Modern Societies as Knowledge Societies

Nico Stehr. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

New social realities require a new perspective. In advanced societies, the capacity of the individual to say no has increased considerably. At the same time, the ability of the large social institutions that have significantly shaped the nature of the twentieth century to get things done has diminished in the past couple of decades. Or, appropriating Adolp Lowe’s (1971: 563) astute insights, we are witnessing a change from social realities in which ‘things,’ at least from the point of view of most individuals simple ‘happened’ to a social world in which more and more things are ‘made’ to happen. In this contribution, these new realities are described as representing the emergence of advanced societies as knowledge societies.

I will describe some of these transformations that constitute a real and unprecedented gain from the perspective of the individual and small groups but also what may be described as a rise in the fragility of society. The stress on rights and the growing ability to assert and claim such rights is one of the salient manifestations of the transformations I examine. The same developments are responsible for a crisis in mastering, planning and managing common problems and for a decline in the sense of individual responsibilities. However, there is a trade-off; the decline in the steering capacity of large social institutions and their growing difficulty in imposing their will on society leads to a rise of the importance and efficacy of civil society.

First, I will refer to the concept of knowledge societies and examine the notion of knowledge. I propose to define knowledge as a capacity to act. I will describe the reasons for the importance of scientific knowledge as one among various forms of knowledge in advanced societies. I also examine the limits to the power of scientific knowledge as well as the emergence of the fastest growing segment of the labor force, namely knowledge-based occupations. The transformation of modern societies into knowledge societies manifests itself most importantly in the sphere of economic activities. I therefore describe some of the features of the changing economy before turning to those consequences of the advancing ‘knowledgeability’ of actors in modern society that give rise to the growing fragility of modern society.


John Stuart Mill, in The Spirit of the Age (1831), published after his return to England from France, where he had encountered the political thinking of the Saint-Simonians and of the early Comte, affirms his conviction that the intellectual accomplishments of his own age make social progress somehow inevitable (cf. Cowen and Shenton, 1996: 35-41). But progress in the improvement of social conditions is not, Mill argues, the outcome of an ‘increase in wisdom’ or of the collective accomplishments of science. It is rather linked to a general diffusion of knowledge:

Men may not reason better, concerning the great questions in which human nature is interested, but they reason more. Large subjects are discussed more, and longer, and by more minds. Discussion has penetrated deeper into society; and if greater numbers than before have attained the higher degree of intelligence, fewer grovel in the state of stupidity, which can only co-exist with utter apathy and sluggishness. (Mill, [1831] 1942: 13)

Mill’s observations in the mid-nineteenth century, a period he regarded as an age of moral and political transition, and in particular his expectation that increased individual choice (and hence emancipation from ‘custom’) will result from a broad diffusion of knowledge and education, strongly resonate with the notion of present-day society—the social structure that is emerging as industrial society gives way—as a ‘knowledge society.’

The foundation for the transformation of modern societies into knowledge societies is to a significant extent also based, as was the case for industrial society, on changes in the structure of the economies of advanced societies. Economic capital—or, more precisely, the source of economic growth and value-adding activities—increasingly relies on knowledge. The transformation of the structures of the modern economy by knowledge as a productive force constitutes the ‘material’ basis and justification for designating advanced modern society as a ‘knowledge society.’ The significance of knowledge grows in all spheres of life and in all social institutions of modern society.

Knowledge Societies

Both the greatly enhanced social, political and economic significance of science and technology and the often narrow, even scientistic conception of knowledge generated by modern science call for a careful sociological analysis of knowledge itself. Knowledge has, of course, always had a major function in social life.1 That human action is knowledge-based might even be regarded as an anthropological constant. Social groups, social situations, social interaction and social roles all depend on, and are mediated by, knowledge. Relations among individuals are based on knowledge of each other. Indeed, if (as in the interactionist tradition in sociology) such a general notion of knowledge is regarded as the foundation of social interaction and social order, we find that the very possibility of social interaction requires situation-transcendent knowledge that is deployed by the individuals engaging in social action. Power too has frequently been based on knowledge advantages, not merely on physical strength. Societal reproduction, furthermore, is not just physical reproduction but has always also been cultural, that is, it involves reproduction of knowledge.

The historical emergence of ‘knowledge societies’ does not occur suddenly; it represents not a revolutionary development, but rather a gradual process during which the defining characteristics of society change and new traits emerge. Even today, the demise of societies is typically as gradual as was their beginning, even if some social transformations do occur in spectacular leaps. But most major social changes continue to evolve gradually, at an uneven pace, and they become clearly visible only after the transition is already over. The proximity of our time to significant social, economic and cultural changes, however, makes it highly likely that what is now beginning to come into view is of extraordinary present and future significance.

