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SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE

by LEWIS A. COSER

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

Edited by David L. Sills. The Macmillan Co & The Free Press, NY, 1968 Vol. 7, pp. 428-434


The sociology of knowledge may be broadly defined as that branch of sociology which studies the relation between thought and society. It is concerned with the social or existential conditions of knowledge. Scholars in this field, far from being restricted to the sociological analysis of the cognitive sphere as the term would seem to imply, have concerned themselves with practically the entire range of intellectual products - philosophies and ideologies, political doctrines, and theological thought. In all these areas the sociology of knowledge attempts to relate the ideas it studies to the sociohistorical settings in which they are produced and received.

Assertions as to how social structures are functionally related to categories of thought and to specific sets of ideas have a long history. At the be ginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon outlined the general territory when he wrote about

impressions of nature, which are imposed upon the mind by the sex, by the age, by the region, by health and sickness, by beauty and deformity, and the like, which are inherent and not extern; and again, those which are caused by extern fortune; as sovereignty nobility, obscure birth, riches, want, magistracy, privateness, prosperity, adversity, constant fortune, variable fortune, rising per saltum. per gradus, and the like. ([1605] 1958, p. 170)

This is indeed the field that later systematic sociology of knowledge claimed as its province.

A variety of European thinkers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries may be considered among the precursors of the sociology of knowledge. Several of the philosophes of the Enlightenment (Condorcet in particular) inquired about the social preconditions of different types of knowledge, and Auguste Comte's famous "law of three stages"' asserting the intimate relationship between types of social structures and types of knowledge, might well be considered a contribution to the sociology of knowledge. It nevertheless remains true that systematic development of the sociology of knowledge as an autonomous enterprise rather than as a by-product of other types of inquiry received its main impetus from two trends in nineteenth-century European sociological thought: the Marxian tradition in Germany and the Durkheimian tradition in France. Although neither these two mainstreams - nor their tributaries - are by any means identical in their fundamental assumptions, they are the starting point of most theorizing in the field.

^ Marx and the German tradition

In his attempt to dissociate himself from the panlogical system of his former master, Hegel, as well as from the "critical philosophy" of his former "young Hegelian" friends, Karl Marx undertook, in some of his earlier writings, to establish a connection between philosophies and the concrete social structures in which they emerged. "It has not occurred to any of these philosophers," wrote Marx in The German Ideology, "to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings" (Marx & Engels [1845-1846] 1939, p. 6). This programmatic orientation once established, Marx proceeded to analyze the ways in which systems of ideas appeared to depend on the social positions - particularly the class positions - of their proponents.

In his struggle against the dominant ideas of his time Marx was led to a resolute relativization of these ideas. The eternal verities of dominant thought appeared upon analysis to be but the direct or indirect expression of the class interests of their exponents. Marx attempted to explain ideas sytematically in terms of their functions and to relate the the thought of individuals to their social roles and class positions: "The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness" ([1859] 1913, PP 11-12). While Marx was mainly concerned with uncovering the relationships between bourgeois ideas and bourgeois interests and life styles, he nevertheless explicitly stated that the same relation also held true with regard to the emergence of new dissident and revolutionary ideas. According to the Communist Manifesto,

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that Intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling klass. When people speak of ideas that revolutionize society, they do but express the fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence. (Marx & Engels 1848. p. 91 in 1964 paperback edition)

In their writings of a later period, Marx and Engels were to qualify their somewhat sweeping initial statements, which had most often been made in a polemical context. They were thus led to grant a certain degree of intrinsic autonomy to the development of legal, political, religious, literary, and artistic ideas. They now stressed that mathematics and the natural sciences were exempt from the direct influence of the social and economic infrastructure. Moreover, they now granted that the intellectual superstructure of a society was not simply a reflection of the infrastructure but rather could in turn react upon it.

While the original Marxian thesis reinterpreted in this fashion became a considerably more flexible instrument, it also lost some of its distinctive qualities. Interpreted rigidly, it tended to lend itself to use as a rather crude tool for debunking all adverse thought; interpreted flexibly, it became difficult to distinguish from non-Marxian attempts at the functional analysis of thought. Also, as Merton has pointed out ([1949] 1957, p. 479), when the Marxian thesis is stated in so flexible a manner, it becomes impossible to invalidate it at all, since any set of data may be so interpreted as to fit it.

