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Science As a Self-Organizing Institution

Science As a Self-Organizing Institution

Nothing is as confusing and confused as institutions are in Sociology. Are they rules? Who creates them? Why do autonomous agents follow them? Who enforces them? Do they emerge spontaneously? Or deliberately? Are they organizations? What are organizations, if not a mere set of rules? The more questions, the more confusion!

1. A preliminary thought experiment

My metaphor for institutions is that of a tunnel. It could very well be a natural tunnel emerging from millions of years of rock erosion but considered a purpose-built two-way traffic tunnel, yet which way the traffic should follow is not indicated – at least at the end of the tunnel where I am waiting in my Tata.[1] If you are like me – from Pakistan, you know from experience that outgoing traffic flows on the left and incoming traffic flows on the right. The only information I am sure of is that I am in the USA, and the traffic rules might differ. I can act bold, but my gut feeling is I will run into an accident. An additional hindrance is that the tunnel is dark, and my car has no headlights. I wait for someone else to go first, and lucky me, someone in a Buick does show up and enters the tunnel like they know something. I follow their lead.

Remember, I did not verify if they knew how the traffic flows. I just assumed they had the knowledge I did not. In my rearview mirror, I see a Dacia, Tofas, Renault, Volkswagen, and Toyota following my lead – in that order. The Dacia was in the same fix that I was, and so were the others. Dacia assumed about me, Tofas assumed about Dacia … and so … that I had believed about Ford. As a matter of fact, Ford was also a foreign graduate student, but this way, he became an institutional entrepreneur. However, he had only set traffic rules, and ‘the state’ was the entrepreneur who built the tunnel. Consider the argument that the tunnel is just a rule for directing traffic. The goal they had in mind for making the tunnel was very different from the goal Ford had in his mind. The state wanted to connect two regions; Ford wanted to get to the other side to see a friend. Tunnel as an institution was deliberately set, but traffic flow was accidental. This improvised thought experiment might suggest that institutions arise out of contingencies – some planned, others unplanned; they stick when many agents interact until it becomes routine behavior – sometimes without knowing the reason why a chain of action started; and the particular goals of the initiators and imitators might not align, but when they clash a crisis emerges. Let’s elaborate on this clash through another thought experiment.

As it happens, the other side of the tunnel had instructions for the traffic flow – and by sheer luck, the lanes did not collide. What if Renault – being French – protested and drove into the oncoming traffic lane? It will only cause an accident. The tunnel will be closed for hours, if not days, which would cause societal problems. Had Renault followed the spontaneous yet collectively shared rule and stayed within the yellow lines of the lane; it would have avoided a coordination problem. Let’s say had Renault remained in the lane, and the traffic flow was not disrupted. This would ensure a smooth traffic flow until the rules are affixed at this end of the tunnel too. To ensure no one gets into the accident Renault just avoided, the state decided to erect a barrier, and installed cameras to ensure no one takes a U-turn where one block of the barrier is missing for emergency vehicles. They send police to any violators and take away their privilege to drive. This small thought experiment is what institutions are. They have (meta-)cognitive, material (ergo organizational), and symbolic dimensions, i.e., people either do not realize they are within (following) an institution, or when they do, they do not really think about it; they sometimes find themselves in a concrete situation that is like a tunnel where folks follow routines to avoid accidents; and they realize the symbolic meanings importance of yellow lines and could very well distinguish them from white, solid from dashed – sometimes because they know what they stand for, other times, they see others ascribing some meaning to them. More importantly, this thought experiment shows how institutions can emerge and maintain themselves.


