The Strong Programme


The so-called Strong Programme is a particular kind of sociology of science that was 'created' by the "Edinburgh School" of sociology in the late 1970's to early 1980's. The two main proponents of the Strong Programme were Barry Barnes and David Bloor (and also Mary Hesse, though her version of the strong programme is somewhat different from that of Barnes and Bloor). Basically, the strong programme is a way of describing science (sociologically) that allows you to explain all 'scientific' beliefs with the same sorts of explanations. The gyst of the strong programme (that of Barnes and Bloor will be discussed here) can be summarized into four points:

  • 1. Causal: All explanations it offers must be causal. That is, concerning the conditions which enable a particular belief to come about.
  • 2. Impartiality: It should be impartial with regards to rationality/irrationality, truth and falsity, success or failure.
  • 3. Symmetry: The same 'types' of causes should explain true/false, rational/irrational successful/failing beliefs.
  • 4. Reflexivity: It should be able to explain its own beliefs (those of the strong programme) with the same sorts of explanations that it gives for other beliefs.
  • The Strong Programme was a source of great debate when it first appeared. Its most vehement (and hilarious!) opponent was Larry Laudan. Laudan took the strong programme to task mainly for its "Symmetry" thesis, because he believes (as do a lot of rationalists, and scientists...) that true beliefs can and (importantly) do have different sorts of causal explanations than false beliefs. To argue his point, Laudan uses all the standard tactics that objectivists use against relativists, plus a few more. The great thing about the Laudan-Bloor debate (they shot back and forth at each other through a number of articles) is its extremely polemical manner. Both sides make some devastatingly smart points, and they both manage to do so in one of the most hilarious debates I've ever read. I am convinced by both sides, depending on who I happen to read last!

    The idea of 'strong objectivity' (one that takes into account its own causal origins) was very influential in 'science studies' and still is. For example: feminist standpoint epistemology has a lot of connections to the strong programme.

    References (for, against, and developments upon, the Strong Programme)

    Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976).
    Bloor, Barnes and Henry, Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996) (more recent)
    Hesse, "The Strong Thesis in the Sociology of Science" in Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1980).
    Laudan, "The Pseudo Science of Science" pp. 173-198 in Philsophy of the Social Sciences 11 (1981).
    Bloor, "The Strengths of the Strong Program" pp. 199-213 in Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11 (1981).
    Schmaus, "Reasons, Causes, and the Strong Programme" pp. 189-196 in Philosophy of the Social Sciences 15 (1985).
    Laudan, "More on Bloor" (article in a course reader I have, sans publishing information, sorry).
    Barnes and Edge, Science in Context: Readings in the Sociology of Science (Open University Press, London, 1982).
    Chubin, Sociology of Sciences: an Annotated Bibliography on Invisible Colleges 1972-1981 (Garland Publishing, New York, 1983). ((General bibliography of sociology of science, not limited to the strong programme)).
    Laudan, Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990).

    In Defense of the Strong Programme

    The Strong Programme is an attempt to get a view of science that is empirically “better” or more accurate. Its strategy is to dispel the belief in the scientist as a detached observer, and make sociological conditions matter when we look at how true and false scientific beliefs are arrived at. Often connected with social constructionism or constructivism because it sees scientific knowledge as having social causes at work in the production of its content, the Programme finds its roots in the works of authors like Robert K. Merton, Thomas Kuhn, and Karl Mannheim as well as in the empiricist tradition laid out by philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke. It was Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), that popularized the idea that the contexts in which science takes place should be given attention when considering how science actually works. According to Kuhn, science exists in a social and historical framework, and that “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a time.”1 Causality clearly plays a role in Kuhn’s view of science, and this is a major theme in the Strong Programme. In this paper I am going to look at the Strong Programme, its major arguments and some criticisms of those arguments that are made on behalf of the rationalist/objectivist camp. Accusatory salvos are fired off at the Strong Programme by critics such as Henry H. Bauer, who, in his essay "Antiscience in Current Science Studies and Technology Studies"(2000), attacks relativist philosophies of science. He does this by using examples that are designed to show that scientific knowledge is, in fact, beyond the influence of social circumstances. He refers to the fact that a rock falls to earth no matter what social or linguistic factors surround it, and then cites a social constructivist or relativist argument that criticizes the very use of that example because it is culturally “encoded” for use as a weapon against relativist claims. Supposedly, since the falling rock example is observably true, then it is a blow to the relativist project, and the “cultural encoding” rebuttal is a weak attempt to grasp at straws. Bauer dismisses the relativist contention, saying that

