Sociology of knowledge
Knowledge, Sociology of
Knowledge, Sociology of
The sociology of knowledge may be broadly de-fined as that branch of sociology which studies the relation between thought and society. It is concerned with the social or existential conditions of knowledge. Scholars in this field, far from being restricted to the sociological analysis of the cognitive sphere as the term would seem to imply, have concerned themselves with practically the entire range of intellectual products—philosophies and ideologies, political doctrines, and theological thought. In all these areas the sociology of knowl-edge attempts to relate the ideas it studies to the sociohistorical settings in which they are produced and received.
Assertions as to how social structures are functionally related to categories of thought and to specific sets of ideas have a long history. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon outlined the general territory when he wrote about
impressions of nature, which are imposed upon the mind by the sex, by the age, by the region, by health and sickness, by beauty and deformity, and the like, which are inherent and not extern; and again, those which are caused by extern fortune; as sovereignty, nobility, obscure birth, riches, want, magistracy, privateness, prosperity, adversity, constant fortune, variable fortune, rising per saltum, per gradus, and the like. ( 1958, p. 170)
This is indeed the field that later systematic sociology of knowledge claimed as its province.
A variety of European thinkers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries may be considered among the precursors of the sociology of knowledge. Several of the philosophes of the Enlightenment (Condorcet in particular) inquired about the social preconditions of different types of knowledge, and Auguste Comte’s famous “law of three stages,” asserting the intimate relationship between types of social structures and types of knowledge, might well be considered a contribution to the sociology of knowledge. It nevertheless remains true that systematic development of the sociology of knowledge as an autonomous enterprise rather than as a by-product of other types of inquiry received its main impetus from two trends in nineteenth-century European sociological thought: the Marxian tradition in Germany and the Durkheimian tradition in France. Although neither these two mainstreams—nor their tributaries—are by any means identical in their funda-mental assumptions, they are the starting point of most theorizing in the field.
In his attempt to dissociate himself from the panlogical system of his former master, Hegel, as well as from the “critical philosophy” of his former “young Hegelian” friends, Karl Marx undertook, in some of his earlier writings, to establish a connection between philosophies and the concrete social structures in which they emerged. “It has not occurred to any of these philosophers,” wrote Marx in The German Ideology, “to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings” (Marx & Engels [1845–1846] 1939, p. 6). This programmatic orientation once established, Marx proceeded to analyze the ways in which systems of ideas appeared to depend on the social positions—particularly the class positions— of their proponents.
In his struggle against the dominant ideas of his time, Marx was led to a resolute relativization of these ideas. The eternal verities of dominant thought appeared upon analysis to be but the direct or indirect expression of the class interests of their exponents. Marx attempted to explain ideas systematically in terms of their functions and to re-late the thought of individuals to their social roles and class positions: “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness” ( 1913, pp. 11–12). While Marx was mainly concerned with uncovering the relationships between bourgeois ideas and bourgeois interests and life styles, he nevertheless explicitly stated that the same relation also held true with regard to the emergence of new dissident and revolutionary ideas. According to the Communist Manifesto,
What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. When people speak of ideas that revolutionize society, they do but express the fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence. (Marx & Engels 1848, p. 91 in 1964 paperback edition)
In their writings of a later period, Marx and Engels were to qualify their somewhat sweeping initial statements, which had most often been made in a polemical context. They were thus led to grant a certain degree of intrinsic autonomy to the development of legal, political, religious, literary, and artistic ideas. They now stressed that mathematics and the natural sciences were exempt from the direct influence of the social and economic infrastructure. Moreover, they now granted that the intellectual superstructure of a society was not simply a reflection of the infrastructure but rather could in turn react upon it.
While the original Marxian thesis reinterpreted in this fashion became a considerably more flexible instrument, it also lost some of its distinctive qualities. Interpreted rigidly, it tended to lend itself to use as a rather crude tool for debunking all ad-verse thought; interpreted flexibly, it became difficult to distinguish from non-Marxian attempts at the functional analysis of thought. Also, as Merton has pointed out ( 1957, p. 479), when the Marxian thesis is stated in so flexible a manner, it becomes impossible to invalidate it at all, since any set of data may be so interpreted as to fit it.
Despite these difficulties, Marxian modes of analysis in this field, as in so many others, exerted a powerful—if often subterranean—influence on subsequent German social thought. Major portions of the work of Max Weber can be seen as attempts on the part of this greatest of all German sociologists to come to terms with the Marxian inheritance and particularly with the Marxian assertion of the essentially epiphenomenal character of knowl-edge and ideas. The twin heritage of Marx and of Nietzsche (particularly the latter’s “debunking” attack on Christianity as a slave philosophy of ressentiment-laden lower-status groups) loomed very large in the mental climate of pre-World War I Germany. But it remained for two German scholars, Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, to develop a corpus of theory that represents the first systematic elaboration of the sociology of knowledge as a new scientific discipline. Even though it followed upon the work of Max Scheler, Karl Mannheim’s contribution will be dealt with first, since it is more directly tied to the main themes of Marxian thought.
