Sociology 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. (Compare history of ideas.)

The term first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists, most notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim, wrote extensively on it. 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").

Although very influential within modern sociology, the sociology of knowledge can claim its most significant impact on science more generally through its contribution to debate and understanding of the nature of science itself, most notably through the work of Thomas Kuhn in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (see also: paradigm).


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. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" ("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.

See also: epistemology, sociology.

Phenomenological Sociology

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:1989). 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 Schutz [1899-1959] . Schutz 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. Schutz's work was directed at establishing the formal structures of the Life-world (Schutz:1980). Husserl's work was conducted as a transcendental phenomenology of consciousness. Schutz'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 analyses: [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 Schutz'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.

Alternately, 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 intersubjective and grounded in the structures of consciousness [phenomenology] ), and relative to the cultural and ideational formations of particular concrete individuals living in a particular socio-historical group.


*Michael D. Barber, The Participating Citizen: A Biography of Alfred Schutz, SUNY UP. 2004. The standard biography of Alfred Schutz.
*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.
*Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern UP. 1989. 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 Wolf (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.
*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.

Michel Foucault

A particularly important strain of the sociology of knowledge is the criticism by Michel Foucault. In "Madness and Civilization", 1961, he argued 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 "", 1963, Foucault extended his critique to all of modern scientific 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.

Finally, in "The Order of Things", 1966, and "The Archeology of Knowledge", 1969, Foucault introduced the abstract notions of mathesis and taxonomia. 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". Not, claimed Foucault, without loss of meaning. The 19th century had transformed what knowledge was.

Perhaps Foucault's best-known and most controversial claim was that before the 18th century, "Man did not exist". The notions of humanity and of humanism were inventions or creations of this 19th century transformation. 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. This study still guides the sociology of knowledge and has been claimed to have sparked single-handedly much of postmodernism.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour is a French sociologist of science best known for his books "We Have Never Been Modern," "Laboratory Life," and "Science in Action", describing the process of scientific research from the perspective of social construction based on field observations of working scientists.

The sociology of mathematical knowledge

Studies of mathematical practice and quasi-empiricism in mathematics are also rightly part of the sociology of knowledge, since they focus on the community of those who practice mathematics and their common assumptions. Since Eugene Wigner raised the issue in 1960 and Hilary Putnam made it more rigorous in 1975, the question of why fields such as physics and mathematics should agree so well has been debated. Proposed solutions point out that the fundamental constituents of mathematical thought, space, form-structure, and number-proportion are also the fundamental constituents of physics. It is also worthwhile to note that physics is nothing but a modeling of reality, and seeing causal relationships governing repeatable observed phenomena, and much of mathematics, especially in relation to the growth of the calculus, has been developed precisely for the goal of developing these models in a rigorous fashion. Another approach is to suggest that there is no deep problem, that the division of human scientific thinking through using words such as 'mathematics' and 'physics' is only useful in their practical everyday function to categorify and distinguish.

Fundamental contributions to the sociology of mathematical knowledge have been made by Sal Restivo and David Bloor. Restivo draws upon the work of scholars such as Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West, 1926), Raymond L. Wilder and Lesley A. White, as well as contemporary sociologists of knowledge and science studies scholars. David Bloor draws upon Ludwig Wittgenstein and other contemporary thinkers. They both claim that mathematical knowledge is socially constructed and has irreducible contingent and historical factors woven into it. More recently Paul Ernest has proposed a social constructivist account of mathematical knowledge, drawing on the works of both of these sociologists.

ee also

*Sociology of scientific knowledge
*Knowledge Management

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