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Reports of the death of the sociology of science have been greatly exaggerated.


THIS TITLE ECHOES MARK TWAIN WHO is apocryphally reported to have said that "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" after his obituary was published in the New York Journal in 1897 while he was still very much alive. He died in 1910. His actual words "the report of my death was an exaggeration" convey the famous sentiment, albeit a little less memorably. (1)

Here we report on another death which has been greatly exaggerated--that of the sociology of science. According to a widespread legend, the sociology of science became extinct and was replaced by one or more new modes of observing and theorizing about science. At the very least, these new modes are viewed as having been added to the mix and having come to dominate (e.g., see discussion of Hess 1997; Restivo and Croissant 2008; Sismondo 2008; Yearley 2005 below). The candidates usually mentioned are the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), social studies of science, or social epistemology. Such legends are so widely believed in the field most inclusively known as science studies" that a prominent philosopher of science issued a plaintive call for a revival of the sociology of science (Kitcher 2000). Similarly, Frickel and Moore (2006) collected a series of case studies which they view as representing a revival of the sociology of science, but one centered on the political. A related possibility is that the different modes of studying science have become wholly distinct. Hull (2000) viewed this as undesirable and called for more interaction, to be achieved by "cutting each other some slack," an attitude he viewed as prevailing in the study of biology where philosophers, historians, social scientists, and even biologists interact in the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology. So--it should be revived, it is being revived, it could be revived, but perhaps first the question should be asked whether it ever died. Before some data are presented, an extremely abbreviated history will be useful.

Originally, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science were independently institutionalized tHull 2000). Although metaphysics had long since evolved into the natural sciences and epistemology into psychology and the social sciences, the philosophy of science for long remained curiously immune to this "scientizing" of what were once exclusively philosophical topics. Eventually, however, the reigning paradigm in the philosophy of science in the latter part of the first half of the twentieth century, logical positivism, melted under Quine's (1951, 1960) attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction and his embrace of a (psychological) "naturalized epistemology" (1969) as well as Kuhn's (1962) historical account of revolutions in science. These led ultimately to the conclusion that only theories as a whole have empirical import and they, or more inclusively, paradigms or research programs as a whole, only relatively, that is in competition with others. In the view of some, these developments in philosophy led naturally not so much to Popper's (1959, 1962, 1972) falsificationism, his "conjectures and refutations" emphasizing only selection against, but rather to "conjectures" and changes in relative frequencies by means of any, or all of, competition, conflict, and cooperation--that is to evolutionary theories of scientific change, such as those of Toulmin (1972) and Hull (1988). As a minimum, they helped make space for the professionalization and institutionalization of the history and sociology of science.

Some of Robert K. Merton's writings on the subject of science date to the 1930s and 1940s in which he made it clear that he viewed the sociology of science as a branch of the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Merton 1937) pioneered by Karl Mannheim. However, the sociology of science was not fully institutionalized until the 1960s--primarily at Columbia University by Merton, but also at The University of Wisconsin at Madison by Warren O. Hagstrom, and briefly at the University of California at Berkeley by Joseph Ben-David (long associated with the Hebrew University at Jerusalem). In addition to their own work (e.g., Ben-David 1971; Hagstrom 1965; Merton and Storer 1973), each produced influential students (e.g., Lowell Hargens; Bernard Barber, Jonathan Cole, Steven Cole, Harriet Zuckerman; and Randall Collins, respectively). Although Merton's general thesis that scientists compete for status ("recognition") rather than income, wealth, or power, and his earlier articulation of the norms of the scientific community are the most widely cited and quoted ideas from this body of work, the topic most extensively studied by this" school" (in keeping with sociology at large of the time) was the determinants of social stratification and mobility in science. What matters most for success--productivity, prestige of the university of Ph.D. or status of mentor for example? The formal and informal organization of the scientific community also received a great deal of attention. (On this general history see Storer's introduction to Ben-David and Sullivan 1975; Cole 1992; Hess 1997, chap. 3; Merton and Storer 1973.)

