Sociology of knowledge

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The sociology of knowledge is the study of the social origins of ideas, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies. (Compare history of ideas.)

The term first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists wrote extensively on it, notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim with Ideology and Utopia. With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the 20th century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied much more closely to everyday life in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The social construction of reality (1966) and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society. Compare socially constructed reality.

Although very influential within modern sociology, the sociology of knowledge can claim its most significant impact on science more generally through its contribution to debate and understanding of the nature of science itself, most notably through the work of Thomas Kuhn on The structure of scientific revolutions (see also: paradigm).

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Karl Mannheim

The German political philosophers Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) argued in Die Deutsche Ideologie (1846, German Ideology) and elsewhere that people's ideologies, including their social and political beliefs and opinions, are rooted in their class interests, and more generally in the social and economic circumstances in which they live: "It is men, who in developing their material inter-course, change, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe 1/5).

Under the influence of this doctrine, and of Phenomenology, the Hungarian-born German sociologist Karl Mannheim (18931947) gave impetus to the growth of the sociology of knowledge with his Ideologie und Utopie (1929, translated and extended in 1936 as Ideology and Utopia), although the term had been introduced five years earlier by the co-founder of the movement, the German philosopher and social theorist Max Scheler (18741928), in Versuche zu einer Soziologie des Wissens (1924, Attempts at a Sociology of Knowledge). A strong interpretation claims that all knowledge and beliefs are the products of socio-political forces, but this version is self-defeating, because if it is true, then it too is merely a product of socio-political forces and has no claim to truth and no persuasive force. Mannheim sought to escape this paradox by exempting free-floating intellectuals, whom he claimed were only loosely anchored in social traditions, relatively detached from the class system, and capable of avoiding the pitfalls of total ideologies and of forging a "dynamic synthesis" of the ideologies of other groups.

See also: epistemology, sociology.

Phenomenological sociology

to be written

Michel Foucault

A particularly important strain of the sociology of knowledge is the criticism by Michel Foucault. In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1961, he argued that conceptions of madness and what was considered "reason" or "knowledge" was itself subject to major culture bias - in this respect mirroring similar criticisms by Thomas Szasz, at the time the foremost critic of psychiatry, and himself now an eminent psychiatrist. A point where Foucault and Szasz agreed was that sociological processes played the major role in defining "madness" as an "illness" and prescribing "cures".

In The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, 1963, Foucault extended his critique to all of modern scientific medicine, arguing for the central conceptual metaphor of "The Gaze", which had implications for medical education, prison design, and the carceral state as understood today. Concepts of criminal justice and its intersection with medicine were better developed in this work than in Szasz and others, who confined their critique to current psychiatric practice.

Finally, in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1966, and The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969, Foucault introduced the abstract notions of mathesis and taxonomia. These, he claimed, had transformed 17th and 18th century studies of "general grammar" into modern "linguistics", "natural history" into modern "biology", and "analysis of wealth" into modern "economics". Not, claimed Foucault, without loss of meaning. The 19th century had transformed what knowledge was.

Perhaps Foucault's best-known and most controversial claim was that before the 18th century, "Man did not exist". The notions of humanity and of humanism were inventions or creations of this 19th century transformation. Accordingly, a cognitive bias had been introduced unwittingly into science, by over-trusting the individual doctor or scientist's ability to see and state things objectively. This study still guides the sociology of knowledge and has been claimed to have sparked single-handedly much of postmodernism.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour is a French sociologist of science best known for his books We Have Never Been Modern, Laboratory Life, and Science in Action, describing the process of scientific research from the perspective of social construction based on field observations of working scientists.

The sociology of mathematical knowledge

Studies of mathematical practice and quasi-empiricism in mathematics are also rightly part of the sociology of knowledge, since they focus on the community of those who practice mathematics and their common assumptions. Since Eugene Wigner raised the issue in 1960 and Hilary Putnam made it more rigorous in 1975, the question of why fields such as physics and mathematics should agree so well has been in question. Proposed solutions point out that the fundamental constituents of mathematical thought, space, form-structure, and number-proportion are also the fundamental constituents of physics. It is also worthwhile to note that physics is nothing but a modeling of reality, and seeing causal relationships governing repeatable observed phenomena, and much of mathematics has been developed precisely for the goal of developing these models in a rigorous fashion. Another approach is to suggest that there is no deep problem, that the division of human scientific thinking through using words such as 'mathematics' and 'physics' is only useful in their practical everyday function to categorify and distinguish.

Fundamental contributions to the sociology of mathematical knowledge have been made by Sal Restivo and David Bloor. Restivo draws upon the work of scholars such as Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West, 1926), Raymond L. Wilder and Lesley A. White, as well as contemporary sociologists of knowledge and science studies scholars. David Bloor draws upon Ludwig Wittgenstein and other contemporary thinkers. They both claim that mathematical knowledge is socially constructed and has irreducible contingent and historical factors woven into it. More recently Paul Ernest has proposed a social constructivist account of mathematical knowledge, drawing on the works of both of these sociologists.

An interesting artifact in the sociology of knowledge is the Erdős number (the length of the smallest path in the network of all mathematicians to Paul Erdős).

See also

he:סוציולוגיה של הידע

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