Knowledge is relevant to sociology as the principle that social relations can be organized in terms of the differential access that members have to a common reality. Until the late eighteenth century, Plato’s Republic epitomized the role of knowledge as a static principle of social stratification. However, the Enlightenment introduced a more dynamic conception, whereby different forms of knowledge could be ordered according to the degree of freedom permitted to their possessors. An individual or a society might then pass through these stages in a process of development. Thus, thinkers as otherwise diverse as Hegel, Comte, and Mill came to associate progress with the extension of knowledge to more people.
However, this dynamic conception of knowledge produced a paradox: the distribution of knowledge and the production of power seem to trade off against each other. The more we know, the less it matters. Knowledge only seems to beget power if relatively few people enjoy it. The distinctly sociological response to this paradox was to jettison Plato’s original idea that a single vision of reality needs to be the basis for knowledge. This response, popularly associated with philosophical relativism, asserts simply that different forms of knowledge are appropriate to the needs and wants of their possessors.
The history of the sociology of knowledge is a tale of two traditions, French and German. Both came to fruition in the period 1890-1930. They are based on the proximity of knowers in space and time, respectively. Thus, the French tradition focused on how people of different origins who are concentrated in one space over time acquire a common mindset, whereas the German tradition focused on how people dispersed over a wide space retain a common mindset by virtue of having been born at roughly the same time.
The French tradition, exemplified by Lucien Levy Bruhl and Emile Durkheim, regarded sustained interpersonal contact as the means by which a ”collective consciousness” is forged and maintained. Both took tribal rituals as the paradigmatic site for the formation of this sort of consciousness, whereby emotional energy is translated into such cognitively significant artifacts as sacred texts and canonical procedures.
In contrast, the German tradition, exemplified by Wilhelm Dilthey and Karl Mannheim, was influenced more by history – indeed, historicism – than anthropology. Instead of looking at how the physical environment, including artifacts, constrains cognitive development, the German tradition focused on the overall world view exhibited by an array of texts produced by people who marched through time together, a ”generational cohort.”
Common to both the French and German traditions was the assumption that knowledge is constituted as acts of collective resistance to the environment. The exact nature of the resistance is explainable by the spatiotemporal arrangement of the people concerned. Thus, a Durkheimian might show how religious rituals enable the faithful to escape the limitations of their material conditions and stand up to potential oppressors, while a Mannheimian might show how a persistent ideology enables the experience of a particular generation to define the parameters of policy for the entire society. In both cases, the sociology of knowledge is meant to complement, not replace, the psychology of normal thought processes through which individuals adapt to a world that is largely not of their own making. Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1967) eclectically mixes French and German traditions.
The addition of scientific knowledge as a potential object of inquiry complicated matters. Among the classical sociologists, Vilfredo Pareto was very clear about the ”non logical” status of the forms of knowledge eligible for sociological scrutiny. He declared that rationality is self-explanatory as the path of least resistance between ends and means, while sociology is needed to explain the friction of bias and error that usually gets in the way. The ”rational choice” paradigm in the social sciences retains this perspective today. It was also how positivistic philosophers divided the intellectual labor between the epistemology and the sociology of knowledge. They presumed that science would always fall on the rational side of the divide, and hence not require special sociological treatment. Mannheim himself justified the presumption on reflexive grounds: sociology could not be trusted to study knowledge scientifically unless it was systematically immune to the kinds of frictions Pareto identified.
This general line of reasoning was over turned in the late 1970s by the self-styled sociology of scientific knowledge (Bloor 1976). It posed an empirical and a conceptual challenge to Mannheim’s strictures. The empirical challenge lay in the irony that sociology seemed to have a mystified understanding of the form of knowledge it aspired to be. For example, Robert Merton’s famous account of the normative structure of science had been based largely on the methodological pronouncements of distinguished scientists and philosophers. This was like constructing a sociology of religion solely out of the writings of theologians and priests. Consequently, the last quarter century has witnessed an efflorescence of studies applying some German but mainly French approaches to the sociology of knowledge to the understanding of science. As had been the case with religion, much of this work on science has been ”demystifying” and hence a source of discomfort to professional scientists and philosophers of science.
The conceptual challenge pertained to the definition of science used to infer that it is necessarily a rational activity. Might not a religion or a political party also appear ”rational,” especially if evaluated in terms of its own goals? Conversely, were scientists judged in terms of all the consequences of their activities, both intended and unintended, might they not appear as ”irrational” as priests and politicians? How, then, should the socially and ecologically trans formative, sometimes even destructive, character of science be taken into any overall assessment of its ”rationality.” This challenge has been taken up most directly by ”social epistemology” (Fuller 1988), which attempts to reconstruct a normative order for science in light of this socially expanded sense of consequences.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the sociology of knowledge today is science’s tendency to become embedded in the technological structure of society as ”technoscience” (Latour 1987). Under the circumstances, science’s character as a form of knowledge is reduced to its sheer capacity to increase the possessor’s sphere of action. Such a reduction characterizes the definition of ”knowledge” used by sociologists who argue that we live in ”knowledge societies” (Stehr 1994). For them, knowledge is a commodity traded in many markets by many producers. In this emerging political economy, institutions traditionally dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge (e.g., universities) no longer enjoy any special advantage.
- Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality. Doubleday, Garden City, NY.
- Bloor, D. (1976) Knowledge and Social Imagery. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Fuller, S. (1988) Social Epistemology. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
- Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action. Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
- Mannheim, K. (1936 ) Ideology and Utopia. Harcourt Brace & World, New York.
- Merton, R. (1977) The Sociology of Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Stehr, N. (1994) Knowledge Societies. Sage, London.
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