David Hess, who published one of, if not the first, pluridisciplinary text on science studies in 1997, laid out the historical narrative of science studies this way. He viewed the field as having gone from (1) the philosophy of science, to (2) Merton's institutional sociology of science, to (3) the strong program of the SSK which coalesced around Edinburgh and Bath in the United Kingdom in the 1970s (e.g., David Bloor, Michael Mulkay, Harry Collins, Barry Barnes) and finally to (4) "where the field is moving"--broadly labeled as "critical and cultural studies of science"--including "anthropology, critical social theory, cultural studies, feminist studies, critical technology studies, and the cultural history of science" (1997:3). It is worth noting that, while Hess adopted the convention of labeling the earlier Mertonian style work as a different species so to speak, "the institutional sociology of science" rather than just "the sociology of science," he was among those who saw the new work as additions that have come to dominate rather than replacement(s) (p. 84).

Moving to a more recent text (Yearley 2005) and very recent reviews (Restivo and Croissant 2008; Sismondo 2008) we find some changes. For example, the earlier philosophy of science and Merton's "institutional" sociology of science tend to be more or less dropped from the narratives. Hess's (1997) account of where the subject was going in 1971 has become more differentiated. For example Yearley (2005) identifies three "schools" in addition to the original Edinburgh one--Latour's actor-network theory; the study of gender and science; and ethnomethodology and discourse analysis. Sismondo (2008) sees laboratory studies in general (including Latour and Woolgar 1979) and ethnomethodology (e.g., Lynch 1985) as having succeeded the Edinburgh-Bath school, but sees the main division currently (after Fuller) as being between a "high church" focused on science and a more activist "low church" interested in technology and in making the latter accountable to the public interest.

One of the things that Hess originally, and most later historians and reviewers of the changes have agreed on, is that post-Mertonian science studies became "constructionist" under the influence of Bloor's strong program (and perhaps also under Collins 1985 "empirical program of relativism"). Feyerabend (1975, 1978) probably deserves more credit for the change than he is usually given, perhaps because his "anarchic" views eventually became an embarrassment to the field. In any event, Bloor (1976) is credited with making the first move by arguing for a "strong program" that, after Mannheim, again addressed the knowledge content of science. (He took aim at Merton for being insufficiently knowledge focused and excessively institutionally focused.) The strong program would be causal, impartial with respect to the truth, or falsity of a belief, that is be symmetrical in its explanation of both, and reflexive, that is applicable to itself. According to Yearley (2005, chap. 2), Bloor is the "symbolic heart," and Bloor and Collins laid down the "framing commitments" of what followed. The constructionist metaphor was ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s according to Sismondo (2008:14) and is the "fundamental theorem" of the subject according to Restivo and Croissant (2008:214). (3)

One thing these authors (and others) do not agree on is whether or not the post-Mertonian research under discussion is sociology. Sismondo (2008) hardly mentions the word. At the opposite extreme, Restivo and Croissant (2008) have no doubt that it is. They go so far as to view social constructionism as the ultimate realization of the nineteenth-century theories of Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche, and Simmel among others (p. 214). In between, Yearley (2005) is obviously ambivalent. On the one hand, Sociology does not appear in his title: Making Sense of Science: Understanding the Social Study of Science. On the other hand, the text claims that the book is "primarily for the benefit of a sociological audience" and states that its purpose is to " investigate and remedy the disregard for the sociology of science in social theory" (p. xiv). This ambivalence is sometimes poignantly expressed, "Sociologists ... they (or rather, we)...." (2005:62). One thing that is clear, however, is that as the "constructionist" theme took hold, labels other than the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science appeared and began to become common--not only the "sociology of scientific knowledge" but also slightly less frequently "social studies of science" and "social epistemology."