Mannheim and universal relativism
Mannheim undertook to generalize the Marxian interpretation so as to divest it of polemical elements; thus he attempted to transform into a general tool of analysis what for Marx had been primarily a means of attack against adversaries. Mannheim wished to create a tool that could be used as effectively for the analysis of Marxism as for any other system of thought. While in the Marxian formulations attention was called to the function of ideology in the defense of class privileges and to the distortions and falsifications of ideas that flowed from the privileged class position of bourgeois thinkers, Marx’s own ideas were held by Marxists to be true and unbiased by virtue of their being an expression of classes that had no privileged interests to de-fend. According to Marx, the defenders of the status quo were inevitably given to false consciousness, while their critics, being affiliated with the emerging working class, were exempt from such distorting influences and hence had access to “true consciousness”—that is, to nondistorted historical truth. Mannheim’s orientation, in contradistinction, allowed for the probability that all ideas, even “truths” were related to, and hence influenced by, the social and historical situation from which they emerged. The very fact that each thinker is affiliated with particular groups in society—that he occupies a certain status and enacts certain social roles—colors his intellectual outlook. Men “do not confront the objects of the world from the abstract levels of a contemplating mind as such, nor do they do so exclusively as solitary beings. On the contrary they act with and against one another in diversely organized groups, and while doing so they think with and against one another” (Mann-heim [1929–1931] 1954, p. 3).
Mannheim was thus led to define the sociology of knowledge as a theory of the social or existential conditioning of thought. To him all knowledge and all ideas, although to different degrees, are “bound to a location” within the social structure and the historical process. At particular times a particular group can have fuller access to the understanding of a social phenomenon than other groups, but no group can have total access to it. (At times, though, Mannheim expressed the hope that “detached intellectuals” might in our age achieve a “unified perspective” free of existential determination.) The task of the new discipline was to ascertain the empirical correlation between intellectual standpoints and structural and historical positions.
From its inception Mannheim’s thesis encountered a great deal of criticism, especially on the grounds that it led to universal relativism. It has been said that the notion of relativism, or relationism—the term that Mannheim preferred—“is self-contradictory, for it must presuppose its own absoluteness. The sociology of knowledge … must assume its own validity if it is to have any meaning” (Dahlke 1940, p. 87). If it is assumed that all thought is existentially determined and hence all truth but relative, Mannheim’s own thought cannot claim privileged exemption.
Mannheim did indeed lay himself open to such attacks, especially in his earlier writings; however, it seems that he did not mean to imply that “existential determination”(Seinsverbundenheit) is a kind of total determination that leaves no room for an examination of ideas in other terms. He explicitly stated that in the social sciences, as elsewhere, “the ultimate criterion of truth or falsity is to be found in the investigation of the object, and the sociology of knowledge is no substitute for this” ([1929–1931] 1954, p. 4). No matter what the imprecisions and methodological shortcomings of Mannheim’s theoretical statements are judged to be, he left a number of concrete studies on such topics as “Conservative Thought” ([1922–1940] 1953, pp. 77–164) and “Competition as a Cultural Phenomenon” ([1923–1929] 1952, pp. 191–229) which have been recognized as important contributions even by those who have been critical of Mannheim’s theoretical apparatus.
Scheler’s “real factors.”
Marx laid primary stress on economic and class factors in the determination of ideas; Mannheim expanded this conception to include other groupings such as generations, status groups, and occupational groups. Max Scheler went still further in widening the range of factors that influence thought forms. According to Scheler, there is no constant independent variable that determines the emergence of ideas; but rather, in the course of history, there occurs a sequence of “real factors” that condition thought. In nonliterate groups, blood and kinship ties constitute the independent variable; later, political factors; and, finally, in the modern world economic factors are to be considered as the independent variables to which thought structures have to be related.
Scheler rejected what he considered the “naturalism” and relativism of previous theorizing in the field and asserted that there exists an atemporal, absolute order of values and ideas—that is, a realm of eternal essences, which is totally distinct from historical and social reality. At different moments in historical time and in different cultural systems, different “real factors” predominate. These real factors “open and close, in determinate ways and determinate order, the sluice gates of the stream of thought,” so that different aspects of the eternal realm of essences can be grasped at particular points in time and in particular cultural systems (1926). Thus Scheler thought that he had succeeded in reconciling sociocultural relativity with the Platonic notion of an eternal realm of unchanging essences.
Scheler’s theory of eternal essences is metaphysical and hence not susceptible to scientific validation. However, his proposal to widen the range of existential factors that may be seen as the source of particular systems of ideas is testable and potentially fruitful for research. Scheler’s own studies provide important examples of the fruitfulness of this type of inquiry: for example, his studies on the interrelations between the hierarchical medieval world of communal estates and the medieval conception of the world as a hierarchy culminating in God, between the content of Plato’s theory of ideas and the formal organization of the Platonic Academy, and between the rise of mechanistic models of thought and the rise of bourgeois, Gesellschaft types of society. (For a different view of Scheler, see Ranulf 1938.)