Moreover, knowledge societies do not come about as the result of some straightforward common pattern of development. They are not a one-dimensional social figuration. Knowledge societies become similar by remaining or even becoming dissimilar. New technological modes of communication break down the distance between groups and individuals, while the isolation of particular regions, cities and villages remains. The world opens up and creeds, styles and commodities mingle, yet the walls between incompatible convictions about what is sacred do not come tumbling down. The meaning of time and place erodes even while boundaries are celebrated.

Until recently, modern society was conceived primarily in terms of property and labor. Labor and property (capital) have had a long association in social, economic and political theory. Work is seen as property and as a source of emerging property. In the Marxist tradition, capital is objectified, encapsulated labor. On the basis of these attributes, individuals and groups were able or constrained to define their membership in society. In the wake of their declining importance in the productive process, especially in the sense of their conventional economic attributes and manifestations, for example as ‘corporeal’ property such as land and manual work, the social constructs of labor and property themselves are changing. While the traditional attributes of labor and property certainly have not disappeared entirely, a new principle, ‘knowledge,’ has been added which, to an extent, challenges as well as transforms property and labor as the constitutive mechanisms of society.

Theories of societies, depending on their constitutive principles, mirror these quintessential social mechanisms in the chosen shorthand for the historical era they claim to describe and represent. Thus, bourgeois or capitalist society was originally viewed as a society of owners. Later it became a ‘laboring society’ (Arbeitsgesellschaft), and it is now evolving into a knowledge society.

In retrospect, even some ancient societies (Rome, China, the Aztec Empire), that gained and maintained power in part as a result of their superior knowledge and information technology, may be described as knowledge societies of sorts. Ancient Israel was founded upon its lawlike Torah-knowledge, and in ancient Egypt religious, astronomical and agrarian knowledge served as the organizing principle and basis of authority. In this sense knowledge has had an important function throughout history, and humans have always lived in ‘knowledge societies.’ But in present-day society knowledge has clearly become much more fundamental and even strategic for all spheres of life, greatly modifying and in some cases replacing factors that until recently had been constitutive of social action.

Thus, and despite the fact that there also have been societies in the past that were based on knowledge-intensive action, the idea that modern society increasingly is a knowledge society is meaningful and has practical relevance. It is as meaningful to refer to modern society as a knowledge society as it made sense to refer to industrial societies even though there had been past social systems that were based on the work of ‘machines.’

Knowledge about Knowledge

The focus of sociological analysis must therefore increasingly be the peculiar nature and function of knowledge in social relations as well as the carriers of such knowledge together with the resulting changes in power relations and sources of social conflict. In sociology, however, virtually all classical theorists are proponents and even architects of scientism. This also applies to the ways in which knowledge is conceptualized in theories of society designed to capture the unique features of present-day society.

Marxist theories of society have assigned decisive importance to the (cultural) forces or means of production for societal development since ‘man’s understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body … appears as the great foundationstone (Grundpfeiler) of production and of wealth,’ so that general knowledge becomes a direct force of production (Marx, [1939-1941] 1973: 705). Max Weber’s seminal enquiry into the unique features of Western civilization stresses the pervasive use of reason to secure the methodical efficiency of social action. The source of rational action and, therefore, of rationalization is located in particular intellectual devices. The theory of industrial society, as developed by Raymond Aron, which encompasses both socialist and capitalist forms of economic organization as a single social reality of industrial civilization, accentuates first and foremost the extent to which science and technology shape the social organization of productive activities.

More recent theories of postindustrial society, in particular those of Daniel Bell, have elevated theoretical knowledge to an axial principle of society. Scholars like Bell, for whom knowledge is an axial principle, nevertheless treat knowledge as a kind of black box. In often polemically charged circumstances, they have tended to defend positive knowledge as non-problematic, inherently practical, efficient, powerful and even ethical. That ‘rational knowledge,’ fabricated in one system, apparently travels with great ease and without loss across the boundaries of social systems, for instance, from science into the economy or state institutions, is hardly ever questioned.

The knowledge referred to in virtually all theories of society that elevate knowledge to prominence, and the groups of individuals that are seen as acquiring influence and control by means of this knowledge, tend to be conceptualized narrowly. This does not mean, however, that such a concept lacks cultural centrality and public or political influence. On the contrary, the narrower notion of knowledge that attributes enormous efficacy to scientific and technical knowledge resonates strongly with the dominant public conception of knowledge and its tasks. This concept of knowledge is a testimonial of the success of the scientific community in installing a particular conception of knowledge as the dominant public concept of knowledge. Whatever the limitations of this ‘scientistic’ conception of knowledge, its centrality clearly reflects the diminishing role of the non-scientific conception of knowing. The scientization of everyday life, for example in the fields of health or the assessments of risks, manifests the cultural centrality of a particular conception of knowledge that has been assimilated by the theories of modern society described above.

