Sociology, Knowledge in
Sociology, Knowledge in
The nature of knowledge has been a central problem of philosophy at least since Greco-Roman times. Plato (427–347 BCE), for example, in Theætetus adopted a scientific approach to knowledge and cognition. Centuries later, the philosophers of the French and Scottish Enlightenment recognized that all social differences had social origins and were thus the result of factors subject to human control.
In general, however, philosophers have attempted rather to demonstrate that a sociology of knowledge is neither possible nor desirable. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) thus argued that while there cannot be perception without conception, the constitutive components of cognition are a priori. Similarly, empiricists of various persuasions have maintained that scientific knowledge in particular is warranted by direct experience unaffected by social conditions. At most, the philosophies concede that extra-theoretical factors influence the genesis of ideas but not the structure or the validity of thought (context of discovery). Otherwise, quite different epistemologies—for example, that of Karl Popper (1902–1994)—have shared a rejection of the possibility of a sociological analysis of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, and warned against any relativism, not only in science but also for society, that was seen as associated with the modern sociology of knowledge.
The modern sociology of knowledge, by contrast, investigates the interconnections between categories of thought, knowledge claims, and social reality—that is, the Seinsverbundenheit (existential connectedness) of thought described by Karl Mannheim (1893–1947). Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a significant precursor of the field, with his theory that, at least under certain historical conditions, economic realities ultimately determine the ideological “superstructure” by way of various socioeconomic processes. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), too, is an important pioneer of the sociology of knowledge, even though he failed to develop a general model of the classificatory process. He argued, especially in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) and Primitive Classification (1903, written with Marcel Mauss [1872–1950]), that the basic categories that order perception and experience (space, time, causality, and direction) derive from the social structure, at least in simpler societies. Durkheim, Mauss, and also Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) examined the forms of logical classification of “primitive” societies and concluded that the basic categories of cognition have social origins. However, they were not prepared to extend this kind of analysis to modern societies.
The sociology of knowledge owes its decisive development to the work of Max Scheler (1874–1928), Alfred Weber (1868–1958) (the freischwebende Intelligenz or “free-floating intelligentsia”), and especially Mannheim in the 1920s. It may be seen as the symptomatic intellectual expression of an age of crisis, and the recognition of its own rootedness in social structure and determination by social factors is perhaps its most characteristic trait. The mood of the German historical and social sciences during the period in which the sociology of knowledge developed in Germany may be described as one of “tragic consciousness.” Georg Simmel’s (1858–1918) view of the “tragedy of culture,” as well as Max Weber’s (1864–1920) assertion that an inescapable process of rationalization leads to the disenchantment of the world and to new forms of bondage, are symptomatic expressions of a period in which historians, philosophers, and especially social scientists argued intensely about the issues raised by historicism, relativism, philosophical skepticism, and the pervasive distrust in Geist.
It was during this period that the sociology of knowledge emerged as an analysis of the regularities of those social processes and structures that pertain to intellectual life and to modes of knowing (Scheler) and as a theory of the existential connectedness of thought (Mannheim). Both orientations distance themselves from the Marxist critique of ideology, which sees ideologies as mystifying representations of social reality and as disguises of the interests of powerful groups in society. The sociology of knowledge, by contrast, is concerned with intellectual and spiritual structures as inevitably differently formed in different social and historical settings (Mannheim).
Scheler first introduced the term Wissenssoziologie (sociology of knowledge) in the early 1920s, and in Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge (1926) he provided the first systematic introduction. Scheler extended the Marxist notion of substructure by identifying different “real factors” (Realfaktoren ), which, he believed, condition thought in different historical periods and in various social and cultural systems in specific ways. These “real factors” have sometimes been regarded as institutionalized instinctual forces, and as representing an ahistorical concept of superstructure. Scheler’s insistence on the existence of a realm of eternal values and ideas limits the usefulness of his notion of real factors for the explanation of social and cultural change.
