Sociologists of scientific knowledge study the development of a scientific field and attempt to identify points of contingency or interpretative flexibility where ambiguities are present. Such variations may be linked to a variety of political, historical, cultural or economic factors. Crucially, the field does not set out to promote relativism or to attack the scientific project; the aim of the researcher is to explain why one interpretation rather than another succeeds due to external social and historical circumstances.
The field emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at first was an almost exclusively British practice. Other early centers for the development of the field were in France, Germany, and the United States (notably at Cornell University). Major theorists include Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Sal Restivo, Randall Collins, Gaston Bachelard, Harry Collins, Paul Feyerabend, Steve Fuller, Martin Kusch, Bruno Latour, Mike Mulkay, Derek J. de Solla Price, Lucy Suchman and Anselm Strauss.
The sociology of scientific knowledge in its Anglophone versions emerged in the 1970s in self-conscious opposition to the sociology of science associated with the American Robert K. Merton, generally considered one of the seminal authors in the sociology of science. Merton's was a kind of "sociology of scientists," which left the cognitive content of science out of sociological account; SSK by contrast aimed at providing sociological explanations of scientific ideas themselves, taking its lead from aspects of the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, but especially from established traditions in cultural anthropology (Durkheim, Mauss) as well as the later Wittgenstein. David Bloor, one of SSK's early champions, has contrasted the so-called 'weak programme' (or 'program' — either spelling is used) which merely gives social explanations for erroneous beliefs, with what he called the 'strong programme', which considers sociological factors as influencing all beliefs.
The weak programme is more of a description of an approach than an organised movement. The term is applied to historians, sociologists and philosophers of science who merely cite sociological factors as being responsible for those beliefs that went wrong. Imre Lakatos and (in some moods) Thomas Kuhn might be said to adhere to it. The strong programme is particularly associated with the work of two groups: the 'Edinburgh School' (David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and their colleagues at the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh) in the 1970s and '80s, and the 'Bath School' (Harry Collins and others at the University of Bath) in the same period. "Edinburgh sociologists" and "Bath sociologists" promoted, respectively, the Strong Programme and Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR). Also associated with SSK in the 1980s was discourse analysis as applied to science (associated with Michael Mulkay at the University of York), as well as a concern with issues of reflexivity arising from paradoxes relating to SSK's relativist stance towards science and the status of its own knowledge-claims (Steve Woolgar, Malcolm Ashmore).
The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) has major international networks through its principal associations, 4S and EASST, with recently established groups in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America. It has made major contributions in recent years to a critical analysis of the biosciences and informatics.