There exists, then, a perhaps paradoxical tendency to overestimate the efficacy of ‘objective’ technical-scientific or formal knowledge. Theories of modern society generally lack sufficient detail and scope in their conceptualizations of ‘knowledge’ in order to provide explanations for the causes of the increasingly greater demand for ever more knowledge, the ways in which knowledge travels, for the rapidly expanding groups of individuals in society who in some way or another live off knowledge, for the many forms of knowledge considered pragmatically useful and the various effects knowledge may have on social relations. Since the constitutive mechanism of ‘knowledge’ is defined in a restrictive objectivist manner, the social, political and economic consequences to which these theories allude tend to be confined to rather straightforward effects that include the hope for (or the fear of) highly rationalized forms of social action.

Knowing and the Known

The changes that should be examined are developments that occur with respect to the forms and dominance of knowledge itself. The focus should be on the relationships between scientific knowledge and everyday knowledge, declarative and procedural knowledge, knowledge and non-knowledge, and on knowledge as a capacity for social action. In order to demonstrate the significance of knowledge for social action, particularly in advanced societies, it is necessary to formulate a sociological concept of knowledge. What is it that we do know? Knowing represents a relation to things and facts, but also to laws and rules. Knowing involves participation: knowing things, facts, rules means to ‘appropriate’ them, to include them in our field of orientation and competence.

Knowledge can of course be objectified, that is, the intellectual appropriation of things, facts and rules can be established symbolically. In order to know it is not necessary to get into intimate contact with the things themselves, but only with their symbolic representations. This is precisely the social significance of language, of writing, printing and data storage. Most of what is called knowledge and learning today is not direct knowledge of facts, rules and things, but objectified knowledge. Objectified knowledge is the highly differentiated stock of intellectually appropriated nature and society that constitutes society’s cultural resource.

However, such participation is subject to stratification; the life chances, the life style and the social influence of individuals depend on access to the stock of knowledge at hand. Modern societies have made dramatic advances in the intellectual appropriation of nature and society. There exists an immense stock of objectified knowledge that mediates our relation with nature and with ourselves. In a general sense, this advancement used to be seen, in earlier contexts, as a form of modernization and rationalization that would lead to a ‘unity of civilization.’ This second nature now overshadows the primary nature of humans. The real and the fictional merge and become indistinguishable. Theories become facts, yet facts cannot police theories.

It is only after the societal significance of such opposites and oppositions has been understood that the full sociological significance of knowledge can become clear. Such a perspective leads to the realization that knowledge is increasingly the foundation of authority, that access to knowledge becomes a major societal resource as well as the occasion for political and social struggles.

Although knowledge has always had a social function, it is only recently that scholars have begun to examine the structure of society and its development from the point of view of the production, distribution and reproduction of knowledge. Applied to present-day society, the question arises if knowledge can provide a foundation for social hierarchies and stratification, for the formation of class structure, for the distribution of chances of social and political influence and also for personal life and, finally, whether knowledge may prove to be a normative principle of social cohesion and integration, even though the variations and alterations in the reproduction of knowledge appear to be enormous. Paradoxically, efforts to entrench necessity in history or eliminate the role of chance from it has produced, at least at the collective level, the very opposite tendency. The role of chance, ambiguity and ‘fragility’ at the collective level, continues to be an increasingly important part of the way society is organized.

Knowledge as a Capacity for Action

Knowledge may be defined as a capacity for action. The use of the term ‘knowledge’ as a capacity for action is derived from Francis Bacon’s famous observation that knowledge is power (a somewhat misleading translation of Bacon’s Latin phrase: ‘scientia est potentia’). Bacon suggests that knowledge derives its utility from its capacity to set something in motion. The term potentia, that is capacity, is employed to describe the power of knowing. More specifically, Bacon asserts at the outset of his Novum Organum that ‘human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is the cause is in operation the rule.’

The definition of knowledge as capacity for action has multifaceted implications and consequences. Capacity for action signals that knowledge may in fact be left unused, or that it may be employed for ‘irrational’ ends. The thesis that knowledge invariably is pushed to its limit, that it is often translated into action without regard for its possible consequences (as argued, for instance, by C.P. Snow; cf. Sibley, 1973), represents a typical view among observers of technological development. However, the claim that science and technology invariably push for the practical implementation of scientific and technical knowledge does not give proper recognition to the context of implementation of such knowledge. Such a conception of the immediate practical efficacy of scientific and technological knowledge, furthermore, vastly overestimates the inherent practicality of the knowledge claims fabricated in science.