Emile Durkheim’s contributions to the sociology of knowledge form only a relatively small part of his total work. Although some of his statements in this area are mixed with epistemological speculations that most experts would consider rather dubious, he nevertheless did some of the most vital pioneering work in the field. In his attempt to establish the social origin and functions of morals, values, and religion, and in explaining these as different forms of “collective representations,” Durkheim was led to consider a similar social explanation of the basic forms of logical classification and of the fundamental categories of thought themselves.
Durkheim attempted to account for the origins of spatial, temporal, and other classifications among nonliterate peoples and concluded that these classifications closely approximated the social organization of these peoples (Durkheim & Mauss 1903). The first “classes,” he suggested, were classes of men, and the classification of objects in the world of nature was but an extension of the social classification already established. All animals and natural objects were classified as belonging to this or that clan, phratry, or residential or kinship group. He further argued that, although scientific classifications have now largely become divorced from their social origins, the very manner in which we classify things as “belonging to the same family” still reveals the originally social origins of classificatory thought.
In his last major book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Durkheim returned to these earlier ideas and attempted a sociological explanation of all fundamental categories of human thought, especially the concepts of time and space. These, he claimed, are not only transmitted by society, they are social creations. Society is decisive in the genesis of logical thought by forming the concepts of which that thought is made. The social organization of the primitive community is the model for the primitive’s spatial organization of his surrounding world. Similarly, temporal divisions into days, weeks, months, and years correspond to periodical recurrences of rites, feasts, and ceremonies: “A calendar expresses the rhythm of the collective activities, while at the same time its function is to assure their regularity” ( 1954, p. 10).
These Durkheimian notions have been challenged frequently. It has been pointed out, for example, that Durkheim slighted the importance of the rhythm of natural phenomena by his over-emphasis on social rhythms (Sorokin 1928, p. 477). More fundamentally, Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that society “cannot exist without symbolism, but instead of showing how the appearance of symbolic thought makes social life altogether possible and necessary, Durkheim tries the reverse,i.e., to make symbolism grow out of society… Sociology cannot explain the genesis of symbolic thought, but has just to take it for granted in man” (1945, p. 518).
Durkheim failed to establish the social origins of all categories of thought, but it is important to recognize his pioneering contribution to the study of the correlations between specific systems of thought and systems of social organization. It is this part of Durkheim’s contribution, rather than some of the more debatable epistemological propositions found in his work, that has influenced later developments in the sociology of knowledge. Thus the eminent Sinologist Marcel Granet (1934) used Durkheimian leads when he related the conceptions of time and space in ancient Chinese thought to such social factors as the ancient feudal organization and the rhythmic alterations of concentrated and dispersed group activities. Jane Harrison (1912) and Francis Cornford (1912) renovated classical studies by tracing Greek religious notions and philosophical ideas to their origins in tribal initiation ceremonies and to the clan structure of the Greek tribes. Finally, Maurice Halbwachs (1925) attempted to establish how even such apparently private and intimate mental activities as dreams and memories need for their organization a stable reference in the group life in which individuals participate. [See Durkheim; Granet; Halbwachs.]
The work of the major American pragmatists— Peirce, James, and Dewey—abounds with suggestive leads for the sociology of knowledge. To the extent that pragmatism stressed the organic process by which every act of thought is linked to human conduct and thus rejected the radical distinction between thinking and acting which had informed most classical philosophy, it prepared the ground for consideration of the more specifically sociological links between social conditions and the thought processes. Insofar as the pragmatists stressed that thought is in its very nature bound to the social situation in which it arises, they set the stage for efforts to inquire into the relations between a thinker and his audience. Insofar as they rejected the traditional view according to which an object of thought was to be sharply distinguished from the thinking subject and stressed the intimate transactions between subject and object, they prepared the ground for the specifically American contributions to the sociology of knowledge.
Pragmatic philosophy is not the only American intellectual trend to influence the development of the sociology of knowledge. American historical scholarship, especially the work of Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington, appropriated for its own uses a number of the orientations of European sociology of knowledge—especially of its Marxian variety—in efforts to develop new perspectives on American politics and letters by self-consciously relating currents of thought to economic interest and social condition. Many of these strains of ideas had only an indirect impact on American sociology. In contrast, two major American thinkers, Thorstein Veblen and George Herbert Mead, directly and explicitly influenced American sociology of knowledge.
Veblen’s emphasis on habits of thought as an outcome of habits of life and his stress on the dependence of thought styles on community organization are well known. Perhaps less well known is Veblen’s relatively systematic effort to relate styles of thought to the occupational roles and positions of their proponents. “The scheme of thought or of knowledge,” he wrote, “is in good part a reverberation of the schemes of life” ([1891–1913] 1961, p. 105); hence, those engaged in pecuniary occupations are likely to develop thought styles that differ from the styles of those engaged in industrial occupations. Magical as well as matter-of-fact ways of thinking find their proponents among groups of men differentially located in the social structure and in the economic process. More-over, Veblen’s savage polemics in hisHigher Learning in America (1918) should not be read as polemics alone. The work is also, and perhaps above all, a seminal contribution to the sociological study of the organization and functioning of the American university.
