Sociology Of Knowledge Research Paper

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The sociology of knowledge is a summative term for an assortment of theoretical statements and empirical studies dealing, in diverse ways, with the relationship between various processes and products of human cognition and other sociocultural factors. On the organizational map of the discipline of sociology in Europe and in the USA, the sociology of knowledge has generally occupied a marginal position, its warrant and scope sufficiently contested ‘that the history of the subdiscipline … has been the history of its various definitions’ (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 4). Focusing on manifestations of knowledge that include ideas, ideologies, scientific theories, religious and political doctrines, moral, ethical and philosophical beliefs, world views, mental categories, cultural and/organizational discourses, languages, social norms, and the forms and practices of everyday knowing, sociologists of knowledge (whether self-identified or retrospectively claimed for the area by other contributors) have concerned themselves with the sociocultural consequences of this range of intellectual products and processes and, particularly, with their origins and transformations—developments that have been linked to sociohistorical contexts, material and cultural conditions, modes of production, power relationships in various forms, institutional arrangements, internal organizational processes, and a vast array of different social positions and interests. Sociologically relevant reflection on this set of issues may be periodized in four broad stages.

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1. Antecedents Of The Sociology Of Knowledge

While observations about the social foundations and consequences of various cognitive products and processes have a complex history that extends back to the Greeks and forward through Renaissance figures such as Machiavelli and Francis Bacon, the modern roots of the sociology of knowledge are generally dated from the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when thinkers like Helvetius, Holbach, and Voltaire turned attention to the social bases and effects of religious—as contrasted with scientific—conceptions, while Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Condorcet adumbrated the broader thesis that human consciousness is socially determined. Working in this tradition, Destutt de Tracy advocated a ‘science of ideas’ that would trace human thoughts to their sensory and material conditions, ultimately making possible the construction of a new morality and a perfected political order. For this science, in 1796 he coined the term ‘ideology’—a neologism that his critics swiftly converted into a pejorative word for doctrinaire dreams and illusions. (For fuller treatment of this background, see Eagleton 1991, Kennedy 1978, Larrain 1979.)

In the early nineteenth century, Auguste Comte declared the evolution of modes of human thought the main topic of the new discipline of sociology, erecting the field on the Law of Three Stages, viz., the assertion ‘that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge—passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the theological or fictitious; the metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive’ ([1830] 1975, p. 71). Substituting French positivism for German idealism, G. W. F. Hegel ([1807] 1967) likewise presented the history of society as a sequence of intellectual stages—as successively developing forms of human consciousness, dialectically progressing to a condition of absolute (genuinely scientific) knowledge.

From the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century, these early modern anticipations of the sociology of the knowledge were elaborated in many directions, particularly in connection with the development of ‘classical’ sociological theory. Rejecting Hegelian idealism for historical materialism, Karl Marx conceptualized the connections between human thought and social conditions in several ways. In his most encompassing formulation, he asserted that dialectically changing ‘modes of production [formed] the basis of all history’ and that the ‘origins and growth [of] all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc., etc.’—the idealistic superstructure—were explainable ‘from that basis’ (Marx and Engels [1846] 1970, pp. 57–8). Taking the social relations of production as ‘the realm of real history,’ Marx’s early work cast this superstructure as the derivative ‘realm of ideology,’ using the latter term in the pejorative sense of ‘illusions’ and distorted ‘inversions’ of reality that ‘veil the class struggle’ and thus promote existing patterns of class domination (Marx and Engels [1846] 1970, pp. 47, 119; Marx [1852] 1963, pp. 46–7). Relatedly, Marx linked particular ideas to specific ‘material interests’ and held that ‘the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control … over the means of mental production,’ so that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,’ as these are developed by ‘conceptive ideologists’ perfecting the illusions that benefit their class (Marx and Engels [1846] 1970, pp. 64, 65, 99). Marx’s later work, in contrast, presented ideology less as a superstructural inversion of reality than as a reflection of inversions already embedded in particular modes of production. Characterizing capitalism itself, for example, as an ‘enchanted and perverted world,’ Marx held that, whatever their class interests, conceptualizers under capitalism generally ‘remain more or less in the grip of the world of illusion,’ a world that ‘corresponds’ with ‘the forms of illusion in which they move about and find their daily occupations’ ([1894] 1967, pp. 827–31; for discussion, see Eagleton 1991, Mepham 1979). Subsequently, many of Marx’s followers overlaid this negative view of the social functions of ideology with a broader ‘sense of ideology as the mental forms within which men and women fight out their social conflicts’ (Eagleton 1991, p. 90). This is a tendency evident in the work of Bernstein, Lenin, and Lukacs, and in Hoare and Smith’s conception of ideologies as forces that, under sociohistorical conditions that he sought to specify, can ‘organize human masses, and create the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their positions, struggle, etc.’ ([1948–51] 1971, p. 377).

