The question of knowledge has been an uncanny presence throughout the history of sociology. Hovering just out of sight and out of touch, the question is often treated as an unwelcome guest in a science that prefers to live in the present of refined empirical methods and theoretical advancement. The comforts of the settled institutional status accorded sociology, and the relative prosperity of the social sciences in relation to the neighboring humanities from which they emerged in the nineteenth-century, leads to a disinclination within the discipline to revisit a question that had to be addressed at its founding. In the present state of the field, the doxa of method, the fetish of methodology, and the primacy of statistical techniques in the collection and analysis of data, does not include, except in unusual cases, moments of reflection on the most basic question: what is knowledge? An answer to this question appears self-evident, hence rendering the question irrelevant. Knowledge is what the science of society aims for, like all other sciences, and its particular contribution to science is knowledge of society. In this definition, knowledge is the thing, a substance, a body of information. Ideally, this information is reliable, objective, unbiased by subjective whim, and untainted by political agenda. And it is tested by the rigours of methodical investigation. The value of reliability and objectivity, and the priority of methodological procedures modeled on those of the natural sciences is taken for granted. A first year sociology graduate student with undergraduate training in history is informed, in matter of fact terms, that history is not a science because it lacks variables. And just as a first year law student comes to view the world through the lens of torts and contracts, the former history student puts aside an intellectual vision based on narratively ordered events in favor of one that sees independent and dependent variables at work everywhere.
A sociologist studies society, a sociologist does sociology, a sociologist achieves sociological knowledge of society: this common sense of sociology, is, of course, uncommon, and not only for the reason that it must be impressed upon each new cohort of aspiring sociologists. The taking of society as an object of study is a restricted activity; the doing of sociology does not occur naturally; and the significance of sociological knowledge is contested, by other types of knowledge and by forces outside the domain of higher education. Hence, the question of knowledge, an uninvited guest at the feast of sociological wisdom, persists in seeking a place at the table. But this apparently innocuous question, made noxious by the relative youth of sociology as a field of inquiry and its uncertain claim to scientificity, leads to a less than straightforward answer. Several entries under knowledge appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrating the depth of the problem.
I. Acknowledgement or recognition.
Recognition; the fact of recognizing someone or something already known or known about, or of being recognized
II. The fact or condition of knowing something.
The fact of knowing or being acquainted with a thing, person, etc.; acquaintance; familiarity gained by experience
The faculty of understanding or knowing; intelligence, intellect
With of. The fact or state of having a correct idea or understanding of something; the possession of information about something. Also with indefinite article; formerly also in pl.
As a count noun. An act of apprehending something with the mind; a perception, intuition, intimation, etc. rare.
Perception by means of the senses.
The fact or state of knowing that something is the case; the condition of being aware or cognizant of a fact, state of affairs, etc. (expressed or implied); awareness, consciousness
Chiefly with of. The fact or condition of having acquired a practical understanding or command of, or competence or skill in, a particular subject, language, etc., esp. through instruction, study, or practice; skill or expertise acquired in a particular subject, etc., through learning. Freq. with indefinite article. Formerly also with †in or infinitive.
Without construction: the fact or condition of having become conversant with a body of facts, principles, methods, etc.; scholarship, learning, erudition.
III. The object of knowing; something known or made known.
As a count noun. A thing which is or may be known; esp. a branch of learning; a science; an art.
As a mass noun. That which is known; the sum of what is known.
