Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you
that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you're not here
to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge
has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information
so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you
to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself,
and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten
it from outside. In fact it's exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin,
perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos...
--William Gaddis, JR, p. 25
According to C. Wright Mills, there is a perspective called the
imagination" that can be used to "frame," or interpret,
perceptions of social life. In part, this imagination features a healthy
skepticism, assuming that social appearances often aren't what they seem.
But even more, this perspective involves an awareness toward the linkages
between history and biography, between social structure and consciousness,
and between "knowledge" and its socio-cultural contexts. It is
this one of this discipline's approaches to critical
Perhaps no where is this imagination so exercised than in the sociology
of knowledge, which studies the social sources and social consequences
of knowledge--how, for instance, social organization shapes both the content
and structure of knowledge or how various social, cultural, political conditions
shield people from truth. It has been argued that the concept of knowledge
is to sociology as the notion of attitude is to psychology: a notion so
central that, in many ways, it is the foundation for the entire discipline.
(Though written nearly 70 years ago,
Robert Merton's description remains one of the best definitions of the
There are at least three broad intellectual traditions of this subdiscipline.
The first attempts to plot how various social and cultural orders spawn
different knowledge systems- -why, for instance, the very discipline of
sociology evolved where and when it did and why the biographies of its
"founding fathers" (e.g., Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Cooley and Mead)
overlap as they do. As the combination of soil and environment determine
the crops a farmer plants as well as their yield, so different types of
knowledge (e.g., religious, political, scientific, everyday) are understood
to differentially flourish within varying social milieus.
In developing precisely how knowledge becomes socially modified, sociologists
have focused on such processes as:
knowledge production: how various combinations of relative institutional
power (i.e., political vs. religious, familial vs. industrial, or print vs. electronic
communications) lead to differences in the social value attributed to, hence differential
expenditures invested into the development of, different knowledge types.
knowledge encoding: is political commentary more effective when graphed, put
into poetry or song, or when presented as a newspaper editorial? how professional
journals impose style constraints; cultural encodings of time and space;
Ebonics in the classroom?
knowledge transmission: enter Marshall McLuhan and how forms of human
communication affect our cognitive habits, social relations, political ideologies, etc.;
impacts of electronic communication
receptivity to hearsay, information, and knowledge: identifying social groups
more likely to believe television than newspaper accounts, or the premises of New Age
decoding: how beliefs determine what we see; how expert status entails
ability to decipher legalese, government gobbledygook, and academic jargon
knowledge/information storage: on the social systems of public memory and
forgetting; lost and/or forgotten knowledge; archives and time capsules; how the form in
which information is stored (i.e., in a folder of written notes vs. in a computerized file; in
qualitative vs. quantitative formats) affects the way in which connections are seen and
knowledge retrieval: the social constructions of history (i.e., collective
observances of the anniversary of Columbus's voyage and the ending of World
War II; implications of the Federal Government's shift from paper to computerized
decision making: are they made on the bases of "facts,"
"gut feelings," or blind ideology? have computer networks made
social decisions more or less democratic?
This causal connection between knowledge and society goes both ways: Not
only does society shape its knowledge but the reverse holds has well. Here one may study
how a new religious message, scientific insight or technological develop alters the social
order, such as how the theory of evolution has spawned social movements or how "scientific management" structures the organization of work or how twentieth century
discoveries of nuclear physicists altered the hierarchy of science and political fundings for
scientific research. Consider, for instance, the proposition that it was a story that kick-
started Western civilization, a story of a shared experience of a natural phenomenon so
extraordinary that humanity felt compelled to preserve it. This compulsion to share stories
may, in fact, be one of those qualities that distinguishes the human primate from all other
animals. Being a symbolic creature, our experienced reality is largely shaped by the meaning of things, "framed" by the beliefs, ideals, and emotions carried by the
commonly shared symbolic containers we call language. When these socially-constructed
frameworks (by which human experiences are commonly parsed and given order) evolve to
the point that they survive through time, we have the seeds of civilization--
which, by definition, is marked by the beginning of preserved stories, the beginning of
recorded history, that time when--by virtue of having writing--a people see themselves as "civilized" and see others without the art as "uncivilized."
Returning to this extraordinary event, consider a nearby star going
supernova, with a luminosity greater than that of a full moon. Indeed, such an event
is referred among humanity's oldest stories, preserved in Sumerian cuneiform and
Egyptian hieroglyphics. The hypothesis of George Michanowsky is that this stellar
explosion over the southern horizon of Mesopotamia triggered the arts of writing and
mathematics, giving rise to the oldest civilizations. He links the event to the Egyptian
goddess Seshat, the inventor of writing ("sesh" remains the Egyptian word for writing) and
mistress of the House of Ankh, whose headdress is a seven-pointed star. He translated the
epithet on Tutankhamun's cartouche as "Ruler of the Southern Star."
