Sociology of Knowledge

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The "sociology of knowledge" is concerned with determining whether human participation in social life has any influence on human knowledge, thought, and culture and, if it does, what sort of influence it is.


Although the term sociology of knowledge was coined in the twentieth century, the origins of the discipline date back to classical antiquity. Plato, for instance, asserted that the lower classes are unfit to pursue the higher kinds of knowledge, because their mechanical crafts not only deform their bodies but also confuse their souls. Plato also held the more refined doctrine of the correspondence of the knower (or more precisely, the faculties and activities of the knower's mind, which are in part determined by society) and the known. This latter theory became part of the Platonic tradition and ultimately stimulated some modern pioneers in the sociology of knowledge, notably Max Scheler. Both theories anticipated an essential claim of the sociology of knowledgethat social circumstances, by shaping the subject of knowing, also determine the objects that come to be known.

In the Middle Ages, patterns of life were fixed and defined, and patterns of thought tended to be equally so; ideas appeared as absolute, and the factors that conditioned them remained hidden. As soon, however, as rifts developed in the social fabric, awareness of these factors reemerged. Niccolò Machiavelli's remark in the Discourses that the thought of the palace was one thing, the thought of the market place quite another, revealed this new awareness.

In the following centuries, the stream of ideas that was to lead to the modern sociology of knowledge was divided between rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists regarded mathematical propositions as the archetype of truth. As mathematical propositions do not change in content from age to age and from country to country, the rationalists could not concede that different societies might have different systems of knowledge, all equally valid. But if truth was one, error could be multiform, and its roots could be sought in social lifefor instance, in the machinations of privileged classes in whose interest it was to keep the people in ignorance. Francis Bacon's doctrine of "idols," or sources of delusion, set forth in his Novum Organum, illustrates this tendency. The rationalists thus became the first "unmaskers" of "ideologies."

According to the empiricists, the contents of the mind depend on the basic life experiences, and as these are manifestly dissimilar in dissimilarly circumstanced societies, they almost had to assume that reality would offer a different face in each society. Thus, Giambattista Vico asserted that every phase of history has its own style of thought which provides it with a specific and appropriate cultural mentality. The treatment of the biblical account of creation by the two schools shows their contrast. Voltaire called it a piece of stultifying priestcraft that no rational person anywhere would accept: How could the light exist before the sun? Johann Gottfried Herder answered that for a desert nation like the ancient Hebrews the dawn breaks before the solar disk appears above the horizon. For them, therefore, the light was before the sun.

Though the problems of the genesis of error and the genesis of truth should be kept apart, the overly sharp distinction between them and the partisan handling of them before the end of the eighteenth century prevented any tangible progress. And even though Immanuel Kant achieved a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism, the sociology of knowledge failed to gain from his advances. Kant's whole approach prevented such a gain: The problem of knowledge arose for Kant from the meeting of the individual mind with the physical world. The social element was missing at either pole. The sociology of knowledge explains Kant's narrowness itself as socially determined. The decay of feudal society and the emergence of a class of independent producers (peasants and artisans) had created the desire to "liberate" man from the "artificial restrictions" of social life. A presocial, asocial, or antisocial type of man was thought possible and even superior to social man. The primacy of being was ascribed to the individual, and society was considered to be no more than a collection of individuals linked by contract. In these circumstances, no one could see the influence of social forces on the human mind.

The nineteenth century brought a strong reaction against this radical individualism. As the forces of social control reasserted themselves, man was once again conceived of as essentially a social creature. The result of this new trend was Karl Marx's mislabeled "materialistic interpretation of history." Marx wrote in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy : "It is not men's consciousness which determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness." For Marx, the real "substructure" upon which the intellectual "superstructure" rests is a special set of human relationships. Though his definition of these relationships is too narrow, and though he has been variously interpreted, Marx's formulation provided the starting point in the development of the modern sociology of knowledge.

Social Origin of Ideas

While there is general agreement among scholars in the field that social relationships provide the key to the understanding of the genesis of ideas, there are also far-reaching disagreements among several distinct schools, within which there are again individual differences. An attempt will be made here only to characterize the three most important basic attitudes.

materialist school

A materialist group of writers emphasizes that human beings are creatures of nature before they are creatures of society and tends to see human beings as dominated by certain genetic drives, with decisive consequences for their emergent mentalities. Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, ascribed to man an elementary will to power; if this will is frustrated by a barrier, self-consolatory ideas are apt to appear. Christianity is one such idea; it is essentially a philosophy of "sour grapes," a "slave morality." It assures the defeated that they are really superior to those who have defeated them.