    so far as scientists are concerned, the argument over “culturally constructed,” is purely whether or not the behavior of bodies is accurately described under the theory of a gravity. That’s all. No more than that. But also certainly not less. That a scientist’s choices of example in an argument with nonscientists are culturally influenced is an entirely other matter2
    Bauer wants to argue that relativist philosophers of science rely on weak examples and “tricky footwork because otherwise they admit that they have nothing useful to say.”3 I tend to disagree with this, especially when the Strong Programme is criticized for being relativist, because I don’t think there is anything anywhere in the Strong Programme which denies that there can be scientific beliefs that are actually true. The Strong Programme, even as a relativist project, strives for accuracy in identifying contingencies; this is not to undermine the search for objective knowledge, but to help it along! Despite the denunciation of traditional philosophers of science, the Strong Programme seems to me to be a productive enterprise, which is useful in rejecting the traditional scientific “mythos” of objectivity. It only makes sense that we should not ignore the role of language, social relations and epistemological frameworks (religious beliefs, for example) in knowledge production. If we are fundamentally social creatures, then we cannot expect our social nature to disappear when we step into a laboratory and put on a white lab coat. Because the Strong Programme tries to present a more well rounded view of science, it seems to me to be an appealing alternative to the positivist or objectivist project. Here, I will outline the tenets of the Strong Programme before engaging in the arguments concerning it in greater depth.

    The desired end of the Strong Programme is a “strong” objective view, which is a socialized view of science. This strong objectivity lays claim to a more truthful epistemological stance because it is not “tainted” by traditional objectivity (the “detached observer” point of view that sees scientific beliefs as pure and untouched by social and other types of factors). Philosopher of science David Bloor (along with associate Barry Barnes, who worked with Bloor in Edinburgh - that collective of thinkers and work associated with them is known as the Edinburgh school) laid out a framework for the Strong Programme in his book Knowledge and Social Imagery(1976). the sociological analysis of knowledge must, in Bloor’s theory be:

    1) Causal. In other words, it recognizes that scientific beliefs are not arrived at in a vacuum, and that there are social factors (such as laboratory practices, training procedures for scientists and even personal goals) involved in knowledge production. This does not mean to entirely discount actual scientific evidence, but the Strong Programme recommends that non-scientific causes be given equal attention in considering how beliefs are produced.

    2) Impartial. True and false beliefs are examined in exactly the same way, and true beliefs are not given privilege over false ones in terms of analysis.

    3) Symmetrical. We must look for the same types of causes behind scientific beliefs. For instance, the Lysenko affair, in which a certain biological theory was adopted because it agreed with certain communist sentiments. Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet biologist developed a Lamarckian theory of evolution, which said that species can evolve based on adaptation to their surroundings, and pass those adaptations on to the following generations. Of course, in North America, we accepted Darwinism, which superseded Lamarckianism. For us, to believe that giraffes ended up with long necks due to generations of individual giraffes straining to reach leaves to eat is silly. In the USSR, however, Lysenko’s theory appealed to the Marxist belief that humanity can develop toward perfection (albeit an atheistic one, in contrast to Hegel's formulation, from which Marx drew inspiration) through the struggle of historical dialectic. His work was therefore accepted and endorsed by the government; Soviet Darwinists were heavily sanctioned and faced severe penalties for continuing to espouse that evolutionary theory. So here we see that Lysenko was accepted and the Darwinists were rejected because of the same cause: Marxist-Leninist politics. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that we might find the “right” theory being accepted for similar reasons. Certainly, in England, Darwin’s theory of evolution appealed to the upper classes because its belief in a nature that preserved order among species. Elitists preferred to hear that only the “chosen” would survive and thrive while the lower classes would stay exactly where they were. Here, we see the symmetry thesis playing a slightly different role: examining a “true” belief to see if it was chosen for the “right” or “wrong” reasons. According to the Strong Programme, the symmetry thesis conducts a type of analysis that will lead us to this sort of conclusion (a propos the causes underlying beliefs, true or false).

