sociology of knowledge

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sociology of knowledge

the branch of sociology that studies the social processes involved in the production of knowledge. It is concerned with the understanding and explanation of knowledge in particular cases, and with the relations between the general form(s) of knowledge and social structure, including both the effects of knowledge and any social forces which condition either the form or the content of knowledge.

In a general sense, the sociology of knowledge (which may include among its subject matter all ideas and ‘beliefs’, as well as knowledge in a more exact sense, e.g. scientific knowledge or ‘true’ knowledge) is an integral part of many general theories in sociology, e.g. Comte's LAW OF THREE STAGES in the intellectual and social development of society. As such, the boundaries of the sociology of knowledge are not tight. It either includes or overlaps related branches of sociological study, such as the SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE, the SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION, the SOCIOLOGY OF ART and literature.

A further distinction often made is between the sociology of knowledge and EPISTEMOLOGY, the theory of theories of knowledge in philosophy As illustrated by Comte's POSITIVISM, this boundary has not always been accepted in sociology Durkheim's contribution was to suggest that a basic analogue exists between our fundamental modes of thought, e.g. our concepts of space and time, and our basic forms of social organization, especially our concepts of society. In recent years there has also been a strong movement within philosophy itself to approach epistemological questions in sociological ways, e.g. the work of KUHN on science.

Early approaches in the sociology of knowledge tended to be dominated by issues raised by Marxism. According to Marx and Engels, knowledge is often distorted by class interests. Thus the sociology of knowledge as initiated by Marxism focused mainly on the economic determination of leading ideas in a particular epoch or social formation (see also BASE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE, IDEOLOGY).

This approach was both challenged and built upon by Karl MANNHEIM, who argued that group membership and social location of many kinds, not just class and economic interests, act in ways which condition the formation and outcome of knowledge. Marxism itself was also seen as no exception to this rule. One important distinction made by Mannheim was between ‘realistic’, ‘ideological’ and ‘utopian’ forms of knowledge. The social conditions conducive to each of these were also identified. Mannheim also wanted to overcome the tendency to RELATIVISM in the sociology of knowledge. His suggestion was that the knowledge accepted by socially unlocated, ‘free floating’ intellectuals might provide the answer.

Mannheim was not alone in thinking that the sociology of knowledge must not confine itself to uncovering the social basis of’false’ claims to knowledge, but should try to contribute also to our identification of the social basis of’true’ knowledge. The work of Comte or Marx also stands four square with Mannheim in taking this no longer accepted view. The same objective is also uppermost in major attempts at synthesis in modern sociology, such as HABERMAS's model of three types of’knowledge interests’, or in modern sociological forms of scientific REALISM. If it cannot be said that sociology has solved such problems of knowledge in a once and for all way, neither is it the case that it has conceded the ground to outright relativism (see also POSTMODERNISM).

Today the sociology of knowledge is pursued at many levels, in particular in studies in the sociology of science, and in studies of the social construction of everyday knowledge (see SOCIAL PHENOMENOLOGY, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY).

Sociology of Knowledge


a direction of theoretical and empirical research that investigates the social nature of knowledge; the sociohistorical conditionality of knowledge, knowledge acquisition, and consciousness; and the social aspects of the production, dissemination, and use of various types of knowledge by society as a whole and by specific classes, social groups, and organizations.

The classics of Marxism-Leninism have treated the main issues in the sociology of knowledge: the theory of the social essence and conditionality of consciousness, the historical nature of knowledge acquisition, and the methodology for studying these topics. Marxism-Leninism has established the existence of multidimensional varieties of consciousness, characterized by the presence of various forms and levels and the degree to which they adequately reflect reality; it has also discovered the general laws of development and the class roots of ideology. The Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the social nature of knowledge and knowledge acquisition contrasts with both a naturalistic interpretation and vulgar sociologism.

Bourgeois sociology of knowledge emerged in the 1920’s as a relatively independent research field through the efforts of M. Scheler and K. Mannheim in Germany and P. Sorokin, F. Znaniecki, T. Parsons, R. Merton, A. Child, C. W. Mills, W. Stark, P. Berger, and T. Luckmann in the USA. Bourgeois sociology of knowledge, which exhibits a great variety of theoretical and methodological approaches, has borrowed from Marxism the concept of the social conditionality of consciousness. The Marxist notion is interpreted, however, either in a distinctly idealist manner or in the spirit of a narrowly defined determinism (technological, organizational, linguistic). Bourgeois sociologists ignore the role of sociohistorical practice in the formation of consciousness and usually exclude knowledge in the natural sciences from the sphere of social determination. Bourgeois sociology of knowledge is to a great extent directed against Marxism-Leninism.

In its investigation of the history of thought, types of world view and cultures, and ideas and their originators and exponents, bourgeois sociology of knowledge views social factors mainly as distorting the process of cognition; these factors include social status, class position, ideology, and values. This is related to the tendency, which predominated until the late 1960’s, to see science and ideology as opposed to each other and to “purify” knowledge from value judgments; this was reflected in the concepts of “deideologization” and the “end of ideology.” An opposite tendency that has gained considerable influence since the late 1960’s, particularly in the USA, stresses the relativism of scientific knowledge and the ideological nature of science. The empirical investigation of states of consciousness (public sentiments and opinions) among various classes and social, occupational, and other groups emphasizes the functional nature of the interrelations between the individual’s consciousness and his immediate surroundings. Bourgeois sociologists of knowledge are of various political and ideological orientations and range from open apologists to proponents of bourgeois-democratic ideas. Bourgeois sociology of knowledge as a whole is characterized by a chronic crisis in its philosophic and methodological principles, which is reflected in the constant replacement of these principles and in sharp internal controversies. On the other hand, the empirical findings of bourgeois sociology merit attention, as do its techniques and procedures for collecting material.

Marxist sociology of knowledge studies the methodological problems of the sociological approach to consciousness and the cognitive process, the sociohistorical nature of the acquisition of knowledge, and the way class and society condition the objective reflection of reality and its distorted, illusory forms—”false consciousness.” It also critically examines the various concepts of bourgeois sociology of knowledge. In addition, it studies the mechanisms of cognitive activity and the appearance and functioning of various types of knowledge, sentiments, opinions, and convictions among social groups and collectives.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K. “K kritike politicheskoi ekonomii: Predislovie.” Ibid., vol. 13.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokrititsizm. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed.,vol. 18.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Ibid., vol. 29.
Kelle, V. Zh., and M. la. Koval’zon. Formy obshchestvennogo soznaniia.
Moscow, 1959. Mamardashvili, M. K. Formy i soderzhanie myshleniia. Moscow, 1968.
Moskvichev, L. N. Teoriia “deideologizatsii”: illiuzii i deistvitel’nost’. Moscow, 1971.
Megrelidze, K. R. Osnovnye problemy sotsiologii myshleniia [2nd ed.]. Tbilisi, 1973.
Leninskaia teoriia otrazheniia i sovremennaia nauka, fase. 3: Teoriia otrazheniia i obshchestvoznanie. Sofia, 1973.
Rebane, la. K. “O nekotorykh metodologicheskikh printsipakh otsenki burzhuaznoi ’sotsiologii znaniia.’ “Uch. zap. Tartuskogo gos. universiteta: Trudypofilosofii, 1974, issue 17.
The Sociology of Knowledge: A Reader. Edited by J. Curtis and I. Petras. New York, 1970.
Friedrichs, R. Sociology of Sociology. New York, 1970.


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