technology, science, and culture 4963

Technological Determinism; Technology,
Science, and Culture


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technology, science, and

Noah Efron

It is because the sciences, especially the natural
sciences, were for so long, and by so many, taken
to be divorced from culture that their great
interpenetration with culture remains surprising
and, in some circles, controversial. In recent
decades, historians, sociologists, and anthropol
ogists of science have documented many ways in
which cultural influences have affected the
development of the sciences, and in which
sciences have left an imprint on seemingly far
flung aspects of culture. This scholarship has
been vigorously, sometimes viciously, disputed
by scientists and others who still see the sciences
as largely unswayed by the cultures in which
they are practiced. In the 1990s, this dispute
became commonly, if rather grandly, known as
the Science Wars.
It is difficult to characterize the relationships
between science and culture because neither
science nor culture is easily defined.
Science typically refers to a set of practices
aiming to uncover and formalize regularities in
nature, and to the bodies of knowledge these
practices produce. Since both the practices and
the bodies of knowledge have varied by epoch,
place, and discipline, however, any general char
acterization of science is partial and problematic.
Culture too is a general term that has no
universally accepted referent. Alfred Kroeber
and Clyde Kluckhohn famously catalogued over
200 definitions of culture, including the social
legacy the individual acquires from his group,
a way of thinking, feeling, and believing, and
the storehouse of pooled learning. A recent
United Nations declaration reckoned culture as
the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intel
lectual, and emotional features of society or a
social group, and that it encompasses, in addi
tion to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of liv
ing together, value systems, traditions, and
beliefs. The relationships between science
and culture, then, are relationships between
hazy and ill grasped concepts.
Often, these relationships are viewed from
one of two opposite directions. One concerns
the impacts that culture has on science and
technology, while the other concerns the influ
ences of science and technology on culture. This
crass division is problematic in the eyes of many
because it assumes that culture and science
and technology are fundamentally indepen
dent entities. For those who see science as a
complex of human activities that are cultural
from the ground up, the distinction between
culture and science is misleading (making
no more sense than similarly distinguishing