If these accounts tend to agree that the field became "constructionist" but disagree on whether these new strains of science studies are in fact sociology, another feature that they all have in common is a curious omission of any discussion or even mention of "scientometrics" (sometimes but less commonly called the "science of science"). As Merton (2000) noted in his essay in the Festschrift in honor of Eugene Garfield, while the Science Citation Index was designed as a bibliographic retrieval system for science itself, Garfield quickly recognized that he had invented a specialty-specific research tool in the sociology of science, one which Merton's students quickly began to make use of. Indeed, much of the research performed in the sociology of science would have been impossible without it. An unusual fact about science studies is that the mainstream journals (e.g., Social Studies of Science, Science, Technology and Society, Social Epistemology, Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, and Science, Technology and Human Values--the latter the official journal of the Society for Social Studies of Science) tend to be dominated by qualitative research with the quantitative largely confined to its own journal, Scientometrics--the reverse of the situation that tends to prevail in Sociology more generally. However, there is no doubt that even a cursory inspection of Scientometrics founded in 1978 reveals that the bulk of research published there is sociology of science by any standard. For example a recent issue (V79 # 3, June 2009) includes articles on the influence of a particular author, the social links between two kinds of scientific organizations, gender differences in research productivity, whether China is becoming a power in the social sciences and the influence individuals have on the impact of the organization of which they are a part.


In the light of the foregoing, we decided to ask some simple questions and methodologically, to investigate the "new" interdisciplinary study of science with the kinds of bibliometric data and methods characteristic of the "old." Data were collected from the Web of Science yearly from 1957 to 2007 on items that include the following expressions in their titles, abstracts, or key words: "sociology of science"; "sociology of knowledge"; "sociology of scientific knowledge"; "social studies of science"; "social epistemology"; and "scientometrics." (4) The Web of Science is not a perfect indicator of what academics are up to. It no longer includes books for example--but it is the best source of quantitative data available. Moreover, there is no guarantee that individuals all mean exactly the same thing in using one of these expressions. The idiolects of individuals are each a little different, usages in different subcultures somewhat more so, and in dialects even more so. However, if there were not at least statistical commonalities in linguistic reference, no communication would take place. Academics might as well stop writing. Indeed, humans would have never have invented language in the first place. Academics generally use keywords in particular to express how they construct what they are doing and to signal such to others, thus hoping to attract suitable readers.

Data for this project was collected from the Web of Science: a subsidiary of ISI Web of Knowledge. The database was accessed online through our library where we searched three citation indices: Science Citation Index Expanded (SCI-EXPANDED)--1900 to present, the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI)--1956 to present, and the Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI)--1975 to present. Using the advanced search option, we used the following search string: TS = "name of research programme" OR TI = "name of research programme." The most significant details are that TS is an operator for topic (i.e., key words or abstract) while TI is the operator for title. The use of quotation marks around the search terms returns only results that use those exact words, and the OR statement searches for results that satisfy either condition. Furthermore, the TI search string searches for the words as they appear within a publication title, not necessarily the only words in the title. We also omitted articles from 2008 and 2009.

For social epistemology and scientometrics, we sorted the results by date and manually recorded the publication counts by year. For the remaining research programs, additional steps were required. The significance of the word "of" in their titles (sociology OF science, social studies OF science, sociology OF scientific knowledge, and sociology OF knowledge) caused some complications in the search process. The Web of Science will not, even if included within quotation marks, limit its findings to exact phrases. Thus, a search for "sociology of scientific knowledge" would also include sociology of knowledge in its results. In order to obtain only those publications that contained the exact phrase, we exported the "full record" of each record into an HTML file that was then searched for the desired phrase as an exact phrase and counted and then recorded, according to year.

To evaluate the overlap among expressions, we searched the HTML output of the "sociology of science." The first step was to search, and highlight, all instances of the sociology of science. We then searched the document again, this time looking for each of the other research programs. To be counted, the publication record had to contain both "the sociology of science" and the research program in question. Publications that met this criterion were recorded manually by year. The database was then searched again for each of the remaining programs (individually) and recorded accordingly.