The definition of knowledge as capacity for action strongly indicates that the material realization and implementation of knowledge is open, that it is dependent on or embedded within the context of specific social, economic and intellectual conditions. Knowledge, as a capacity for action, does not signal that specific knowledge claims always possess a fixed ‘value’ or even a distinct practical dimension. We cannot, as a result, stipulate a priori that some knowledge claims, for example, those that issue from disciplines in the humanities, are less practical than knowledge that originates in the natural sciences. Inasmuch as the realization of knowledge is dependent on the active elaboration of knowledge within specific networks and social conditions, a definite link between knowledge and social power becomes evident because the control of conditions and circumstances requires social power. The larger the scale of a project, the greater the need for social power to control the actual realization of knowledge as capacity for action.

Knowledge is a peculiar entity with properties unlike those of commodities or of secrets, for example. Knowledge exists in objectified and embodied forms. If sold, it enters other domains—and yet it remains within the domain of its producer. Knowledge does not have zero-sum qualities. Knowledge is a public as well as private good. When revealed, knowledge does not lose its influence. While it has been understood for some time that the ‘creation’ of knowledge is fraught with uncertainties, the conviction that its application is without risks and that its acquisition reduces uncertainty has only recently been debunked. Unlike money, property rights and symbolic attributes such as titles, knowledge cannot be transmitted instantaneously. Its acquisition takes time and often is based on intermediary cognitive capacities and skills. But acquisition can be unintended and occur almost unconsciously. Neither the acquisition nor the transmission of knowledge is always easily visualized. The development, mobility and reproduction of knowledge are difficult to regulate. It is ‘troublesome’ to censor and control knowledge. It is reasonable to speak of limits to growth in many spheres and resources of life, but the same does not appear to hold for knowledge. Knowledge has virtually no limits to its growth, but it takes time to accumulate.

Knowledge is often seen as a collective commodity par excellence; for example, the ethos of science demands that it be made universally available, at least in principle. But is the ‘same’ knowledge available to all? Is scientific knowledge, once transformed into technology, still subject to the same normative conventions? The answer provided by one economist is that technology must be considered a ‘private capital good.’ In the case of technology, disclosure is uncommon, and rents for its use can be privately appropriated (cf. Dasgupta, 1987: 10). But the potentially unrestricted universal availability of knowledge makes it, in peculiar and unusual ways, resistant to private ownership (Simmel, [1907] 1978: 438). Modern communication technologies ensure that access becomes easier, and may even subvert remaining proprietary restrictions; however, concentration rather than dissemination is also possible and certainly feared by many, including the late Marshall McLuhan. But it is equally possible to surmise that the increased social importance of knowledge in the end undermines its exclusiveness. Yet the opposite appears to be the case and therefore raises anew the question of the persisting basis for the power of knowledge. Despite its reputation, knowledge is virtually never uncontested. In science, its contestability is seen as one of its foremost virtues. In practical circumstances, the contested character of knowledge is often repressed and/or conflicts with the exigencies of social action.

Scientific and technical knowledge, while clearly representing such ‘capacities for action,’ does not thereby become uncontestable, no longer subject to challenge and interpretation. Scientific and technical knowledge is uniquely important because it produces incremental capacities for social and economic action or an increase in the ability of ‘how-to-do-it’ that may be ‘privately appropriated,’ at least temporarily. And contrary to neoclassical assumptions, the unit price for knowledge-intensive commodities and services decreases with increased production, reflecting ‘progress down the learning curve’ (cf. Schwartz, 1992).

Knowledge constitutes a basis for power. As Galbraith (1967: 67) stresses, power ‘goes to the factor which is hardest to obtain or hardest to replace … it adheres to the one that has greatest inelasticity of supply at the margin.’ But knowledge as such is not a scarce commodity, though two features of certain knowledge claims may well transform knowledge from a plentiful into a scarce resource. First, what is scarce and difficult to obtain is not access to knowledge per se but to incremental knowledge, to a ‘marginal unit’ of knowledge. The greater the tempo with which incremental knowledge ages or decays, the greater the potential influence of those who manufacture or augment knowledge, and correspondingly, of those who transmit such increments. Secondly, if sold, knowledge enters the domain of others, yet remains within the domain of the producer, and can be spun off once again. This signals that the transfer of knowledge does not necessarily include the transfer of the cognitive ability to generate such knowledge, for example the theoretical apparatus or the technological regime that yields such knowledge-claims in the first place and on the basis of which it is calibrated and validated. Cognitive skills of this kind, therefore, are scarce.

Knowledge as Capital

Among knowledge-based approaches and concepts in social theory, cultural capital and human capital theories stand out. Pierre Bourdieu distinguishes between different forms of cultural capital—its embodied or symbolic form as internalized culture, its objectified form in material objects and media, and its institutionalized form (for example, as academic certificates). These distinctions signal the ways in which cultural capital is stored and passed on by way of becoming an integral habitus of the individual. Bourdieu identifies two additional forms of capital—economic and social capital. These two forms of capital refer to the gains individuals may derive from their network of social relations. I will focus on Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital since it resonates more closely with the concept of knowledge.

