The Sociology of Knowledge

E Doyle Mccarthy. Encyclopedia of Sociology. 2nd edition, Volume 5, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

The sociology of knowledge as a subdiscipline in sociology deals with the social and group origins of ideas. In its brief history as a field of study, it has included the entire ideational realm (knowledge, ideas, theories, and mentalities), in an attempt to comprehend how that realm is related to particular social and political forces and how the mental life of a group of people arises within the context of the groups and institutions in which those people live and act. More recently, its subject matter has included not only a society’s authoritative ideas and formal knowledges but also those which operate in the realm of everyday life: informal knowledges.

The term “sociology of knowledge” (Wissenssoziologie) was first used in 1924 and 1925 by Scheler (1874-1928) (Scheler [1924] 1980, 1992) and Mannheim (1893-1947) (Mannheim [1924] 1952). From its inception, it described a field of inquiry closely linked to problems of European philosophy and historicism. In several important respects, this is an accurate description, for the sociology of knowledge reflected the nineteenth-century German philosophical interest in problems surrounding relativism that were linked to the legacies of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the historicists, whose cultural philosophy of worldviews (Weltanschauungsphilosophie) was influential in German social science from the 1890s to the 1930s. Each of these developments was concerned in different ways with the determinate relationship between thought and society, between knowledge and social structure. For Scheler and Mannheim, Wissenssoziologie would serve as an empirical and historical method for resolving the intense conflicts of ideologies in Weimar Germany that followed political and social revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and produced warring groups whose battles were manifestly ideational and grounded in conflicting worldviews. Sociology of knowledge would provide a method, outlined in early statements by Scheler and Mannheim, for unmasking the assumptions of political ideologies and indicating their truth content. However much Scheler and Mannheim differed about the nature of truth within relativism, both agreed that truths do not exist apart from historical and social processes. As members of a postwar generation of European intellectuals, they also shared a sense that they were witnessing the gradual disappearance of epistemology and its replacement by the sociology of knowledge as a foundational discipline for all philosophy. As participants in this historical process, they also believed, as did their contemporaries, that intellectuals play a vital role in thought and politics.

The excitement and urgency with which the framers of Wissenssoziologie approached the study of the social origins of ideas has been replaced by a widespread acceptance of their premises concerning the social origins of ideas, ideologies, and worldviews. To borrow Weber’s term, the sociology of knowledge was “rountinized” into the established structures and practices of modern social science. Many of the positions advanced by Scheler, Mannheim, and other early writers in this field (e.g., in the United States by Florian Znaniecki, C. Wright Mills, and Edward Shils) operate today as working propositions for a range of social scientists as well as for specialists in other disciplines, including the subfields of the history of ideas, social psychology, social studies of science, feminist theory, and cultural studies. Even the urgency, expressed by Mannheim, surrounding the problem of relativism as a “contemporary predicament” has been transformed into a commonplace fact. Today, this is certainly the case in the academic world, whereas in the past, the sociology of knowledge provided the occasion for intense controversies about the postulate of the essential “sociality of mind” (Child 1941).

The Sociology of Knowledge: Two Approaches

Partly because of the diffusion of the idea of the social nature of knowledge, the sociology of knowledge has been described as an approach or subdiscipline that has no unified field, but only a series of theoretical works and research agendas. Despite this characterization, the subdiscipline of the sociology of knowledge is a recognized field of endeavor that continues to draw new generations of sociologists. Therefore, one may speak of two ways of introducing the sociology of knowledge: The broad approach identifies a range of works in sociology and social theory that examine the social nature of mind and knowledge; the particular approach includes the works of specialists the field identified as the sociology of knowledge. Several leading contributors to the sociology of knowledge have provided similar schemes for delineating its subject matter, pointing out that the sociology of knowledge includes both a broad field and a narrow field of studies and that both fields contribute to the sociology of mental and cognitive structures (Remmling 1973; Curtis and Petras 1970; Berger and Luckmann 1966).

