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Sociology of knowledge

File:Classical definition of Kno.svg
A Venn diagram simplification of Plato's definition of knowledge

The sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies. It is not a specialized area of sociology but instead deals with broad fundamental questions about the extent and limits of social influences on individual's lives and the social-cultural basics of our knowledge about the world.[1] Complementary to the sociology of knowledge is the sociology of ignorance[2] including the study of nescience, ignorance, knowledge gaps or non-knowledge as inherent features of knowledge making.[3] [4] [5]

The sociology of knowledge was pioneered primarily by the sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Their works deal directly with how conceptual thought, language, and logic could be influenced by the sociological milieu out of which they arise. In Primitive Classification Durkheim and Mauss take a study of "primitive" group mythology to argue that systems of classification are collectively based and that the divisions with these systems are derived from social categories.[6] While neither author specifically coined nor used the term 'sociology of knowledge', their work is an important first contribution to the field.

The specific term 'sociology of knowledge' is said to have been in widespread use since the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists, most notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim, wrote extensively on sociological aspects of knowledge.[7] With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the 20th century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied much more closely to everyday life in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society (compare socially constructed reality). The 'genealogical' and 'archaeological' studies of Michel Foucault are of considerable contemporary influence.


Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) is credited as having been the first professor to successfully establish the field of sociology, institutionalizing a department of sociology at the Université de Bordeaux in the 1890s.[8] While his works deal with a number of subjects, including suicide, the family, social structures, and social institutions, a large part of his work deals with the sociology of knowledge. In 1902, he published, with Marcel Mauss, De quelques formes primitives de classification, an essay that examines how the various ways in which a society is organized structurally impacts the formation of a society's categories and logical grouping systems.

Building on his early work with Mauss, Durkheim's definitive statement concerning the sociology of knowledge comes in his magnum opus The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. This book has as its goal not only the elucidation of the social origins and function of religion, but also the social origins and impact of society on language and logical thought. In it, Durkheim argues that religious beliefs require people to separate life into categories of the sacred and the profane, and that rites and rituals are necessary to mark the transition between these two spheres.[9] Here, Durkheim outlines how totemism within an Australian aboriginal religion is an example of how collective representations are enacted through religion.[10] A totem is a representation of the clan, which embodies all the characteristics of the group and around which rites and rituals take place.[11] It is through these rituals that religion is enacted and reinforced, creating a collective understanding of reality.

One of the most important elements of Durkheim's theory of knowledge is his concept of représentations collectives (collective representations), which is outlined in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Représentations collectives are the symbols and images that come to represent the ideas, beliefs, and values elaborated by a collectivity and are not reducible to individual constituents. They can include words, slogans, ideas, or any number of material items that can serve as a symbol, such as a cross, a rock, a temple, a feather etc. As Durkheim elaborates, représentations collectives are created through the intense interaction of religious rituals. They are products of collective activity and as such these representations have the particular, and somewhat contradictory, aspect that they exist externally to the individual (since they are created and controlled not by the individual but by society as a whole), and yet simultaneously within each individual of the society (by virtue of that individual's participation within society).[12] Through représentations collectives the group exerts pressure on the individual to conform to society's norms of morality and thought. As such, collective representations help to order and make sense of the world, but they also express, symbolize and interpret social relationships.

Karl Mannheim

Main article: Karl Mannheim

The German political philosophers Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) argued in Die deutsche Ideologie (1846, German Ideology) and elsewhere that people's ideologies, including their social and political beliefs and opinions, are rooted in their class interests, and more broadly in the social and economic circumstances in which they live:

"It is men, who in developing their material inter-course, change, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Being is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by being" (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe 1/5).

Under the influence of this doctrine, and of Phenomenology, the Hungarian-born German sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893–1947) gave impetus to the growth of the sociology of knowledge with his Ideologie und Utopie (1929, translated and extended in 1936 as Ideology and Utopia), although the term had been introduced five years earlier by the co-founder of the movement, the German philosopher, phenomenologist and social theorist Max Scheler (1874–1928), in Versuche zu einer Soziologie des Wissens (1924, Attempts at a Sociology of Knowledge).

