Sociology of Knowledge Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Analyzing Structures of Knowledge

III. The Critical Tradition in the Sociology of Knowledge

IV. Emphasizing the Local

V. Looking to the Future

A. A Normative Turn

B. A Global View of Knowledge Production

C. Intellectual Camps as Social Movements

I. Introduction

The sociology of knowledge has a history linked closely to the core concerns of the early paradigmatic exemplars of the sociological tradition. Indeed, the very first sociologists, from Comte and Spencer to Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, would often place knowledge, ideology, or collective values as an essential unit of analysis in their corresponding inquiries into society. As such, the sociology of knowledge is ubiquitous with the growth and development of the discipline as a whole. This makes a definitive and exhaustive coverage of the sociology of knowledge impossible. Yet, in this research paper, we will present what we consider to be the most important themes that have emerged (and are emerging) from a contemporary perspective.

We will start here by laying out the basic historical background to the Durkheimian tradition, which emphasizes a social structural research agenda on ideas and knowledge. We will then go back in time to the Marxist critique of ideology and trace the history of the critical perspective on the sociology of knowledge that has led to today’s poststructural, feminist, and critical theory traditions. We conclude this general overview of the field by discussing the rich diversity of studies on “local knowledge”— a research focus that crosscuts many of the various traditions of structural, critical, and postmodern analyses. The paper concludes with a discussion of three new and exciting areas of growth and debate in the sociology of knowledge: a new normative focus, a global turn, and the effort to theorize knowledge production as a collective social movement.

II. Analyzing Structures of Knowledge

The pioneer of the study of structural knowledge is the French theorist and sociologist Emile Durkheim. In Durkheim’s ([1893] 1964) analysis of law in The Division of Labour in Society, he showed how societal norms do not emerge transcendentally from the spiritual world, or through some rationally derived truth about some overarching universal morality, but are created according to the specific needs or functions of society at the time. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim’s ([1912] 1965) classic study of religion, he illustrated how the content of primitive religious beliefs seem to parallel a society’s historically situated organizational structure. Furthermore, he showed the importance of symbols and beliefs for the continued solidarity of members of society. Durkheim argued that knowledge can only come about from and through society and is thus conditioned largely by the sociohistorical milieu of which it is part. He also showed that the importance of this knowledge for the cohesion of the group is not only necessary in primitive religion but also, by extension, all institutions in modern society.

Durkheim’s consideration of the social basis of knowledge is seen most poignantly in his study of time (see Durkheim and Mauss 1963). Here, Durkheim and Mauss recognize the variation of temporal systems from culture to culture. Durkheim shows that a division of time is not something that is universal but rather derives from the different historical and structural elements of the community. Taking no unit of knowledge for granted, Durkheim and Mauss (1963) argue that “even ideas so abstract as those of time and space are, at each point in their history, closely connected with the corresponding social organization” (p. 88). Clearly, Durkheim and Mauss acknowledge that even the most basic pieces of knowledge are products of social organization and not pregiven Kantian categories. Gouldner (1965) adopted a Durkheimian-like macrostructural analysis in his sociological analysis of the development of Plato’s philosophy (see Camic and Gross 2002b). Furthermore, there is a rich Durkheimian tradition that examines the social constitution of time and cognition (Sorokin 1943; Zerubavel 1997; Flaherty 1999).

Max Weber, a German contemporary of Durkheim, also made central contributions to the early sociological perspective on the structures of ideas and knowledge. Weber (1958) argued that ideas are absolutely central to sociological analysis, positing that it was the prevalence of Calvinist religious beliefs, not simply technological and industrial advancement, that led to the development of capitalism in the West (for critiques, see Hamilton 1996). This emphasis on values was influential to the work of Parsons (1937) in his development of a theory of the social system. Weber (1978) was deeply concerned with the increasing “rationalization of society” that would lead to an eventual “iron cage” of bureaucracy in modern society, a theme picked up later by Habermas (1987). Weber’s direct focus on the rapid expansion of bureaucracy in modern society represented the first institutional analysis of how knowledge is organized, privileged, and sorted through rationally derived systems of accounting and control. Weber’s historically specific and organizational analysis of knowledge remains enormously influential on some of the most important contemporary accounts of the relationship of values to social structure and religion today (see, e.g., Wuthnow 1989).

Following the tradition of Weber and Parsons, the first modern institutional approach to an empirical sociology of knowledge was developed by Robert Merton. Merton’s doctoral dissertation was published as a book titled Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (Merton 1970). Inspired by Weber’s (1958) account of the relation between the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, Merton argues that the Puritan movement in England gave rise to the social conditions and value systems necessary for science. Merton drew historical linkages between Puritan thought and the values and methods prevalent in contemporary science. Later in his career, Merton (1973) studied how the values and norms active in scientific institutions functioned. Merton (1968) later became interested in the reward systems of science, and showed vis-a-vis the “Mathew effect” that those who are held in high esteem in science tend to garner rewards more easily than their unknown competitors.