In Bourdieu’s sense, cultural capital as a form of symbolic capital is much broader than the concept of human capital as developed in economic discourse. Modern human capital theory relates deliberate and measurable educational investments (and achievements) in the acquisition of useful skills and knowledge to their monetary gains or losses. Skills and knowledge have grown in Western societies at a much faster rate than non-human capital, as one of the originators of this idea in economics, Theodore W. Schultz (1961) contends. Investment in human capital (that is, capital embodied in human beings), Schultz argues, has driven much of the growth in real earnings per worker in recent decades.

In strong contrast, cultural capital theory does not proceed from the assumption of a kind of tabula rasa that allows every individual to participate in the competitive market where human capital is allocated and where success or failure is at most affected by unequal natural aptitudes. Cultural capital theory acknowledges not only pre-existing unequal access to the distributional channels for its accumulation, but also the different ways in which the ‘market’ from the beginning favors the chances of particular players. In a largely undifferentiated society or community, of course, culture does not function as a vehicle for the emergence of cultural capital. There the social conditions of its transmission tend to be much more disguised than those that govern economic capital. The portion of individual lives that can be afforded for the acquisition of cultural capital is regarded as highly significant. Cultural capital yields benefits of distinction for its owner.

The most evident drawback of Bourdieu’s explication of cultural capital theory is, first, its strong individualistic bias, that is, the extent to which Bourdieu stresses the fusion of cultural capital and the personality of the individual owner. The emphasis remains for the most part on cultural capital as an inherent attribute of the individual carrier. Cultural capital declines and dies with its bearer since both have identical biological limits. Bourdieu’s individualistic conception of cultural capital appears to be linked to his determination not to dispossess cultural capital theory of the ability to calculate and attribute investment gains that derive from cultural capital. And such returns of investment are seen to accrue primarily to the investor. In this sense, cultural capital theory resonates with human capital theory. It contains crucial residues of economic discourse.

It is important to recognize that cultural capital is embodied in collective processes and structures; hence the benefits often do not accrue only to those who have invested resources. The production as well as consumption of such capital is not charged to the individual. It is borne by the collectivity. At one extreme, such capital can even be seen to be entirely free, in that its use by certain individuals does not diminish its utility or availability to others. Cultural capital is human-made capital and as such subject to limits applicable to all human products and creations. Secondly, Bourdieu discovers and utilizes the concept of cultural capital in the context of social inequality research. The concept derives its coherence from this context in which distinction, processes of inclusion and exclusion, cultural frames and meaning production are the hallmark of the work that cultural capital accomplishes for individuals. Bourdieu thereby implies the continued social, economic and political relevance of social class in modern society. But it must be asked if class divisions are not undermined by virtue of the transformation of economic realities. Distinctions linked to cultural processes are not merely derivative but foundational. Thirdly, although the notion of human cultural capital is not employed in a fully ahistoric manner, it is for the most part devoid of historical specificity. Bourdieu ([1983] 1986: 255) refers to relatively undifferentiated societies in which embodied culture, since not stratified, does not function as cultural capital; however, this does not permit differentiation between various forms of society beyond a straightforward dichotomy of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ societies. New ‘structures of consciousness’ (to use Benjamin Nelson’s phrase) cannot be captured by this term. In many ways, the structure of consciousness of knowledge societies is not novel. It resonates with the consciousness of modernity that dates—although this too is a highly contested question—at least from the sociohistorical context of the French Revolution. In other respects, the conscience collective in knowledge societies is at variance with the belief systems and mental sets that are usually identified as uniquely modern and therefore warrants the designation of a new structure of consciousness. In any event, the notion of cultural capital is not well designed to capture such transformations.

The Limits of the Power of (Scientific) Knowledge

A critical analysis of the limits of the social power of scientific knowledge requires an understanding of the special nature as well as the similarities of scientific and non-scientific knowledge and action. Classifying scientific knowledge as a unique form of human knowledge is of little value. Such a classification is too closely linked to now obsolete epistemological conceptions of science—to such notions and ideals as universality, experience, rationality, necessity and practicality. Conceptions of scientific knowledge that adhere to such notions tend to deny that scientific knowledge is socially based and a collective as well as historical enterprise.

Robert K. Merton ([1942] 1973) has suggested that for most people everyday knowledge provides greater plausibility and more useful means of comprehension than scientific knowledge, as well as considerable substantive affinity to existing cultural ‘prejudices,’ thereby constituting a potential source of competition for scientific knowledge claims. Merton’s is an early theoretical conception of the limits of scientific knowledge and goes far beyond considerations primarily driven by epistemological concerns.