The questions asked and results are as follows:

(i) Has the sociology of science become extinct?

The answer is a definitive no. With a fair amount of variability but an upward trend, the number of papers in the sociology of science has increased from a single one in 1957 to a yearly count ranging from 12 to 28 in each of the past five years (see Figure 1).

(ii) Given that it has not become extinct, has the "sociology of science" continued to be dominated by its parent, the "sociology of knowledge," or come to be dominated by newer offshoots--for example the "sociology of scientific knowledge," "social studies of science," "social epistemology," or "scientometrics?"

The answer is a definitive yes for the former and a definitive no for the first three of the latter. From the first instance of the sociology of science in 1957 publications about the sociology of knowledge have outnumbered the former in 38 years and more generally by 210 publications (470-680). However, the number of publications in the sociology of science has exceeded those of the SSK, social studies of science, and social epistemology in every year from 1957 to 2007 except for eight years for the first two and six years for the third in which they were equal, with the bulk of those being zeros for both in some early years. As well, the overall totals for all years are 470 for the sociology of science, 98 for the SSK, 93 for social studies of science, and 87 for social epistemology. The sociology of science has also dominated scientometrics in all but seven years (overall totals 470 to 275). On the other hand, none of those are paired zeros, and moreover four of the seven years have been in the last five. This is suggestive of what may be a hint of the beginning of a trend for scientometrics to displace the sociology of science.


Of course, none of these facts should be taken to imply that the field has not changed since Merton. As these new approaches have been added, the sociology of science' proportion of the total number of articles has declined (see Figure 2). On the other hand, a more reasonable comparison than pitting the sociology of science against the sum of all others would be to group it with scientometrics as representing the more traditional sociological approach and grouping the social studies of scientific knowledge, social studies of science, and social epistemology together as roughly representing the "newer, more constructionist" approach (the sociology of knowledge is irrelevant here and was not included). When that is done the former dominates the latter in every year except six early years in which both sums were zero (total for all years are 745 versus 278). Moreover that predominance of the traditional includes the most recent five years (see Figure 3).

(iii) Whatever the appropriate description of the level of institutionalization achieved (e.g., topic, field, research program, paradigm, discipline, etc.), does the sociology of knowledge, sociology of science, and the newer enterprises constitute distinct "species" in the sense that they are socially isolated from each other and fail to intercommunicate (in the way that members of different biological species fail to exchange genes or speakers of different languages fail to communicate with each other)? Or, on the other hand, are they varieties of the same species?


We tried to answer this question in three ways. First, one indication that they have not become distinct would be if their frequencies tend to rise and fall together and that is roughly what is observed (see Table 1). Correlations of their frequencies are high and the spread among them is not great. The correlations are scattered across a range from a low of .33 between the sociology of knowledge and scientometrics to a high of .83 between scientometrics and the social studies of science. This tends to suggest that there are external forces acting on all of them which tend to increase or decrease their frequencies together. Much of that however is made up of the long-term trend for all to increase.

The second approach is to consider conceptual overlap. To what extent are these descriptors in titles, keywords, or abstracts found in the same or in different papers? To determine conceptual overlap, the presence of competing expressions was searched for in sociology of science publications. Again, the evidence is unambiguous. Conceptual overlap between the sociology of science and others is minimal. The largest case of overlap is with the social studies of science--since 1975 14 publications--a meager 3 percent of all publications described as sociology of science and 15 percent of all publications described as social studies of science. Similarly, since 1971 the sociology of science has overlapped with the sociology of knowledge 13 times. This represents 2.7 percent of all sociology of science publications and an even smaller 1.9 percent of all publications described as sociology of knowledge. The overlaps for social epistemology, scientometrics, and the SSK are even less--1 and 0; 4 and 2; and 2 and 10 percent, respectively.