One of Merton’s most important contributions was his identification of a set of shared institutional norms that allow science to run smoothly and produce knowledge effectively. Specifically, Merton (1942) identified four norms central to his “ethos” of modern science, including universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Mulkay (1976) later argued that Merton built his model of norms not through observation or concrete empirical data but rather through a reliance on scientists’ individual accounts, who, not surprisingly, present a fairly romantic, conventional, and essentially idealistic vision of science. Despite these shortcomings, Merton was able to provide an extensive set of theories and methods that can be used to study science at several levels, such as historical developments, contemporary institutional structures, and broader social dynamics (Cole 2004). Merton established a framework for an institutional sociology of knowledge and has left a lasting legacy of questions still to be researched with regard to the institutional and organizational underpinnings of knowledge cultures today (see Cole 1992; Merton 1996).

The study of the underlying structures of traditions of knowledge was reinvented in France by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1988, 1993) argued, in his study of literature, art, and the academy, that all fields play out through an underlying “set of rules” that are implicitly agreed on and reinforced as actors compete for prestige and status (for an explanation of field theory, see Martin 2003). While the content of a field may change drastically through the discourse of the “players,” the underlying substructure of hierarchical positions tends to stay relatively stable. Through the development of a habitus (a product of conscious and unconscious dispositions gained through immersion in the field), actors are equipped to move up the hierarchy of positions. This perspective emphasizes the hidden power dynamics at work in disciplinary knowledge and shows that fields are made up of relational networks of actors, often in opposition to each other, in a hierarchical manner. Those near the top of the structural hierarchy have the necessary capital to define what is legitimate and valued within the field. This framework has inspired a great deal of contemporary work on the topic of disciplinary knowledge and reward systems in both the humanities and the sciences (see, e.g., Collins 1998; Albert 2003; Bourdieu 2004).

Bourdieu’s strategy of conceptualizing the relational and oppositional networks of academia is akin to Randall Collins’s (1998) agenda of a massive structural analysis of knowledge cultures, spanning ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy, up to the rise of the modern sciences. The argument is that there is only so much “attention space” in a field at any one given time, and as such, due to the “law of small numbers,” it is only a small handful that are widely cited in a field and a select few that leave any sort of historical legacy. Collins turns the issue of intellectual success fully sociological and argues that it is not individual genius but rather one’s proximity and access to powerful networks that are most important. Collins shows that great intellects seldom come from nowhere but are connected to networks with high visibility to begin with. Furthermore, Collins depicts oppositional streams of thought (i.e., idealism vs. materialism) as an implicit (albeit subconscious) strategy for advancement in the field. Oppositional ideas are a way to get attention, reduce the importance of those already in the spotlight, and provide what seem like original ways forward. A similar notion is pursued by Andrew Abbott (2001) in Chaos of Disciplines. Abbott contends that knowledge evolves in fields following a law of oppositional fractals. By studying and diagramming the development of dualities in various fields of knowledge, Abbott shows that academic progress tends to be made by dividing the field into increasingly smaller fractal divisions. His recursive model of fractals shows that forms of knowledge that have their roots in direct opposition through the process of continual fractionalization, which eventually covers all possible combinations and divisions, leading to lots of ideas but, perhaps, few truly original and new discoveries.

Network analyses have also produced interesting results in their studies of disciplinary fields and knowledge. Price (1963) observed that modern science moves too quickly to rely on publication through books or even journal articles to keep up with the cutting edge of the field. As such, he argued that top scientists form “invisible colleges” (informal occupational networks through conferences and other communications) to be kept appraised of developments in the field. Crane (1972) later argued for the value of membership in these networks, arguing that it encourages drive, enthusiasm, solidarity, and interest in relevant issues. This is very close to Randall Collins’s (1998) later considerations of the cultural capital and emotional energy to be gained through collective ritual activity in scholarly networks. It is apparent that scholars with access to such informal ties to academic “in-groups” have a great deal to gain social-psychologically as well as in terms of their structural position in relation to attention space alone. Many scholars have studied the role of scholarly networks by undertaking detailed citation analyses (Baldi 1998; Hargens 2000; Moody 2004). Furthermore, network analysis has been used to show the mutually reinforcing practices of the “prestige hierarchies” of various academic disciplines, including sociology (Hanneman 2001; Burris 2004). There are also important contributions to the sociology of knowledge that have, building on Simmel and Coser’s emphasis on the stranger, highlighted the role of relatively marginal thinkers and networks in the creation of new knowledge (Simmel 1950; Coser 1965; McLaughlin 2001). Ronald Burt (2004) has recently presented a network analysis of an electronics company to show that one’s location at a bridge between clusters of ideas (such that the actor is a broker between clusters) increases the likelihood of that person filling “structural holes” and generating and presenting “good ideas” by providing information to one group that is gained from the other. Michael Farrell’s (2001) study of innovation among artists, writers, psychoanalysts, and political activists also stresses the potential creativity generated by thinkers on the margins.

Scholars have also used a more thoroughly institutional and organizational approach to understanding knowledge cultures, which has helped sociologists move beyond the issue of demarcation between science and nonscience. For example, Gieryn (1999) has analyzed the practice of “boundary work” that disciplines enact in an effort to gain and or protect their scientific legitimacy. Whitley (1984) has focused not on the content or peculiar intrinsic characteristics of science versus non-science but has considered how disciplines differ as organizational forms characterized by such measures as “task uncertainty” and “mutual dependence.” The argument is that the sciences tend to enjoy higher levels of mutual dependence (e.g., cumulative theorizing) and task certainty (shared agreement on assumptions and methods) than the social sciences. Whitley argues it is these organizational qualities and not the inherent nature of the subject matter that is most important in the demarcation of the disciplines. Stephan Fuchs (1992, 2001), inspired largely by the work of Luhmann (1982), Collins (1975), and Whitley (1984), has laid the groundwork for a series of empirical inquiries into science and knowledge with the use of an organizational framework. Using Collins’s notions of tight versus loose networks, and Whitley’s organizational variables, Fuchs aims to test various knowledge cultures and practices in terms of their difference along these variable continuums of organizational types.