1.1 Defining Institutions

This metaphor, like all metaphors, might have added to the confusion, but hey, welcome to Sociology! We propose definitions where metaphors fail! Institutions are set of durable rules that regulate human behavior, confer legitimacy to social actions, and reproduce themselves through interaction. They are also collective, metacognitive frameworks that influence individual cognition and actions (DiMaggio, 1997; Zerubavel, 1999). They are enduring and recurrent patterns of behaviors that agents observe and internalize through socialization that provide the structure of their actions within specific social settings, which affords predictability and ensures stability, thereof laying the foundations of sociality and making exchange possible (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). They help agents achieve collective goals (Durkheim, 1973) – goals that are usually set by the elites. Hence, while some institutions emerge from spontaneous interactions, others are purposive constructions. Thus, they are permanently implicated in social stratification and wed with power (Marx & Engels, 1965). Some institutions are formal (e.g., the written laws), while others are informal (e.g., deference to elders or table manners). Some are universal (e.g., family, market), and others are culture-specific and local (e.g., individualism). Some take organizational forms (e.g., religion, firms), while others remain amorphous (e.g., morality). Some are self-organizing (e.g., the bazaar), and other require enforcement (e.g., contracts). Compliance with institutions brings rewards, deviance merits sanctions.


2. Science as an Institution

            What is science if not a set of rules and routines? These are not just what we call the scientific method but include elaborate prescriptions and prohibitions. One way to treat science as an institution is to see where rules of scientific methods were followed, but we know that science as an institution has grown out of mere experimentation and hypothesis testing. Moreover, there are taboos (like IQ, gender, race, or any essentializing elements) that scientists should not touch even when they follow the scientific method.

2.1 Merton and Kuhn – Rules, Norms, and Collective Nature of Science

            Robert Merton deals with this notion – science as an institution – by suggesting science is a systematic and organized activity with its own communal rules, norms, values, and practices that can be distinguished from other competing institutions (Merton, 1973) – mainly religion. I am single outing religion because what is religion if not a set of rules and routines – perhaps more elaborate and set in stone than science? Both deal with the idea of the ‘ultimate truth.’ Both have procedures, hierarchies; norms and taboos; canons and communities; consensus, and controversies. However, empiricism is what distinguishes science from religion, as suggested by Hume, Kant, Weber, and other enlightenment thinkers. The truth is only the notion that can be verified – all else is fantasy. However, who decides what is true is an open question. Moreover, what is found to be rigorous science and ultimate truth – from the geocentric worldview, alchemy, astronomy, and others – in one epoch does not hold in the other – despite the telltale empirical signs of the truth.[2]

            For Kuhn, the answer to that is in a community. Science, for him, moves from paradigms to paradigms, and paradigms are a collection of knowledge frameworks and objects, methods, and the people of inquiry. The ‘truth’ is what and how the community defines it – until the truth no longer holds either through falsification or a total overhaul of the knowledge framework by scientists at the fringe (Kuhn, 1996).[3] Returning to Merton, science’s collective nature manifests itself in the forms of rewards and sanctions. The scientific collective decides what’s legitimate and rewards agents for following rules of conduct. It also punishes those who do not toe the line.

These suggestions that present science as a cooperative enterprise does not define science in terms of its content. In fact, folks have suggested we should look at the context (Pinch & Bijker, 1984), but that shifts our focus from the institution itself and leads to an infinite regression of what causes what. It does not help us understand science’s autopoietic, i.e., self-organizing nature (Luhmann, 2008). Successful institutions are the ones that are self-organizing, i.e., they are governed by decentralized, bottom-up processes instead of explicit mechanisms of control. There are no central planners. Instead, they are autonomous, flexible, and adaptable. They are governed by an invisible hand. When a crisis hits, it gets resolved through deliberative actions without depending on any exogenous agency.

2.2 Science as a Self-Organizing, Meta-Cognitive Institution

            Science is a set of durable rules; the golden rule is the pursuit of verifiable truth. This can be done through ad hoc routines – each scientist following their method – but such multiplexity seldom gives rise to social institutions. Institutions are established through nemesis (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Gebauer & Wulf, 1995). Although it does introduce the notion that is which (or whose) rules should be followed? Historically, scientists traversing the garden of forking paths, have followed the footsteps of the most successful persons of knowledge of known history – like Aristotle, Democritus, Ptolemy – some of whom may very well not be classified as scientists according to the modern criteria, but they were theorists and empiricists. Following their method conferred legitimacy – regardless of its Truth value – and reproduced the institution.

