Sociology of knowledge

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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 sociologist Émile Durkheim at beginning of the 20th century. His work deals directly with how conceptual thought, language, and logic could be influenced by the sociological milieu out of which they arise. In an early work co-written with Marcel Mauss, 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] Later, Durkheim in Elementary Forms of Religious Life would elaborate his theory of knowledge, examining how language and the concepts and categories (such as space and time) used in logical thought have a sociological origin. While neither Durkheim, nor Mauss, 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.


The Enlightenment[edit]

The Enlightenment movement ought not to be underestimated in its influence upon the social sciences. When these philosophers worked towards a scientific analysis of society, they were engaged in a sociology of ideas and values, albeit their own commitment was to critical rationalism. The Enlightenment strove for progress, change, secularism, but above all, to freedom, the freedom for individuals to decide their own fate. There was a commitment to practical science with humankind at the centre (as opposed to God or gods) and this is the real source of social science. This new science was not interested in revealed knowledge or a priori knowledge but in the workings of humanity: human practices, and social variety and regularities. Western thought, therefore, received a significant movement towards cultural relativism, where cross-cultural comparison became the dominant methodology. Importantly, social science was created by philosophers who sought to turn ideas into actions and to unite theory and practice in an attempt to restructure society as a whole.

Earlier viewpoints[edit]

Sociology of knowledge requires a certain viewpoint which was first expounded by Giambattista Vico in his New Science, written in the early 18th Century, a great deal before the first sociologists study the relationship between knowledge and society. In this book, a justification for a new historical and sociological methodology, the main point is that the natural world and the social world are known in different ways. The former is known through external or empirical methods, whilst the latter can be known internally as well as externally. In other words, human history is a construct. This creates a key epistemological distinction between the natural world and the social world which is a central concept in the social sciences. Primarily focused on historical methodology, Vico asserts that in order to study a society's history it is necessary to move beyond a chronicle of events by examining the cultural elements of the society, what was termed the "civil world". This "civil world", made up of actions, thoughts, ideas, myths, norms, religious beliefs, and institutions, is the product of the human mind. Since these elements are socially constructed, they can be better understood than the physical world, understood as it is in abstraction. Vico highlights that human nature and its products are not fixed entities and therefore necessitate an historical perspective which emphasizes the changes and developments implicit in individuals and societies. He also emphasizes the dialectical relationship between society and culture as key in this new historical perspective.

Vico's ideas, whilst permeated by his own penchant for etymology, and a theory of cyclical history (corsi e ricorsi), are significant nonetheless for the underlying premise that our understanding and knowledge of social structure is dependent upon the ideas and concepts we employ and the language used. Vico, mostly unknown in his own time, was the first to establish the foundations of a sociology of knowledge even if his concepts were not necessarily picked up by later writers. There is some evidence that Montesquieu and Karl Marx had read Vico's work.[8] However the similarities in their works are superficial, limited mainly to the overall conception of their projects, characterised by cultural relativisim and historicism.


Émile Durkheim[edit]

Main article: 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.[9] 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.

While publishing short articles on the subject earlier in his career (for example the essay De quelques formes primitives de classification written in 1902 with Marcel Mauss), Durkheim's definitive statement concerning the sociology of knowledge comes in his 1912 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. Durkheim worked largely out of a kantian framework and sought to understand how the concepts and categories of logical thought could arise out of social life. He argued, for example, that the categories of space and time were not a priori. Rather, the category of space depends on a society's social grouping and geographical use of space, and a group's social rythme that determines our understanding of time.[10] In this Durkheim sought to combine elements of rationalism and empiricism, arguing that certain aspects of logical thought common to all humans did exist, but that they were products of collective life (thus contradicting the tabla rasa empiricist understanding whereby categories are acquired by individual experience alone), and that they were not universal a priori's (as Kant argued) since the content of the categories differed from society to society.[11]

Another key elements to 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 intense social interaction and are products of collective activity. 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]

Arguably the most important "représentation collective" is language, which according to Durkheim is a product of collective action. And because language is a collective action, language contains within it a history of accumulated knowledge and experience that no individual would be capable of creating on their own. As Durkheim says, 'représentations collectives', and language in particular, :

"add to that which we can learn by our own personal experience all that wisdom and science which the group has accumulated in the course of centuries. Thinking by concepts, is not merely seeing reality on its most general side, but it is projecting a light upon the sensation which illuminates it, penetrates it and transforms it.[13]"

As such, language, as a social product, literally structures and shapes our experience of reality, an idea developed by later French philosophers, such as Michel Foucault.