Vilfredo Pareto's Trattato di sociologia generale is the most elaborate statement of this position. According to Pareto, people act first and think of reasons for their action only afterward. These reasons he calls "derivations" because they are derived from, or secondary to, the "residues," or quasi instincts, which in fact determine human modes of conduct and, through them, human modes of thought as well. This school continued the line initiated by the rationalists. Theirs is a doctrine of ideologies that devalues thought while it accounts for its formation.

idealist school

A second group of writers asserts that every society has to come to some decision about the Absolute and that this decision will act as a basic premise that determines the content of the culture. Juan Donoso Cortés tried to explain the classical Greek worldview as the product of heathen preconceptions about the Absolute, and the medieval worldview as the product of Christian-Catholic preconceptions. An ambitious presentation of this theory is Pitirim Sorokin's Social and Cultural Dynamics. He distinguishes three basic metaphysics that, prevailing in given societies, color all their thinking. If a realm beyond space and time is posited as the Absolute, as in ancient India, an "ideational" mentality will spring up; if the realm inside space and time is posited as the Absolute, as in the modern West, a "sensate" mentality will come into being; and if, finally, reality is ascribed both to the here and now and to the beyond, as in the high Middle Ages, an "idealistic" mentality will be the result. Sorokin's doctrine is itself idealistic in character and finds its ultimate inspiration in a religious attitude.

sociologists of knowledge

The third group of writers occupies the middle ground. These writers do not go beyond the human sphere but divide it into a primary and conditioning half and a secondary and conditioned one. There is, however, great diversity of opinion over exactly which social facts should be regarded as conditioning thought. Marx, for instance, held that relations of production, which themselves reflect still more basic property relations, were primary, but many other factors, such as power relations, have been singled out by other thinkers. Still others regard the social constitution as a whole as the substructure of knowledge, thought, and culture. A typical representative of this numerous group is W. G. Sumner. In his classic Folkways, he suggested that wherever individuals try to live together, they develop mutual adjustments that harden into a set of customs, supported and secured by social sanctions, which permanently coordinate and control their conduct. These habits of action have as their concomitants habits of the mind, a generalized ethos that permeates the mental life of the society concerned. This theory can be sharpened by formulating it in axiological terms. A society is a society because, and insofar as, it is attuned to certain selected and hierarchically ordered values. These values determine what lines of endeavor will be pursued both in practice and in theory.

This third group represents the sociology of knowledge in the narrower and proper sense of the word. The theory just summed up has received some empirical confirmation through the discovery that societies do gain mental consistency to the degree that they achieve better human coordination and integration.

Relation of a Society to Ideas Expressed in it

The problem next in importance to the identification of the substructure of knowledge is the explanation of its relation to the superstructure. Here again there are three schools that may, but do not always, correspond to those already discussed. One tendency is toward causalism. The positivists Gustav Ratzenhofer and Hippolyte Taine, for example, expected of the future a science of culture no less deterministic than the sciences of matter. But though the term determination is frequently and generally used in all the literature of this school, it hardly ever means strict determination. While this first school concedes, in principle, no independence to the mind and its contents, a second, Platonic tendency ascribes complete independence to the mind. To Scheler, Florian Znaniecki, and others, thinking means participating in eternal preexistent ideas. If these ideas are to become active in the world, they must ally themselves to a social movement seeking appropriate ideas. Max Weber has called this doctrine the doctrine of elective affinity. The third theory argues in terms of interdependence and appears regularly in connection with functionalism. If society is to function as a unity, its modes of acting and thinking must be in, or on the way to, agreement. Neither substructure nor superstructure is given ontological priority, but there is a tendency to see thought in action as prior to thought as theory.

extent of influence

Another problem concerns the extent of the influence of social factors on ideas. Here opinions range from the view that these factors influence only a few political slogans to the view that their influence is all-pervading. An important systematic dividing line separates the authors who assert that the categories of thought themselves are socially determined from those who deny that they are.