    4) Reflexive. The reflexivity premise says that the methodology of the strong Programme must allow itself to be submitted to the exact same analysis it applies to the scientific production of beliefs. So, when we examine a scientific belief in terms of a political agenda, for instance, we must examine the political framework in which we are conducting the investigation so that we can see how it may be affecting our own methods and results.

    Bloor says that these “four tenets, of causality, impartiality, symmetry and reflexivity define what will be called the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge.”4 As we can see, a heavy emphasis is placed on social construction and contingencies. It abandons the “God’s eye view” of science, and tries to place it in a historical, social context so that we may better understand it. It is a realist, empirical theory of knowledge, rooted in relativist tendencies, that even posits rationality as having social components, which is no doubt a highly unattractive position to most traditional philosophers of science. Bloor makes a distinction between what he calls “natural” rationality and “normative” rationality, saying that “one has reference to matters of psychological fact; the other to shared standards or norms.”5 Normative rationality comes under scrutiny in the Strong Programme; it too is seen as a result of social forces, not an objective or perfect property that cannot be tainted by human life. Again, in this view, “rational” scientific beliefs (and thus rationality itself) must be assigned causes just as “irrational” beliefs and decisions are. Mary Hesse, another supporter of the Strong Programme, writes:

    It follows from the strong thesis that the sociology of knowledge is symmetrical in that it is not confined to the pathology of belief: to irrationality, or error, or deviance from rational norms. It rejects the view that correct use of reason, and true grounded belief, need no causal explanation, whereas error does need it. There is, of course, a sense in which this is true but merely trite. For if an explanation of why someone got a piece of arithmetic right, for instance, is given as ‘because he followed the rational rules’, this can immediately be followed up by the causal question ‘Why did he follow the rational rules?’, to which the answer may be a combination of biological, psychological and sociological explanation. And this would be true even if it were also true that there are conclusive arguments for the necessity of the rational rules, for it is clear that few people (if any) in fact adopt such rules on pure grounds of rational necessity uncaused by any previous social history6
    Given Hesse’s assertion, it seems that the Strong Programme wants to avoid begging the question insofar as rationality is concerned. If we set up rationality as the foundation of arriving at beliefs as well as its goal, then we are bound to run into problems: namely, “rational” beliefs are not subjected to as much scrutiny as they might otherwise have been, and we end up with the Lysenko Affair, for instance.

    David Bloor also comments on this in Knowledge and Social Imagery. Bloor says that if we