Finally, George Herbert Mead’s social behaviorism, with its insistence that mind itself is a social product and is of social origin, provided the social psychological basis for some of the assertions of previous theorists. For Mead, communication was central to an understanding of the nature of mind: “Mind arises through communication by a conversation of gestures in a social process or context of experience” (1934, p. 50). Even when certain epistemological positions of Mead are not accepted, it would seem very difficult to deny his claim that if determinants of thought other than society itself exist, they can structure mind only through the intermediary of the social relations in which it is necessarily enmeshed. [See MEAD.]
As the sociology of knowledge has been incorporated into general sociological theory both in America and in Europe, it has often merged with other areas of research and is frequently no longer explicitly referred to as sociology of knowledge. Its diffusion through partial incorporation has tended to make it lose some of its distinctive characteristics. Thus, the works of Robert K. Merton (1949) and Bernard Barber (1952) in the sociology of science, the works of E. C. Hughes (1958), T. H. Marshall ([1934–1949] 1950, chapter 4), Theodore Caplow (1954), Oswald Hall (1948), Talcott Parsons (1938–1953), and others in the sociology of the professions and occupations, and—even more generally—much of the research concerned with social roles may be related to, and in part derived from, the orientations of the sociology of knowledge. Many practitioners of what is in fact sociology of knowledge may at times be rather surprised when it is pointed out that, like Monsieur Jourdain, they have been “talking prose” all along.
Given this wide variety of research in which at least certain leads of the sociology of knowledge have been utilized, it is difficult to delineate the distinctive characteristics of contemporary or near contemporary developments in the sociology of knowledge in the United States. Yet one characteristic seems salient. While in the European tradition attention tended to be centered upon the production of ideas, with the axiomatic assumption that different strata of society produce different types of ideas, modern American research is more concerned with the consumption of ideas and the ways in which different strata of society use standardized thought products. To some extent, as Merton has pointed out ( 1957, pp. 440 ff.), the sociology of public opinion and mass communication has pre-empted the place of the sociology of knowl-edge in the contemporary United States.
Nevertheless, recent American contributions have by no means been limited to this field. There has been a significant attempt at stocktaking and at discussing methodological questions left unresolved by the European tradition. Merton’s writings in this area represent the most sophisticated codification of the problems faced by the sociology of knowledge. Among other notable contributions to the methodology and theoretical clarification of the sociology of knowledge are those of the philosopher Arthur Child and the sociologists Hans Speier (1938), Gerald DeGre (1943), Kurt H. Wolff (1959), Werner Stark (1958), and C. Wright Mills (1963).
Among substantive American contributions, the work of Pitirim A. Sorokin is of special note (1937–1941; 1943). Blending an earlier European tradition of large-scale speculation with American statistical research techniques, Sorokin developed a characteristically idealistic theory of the sociology of knowledge. Rejecting the prevalent conceptualizations that consider social classes or other social and economic groups as the independent variable in the functional relations between thought and society, Sorokin considers variant “cultural mentalities” or cultural premises as the key variables. He attempts to show that the periodic dominance of three major cultural tendencies—the ideational, the idealistic, and the sensate mentality—can ac-count for the fluctuations of types of knowledge that have marked history. Although his argument often seems to involve a kind of circular reasoning, and although the neglect of the existential roots of thought can hardly be justified in view of the prom-ising results already achieved by Sorokin’s predecessors, the many contributions by Sorokin and some of his students—in, for example, the sociology of science or the elucidation of the notion of social time—remain noteworthy.
Florian Znaniecki’s neglected but important study, The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge (1940), represents, like Sorokin’s work, a fruitful blending of the European tradition with American contributions. Znaniecki introduces the notion of the “social circle,” that is, the audience or public to which a thinker addresses himself. He thus links the sociology of knowledge with research on publics and audiences that was pioneered by the Chicago school of sociology (for example, see Park 1904). Znaniecki shows that thinkers—at least in differentiated societies—are not likely to address their total society but rather only selected segments or publics. The thinker is related to a social circle; and this circle expects him to live up to certain of its demands, in exchange for which it grants him recognition and support. Men of knowledge antici-pate the demands of their public; and they tend to form self-images, select data, and seize upon problems in terms of their actual or anticipated audiences. Men of knowledge may thus be classified in regard to their social roles and their publics. Hence it becomes possible to understand the emergence of such special roles as that of sage, technologist, and scholar in terms of the differentiated publics to which they address themselves.[See Intellectuals.]