III. The Critical Tradition in the Sociology of Knowledge

The critical tradition of the sociology of knowledge began most famously with Karl Marx in the mid-1800s. Marx’s emphasis on class relations led him to argue for the materialist root of cultural ideas, directly opposing German idealism. Marx viewed ideas that make up the ideological “superstructure” as products of the “infrastructure” of material and productive relations. Marx (1978) argues that it is real people who, through their interrelations and subsistence within the bounds of nature, develop ideas:

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces . . . In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven . . . Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. (Pp. 154–155)

Thus, for Marx, knowledge is the result of human activity rooted within material conditions. Marx further argues that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (p. 172). Laws are enacted to bolster or protect capitalist production and are justified by the fact that they are decided in relation to abstract, disinterested ideals. Marx viewed science as a natural offshoot of the productive processes of society, and thus the Marxist perspective would come to represent scientists as proletariat workers producing knowledge and technology to help bolster production and profits for the ruling classes (see Mulkay 1979; Aronowitz 1988; Stachel 1995). Despite Marx’s belief in the fact that science is socially directed by the interests of development and production in society, he believed in the power of the scientific method to produce neutral, value-free understandings of the natural world (Rose and Rose 1976). The content of scientific knowledge was protected from its social roots for Marx vis-a-vis the rigor and discipline of the scientific method.

Marx’s insights successfully laid the groundwork for Mannheim’s (1936) pioneering of the sociology of knowledge as a formal tradition. Mannheim was primarily concerned with the development of ideology and knowledge through the course of history, arguing that a great deal of our knowledge can be accounted for outside of purely rational thought springing forth from empirical conditions:

The process of knowing does not actually develop historically in accordance with immanent laws . . . it does not follow from the nature of things or from pure logical possibilities . . . it is not driven by an inner dialectic. On the contrary, the emergence and the crystallization of actual thought is influenced in many divisive ways by extra-theoretical factors of the most diverse sort. (P. 240)

By identifying forms of knowledge created through history that do not follow as a logical extension from the available evidence, Mannheim showed there is room for “extratheoretical” (i.e., social) elements to come into play in the explanation of historically situated knowledge claims. Thus, for example, the specific interests of the dominant classes in power will often be found to govern (albeit subconsciously) much of the “objective” content of, for instance, political, religious, and legal tenets presented in ideology. Utopias are challenges to prevailing orthodox ideologies, offering ways to change the current order of knowledge, enabling an alternative way of life for society. All knowledge, for Mannheim, was relational, and as such, historical analysis was the best hope for uncovering the hidden motives of ideological systems (see Ketler, Meja, and Stehr 1984).

Neo-Marxist approaches to science have been linked to this question of ideology. Theorists in the Frankfurt School argued that by treating ideology as “just another form of knowledge” that is historically relative, Mannheim missed the point that ideology was inextricably connected to a sense of false consciousness among the masses, and represented a concrete historical reality that is linked with the material production in society (see Wiggershaus 1994; Bailey 1996). Combining Marx with Weber’s account of modern rationalization, the Frankfurt School linked a deadly dialectic of Enlightenment to science and a resulting instrumental reason (later defended by Habermas 1987), which led to threats of authoritarianism and the destruction of nature. C. W. Mills’s (1959) similar concern with mass society and the ideology and symbolism prevalent in American politics alongside Alvin Gouldner’s (1979) pioneering approach to intellectuals can be seen as American variants of this critical theory.

Unlike the position Marx himself took on scientific knowledge, neo-Marxists tend to critique what they see as the procapitalist features in the actual content of knowledge claims in science. Marxist theories treat scientific knowledge as a determinate product of material and social conditions (Restivo 1995). For example, Alfred Sohn-Rethal (1978) attempted to show that mathematics arose as a way to further commodity exchange and that because of this, all of math and science is at its root based on economic ideologies. Aronowitz (1988) argues that science represents a hegemonic system, in that it is considered a dominant form of ideology that serves the interests of the powerful in society, akin to the use of religious ideology as a force of coercion in the past. He is critical of “internalist” sociological and philosophical investigations into science that do not consider the effects of external social and ideological influences on the products and practices of science. While not directly tied to Marxism, “interests theory” was first articulated in Edinburgh’s “strong programme,” pioneered most prominently in the work of Barry Barnes (1977, 1982). For Barnes, the types of interests that affect knowledge include broader considerations than a purely Marxist economic-oriented perspective and allows for such things as gender, race, and politics (see also Hess 1997).

