Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you The Universe and Man 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 "sociological 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 thinking.

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 field.)

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:

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."

Alex Boese's The Museum of Hoaxes 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:


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 Earth


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?

Rationality and Culture Difference
Social Construction of Reality
Sorokin essay "The Integral Theory of Truth and Reality"

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:

The Bermuda Triangle
Area 51/Groom Lake


"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 Education.

Knowledge as strategy for successfully predicting, adapting to, and controlling both physical and social phenomena and change

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 Perspective

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 less?

--John Kettle, FutureLetter, Sept. 30, 1985

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Home Page for James Daugherty's New Paradigms Project
Unified Concept of Information
The Common Theory Project - 0024

Knowledge as property

living in the information age with informational transactionalism: spies, copyrights, plagiarism, the public domain and the Freedom of Information Act

The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age from the National Academy of Sciences
World Intellectual Property Organization
The WTO and the TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) Agreement 
Copyright Search from the US Copyright Office, search for ownership of rights in three major databases: serials, documents, and such registered works as films, music, software, and works of art
Bryan Alexander's "The Digital Millenium Copyright Act: Licensing the Commons"
Yahoo! Intellectual Property links
Hall Davidson's "The Educator's Guide to Copyright and Fair Use", which comes with The Copyright Quiz
Stanford's Copyrights and Fair Use Directory
Copyright Resources on the Internet
Colgate course "Talent, Society and the State: Defining and Regulating Intellectual Property
Intellectual Property Magazine
The Copyright Website
IPO - Intellectual Property Owners
Cyberspace Law and Policy
Franklin Pierce Law Center Home Page
Hot Property: A Comprehensive Multimedia Law Site re Intellectual Property
Wacky Patents of the Month

Knowledge as power & control

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 of personhood.

--Carl Rogers, humanistic psychologist

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.

RhetNet from University of Missouri
The Nobel Prize e-Museum

Types of knowledge and criteria for their classification


Consciousness, social reality, and knowledge as social products

Lessons from social psychology

The social patternings of perception, thought, memory, and decision-making

W. I.Thomas
excerpts from Harold Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology

Language, thought, and meaning: perceiving, interpreting and describing a typical world

How social institutions channel perception and thought


Knowledge production, discovery, and application

Data on the Top American Research Universities
Listing of Guggenheim recipients
Nobel Winners Archive
TRIZ Theory of Inventive Problem Solving
Pulitzer Prize Winners Archive
The MacArthur Foundation
Knowledge creation and technological innovation are often not planned. There is the serendipity factor. Ken Chowder's "Eureka!" (Smithsonian, Sept. 2003)
Joseph Rouse - What Are Cultural Studies of Scientific Knowledge? - Configurations 1:1

Encodings for transmission and decision-making processes; sorting and labeling

Knowledge transmission and dissemination

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."
Create Change: A resource for faculty and librarian action to reclaim scholarly communication
Origins of Writing class project of David F. Lancy's Utah State anthropology class
Dianne Tillotson's Medieval Writing
Clay Tablets - The Ancient Art of Writing
Storytelling: The Art of Knowledge develops the importance of sharing narratives in six Canadian Native communities
The History of Printing
KB7QOP's Morse Code Page
Forbes ASAP: Telecosm Archive
The Babbage Institute for Knowledge and Information Technology
Essays on Information Technology
Social and Economic Implications of Information Technologies: A Bibliographic Database Pilot Project (NSF)
Yahoo links on:Censorship and the Net
Know Your Enemies
Project Censored

Receptivity/sensoring and decoding/interpreting; feedback mechanisms

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.
Memetics Index
Paleography defined

Storage and Retrieval: Social memory systems

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?  Other topics:

Conceptualizing decision-making units and processes: On how knowledge is put into use


Applications to Religion: Morality, Ethics and Pluralism

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 Bible?

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:

Applications to political systems

U.S. State Department's "Identifying Misinformation"
Banned Books On-line
The File Room Censorship Archive home page
gonzo links "the best of the broadband apolcalypse"
Conspiracy Central:
Alex Constantine's Political Conspiracy Research Bin
Conspiracies & Hoaxes's Conspiracy Page
Hugh's HAARP Info Page

Applications to the military

Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)--DoD Agency Responsible for Information Technology
military secrecy--great connecting sites!
Central Intelligence Agency Home Page
Loyola Intelligence Homepage
Yahoo! - Government:Military:Technology Transfer
Rand Corporation -- Hot Topics

With a focus on "Information Warfare"

Col. Richard Szafranski's "A Theory of Information Warfare" from Wanja Eric Naef's Information Warfare Site
Institute for the Advanced Study of Information Warfare
John Pike's Information Warfare and Information Security on the Web
Yahoo's listings

Applications to Science and Medicine