It is impossible to discuss or even enumerate within the confines of this article the recent American studies which either directly or indirectly con-tribute to the further development of the sociology of knowledge. This state of affairs may itself be an indicator of the continued strength of this research orientation. A few references will have to suffice. Research in the field of social role, the sociology of science, the professions and occupations, and the sociology of communications and public opinion has already been mentioned. In other areas can be listed the studies exploring the relations between minority status and originality of intellectual perspective, to which Veblen (1919) made significant contributions, and of which the recent work by Melvin Seeman (1956) seems an excellent example; the studies in the history of sociological or philosophical theories, in which conceptualizations derived from the sociology of knowledge have been utilized—for example, the works of C. Wright Mills on pragmatism (1964); the studies that relate thought styles of American academic men to the structure and functioning of the American academy—such as Logan Wilson’sAcademic Man (1942), Lazarsfeld and Thielens’Academic Mind (1958), an analysis of social scientists’ reactions to the threats posed by the McCarthy era, and Caplow and McGee’s Academic Marketplace (1958); general studies of the settings and contexts in which intellectuals play their peculiar roles, such as Lewis Coser’sMen of Ideas (1965); and Fritz Machlup’s large-scale study, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (1962). More detailed studies—such as Peter Berger’s recent attempt to account for the popularity of psychoanalysis in America (1965) and John Bennett’s study of divergent interpretations of the same culture by different social scientists in terms of their divergent backgrounds and social perspectives (1946)—have also been very much in evidence in recent years.
The sociology of knowledge was marked in its early history by a tendency to set up grandiose hypothetical schemes. These contributed a number of extremely suggestive leads. Recently its practitioners have tended to withdraw from such ambitious undertakings and to restrict themselves to somewhat more manageable investigations. Although this tendency has been an antidote to earlier types of premature generalizations, it also carries with it the danger of trivialization. Perhaps the sociology of knowledge of the future will return to the more daring concerns of its founders, thus building upon the accumulation of careful and detailed investigations by preceding generations of researchers.
Lewis A. Coser
[Directly related are the entriesMarxist SOCIOLOGY; Social STRUCTURE, article onSocial STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS. Other relevant material may be found inLiterature, article onTHE SOCIOLOGY OF LITERATURE; Science; and in the biographies ofBACON; Dewey; Durkheim; Halbwachs; James; Mann-heim; Marx; Peirce; Scheler; Sorokin; Veblen; Weber, Max; Znanieckl]
Forextensive bibliographies on the sociology of knowledge, see Merton 1949; Mannheim 1929–1931; Maquet 1949;and Wolff 1959.
Bacon, Francis (1605) 1958 The Advancement of Learning. Edited with an introduction by G. W. Kitchin. London: Dent; New York: Dutton.
Barber, Bernard 1952 Science and the Social Order. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.
Bennett, John W. (1946) 1956 The Interpretation of Pueblo Culture: A Question of Values. Pages 203–216 in Douglas G. Haring (editor), Personal Character and Cultural Milieu: A Collection of Readings. 3d ed., rev. Syracuse Univ. Press → First published in Volume 2 of the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.
Berger>, Peter L. 1965 Toward a Sociological Understanding of Psychoanalysis.Social Research 32:26–41.
Caplow, Theodore 1954 The Sociology of Work. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.
Caplow, Theodore; and Mcgee, Reece J. 1958 The Academic Marketplace. New York: Basic Books. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Wiley.
Cornford, Francis M. 1912 From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculations. New York: Longmans. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Harper.
Coser, Lewis A. 1965 Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View. New York: Free Press.
Dahlke, H. Otto 1940 The Sociology of Knowledge. Pages 64–89 in Harry E. Barnes, Howard Becker, and Frances B. Becker (editors). Contemporary Social Theory. New York: Appleton.
DegrÈ, Gerald L. 1943 Society and Ideology: An Inquiry Into the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Durkheim, Èmile (1912) 1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published asLes formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, le systeme totemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.
Durkheim,Èmilem; and MAUSS, MARCEL (1903) 1963 Primitive Classification. Translated and edited by Rodney Needham. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as “De quelques formes primitives de classification” inL’annee sociologique.
Granet, Marcel (1934) 1950 Le pensée chinoise. Paris: Michel.
Halbwachs, Maurice 1925 Les cadres sociaux de la mépmoire. Paris: Alcan.
Hall, Oswald 1948 Stages of a Medical Career.American Journal of Sociology 53:327–336.
Harrison, Jane Ellen (1912) 1927 Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Hughes, Everett C. 1958 Men and Their Work. Glen-coe, 111.: Free Press.
Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; and THIELENS, WAGNER JR. 1958 The Academic Mind: Social Scientists in a Time of Crisis. A report of the Bureau of Applied Social Re-search, Columbia University. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. LEVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE 1945 French Sociology. Pages 503–537 in Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore (editors), Twentieth Century Sociology. New York: Philosophical Library.
Machlup, Fritz 1962 The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. Princeton Univ. Press.
Mannheim, Karl (1922–1940) 1953 Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology. Edited by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge. → See especially pages 77–164 on “Conservative Thought.”