Mannheim feared that this interpretation could be seen to claim that all knowledge and beliefs are the products of socio-political forces since this form of relativism is self-defeating (if it is true, then it too is merely a product of socio-political forces and has no claim to truth and no persuasive force). Mannheim believed that relativism was a strange mixture of modern and ancient beliefs in that it contained within itself a belief in an absolute truth which was true for all times and places (the ancient view most often associated with Plato) and condemned other truth claims because they could not achieve this level of objectivity (an idea gleaned from Marx). Mannheim sought to escape this problem with the idea of 'relationism'. This is the idea that certain things are true only in certain times and places (a view influenced by pragmatism) however, this does not make them less true. Mannheim felt that a stratum of free-floating intellectuals (who he claimed were only loosely anchored to the class structure of society) could most perfectly realize this form of truth by creating a "dynamic synthesis" of the ideologies of other groups.

Phenomenological sociology

Phenomenological sociology is the study of the formal structures of concrete social existence as made available in and through the analytical description of acts of intentional consciousness. The "object" of such an analysis is the meaningful lived world of everyday life: the "Lebenswelt", or life-world (Husserl:1889). The task, like that of every other phenomenological investigation, is to describe the formal structures of this object of investigation in subjective terms, as an object-constituted-in-and-for-consciousness (Gurwitsch:1964). That which makes such a description different from the "naive" subjective descriptions of the man in the street, or those of the traditional, positivist social scientist, is the utilization of phenomenological methods.

The leading proponent of phenomenological sociology was Alfred Schütz [1899-1959]. Schütz sought to provide a critical philosophical foundation for Max Weber's interpretive sociology through the use of phenomenological methods derived from the transcendental phenomenological investigations of Edmund Husserl [1859-1938]. Husserl's work was directed at establishing the formal structures of intentional consciousness. Schütz's work was directed at establishing the formal structures of the Life-world (Schütz:1980). Husserl's work was conducted as a transcendental phenomenology of consciousness. Schütz's work was conducted as a mundane phenomenology of the Life-world (Natanson:1974). The difference in their research projects lies at the level of analysis, the objects taken as topics of study, and the type of phenomenological reduction that is employed for the purposes of analysis.

Ultimately, the two projects should be seen as complementary, with the structures of the latter dependent on the structures of the former. That is, valid phenomenological descriptions of the formal structures of the Life-world should be wholly consistent with the descriptions of the formal structures of intentional consciousness. It is from the latter that the former derives its validity and truth value (Sokolowski:2000).

The phenomenological tie-in with the sociology of knowledge stems from two key historical sources for Mannheim's analysis: [1] Mannheim was dependent on insights derived from Husserl's phenomenological investigations, especially the theory of meaning as found in Husserl's Logical Investigations of 1900/1901 (Husserl:2000), in the formulation of his central methodological work: "On The Interpretation of Weltanschauung" (Mannheim:1993:see fn41 & fn43) - this essay forms the centerpiece for Mannheim's method of historical understanding and is central to his conception of the sociology of knowledge as a research program; and [2] The concept of "Weltanschauung" employed by Mannheim has its origins in the hermeneutic philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey, who relied on Husserl's theory of meaning (above) for his methodological specification of the interpretive act (Mannheim: 1993: see fn38).

It is also noteworthy that Husserl's analysis of the formal structures of consciousness, and Schütz's analysis of the formal structures of the Life-world are specifically intended to establish the foundations, in consciousness, for the understanding and interpretation of a social world which is subject to cultural and historical change. The phenomenological position is that although the facticity of the social world may be culturally and historically relative, the formal structures of consciousness, and the processes by which we come to know and understand this facticity, are not. That is, the understanding of any actual social world is unavoidably dependent on understanding the structures and processes of consciousness that found, and constitute, any possible social world.

Alternatively, if the facticity of the social world and the structures of consciousness prove to be culturally and historically relative, then we are at an impasse in regard to any meaningful scientific understanding of the social world which is not subjective (as opposed to being objective and grounded in nature [positivism], or inter subjective and grounded in the structures of consciousness [phenomenology]), and relative to the cultural and idealization formations of particular concrete individuals living in a particular socio-historical group.

Michel Foucault

Main article: Michel Foucault

A particularly important contemporary contribution to the sociology of knowledge is found in the work of Michel Foucault. Madness and Civilization (1961) postulated that conceptions of madness and what was considered "reason" or "knowledge" was itself subject to major culture bias - in this respect mirroring similar criticisms by Thomas Szasz, at the time the foremost critic of psychiatry, and himself now an eminent psychiatrist. A point where Foucault and Szasz agreed was that sociological processes played the major role in defining "madness" as an "illness" and prescribing "cures". In The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception (1963), Foucault extended his critique to institutional clinical medicine, arguing for the central conceptual metaphor of "The Gaze", which had implications for medical education, prison design, and the carceral state as understood today. Concepts of criminal justice and its intersection with medicine were better developed in this work than in Szasz and others, who confined their critique to current psychiatric practice. The Order of Things (1966) and The Archeology of Knowledge (1969) introduced abstract notions of mathesis and taxonomia to explain the subjective 'ordering' of the human sciences. These, he claimed, had transformed 17th and 18th century studies of "general grammar" into modern "linguistics", "natural history" into modern "biology", and "analysis of wealth" into modern "economics"; though not, claimed Foucault, without loss of meaning. According to Foucault, the 19th century transformed what knowledge was.[citation needed]