Karl Mannheim[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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.[14] As a result, knowledge is socially constructed.[15] He argues that knowledge forms discourses and discourses form the dominant ideological ways of thinking which govern our lives.[16] For him, social control is maintained in ‘the disciplinary society’, through codes of control over sexuality and the ideas/knowledge perpetuated through social institutions.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Knowledge ecology[edit]

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",[21] 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,[22] Bonnie Nardi,[23] or Swidler.

New Sociology of Knowledge[edit]

The New Sociology of Knowledge (a postmodern approach considering knowledge as culture by drawing upon Marxist, French structuralist, and American pragmatist traditions)[24] introduces new concepts that dictate how knowledge is socialized in the modern era by new kinds of social organizations and structures.[25][26]

Robert K. Merton[edit]

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.[27]

Legitimation Code Theory[edit]

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.[28] 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.[29][30]

See also[edit]

Sociologists of knowledge[edit]



  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. ^ Marx, Karl. Capital, Book 1 part IV. pp. Chapter 13, note 89 (footnote mentions Vico). 
  9. ^ Calhoun, Craig, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, Kathryn Schmidt, and Intermohan Virk. (2002). Classical sociological theory. Malden, Mass: Blackwell
  10. ^ Durkheim, 'Conclusion,' Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Presses Universitaires de France, 5e édition, 2003 p. 628
  11. ^ Durkheim, 'Introduction,' Les Formes, p. 14-17, and p. 19-22.
  12. ^ Durkheim, Emile. (1964). The elementary forms of the religious life. London: Allen & Unwin.
  13. ^ Emile Durkheim, Conclusion, Section III, "Elementary Forms of Religious Life" trans. Joseph Ward Swain, p. 435 (accessed:
  14. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 27. 
  15. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 28. 
  16. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 187. 
  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. 138. 
  20. ^ Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House. p. 187. 
  21. ^ Pór, G. (2000). "Nurturing Systemic Wisdom through Knowledge Ecology". The Systems Thinker 11 (8): 1–5. 
  22. ^ Davenport, Thomas H.; Prusak, Laurence (1997). Information Ecology. Oxford University Press. p. 288. ISBN 0-19-511168-0. 
  23. ^ Nardi, Bonnie; O’Day, V. (1999). Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 288. 
  24. ^ Doyle McCarthy, Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge, Routledge, published October 23, 1996, ISBN 978-0415064972
  25. ^ Swidler, A., Arditi, J. 1994. The New Sociology of Knowledge. Annual Review of Sociology , 20, pp. 205-329
  26. ^ McCarthy, E. Doyle. 1996. Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge . New York: Routledge.
  27. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. 
  28. ^ Legitimation Code Theory, bibliography
  29. ^ Maton, K. (2014), Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education, London, Routledge.
  30. ^ Maton, K., Hood, S. & Shay, S. (eds) (2016) Knowledge-building: Educational studies in Legitimation Code Theory. London, Routledge.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Foucault, Michel (1994). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. Vintage. 
  • 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.
  • Peter Hamilton, Knowledge and Social Structure: an introduction to the classical argument in the sociology of knowledge. 1974. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London and Boston. A fantastic source that covers the origins of social science (Vico and Montesquieu), through Hegel and Marx to the main schools of thought in this area: Durkheim, Mannheim, phenomenological-sociological approaches.
  • 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.
  • Vico, Giambattista. "The New Science of Giambattista Vico", (1744). The first exposition of key ideas that are fundamental to the social sciences and sociology of knowledge.

External links[edit]

Media related to Knowledge representations at Wikimedia Commons