An additional tradition of the sociology of knowledge involves the
social psychology of consciousness and belief. This cognitive branch alerts
us to the facts that we live in a second-hand world, that most of what
we "know" is generally received uncritically from others, and
that models of decision-making must take into account the roles of pluralistic
ignorance, emotion, and the bearing of knowledge type (e.g., scientific,
religious, commonsensical) and form (e.g., mystical vs. rational, concrete
vs. speculative) being reflected upon. Here the sociology of knowledge examines
the relationships between mental phenomena and social organization--how,
for example, the oppressed are exploited through "false consciousness,"
how "groupthink" dynamics stifle the creativity of decision-makers,
and how ideologies and stereotypes shape what is perceived. Finally, this
social psychological tradition examines human attachments to belief systems
and how these attachments function in social organizations.
A few years back, former Kennedy insider and ABC newsman Pierre Salinger
had egg on his face when he publicly claimed to have evidence that the
U.S. Navy was responsible for the downing of TWA Flight 800. The evidence,
he claimed, was from "French security" sources. It was, in fact,
a bogus story obtained from the Internet. When a CNN correspondent showed
him the document, Salinger said "Yes, that's it. That's the document.
Where did you get it?"
Indeed, as Chicago Tribune columnist James Coates observed, "America
is awash in a growing and often disruptive avalanche of false information
that takes on a life of its own in the electronic ether of the Internet,
talk radio and voice mail until it becomes impervious to denial and debunking."
The overarching questions of the term include:
What types and forms of knowledge is the Internet best suited for?
In what ways can the Internet foster knowledge development?
Will the Internet lead to the obsolescence of libraries?
How long can this "Wild West" of information remain free
(Ken Wasch, the president of Software Publisher Association, said "Our
greatest fear is that the Internet will become a vehicle of free distribution
of information" [Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 1995])?
A knowing of knowing ... would mean knowing how an artist thinks,
putting a thing together; knowing how a scientist thinks, taking a thing
apart; knowing how a practical man thinks, sizing up a situation; knowing
how a man of understanding thinks, grasping the principle of a thing; knowing
how a man of wisdom thinks, reflecting upon human experience. It could
mean being able to think in all these ways...all in one.
--John Dunne, The Way of All the
Do we really "know" more than our ancient ancestors or
do we live in a time when knowing those who know is what really counts? Thinking of
those things about which you are confident that you truly "know" and
understand, what proportion is based on first-hand experience? What proportion is
second-hand knowledge, those facts and beliefs that you accept as true because they come
from sources that you trust?
EXERCISE: In addition to stories about the downing of TWA Flight
800, there are a number of knowledge claims being made on the Web. Select
one of the following topics, locate on the Web pages making such claims,
and evaluate the "evidence" given:
early batches of polio vaccines were contaminated with the SV40
virus which is why the contemporary epidemics of brain cancer and AIDS--or that
the AIDS epidemic
is actually man-made, either being a conspiracy against minorities and
gays or a scientific experiment that got out of control
the AIDS epidemic is actually man-made, either being a conspiracy
against minorities and gays or a scientific experiment that got out of
"DATA" will be defined as input gathered through the senses;
and "INFORMATION" as integrated data which denotes a significant
change in the environment. Information is converted to "KNOWLEDGE"
by interconnecting it with known concepts and skills as part of achieving
a goal. "WISDOM" is knowledge about knowledge.
--Chris Dede. 1988. "The Role of Hypertext in Transforming
Information into Knowledge." In W.C. Ryan (ed.), Proceedings of the National
Educational Computing Converence '88. Eugene, OR: International Council on Computers in
Knowledge as strategy for successfully predicting,
adapting to, and controlling both physical and social phenomena and
When considering the concept of "knowledge," undoubtedly
this aspect is the first to come to mind. For instance, knowledge of one's
enemies allows a group to anticipate their strategies and to counter their
hostile actions; knowledge of the biochemical workings of deadly viruses
can lead to neutralizing vaccines; knowledge of forthcoming meteorological
disasters has produced wealthy investors in the futures commodities market;
knowledge of emerging cultural trends can make or break those in the apparel,
music, cinema, television, and novelty industries.
