November 30, 2016


The Question of Meta-Data: Or, How to Return Social Epistemology to Information Science in the 21st Century

Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Lecture sponsor: Edinburgh Napier University, Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation (

‘Social epistemology’ was a phrase coined by Jesse Shera and Mary Egan in the 1950s to describe what they regarded as an emerging discipline of ‘bibliographic control’, which in turn would provide a scientific basis for library science. This was the period of cybernetics, machine translation and, more generally, machine-based indexing projects, the most obvious descendant of which today is the ‘Web of Science’. Starting in the 1960s Shera increasingly implicated the computer as the tool of choice for the social epistemologist in a project that was beginning to look like the emerging field of bibliometrics. However, despite the pioneering efforts of Derek de Solla Price, bibliometrics has remained relatively marginal in the subsequent development of foundational thinking about information science. As for ‘social epistemology’, the phrase migrated to philosophy, the field in which I founded the journal and wrote the first book in the late 1980s. But in that context, the central concerns were those of the history, philosophy and sociology of the sciences – without the specific interests of library and information scientists in mind. Over the past quarter-century I have periodically tried to bridge the gap between the two lineages of ‘social epistemology’.

This talk would resurrect the original ‘social epistemology’ in a 21st century context, one where the concept of ‘meta-data’ is proving increasingly luminous and would also seem to qualify as the right sort of target for Egan and Shera’s sense of ‘bibliographic control’. ‘Meta-data’ has entered popular consciousness in recent years through the discovery of government monitoring of telephone records in the name of national security. This discovery highlights three dimensions of ‘meta-data’ that a renovated social epistemology would need to manage in the name of ‘bibliographic control’:

(1) Ownership of meta-data (which may be different from ownership of the data themselves, depending on how they are recorded);

(2) Amount of meta-data (which may involve ignoring much of it by necessity but also at a potential cost);

(3) Content of meta-data (which may depend on the protocols used to access it).

The talk would say something about all three dimensions, stressing the interplay of (2) and (3) in the construction of what may be called the ‘grammar’ of meta-data. In other words, to what extent does one’s specific interests in ‘bibliographic control’ determine (and hence limit) one’s access to meta-data and the uses to which meta-data are subsequently put? Here I shall countenance three general strategies for constructing a meta-data grammar:

(a) Use default categories (i.e. protocols of, say, the security services or academic disciplines, so as to facilitate the integration of findings);

(b) Use client-centred categories (i.e. presume they know what they do and do not want to know)

(c) Use whatever categories emerge naturally from the data themselves (i.e. put one’s faith in the wisdom of self-organization).

The talk will conclude by considering what might count as the professional norms of this ‘new and improved’ social epistemologist – above and beyond serving user needs. Here I will stress an ethic that aims at the maximum exploitability of the available data.


Dr. Steve FullerDr. Steve Fuller
Professor Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. Originally trained in history and philosophy of science (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 1985), he founded the interdisciplinary research programme of ‘social epistemology’ with a quarterly journal by that name (Routledge, 1987- ) and the first of his 21 books (Indiana University Press, 1988). His most recent book is Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (Routledge, 2015). Fuller has published widely across the humanities and social sciences, and his works have been translated into more than twenty languages. He has given around 500 talks in over 30 countries to a variety of academic and non-academic audiences, and for the past six years has featured at the UK’s ‘How the Light Gets In Festival’, the world’s largest public event dedicated to philosophy. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the UK Academy of Social Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, Fuller received a D.Litt. from the University of Warwick in 2007 for sustained lifelong contributions to scholarship. In addition, Fuller was Visiting Professor at the UCLA School of Library and Information Science in 2003, and is the author of the ‘Social Epistemology’ entry of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science.

His website is