knowledge, sociology of

The sociology of knowledge is not a clear subdivision of sociology. Its concern is the relationship of knowledge to a social base-although what is meant by knowledge and social base is likely to vary from author to author. All the major sociological theorists have something to say about this topic, but as an integral part of their theory, not as a separate area of study, Émile Durkheim for example, in his sociology of religion, suggested that the basic mental categories by means of which we order the world are rooted in the way we organize society. Max Weber , in his sociology of religion, gave considerable weight to material conditions influencing the formation of religious beliefs.
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’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’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.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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