    suppose that it is assumed that truth, rationality and validity are man’s natural goal and the direction of certain natural tendencies with which he is endowed. Man is a rational animal and he naturally reasons justly and cleaves to the truth when it comes within his view. Beliefs that are true clearly require no special comment. For them, their truth is all the explanation that is needed of why they are believed7
    Bloor and Hesse offer contrasting accounts of belief production; in doing so, they illuminate the way in which the Strong Programme differs from conventional philosophies in science. They set up the conflict which Bloor outlines in Knowledge and Social Imagery; that is, the “teleological” tradition versus its “empirical” alternative. Philosopher Richard Rorty talks about this division in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). He sees a split has having formed between the Enlightenment period, in which philosophical thought was mostly dedicated to science and its pursuits, and the Romantic period, in which poetry and art became held as more important. Rorty says that because of the Romantic period, philosophers started to see truth as something being “made” rather than being “found”, which was the common sentiment during the Enlightenment. Rorty, of course, sides with relativism. He identifies modes of thought as metaphors that succeed and supersede each other. He sides with what Bloor calls the empirical view, and dismisses the Enlightenment faith in reason and truth; he sees something much more ephemeral and much less progressive in our beliefs and knowledge claims. He says that
    Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors. This analogy lets us think of “our language” - that is, of the science and culture of twentieth century Europe - as something that took shape as a result of a great number of sheer contingencies. Our language and our culture as as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches (and millions of others inding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids. To accept this analogy, we must follow Mary Hesse in thinking of scientific revolutions as “metaphoric redescriptions” of nature rather than insights into the intrinsic nature of nature. Further, we must resist the temptation to think that the redescriptions of reality offered by contemporary physical or biological science are somehow closer to “the things themselves,” less “mind-dependent,” than the redescriptions of history offered by contemporary culture criticism. We need to see the constellations of causal forces which produced talk of DNA or of the Big Bang as of a piece with the causal forces which produced talk of “secularization”, or of “late capitalism”. These various constellations are the random factors which have made some things subjects of conversation for us and others not, have made some projects and not others possible and important8
    This is a statement which stands for a more radical sentiment than I think David Bloor presents; however, I think it identifies the general focus of the strong Programme. Whereas Rorty seems to be getting behind the idea that we do not accept any truth-proposition as anything other than a metaphor, the Strong Programme wants to make the contingencies which Rorty is talking about a part of the whole sphere of scientific knowledge. After all, “strong objectivity” is an essential aspect of the Strong Programme; to accept Rorty’s position wholeheartedly would be to slide inescapably into total relativism and uncertainty.

    Supposing for a moment, though, that we impose the reflexivity requirement on what they are trying to do here, we might come to the conclusion that the Strong Programme is a product of its time, a result of the acceptance of philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as Rorty. There is no doubt that the cultural relativist/pragmatism school of thought seems relevant to today’s North American society (hence its popularity, never mind the controversy surrounding it. Richard Rorty is held in high contempt for hinting that philosophy might not matter more than any other system of thought), while older philosophical doctrines that stress the importance of reason seem terribly dated. Therefore, the Strong Programme must itself submit to its own standards of scrutiny and face up to the charge of spouting relativist hogwash. Its critics use its tenets as ammunition against it, saying that relativism cannot even support itself, because it shows that its own claims must be as contingent and substantial as every other knowledge claim. Here, I will take a look at critiques of the Strong Programme and its possible defenses.

    Larry Laudan is a prominent voice in the chorus of disapproval facing the Strong Programme. Laudan and other rationalists have “called” the Strong Programme and its adherents on its claims (especially with regard to Bloor’s “symmetry” requirement, which I will discuss below), saying that it is merely relativism by another name and as such is not justifiable. In his article “The Pseudo-Science of Science?”, Laudan takes the Strong Programme to task by countering the claim that “only via sociology (or its cognates, anthropology and archaeology) can we hope to acquire a ‘scientific’ understanding of science itself.”9 For Laudan, the Strong Programme is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, it is too general, and offers no strict method and details no mechanisms of operation or use. This, for Laudan and his allies, is a blatant example of why it is not actually a “science of science”;

    it is, rather, a meta-sociological manifesto. It lays down certain very general characteristics which any adequate sociology of knowledge should possess. It is‘programmatic’ in the strict sense; it should be approached, and I think it was intended to be approached as a set of regulative principles about what sort of theories sociologists should aspire to10
    In this reading of the Programme, the focus on empirical observation can be nullified, because its tenets are far too broad and ill defined to be have empirical inspection applied to it properly.

    Another fault that Laudan finds with Bloor’s theory is that he finds the four theses of the Strong Programme to be of little or no substance; in fact, they may even be redundancies. The causality thesis, according to Laudan, is largely redundant, because

    it is my impression (although not Bloor’s) that practically every sociologist and philosopher of science who has discussed the question of human belief has acquiesced in the claim that something or other causes us to believe what we believe. The idea that the mental states we denote by the term ‘beliefs’ might be outside the causal order, that there might literally be no causal antecedents to our beliefs, is as anathema to most philosophical thinking as it is to ‘scientific’ thinking.11
    It would appear that Bloor (in Laudan’s eyes) is setting up a straw man in the causality thesis. He is assigning a fault to traditional philosophies of science that, according to Laudan, is not there. Recognizing that there are causes external to scientific activity that lead us to beliefs is something that all philosophers of science as well as scientists already accept, says Bloor. Since the causality essentially means nothing according to this view, the reflexivity and impartiality thesis also become powerless as a tool for the sociology of knowledge in the Strong Programme.