The postmodernist turn in France, often linked with the political upheaval of the 1960s (see Seidman 1994), created a drastic turn in the sociology of knowledge. Derrida (1976, 1978) turned against the structuralism of Saussure and Levi-Strauss and argued that while language is indeed built on binary oppositions, the nature of these oppositions are culturally relative. Furthermore, the valuations that are linked to these oppositions serve as a tool of discursive power that establishes the conditioning of everyday reality and hence is a powerful and ever-present form of control. By staking a strategy of “deconstruction,” Derrida launched an attack on language, to uncover the logical and meaningful contradictions in discursive representations, as a way to challenge, subvert, and decenter the legitimacy of authority, in whatever form it may take. Lyotard (1984) shared Derrida’s interest in language and treated social life, and all of its institutions, as a system of Wittgensteinian “language games,” all with their internally consistent agreed on rules. Lyotard urged us to leave the quest for modernist universal knowledge claims behind, as these “metanarratives” produced by the sciences and humanities are deeply linked to the exclusion and oppression of those left out. As such, grand narratives ought to be abandoned for local narratives, where incommensurability and difference is celebrated. Baudrillard (1983) moves the classic Marxist concerns of class and the ownership of the means of production as secondary to the most powerful coercive force in postmodern society, which is, like Derrida envisioned, the realm of the symbolic. Symbols begin to take on a power of their own, as the flood of symbols has become so replete that their connections to concrete referents is lost. The differentiation between the signifier and the sign has collapsed. Baudrillard’s (2005) later examples of the media attention to the Gulf War, 9/11, and the controversy surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison as the ultimate “reality TV” underlines the public’s growing dependence on media imagery.

Foucault’s (1980) emphasis on power resonates with the concerns of Derrida and Baudrillard in that he believes that power is to be found in the “discursive formations” that condition our thoughts and become ingrained in our very being. Foucault’s focus for analysis is discourse, to uncover the microsites of power as they are active across institutions and everyday life. Foucault’s (1969) Archaeology of Knowledge uses his method of “genealogy” to uncover the discontinuities in the progress of knowledge, in an effort to uncover the interests and power mechanisms at work in its history. He argues that the discursive formations that are generated in the creation of intellectual ideas often find their way into politics and everyday life as well (for the case of Freudianism, see McLaughlin 1998a). In this way, knowledge is tied closely to forms of microcontrol, serving to label and control people who must exercise internal monitoring and self-discipline. Foucault also posited that beneath the possibility of science lies a particular episteme, an epistemological substructure that allows for different types of knowledge to take hold. Thus, the episteme characterizing the classical age (an emphasis on resemblances) varied markedly from the episteme that allowed for the rise of science in the seventeenth century (an emphasis on causal reasoning). Foucault’s work remains controversial, contested, and difficult yet is highly imaginative and reminds us of the connections between the discursive formations of knowledge and their relation to power (for a critique, see Hamilton 1996). Curtis (2001) and Woolf (1989) have used Foucault’s approach in their historically grounded critiques of the use of statistics by the state to categorize and control sectors of the population. Edward Said (2003) built on Foucault to outline his influential critique of orientalism, a postcolonial account of how the power of European imperial domination was inscribed in representations of the “other.”

According to Brown (1998), postmodernism’s criticism of science consists of the following elements. First, all claims and ideas are reduced to text, and science is nothing more than individuals rhetorically persuading others that their textual claims are of more value than others (see Bazerman 1988; Gross 1990). Second, all epistemological assumptions of the modern period are questioned such that there remains little or no confidence in the ability to base an argument solely on evidence (see also Ward 1996). Third, there is a shift of focus from how scientists represent, discover, or interpret reality, to how scientists create reality. Bohm (1994:343) criticizes science for being an amoral discipline and argues instead for a science that does not attempt to separate truth and virtue (similar to the nonmodernism of Latour 2004). Bohm finds the directions and motivations of science as amoral, in that it serves whatever good or evil entity that happens to be in command. Postmodernism tends to treat the views of science as true only insofar as they are consistent with the interests of the dominant groups in society (Griffin 1988). In line with the call of Lyotard, postmodernist arguments seem to argue for a decentering of science, to allow for pluralistic, localized, and incommensurate approaches to understanding.

Feminists are another variant of the critical tradition, analyzing science as it is seen to represent an andocentric, or male-centered, enterprise. Dorothy Smith (1990) has argued that women have been conspicuously absent in formalized and mainstream knowledge and that the entire enterprise of the sciences and humanities is excessively centered on male experience. Sandra Harding’s (1986) work demonstrates unequal status to power positions in science between men and women, alleges the use of science to further sexist and racist agendas and argues that male bias exists in the meanings within science, which affects epistemological orientations and objectivity. Harding endeavors to dismantle the entire method of science from its origins and put in its place a feminist standpoint epistemology as the “successor science” (see also Smith 1987). Keller (1985) explains that the success of science has devalued women through society, as they represent the opposite traits of neutral objectivity and active interrogation celebrated through the age of reason. Feminist studies in science have concentrated especially on the fields of biology, physiology, evolution, and the social sciences, as these are most closely related to gender differences (e.g., Tuana 1989). Haraway’s (1989) study of primatology is an excellent example of uncovering the sexist biases prevalent in the field of biology. Feminist contributions to a critical sociology of knowledge have illustrated how androcentric practices, institutions, methods, and even theories can be shaped by the (often unconscious) influence of gender bias. From Marx to Mannheim, to postmodernism, postcolonialism, and contemporary feminism, the critical perspective on ideas, science, and culture has left us with a truly “contested” view of knowledge (Seidman 1994).