There has been a small increase in the total overlap of expressions recently--from 21/470 or 4 percent pre-2000 to 14/143 or 10 percent for 2000 to 2007. In addition, in origin, there does appear to have been a close dependency of the social studies of science on the sociology of science. The first four articles (published from 1975 to 1980) described as social studies of science are also described as the sociology of science. It was not until 1981 that the first independent occurrence of the social studies of science is seen. In fact, the fragile state of the new expression initially is evident in 1982 when the sociology of science is mentioned in five publications in the journal Social Studies of Science, with no mention, outside of the journal title, of the social studies of science. (5) A similar situation is not observed with the others. Thirteen percent of articles in the sociology of knowledge, 16 percent of articles in the SSK, 46 percent in social epistemology, and 10 percent in scientometrics, were published independently, before their first cooccurrence with the sociology of science. Therefore, with the exception of the social studies of science in origin, these appear to have originated, and continue to exist, as separate species within science studies.

This fact is curious with respect to scientometrics in particular given the similarity of much of what is done under the two descriptors but the existence of such "sibling species" speaks to the power of institutionalization in science as elsewhere in society. Scientometrics developed its own society (International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics) and journal (Scientometrics) while the others tend to cooperate in 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) and in journals, such as Social Studies of Science, Social Epistemology, Episteme and Science, Technology and Human Values.

The third approach considers the extent to which sociology of science articles and traditional, more constructionist articles are published in each other's journals. The obvious first step in this procedure is to define the parameters of the two types of journals. Our definition of sociology journals was quite strict. We included journals that contained "sociology," "sociological," or "sociology of" in their title in whatever language. General social science journals were excluded as were a great many other kinds of journals. We made an exception for Social Forces which we know is a journal in which the authors are virtually exclusively sociologists. For more constructionist journals we included only journals focusing on the social aspects of science, the most important of which were listed above and excluded journals "of" rather than "about" science, for example Science as well as the many journals in the history and/or philosophy of science. Our results for all the descriptors come from a total of 391 different journals. Fifteen percent of sociology of science and scientometrics articles (119/768) comes from sociology journals. Interestingly, 15 percent (43/281) of all constructionist articles come from their respective journals (see Figure 4). According to our strict definition of what constitutes a sociology journal and a more constructionist journal, it is obvious that neither more constructionist nor sociology of science articles are disproportionately published in their own journals. Furthermore, as Figure 4 shows, neither group publishes extensively across the field in each others journals.

In summary, quantitatively, it is clear that in science studies, judged by practitioners own designations of what they are doing, the sociology of science has not become extinct, it has not come to be dominated by other research expressions, and despite the addition of new descriptors, it has tended to maintain its distinctiveness. Obviously it is important to sociology that the study of a topic or field so important to the modern world as science not disappear, and that the sociological approach to it (e.g., Nakhaie 2007; Siler and McLaughlin 2008) not become overshadowed nor completely lose its distinctiveness.


Ben-David, J. 1971. The Scientist's Role in Society: A Comparative Study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ben-David, J. and T.A. Sullivan. 1975. "Sociology of Science." Annual Review of Sociology 1: 203-22.

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Bloor, D. 1976. Knowledge and Social Imagery. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cole, S. 1992. Making Science: Between Nature and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collins, H.M. 1985. Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Collins, R. and S. Restivo. 1983. "Development, Diversity, and Conflict in the Sociology of Science." Sociological Quarterly 24:185-200.

Feyerabend, P. 1975. Against Method. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Feyerabend, P. 1978. Science in a Free Society. New York: Schocken.

Frickel, S. and K. Moore. 2006. The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks and Power. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Hagstrom, W.O. 1965. The Scientific: Community. New York: Basic Books.

Hess, D.J. 1997. Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Hull, D.L. 1988. Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hull, D.L. 2000. "The Professionalization of Science Studies: Cutting Some Slack." Biology and Philosophy 15:61-91.

Kitcher, P. 2000. "Reviving the Sociology of Science." Philosophy of Science (Proceedings) 67:S33-44.