Knowledge as Order and Ordering
What does "productivity" mean when you're looking at information? Blaise Pascal
apologized to a correspondent, "I have made this letter longer only because I have not had the
time to make it shorter." The same fact is true of much information work: extra work often
increases the value of the information by reducing its volume. What measure could be used to
assess the productivity of the information worker who works longer to produce
--John Kettle, FutureLetter, Sept. 30,
is order a product of nature or of the mind?
paradigms, metaphors, and gestalt: the mediation of knowledge by
concepts and classification schemes
institutions as structurers of objective reality
belief systems: their sources and our standards for accessing them;
We can choose to use our growing knowledge to enslave people in ways
never dreamed of before de-personalizing them, controlling them by means
so carefully selected that they will perhaps never be aware of their loss
--Carl Rogers, humanistic
Here we develop a sense of knowledge that is less concerned with
the properties of knowledge per se but more directly concerned with its
social implications--how, for instance, knowledge is used as a mechanism
of social control.
ideology and class dynamics: types of legitimation; false consciousness;
cognitive policemen; lessons from Lenin and the Third Reich
persuasion: According to Plato in Rhetoric, this is the key
secret knowledge: hidden "truths;" shamans and experts
Types of knowledge and criteria for their
Borhek and Curtis's (A Sociology of Belief) classifications of belief systems: values, criteria
of validation, logic, perspective, substantive beliefs, prescriptions and
proscriptions, and related technology
Georges Gurvitch and the interactions between knowledge types and
--the knowledge types: the perceptual world (time, space), knowledge of we and other,
common-sense, technical, political, scientific, and
--knowledge forms differentially emphasized within each knowledge type:
mystical-rational; empirical-conceptual; positive-speculative;
--aspects of social groups that influence the knowledge type-form associations
Consciousness, social reality, and knowledge as social products
is "truth" absolute or relative?
the history of ideas
intellectual traditions: Saint-Simon ("the production of ideas
occurs within the structure of every society"), Marx and Engels
(the ideological hegemony of the elite and the facade of legitimacy), Durkheim
(the "collective representations" of the masses), Scheler (historicism),
Nietzsche ("art of mistrust), Mannheim ("systematization of doubt")
Encodings for transmission and decision-making
sorting and labeling
symbols and semeiotics
mathematics as a way of knowing: when do numbers speak louder than
the social parsings of space, time and temperature
Why does the United States refuse to go on the metric
system? The country was supposed to be measured in meters and
kilos by 1980. What happened? Look at the venom the measures
generate. At metricsucks.com
we learn it is the source of many of the world's problems, including
Starbucks coffee, rap music, Jerry Springer and government
Of temperature, Daniel Boorstin observes in The Discoverers: "Others
all over Europe were now beginning to speak the language of machines,
parsing experience by novel grammars of measurements. Familiar
experience was transformed. Nothing was more remarkable than the new
way of thinking about heat and cold. Hot and cold, dry and moist, were
distinctions obvious to the touch. According to the ancient Greeks,
these qualities combined to make the earth, air, fire, and water of which
the whole world was made. Just as today we treat odors or tastes as
different kinds rather than different quantities, so it then was, as we have
seen, with temperature" (p. 369).
a good story of the rise and fall of a new system for time reckoning, read
about the French
matters of language translation: is it ever possible?
An interesting case study can be made of U.S. intelligence
attempts in the mid-1990s to force all of our computers to be equipped with
the Clipper chip, an encryption chip that would allow law enforcement to decrypt all data
passing through our systems. A nice touch, revealed in released
documents, obtained in 2001 through the Freedom of Information Act, was the
proposal to share this technology with such close allies as China, Pakistan
StegoArchive.Com "Steganography simply takes one piece of information and hides it within another.
Computer files (images, sounds recordings, even disks) contain unused or
insignificant areas of data. Steganography takes advantage of these areas,
replacing them with information (encrypted mail, for instance). The files can
then be exchanged without anyone knowing what really lies inside of them. An
image of the space shuttle landing might contain a private letter to a friend. A
recording of a short sentence might contain your company's plans for a secret
Center for Social Informatics--involving
"the body of research and study that examines social aspects of
computerization -- including the roles of information technology in social
and organizational change, the uses of information technologies in social
contexts, and the ways that the social organization of information
technologies is influenced by social forces and social practices."
According to their 2000 "How Much
Information?" study, a research team from
the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of
California at Berkeley estimates "the world's total yearly production of
print, film, optical, and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5
billion gigabytes of storage. This is the equivalent of 250 megabytes per person
for each man, woman, and child on earth."
where our knowledge comes from -- censorship; on being overhead;
killing the bearer of bad news
. Four years later the battles between
monopolistic journal publishers (esp. Elsevier) ,
libraries, authors and reviewers were intensifying. Faculty promotion
typically requires peer review. For a number of journals, authors must pay
to have their article reviewed. Reviewers, on the other hand, generally
are not paid for their efforts. If author's article is accepted for
publication, he or she typically must surrender ownership of their work to the
publisher. Meanwhile, the libraries of the institutions for which
the reviewers and authors work receive no price break for the journals their
faculty helped produce. What's wrong with this picture? For greater
detail, see "Reshaping
the World of Scholarly Communication--Open Access and the Free Online
Scholarship Movement." To assess the value of journals based on the price per citation of their articles see Carl Bergstrom's Eigenfactor.org and Ted Bergstrom's journal pricing page.
