinced that they are still the most challenging theoretical contribution to a political sociology of science, we will revisit the Mertonian hypotheses of the normative structure of science on the basis of contemporary case studies, and invite interested colleagues to join us in this endeavor.
One output of this project will be an edited volume or special issue on “Science and Democratic and Authoritarian Social Structures” (working title).