Kuhn, T. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. and S. Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Pp. 435-48 in The Web of Knowledge: A Festschrift in Honor of Eugene Garfield, edited by B. Cronin and H.B. Atkins. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

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Pp. 213-30 in Handbook of Constructionist Research, edited by J.A. Holstein and J.F. Gubrium. New York: The Guilford Press.

Siler, K.S. and N. McLaughlin. 2008. "The Canada Research Chairs Program and Social Science Reward Structures." The Canadian Review of Sociology 45:93-119.

Sismondo, S. 2008. "Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program." Pp. 13-31 in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 3d ed., edited by E.J. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch and J. Wajcman. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Yearley, S. 2005. Making Sense of Science: Understanding the Social Studies of Science. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


University of Toronto

(1.) Twain's quote was contained in a scribbled note available in scanned form at (access date: July 24, 2009).

(2.) In this paper we ignore the important "technological" side of the subject. Hence we ignore descriptors, such as "technology studies," "the sociology of technology," "the sociology of technical knowledge," and "social studies of technology"--"science in society" as it has been called as opposed to "society in science." We also ignore the parallel terms which include both, that is "science and technology studies," "the sociology of science and technology," "the sociology of scientific and technical knowledge," and "social studies of' science and technology."

(3.) Constructionism in turn is commonly said to have its roots in Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966. That claim with respect to origins is quite tenuous. In 1976, Bloor neither mentioned "constructionism" nor cited Berger and Luckmann's book. Moreover, the disconnect makes sense in light of the fact that Berger and Luckmann's book was primarily about offering a micro alternative to the macro sociologies of functionalism and conflict theory, which were fighting it out in sociology at large at the time rather than emphasizing social construction in the subjectivist/relativist sense the term tended to take on, justified or not, in science studies.

(4.) Unfortunately several approaches that are to varying degrees prominent in science studies--particularly actor-network theory, ethnomethodology, and feminist studies of science do not have descriptors commonly enough used which also differentiate their general use from their specific use in science studies or science and technology studies to enable us to use them in our study. The one closest to having such a descriptor is "feminist science studies" but a preliminary looked showed this usage to be numerically insignificant. Undoubtedly however many studies in these genres are included in one or more of the three "constructionist" groupings that were used. An interesting footnote on the choice of descriptors is that recently adopted by the appropriate section of the American Sociological Association. In attempting to he inclusive, they adopted "Science, Knowledge and Technology" as their section title. However, in choosing such a unique expression they have undoubtedly frustrated the goal of making their research more visible. At the time of our searches there was exactly one item including this expression. In retrospect, it would have been much wiser to use what are in fact the most inclusive descriptors albeit not explicitly so that is "science studies" or "science and technology studies."

(5.) This finding appears to support Collins and Restivo's (1983) use of the sociology of science and social studies of science as synonymous terms. However, the fact that 85 percent of social studies of science articles do not feature the sociology of science implies that they are different programs.

Paul Armstrong, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Ave., Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 2S4. E-mail:
Table 1
Correlation of Publication Counts

                    Social                                   of
                   studies        Social      Sciento-   scientific
                  of science   epistemology   metrics    knowledge

Social studies           1
  of science
Social             .60887              1
Scientometrics     .833738       .752238            1
Sociology of       .710999       .604261      .668562           1
Sociology of       .359496       .363653      .334022     .391429
Sociology of       .736292       .619874      .707022     .680096

                  Sociology    Sociology
                      of           of
                  knowledge     science

Social studies
  of science
Sociology of
Sociology of             1
Sociology of       .636424         1

Figure 4: Proportion of articles published in sociology or more
constructionist journals.


% of articles published in

                            Sociology Journals   More Constructionist

Sociology of Science,
Scientometrics                    15%                   11%

SSK, Social Epistemology,
Social Studies of Science          5%                   15%

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:Armstrong, Paul; Blute, Marion
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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