Mannheim, Karl (1923–1929) 1952 Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Edited by Paul Kecskemeti. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 191–229 on “Competition as a Cultural Phenomenon.”
Mannheim, Karl (1929–1931) 1954 Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt; London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Harcourt.
Maquet, Jacques J. (1949) 1951 The Sociology of Knowledge, Its Structure and Its Relation to the Philosophy of Knowledge: A Critical Analysis of the Systems of Karl Mannheim and Pitirim A. Sorokin.Translated by John F. Locke. Boston: Beacon.→ First published in French.
Marshall, T. H. (1934–1949) 1950 Citizenship and Social Class, and Other Essays. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Marx, Karl (1859)1913 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: Kerr. → First published asZur Kritik der politischen Okonomie.
Marx, Karl; and Engels, Friedrich (1845–1846) 1939 The German Ideology. Parts 1 and 3. With an introduction by R. Pascal. New York: International Publishers. → Written in 1845–1846, the full text was first published in 1932 asDie deutsche Ideologie and republished by Dietz Verlag in 1953.
Marx, Karl; and Engels, Friedrich (1848) 1963 The Communist Manifesto. New York: Russell. → A paper-back edition was published in 1964 by Washington Square Press.
Mead, George H. 1934 Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Published posthumously.
Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1957 SocialTheory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → See especially Part 3 on “The Sociology of Knowledge” and Part 4 on “The Sociology of Science.”
Mills, C. Wright 1963 Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Edited and introduced by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → See especially pages 423–438 on “Language, Logic and Culture,” pages 439–452 on “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive,” and pages 453–456 on “Methodological Consequences of the Sociology of Knowledge.”
Mills, C. Wright 1964 Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America. Edited with an introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Paine-Whitman. → A revision of Mills’s unpublished doctoral dissertation.
Park, Robert E. 1904 Masse und Publikum: Eine methodologische und soziologische Untersuchung. Bern: Lack & Grunau.
Parsons, Talcott (1938–1953) 1963 Essays in Sociological Theory. Rev. ed. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.
Ranulf, Svend (1938) 1964 Moral Indignation and Middle Class Psychology: A Sociological Study. New York: Schocken. → The appendix contains a well-documented attack on Scheler’s theory of resentment. SCHELER, MAX (1926) 1960 Die Wissensformen und die Gesellschaft. 2d ed., rev. Bern: Francke.
Seeman, Melvin 1956 Intellectual Perspective and Adjustment to Minority Group Status. Social Problems 3:142–153.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Harper asContemporary Sociological Theories Through the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. (1937–1941) 1962 Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Bedminster Press. → Volume 1:Fluctuation of Forms of Art. Volume 2:Fluctuation of Systems of Truth, Ethics, and Law. Volume 3:Fluctuation of Social Relationships, War, and Revolution. Volume 4:Basic Problems, Principles, and Methods.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. (1943) 1964 Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time: A Study of Referential Principles of Sociology and Social Science. New York: Russell. SPEIER, HANS (1938) 1952 The Social Determination of Ideas. Pages 95–111 in Hans Speier, Social Order and the Risks of War: Papers in Political Sociology. New York: Stewart.
Stark, Werner 1958 The Sociology of Knowledge: An Essay in Aid of a Deeper Understanding of the History of Ideas. London: Routledge; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.
Veblen, Thorstein (1891–1913) 1961 The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, and Other Essays. New York: Russell.
Veblen, Thorstein (1918) 1957 The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York: Sagamore.
Veblen, Thorstein (1919) 1948 The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe. Pages 467–479 in Thorstein Veblen, The Portable Veblen. Edited with an introduction by Max Lerner. New York: Viking.
Wilson, Logan (1942) 1964 The Academic Man:A Study in the Sociology of a Profession. New York: Octagon.
Wolff, Kurt H. 1959 The Sociology of Knowledge and Sociological Theory. Pages 567–602 in Llewellyn Gross (editor), Symposium on Sociological Theory. New York: Harper.
Znaniecki, Florian 1940 The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Knowledge, Sociology of
KNOWLEDGE, SOCIOLOGY OF
The study of the relation between products of the mind and existential conditions. The basic assumption of the study is that the development of thought is not independent of the concrete situation in which it takes place. This connection being assumed, the sociology of knowledge aims at defining its nature, whether in general terms or with reference to specific events. The field, therefore, embraces both a theory and a method of investigation; in either case, it differs from disciplines such as epistemology and ethics that focus their attention on the internal coherence, logical antecedents, and final value of a given system. The sociological approach shifts the focus from the intrinsic validity to the external origin and consequences of knowledge, from the objective content of a proposition to the subjective dispositions of its proponents. The distinction between the two approaches is certainly not easy; not seldom one finds sociologists moving from premises and reaching conclusions that are proper to the philosophy of knowledge (see knowledge, theories of).
