The Social Framework of Knowledge: Muriel Spark's 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.'

By Whiteley, Patrick J. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Social Framework of Knowledge: Muriel Spark's 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.'


Whiteley, Patrick J., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


A relatively new branch of sociology, the sociology of knowledge examines the ways in which social structure conditions knowledge and shapes whatever reality is the object of that knowledge. Its philosophical foundations were established in Germany during the 1920s and '30s, in the work of philosopher Max Scheler, who first used the term Wissenssoziologie in 1924. Yet it was the work of sociologist Karl Mannheim, especially Ideology and Utopia (1936), which established the basic patterns of reasoning which have guided most French and American ventures into this field in the past 35 years. Works such as Georges Gurvitch's La cadre sociaux de la connaisance (1966) and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966) have refined this field of inquiry and have made it more accessible to Anglo-American scholars.

The sociology of knowledge does not merely use epistemology; it demands that we rethink it. In the philosophical tradition of epistemology that goes back at least as far as Plato and that is commonly practiced to this day by academic philosophers, the general assumption is that acquiring and disseminating knowledge of truth, or reality, is deeply problematic. By contrast the sociology of knowledge assumes from the beginning that the process of acquiring and disseminating knowledge of truth, however variously truth may be defined, is not in itself problematic. This difference helps to explain why sociologists of knowledge are less concerned than more traditional epistemologists are with our apparatus for perception - with what roles our senses or sense data play in apprehending our world. Instead, because it assumes from the beginning that knowledge always leads to some version of truth, the sociology of knowledge is concerned, above all, with how social affiliation shapes knowledge; its concern is not with whether what we know is true, but with how our social affiliations condition and confirm what we believe is true. Whereas for centuries traditional epistemologists have constructed models of how the hypothetically normal human being knows reality under hypothetically normal conditions, for the sociologist of knowledge reality is a social construction, and how and what we know are shaped by actual and varying social affiliations. For the traditional epistemologist, to weigh in social dynamics is to contaminate the model of knowledge; for the sociologist of knowledge, by contrast, the variable of social affiliation is precisely the point.

In stressing the way that knowledge is socially constructed, of course, social theorists are not alone. The traditionalist concept of immutable truths which can be apprehended independent of social or economic vantage points has been under attack at least since the 19th century, and it continues to be under attack in multiple spheres of 20th-century intellectual endeavor. In the field of literary scholarship, for example, some of the same kind of thinking that informs the sociology of knowledge appears in Marxist and feminist criticism, as well as in critical approaches based on the linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural theories of the constructed self advanced by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. Yet by the standards of some literary scholars, such formulations lack the concreteness and sustained focus that the sociology of knowledge offers, even though much post-structural theorizing follows in the wake of insights advanced by the sociology of knowledge. In any case, the value of the sociology of knowledge as a tool for analyzing literary texts remains relatively unexplored.

Although my general purpose is partly to outline such a method of analysis, my procedure will not be to engage in extensive theorizing, but rather to show how the concept of socially mediated knowledge is dramatized in a literary work that is intensely focused on the interplay between knowledge and group dynamics: Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. …

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