The broad approach incorporates a number of works that deal with the relationship of mental life (cognition, consciousness, collective ideas, etc.) and social life (groups, institutions, communities, entire societies). The broad approach treats the sociology of knowledge as a “frame of reference,” not a “definite body of theory in its own right” (Curtis and Petras 1970, p.1). Accordingly, the sociology of knowledge is a broad tradition of inquiry, a handing down of key texts and theories, such as theories of the “social determination” of ideas, theories of ideology, the relationship of “real” and “ideal” factors, and the notion of Weltanschauung, that are closely linked to the history of sociology. The social theories of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and others are studied as classic statements on the relationship of mind, knowledge, and society. This broad approach to the sociology of knowledge has provided not only the basic materials from which particular treatises in the sociology of knowledge have been written (e.g., Stark [1958] 1991; Berger and Luckmann 1966; Gurvitch 1971) but also the materials that have been incorporated into commentaries and edited collections on the sociology of knowledge (Remmling 1973; Curtis and Petras 1970).

In this general sense, the sociology of knowledge is understood as a field that systematizes the leading propositions of the modern social sciences about the social nature of mind. Furthermore, like sociology, the sociology of knowledge constitutes a tradition of inquiry that reflects and shapes the development of modernity. That is, sociology offers a theory of the human mind that is compatible with “our time”: The sociology of knowledge “appears as a revision of our way of … looking at ourselves and the world … It ‘defines’ a new ‘situation”‘ (Wolff 1953, p. 618; Wolff cf.1959). Linked as it is to the modernization of consciousness, the sociology of knowledge, broadly conceived, has several distinct national traditions, each focusing on themes characteristic of its own modern intellectual legacies. Therefore, one can speak of French, German, and American traditions of the sociology of knowledge whose roots are based in a Durkheimian “structuralist” legacy, a Marxist or Mannheimian theory of ideology, and a pragmatist theory of mind such as that offered by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Each of these national intellectual traditions reflects its particular national and cultural legacies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernity; each legacy also can be seen as complementing the sociologies of knowledge of other modern nations, cultures, and civilizations.

A second way of defining the sociology of knowledge considers the field as a particular body of work and examines its origins, development, and future prospects. This approach begins with the original statements of Scheler and Mannheim and proceeds to the later principal works and arguments. The approach also examines major substantive statements made by sociologists identified with its precise subject matter. One of the merits of this approach is that it allows for a critical view of the substantive work in the sociology of knowledge over time and, in keeping with the field’s presuppositions about the existential determination of thought (Seinsgebundenheit), opens the question of how social theories of knowledge are themselves subject to change and revision over time. In this sense, the sociology of knowledge offers a metatheory through which sociology can examine how its leading concepts and theories arise in response to particular social and political situations. For example, Marx’s theory of ideology is closely implicated in particular historical conditions of the industrial capitalist order, and its validity is dependent on particular conditions of social and economic organization, such as the separation and autonomy of economic forces in the social order.

Integral to the sociology of knowledge is a relative theory of knowledge from which its own concepts and theories are not excepted. Its methods are critical in the classical sense of the word, for it offers a continuous criticism of what it studies, including its own forms of knowledge and criteria of judgment. With this view in mind, a brief history of its statements and theories offers more than a recounting of its nature and scope. It also draws attention to the reflexive features of all sociological inquiries, particularly the fact that sociology is part of the social reality it studies in that its changing concepts and insights develop out of and address particular social worlds. Sociological theories are neither external nor formal. The brief history of the subfield of the sociology of knowledge that follows is intended to be both a recounting of the leading ideas in this field and a reflexive statement about the social foundations of its theories and presuppositions. The implications that can be drawn from this inquiry are taken up in the conclusion.

A Brief Substantive History

Since its inception in the writings of Scheler and Mannheim, the sociology of knowledge has identified a number of precise ways in which knowledge is socially determined. Scheler’s original essays ([1924] 1980) identifying the field of study provoked commentary and debate. His concept of a society’s “relatively natural Weltanschauung” is still central to cultural sociology, as are his propositions concerning the origins of the modern worldview and its scientific ethos. However, Scheler’s importance would be felt decades later (Bershady 1992). It was Mannheim’s formulation of the discipline in Ideology and Utopia (German edition 1929, English edition 1936) that originally defined the subject matter of the field and continued to do so for years to come. Those who proposed different sociologies of knowledge after its publication defined their positions relative to Mannheim’s arguments concerning ideology, utopia, and relationism.

