The sociology of knowledge is a subfield of sociology which examines the social production of knowledge. It believes that knowledge and knowing are subjective to social positionality in terms of race, nationality, class, culture, gender, etc. It includes the entire field of knowledge, ideas, theories and mentalities to understand how groups and institutions come to be controlled by certain knowledge-based power structures. Its subject matter includes not only formal and institutional knowledge but also everyday knowledge and ideas i.e. informal knowledge.
Areas of Study
Sociology of knowledge has overtaken the field of epistemology which is the field of research on how we know what we know and has expanded to include various areas of study and research. These include-
- Research on processes by which people know and understand the world and implications of such processes;
- Examining the relationship between power, knowledge and discriminatory social structures (racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.);
- Role of media and communication in producing and disseminating knowledge;
- Knowledge creation by informal institutions;
- Political power of common sense and the formation and spread of knowledge not institutionally formed.
Major Thinkers in the Field ( Sociology of Knowledge)
“Objective” knowledge especially the Sciences had been considered immune to social analysis simply because of the belief that they reflect the one objective truth. However, the sociology of knowledge which was developed in the 20th century came to view all knowledge produced as a social product.
While theoretical interest in the social base of knowledge production has been shown in some works of early thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian sociologist developed these ideas comprehensively in his book “Ideology and Utopia”(1936). Mannheim built his theory by critiquing Marxist theories of ideology. He defines ideology as the entire way in which a person, group or society conceives things based on the historical and social context. Similarly, the idea of utopia (the ideal way of being) is also built from the socio-political context and often in opposition to the current order. The enterprise of the sociology of knowledge examines how collective actions and ideas (ideologies and utopias) emerge out off and are determined by the multiple social contexts of its proponents. Mannheim believed that there is no such thing as objective knowledge as all knowledge of a person is derived out of their social context. He wrote, “The task of the study of ideology, which tries to be free from value judgement, is to understand the narrowness of each individual’s point of view and the interplay between these distinctive attitudes in the total social process”. While “Ideology and Utopia” has been criticized for its attempt to avoid the pitfalls of historical relativism and its excessive reliance on Marxist ideas, it triggered sociologists to venture into the field of knowledge production as it gained widespread attention. Mannheim’s book provoked discussion and commentary for years (Hughes 1958).
While Mannheim advanced arguments about Marx and his Theory of Ideology, Stark tried to clarify the principal theme in the study of the social determination of ideas. He attended University in Hamburg, Prague, London and Geneva. So he already had the mental, linguistic and moral framework to deal with different social realities. The issue of the social origin of knowledge has always been a concern of the marginal groups since they don’t have a say in this knowledge formation. He tried to return the attention to the central problem of how to find truth or “ideal values” in the realm of relative social identities or “existential facts”. He wrote the book “Sociology of Knowledge” (1991) to clarify the theme of study for sociologists and to serve as an introduction to the field. He tried to explain how human existence is mediated by different forms of knowledge.
Antonio Gramsci made important contributions in the field regarding knowledge production and reproduction of power within certain social groups. He stated that claims to objectivity are politically loaded and while academicians might claim to be “objective” thinkers, they produce knowledge reflective of their class position. All intellectuals form an elite class where they deal with the knowledge that is exclusionary and inaccessible to the common people. Gramsci viewed intellectuals as the deputies of the dominant ruling class and the key to maintain their rule through the idea and common sense by exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.
Michael Foucault was a French theorist who contributed to the field in the latest 20th century. He focussed on the role of institutions such as medicine and prisons in creating knowledge especially about people who are considered “deviant”. Through their power to create knowledge, they create subject and object categories of people and assign characteristics to them. These categories form hierarchies that emerge from and reproduce already existing structures of power. The ability to categorise people in a certain group and then claim the authority to represent them is a form of power. Thus all knowledge is tied to power. It is not neutral but political.
Edward Said is a Palestinian American critical theorist and postcolonial scholar. In his book “Orientalism” (1978), he highlighted the power dynamic between colonialism, racism and identity created by academic institutions. Said highlighted how, by virtue of their control over knowledge creation, they converted an entire geographical area into a category of knowledge, ‘the Orient’ to be categorised, studied and interpreted the way Western knowledge system allowed. He defined Orientalism as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorising view of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it : in short, Orientalism as a western-style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient”. His work emphasized how power structures are recreated through knowledge and now define the relationship between the East and the West, the Global North and the Global South.
New Sociology of Knowledge
New trends in sociology were first highlighted and comprehensively analysed by Ann Swidler and Jorge Arditi in their article “The New Sociology of Knowledge”(1994) in the “Annual Review of Sociology”. The new sociology of knowledge examines how kinds of social organisation make the whole ordering of knowledge possible rather than focusing on the different social locations and interest of individual or groups. Rather they focus on specific kinds of institutions such as the media that creates controls and transmits knowledge. They also examine how knowledge maintains social hierarchy in light of new theories by Michael Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. McCarthy pointed out the importance of feminist theories in the sociology of knowledge especially the contribution of thinkers like Dorothy Smith. This has made the field more inclusive and globally aware.
Knowledge and Power
Since knowledge and power is a central theme in the sociology of knowledge, here is an analysis of how knowledge reproduces power. Knowledge is a socially situated activity and can’t be created by a person in a vacuum of their social environment. For example, Marx can’t have written Das Kapital had he been born and brought up in a jungle away from human civilization because a person’s thought process is a product of and reflection of their social context. Social institutions such as religion, family, media and more formal institutions such as scientific, medical and research establishments create this knowledge. Knowledge created by the formal institutions is more highly valued i.e. it is considered more accurate, valid and objective as opposed to popular knowledge. This creates a hierarchy of knowledge. For example, Western medical knowledge is considered more accurate and reliable than Ayurvedic or homoeopathic knowledge because it is created by a more formal institution. These institutions are often controlled by the ruling/elite class i.e. the groups in power. This allows them to create knowledge that benefits them and trivialises the indigenous basis of knowledge. Thus the ruling class creates an exclusive domain of knowledge which is considered “objective” and imposed upon the rest of the people as the only valid truth. Thus they create an idea of ‘Global Unitary Knowledge’.
Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and Utopia. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company
Swidler, Ann, Arditi, Jorge 1994. “The New Sociology of Knowledge.” Annual Review of Sociology
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978
Cole, Nicki Lisa, PhD “Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/sociology-of-knowledge-3026294
Mccarthy, Doyle. (2000). Sociology of Knowledge, 2000 article. 2953-2960.