IV. Emphasizing the Local

Camic and Gross (2002a) argue that the new sociology of ideas can be defined in large part by a renewal in a local emphasis. Moving away from considerations of broad-based ideological systems and purely external interests, researchers began to give precedence to the intersections of social process and local context as it relates to knowledge production. Moving away from the emphasis on critical approaches to knowledge that decries internalist approaches (Harding 1986; Aronowitz 1988), scholars began to reject and move beyond the externalist/internalist distinction. Shapin (1992) argued that the local could be used as a site to study the effects of both traditionally characterized “internal” and “external” sources of knowledge production. In light of this push to study the more local and immediate in studies of scientific and intellectual production, we will consider a range of microsociological approaches that have studied the humanities, the sciences, and the everyday.

The microsociological study of knowledge came out of Germany from the phenomenological work of Alfred Schutz (1967). His interest in the “typifications” within everyday “stocks of knowledge,” led Berger and Luckmann (1966) to take on the sociology of knowledge directly and popularize Schutz’s ideas to the American sociological landscape. This landscape was indeed ripe for such a message for how social institutions are created from the ground up, and then maintained and reshaped in ways to manage a consistent “symbolic universe.” This push to study localized knowledge as it is enacted in everyday life was largely a result of the microsociological revolution that was occurring thanks to the parallel work of Herbert Blumer (1969) and the Chicago School’s emphasis on the up-close study of urban life. Furthermore, the predecessor of symbolic interactionism, George Herbert Mead (1934) was heavily influenced by German philosophy as well, and was interested in the intersubjective and social psychological root of knowledge as it unfolds in experience. This lifelong concern of Mead and the interactionists was concordant with parallel concerns in phenomenology as to how meanings are created and transmitted vis-a-vis the “lifeworlds” of everyday people (Schutz 1967). The issue of how people attempt to fit abnormal or anomalous situations indexically into broader contexts of knowledge is also seen in the related approach of Garfinkel’s (1967) “ethnomethodology,” which explores the everyday methods and practices by which people use so-called commonsense knowledge explicitly. This emphasis on the local construction and transmission of knowledge continues to inspire a number of interactionist accounts, many of which were part and parcel of the broader ethnographic research tradition (e.g., Becker, Hughes, and Geer 1968; Prus 1996; Miall and Miall 2003; Fine 2004).

Mead (1938) was often concerned with the problem of formal (scientific) versus informal (everyday) knowledge. Indeed, the contrast between formalized, linguistically based categories of thought and lived, embodied, corporeal existence, or simply “being in the world,” has been a concern of phenomenological philosophers such as Heidegger (1977) and Merleau-Ponty (1962). Gardiner (2000), drawing on the likes of Agnes Heller (1984), Henri Lefevbre (1991), and Michel de Certeau (1984), argues that everyday knowledge has been systematically denigrated or ignored in modern philosophy and social science, as it is seen as an inferior brand of knowledge to that of linguistic, rational, and technical knowledge. Nonetheless, sociologists have begun to build on the concerns of these thinkers and study the embodied and lived aspects of knowledge (see Crossley 1996, 2001). Indeed, a concern with the social body and its relevance for informal (but not ineffectual) meanings and knowledge in everyday life has been a concern not only in the sociological literature of consciousness but also in the construction of everyday knowledge (e.g., Scott and Morgan 1993). Bourdieu’s (1990) concept of habitus similarly takes knowledge to a deeper level of unconsciously developed, embodied habits that are learned through the (historically malleable) structures of community life and used, often unknowingly, as a strategy of status attainment in fields of practice.

The most famous studies of knowledge that emphasize the local are the constructionist (and postconstructionist) science studies. These schools of thought were inspired largely by Kuhn’s (1962) watershed contribution The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s historical analysis showed that science does not progress steadily and cumulatively over time but rather represents a series of radical breaks or paradigm shifts, which give way to new and incommensurate foundations from which to build experimental research. Beyond this, Kuhn demonstrated the highly psychological and theory-laden aspects of scientific inquiry, arguing that scientists’ socialization within a particular scientific community has highly determinative implications for the assumptions made, the questions asked, and the methods that guide research. This new wave of philosophy of science (see also Feyerabend 1975; Lakatos 1981) inspired the rise of Edinburgh’s “strong programme” in the 1970s (see Barnes 1982; Bloor 1991), which argued that all knowledge (scientific or otherwise) can and should be studied in social-psychological terms. This is a break from Mannheim and the classical sociologists, in that the content of scientific knowledge was no longer considered immune from social forces and, hence, became an object of sociological inquiry. Bloor (1991) argued for the need of “methodological symmetry” when studying science, in that so-called true and false beliefs are to be treated in the same way and accounted for by the same (generally sociological) causal factors.

While historical case studies were used to enrich and provide the foundation for the arguments of philosophers such as Kuhn (1962), Feyerabend (1975), and Lakatos (1981), contemporary field studies seem to serve much the same purpose for ethnographers of science (Knorr-Cetina 1995). In certain respects, these studies maintain a distinct advantage over historical accounts. By watching science “as it happens” within a laboratory setting, social researchers are able to see how the knowledge claims and opinions of scientists are reshaped and changed over time in ways scientists themselves may not wish to admit in retrospective accounts. Laboratory field studies also allow researchers access to some of the pragmatic, mundane practices as well as the errors of scientific activity (e.g., Collins 1985). Instead of getting the glossed over and romanticized versions of science often given in strict accounts, or worse, that which has already been published with a “reconstructed logic,” researchers conducting in-depth field studies are able to capture the “dirty work” of science that normally could not be accessed (see Mulkay 1979).

