Sociology of Knowledge Essay

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The sociology of knowledge examines the social and group origin of ideas, arguing that the entire ”ideational realm” (”knowledges,” ideas, ideologies, mentalities) develops within the context ofa society’s groups and institutions. Its ideas address broad sociological questions about the extent and limits of social and group influence through an examination of the social and cultural foundations of cognition and perception. Despite significant changes over time, classical and contemporary studies in the sociology of knowledge share a common theme: the social foundations of thought. Ideas, concepts, and belief systems share an intrinsic sociality explained by the contexts in which they emerge.

From its origins in German sociology in the 1920s, sociology of knowledge has assumed that ideas (knowledge) emerge out of and are determined by the social contexts and positions (structural locations) of their proponents. Its major premise is that the entire ideational realm is functionally related to sociohistorical reality. Outlined in early statements by Max Scheler (1980) and Karl Mannheim (1952), the new discipline reflected the intellectual needs of an era, to bring both rationality and objectivity to bear on the problems of intellectual and ideological confusion. It was in this sense that the sociology of knowledge has been described as a discipline that reflected a new way of understanding ”knowledge” within a modern and ideologically pluralistic setting. What we believe that we know varies with the cognitive operations of human minds and these vary by community, class, culture, nation, generation, and so forth. While Scheler’s original essays provoked commentary and debate, it was Mannheim’s formulation of the discipline in Ideology and Utopia that defined the subject matter of the field for years to come.

Mannheim’s treatise begins with a review and critique of Marxism and proceeds toward a theory of ideology in the broader sense: the mental structure in its totality as it appears in different currents of thought and across different social groups. This ”total conception of ideology” examines thought on the structural level, allowing the same object to take on different (group) aspects. This understanding of ideology refers to a person’s, group’s, or society’s way of conceiving things situated within particular historical and social settings. Like ideologies, ”utopias” arise out of particular social and political conditions, but are distinguished by their opposition to the prevailing order. Utopias are the embodiment of ”wish images” in collective actions that shatter and transform social worlds.

Werner Stark’s The Sociology of Knowledge (1991), first published in 1958, prompted a major advancement and redirection of the field. It argued for the embedding of sociology of knowledge within the larger field of cultural sociology. Stark’s book clarified the principal themes of earlier writers, especially sociologists, who had addressed the problem of the social element in thinking. He also intended it to serve as an introduction to the field that would prepare the way for a detailed and comprehensive history of the sociology of knowledge and its most significant ideas: theories of ideology of Marx and Mannheim; philosophical speculations of the neo-Kantians Heinrich Rickert and Max Weber; views of the German phenomenological school of the 1920s, especially Scheler.

Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) moved the field further away from theoretical knowledge or ideas and toward the (pre-theoretical) knowledge that social actors draw from in everyday life. Their treatise also redirected the traditional theory of social determination of ideas by social realities: social reality itself is a construct. It integrated the perspectives of classical European social thought (Marx, Durkheim, Weber) with the social psychology of the American pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead, thereby advancing Meadian social psychology as a theoretical complement to European sociology of knowledge. What the authors proposed was that knowledge and social reality exist in a reciprocal or dialectical relationship of mutual constitution, thereby subsuming knowledges within a framework of interpretation, a hermeneutics concerned with the symbolic and signifying operations of knowledges.

More recently, the ”new sociology of knowledge” can be seen as part of this larger movement in the social sciences, distinguished by a turn away from materialism and social structure toward semi-otic theories that focus on the ways in which a society’s meanings are communicated and reproduced. Swidler and Arditi (1994) focus on how social organizations (e.g., the media) order knowledges, rather than examining social locations and group interests. In light of new theories of social power and practice (Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu), they also examine how knowledges maintain social hierarchies and how techniques of power are simultaneously and historically linked to knowledges.


  1. Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality. Doubleday, New York.
  2. McCarthy, E. D. (1996) Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology ofKnowledge. Routledge, New York.
  3. Mannheim, K. (1952) [1925] The problem of a sociology of knowledge. In: Mannheim, K., Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. P. Kecskemeti. Harcourt, Brace, & World, New York, pp. 134-90.
  4. Scheler, M. (1980) [1924] Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge,    M.   S.   Frings.   Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  5. Stark, W. (1991) [1958] The Sociology of Knowledge, intro. E. D. McCarthy. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ.
  6. Swidler, A. & Arditi, J. (1994) The new sociology of knowledge. Annual Review of Sociology 20: 305-29.

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