Despite these difficulties, Marxian modes of analysis in this field, as in so many others, exerted a powerful - if often subterranean - influence on subsequent German social thought. Major portions of the work of Max Weber can be seen as attempts on the part of this greatest of all German sociologists to come to terms with the Marxian inheritance and particularly with the Marxian assertion of the essentially epiphenomenal character of knowledge and ideas. The twin heritage of Marx and of Nietzsche (particularly the latter's "debunking" attack on Christianity as a slave philosophy of ressentimen-laden lower-status groups) loomed very large in the mental climate of pre-World War I Germany. But it remained for two German scholars, Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, to develop a corpus of theory that represents the first systematic elaboration of the sociology of knowledge as a new scientific discipline. Even though it followed upon the work of Max Scheler. Karl Mannheim's contribution will be dealt with first, since it is more directly tied to the main themes of Marxian thought.

Mannheim and universal relativism. Mannheim undertook to generalize the Marxian interpretation so as to divest it of polemical elements; thus he attempted to transform into a general tool of analysis what for Marx had been primarily a means of attack against adversaries. Mannheim wished to create a tool that could be used as effectively for the analysis of Marxism as for any other system of thought. While in the Marxian formulations attention was called to the function of ideology in the defense of class privileges and to the distortions and falsifications of ideas that flowed from the privileged class position of bourgeois thinkers, Marx's own ideas were held by Marxists to be true and unbiased by virtue of their being an expression of classes that had no privileged interests to defend. According to Marx, the defenders of the status quo were inevitably given to false consciousness, while their critics, being affiliated with the emerging working class, were exempt from such distorting influences and hence had access to "true consciousness" - that is, to nondistorted historical truth. Mannheim's orientation, in contradistinction, allowed for the probability that all ideas, even "truths," were related to, and hence influenced by, the social and historical situation from which they emerged. The very fact that each thinker is affiliated with particular groups in society - that he occupies a certain status and enacts certain social roles - colors his intellectual outlook. Men "do not confront the objects of the world from the abstract levels of a contemplating mind as such, nor do they do so exclusively as solitary beings. On the contrary they act with and against one another in diversely organized groups, and while doing so they think with and against one another" (Mann­heim [1929-1931] 1954, p. 3).

Mannheim was thus led to define the sociology of knowledge as a theory of the social or existential conditioning of thought. To him all knowledge and all ideas, although to different degrees, are "bound to a location" within the social structure and the historical process. At particular times a particular group can have fuller access to the understanding of a social phenomenon than other groups, but no group can have total access to it. (At times, though, Mannheim expressed the hope that "detached intellectuals" might in our age achieve a "unified"perspective" free of existential determination. ) The task of the new discipline was to ascertain the empirical correlation between intellectual standpoints and structural and historical positions. From its inception Mannheim's thesis encountered a great deal of criticism, especially on the grounds that it led to universal relativism. It has been said that the notion of relativism or relation-ism - the term that Mannheim preferred - "is self-contradictory, for it must presuppose its own absoluteness. The sociology of knowledge ... must assume its own validity if it is to have any meaning” (Dahlke 1940, p. 87). If it is assumed that all thought is existentially determined and hence all truth but relative, Mannheim's own thought cannot claim privileged exemption.

Mannheim did indeed lay himself open to such attacks, especially in his earlier writings; however, it seems that he did not mean to imply that "existential determination" (Seinsverbundenheif) is a kind of total determination that leaves no room for an examination of ideas in other terms. He explicitly stated that in the social sciences, as elsewhere, "the ultimate criterion of truth or falsity is to be found in the investigation of the object, and the sociology of knowledge is no substitute for this" ([1929-1931] 1954, p. 4). No matter what the imprecisions and methodological shortcomings of Mannheim's theoretical statements are judged to be, he left a number of concrete studies on such topics as "Conservative Thought" ([1922-1940] 1953, pp. 77-164) and "Competition as a Cultural Phenomenon" ([1923-1929] 1952, pp. 191-229) which have been recognized as important contributions even by those who have been critical of Mannheim's theoretical apparatus.

Scheler's "real factors." Marx laid primary stress on economic and class factors in the determination of ideas; Mannheim expanded this conception to include other groupings such as generations, status groups, and occupational groups. Max Scheler went still further in widening the range of factors that influence thought forms. According to Scheler there is no constant independent variable that determines the emergence of ideas; but rather, in the course of history, there occurs a sequence of "real factors" that condition thought. In nonliteraic groups, blood and kinship ties constitute the independent variable; later, political factors; and, finally, in the modern world economic factors are to be considered as the independent variables to which thought structures have to be related.