Epistemological Significance

The main philosophical importance of the sociology of knowledge consists in its claim to supplement, if not to replace, traditional epistemology. If society partially or totally determines knowing and thinking, how does this affect their validity? All sociologists of knowledge are inclined to stress that initially the human mind is never aware of more than a sector of reality and that the selection of a sector to be investigated is dependent on the axiological system that a given society has made its own. From this point they diverge once again into three schools, and once more there is no simple correlation with the tendencies previously identified.

effect of social factors on thought

Some writers, such as Pareto, hold that, in the last analysis, only the senses are reliable sources of knowledge. They tend to split the mental universe into a scientific and a nonscientific department and accord the ideas belonging to the latter at best conventional status, but no truth-value in the narrower sense of the term. The axiological system of society, insofar as it is not taken up with scientific and technological pursuits, appears as an opaque and distorting medium that interposes itself between the intellect and reality. The effect of society on the mind is thus something negative, to be regretted and, if possible, overcome.

Whereas this group denigrates the social element in human beings, and hence in human knowledge, another, including Émile Durkheim and Karl Mannheim, sees it as supreme. The latter group conceives the individual as the most likely source of error and society as the most reliable source of truth, if for no other reason than because personal blunders are neutralized in a common attitude. They regard society as the test of the validity of a belief: It is valid if those who hold it manage to operate smoothly within their social system. But if the true is what works and if different societies work differently (as manifestly they do), then truth is once again merely convention. At any rate, there can be no general truths.

The third group, including Weber and Scheler, considers that the social influence on mental activity consists essentially in giving directions. What knowledge will be sought in a society depends on the axiological system that reigns in that society. In its most radical form, this doctrine sees our very awareness of facts as socially determined: Only those aspects of reality that are marked by their possession of some value, social in origin, will be noticed and enter into the canon of knowledge. There appears, however, no cogent reason why a person should not see a thing thus selected for study on an axiological basis as what it really is. It can therefore be said that every society has its own truth, without giving the word a relativistic tinge. Any human being who integrates himself, factually or intellectually, with a certain society and accepts its constitutive values will have to agree that, from the chosen angle, the world does, and must, look as it is described by the searchers and thinkers of that society. Hence sociality is neither a truth-destroying nor a truth-guaranteeing, but merely a truth-limiting factor. The resulting limitations can, in principle, be overcome by combining the valid "aspectual" insights of all societies into a comprehensive whole.

Knowledge of Nature and Knowledge of Culture

An important distinction sometimes made is that between knowledge of nature and knowledge of culture. The facts of nature do not change from age to age and from country to country; the facts of culture do. Knowledge of the former, therefore, need not be marked by relativity. The Paretian theory, by making physical knowledge the model of all knowledge, does less than justice to the study of cultures; the theory of Mannheim and Durkheim, by making cultural knowledge the model of all knowledge, is apt to fall into the opposite mistake (though its best protagonists have managed to avoid this). The theory of Weber and Scheler escapes both weaknesses. In every society's axiological system, some interest in nature, especially in methods of dominating nature, will be present, and insights gained in the pursuit of this domination will be comparable, transferable, and absolute in the sense of binding on all human beings. Other values will vary from society to society; insights gained in pursuit of them will be correspondingly incomparable, nontransferable, and relative (even though they can all be fitted together as alternative actualized possibilities inherent in one creature, man).

Because people must take the facts of nature as they find them, while the facts of culture are their own work, the social determination of knowledge will be different in the two instances. In scientific research, only the origin of an insight will be determined by the social factor (say, a pressing social need); in cultural studies, however, both the origin and the content will be socially determined. In the case of science, tendencies arising from the social sphere induce a person to open his eyes and see; in the case of cultural studies, they induce him to open his eyes and decide what he shall see. These considerations go far toward overcoming the conflict between the unduly negative and the unduly positive epistemological versions of the sociology of knowledge and show the superiority of the third approach.

Sociology of Knowledge as a Science

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the sociology of knowledge is not only a substantive philosophical discipline but also an analytical tool that can be used by the descriptive sciences concerned with the observable products of the mind. Because it can throw light on the genesis, and often on the content, of concrete thought structures, the sociology of knowledge may enable the historian or the anthropologist to achieve a deeper understanding of the facts before him. Considered from this angle, the sociology of knowledge appears, above all, as a hermeneutic method and need not become involved in the difficult ontological problems that the social "determination" of knowledge, thought, and culture is otherwise bound to raise.

See also Functionalism in Sociology.



Barth, Hans. Wahrheit und Ideologie. Zürich: Manesse, 1945. Important, particularly with regard to Nietzsche.