Mannheim provided the most elaborate and ambitious programmatic foundation for a sociological analysis of cognition. Like Scheler, Mannheim extended the concept of substructure, suggesting that biological factors, psychological elements, and spiritual phenomena might take the place of primary economic relations in the substructure, but (just like the dominant theory of science) he did not think that scientific and technical knowledge could be subjected to sociological analysis. He conducted research into the social conditions associated with different forms of knowledge, and some of his studies are still considered first-rate examples of the kind of analysis that the sociology of knowledge is capable of. In addition to Ideology and Utopia (1929), these include Mannheim’s studies of competition as a cultural form, of conservative thought, of the problem of generations, and of economic ambition.
Mannheim believed that the sociology of knowledge was destined to play a major role in intellectual and political life—particularly in an age of crisis, dissolution, and conflict—by examining sociologically the conditions that give rise to competing ideas, political philosophies, ideologies, and diverse cultural products. He persistently pursued the idea that the sociology of knowledge is somehow central to any strategy for creating a rapprochement between politics and reason, and this pursuit connects his various essays in the sociology of knowledge. But Mannheim’s conception of the specific ways in which such a sociology might affect the state of political knowledge fluctuated and changed. There are three main versions: (1) sociology of knowledge as a pedagogical but also political mode of encountering and acting on the forces making up the political world; (2) sociology of knowledge as an instrument of enlightenment related to the dual process of rationalization and individuation identified by Max Weber and comparable to psychoanalysis, acting to set men and women free for rational and responsible choices by liberating them from subservience to hidden forces they cannot control; and (3) sociology of knowledge as a weapon against prevalent myths and as a method for eliminating bias from social science, so that it can master the fundamental public problems of the time and guide appropriate political conduct.
The sociology of knowledge has recently experienced a reorientation in the direction of an analysis of everyday life and of natural scientific and technical knowledge. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966), written in the tradition of Alfred Schutz’s (1899–1959) phenomenology and Arnold Gehlen’s (1904–1976) philosophical anthropology, represents a clear departure from the preoccupation of the classical sociology of knowledge with issues of epistemology, methodology, or ideologies. Everything that is regarded as knowledge in society is now accepted as a legitimate subject matter for sociological investigations.
Inspired by developments in the history and epistemology of science—by, for example, Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996)—the sociology of knowledge in the 1970s turned in the direction of empirical analyses of the social construction of scientific facts, frequently by way of ethnographic studies of laboratory life. Such research on the “manufacture” of natural-scientific knowledge has led to a reassessment of traditional assumptions about the unique rationality of scientific knowledge. Seen through the lens of the “strong program” of the sociology of knowledge, scientific knowledge and everyday knowledge are in fact extraordinarily similar. In general, the cognitive turn in the sociology of knowledge has had little impact on science or the so-called division between the two cultures (C. P. Snow [1905–1980]) in the scientific community. Moreover, the sociology of scientific knowledge has been criticized from within the field of science and technology studies as reductionist, as overemphasizing the role of controversies in science, and as stressing a universe of inquiry that is void of nonhuman entities (e.g., instruments, measuring devices, laboratories).
The sociology of scientific knowledge also has encountered a strong reproach from philosophers of science and scientists who attempt to overcome doubts and skepticism engendered by a sociological analysis of science by placing knowledge on a firm, uncontested foundation, even outside the realm of sociohistorical experience. The dispute about the apparent attack by sociology on the validity and objectivity of scientific knowledge culminated in the 1990s in the so-called science wars. Sociologists were accused of favoring a stance of anything goes. In the end, the social nature of science and its role in society remain essentially contested.
SEE ALSO Durkheim, Émile; Epistemology; Kant, Immanuel; Lukacs, Georg; Mannheim, Karl; Philosophy of Science; Relativism; Sociology
Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
Mannheim, Karl.  1936. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Meja, Volker, and Nico Stehr, eds. 1990. Knowledge and Politics: The Sociology of Knowledge Dispute. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Meja, Volker, and Nico Stehr, eds. 2005. Society and Knowledge: Contemporary Perspectives in the Sociology of Knowledge and Science. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Merton, Robert K. 1945. The Sociology of Knowledge. In Twentieth Century Sociology, eds. Georges Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore. New York: Philosophical Library.
Scheler, Max.  1960. Die Wissensformen und die Gesellschaft. Bern, Switzerland: Francke.