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Sociology Of Knowledge

  The sociology of knowledge, as its name suggests, is a branch of sociology which studies the social processes involved in the production of knowledge. Its subject matter may include ideas and beliefs in addition to knowledge as it is more usually thought of, such as science. It is concerned with the relationship between knowledge and the wider social structure—the effects of knowledge and the social processes which might condition either the form or the content of knowledge.

The sociology of knowledge developed as a reaction to Marx\'s analysis of the relationship between the economic structure and culture—the values, ideas, art forms, etc. of a society. In Marx\'s work (or rather that fraction of it) available to inter-war sociologists, he claimed that all knowledge was a reflection of class interests, a partial understanding of the world called he an ‘ideology’. Only the proletariat, the class with no material interest of its own, had a true vision of society.

As more of Marx\'s work has been published, it has become clear that his ideas were more complex than this. Nevertheless, his apparent challenge to traditional assumptions about the objective nature of reality and the possibility of obtaining unbiased knowledge provoked a powerful reaction. The idea that the proletariat had privileged access to the truth was quickly discredited, but the notion that what counted as knowledge in any given time and place was strongly influenced by the interests of the people involved was widely accepted as the basis for an important area of sociological research.

Karl Mannheim (see below) distinguished two tasks for sociologists: the critical examination of particular ideologies; and the study of the total ideology of a society, which was the particular mission of the sociology of knowledge. He argued for the study of all ways of thinking and knowing available to people in particular social and historical situations. What was accepted knowledge? Who decided this? What procedures were used to resolve disputes about truth and error, bias and objectivity, personal beliefs and collective interests?

These questions have been taken up in studies of institutions responsible for creating and transmitting knowledge in modern societies: science, religion, education, the professions, mass media, the arts. Thomas Kuhn, for example (see below), showed the way in which science did not progress by small incremental changes but by periodic revolutions. In ‘normal’ times, powerful cliques defined what counted as scientific truths, incorporated these in textbooks and curricula and denied funding and publication opportunities to anyone who did not share their views. But sometimes their position became intellectually unsustainable and there were brief periods of intense conflict over jobs, money and students before a new orthodoxy was established. The winners inherited the power and the privilege; the losers were written out of the official history of the field.

In recent years, the sociology of knowledge has become absorbed in the general movement of social constructionism, the view that all knowledge of the world is essentially a human creation rather than a mirror of some independent reality. DA

See also critical theory; discourse; dominant ideology; hegemony; ideology; phenomenological sociology; power; social construction of reality; values.Further reading T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; , K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia; , M.F.D. Young (ed.), Knowledge and Control: New Directions in the Sociology of Education.



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