Sometimes studies in this field give the term knowledge so broad a meaning as to make it virtually equivalent to culture (in the anthropological sense). So understood, the sociology of knowledge tends to encompass in its object all kinds of mental products, from folklore to law and technology. In this sense, it may include the contributions of the French school, e.g., Émile durkheim (1858–1917), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939), Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), and Marcel Granet (1884–1940), which investigated the correspondence between mentality and social structures, especially among primitives.
Central Problem. In principle, there is no reason why sociological analysis should be limited to one rather than to another type of knowledge; except for certain forms of mysticism, learning and communication always occur in a social situation and can, therefore, be analyzed in terms of the concrete conditions of their occurrence. In point of fact, however, students have concentrated mostly on political thought, economic doctrines, social ethics—in a word, on knowledge that implies systematic value judgments with respect to interpersonal relations and human institutions in industrial society.
Two reasons, one theoretical, the other historical, may explain the tendency to concentrate on the history of social thought. It is generally assumed that natural and mathematical sciences are relatively independent of the historical situations in which they develop, at least insofar as the very content of the scientific propositions is concerned. Historically, the sociology of knowledge is rooted in the works of social philosophers and reformers whose main concern has not been to institute a systematic analysis of knowledge as such, but to prove the dependence of political ideologies on class interests and economic structures. This trend is best expressed in the writings of Karl marx (1818–83) and Friedrich engels (1820–95). Actually, the Marxian doctrine of the ideology as a superstructure has played a determining role in the emergence and the initial orientation of the sociology of knowledge. This influence explains also the original tendency to correlate the development of thought with socioeconomic factors much more than with natural conditions, with the cultural milieu rather than the physical environment. Special importance is attributed to a thinker's identification with a status group, whether based on education, prestige, wealth, political power, ethnic or religious affiliation.
All these factors—physical, demographic, economic, sociocultural—constitute the "existential conditions" involved in the development of thought. The most controversial point in the sociology of knowledge is the definition of the nature of this relation. For some, the relation is strictly causal; for others, it is functional or merely symbolic. Often enough, the same author uses different and ill-defined words, such as "correspondence," without giving a definite interpretation of this relation, either theoretically or—even less—on the basis of substantive findings. On the whole, the tendency has been to stress much more the dependence of thought on the existential conditions rather than the reverse side of the relation. With the passing of the years, however, the tendency has been to interpret this dependency less and less in a deterministic way; this trend coincides with a progressive shift from a philosophical to a stricter empirical approach.
Development. The problems raised by the sociology of knowledge are very old; one could trace them back to Francis bacon (1561–1626) and his famous theory of the Idola or even further to the sophists' interpretation of the social origin of law and religion. Formally, however, the very name of the discipline first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, in an article by Wilhelm Jerusalem, "Soziologie des Erkennens" (Die Zukunft, May 1909). The most significant contributions belong to the period between the two world wars; they are mostly in German, and prefer the name Wissens-soziologie. Particularly important are the works of Max scheler (1874–1928) and Karl Mannheim (1893–1947).
Scheler rejected the Marxian theory of the complete dependence of thought on economic conditions; at the same time, he decried the idealistic view of history as the constant unfolding of the Mind. For him there could be no one-way dependence but only an orderly interaction between the "ideal factors" (the realm of transcendental values) and the "real factors" (racial, economic, demographic, and political conditions). He defined the sociology of knowledge as the study of such interaction as has actually occurred in specific historical periods, and he found most appropriate to this investigation the phenomenological approach of Edmund husserl (1859–1938), intended to detect the incarnation of the essence (Wesen ) in the concrete existence (Dasein ). Scheler's works, including his Versuche einer Soziologie des Wissens (1924), are philosophical rather than sociological in orientation.
Mannheim is probably the best-known exponent of the discipline, especially for his Ideologie und Utopie (1929). He combined in his eclectic system the Marxian views with the spiritual trends of German historicism. He saw all political thought, the proletarian no less than the bourgeois, as existentially conditioned. To him this "total conception" of ideology did not necessarily invalidate the objectivity of knowledge, since each social group develops a particular Weltanschauung that is neither false nor entirely true; full truth, he believed, would come from the synthesis of the various points of view. Ideologies aim at maintaining well-established positions; the "utopia," on the contrary, is a doctrine promoting social progress, a prophecy embodied in a powerful historical movement. In his view, the rise of scientism marked the end of the utopian mentality, hence the risk of stagnation. The sociology of knowledge therefore had a twofold function: to understand the idea systems relative to the various groups and epochs and to restore confidence in the transforming role of ideas in history. Mannheim considered these two functions to be strictly intertwined, so that the same discipline could appear as both an objective method of investigation and a new philosophy of social renewal; each function (verstehen or erklären ) he assigned to a socially free elite (eine freischwebende Intelligenz ) having a role in many respects similar to that of the Marxian proletariat.
