Merton, Robert,  Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (?????).
Reviewed by Ken Goss (Hist 5040 - Spring 1999)

In The Scientist's Role in Society, Joseph Ben-David, asserted that the growth of science depends on the social acceptability of the role of the scientist. Social encouragement led up and coming talent into the sciences where their own progress established a feedback loop of greater rewards and encouragement leading to new devotees. It is precisely this model that Robert Merton explores in his work Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. Though he gives more explicit credit to the ideas of Max Weber, Merton's essay parallels remarkably Ben-David's thesis.

The subject of Merton's study, seventeenth-century England, was a ripe candidate for exploring the relationship between society and science. This was the England of Newton, Halley, Hooke, and the foundation of the Royal Society. The seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown here, as were those for England's rise to dominant world power. With the widely-held perception that Sir Isaac Newton was the culmination of the Scientific Revolution, what time or place could better serve to illustrate the effects if any societal pressures had on science?

Merton's thesis is that, despite some claims to the contrary, intellectual fields, whether they be in the arts or the sciences, can be affected directly and indirectly by societal influences. In this work, Merton focuses on science as a general field, but he believes his point can be just as easily mapped onto other intellectual pursuits.

The composition is broken into three major sections. In the first Merton explains and defends the data sources upon which his conclusions depend. In the second he explores the particularly powerful influences that religion had on science in that era. And, in the final section he explores other societal factors that might have led to the prominent gains in English science.

A vast part Merton's exploration is based on data culled from The Dictionary of National Biography. This series provided a rich source of information as it provided contemporary biographies of the most noted people in the kingdom. Realizing the pressures that his evidence might face given the nature of some of his conclusions, Merton spells out in extensive detail how he formed his data sets. Placing people by year and profession, he believes the data tracks the interest society held in various fields from politics and the arts to medicine and science. Evidenced in the charts and tables was an evident rise in the number of scientists that made the role of England's most famous, proving to the Merton's satisfaction one his basic assumptions, that England had indeed enjoyed a period of growth in science.

Inspired by the ideas of Max Weber, Merton first explored the relationship between what he saw as the most powerful of societal pressures in that era, Puritanism, and science. His conjecture, much like Weber's, is that ethical tendencies fostered by the Calvinistic morals led Puritans to both encourage and participate in the growth of science.

Basing his argument on the preaching of Puritan ministers, Merton felt that Puritanism elevated scientific study for three basic reasons: "first, establishing proofs of the scientist's state of grace; second, in enlarging control of nature and third, in glorifying God." (p. 85)

The Calvinistic view of predestination led many to search for proof of their elect status, i.e. their state of grace. Weber held that this tendency led some Calvinists to seek financial gain as material proof of their acceptance by God. Merton holds that this same predisposition led Puritan scientists to seek scientific achievements to prove their own merit in God's eyes. The order of nature was God's will, a scientist who was privy to His secrets obviously stood in good favor.

Puritanism also touted the utilitarian nature of science. Merton holds that the Puritan ethic urged man's domination of nature. Since Calvin had placed a higher value on life in this world than had the Catholics, it was natural that the Calvinists would seek to optimize their efforts in the here and now. Making the best of life prompted concerns for technologic efficiency. The consistently high interest held by scientists in this time was Merton's basis for asserting that the utilitarian ethics of the scientist and Puritan overlapped.

Finally, and most importantly, Merton asserts that for Puritans, studying nature was in fact a way of studying God through His works. This naturally placed a high value on the role of the scientist and his discoveries. The advancement of knowledge, in this case, was an advance towards God.

Merton believed that the combination of these three factors, the search for grace, the search for control of nature, and the desire to understand nature were power influences encouraging Puritans into the fields of science. He backs this assertion with an impressive-seeming array of data showing high percentages of Protestants in scientific fields as well as in science-related schools and academies.

The last major section of the book deals considerably more with technology than with science. In it, Merton moves from studying the reasons why men had moved into the sciences to how did they select their fields of study within science. He speculates that a variety of mundane factors influenced a substantial section of scientists to work in areas that held the possibility of immediately impacting day-to-day life. Merton studies such forces as government and public interests as well as social influences such as pride and peer pressure.

Merton begins this section showing that the roots of the Industrial Revolution, which would flower in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, had their beginnings in the seventeenth. Already extractive industries, the mining of coal, tin and other minerals was rapidly accelerating. This placed a strain on traditional technologies for mining, and opened the way for a capitalistic influence on science. The need to deepen mines led mine owners and the government to sponsor research on air-recirculation and heavy-lift equipment. Attracted to the money and prestige of these positions, scientists took their places next to artisans in trying to solve these problems.

National pride also influenced the career choices of many scientists. The seventeenth-century saw a dramatic rise in the English navy and army. Government sponsorship urged many scientists to study such diverse fields as ballistics and navigation. Whether encouraged by the financial or patriotic aspects of the work, such famous scientists as Newton and Halley were directly involved in this research.

More subtle, and more difficult to gauge, social factors could also have had roles in influencing scientists. Merton speculates that "this pressure for so working out a problem that the solution will satisfy not only the scientist's own criteria of validity and adequacy, but also the criteria of the of the group with whom he is actually or symbolically in contact" constituted a powerful social impetus for "cogent, rigorous investigation." (p. 219) Thus, pride had its place in influencing the scientist.

The desire for social mobility might also have been a factor. As science gained greater acceptance and attention, many scientists found themselves the guests of nobility. While the nobility rarely aided the direct advancement of science, the social acceptance marked by their interest showed the improvement in the status of the scientist in society.

Merton suspected that more noble goals would also serve in guiding a scientist's choice of study. Social needs, whether based on population expansion or socio-economic obligations, could lead scientists to select a field of study. Population density could also serve in reinforcing the feedback that led to increased expansion in science. More minds in close contact would gain increasing benefits as inspiration fired inspiration.

Merton concludes with a summary with which Ben-David would have surely agreed: societal impressions of the role of the scientist could directly and indirectly influence the acceptance and advancement of science. He self-consciously denigrates his earlier conclusions to state that though they may overstate the evidence at hand, they do seem to point to some level of impact between society and the scientist.

The discussion in the section on technology seems oddly dissimilar to the preceding sections in that the quantitative approach followed earlier has been replaced by more anecdotal evidence. One can almost see two completely different themes in the work: the first a quantitative analysis of the effects of Protestantism on interest in science, the second, a speculative investigation into links between technology and society. This dichotomy does not significantly distract from the work, which offers many interesting avenues of study for other historians.

The use of quantitative data was a refreshing advance from the anecdotal evidence that had sufficed for Max Weber's similar dissertation. Though some doubt can be thrown on some of the conclusions reached, Merton's careful discussion of the sources and uses of his data offer the reader the chance to balance the conclusions for himself.