    It is the symmetry thesis, however, that Laudan takes the greatest exception to; this actually disappoints him, because he sees it as the one tenet of the Strong Programme that can actually cause any controversy or pause for thought. It is a “strong formulation of cognitive relativism12 that Laudan breaks into three subcategories: epistemic symmetry (explaining true and false beliefs by the same kinds of cause), rational symmetry (same kinds of cause for rational and irrational beliefs), and pragmatic symmetry (same kinds of cause for successful and unsuccessful beliefs). Laudan’s main contention with the symmetry thesis is that it is too general and vague to be properly applied as a strategy or mechanism by a sociologist of knowledge. Because of this, it is disarmed, and with that the Strong Programme is reduced to the functional, yet uncontroversial theses of causality, reflexivity, and impartiality. Laudan concludes by saying that of the Strong Programme that it

    is bold, ambitious, and global in the claims it makes. But, as I have tried to show, the symmetry thesis is not strong in the crucial sense of being well supported by the evidence. Quite the reverse. Under the circumstances, one might be inclined to drop the symmetry thesis to keep the strong Programme intact13
    In accusing the Strong Programme of being ‘meta-sociology’ and overly vague, the symmetry thesis is where Laudan finds his evidence; he also faults it for privileging sociology in such a way that scientific method and facts themselves can get overshadowed and forgotten in what he calls the “primacy of the sociological turn”. Bloor and company, says Laudan, claim that because there is a social component to science (the way scientists are trained, for instance), that sociology should play a central rule in understanding sociology. Were this the case, it would undermine and diminish the role of scientific activity in science. “It is nothing but a bad pun,” asserts Laudan, “to say that because science is a social activity it follows that science is best understood as a sociological phenomenon.”14 Another critic of the relativist project, Ian Hacking, has a more sympathetic reading, though. In The Social Construction of What? (1999), Hacking comes to the defense of the Strong Programme by pointing out that while it seeks to direct attention to the social aspects of science, that is all it does. It is not trying to posit all scientific belief as social construction:
    Lewis Wolpert (1993), the distinguished British embryologist and public spokesman about science,connects the Strong Programme with social constructionism. ‘Those who hold to the Strong Programme believe that all knowledge is essentially a social construct, and so all science (good or bad) merits the same attention’(p.110). I have not found this argument (the A, therefore B) in the writings of Barnes or Bloor. I shall mention their symmetry thesis later, but constructionism does not seem to be so intimately involved in the Strong Programme as is commonly made out ... The Edinburgh school wants to explain scientific knowledge by considerations which most scientists consider to be external to what is known, that is, to the content of science15
    Furthermore, Hacking stresses his belief that the symmetry thesis is often misinterpreted as wanting to examine evidence rather than beliefs. That is, he thinks that Bloor would like beliefs to be examined for causes as to why they are believed and not simply be held as true or explained to be true because of their truth. He does not see any call to dispute actual evidence, if it is feasible in accepting. The point of the symmetry thesis is not to dispute the legitimacy of scientific evidence, because actual evidence and good results can lead to good theories. As we saw in the Lysenko affair, anyway, good evidence and theories can be repressed, and bad ones promoted. When something like this happens, the symmetry thesis’ purpose becomes clear: an explanation for why the Lysenko affair happened can be found in why people hold a belief to be favorable or true. The symmetry thesis tries to do this so that we can understand what happened.