Receptivity/sensoring and decoding/interpreting;
According to Reading at
Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (Research Division Report
#46 of the National Endowment for the Arts, June 2004), 47.6% of American
adults (and only 37.6% of males) read literature in 2002, down from 56.9% in
1982. More than four in ten did not read a book of any kind.
the social psychology of perceptual biases and distortions
information overloads and the perceptual biases of social groups:
According to the University of California-Berkeley study "How
Much Information? 2003," the quantity of new information produced in 2002
was five exabytes, equal in size to one-half million libraries each containing a
quantity of digitized information equal in size to the entire print
collection in the Library of Congress! Who decides how much of this
information glut is worth preserving? In what format is it best preserved
to allow easy retrieval--and perhaps knowledge to be gleaned from it?
"Exploring Charging Models for Digital Cultural Heritage" goal is "to investigate some of the underlying assumptions being made in the move from
previously analog photographic services into the realm of digital capture and
delivery, in particular to look at how marketable, cost efficient and
income-stable the new digital services and resources are in comparison with
IN PERSONAL AND INSTITUTIONAL
Applications to Religion: Morality, Ethics and
Religious knowledge has long been a favorite case study for practitioners
of the sociology of knowledge. As a knowledge type, religion gives recipes
for ways of making sense out of life's ultimate frustrations and existential
dilemmas. As Durkheim observed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious
Life "Religious conceptions have as their object, before anything
else, to express and explain, not that which is exceptional and abnormal
in things, but, on the contrary, that which is constant and regular."
Think about Americans' responses to the following question: Which
of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the
The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally,
word for word.
The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should
be taken literally, word for word.
The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral
precepts recorded by men.
Prediction time. What percent of Americans do you believe believe
that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally? How would
you believe this belief various across the spectrum of Christian faiths?
Are strongly religious persons more or less likely to agree? What is the
relationship between education and the likelihood of holding this belief?
Ready? Click here to see the relationships.
Intriguing, no? It brings to mind the parallel between the Catholic
doctrine of papal infallibility and the Protestants' position of scriptural
inerrancy--both extreme matters of faith. As Robert Bellah observed, only
in the West does belief in the sense of assent to the truth of specific
dogmas been regarded as essential to faith. Among the many possible research
topics in the sociology of religious knowledge:
Marx on the ideological advantages of the elite; knowledge as enhancing
the legitimacy and authority of those with power
on democracy and an informed citizenry
Science and politics have traditionally had an uneasy relationship but
rarely to the degree of the 2004 Presidential election. More than 4,000
scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners, signed a statement opposing
President Bush's administration's use of scientific knowledge.
polity as a memory system: on the social construction of the American
bicentennial, the Texas sesquicentennial, and glasnost and Soviet
the political economy of "brain
drains," where core nations import the cognitive laborers of
developing nations, thereby retarding their nascent modern
industries (see also the UN Development Programme's Human
Development Report 2001)
information control: censorship and secrets of state; from the Homeland
Security folks- the Information
Awareness Office. And just wait until the Pentagon's LifeLog
project comes on line.
classified, declassified and reclassified documents; see
The National Security Archive at
George Washington University for collections of declassified information
the politics of scientific and technological knowledge
Research question: As top engineers and scientists flee large corporations and
the dot.coms following the economic collapse of the latter and the “consolidations”
by mergers between the former, dispersing talent and destroying research
teams, what will be the impact of such flights on the quality of the nation’s R&D?
The Information Warfare Site--"an online resource that aims to stimulate debate about a range of
subjects from information security to information operations and e-commerce. It is the aim of the site to
develop a special emphasis on offensive and defensive information operations."
Alan Sokal Hoax: a physicist writes a parody on "left-wing" scholarship's contention
that social, cultural, and political conditions dominate truth. His article, which questions the
reality of gravity, gets published as a serious piece in a postmodern journal and sets off a
creationism, sex education, women's studies: the textbook controversies
in the politics of education
stigmatized knowledge: on parapsychology, life after death experiences
Self Knowledge and the Maintenance of
family as personal archives; scrapbooks and diaries
the social construction of the stages of life
control over body knowledge: the tension between the symbolic and