Coming from the French tradition, Emile Durkheim approached knowledge from a different angle. Extending his concern with the social bases (and functions) of such ‘collective representations’ as religion and morals to the ‘extra-logical origin’ of ‘logical thought,’ Durkheim argued that the ‘mental operations’ by which members of preliterate societies ‘classify … things, events, and facts about the world into kinds and species [are] modeled on [their] form of social organization,’ i.e., that ‘the first logical categories were social categories; the first classes of things were classes of men, into which these things were integrated’ (Durkheim and Mauss [1903] 1963, pp. 3, 4, 8, 82). Generalizing the point, Durkheim subsequently proposed that the form and the content of all the ‘categories of human thought’—of the most basic ‘conception[s] of time, space, cause, number, and so on,’ even in their modern scientific incarnations— ‘depend on the way in which the collectivity is organized, upon its morphology, its religious, moral, and economic institutions, and so on’ ([1912] 1995, pp.14–16). Controversial to this day, the claim proved widely influential, inspiring work by Halbwachs (1925), Granet (1934), and others.

2. Emergence Of The Sociology Of Knowledge As A Specialty Area (1920 To C. 1965)

As a specialized theory-and-research area with its own name, the sociology of knowledge originated in Weimar Germany when Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, reacting (inter alia) to Marxian theories of ideology and to the cultural crisis of their own time, advocated the creation of Wissenssoziologie. Scheler did so as an extension of his interests in philosophy. Seeking to recognize ‘the social–historical development of [even] the highest types of human knowledge’ but to ‘escape [from the] philosophical relativism’ that had led contemporaries to deny the truth-claims of ideas ‘conditioned by a historical and sociological standpoint,’ he challenged Marx’s thesis that one ‘can ‘‘explain’’ th[e] ideal world from the world of real history’ by asserting that ‘the history of real factors’—understood as a sequence in which kinship, political, and finally economic factors successively hold centrality—‘does not at all determine the positive meaning-content of works of mind, though it does hinder, release, delay, or hasten [their] development,’ opening and closing ‘the sluices of the spiritual stream’ ([1924] 1980, pp. 41–2, 53–4; see also Frisby 1983).

Mannheim took another tack. Excepting mathematics and portions of the ‘exact sciences’ from his analysis, he sought to problematize the ‘social conditioning’ of the forms and contents of ‘every product of thought’—‘perceptions and interpretations,’ moral concepts of ‘duty, transgression, and sin,’ political ‘opinions, statements, [and] propositions,’ and the total ‘modes of thought’ of different epochs, cultures, and social groups. According to Mannheim, such thought-products stand in ‘multiple interconnections’ with ‘the structure of historical reality,’ with ‘the social position of given groups’—a phrase primarily denoting class position, but also including ‘generations, status groups, sects, occupational groups, schools, etc.’—and with ‘the historical–social situation of the intellectually active and responsible members of the group’ ([1931] 1936a, pp. 56–7, 81–2, 86, [1926] 1936c, pp. 264–5, 276). In putting forth this view, Mannheim wished to call forth a wide-ranging academic field that would subject ‘the relationship between thought and existence’ to systematic ‘empirical research’ ([1931] 1936a, p. 69, [1929] 1936c, p. 264; see also 1936b), and occasionally he engaged in such research of himself, most notably in his study of German conservative thought ([1925] 1986). But Mannheim set for the sociology of knowledge an even larger agenda, borne from his belief that examination of ‘the relationship between the intellectual positions held and the social position occupied’ would necessarily reveal that ‘every point of view’—Marxism included—‘is particular to a social situation.’ From this it followed, for Mannheim, that ‘the thought of all parties in all epochs is of an ideological character,’ where he took ‘ideological’ to mean ‘narrow’ and ‘one-sided’—properties with important epistemological and political implications. By exposing the one-sidedness of all perspectives, the sociology of knowledge would lay the basis for ‘a new type of objectivity,’ which was the dynamic synthesis of different viewpoints, and would bring political rivals into dialogue, checking their pernicious tendency to unmask each another’s ideas as mere illusions (1936a, pp. 77–85, [1929] 1936b, p. 5; for discussion, see Kettler and Meja 1995).