Mannheim’s treatise begins with a review and critique of the prevailing and authoritative Marxist theories of ideology (the “particular theory of ideology”) and proceeds toward a theory of ideology in the broader sense: the mental structure in its totality as it appears in different currents of thought and across different social groups. This total conception of ideology examines thought on the structural level, allowing the same object to take on different (group) aspects. This understanding of ideology refers to a person’s, group’s, or society’s entire way of conceiving things as it is provided by particular historical and social settings. The “total conception of ideology” defines the subject matter of the sociology of knowledge. Like ideologies, “utopias” arise out of particular social and political conditions, but they are distinguished by their opposition to the prevailing order. Utopias are the embodiment of “wish-images” in collective actions that shatter and transform social worlds partially or entirely. Both concepts form part of Mannheim’s theoretical apparatus for a critical but nonevaluative treatment of “ideology” that supersedes the sociohistorical determinism and relativism of Marxism while moving toward a “relationist” notion of truth. The enterprise of the sociology of knowledge examines how collective actions and ideas (ideologies and utopias) emerge out of and are “determined” by the multiple social contexts and positions of their proponents. From an analysis of the various and competing social positions of ideologists and utopians, a kind of “truth” emerges that is grounded in the conditions of intellectual objectivity and detachment from the social conditions that more directly determine ideas. Ideology and Utopia established the criteria for a valid knowledge, albeit a relational knowledge, of sociohistorical processes. More important, it raised the problems surrounding the historicity of thought and did this within the newly emerging academic discourse of sociology. In the process, this work gave legitimacy to a new set of methodological problems involving the problems of objectivity and truth for the sciences and the humanities.

Despite the many criticisms of Ideology and Utopia (particularly Mannheim’s attempt to avoid the pitfalls of historical relativism), the work received wide attention and appreciation inside and outside the social sciences, where the problems posed by relativism continued to attract the attention of workers in both the sciences and the humanities. While reviews of the work focused on its failure to overcome relativism and Mannheim’s excessive reliance on the Marxist conception of ideology, Mannheim’s book provoked discussion and commentary for years (Hughes 1958, p. 420).

In the decades after its publication, Ideology and Utopia engaged the leading American social theorists of the period: Merton and Parsons. Merton’s two chapters on the sociology of knowledge in his major work (1957) attempt to integrate the social theory of knowledge with his own “structural-functional” theory and demonstrate how other theorists (Marx, Weber, Freud, Durkheim) belong to the broader tradition of the social determination of ideas. In essays by Parsons (1959, 1961), Mannheim’s work is criticized and integrated into the approach with which Parsons is identified: the “general theory of action.” The contributions of Merton and Parsons were significant, principally with respect to the prevailing functionalist theories of “action,” not with respect to advancing the sociology of knowledge. In fact, it could be said that the projects outlined by Scheler and Mannheim, particularly their historical and cultural emphasis, did not conform to the program of formal or “general theory” outlined by Parsons for the functional study of all societies or to Merton’s proposal for theories of the “middle range.”

This was not the case for their contemporary Stark ([1958] 1991), whose sociology of knowledge attempted to clarify the principal themes in the study of the social determination of ideas and advance its arguments beyond the Marx-Mannheim tradition and its theory of ideology. An émigré for more than half his life and a scholar educated at the universities of Hamburg, Prague, London, and Geneva, Stark was accustomed to move within many mental, linguistic, and moral frameworks. When it is confronted by an almost dizzying array of viewpoints, social existence loses its taken-for-granted quality. As Remmling (1973) has observed, the relationship between social existence and knowledge, which has been the preoccupation of the sociology of knowledge, has always been that of marginal figures and outsiders. This and other traits Stark shared with Scheler and Mannheim. Stark regarded Wissenssoziologie as an indispensable method for understanding both the truth of ideas and the history of ideas; truths do not exist apart from the historical and social process. The traditions of German cultural sociology and Wissenssoziologie contain the ideals and conventions in which Stark’s sociology of knowledge becomes most intelligible. He brought to it judgments concerning the “real” and the “ideal” from Weber’s and Simmel’s sociology. From Scheler’s works in particular, he would find ways of returning to the problem of how to find truths or “ideal values” in the realm of relative social realities or “existential facts.”

Stark wrote The Sociology of Knowledge to clarify the principal themes of writers, especially sociologists, who had addressed the problem of the social element in thinking. He also intended it to serve as an introduction to the field that would prepare the way for a detailed and comprehensive history of the sociology of knowledge and its most significant ideas, including the theories of ideology of Marx and Mannheim, the philosophical speculations of the neo-Kantians Heinrich Rickert and Max Weber, and the views of the German phenomenological school of the 1920s, especially Scheler. Each of these ideas was vitally important for his project, but Stark’s strongest affinity was with Scheler’s struggle to reconcile the antithetical claims of idealism and materialism and his view of the sociology of knowledge as the foundation for a knowledge of eternal values.