            Once ‘routines’ are established, they influence how the agents in the field of science think and behave. Science became a metacognitive framework that affects cognition, with the agents constantly questioning the empirical validity of their folk hypotheses. This happens through socialization in an empirical worldview.[4] This worldview is imparted in schools and universities (Baker, 2014) that are a product of science’s maturation – not the other way around. They are purposive construction of the political elites who were the first to be imbued in the empirical worldview. Science becomes a metacognitive framework because it forces amateur scientists to think about their thinking. Without any exogenous dictator dictating what to consider (let’s ignore the Critical Theorists for the time being), agents who are socialized in educational institutions start having an internal dialogue and putting the collective hypothesis they inherited to a test. They also learn to create their hypothesis and test them against empirical evidence.[5] Science reproduces itself by inculcating these attitudes.

            As science matures, it becomes more autonomous and self-organizing through such metacognitive effects. In fact, these two processes are circular in nature as both reinforce each other. On the other hand, it also starts becoming more institutionalized, which is yet another confusing term in Sociology. The shorthand is to think of rules and routines becoming more rigid. This is the ordinary course of the evolution of institutions. When inchoate, an institution is pliable. There are very few rules, and those rules are often negotiable (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). They also depend on the scale of agents that operate within the field that these institutions occupy. All social interactions among two agents can potentially produce new institutions, but only ones that hit a critical mass (Marwell & Oliver, 1993; Rogers, 1962) and withstand adversity survive.

Moreover, those with legitimate goals or who make sociality possible (Hobbes, 1651) are likelier to hit the critical mass. However, once established, they are tough to overhaul. That does not mean they cannot be amended. Small cracks in the structure remain that manifest as problems, but successful patch-ups sustain the institution.   

Each new controversy reveals an opportunity to overhaul an institutionalized institution. The more crises an institution faces, the more weaknesses are identified, and the more collective solutions are prosed, tested, and accepted. Let’s consider peer review. Although it was first instituted in 1731 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and we think it was with us forever, the peer-review was not a norm until the 1970s. In fact, the Lancet – the premier scientific journal – did not implement it until 1976 (Benos et al., 2007). However, it stands as an example of how science as a self-organizing institution resolved the problem of increasing the production of science (Baker & Powell, 2023) and maintaining the quality of science. Unlike institutions with central planners like the state, science as an institution did not have a governing body or enforcement capacity to implement this new solution. Instead, it emerged as a decentralized solution to the collective problem that initial entrepreneurs accepted because it worked and the rest because it had hit the critical mass.

When an institution matures, it becomes more organized. The collective goal gets detached from the original community to become universalized (e.g., (Dobbin & Sutton, 1998)), and universalism manifests itself in organizational forms that are purposefully isomorphic (DiMaggio, 1997) to enable the achievement of these goals. Isomorphism provides a structure to otherwise decentralized agents. In the scientific community, that organization takes the form of a university, and the university-science model (Baker & Powell, 2023) becomes the isomorphic template for scientific inquiry. This organization then creates conditions that rationalize and legitimize science by tying scientific hierarchy to the symbolic medium (Abrutyn, 2009) of science – the paper. The rewards (Merton, 1973) are not primarily conferred through the public– although they can take forms of commendation and awards – but through the university and auxiliary organizations like the ASA, where the stature is judged through the symbolic contributions (papers, books) that make the reproduction of science possible.



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Baker, D., & Powell, J. J. (2023). Global Mega-Science: Universities Scientize the World.

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[1] Tata is an Indian car manufacturer. (Later mentioned) Davia is Romanian, Tofas is Turkish, Renault is French, Volkswagen is German, and Toyota is Toyota! Tata and Toyota though are originally right-side drives.

[2] How come the Earth is moving while the Sun is stationary? If it were moving, won’t we wobble like laundry in a washing machine?

[3] I use Truth with capital T as a placeholder for the ultimate Truth, and one with small t as truth held by a community.

[4] I deliberately use the word empirical instead of science to distinguish a state of mind (empiricism) from a process (science).

[5] My notion is different from folk psychology where individuals predict behaviors of others based on their experiences.

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