In the U.S., the sociology of knowledge gained status after 1930, as a result of the translation of German studies and some original works, such as P. A. Sorokin's Social and Cultural Dynamics (4 v. New York 1937–41). Sorokin's work offers two significant features: a theoretical stand for the dependence of socioeconomic structures on the major value premises in a given culture and a methodological effort to analyze statistically the cultural products of several centuries in order to detect the types of value orientation prevailing in the various epochs. It is difficult to say how much American sociology has contributed to the field, since much research may bear on the problems of the sociology of knowledge without being formally included under the name or within the theoretical framework of the discipline. In this respect, it is possible to cite studies of mass communication; social stratification; cultural change; and, in general, research on one or the other aspect of knowledge, e.g., the sociology of law, religion, art, or education. As a whole, American contributions to this sociological field are mostly methodological, intended to supply a better definition of basic concepts (e.g., existential condition, cultural integration, ideology) and a better definition of particular areas of investigation in order to test the sweeping generalizations that characterized the beginnings of the sociology of knowledge.
Bibliography: f. adler, "The Range of Sociology of Knowledge," in Modern Sociological Theory in Continuity and Change, ed. h. becker and a. boskoff (New York 1957) ch. 13. h. o. dahlke, "The Sociology of Knowledge," in Contemporary Social Theory, ed. h. e. barnes et al. (New York 1940) ch. 4. p. kecskemeti, "Introduction" to k. mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (New York 1952). j. j. maquet, The Sociology of Knowledge: Its Structure and Its Relation to the Philosophy of Knowledge, tr. j. f. locke (Boston 1951) with bibliog. r. k. merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, Ill. 1957) ch. 12–13. w. stark, The Sociology of Knowledge: An Essay in Aid of a Deeper Understanding of the History of Ideas (Glencoe, Ill.1958). l. wirth, "Preface" to k. mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, tr. l. wirth and e.a. shils (New York 1936). p. berger and t. luckmann, "Sociology of Religion and Sociology of Knowledge," in Sociology and Social Research 47 (1962–63) 417–427. p. l. berger and t. luckman, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.1966).
knowledge, sociology of
The clearest tradition in the sociology of knowledge is Marxism—where discussion is tied specifically to the theory of ideology. The social origins of knowledge are seen as related to the possibility of grasping truth. It is sometimes argued that the content of knowledge depends upon social or economic position: the bourgeoisie will come to look at the world in one way (say in terms of individual competition and survival of the fittest), the proletariat in another (the point of view of co-operative enterprise and mutual support). These different viewpoints come directly from the experience of each class in the productive process. A more sophisticated tradition, building upon the work of Hegel and associated with György Lukács and the Frankfurt School (see CRITICAL THEORY), argues that it is the form of knowledge rather than its content that is important. Thus, for Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923), the thought appropriate to the bourgeois period is marked by formal logic. It is analytic in form, breaking down its subject-matter into component parts, and centres around a number of so-called antinomies—categories such as subject and object which cannot be brought together into a coherent whole. Marxist thought, on the other hand, is claimed to be synthetic, totalizing, and dialectical. Each form represents the experience of a different social class. For both approaches the proletarian forms of thought are closest to the truth.
Karl Mannheim, in particular in Ideology and Utopia (1936), developed the standard non-Marxist interpretation, arguing that a range of other social positions (not merely social class) determine forms of knowledge; and, moreover, that it is not possible to grant one point of view greater truth-value than another. However, by virtue of their ‘free-floating’ social status, intellectuals can mediate between different positions and produce a more complete view.
As a distinct sub-area, the sociology of knowledge seems to begin and end with Mannheim, although various combinations of his ideas (and those of Marxism) can be found in the sociologies of modernity, religion, and science—the last of these often focusing on the knowledge-effect of particular institutions. These discussions are always haunted by the problem of relativism: how can one make a universal claim that all knowledge is dependent on social position since, presumably, such a claim is itself context-bound? This problem is discussed at length in Werner Stark 's The Sociology of Knowledge (1958)
—still one of the most exhaustive introductions to the classic literature.
Since the 1980s there has been a determined effort to revitalize the field, by sociologists interested in culture, science, religion, and ideology. The development of cultural studies as a separate discipline has also contributed to this initiative. The so-called ‘new’ sociology of knowledge concentrates not on the differing social locations and interests of individuals or groups, but rather on how particular kinds of social organization make whole orderings of knowledge possible. It also expands the field of study from an examination of the contents of knowledge to the investigation of ‘forms and practices of knowing’—and so, inevitably, to the structuring of political, cultural, and organizational discourse. Researchers have looked at the ways in which knowledge is preserved, organized, and transmitted by various media; at how social groups retain and alter their collective memories (for example by ‘inventing tradition’); at how organizational structures and practices influence ideas (evident, it is claimed, in the relationship between the structuring of scientific communities and the coherence of particular intellectual paradigms); and at how authority and power shape knowledge. For a useful summary of this increasingly diffuse literature see Ann Swidler and and Jorge Arditi ‘The New Sociology of Knowledge’, Annual Review of Sociology (1994
). See also EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E.; RELIGION, SOCIOLOGY OF; SCHELER, MAX; SCIENCE, SOCIOLOGY OF; SOREL, GEORGES.