Stephen Toulmin’s (1972: 378) useful characterization of organized human activities generally may be taken as a description of the social conditions within which the social production of scientific knowledge occurs: ‘[H]uman activities and enterprises … in which decisions are made, procedures followed, considerations taken into account, conclusions arrived at, new possibilities entertained, and “reasons” given for the resulting conclusions or actions.’ The special social and intellectual circumstances that prevail in the manufacture of scientific knowledge affect the structure and the possibility of reproducing such knowledge.

Among the special conditions that should be noted here are that knowledge claims or knowledge effects produced under special conditions in scientific laboratories can, first, only be reproduced outside the laboratory if the special conditions that allowed such outcomes are also reproduced outside the laboratory. That is, the special circumstances that led to the original observation of the effect must be extended to the context in which a successful transfer is to be made (see Rouse, 1987: 227). The notion that scientific knowledge, unlike other forms of knowledge, is not bound or limited institutionally has to be questioned in light of the conditions necessary for the reproduction of scientific knowledge claims outside the circumstances of their initial discovery.

Secondly, knowledge claims not only take on features derived from the material conditions of their production, but also reflect institutionally bound cognitive attributes. These attributes include, importantly, a suspension of the pressure to act as constitutive of scientific discourse. Knowledge produced within the scientific community is released from the tasks it must perform outside of science.

One of the most salient attributes of everyday life situations is, in contrast, the persistent pressure to reach a decision, to observe a specific rule, to follow a particular course of action by discarding alternative possibilities, or to provide an account of completed action ex post facto. This suspension of the constraint to act within scientific discourse may be described, on the one hand, as a virtue of intellectual activity taking place under privileged conditions that moderate the effect of the pressing interests, rapidly passing opportunities and ambiguous dependencies of everyday contexts on the production of scientific knowledge claims. On the other hand, the result of this suspension of the pressure to act is that scientific knowledge takes on qualities of incompleteness, provisionality, fragmentariness or expansiveness that reduce its effectiveness as knowledge in circumstances in which action is the foremost requirement. As Durkheim ([1912] 1965: 479) observed so well: ‘Life cannot wait’ (cf. also Gehlen, [1940] 1988: 296-7). Finally, knowledge must be made available and interpreted, and also linked to local, contingent circumstances. The complexity of the linkages and the volume of resources required delineate further limits of the power of scientific and technical knowledge.

The set of limits to the social power of scientific knowledge constitutes an inevitable part of the fabrication and the utilization of scientific knowledge. But they also explain why the knowledge work performed by the stratum of experts of knowledge-based occupations, generally speaking, attains greater and greater centrality in advanced society. The knowledge work performed by knowledge-based occupations or by experts, counselors and advisors, is crucial in that their work ‘heals’ some of the practical deficiencies of scientific knowledge. For example, a chain of interpretations must come to an ‘end’ in order for knowledge to become relevant in practice and effective as a capacity for action. This function of ending reflection or remedying the lack of immediate practicability of scientific and technical knowledge—as it emerges from the scientific community—for the purpose of action is largely performed by various groups of experts in modern society.

The centrality of knowledge-based occupations or, using a narrower term, experts in knowledge societies, does not mean that we are on the way, as social theorists have feared in the past, to a technocratic society. A technocratic model of society and its major social institutions which ‘sees technicians dominating officials and management, and which sees the modern technologically developed bureaucracies as governed by an exclusive reliance on a standard of efficiency’ (Golden, 1976: 257) is but a nightmare, an ideal type or a utopia. Quite a number of arguments can be deployed to demystify the threat of technocracy and a new ruling class made up of faceless experts. The most persuasive argument is social reality itself, which has failed to support the transformation of society in this direction. The emergence of technocratic regimes long predicted has not materialized.

The Knowledge-Based Economy

The emergence of knowledge societies signals first and foremost a radical transformation in the structure of the economy. Productive processes in industrial society are governed by factors that—relative to the increasing importance of the exchange of symbolic goods—have greatly changed and for the most part declined in significance as preconditions for economic growth: the dynamics of the supply and demand for primary products or raw materials; the dependence of employment on production; the importance of the manufacturing sector that processes primary products; the role of manual labor and the social organization of work; the role of international trade in manufactured goods and services; the function of time and place in production and of the nature of the limits to economic growth.

The most common denominator of the changing economic structure is a shift away from an economy driven and governed by ‘material’ inputs into the productive process and its organization, towards an economy in which the transformations of productive and distributive processes are increasingly determined by ‘symbolic’ or knowledge-based inputs. The development and impact of modern information technology exemplifies these transformations (and not just in the sphere of economic activities). They include the dematerialization of production that represents diminished constraints on supply, lower and still declining cost, and a redefinition of the social functions of time, place and the increasing acceleration of change (cf. Miles et al., 1988; Perez, 1985).

