Everyone realizes that science has exerted an increasing influence upon Western society and culture over the past three centuries. Within the last 50 years, it has assumed an almost dominating role. Somewhat less obvious is the fact that society, in turn, has always had a hand in the molding of science. This continuing interplay has had momentous consequences for modern civilization and merits serious investigation by historians and by social scientists at large.

With this end in view, the Council and the National Research Council have appointed a joint committee to be concerned with the history and sociology of science.1The other members of the Committee on the History of Science are: I. Bernard Cohen, Harvard University; George W. Corner, Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; Henry GuerIac, Cornell University; Mark H. Ingraham, University of Wisconsin; Robert K. Merton, Columbia University; H. L. Shapiro, American Museum of Natural History; and Gordon R. Willey, Harvard University. The present report is Mr. Shryock’s summary of his remarks at the spring meeting of the board of directors of the Social Science Research Council, March 1956. The function of this group is exploratory in nature, since these fields are at present ill-defined and little cultivated. Their status in the American academic world is uncertain and somewhat confused, and their implications for history and for social science in general are not widely appreciated. The committee hopes to clarify some of these matters. It also hopes to point the way, in terms of academic planning, toward a better understanding of the significance of science in history and in contemporary life.

Delimitation of the field

“The term ‘science’ in the context of history or sociology has been variously construed.”

The first problem confronting the committee is that of defining the areas with which it is concerned. The term “science” in the context of history or sociology has been variously construed. Conventionally, “the history of science” has usually related only to the development of concepts and methods in mathematics and in the natural sciences. In this sense the subject is largely limited to the history of ideas, and some scholars hold that interpretation will be distorted if any social content is included. The impact of society upon science should be studied, they say, but only in isolation from the history of science proper. Others take the position that, since science and society are constantly interacting, the interplay between them should in itself be investigated by historians and sociologists. Ideas and social backgrounds should be presented, at times, in juxtaposition with one another.

Several other questions about content must also be faced by historians or sociologists of science. Should technology, including the biological and medical, be brought into the picture? Traditional emphasis upon the history of ideas has sometimes minimized the attention given to technology but it has never been entirely overlooked. For those interested in the social relations of science, the significance of technology is obvious.

Last but not least, should the denotation of “science” include “the social sciences”? The history of these latter fields has usually been avoided by historians of science, presumably because of the inherited view that these disciplines are not fully scientific in nature. Such investigations as have been made in this area have been largely the work of social scientists themselves. Regardless of the merit of these studies, it is doubtful that the history of the social sciences is even as well-known as that of the natural sciences. In any case the lack of a comprehensive treatment which covers both these areas limits the perspective that we have on each.

Natural and social sciences compared

When one recalls the history of the natural and of the social sciences, he becomes aware of certain similarities as well as of contrasts in the two fields. Or perhaps it would be safer to say that certain hypotheses can be suggested concerning these similarities and contrasts. Further studies, focusing on such matters, are doubtless needed in order to confirm or refute the suggestions that follow.

Nineteenth-century opinion that social disciplines were not sciences was based in part on criticism of their methods, which gave rise to questions about exactitude, certainty, and prediction. Now the first thing that an overall history makes clear is that science cannot be defined in terms of any particular methods or results. Or at best it can be so defined only as an ideal, to which various disciplines always viewed as sciences approximate in one degree or another. Astronomy, the very queen of the sciences, has depended on simple observation over most of its past; indeed, it is still difficult to envisage an experimental astronomy without some misgivings.

The question then becomes, as far as social disciplines are concerned, when and to what degree did they approach an ideal concept of science? Their advance in this direction was obviously slower than was that of the physical and—in some respects—of the biological disciplines. Although social factors doubtless played a part in the retardation of social fields, the outcome may be chiefly ascribed to differences in the nature of the phenomena involved. Physicists dealt with what Warren Weaver has called problems of simplicity, while social thinkers faced a disorganized complexity.

As a matter of fact, the method that Galileo held was essential to science (quantification) was introduced into all the major areas noted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Physicists used it effectively, along with experimentation, in a field (dynamics) which presented few variables. But statistics and the calculus of probabilities soon suggested means for organizing problems of complexity, as well as of simplicity, in quantitative terms. Statisticians became aware of these possibilities, in dealing with social phenomena, by the later 1600s; and they soon applied them in the development of insurance. Even health insurance had been provided by the 1750s.

“For some 75 years thereafter, however, little progress was made in developing a scientific approach to social phenomena.”

