A Fourth Basic Cultural Competence? (Note on Society/Reflexion Sur la Societe)

By Bohme, Gernot | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

A Fourth Basic Cultural Competence? (Note on Society/Reflexion Sur la Societe)


Bohme, Gernot, Canadian Journal of Sociology


In this essay, I plan to critically discuss the widespread introduction of the computer into the classroom in modern society. I conceive of modern society as a knowledge society. The specific question I want to raise concerns discourse now dominant among policy makers who push for the extensive use of computers and the internet by students. In particular, do computer skills represent, in addition to the traditional cultural techniques of reading, writing and arithmetic, a fourth cultural technique? The answer to this question I want to advance requires a brief detour. I want to respond to the question about the possible ascendancy of a fourth cultural technique by offering, first, some observations about the notion of the knowledge society and, second, the difference between knowledge and information.

The Concept of the Knowledge Society

In recent years, the concept of the knowledge society has enjoyed a boom in a number of the developed countries. The academic world has naturally reacted gratefully to this success, although it is by no means certain that the critical potential which has been present in this concept since its introduction (1) has been recognized. Rather, the Ministry of Science and Technology in Germany, for example, has used the concept to increase its own relative departmental strength and to legitimate certain programs, in particular the program "Schools to the Net" (Schulen ans Netz).

From a policy point of view, the designation of the present society as the knowledge society is intended to prepare for a restructuring of the educational system. The central tenet of this restructuring, which has already begun, is the view that the ability to manipulate data, in other words, competence with computers and the media, will represent society's crucial human capital in the future. The concept of "the knowledge society "--simply represented a prestigious, forward, looking banner under which the computer might make its entry into schools!

In this way, because of the positive connotations attached to the idea of knowledge, the concept of the knowledge society has been able to assume ideological functions. Moreover, in the political sphere it has been used purely descriptively, to designate a certain mega-trend -- namely the growing importance of access to knowledge for social prosperity. In view of this it should be borne in mind that the theory of the knowledge society was originally intended as a critical theory of society. The term "knowledge" was chosen instead of terms such as "information" or "science" to indicate that there are alternative forms of knowledge, that hierarchies develop between these forms of knowledge and that these hierarchies, in marking the status of different areas of knowledge, take on social significance. Against this background processes of the "scientification" of human and social relationships can be described critically -- for example, as the growing disempowerment of the individual through dependence on experts . It also becomes apparent that, compared to the older factors of birth and capital, knowledge is gaining importance as a basis both of social power and of personal opportunities. The power aspect of knowledge also has its application in international relations.

To preserve and develop this critical potential of the theory of modern society as a knowledge society it is necessary to work with binary concepts, such as the pair "value and price" in the critique of political economy and the pair "body and corporeality" in the critical theory of human nature. In the theory of the knowledge society the crucial pair of concepts is "knowledge and information". These concepts should be so elaborated that they refer to each other while at the same time preserving a clear difference. To achieve this it is not enough to fall back on the traditional philosophical concept of knowledge, because a strong concept of knowledge (equated with science) has evolved in this tradition since Plato (2) -- a concept which has consolidated the hierarchy of forms of knowledge while discrediting and consigning to obsolescence other forms of knowledge in relation to science.

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