The economy of industrial society, in short, is primarily a material economy on the way of becoming a monetary economy. Keynes’ economic theory, particularly his General Theory (1936), reflects this transformation of the economy of industrial society into an economy substantially affected by monetary matters. But, as more recent evidence indicates, the economy described by Keynes is best understood as a symbolic economy. The structural changes of the economy and its dynamics increasingly reflect the fact that knowledge is emerging as the leading dimension in the productive process, the primary condition for its expansion and for a change in the limits to economic growth in the developed world. In the knowledge society, most of the wealth of a company is embodied in its creativity and information. In short, for the production of goods and services, with the exception of the most standardized commodities and services, factors other than ‘the amount of labor time or the amount of physical capital become increasingly central’ (Block, 1985: 95) to the economy of advanced societies.

Individual and Collective Social Conduct in Knowledge Societies

The transformation of modern societies into knowledge has profound consequences aside from those that pertain to its economic structure. One of the more remarkable consequences is the extent to which modern societies become fragile societies. This observation has to be qualified. Modern societies tend to be fragile from the viewpoint of those large and once dominant social institutions that find it increasingly difficult to impose their will on all of society, to give direction and determine the fate of its individual components. From the perspective of small groups and social movements more and uncoupled from the influence of the traditional large-scale social institutions, however, modern societies are not particularly fragile at all. For such groups and social movements, the social transformations under way mean a distinct gain in their relative influence and participation, even if typically mainly in their ability to resist, delay and alter the objectives of the larger institutions. I regard precisely the growing importance of such knowledge in modern society as the prime and immediate reason for the enlargement of the capacity of individuals and social movements to assert themselves in traditional as well as new contentious circumstances. The increase in the ‘knowledgeability’ of actors and the decrease or static capacity to act of large collectivities have to be seen as complementary developments since the decline in the ability of large institutions to impose their will is linked to the enlargement of the capacity to act by individuals and small groups in society, for instance, in their capacity to say no or mobilize effective strategies of contention.

Knowledge societies are (to adopt a phrase from Adam Ferguson) the results of human action, but not of deliberate human design. They emerge as adaptations to persistent but evolving needs and changing circumstances of human conduct. Among the most significant transformations in circumstances that face human conduct is the continuous ‘enlargement’ of human action, including an extension of its ‘limits to growth.’ Modern societies as knowledge societies are becoming more fragile. But this does not mean that they are disintegrating. Increased individualism, for example, does imply an uncoupling from certain collective obligations and constraints and the distinct possibility that the role of the stranger becomes less and less strange for more and more individuals. But it does not suggest a complete uncoupling from collective consciousness and action restraints. In much the same way, while knowledge societies become more fragile, they do not lead to an arrest of social action. On the contrary, they lead to an enlargement and extension of forms of conduct, forms of life, chains of social interaction and channels of communication.

The enlargement in capacities to act occurs at an uneven pace and to an uneven degree. The outcome is a hitherto unknown contradiction: An increasingly larger proportion of the public acquires and exercises political skills, for example – including the choice of non-participation (cf. Stehr and Meja, 1996), or the denial that political activities are indeed political (cf. Magnussson, 1996: 29-32)—while the ability of the state and its agencies to ‘impose its will’ or to exercise sovereignty is arrested, and typically even decreases. This leads to more fragile and volatile forms of legitimate authority and more fragile powers of the state and of other major social institutions. In that sense the growth and broader dissemination of knowledge paradoxically produces greater uncertainty and contingency rather than providing a resolution of disagreements or the basis for a more effective domination by central societal institutions.

Modern societies are also increasingly vulnerable entities. More specifically, the economy, the communication or traffic systems are vulnerable to malfunctions of self-imposed practices typically designed to avoid breakdowns. Modern infrastructures and technological regimes are subject to accidents as the result of fortuitous, unanticipated human action, to non-marginal or extreme natural events that may dramatically undermine the taken-for-granted routines of everyday life in modern societies or to deliberate sabotage. That societies appear to be assailable and sometimes even defenseless in the face of damaging or murderous attacks launched by dedicated individuals represents a fear as well as a now taken-for-granted risk. However, my analysis of modern societies as fragile societies does not extend to its vulnerability in the face of attacks launched by ‘rebel’ groups, revolutionary dissidents, extremists, assassins, terrorists bent on destroying the institutions they choose to assault, accidents or extreme natural events. It may indeed be difficult to clearly separate the profound susceptibility and vulnerability of modern society to such assaults and forms of aggression from what I am describing and analysing here as the essential fragility of modern society. However, the two refer to entirely different sets of processes, motives and consequences. A society is vulnerable because—prompted by profound disagreements about its very fabric and legitimacy—large or small groups of individuals are determined to negate it. ‘Extraordinary’ events that occur as the result of such a constellation of motives may be anticipated in principle; at least many large social institutions act and plan as if such events can be anticipated. The state for one prepares itself for events of this kind. ‘Revolutionary’ activities are not new. In short, we cannot say with any confidence that modernity equals stability as Samuel Huntington (1968: 47), for example, proposed.