For some 75 years thereafter, however, little progress was made in developing a scientific approach to social phenomena. Experimentation in the ordinary sense was not available and quantification was handicapped by the lack of adequate data. Something was accomplished, however, in ridding social thought of traditional dogmas and in cultivating a relatively objective type of qualitative observation. Much the same thing may be said of the biological disciplines, many of whose problems were likewise quite complex in nature. In so far as biology could be reduced to physical terms, however, its advances paralleled or followed shortly after those in physical science. Thus chemistry, which became systematically quantitative in the late 1700s, evolved along one line into organic chemistry, and the latter evolved into biochemistry before 1850.

Medical and social science

Some light may be thrown on the difficulties of social science by comparing them with those experienced in medicine. The latter field, like the social, is sometimes still said to be nonscientific in nature—either because it lacks certitude or because it pursues other values than truth-for-its-own-sake. Medicine, as ordinarily conceived, sprawls across all the categories under discussion. In so far as its problems are biological, it has lagged or advanced with biology; and in so far as they are social in nature, it has paralleled the development of the social sciences.

Conventionally, human anatomy and physiology have been viewed as medical sciences. But, logically, these are no more medical in nature than was botany in the Middle Ages, chemistry in the eighteenth century, or social science in the twentieth. In any case we customarily say that “medicine” advanced during the 1600s when a biological function was reduced to dynamics and solved accordingly (Harvey). When another biological function was analyzed in chemical terms in the late 1700s, that likewise was hailed as a “medical” achievement (Lavoisier).

Meantime, in so far as the phenomena of illness involved large numbers and no exactitude re individuals—as in epidemiology—medicine faced the same difficulties as did the social disciplines. It began to employ statistics and the calculus in this area between 1725 and 1750 (inoculation against smallpox), at about the same time that insurance was being improved. And a century later, when Quetelet was striving to establish a “social physics” based on statistics, medicine also began to employ such data more effectively in both clinical work and in public hygiene.

These developments occurred on what might be termed the fringes of medical thought. More central was pathology: the investigation of the nature and causes of illness. Here certain concepts, notably that of disease specificity, had first to be formulated before even qualitative observations could be undertaken in any systematic fashion. The problems seemed in large part biological but had to be undertaken in a social milieu similar to that which perplexed social observers. Moreover, physicians were well aware, before 1800, that pathology was not entirely a somatic (biological) matter. There were mental factors, and behind these social factors, in pathogenesis.

Beginnings of objectivity in medicine and social science

Early efforts were made to identify specific diseases by symptoms alone, 1700–1800, and these proved confusing. The attempt was so unsatisfactory that physicians continued to formulate all-inclusive “systems” of pathology and therapeutics, seeking speculative short cuts across areas of yet unrecognized complexity. They announced that all disease phenomena were related to one, underlying condition and could be treated by one basic method. Such systems impressed the public, as they still do in sectarian medicine.

Those who advocated these doctrines often spoke in terms of the latest scientific observations but really needed no further research. They knew all the answers. One theorist’s views, however, were not those of another, and this type of thought was therefore always marked by controversies. The analogy here with contemporary social theories, which arose out of similar difficulties and led to similar debates, is plain enough. In 1650, many explained all human behavior in terms of original sin and dealt with it accordingly; by 1850, transcendentalists explained the same phenomena in terms of original goodness and sought to bring this to fruition through the formula of social reform.

“Beginning with simple observation, pathology soon employed experimentation, quantification, and instruments to aid the senses.”

After 1800, however, medical men found a better criterion for disease identification in the correlation of symptoms with the lesions found at autopsy. This approach focused attention on anatomy and later on physiology—areas in which medicine could take advantage of developments in both the biological and physical sciences. Beginning with simple observation, pathology soon employed experimentation, quantification, and instruments to aid the senses. During 75 years of research, many disease entities were identified; and the next quarter-century (1875–1900) saw the discovery of certain causal factors. Bacteriology revolutionized both surgery and public hygiene and even therapy began to hold some promise. No wonder that speculative syntheses were repudiated in regular medicine after about 1830, when the promise of the new program began to be apparent.

One should add, however, that a price was paid for success. Since medical science advanced by focusing on biological problems, it more and more neglected those areas that were beyond the reach of biological methods. Personality and cultural factors in disease were largely forgotten by the later 1800s; and it has remained for current medicine and social science to take up once again these vital matters.

Meantime, as noted, Quetelet’s generation had attempted to establish a similarly objective social science. Since social phenomena could not be reduced to biological and physical terms, however, social science continued to be handicapped by complexities and by the lack of objective methods other than quantification. Even in the latter, statistics continued to be inadequate and few devices particularly adapted to social statistics were found. Consequently, some of the phenomena characteristic of medical thought before 1800 persisted in social theory, 1850–1900. The elaborate syntheses of such thinkers as Herbert Spencer, in which all phenomena were brought into relation with the one concept of evolution, are suggestive of the medical systems of the preceding century.

