Sociology of Knowledge

Sociology of knowledge is a branch of sociology focused on the social processes involved in the production of knowledge. It studies the relationship between knowledge and social structures. Sociology of knowledge is also concerned with the effects of knowledge and the social processes which govern either the content or the form of knowledge.

The sociology of knowledge has nothing to do with definitions such as "history of ideas in their social context," or "social determinism of thought." It represents the analysis of the practical inter-relations of social processes and structures and the patterns of intellectual life, which feature modes of knowing. Sociology of knowledge aims to understand what counts as knowledge in various disciplines of thought by studying their sociohistorical origins and their development in response to external pressures, societal demands, modes of ideological conditioning and so on.

The main idea of the sociology of knowledge is that knowledge is a cultural product that is being shaped by history and social context. According to that school of sociology, knowledge has to be observed in the social context in which it originated and not examined as a thing in itself or as a universally true body of facts and theory. The main ideas of post-modernism are closely related to the sociology of knowledge.

Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was among the first to explore the sociology of knowledge, in his doctor's thesis Structural Analysis of Epistemology, which was completed in 1922. Many fail to grasp Mannheim's sociology of knowledge and see it as a variation of skepticism and illusionism. However, through his work he sought to explain that genuine knowledge of historical and social phenomena was achievable, regardless of the inescapability of certain relativist conclusions. Mannheim's work shows how important the productivity of social participation as a source of knowledge is, rather than focusing on the restraints that participation in the social process puts upon knowledge.

Mannheim's studies on the sociology of knowledge were deeply influenced by a number of ideas of the young generation during his time. The thing they all had in common was that they claimed to stand for an absolute truth that was more substantial and more integral than other "truths," particularly Marxism and historicism.

Many scientists believe that the sociology of knowledge was born as a reaction to the study by Karl Marx (1818-1883) of the relationship between the economic structure and culture. According to Marx all knowledge was actually a partial understanding of the world, which mirrored class interests. In Marx's view only the proletariat, the social class that has no material interest, had a realistic vision of society, or in other words, only it had the key to an adequate knowledge. Mannheim rejected that specific view, even though he used certain ideas of Marxism when he constructed his sociology of knowledge.

The first to use the term "sociology of knowledge" was German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928). Scheler used the concept of a sociology of knowledge in a vast strategic conception in his movement against positivism. By making a sociological analysis of the various types of knowledge, Scheler sought to disprove the theory of the "three stages," of French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). According to that theory human knowledge passes from a "theological," stage through a "metaphysical," stage until it reaches its final "positive," stage.

Scheler disliked Comte's doctrine and tried to destroy it by showing that science was not the only adequate form of knowledge. There was no proof that science was more true and valid than religion or metaphysics. Scheler argued that sociological factors were the ones that determined which type of knowledge would be cultivated. The purpose of the sociology of knowledge was to show which type of thinking would be the prevalent one at a specific period in history. Mannheim discuses Scheler's Problem of a Sociology of Knowledge in his essay Sociology of Knowledge (1925).

Other philosophers that explored the sociology of knowledge included Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), American sociologist Peter Berger (b 1929), German sociologist Thomas Luckmann (b 1927) and the French philosopher and social theorist Paul-Michel Foucault (1926-1984).

Sociology of Knowledge: Selected full-text books and articles

Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge By Karl Mannheim; Paul Kecskemeti Oxford University Press, 1952
Pathways to Knowledge: Private and Public By Alvin I. Goldman Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Part III "Social Epistemology"
The Sociological Revolution: From the Enlightenment to the Global Age By Richard Kilminster Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Part I "From Philosophy to the Sociology of Knowledge"
Unhastening Science: Autonomy and Reflexivity in the Social Theory of Knowledge By Dick Pels Liverpool University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Two Traditions in the Social Theory of Knowledge"
Metaphors and the Dynamics of Knowledge By Sabine Maasen; Peter Weingart Routledge, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Sociology of Knowledge" begins on p. 7
Social Epistemology By Steve Fuller; Ronald N. Giere; Thomas F. Gieryn Indiana University Press, 1991
Toward a Feminist Epistemology By Jane Duran Rowman & Littlefield, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Eight "Feminist Sociology of Knowledge"
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