Mannheim’s statements drew broad attention to the sociology of knowledge in Europe and the USA and set the new field on an unsteady course. In Europe, his epistemological and political views became the focus of extensive critical discussion and made the field, for decades, largely a site of meta-theoretical controversy (Frisby 1983, pp. 174–224). In the USA, where engagement with sociology-of-knowledge type issues had long been underway (Fuhrman 1980), Mannheim’s call for empirical studies had greater resonance and fueled efforts to constitute the sociology of knowledge as an specialized subdiscipline dedicated to ‘fruitful empirical research,’ rather than to debate over ‘philosophical’ questions of relativism, objectivity, and the like (quoting Wirth 1936, pp. xxi, xxvii; see also Kettler and Meja 1995, pp. 193–246).

Particularly significant here were Robert Merton’s writings in the early 1940s, which sought to move the sociology of knowledge from ‘speculative insight’ to ‘rigorous test,’ by purging Mannheim’s ideas of ‘their epistemological impedimenta’ and associating the field with a defined ‘list of problems [open to] empirical investigation’ ([1945] 1968a, p. 562, [1941] 1968b, p. 542). To this end, Merton elaborated a ‘paradigm for the sociology of knowledge,’ in which he replaced Mannheim’s ‘amorphous category of knowledge’ with a systematic inventory of different types and aspects of ‘mental productions’ and then differentiated the many possible sociocultural or ‘existential bases’ for human thought-products ([1941] 1968a, p. 552, 1968b, pp. 514–5). Most distinctively, Merton gave prominence to the question (which he faulted his predecessors for neglecting) ‘how are mental production related to the existential basis?’—distinguishing, in reply, a wide range of possible modes of relationship, analysis of which ‘promise[d] to take research in the sociology of knowledge from the plane of general imputation to that of testable empirical inquiry’ ([1945] 1968b, pp. 515, 537).

This promise proved difficult to realize, however. In the course of the next twenty years, students of Merton occasionally took up the challenge—Gouldner (1965) with research on Plato’s social theory as a response to the social tensions present in ancient Greece, Coser (1965) with work on the general societal and institutional conditions that favored the development of Western intellectuals. These studies joined writings by Mills ([1943] 1964) on the social roots of US pragmatism (see also Mills 1963), by Znaniecki (1940) and Shils ([1955–68] 1972) on intellectuals, by members of the Frankfurt school on the ideology of capitalist societies (see especially Marcuse 1964), and by a scattering of other scholars on a miscellany of topics (see the collection by Curtis and Petras 1970) to steer the sociology of knowledge in more empirical directions. But these remained sporadic efforts, intermixed with works offering programmatic definitions of the sociology of knowledge and further discussion of Mannheim’s more philosophical concerns (see, e.g., DeGre [1939–43] 1985, Stark 1958, Wolff [1943–65] 1983). Such works continued to distance empirically oriented sociologists from the field, even as various sociology-of-knowledge type questions resurfaced in the sociology of religion, the sociology of education, the sociology of occupations and professions, the sociology of public opinion and mass communication, and the sociology of science (Coser 1968, p. 432), as well as in research by historians of science and historians of ideas (see especially Ringer 1969).

The era that began with the writings of Scheler and Mannheim and extended to the mid-1960s remains, nonetheless, the most active period in the sociology of knowledge as a specialty area, and it stamped the area with a set of basic assumptions that were common to most work in the field at the time. These included, first, the assumption of a division between sociocultural factors, on the one side, and the substantive contents of thought-products and processes, on the other, where the former factors were ‘external’ to the realm of knowledge, while the latter were ‘internal’; second, the supposition that the ‘internal’ factors were easily interpretable by the sociological investigator, their meanings more-or-less transparent in the statements where they were contained; and, third, the belief that sociological explanations of knowledge chiefly involved appeals to ‘external’ factors at the macro-level, i.e., to societal-wide economic, political, and cultural developments, or combinations thereof (Camic and Gross 2000; see also Kuklick 1983). Traceable to the earliest beginnings of the sociology of knowledge, these assumptions as of yet met little challenge.

3. The Specialty In Retreat (C. 1965 To C. 1985)

For a variety of reasons, largely exogenous to the area itself, work in the sociology of knowledge as such waned significantly from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. This was due partly to a continuation of the tendency, already evident in the pervious period, for topics that fell to the area to undergo partial incorporation into other sociological subfields. Expanding interest in the sociology of science proved especially consequential here, for in the process of focusing on scientists’ career patterns and on the organizational and normative conditions that sustain scientific institutions, sociologists of science effectively denied— despite contrary suggestions in the influential work of Kuhn (1962)—that there was even much possibility for a ‘sociology of the conceptual and theoretical contents of science’ and related domains of knowledge (Ben-David 1971, p. 14). In the face of this challenge, Berger and Luckmann attempted to redirect the sociology of knowledge to the study of ‘what is taken for granted as ‘‘knowledge’’ [by] the man in the street’ (1966, p. 3); but it was not long before this topic was itself transplanted, in part into ethnomethodology, another subfield then on the rise (Maynard and Clayman 1991).