    Bloor himself defends the Strong Programme against critiques in the conclusion of Knowledge and Social Imagery. He professes to actually support what he sees as the majority of mainstream contemporary science, saying that for the most part, it is “causal, theoretical, value-neutral, often reductionist, to an extent empiricist, and ultimately materialistic like common sense. This means that it is opposed to teleology, anthropomorphism and what is transcendent.”16 Obviously, he is trying to avoid the accusations of relativism and contingentism that the Strong Programme has nonetheless been hit with. He freely admits that the “strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge rests on a form of relativism”17, and goes on to say that while this is true, the Strong Programme is not out to destroy the belief in objective scientific knowledge. “Where does the sociology of knowledge stand with regard to the Rock of Objectivity? Does it say that truly objective knowledge is impossible? Emphatically it does not.”18 He posits the Strong Programme as a way to explain, examine and account for objectivity and the belief in objective knowledge. This is no different than any other scientific theory, and Bloor insists that it be taken as part and parcel of science because science, as our “form of knowledge”19 is the foundation of our culture. In this way, science needs to have the same care applied to it as it applies to its own subjects of inquiry, so that it has a better chance of not going astray or leading us into erroneous beliefs.

    So here we have an account of the Strong Programme and some arguments for and against it. Despite criticisms of it, I think that the Strong Programme remains a valid and valuable lens through which we can set about examining the nature of our knowledge and beliefs. I am inclined to agree with some critiques of relativism; for instance, I do believe that there is some reason for everything and I am not willing to lapse into a Kantian state of only knowing that I cannot know, or rather, that there is nothing to know but metaphors and descriptions (which is the Rortian stance). This is not where I think the Strong Programme is trying to go, though. I think that the it echoes the Socratic adage that the unexamined life is not worth living; in its essence, I think the Strong Programme is trying to say that unexamined knowledge is not worth believing in. At the very least, it is saying not to take scientific knowledge at face value all the time. Its critiques (courtesy of people like Laudan and Wolpert) seem to have been rooted in some kind of misreading, for by reading Bloor’s book one can find enough disclaimers against seeing the Strong Programme as a relativist or contingentist theory. Furthermore, when Laudan faults it for being too vague, I would respond to that with Bloor’s declaration that he sees most science as having the same attributes as common sense. If this is so, then the Strong Programme is an exercise in diligence, astuteness and common sense - conducted in a careful manner, just like the scientific method should be; therefore, it needs no detailed mechanism, prescription, or outline for how to employ it, and to condemn it for not providing one does not quite hold water. While it may not be (and probably is not) the best solution to ironing out the bugs in our methods of knowledge production, I think that for what it is worth, Bloor et. al. try to at least offer something better by trying to present a way of conducting science and knowledge that drops the “God’s eye view” perspective and replaces it with a view that is at once engaged with the internal (scientific activity itself) and the external (social factors that influence and pervade science). This is why, in my opinion at least, the Strong Programme should be encouraged, understood and placed along side science itself as a part of how we arrive at our beliefs and accepted truths.


    1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 4.
    2. Henry H. Bauer, “Antiscience in Current Science and Technology Studies”, in Beyond the Science Wars, ed. Ullica Segerstråle (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000) 48.
    3. Bauer, 48.
    4. David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, (London: Routledge Direct Editions, 1976) 5.
    5. David Bloor, “The Strengths of the Strong Programme”, in the CTMP 3000: Science and Culture Reader (1981; Halifax: University of King’s College, 2001) 207.
    6. Mary Hesse, “The Strong Thesis of Sociology of Science”, in Revolutions & Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980) 32.
    7. Bloor, Knowledge , 8.
    8. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 16-7.
    9. Larry Laudan, “The Pseudo-Science of Science?”, in the CTMP 3000: Science and Culture Reader (1981; Halifax: University of King’s College, 2001) 174.
    10. Laudan, 174.
    11. Laudan, 182.
    12. Laudan, 184.
    13. Laudan, 197-8.
    14. Laudan, 194.
    15. Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) 65.
    16. Bloor, Knowledge, 141.
    17. Bloor, Knowledge, 142.
    18. Bloor, Knowledge, 143.
    19. Bloor, Knowledge, 144.

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