Using this approach to research, Latour and Woolgar (1979) argued that much of science consists of “blackboxing” various tentative scientific statements into more absolute and unquestioned “facts,” not through evidence but rather communication and use, through their dissemination, transmission, and taken-for-granted application across scientific networks. Knorr-Cetina (1981) stresses the “artificiality of labs,” in that scientists are not dealing with pure nature but rather unnatural purified versions, representations, isolations, and so on. In this sense, the manipulations and interventions of scientists do not allow for “pure observation” but represent a set of constructed “artifacts.” Knorr-Cetina also demonstrates the “indexicality” of scientific research, as procedures and decisions are situationally contingent, such that laboratory practice is “decision impregnated.” Star (1989) makes similar arguments in her study of British brain research and argues that laboratories act in efforts to transform “local uncertainties” into “global certainties.” Collins and Pinch (1998) have shown that scientific activity is anything but neutral and unimpassioned and often involves a great deal of political pressure, the recruitment of allies, and the slandering of opposing camps in the “experimental regress.” Furthermore, much scientific work is based on tacit knowledge (Collins 1985), which is not carried at the level of reflective thought or scientific schematization.

While this local emphasis on the study of scientific activity was successful in breaking positivist myths about how science operates on the ground, it was not without its critics (see Sismondo 1996; Kukla 2000). If scientific knowledge is built on local constructions arising from the actions of scientists as social agents, the epistemological status of this knowledge becomes highly relativist (see Hacking 1999). Furthermore, if what the constructionists say about knowledge is true, this truism reflects back onto not only science but also these local social studies of science themselves. Reflexivity guarantees that if science is left to question, so are the various claims posited by those who study it (see Collins and Yearley 1992). Anticipating these difficulties, many in the constructionist camp began to look for a more solid attachment to materialist sources of knowledge, so as to avoid a total solipsistic relativism in their conclusions.

As such, Latour (1987) has introduced the notion of material “actants,” nonhuman actors that participate in the co-construction of reality, and act as allies or enemies of scientists struggling for success (see also Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Pickering (1992, 1995) similarly argued for the inclusion of material actors in laboratory studies, arguing that the uncertainty of experimental work often places scientists in a passive role, forcing them to reactively construct post hoc arguments. Later work started to break this divide as Latour (1993, 2004) rejected the dualism of human and nonhuman altogether, and developed a new system of thought that studies “hybrids” at work in the “collectives” or “nature cultures” of scientific activity (see also Haraway 1991). This work has inspired Knorr-Cetina (1999) to consider technology as active agents that take on anthropomorphic personalities as part of the research team. Pinch and Bijker (1984) discussed the similarities of social studies of science and technology, leading most after Latour (1993) to simply refer to either scientific or technological activity as “technoscience.”

Certainly, scientific activity is not the only area of study where immediacy, context, and locality are emphasized. Camic (1992) wrote a provocative article that argued for a “reputational” rather than “content fit” explanation of why Talcott Parsons chose the intellectual predecessors he did. Camic argued that Parsons had easy access to the American economic institutionalists, who were actually a closer fit to the content of the ideas Parsons was trying to present. However, because these institutionalists were out of favor at Harvard, Parsons was forced to find support for his ideas across the Atlantic from figures such as Weber and Durkheim. As such, Weber and Durkheim later became lifted into hallmark figures of sociology, and the American institutionalists became largely forgotten. This “contextual” approach to studying immediate social and reputational factors affecting decisions of knowledge production by intellectuals has produced fruitful results. Maines, Bridger, and Ulmer (1996) used a similar scheme in their analysis of the construction of “mythic facts” with regard to the rather unfair treatment of Robert Park in textbook accounts of ecological theory. Lamont (1987) used a contextual approach to understand Jacques Derrida’s rise to intellectual ascendancy and popularity in France and the United States. McLaughlin (1998a, 1998b) has made use of this type of contextual reputational analysis in his explanation for the fall of neo-Freudianism and the “forgotten” status of Erich Fromm in the citation patterns of modern-day sociologists. Gross (2002) has used this style of analysis to ask what personal experiences lead some academics to gravitate toward pragmatism as an intellectual career choice. Guetzkow, Lamont, and Mallard (2004) have recently considered the local social processes by which peer-review panelists judge originality in their assessments of grant applications in the humanities and the social sciences. In all of these cases, researchers focus on the local, detailed, and immediate factors affecting knowledge production and, in some cases, the writing of intellectual history (Maines et al. 1996). They share with the constructionist scholars of science, and with theorists of everyday knowledge, an eye for the specific and a distrust for a reduction to broad, deterministic, external social forces.

V. Looking to the Future

The field of the sociology of knowledge has a long history and is well established in the discipline of sociology, but there are three new areas of intellectual growth we believe hold exciting promise. First, we show that knowledge studies are taking a turn from the descriptive and analytic to the applied and normative. Second, the increasing global status of the modern world presents new challenges and exciting opportunities for research. Finally, there is a new effort to study knowledge production as set of social movements, which invites a number of fascinating empirical questions. All of these recent currents suggest that the sociology of knowledge has an exciting and promising future for the twenty-first century.