Stark’s sociology of knowledge is directed primarily toward the study of the precise ways in which human experience, through the mediation of knowledges, takes on a conscious and communicable shape. Eventually, Stark intends to direct this inquiry to the problem of truth, a synthesis of the different styles of thought and their limited truths. For either one of these intentions to be realized, he insists that the theory of ideology can have no place within the bounds of the sociology of knowledge. The idea that social influences enter mental life in the form of lies, self-deceptions, and distortions in thinking and are due to class positions and interests has dominated the Marx-Mannheim tradition and its theory of ideology. Stark’s contention, shared by many contemporary writers, is that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the “social determination of knowledge” (a term with a precise meaning of its own), not with the problem of ideology. In fact, this distinction is an indispensable precondition of the sociology of knowledge. It is intended to direct attention to the study of the extent to which all mental life is grounded in conditions that are ineluctably social and historical; it grants to “social determination” a depth that the theory of ideology does not permit, since that theory deals only with errors and misperceptions (Stark [1958] 1991, pp. 50-55). Even more important, in Stark’s view, the theory of social determination is entirely compatible with the theory of truth, whereas the theory of ideology is concerned principally with the social conditions of error or false consciousness. While the theory of ideology will always play a vital role in sociology and the history of ideas, it must be relegated to a status outside the principal concerns of the sociology of knowledge.

Stark’s project involves building bridges between opposing positions (Mannheim’s theory of ideology and Scheler’s theory of social determination), what in scholastic philosophy was called a concordantia discordantium canonum, a reconciliation of opposing positions of thought. Whether these two traditions are indeed contradictory is not of consequence in grasping Stark’s argument in The Sociology of Knowledge. Stark’s willingness to explore with frankness and according to his own convictions the kind of epistemology that he thought consistent with cultural sociology brought him to a social theory of knowledge that was compatible with both Verstehen (lit., understanding) sociology and social phenomenology. This theory also dismissed the relevance of either a simple historical materialist theory or a positivist one. The outcome is a theory of social determination that has moved away from Marx and Mannheim and in the direction of a cultural sociology, one that is consistent with contemporary sociology’s interest in the broad range of cultural studies.

Less than a decade after Stark’s work appeared, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) advanced a sociology of knowledge that was compatible with the view of sociology as a humanistic discipline and the notion that “human reality” is a “socially constructed reality” (p. 189). These authors broadened the field to include all types of knowledge, including the knowledge of everyday life: “[T]he sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for ‘knowledge’ in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such ‘knowledge”‘ (p. 3). More important, their treatise asked that the sociology of knowledge address how, in the domain of the quotidian, knowledge constitutes social reality, redirecting the traditional theory of social determination of ideas by social realities. What Berger and Luckmann proposed was that knowledge and reality (by which they always mean social reality) exist in a reciprocal or dialectical relationship of mutual constitution. As many have argued, this work placed the sociology of knowledge on an entirely new footing whose focus is the broad range of signifying systems that form and communicate the realm of social realities. Since its publication, the idea of a “constructed reality” has summarized a number of concerns of contemporary writers in the sciences and humanities that may be best described as the problem of meaning and the use of philosophical, literary, and historical approaches to study the social construction of meaning.

The methodological implications of this change in sociology and the sociology of knowledge are noteworthy, since interest in the problem of meaning is linked to a methodological framework that is neither causal nor explanatory (the attitudes expressed by Mannheim’s theory of “social determination”) but semiotic. The semiotic study of culture is directed toward the study of the symbolic and signifying systems through which a social order is communicated and reproduced. These signifying systems and social practices make up a culture and its structures of meaning. According to Geertz (1973, p. 5), one of the principal semiotic theorists, the analysis of knowledge and culture is “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

In addition to being a proponent of an interpretive method in the social sciences in the 1960s, Geertz, in his essay “Ideology as a Cultural System” (1964), explicitly criticized the sociology of knowledge (Mannheim and Stark explicitly), arguing that the entire enterprise identified with the twin problems of “ideology” and “truth” should be reformulated as the “sociology of meaning.” For Geertz, the sociology of knowledge remained lodged in an older set of presuppositions (principally its use of “ideology”) that prevented it from moving toward a nonevaluative understanding of “culture.” This and other criticisms at the time effectively redirected sociology in the period of the late 1960s toward what has been described as its “postpositivist” phase (Rabinow and Sullivan 1979, 1987). Ironically, this most recent period of sociology, with its rejection of the classical concerns of the sociology of knowledge, has been described by Robertson (1992) as a “general sociology-of-knowledge turn” characterized by a focus on the ideational features of the social world or a resurgence of interest in cultural forms more generally. Put simply, contemporary sociology’s turn away from the classical problems and perspectives of the sociology of knowledge occurred precisely at the time when “culture,” “knowledge,” and “language” became central to sociology.

