What is knowledge? This may seem self-evident – knowledge is when you know something, as opposed to not knowing it, right? But, as tends to be the case with matters related to human societies, it is a bit more complicated than that. What is considered knowledge varies in relation to the society, historical period, and culture one is living in. To use one of best-known examples, 800 years ago it was accepted knowledge that the Sun rotated around the Earth. Today, we no longer consider this to be true. Sociology, among other things, studies how the social context influences and interacts with how we think about, create, and use knowledge.
Why does it matter that knowledge depends on the society one lives in? Most schools in the UK teach that the universe as we know it was created in a cosmic event known as the Big Bang. However, some schools in the United States also teach that God had created Earth and the rest of the universe, including humans and other forms of life (a belief known as Creation). Why is this the case and how do we deal with this difference? There is no easy answer to this question, but reasons involve the relationship between politics, knowledge, and religion, and how these are reflected in education policies. The job of sociologists and other social scientists is to understand how these and other factors contribute to what we understand and teach as knowledge.
In broadest terms, the relationship between knowledge and social reality is the field of sociology of knowledge. This field of inquiry comprises many sub-fields. Social ontology, for instance, studies human assumptions concerning the nature of reality. Social epistemology is interested in procedures and practices through which humans produce knowledge. Among other things, sociology of education studies how ideas and knowledge are reproduced through education institutions, and how this contributes to social structure. Science and technology studies are interested in the ways the production of scientific knowledge influences (and is influenced by) the social. Some disciplines focus on informal sides of knowledge: for instance, social anthropology studies cognition and implicit systems of classification. There is even agnotology – the study of ignorance!
This resource will help you to:
- Understand the relationship between knowledge, society, and culture;
- Learn more about how sociologists study these relationships;
- Think critically about the role and status of knowledge, including the concept of truth;
- Think about different ways societies frame and use knowledge, including through education.