Sociology of knowledge

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A Venn diagram simplification of Plato's definition of knowledge. One of the various perspectives a sociology of knowledge may investigate.

The sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies. It is not a specialized area of sociology but instead deals with broad fundamental questions about the extent and limits of social influences on individuals' lives and the social-cultural basics of our knowledge about the world.


  • A modern theory of knowledge which takes account of the relational as distinct from the merely relative character of all historical knowledge must start with the assumption that there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
  • The last two decades have witnessed, especially in Germany and France, the rise of a new discipline, the sociology of knowledge (Wissenssoziologie), with a rapidly increasing number of students and a growing literature (even a “selected bibliography” would include several hundred titles). Since most of the investigations in this field have been concerned with the socio-cultural factors influencing the development of beliefs and opinion rather than of positive knowledge, the term. “Wissen” must be interpreted very broadly indeed, as referring to social ideas and thought generally, and not to the physical sciences, except where expressly indicated.
    • Robert K. Merton, "The Sociology of Knowledge," in: Isis (1937), Vol 27. nr.22. p. 493
  • A further turn is to be found in some "unmasking" accounts of natural science, which aim to show that its pretensions to deliver the truth are unfounded, because of social forces that control its activities. Unlike the case of history, these do not use truths of the same kind; they do not apply science to the criticism of science. They apply the social sciences, and typically depend on the remarkable assumption that the sociology of knowledge is in a better position to deliver truth about science than science is to deliver truth about the world.

See also

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