A. A Normative Turn

Camic and Gross (2002a) claim that with the “new sociology of ideas” researchers have increasingly turned to study knowledge production as an end in itself. Rather than adopting a normative tone, local and contextually focused scholars merely have the goal of understanding and describing how knowledge is made. How knowledge should be made was always left out of the consideration or interest of the scholar, perhaps in large part due to Bloor’s (1991) insistence on symmetrical treatments of truth and falsity in the study of knowledge production. According to Camic and Gross, normative stances on how knowledge ought to be produced are not of interest to people such as Bourdieu (1988) and Collins (1998). Rather, modern scholars in the sociology of knowledge are interested in how knowledge is produced, purely as a matter of sociological interest.

This trend has begun to change in large part due to the work of two dueling leaders in science studies, Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller. Latour (2004) has argued in Politics of Nature that the modernist system of knowledge we hold today is inadequate and actually counterproductive to our nature-culture’s constant creation and proliferation of “hybrids,” products that cannot be adequately categorized as human, subjective, or social, nor nonhuman, natural, or objective. In this modern era, with such hybridized productions of acid rain, mad cows, ozone holes, and countless other socio-technological creations, Latour claims that the old “modern constitution” is no longer an effective tool with which to organize knowledge. Latour is not simply analyzing and critically assessing modern epistemology’s alleged failure to capture the ever emerging technoconstructs of society. Rather, he is suggesting that we replace the old modern constitution with a new one. The details of Latour’s utopian vision of a system of knowledge are not important. The point is that Latour, this former anthropologist of science who was the exemplar of Camic and Gross’s (2002a) account of a close, local, and nonjudgmental account of knowledge production, is clearly developing a normative stand on knowledge cultures, positing ways to make science more democratic by extending it out beyond the human group and into the world of nonhumans as well. While highly abstract, Latour is using his philosophy and sociological fieldwork of science to imagine a better future for the organization of knowledge.

While Steve Fuller differs from Latour in many ways, they share a normative interest in and stance on scientific knowledge production and its governance. Fuller’s (1988) book Social Epistemology, in particular, was a major break from traditional science studies and argued that if we know that the social organization of science influences, in deep ways, the production and content of knowledge, then the research conducted by those in science studies need not be kept at the level of the theoretical, analytical, and descriptive. Rather, Fuller argued for the development of a field that would study the effects of social organization on the production of knowledge, in an effort to improve the actual governance of existing structures. In a later work, Fuller (2000a) questioned and criticized the “authoritarian theory of knowledge” governance, arguing that this leads to a hegemonic, top-down structure of intellectual work, stifling creativity by putting constraints on what is accepted as legitimate. Fuller argues for a flattening, democratizing, and opening out of the structure of knowledge in science, such that the public is given a stronger voice in the direction of research directives. Fuller (2000b, 2004) sees “paradigm-driven” Kuhnian-styled science as a crippling organizational assumption and builds instead on the spirit of mutual criticism inspired by Karl Popper, as well as the dissenting critical Frankfurt theorists, to envision a more effective political ground for producing good and useful knowledge that represents the wishes of a greater number of people. Other scholars have used the same guidelines in their respective analysis of “knowledge governance” more generally, involving studies of existing structures with an eye to improving them in the long term (e.g., Stehr 2004).

We can also see normatively oriented discussions of epistemology and the sociology of knowledge in Michael Burawoy’s recent American Sociological Association presidential address. Burawoy’s (2005) four ideal-type quadrants of mutually supportive modes of sociology (professional, public, policy, and critical) is a clear attempt to use social theories of knowledge as a way to improve the production and enhance the long-reaching effectiveness of the sociological discipline. He asks not “How is sociology currently organized?” but rather “How can we organize sociology effectively in ways to develop the best knowledge, and maximize its positive effect on the outside world?” Burawoy’s intervention has given rise to an extensive debate in sociology internationally, where the normative questions of “knowledge for whom” and “knowledge for what” are being addressed centrally in the analysis (e.g., Burawoy 2004; Vaughn 2004; Beck 2005; Etzioni 2005).

Of course, the sociological consideration of the role of the public intellectual is not entirely new (see Jacoby 1987). Lewis Coser’s work offers a broad framework for understanding the role of the intellectual in society (Coser 1965, 1984; Coser, Kadushin, and Powell 1985). Charles Kadushin (1974) argued that elite intellectual life in the United States is shaped largely by the informal networks and “social circles” that operate around public intellectual magazines and journals (such as The New Republic, The New Yorker, Commentary, Dissent) as well as the networks around The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. However, this perspective gives inadequate weight to academic and nonacademic book authors, the influence of contemporary “think tanks,” the different role played by the state in distinct societies, the importance of local and regional public intellectuals, and the rise of a mediasaturated culture (Brint 1994; Royce 1996; Stone 1996). Brint (1994) has moved the literature forward by framing the study of public intellectuals in the larger context of the literature on the professions and by undertaking a content analysis of the rhetoric of public intellectuals. While more comparative work is needed (see Kurzman and Owens 2002), there is an ongoing debate surrounding the ramifications of public intellectuals for knowledge, as well as for the academies they represent (Whitley 1984; Posner 2001).