Grünwald, Ernst. Das Problem der Soziologie des Wissens. Vienna: Braumüller, 1934. First comprehensive critical survey.

Lukács, Georg. Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Berlin: Malik, 1923. Most distinguished Marxist study of the twentieth century.

Stark, Werner. "The Conservative Tradition in the Sociology of Knowledge." Kyklos 13 (1960): 90101.

Stark, Werner. "Die idealistische Geschichtsauffassung und die Wissenssoziologie." Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 46 (1961): 355374. This paper and the preceding one attempt to balance the picture of the doctrine's development.

Stark, Werner. Montesquieu: Pioneer of the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge and Paul, 1960.

main trends

Adler, Franz. "A Quantitative Study in Sociology of Knowledge." American Sociological Review 19 (1954): 4248. From the viewpoint of logical positivism.

Alpert, Harry. Emile Durkheim and His Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

Eisermann, Gottfried. "Vilfredo Pareto als Wissenssoziologe." Kyklos 15 (1962): 427464.

Lieber, Hans-Joachim. Wissen und Gesellschaft. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1952. Good all around, mainly on Scheler and Mannheim.

Mannheim, Karl. Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, edited by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge, 1952.

Mannheim, Karl. Ideologie und Utopie. Bonn: Cohen, 1929. Translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils as Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge, 1936. Basic; from the historicist point of view, with comprehensive bibliography.

Maquet, Jacques J. Sociologie de la connaisance. Louvain, 1949. Translated by John F. Locke as The Sociology of Knowledge. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951. On Mannheim and Sorokin.

Rüschmeyer, Dietrich. Probleme der Wissenssoziologie. Cologne, 1958. Strong bias toward naive empiricism.

Scheler, Max, ed. Versuche zu einer Soziologie des Wissens. Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1924. Decisive pioneering effort.

Scheler, Max. Die Wissensformen und die Gesellschaft. Leipzig: Neue Geist, 1926. Basic; from the phenomenological point of view.

Znaniecki, Florian. The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

philosophical aspects

Child, Arthur. "The Existential Determination of Thought." Ethics 52 (19411942): 153185.

Child, Arthur. "The Problem of Imputation in the Sociology of Knowledge." Ethics 51 (19401941): 200219.

Child, Arthur. "The Problems of Imputation Resolved." Ethics 54 (19431944): 96109.

Child, Arthur. "The Theoretical Possibility of the Sociology of Knowledge." Ethics 51 (19401941): 392418.

Geiger, Theodor. Ideologie und Wahrheit. Stuttgart: Homboldt-Verlag, 1953. Rationalistic approach.

Horowitz, Irving L. Philosophy, Science, and the Sociology of Knowledge. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1961. Methodological problems.

Schelting, Alexander von. Max Webers Wissenschaftslehre. Tübingen, 1933. Basic.

Stark, Werner. "The Sociology of Knowledge and the Problem of Ethics." In Transactions of the Fourth World Congress of Sociology, Vol. IV. London, 1959.

general surveys

De Gré, Gerard L. Society and Ideology. New York, 1943.

Merton, Robert K. "The Sociology of Knowledge." In Twentieth Century Sociology, edited by Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946.

Stark, Werner. The Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge and Paul, 1958. Attempt at a total evaluation.

other recommended titles

Alston, William P. "Belief-Forming Practices and the Social." In Socializing Epistemology, edited by Frederick Schmitt. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Bloor, D. Knowledge and Social Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Brown, J. R. Scientific Rationality: The Sociological Turn. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984.

Fuller, Steve. "Recent Work on Social Epistemology." American Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1996): 149166.

Hollis, M., and S. Lukes. Rationality and Relativism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.

Katz, Jonathan. "Rational Common Ground in the Sociology of Knowledge." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 19 (1989): 257271.

Kurzman, Charles. "Epistemology and the Sociology of Knowledge." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24 (1994): 267290.

Latour, B. Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Longino, H. Science as Social Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

McMullin, Ernan, ed. The Social Dimensions of Knowledge. South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1992.

Okasha, S. "The Underdetermination of Theory by Data and the 'Strong Programme' in the Sociology of Knowledge." International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 14 (2000): 283297.

Rouse, J. Knowledge and Power: Toward a Political Philosophy of Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Schmitt, F. F., ed. Socializing Epistemology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Susser, Bernard. "The Sociology of Knowledge and Its Enemies." Inquiry 32 (1989): 245260.

Werner Stark (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

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