Scheler rejected what he considered the "naturalism" and relativism of previous theorizing in the field and asserted that there exists an atemporal absolute order of values and ideas - that is, a realm of eternal essences, which is totally distinct from historical and social reality. At different moments in historical time and in different cultural systems, different "real factors» predominate. These real factors "open and close, in determinate ways and determinate order, the sluice gates of the stream of thought," so that different aspects of the eternal realm of essences can be grasped at particular points in time and in particular cultural systems (1926). Thus Scheler thought that he had succeeded in reconciling sociocultural relativity with the Platonic notion of an eternal realm of unchanging essences.

Scheler's theory of eternal essences is metaphysical and hence not susceptible to scientific validation. However, his proposal to widen the range of existential factors that may be seen as the source of particular systems of ideas is testable and potentially fruitful for research. Scheler's own studies provide important examples of the fruitfulness of this type of inquiry: for example, his studies on the interrelations between the hierarchical medieval world of communal estates and the medieval con-ception of the world as a hierarchy culminating to God, between the content of Plato's theory of ideal and the formal organization of the Platonic Academy, and between the rise of mechanistic models of thought and the rise of bourgeois, Gesellschaft types of society. (For a different view of Schelez see Ranulf 1938.)

^ French contributions

Emile Durkheim's contributions to the sociology of knowledge form only a relatively small part his total work. Although some of his statements this area are mixed with epistemological speculations that most experts would consider rather dubious, he nevertheless did some of the most vital pioneering work in the field. In his attempt to establish the social origin and functions of morals, values, and religion, and in explaining these as different forms of "collective representations," Durkheim was led to consider a similar social explanation of the basic forms of logical classification and of the fundamental categories of thought themselves.

Durkheim attempted to account: for the origins of spatial, temporal, and other classifications among nonliterate peoples and concluded that these classifcations closely approximated the social organization of these peoples (Durkheim & Mauss 1903). the first "classes," he suggested, were classes of men, and the classification of objects in the world of nature was but an extension of the social classifcation already established. All animals and natural objects were classified as belonging to this or that clan, phratry, or residential or kinship group. Be further argued that, although scientific classifications have now largely become divorced from their social origins, the very manner in which we classify things as "belonging to the same family" still reveals the originally social origins of classificatory thought.

In his last major book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Durkheim returned to these earlier ideas and attempted a sociological explanation of all fundamental categories of human thought, especially the concepts of time and space. These, he claimed, are not only transmitted If society, they are social creations. Society is decisive in the genesis of logical thought by forming the concepts of which that thought is made. The social organization of the primitive community is the model for the primitive's spatial organization of ibs surrounding world. Similarly, temporal divisions too days, weeks, months, and years correspond to periodical recurrences of rites, leasts, and ceremonies: "A calendar expresses the rhythm of the collective activities, while at the same time its function is to assure their regularity" ([1912] 1954, p. 10).

These Durkheimian notions have been challenged frequently. It has been pointed out, for example, that Durkheim slighted the importance of the rhythm of natural phenomena by his overemphasis on social rhythms (Sorokin 1928, p. 477). More fundamentally, Claude Levi-Strauss has argued that society "cannot exist without symbolism, instead of showing how the appearance of thought makes social life altogether possible and necessary, Durkheim tries the reverse, i.e., to make symbolism grow out of society. . . . Sociology cannot explain the genesis of symbolic thought, but has just to take it for granted in man" (1945, p. 518).

Durkheim failed to establish the social origins of all categories of thought, but it is important to recognize his pioneering contribution to the study of the correlations between specific systems of thought and systems of social organization. It is this part of Durkheim's contribution, rather than some of the more debatable epistemological propositions found in his work, that has influenced later developments in the sociology of knowledge. Thus the eminent Sinologist Marcel Granet (1934) used Durkheimian leads when he related the conceptions of time and space in ancient Chinese thought to such social factors as the ancient feudal organization and the rhythmic alterations of concentrated and dispersed group activities. Jane Harrison (1912) and Francis Cornford (1912) renovated classical studies by tracing Greek religious notions and philosophical ideas to their origins in tribal initiation ceremonies and to the clan structure of the Greek tribes. Finally. Maurice Halbwachs (1925) attempted to establish how even such apparently private and intimate mental activities as dreams and memories need for their organization a stable reference in the group life in which individuals participate. [See durkheim; granet; halbwachs.]