Perhaps Foucault's best-known claim[according to whom?] was that "Man did not exist" before the 18th century. Foucault regarded notions of humanity and of humanism as inventions of modernity. Accordingly, a cognitive bias had been introduced unwittingly into science, by over-trusting the individual doctor or scientist's ability to see and state things objectively. Foucault roots this argument in the rediscovery of Kant, though his thought is significantly influenced by Nietzsche - that philosopher declaring the "death of God" in the 19th century, and the anti-humanists proposing the "death of Man" in the 20th.

In Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Foucault concentrates on the correlation between knowledge and power. According to him, knowledge is a form of power and can conversely be used against individuals as a form of power.[13] As a result, knowledge is socially constructed in order to maintain the power of the ruling class.[14] He argues that knowledge forms discourses and discourses form the dominant ideological ways of thinking which govern our lives.[15] For him, social control is maintained in ‘the disciplinary society’, through codes of control over sexuality and the ideas/knowledge perpetuated through social institutions.[16] In other words, discourses and ideologies subject us to authority and turn people into ‘subjected beings’, who are in turn afraid of being punished if they sway from social norms.[17] Foucault believes that institutions overtly regulate and control our lives. Institutions such as schools reinforce the dominant ideological forms of thinking onto the populace and force us into becoming obedient and docile beings.[18] Hence, the dominant ideology that serves the interests of the ruling class, all the while appearing as `neutral`, needs to be questioned and must not go unchallenged.[19]

Knowledge ecology

Main article: Knowledge ecology

Knowledge ecology is a concept originating from knowledge management and that aimed at "bridging the gap between the static data repositories of knowledge management and the dynamic, adaptive behavior of natural systems",[20] and in particular relying on the concept of interaction and emergence. Knowledge ecology, and its related concept information ecology has been elaborated by different academics and practitioners such as Thomas H. Davenport,[21] Bonnie Nardi,[22] or Swidler.

New Sociology of Knowledge

The New Sociology of Knowledge (a postmodern approach considering knowledge as culture by drawing upon Marxist, French structuralist, and American pragmatist traditions)[23] introduces new concepts that dictate how knowledge is socialized in the modern era by new kinds of social organizations and structures.[24][25]

Robert K. Merton

Main article: Robert K. Merton

American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) dedicates a section of Social Theory and Social Structure (1949; revised and expanded, 1957 and 1968) to the study of the sociology of knowledge in Part III, titled The Sociology of Knowledge and Mass Communications.[26]

Legitimation Code Theory

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) emerged as a framework for the study of knowledge and education and is now being used to analyse a growing range of social and cultural practices across increasingly different institutional and national contexts, both within and beyond education.[27][28][29] It is an approach that builds primary on the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu. It also integrates insights from sociology (including Durkheim, Marx, Weber and Foucault), systemic functional linguistics, philosophy (such as Karl Popper and critical realism), early cultural studies, anthropology (especially Mary Douglas and Ernest Gellner), and other approaches.[30][31][32] There has been criticism of the extent to which Legitimation Code Theory builds on the works of Basil Bernstein and the importance of post-structuralist and feminist engagement with the "Bernsteinian oeuvre" for understanding knowledge and pedagogy that is thought to be neglected by LCT. [33]

