Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge

Karl Marx Portrait
Karl Marx, a theorist whose writings were concerned with the sociology of knowledge. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The sociology of knowledge is a subfield within the discipline of sociology in which researchers and theorists focus on knowledge and knowing as socially grounded processes, and how, therefore, knowledge is understood to be a social production. Given this understanding, knowledge and knowing are contextual, shaped by interaction between people, and fundamentally shaped by one’s social location in society, in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, culture, religion, etc.—what sociologists refer to as “positionality,” and the ideologies that frame one’s life.

Impact of Social Institutions

As socially situated activities, knowledge and knowing are made possible by and shaped by the social organization of a community or society. Social institutions, like education, family, religion, media, and scientific and medical establishments, play fundamental roles in knowledge production. Institutionally produced knowledge tends to be valued more highly in society than popular knowledge, which means that hierarchies of knowledge exist wherein the knowledge and ways of knowing of some are considered more accurate and valid than others. These distinctions often have to do with discourse, or the ways of speaking and writing that are used to express one’s knowledge. For this reason, knowledge and power are considered intimately related, as there is power within the knowledge creation process, power in the hierarchy of knowledge, and especially, power in creating knowledge about others and their communities. In this context, all knowledge is political, and the processes of knowledge formation and of knowing have sweeping implications in a variety of ways.

Prominent Research Areas

Research topics within the sociology of knowledge include and are not limited to:

  • The processes by which people come to know the world, and the implications of these processes
  • The role of the economy and consumer goods in shaping knowledge formation
  • The effects of type of media or mode of communication on knowledge production, dissemination, and knowing
  • The political, economic, social, and environmental implications of hierarchies of knowledge and knowing
  • The relationship between power, knowledge, and inequality and injustice (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, etc.)
  • Formation and spread of popular knowledge that is not institutionally framed
  • The political power of common sense, and the connections between knowledge and social order
  • The connections between knowledge and social movements for change

Theoretical Influences

Interest in the social function and implications of knowledge and knowing exist in the early theoretical work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, as well as that of many other philosophers and scholars from around the world, but the subfield began to congeal as such after Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian sociologist, published Ideology and Utopia in 1936. Mannheim systematically tore down the idea of objective academic knowledge and advanced the idea that one’s intellectual point of view is inherently connected to one’s social position. He argued that truth is something that only exists relationally, because thought occurs in a social context, and is embedded in the values and social position of the thinking subject. He wrote, “The task of the study of ideology, which tries to be free from value-judgments, is to understand the narrowness of each individual point of view and the interplay between these distinctive attitudes in the total social process.” By plainly stating these observations, Mannheim spurred a century of theorizing and research in this vein, and effectively founded the sociology of knowledge.

Writing simultaneously, journalist and political activist Antonio Gramsci made very important contributions to the subfield. Of intellectuals and their role in reproducing the power and domination of the ruling class, Gramsci argued that claims of objectivity are politically loaded claims and that intellectuals, though typically considered autonomous thinkers, produced knowledge reflective of their class positions. Given that most came from or aspired to the ruling class, Gramsci viewed intellectuals as key to the maintenance of rule through ideas and common sense, and wrote, “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

French social theorist Michel Foucault made significant contributions to the sociology of knowledge in the late twentieth century. Much of his writing focused on the role of institutions, like medicine and prison, in producing knowledge about people, especially those considered “deviant.” Foucault theorized the way institutions produce discourses that are used to create subject and object categories that place people within a social hierarchy. These categories and the hierarchies they compose emerge from and reproduce social structures of power. He asserted that to represent others through the creation of categories is a form of power. Foucault maintained that no knowledge is neutral, it is all tied to power and is thus political.

In 1978, Edward Said, a Palestinian American critical theorist and postcolonial scholar, published Orientalism. This book is about the relationships between the academic institution and the power dynamics of colonialism, identity, and racism. Said used historical texts, letters, and news accounts of members of Western empires to show how they effectively created “the Orient” as a category of knowledge. He defined “Orientalism,” or the practice of studying “the Orient,” as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing view of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Said argued that Orientalism and the concept of “the Orient” were fundamental to the creation of a Western subject and identity, juxtaposed against the Oriental other, that was framed as superior in intellect, ways of life, social organization, and thus, entitled to rule and resources. This work emphasized the power structures that shape and are reproduced by knowledge and is still widely taught and applicable in understanding relationships between the global East and West and North and South today.

Other influential scholars in the history of the sociology of knowledge include Marcel Mauss, Max Scheler, Alfred Schütz, Edmund Husserl, Robert K. Merton, and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality).

Notable Contemporary Works

  • Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning from the outsider within: the sociological significance of black feminist thought.” Social Problems, 33(6): 14-32; Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 1990
  • Chandra Mohanty, “Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.” Pp. 17-42 in Feminism without borders: decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Ann Swidler and Jorge Arditi. 1994. “The new sociology of knowledge.” Annual review of sociology, 20: 305-329.
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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 25). Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).