Only within the present era have the statistics available to social science become relatively adequate; and with this development, sampling and other devices have rendered quantification more effective in social fields than ever before. As in the medicine of the early 1800s, moreover, advances in method have been associated with the formulation of more effective concepts.

Which came first, the novel method or the new concept, seems to have been a chicken-or-egg question. In medicine there have been situations in which known methods were long unused until brought to life by new concepts; for example, clinical thermometry was introduced about 1600 but only rarely employed until after 1850. There were likewise instances in which a concept remained dormant for lack of methods for demonstrating it; for example, the idea of pathogenic “germs” was advocated as early as the 1660s but was of little value until it could be verified after 1860. Perhaps there have been analogies to these situations in the history of the social sciences.

Persistence of speculation

Despite the “modernization” of medicine in the nineteenth century and of social science during the twentieth, more or less speculative syntheses have never been entirely eliminated in either field. These may be ingenious and stimulating. Proposed as hypotheses, they are legitimate and desirable; presented as established facts or doctrines, they suggest the medical “systems” of 1800. Confronted with claims of this nature, unverified and perhaps unverifiable, all one can say is that “some of this may be true.” Readers can select their own examples from social science literature of the last 25–50 years.

“Following clinical clues, Freud thereupon revived a psychologic approach in which no attempt was made to employ the usual methods of the natural sciences.”

In the medical field the best illustration of the tendency is the emergence of psychoanalysis some 50 years ago. Between 1800 and 1900, medical men had followed the prevailing somatic approach to mental illness but found themselves largely baffled. Much mental illness, it appeared, could not be reduced to biologic terms and therefore eluded the application of biologic methods. Following clinical clues, Freud thereupon revived a psychologic approach in which no attempt was made to employ the usual methods of the natural sciences. Hence the resulting synthesis was not verified except by such clinical records as the analysts presented. But if Freud’s theories were difficult to prove, they were equally difficult to disprove; and under these circumstances—and presumably for lack of anything else as promising—they began to be applied in practice.

As years passed and systematic verification was not forthcoming, the same professional phenomena appeared in connection with psychoanalysis as had once been associated with the “systems” of somatic medicine before 1800. Theories congealed into doctrines, rival doctrines appeared, disciples rallied around masters, and controversies ensued. Here were all the classic stigmata of scientific speculation.

Interplay between medicine and social science

The similarity of controversies over psychoanalysis with controversies within social sciences may not be complete but is at least suggestive. More than this, there was actually some identity of thought in these two areas. Analysis, since it involved concepts of personality and culture, overlapped the interests of social scientists. Some of the latter found new insights in Freud’s writings, and a generation ago such thinkers could place themselves among the avant-garde by merely using such terms as libido or id. It was apparently assumed that analysis carried with it the sanction of the now respected medical sciences, when as a matter of fact it was still struggling in most medical centers for a minimum of professional toleration.

This transfer of psychoanalysis, from what one might call the rear ranks of medicine to the front ranks of social science, was an interesting phenomenon in itself. As such, however, it was not unique. Phrenology, a century before, had followed a similar course—beginning as serious medical investigation, elaborating into a speculative system, and then permeating the social thought and literature of the age. The cult of phrenology evaporated in time, leaving a residue of valid medical and psychologic content; and a similar destiny may await psychoanalysis.

The fact that the history of medicine reveals some parallels or analogies with that of the social sciences is not surprising. After all, medicine in some of its aspects deals with human behavior and so does social science. Also, medicine relates at times to average outcomes among large numbers of men, even as does social science. In view of these circumstances, the actual interaction between the two areas is what one would expect, provided—and the proviso is essential—that they are viewed together from a common, historical perspective.

As medicine gradually transcends the exclusively somatic focus of the nineteenth century, it will become increasingly aware of the overlapping of its interests with those of social science. In the cases of phrenology and psychoanalysis, medicine had some impact on social thought; in the future, we are likely to observe a reverse trend in which the social sciences exert an increasing influence on both medical thought and medical institutions.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 10, No. 2 in June 1956. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Richard H. Shryock (1893–1972) was a historian of medicine and chairman of the Committee on the History of Science (1956–1960), jointly appointed by the National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council. The American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) named the Shryock Medal after him, which is given for an outstanding, unpublished essay by a single author on any topic in the history of medicine.


The other members of the Committee on the History of Science are: I. Bernard Cohen, Harvard University; George W. Corner, Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; Henry GuerIac, Cornell University; Mark H. Ingraham, University of Wisconsin; Robert K. Merton, Columbia University; H. L. Shapiro, American Museum of Natural History; and Gordon R. Willey, Harvard University. The present report is Mr. Shryock’s summary of his remarks at the spring meeting of the board of directors of the Social Science Research Council, March 1956.