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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Science Studies Unit

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Science Studies Unit (SSU) at the University of Edinburgh, under the direction of the late David Edge. Ground-breaking work at the SSU, notably by Barry Barnes and David Bloor, established the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge. This approach became known as The Edinburgh School’, and has had an enormous influence on the evolving field of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.

The SSU was a relatively small unit and in 2008 it merged with RCSS (the Research Centre for Social Sciences, by then a technology and innovation oriented centre) to create the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) Subject Group (a department on a par with Sociology and others in the School of Social and Political Science).

Through 2016 STIS is organising a series of events and special projects to honour this crucial event in the history of our discipline. Join us as we look not only into the past, but also towards the future of STIS in Edinburgh and globally.

Science Studies Unit

The Science Studies Unit was devised in the early-mid 1960s as an experiment in examining the ‘science of science’. Established with the help of a generous grant from the Wolfson Foundation, the SSU was led from the outset by the late David Edge (1932-2003). The ‘experimental’ period was fixed at five years; due to the Unit’s clear success the University then took over its full support.

David Edge recruited a team of young and energetic lecturers to form the Unit: Barry Barnes, David Bloor, and Gary Werskey. Early research associates at the Unit included John Law, Margaret Deacon and Brian Wynne. The Unit was soon joined by the historian Steven Shapin.

Barnes, Bloor, Shapin and colleagues developed the so-called ‘Strong Programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge – “strong” because it aimed to treat scientific beliefs symmetrically rather than offering different kinds of explanation for the acceptance of ideas that were subsequently seen as true or false. This highly distinctive approach proved so radical and influential that it changed the social sciences, and its practitioners became known throughout the world as the ‘Edinburgh School’. Other key figures included Donald MacKenzie (who was also affiliated with the Sociology Department) and Andy Pickering.

The Unit became recognised as a centre of excellence for the study of the sociology, history, and philosophy of science and medicine*. Originally part of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, the Science Studies Unit moved into the Faculty of Social Sciences in 1992, and has been part of the School of Social and Political Studies since the School’s formation in 2001. In 2008 the Unit merged with the Research Centre for Social Sciences (which by then focused largely on studies of technology in society) to form the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) Subject Group (a subject group is current Edinburgh language for a department). STIS continues to develop the SSU’s remarkable legacy.

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Members of the Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s

Back row, left to right: Mike Barfoot, Steven Shapin, Carole Tansley, Moyra Forrest, Andy Pickering, Dave Smith.
Front row: David Bloor, David Edge, Barry Barnes, David Miller.

*Further information about the history of the SSU can be found in a 2008 paper by Prof John Henry "Historical and other studies of science, technology and medicine in the University of Edinburgh" available from the Royal Society website.

SSU50 News

Events

Key events throughout the year, which are part of the SSU50 celebration, are listed below. 

These events are supported by STIS Subject Group's many research centres and networks, especially ISSTI, Innogen, SKAPE, and the Mason Institute. 

We are also grateful for the support of our colleagues at BSHS, AsSIST-UK, EASST/4S and BSA.

Event schedule

Contact Information