Conjectures and Reputations: The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and the History of Economic Thought

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

History of Political Economy




Joseph Schumpeter opens chapter 4 of his monumental History of Economic Analysis (1954) with the distinction between Wissenschaftslehre (the science of science) and Wissenssoziologie (the sociology of science). The former, he says, starts from “logic and to some extent also from epistemology” and concerns “the general rules of procedure in use in the other individual sciences,” while the latter treats “science as a social phenomenon” (Schumpeter 1954, 33). Although these two distinctions are still with us and they continue to divide the study of science in a useful way, the last twenty or so years have not been good for Wissenschafslehre, while Wissenssoziologie seems to have a new lease on life. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the sociological approach’s new lease on life and how it relates to the discipline of economics in general and the history of economic thought in particular. While the main focus will be the sociological turn, it is useful to briefly examine the current situation within the philosophy of science, since its difficulties have provided some of the impetus for the growth of the sociological view. In the study of science, as in science itself, alternative approaches do not gain momentum until chinks have appeared in the armor of the dominant view-and right now positivist-inspired philosophy of science has a lot of chinks. The paper is arranged as follows. Section 2 provides the backdrop for the sociological turn. There are two subsections to this background material; one discusses the breakdown of the Received View, and the other examines two earlier approaches to the sociology of science: the Marxist and Mertonian traditions. Section 3 examines the two most influential approaches within contemporary sociology of scientific knowledge-the Strong Program and social constructivism-and also contains a section on (self-identified) criticisms and related developments. Section 4 discusses two important contact points between the sociological literature and the discipline of economics: the economics of science and the application to the history of economic thought.