^ American sociology of knowledge

The work of the major American pragmatists - Pierce, James, and Dewey - abounds with suggestive leads for the sociology of knowledge. To the extent that pragmatism stressed the organic process by which every act of thought is linked to human conduct and thus rejected the radical distinction between thinking and acting which had informed most classical philosophy, it prepared the ground for consideration of the more specifically sociological links between social conditions and the thought processes. Insofar as the pragmatists stressed that thought is in its very nature bound to the social situation in which it arises, they set the stage for efforts to inquire into the relations between a thinker and his audience. Insofar as they rejected the traditional view according to which an object of thought was to be sharply distinguished from the thinking subject and stressed the intimate transactions between subject and object, they prepared the ground for the specifically American contributions to the sociology of knowledge.

Pragmatic philosophy is not the only American intellectual trend to influence the development of the sociology of knowledge. American historical scholarship, especially the work of Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington, appropriated for its own uses a number of the orientations of European sociology of knowledge - especially of its Marxian variety - in efforts to develop new perspectives on American politics and letters by selfconsciously relating currents of thought to economic interest and social condition. Many of these strains of ideas had only an indirect impact on American sociology. In contrast, two major American thinkers, Thorstein Veblen and George Herbert Mead, directly and explicitly influenced American sociology of knowledge.

Veblen's emphasis on habits of thought as an outcome of habits of life and his stress on the dependence of thought styles on community organization are well known. Perhaps less well known is Veblen’s relatively systematic effort to relate styles of thought to the occupational roles and positions of their proponents. "The scheme of thought or of knowledge," he wrote, 'is in good part a reverberation of the schemes of life" ([1891-1913] 1961. p. 105); hence, those engaged in pecuniary occupations are likely to develop thought styles that differ from the styles of those engaged in industrial occupations. Magical as well as matter-of-fact ways of thinking find their proponents among groups of men differentially located in the social structure and in the economic process. Moreover, Veblen's savage polemics in his Higher Learning in America (1918) should not be read as polemics alone. The work is also, and perhaps above all, a seminal contribution to the sociological study of the organization and functioning of the American university.

Finally, George Herbert Mead's social behaviorism, with its insistence that mind itself is a social product and is of social origin, provided the social psychological basis for some of the assertions of previous theorists. For Mead, communication was central to an understanding of the nature of mind: "Mind arises through communication by a conversation of gestures in a social process or context of experience" (1934, p. 50). Even when certain epistemological positions of Mead are not accepted, it would seem very difficult to deny his claim that if determinants of thought other than society itself exist, they can structure mind only through the intermediary of the social relations in which it is necessarily enmeshed. [See mead.]

Contemporary trends. As the sociology of knowledge has been incorporated into general sociological theory both in America and in Europe, it has often merged with other areas of research and is frequently no longer explicitly referred to as sociology of knowledge. Its diffusion through partial incorporation has tended to make it lose some of its distinctive characteristics. Thus, the works of Robert K. Merton (1949) and Bernard Barber (1952) in the sociology of science, the works of E. C. Hughes (1958), T. H. Marshall ([1934-1949] 1950, chapter 4), Theodore Caplow (1954), Oswald Hall (1948), Talcott Parsons (1938-1953), and others in the sociology of the professions and occupations, and - even more generally - much of the research concerned with social roles may be related to, and in part derived from, the orientations of the sociology of knowledge. Many practitioners of what is in fact sociology of knowledge may at times be rather surprised when it is pointed out that, like Monsieur Jourdain, they have been "talking prose" all along.

Given this wide variety of research in which at least certain leads of the sociology of knowledge have been utilized, it is difficult to delineate the distinctive characteristics of contemporary or near contemporary developments in the sociology of knowledge in the United States. Yet one characteristic seems salient. While in the European tradition attention tended to be centered upon the production of ideas, with the axiomatic assumption that different strata of society produce different types of ideas, modern American research is more concerned with the consumption of ideas and the ways in which different strata of society use standardized thought products. To some extent, as Merton has pointed out ([1949] 1957, pp. 440 ff.), the sociology of public opinion and mass communication has pre-empted the place of the sociology of knowledge in the contemporary United States.