See also

Sociologists of knowledge



  1. ^
  2. ^ The Sociology of Ignorance
  3. ^ Beck, Ulrich; Wehling, Peter (2012). Rubio, F.D.; Baert, P., eds. The politics of non-knowing: An emerging area of social and political conflict in reflexive modernity. New York: Routledge. pp. 33–57. ISBN 0415497108. 
  4. ^ Gross, Matthias (2010). Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262013482. 
  5. ^ Moore, Wilbert; Tumin, Melvin (1949). "Some social functions of ignorance". American Sociological Review 14 (6): 787–796. doi:10.2307/2086681. 
  6. ^ Durkheim, Emile, and Marcel Mauss. (1963). Primitive classification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. ^ Max Scheler (ed.). Versuche zu einer Soziologie des Wissens. München und Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1924. Karl Mannheim. Ideology and utopia: an introduction to the sociology of knowledge. Translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company; London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1936.
  8. ^ Calhoun, Craig, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, Kathryn Schmidt, and Intermohan Virk. (2002). Classical sociological theory. Malden, Mass: Blackwell
  9. ^ Giddens, Anthony. (1978). Durkheim. Hassocks: Harvester, p. 85
  10. ^ Calhoun, Craig, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, Kathryn Schmidt, and Intermohan Virk (2002). Classical sociological theory. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, p. 106
  11. ^ Giddens, Anthony. (1978). Durkheim. Hassocks: Harvester, p. 87
  12. ^ Durkheim, Emile. (1964). The elementary forms of the religious life. London: Allen & Unwin.
  13. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 27. 
  14. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 28. 
  15. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 187. 
  16. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 138. 
  17. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 138. 
  18. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 138. 
  19. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 187. 
  20. ^ Pór, G. (2000). "Nurturing Systemic Wisdom through Knowledge Ecology". The Systems Thinker 11 (8): 1–5. 
  21. ^ Davenport, Thomas H.; Prusak, Laurence (1997). Information Ecology. Oxford University Press. p. 288. ISBN 0-19-511168-0. 
  22. ^ Nardi, Bonnie; O’Day, V. (1999). Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 288. 
  23. ^ Doyle McCarthy, Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge, Routledge, published October 23, 1996, ISBN 978-0415064972
  24. ^ Swidler, A., Arditi, J. 1994. The New Sociology of Knowledge. Annual Review of Sociology , 20, pp. 205-329
  25. ^ McCarthy, E. Doyle. 1996. Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge . New York: Routledge.
  26. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. 
  27. ^ Maton, K. (2003). "Reflexivity, relationism and research: Pierre Bourdieu and the epistemic conditions of social scientific knowledge." Space & Culture 6(1): 52-65.
  28. ^ Maton, K. (2014), Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education, London, Routledge.
  29. ^ Legitimation Code Theory, bibliography
  30. ^ Maton, K. (2000), "Recovering pedagogic discourse: A Bernsteinian approach to the sociology of educational knowledge", Linguistics & Education 11 (1), 79-98
  31. ^ Moore, R. & Maton, K. (2001), "Founding the sociology of knowledge: Basil Bernstein, intellectual fields and the epistemic device", in Morais, A., Neves, I., Davies, B. & Daniels, H. (eds.), Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy, New York, Peter Lang, 153–182.
  32. ^ Moore, R. (2009). Towards the Sociology of Truth. London, Continuum.
  33. ^ Singh, P. (2015). "The knowledge paradox: Bernstein, Bourdieu, and beyond." British Journal of Sociology of Education 36(3): 487-494.

Further reading

  • Michael D. Barber, The Participating Citizen: A Biography of Alfred Schutz, SUNY UP. 2004. The standard biography of Alfred Schutz.
  • Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
  • Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness, Duquesne UP, 1964. The most direct and detailed presentation of the phenomenological theory of perception available in the English language.
  • Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology(1954), Northwestern UP. 1970. The classic introduction to phenomenology by the father of transcendental phenomenology.
  • Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations [1900/1901], Humanities Press, 2000.
  • Karl Mannheim, "On the Interpretation of Weltanschauung", in, From Karl Mannheim, Kurt Heinrich Wolff (ed.) Transaction Press, 1993. An important collection of essays including this key text.
  • Maurice Natanson, Edmund Husserl: Philosopher of Infinite Tasks, Northwestern UP. 1974. Quality commentary on Husserlian phenomenology and its relation to the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz.
  • Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers V.I, Kluwer Academic. 1982. Classic essays in phenomenological theory as applied to the social sciences.
  • Kurt Heinrich Wolff, Versuch zu einer Wissenssoziologie, Berlin, 1968
  • Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, Northwestern UP. 1967. Schutz's initial attempt to bridge the gap between phenomenology and Weberian sociology.
  • Alfred Schutz, The Structures of the Life-World, Northwestern UP. 1980. Schutz's final programmatic statement of a phenomenology of the Life-world.
  • Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge UP. 2000. The most accessible of the quality introductions to phenomenology currently available.
  • Julio E. Rubio & Ntumbua Tshipamba, "Elements of the public policy of science, technology and innovation", Canadian Social Science, 6(6), 61-80. 2010. Work analyzing the structure, elements and formulation of science, technology and innovation policy.
  • Foucault, Michel (1994). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. Vintage. 

External links

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