Compounding these developments within specialty areas were broader trends in the social sciences during this period. Most far-reaching among these was a growing commitment to quantitative research, based increasingly on types of survey data that seemed remote from the traditional concerns of sociologists of knowledge. This trend, to be sure, coexisted with a heightening of interest in theory and in historical scholarship, but the Marxist renaissance that was then underway generally pulled this interest towards questions about the dynamics of modes of production and state apparatuses and toward debates about the role and concept of social class (and, subsequently, about gender and race). While new theories of ideology did emerge (see, in particular Althusser 1969, 1971, Therborn 1980), they did so, almost without exception, as appendages to work on class and state structures; as such, their effect was more to divert attention from, than to turn it to, examination of the sources and consequences of cognitive products and processes in their own right. In this context, little new work in the sociology of knowledge came forth, aside from reinterpretations of figures from earlier periods (see Simonds 1978) and various editions of their original writings.

4. The Contemporary Revival (C. 1985 To The Present)

Just as exogenous developments during the two preceding decades imperiled the sociology of knowledge, intellectual trends since the mid 1980s have begun to resuscitate the field. Most generally these have included: burgeoning interest in the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies, stimulated by a declining focus on Marxist structuralism and the growing influence of works on discourse and linguistic theory, post-structuralism, and post-modernism (for discussion, see McCarthy 1996); the effort within Marxism itself to transform general claims about ideology into empirical studies of discursive formations and practices (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, Thompson 1990); the move within feminist scholarship to problematize knowledge and the standpoint and social position of knowledge producers (Harding 1991, Smith 1987); the increased production of sociologically-informed studies in the history of science and intellectual history (see Shapin 1982, Toews 1987); and the redirection of the sociology of science toward the examination of the contents of scientific knowledge and the social processes shaping them (see Collins 1983). Reinforcing these broad trends has been an expansion of interest in European social theorists whose works give considerable attention to knowledge-production processes, particularly Michel Foucault and his archeological and genealogical studies of the reciprocal constitution of various knowledge systems and webs of power relations (see Prado 1995), and Pierre Bourdieu and his writings on the dynamics of intellectual and scientific fields (see Ringer 1990).

From this confluence of exogenous developments has come a renewed concern with the sociology of knowledge, a concern that is currently pulling the field in the direction of two different approaches. The first of these is the broad-constructionist approach, exemplified in programmatic statements by McCarthy (1996), Stehr and Meja (1984), and Swidler and Arditi (1994), and in studies by Griswold (1986), Lamont (1987) and Wuthnow (1989). Pointing the sociology of knowledge outward toward the contemporary sociology of culture rather than toward the study of knowledge specialists, this perspective treats ‘political and religious ideologies as well as science and everyday life, cultural and/organizational discourses along with formal and informal types of knowledge’ (Swidler and Arditi 1994, p. 306); and while amenable to a middle level or institutional analysis of the social sources and consequences of these various forms of knowledge, it often retains the underlying suppositions of the 1920–65 period, viz. assumptions about the division between external (sociocultural) and internal (thought-content) factors, about the transparency of internal meanings to the sociological investigator, and about the explanatory importance of macro-level external factors. Moreover, while strongly committed to empirical research, this approach has also favored reopening some of the meta-theoretical issues that occupied earlier generations (see the contributions in Stehr and Meja 1984).

In these ways, the broad-constructionist approach diverges from the recent narrow-constructionist alternative. Found in the work of Camic (1983, 1992, Camic and Xie 1994), Collins (1998), Kusch (1995) and Shapin (1994), this second approach focuses the sociology of knowledge mainly on men and women who specialize in the production of ideas and on the particular social processes by which their ideas emerge and develop—a move that, in effect, transforms the field into a sociology of ideas. This perspective has tended to reject the core assumptions of the older sociology of knowledge, building instead on scholarship that argues that sociocultural processes are as much internal to the content of ideas as they are external (Bloor 1976, Shapin 1992), that the meanings of ideas are only understandable to an investigator after careful contextual reconstruction (Skinner 1969), and that local, micro-level settings are often the main sites for the development of ideas (Geertz 1983, Whitley 1984). Like the broad-constructionist approach, this narrow-constructionist perspective presently provides a foundation for several lines of empirical research (see Camic and Gross 2000). No forecast can yet be made, however, as to which approach, if either, will rescue the sociology of knowledge from its traditionally marginal position in the discipline of sociology.


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