In the context of the English language, knowledge is taken to connote recognition of something that is known (I), a condition of knowing (II) and an object of knowing (III). Under I, recognition is understood as acknowledgement: knowledge means the acknowledgment of something (e.g., I know that author; I know that street; I recognize that song). This meaning of knowledge is likely the least significant for the question of sociological knowledge; mere acknowledgment of something remains at a superficial level. Under II, knowledge as a condition of knowing is directly relevant, as the sub-entries indicate: knowledge is a faculty of knowing, otherwise understood as intelligence and intellect. This meaning is, however, further qualified. Knowledge in this sense connotes having a correct idea about something (such as having correct information), an act of apprehending something with the mind (including distinct types of action: perception, intuition, or intimation), as perception of something from the senses, as a skill or competence (knowledge as an ability to do something, e.g., knowledge of the German language), and as a condition of erudition or scholarship (of knowing facts, principles, and methods). Finally, under III, knowledge connotes an object: it is the thing that is or might be known (e.g., the “history of France” or “comparative literature”).
When one turns to representative studies in the sociology of knowledge, however, the absence of a definition of knowledge is apparent. In his classic study Ideology & Utopia (1929), Karl Mannheim doesn’t define knowledge as such. Rather he identifies the problem of the sociology of knowledge as “how men actually think” and its object of study as “modes of thought” (Mannheim 1985:1, 2). In a case study of “insider and outsider” knowledge, Robert Merton argues that the “sociology of knowledge has long been regarded as a complex and esoteric subject,” removed from contemporary social life,” but that “to some of us, it seems quite the opposite way” (Merton 1972:9). Nonetheless, Merton echoes Mannheim in describing the sociology of scientific knowledge as the“reciprocal connections between thought and society” (Merton 1972:10). In a survey of the “new” sociology of knowledge, Ann Swidler and Jorge Arditi distinguish it from its predecessor. Following Mannheim, they note that the “traditional sociology of knowledge focussed on formal systems of ideas, concentrating especially on such matters as the world-views and politics of intellectuals.” In contrast, contemporary sociology and cultural studies “suggests that formal systems of ideas are linked to broader cultural patterns – what we might think of as social consciousness. We focus not only on the ideas developed by knowledge specialists, but also on structures of knowledge or consciousness that shape the thinking of laypersons.” Consequently the new sociology of knowledge “examines how kinds of social organization make whole orderings of knowledge possible, rather than focussing in the first instance on the differing social locations and interests of individuals or groups. . . .It also expands the field of study from an examination of the contents of knowledge to the investigation of forms and practices of knowing” (Swidler and Arditi 1994 :306). This description of the new approach is detailed with respect to objects, but its definition of “knowledge” is still wanting. If “thought” is knowledge, one can ask whether all thoughts are knowledge: for instances do daydreams count as knowledge? Insofar as the newer sociology of knowledge posits knowledge and knowing, it offers only a partial definition because what is known is held in abeyance.
In the neighboring discipline of anthropology, one can find a more elaborated definition of knowledge. Dan Sperber writes of anthropological knowledge from the point of view of the anthropologist. “The knowledge an anthropologist acquires in the field takes on two forms: documents and intuitions.” Returning from the field, the anthropologist “brings back a field diary, linguistic files, an herbarium, maps, sketches, photographs, tapes, genealogies, interview protocols, and notebooks filled with remarks scribbled on his knees in the darkness of a smoky hut . . .” (Sperber 1985:5-6). How does Sperber define the object of what I would call the archive of the anthropologist? He asserts that “these sundry documents are the product and the traces of a coherent experience” (Sperber 1985:6). However, he goes on to lament the consequence of the need to condense an experience that often takes place over several years in a written text. “Between what the anthropologists have learned and what they manage to convey, great is the loss of knowledge” (Sperber 1985:6). Knowledge, in this account, is the product of the anthropologist’s experience which takes the physical form of an archive and the textual form of a research monograph. In other words, knowledge is that which the anthropologist is able to experience and to communicate in writing to a reading public that is unlikely to have directly shared this experience.
Mannheim, Karl. 1985. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge . San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Merton, Robert K. 1972. “Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1 (July): 9-47.
Sperber, Dan. 1985. On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Swidler, Ann and Jorge Arditi. 1994. “The New Sociology of Knowledge.” Annual Review of Sociology, 20: 305-329.