What has been called “the new sociology of knowledge” (Swidler and Arditi 1994; McCarthy 1996) can be seen as part of this larger movement in the social sciences generally, distinguished by a turn away from materialist theories or theories of social structure and in the direction of semiotic theories that focus on the ways in which a society’s multifarious meanings are communicated and reproduced. Hall (1980) has described the theoretical significance of this cultural turn in social science: Its problematic has become closely identified with the problem of the autonomy of cultural practices. The paradign for studying the range of cultural practices has come largely from structuralist theories (Althusser, Levi-Strauss, Barthes). Language is the theoretical and empirical model, one that is neither positivist nor reductionist but interpretive rather than causal.

The New Sociology of Knowledge

These arguments and others have been made by recent commentators in what has been called the “new sociology of knowledge.” In the case of Swidler and Arditi (1994), the new approach examines how specific kinds of social organizations (e.g., the media through which knowledge is preserved, organized, and transmitted) order knowledges rather than examining social locations and group interests. These scholars also examine, in light of new theories of social power and practice (Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu), how knowledges maintain social hierarchies and how techniques of power are simultaneously and historically linked to discursive forms (knowledges). They also argue that newer theories of power, gender, and knowledge depart from the economic, class, and institutional focus of the classical sociology of knowledge.

McCarthy’s (1996) theoretical treatise traces changes in three broad national traditions in the sociology of knowledge (German, French, American), delineating the precise ways in which the classical traditions identified with these three national intellectual legacies have moved to models that are linguistically based. McCarthy also points to feminist theories as important contributions to the sociology of knowledge, particularly works in the sociology of science by feminists such as Smith (1987, 1990). These and other changes in sociology are examined against changes in the social location of knowledge and culture today, particularly the predominant role played by systems of mass communication and information technologies. These changes in turn have produced a contemporary culture that is more globally aware, reflexive, and attuned to the operations of culture itself.


The brief history of the sociology of knowledge from Mannheim to contemporary sociology lends itself to the type of interpretive scheme that originated with the classical sociology of knowledge, for its principal argument has worked against any formal understanding of either theory or science. Changes in the structures and organizations of social worlds have been functionally related to collective “standpoints” and “perspectives.” Sociologists have witnessed the shift, since midcentury, from “social structure” to “culture” as authoritative schemes for describing and interpreting how social knowledges are “socially determined” Clearly, this intellectual shift registers changes in the social landscape of late modernity, where the configurations known to sociology as “economy,” “culture,” and “social structure” have undergone changes.

Proponents of the new sociology of knowledge and others have documented changes in the industrial societies of the last half century that correspond to the newer “cultural” theories. Neither Swidler and Arditi nor McCarthy claims that the sociology of knowledge as a subfield of sociology has been superseded by newer work in sociology and cultural studies. However, they note that the new sociology of knowledge is not yet a unified field, and their proposals for what constitutes this diffuse field constitute an argument reminiscent of those of the proponents of a broad or diffuse sociology of knowledge discussed above. It would seem that the more “cultural” sociology becomes, the more likely it is that the sociology of knowledge will be seen as a broadly inclusive set of studies rather than a subfield with a distinct subject matter. The subject matter of the sociology of knowledge has undergone significant change: What began as the study of competing and conflicting collective ideas and ideologies has become something more cultural and diffuse. Its subject matter today is both more differentiated and more diffuse and includes the study of “informal knowledge,” the knowledge of everyday life. What began as the study of conflicting ideologies has become the study of the unspoken understandings of everyday life, what L Wirth described in his preface to Ideology and Utopia as “the most elemental and important facts about a society … those that are seldom debated and generally regarded as settled” (1936, p. xxiii). Today these understandings have become the subject matter of sociology and are no longer generally regarded as “settled.”