Nevertheless, recent American contributions have by no means been limited to this field. There has been a significant attempt at stocktaking and at discussing methodological questions left unresolved by the European tradition. Merton's writings in this area represent the most sophisticated codification of the problems faced by the sociology of knowledge. Among other notable contributions to the methodology and theoretical clarification of the sociology of knowledge are those of the philosopher Arthur Child and the sociologists Hans Speier (1938), Gerald DeGre (1943), Kurt H. Wolff (1959), Werner Stark (1958), and C. Wright Mills (1963).

Among substantive American contributions, the work of Pitirim A. Sorokin is of special note (1937-1941; 1943). Blending an earlier European tradition of large-scale speculation with American statistical research techniques, Sorokin developed a characteristically idealistic theory of the sociology of knowledge. Rejecting the prevalent conceptualizations that consider social classes or other social and economic groups as the independent variable in the functional relations between thought and society. Sorokin considers variant "cultural mentalities" or cultural premises as the key variables. He attempts to show that the periodic dominance of three major cultural tendencies - the ideational, the idealistic, and the sensate mentality - can account for the fluctuations of types of knowledge that have marked history. Although his argument often seems to involve a kind of circular reasoning, and although the" neglect of the existential roots of thought can hardly be justified in view of the promising results already achieved by Sorokin's predecessors, the many contributions by Sorokin and some of his students - in, for example, the sociology of science or the elucidation of the notion of social time - remain noteworthy.

Florian Znaniecki's neglected but important study The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge (1940) represents, like Sorokin's work, a fruitful blending of the European tradition with American contributions. Znaniecki introduces the notion of the "social circle," that is, the audience or public to which a thinker addresses himself. He thus links the sociology of knowledge with research on publics and audiences that was pioneered by the Chicago school of sociology' (for example, see Park 1904). Znaniecki shows that thinkers - at least in differentiated societies - are not likely to address their total society but rather only selected segments or publics. The thinker is related to a social circle: and this circle expects him to live up to certain of its demands, in exchange for which it grants him recognition and support. Men of knowledge anticipate the demands of their public; and they tend to form self-images, select data, and seize upon problems in terms of their actual or anticipated audiences. Men of knowledge may thus be classified in regard to their social roles and their publics. Hence it becomes possible to understand the emergence of such special roles as that of sage, technologist, and scholar in terms of the differentiated publics to which they address themselves. [See intellectuals.]

It is impossible to discuss or even enumerate within the confines of this article the recent American studies which either directly or indirectly contribute to the further development of the sociology of knowledge. This state of affairs may itself be an indicator of the continued strength of this research orientation. A few references will have to suffice.

Research in the field of social role, the sociology of science, the professions and occupations, and the sociology of communications and public opinion has already been mentioned. In other areas can be listed the studies exploring the relations between minority status and originality of intellectual perspective, to which Veblen (1919) made significant contributions, and of which the recent work by Melvin Seeman (1956) seems an excellent example; the studies in the history of sociological or philosophical theories, in which conceptualizations derived from the sociology of knowledge have been utilized - for example, the works of C. Wright Mills on pragmatism (1964); the studies that relate thought styles of American academic men to the structure and functioning of the American academy - such as Logan Wilson's Academic Man (1942), Lazarsfeld and Thielens' Academic Mind (1958), an analysis of social scientists' reactions to the threats posed by the McCarthy era, and Caplow and McGee's Academic Marketplace (1958); general studies of the settings and contexts in which intellectuals play their peculiar roles, such as Lewis Coser's Men of Ideas (1965); and Fritz Machlup's large-scale study, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (1962). More detailed studies - such as Peter Berger's recent attempt to account for the popularity of psychoanalysis in America (1965) and John Bennett's study of divergent interpretations of the same culture by different social scientists in terms of their divergent backgrounds and social perspectives (1946)—have also been very much in evidence in recent years.

The sociology of knowledge was marked in its early history by a tendency to set up grandiose hypothetical schemes. These contributed a number of extremely suggestive leads. Recently its practitioners have tended to withdraw from such ambitious undertakings and to restrict themselves to somewhat more manageable investigations. Although this tendency has been an antidote to earlier types of premature generalizations, it also carries with it the danger of trivialization. Perhaps the sociology of knowledge of the future will return to the more daring concerns of its founders, thus building upon the accumulation of careful and detailed investigations by preceding generations of researchers.

[Directly related are the entries marxist sociology; social structure, article on social structural analysis. Other relevant material may be found in literature, article on the sociology of literature; science; and in the biographies of bacon; dewey; durkheim; halbwaciis; james; mann­heim; marx; peirce; scheler; sorokin; veblen; weber, max; znaniecki.]


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