B. A Global View of Knowledge Production

Randall Collins’s (1998) pioneering work The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change offers a challenge to the way we think about ideas, raising the question of globalization in sharp terms. In an attempt to sociologically theorize the rise and development of philosophy in Ancient Greece, China, India, Japan, and Medieval and modern Europe, Collins makes the case that the twentieth century is the first in which comprehending world history has become possible. Collins argues that the “life of the mind” is presently undergoing a fundamental change, as new information technologies, the globalization of the research university, economic linkages, and intermigration produce a common world culture. For Collins, intellectual parochialism is a serious problem today, and by the end of the twenty-first century, educated people will likely be embarrassed to know so little about the intellectual history of other parts of the world other than their own. How then might we envision a truly global sociology of knowledge?

It makes sense to start by defining what we mean by globalization. Scholte (2000) argues that while the rhetoric of globalization has often been used in imprecise ways in popular and academic debates, the concept is indispensable for scholarly analysis if we can avoid using the term simply to mean internationalization, liberalization, universalization, and Westernization. Globality suggests that the historical moment we are living through involves a new sense of the world as a single social space, involving two central components: transplanetary relations and supraterritoriality. Transplanetary relations refer to a dramatic increase in the extent to which people are able to engage with one another in the world (Scholte 2000:14). Linked to this, Scholte’s notion of supraterritoriality implies that world relations today are happening independently of geographic and territorial concerns. Whereas the older trend toward a shrinking world occurred within territoriality, Scholte suggests that in the new world of supraterritoriality, place is not fixed. Rather, territorial distance is covered in no time, and former boundaries no longer present any particular impediment.

Perhaps Scholte is right that social science has been excessively wedded to what he calls methodological territorialism. We can certainly see this in the study of intellectuals, where scholars have studied the American intellectual elite, the French intellectual nobility, or the Russian intelligentsia from within a framework of nation-based intellectual communities (Kadushin 1974; Brym 1980; Kauppi 1996). It is true that the flows of intellectual emigres and “traveling theory” have always been central to the sociological analysis of intellectual (Said 1983; Coser 1984; Lamont 1987). However, perhaps the notion of globality might push the sociology of knowledge to think more carefully about ideas, information, and knowledge as it is increasingly connected in ways not constituted exclusively around national territorial boundaries (see Schofer 2003 for a promising example of this). Building on Said’s (2003) critique of the Western domination of orientalism, as well as from perspectives on knowledge from outside the core of the modern world system, is going to be a central challenge for the sociology of knowledge in the coming period (see also Wallerstein 2004). Nonetheless, it is increasingly important for theorists of knowledge to “go global,” in light of the changing and rapid expansion of global technology and culture into the next century.

C. Intellectual Camps as Social Movements

The irony here is that new insights in the sociology of knowledge were partly stimulated by the social movements of Marxism in the nineteenth century, the New Left and feminist movements of the 1960s, and the contemporary antiglobalization movements. It makes sense that the study of social movements could now be turned back on academics themselves, as has been done in Frickel and Gross’s (2005) promising new research agenda that would have us study the knowledge landscape in terms of a set of competing scientific/intellectual movements (SIMs). SIMs are defined as coherent programs of research that carry contentious practices relative to the wider academic landscape they are operating within. Frickel and Gross (2005) argue that these SIMs are inherently political groupings of collective actors, often episodic through history, and quite varying in size and scope. These movements are not assumed to be totally insular and will often garner help and encounter obstacles from the larger (cultural, political, and corporate) environments they are working within.

What is most exciting about the theory is its potential for empirical testing as well as offering an explanatory and predictive general theory. First, they argue that SIMs will tend to emerge when powerful actors take issue with an accepted approach. Their second proposition is that SIMs will be most successful when they are able to garner the adequate resources necessary to forward their agenda (allies, money, prestige, employment, etc.). Third, there must be “micromobilization” contexts available for SIMs to succeed (through conferences, informal networks, and “invisible colleges” [Crane 1972]) for the ideas to ruminate and promote “grassroots” support. Finally, Frickel and Gross argue that successful SIMs must be “framed” (Goffman 1974; Snow and Bedford 1988) in accordance with the broader intellectual milieu of the field in which they are working (see Frickel 2004 for an illustrative case study).

Frickel and Gross’s (2005) work may prove to be a useful approach with which to formalize studies of intellectual movements, which may lead to novel findings in this area. New research might challenge the assumptions by Frickel and Gross (2005) that successful movements are always (or mostly) begun in powerful sectors in the hierarchy of academia, leaving room to examine insights and creativity that come from the margins (Simmel 1950; Coser 1965; Farrell 2001; McLaughlin 2001). Furthermore, while Frickel and Gross define their social movements in terms that situate the actors in social environments that span beyond the university, their theory is biased toward a university- focused milieu. Research into intellectual movements that start outside the university (e.g., the women’s movement and anticolonial movements) may help to broaden the research agenda to consider these as they are generated outside of academic organizations and networks. Finally, the agenda they have laid out is limited by its implicitly nationalist focus. This raises questions about implications of the global turn in the sociology of knowledge, as ideas travel across borders, disciplines, and political spheres. The answers to these broad questions are open empirical issues, of course, but the possibilities of historical, cross-cultural, and comparative case studies on intellectual social movements suggests there is an exciting road ahead for the sociology of knowledge in the 21st century.

See also:


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