Present-day social systems may be seen to be fragile and vulnerable entities in yet another sense. Such fragility results from conduct as well as the deployment of artifacts designed to stabilize, routinize and delimit social action. I am referring specifically to what Rochlin (1997) has called the ‘computer trap’ or the unintended outcomes and secondary effects of computerization. In the process of even more deeply embedding computers into the social fabric of society, that is, re-designing and re-engineering large-scale social and socio-technical systems in order to manage the complexities of modern society, novel risks and vulnerabilities are created. Computerization becomes more and more invisible but the potential consequences as the result of a breakdown are enlarged. The long-term secondary and destabilizing consequences range from ‘the loss of the basis from which such skills can be constructed to the creation of a socio-technical dependency on operating at such high levels of efficiency and complexity that human beings will not be able to manage or control the effects, intended or unintended, whether the computers break down or not’; the increased tightness of linkages, lack of back-up systems, and the speed of response of such systems will make ‘human intervention or control difficult at best when (and not if) something goes wrong’ (Rochlin, 1997: 217). Hence, one might argue, a basic fragility is inscribed into social systems via the deployment of technical regimes designed to achieve the opposite, namely to stabilize, constrain, routinize and even control conduct. Such an outcome of computerization might be particularly unexpected, cataclysmic and far-reaching but does not differ in principle from the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the widespread deployment of other technical devices in the past.

The fragility of modern societies as described here, however, is a unique condition. Societies are fragile because—propelled by a marked enlargement of their capacities to act—individuals are capable, within certain established rules, to assert their own interests by opposing or resisting the—not too long ago—almost unassailable monopoly of truth of major societal institutions. That is to say, legitimate cultural practices based on the enlargement and diffusion of knowledge enable a much larger segment of society to effectively oppose power configurations that turned out or are apprehended to be tenuous and brittle.

Among the major but widely invisible social innovations in modern society is the immense growth of the ‘civil society’ sector. The civil society sector recognizes the ‘plethora of private, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organizations’ (Salomon and Anheier, 1997: 60) that have emerged and grown considerably both in volume and in public influence in recent years in many countries of the developed world. This sector provides an organized basis through ‘which citizens can exercise individual initiative in the private pursuit of public purposes’ (Salomon and Anheier, 1997: 60).

I also interpret the considerable enlargement of the informal economy, crime, corruption and the growth of wealth in modern society as well as increasing but typically unsuccessful efforts to police these spheres as evidence of the diverse as well as expanded capacity of individuals, households and small groups to take advantage of and benefit from contexts in which the degree of social control exercised by larger (legitimate) social institutions has diminished considerably.

The enlargement of the various social activities known as the informal economy or the growth of wealth, despite the ambiguity of its connotations, constitutes a major structural feature of advanced societies. Among the consequences is a distinctive shift in value-orientations in advanced societies. In political terms, this represents a displacement of the prominence of leftist by more centrist and conservative agendas in all political parties and no longer a trend to the left, as may have been the case in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, much of social science discourse has been preoccupied with the opposite phenomenon, namely the probable and dangerous enlargement of the ability of modern social institutions, especially various state institutions but also the economy, to more ruthlessly impose its will on its citizens. Thus, the classical social theorists as well as many of their more recent successors were concerned with discovering the conditions that produce and reproduce domination and repression rather than greater autonomy, freedom and independence. Modern science and technology typically were viewed, in the context of such analyses, as the handmaidens of regressive civilizational developments.

But whether the kinds of societal developments we are sketching constitute, as John Stuart Mill anticipated one hundred and fifty years ago, a reconciliation of order and progress remains in doubt. Today, in fact, order and progress are essentially contested concepts and objectives. What is reconciliation to some invariably represents an unsustainable agenda for others. We are living in an age in which the expansion of individual choices is in conflict with traditional sentiments as well as with objectives that favor their restriction.


History has by no means ended, but it certainly has changed. The old rules, certainties and trajectories no longer apply. Of course, there are few opportunities of fresh starts in history. None the less, the future of modern society no longer mimics the past to the extent to which this has been the case. That is to say, the future is made from fewer fragments of the past. As a result, sentiments with respect to history that are becoming more pervasive are those of fragility and dislocation. History will increasingly be full of unanticipated incertitudes, peculiar reversals, proliferating surprises, and we will have to cope with the ever-greater speed of significantly compressed events. The changing agendas of social, political and economic life as the result of our growing capacity to make history will also place inordinate demands on our mental capacities. The fit or lack of fit between our knowledgeability and what society, the economy and culture mentally demands is one of the major challenges of knowledge societies.