Sociology of knowledge: Mannheim

The sociology of knowledge is an interesting but somewhat specialized field of research in sociology. Basically the idea is thatknowledge — by which I mean roughly “evidence-based representations of the natural, social, and behavioral world” — is socially conditioned, and it is feasible and important to uncover some of the major social and institutional processes through which these representations are created. There is a cognitive side of the field as well — the idea that our cognitive frameworks and conceptual schemes are influenced by social conditions and our own social locations. So presuppositions, concepts, and explanatory scripts have social antecedents that become psychologically real. And, often enough, these presuppositions work to obscure the world even as they provide frameworks for representing the world. So one of the by-products of the sociology is to uncover some of these misleading aspects of our thoughts about the world. Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities expresses this function of theory very clearly.

Karl Mannheim (Ideology And Utopia: An Introduction To The Sociology Of Knowledge), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge), and Neil Gross and Charles Camic (Social Knowledge in the Makinglink) have made important and quite different contributions. Mannheim focuses largely on the role that ideology plays in our representations of the workings of the social world within which we live. Berger and Luckmann focus on “ordinary knowledge” and the specific ways in which people acquire and incorporate commonsensical understandings of the world. Gross and Camic, the most recent contributors to this field, look at the institutional settings and processes through which organized academic “knowledge” is created. Here I will discuss Mannheim, and later posts will turn to these other contributions.

It is worth observing that this field asks some of the same questions that the sociology of science poses as well. Robert Merton, for example, wanted to understand more fully how the institutional settings of scientific research conditioned the creation of scientific knowledge (link). And historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Peter Galison give substantial attention to the particular features of the social and practical conditions within which scientific concepts and theories emerge.

A complication arises when we turn these analytical questions towards the content of social beliefs and presuppositions. Because here there is a connection between knowledge and interests: beliefs like “fixed rent land tenure is an efficient system for producing agricultural innovation” have definite and different consequences for various actors in society — landlords, sovereigns, peasant proprietors, and tenant farmers. So what appears to be a factual statement about incentives and farming turns out to have different effects on various actors’ interests. This is where Marx’s ideas of ideology and false consciousness come in: various classes have an interest in favoring or disfavoring certain ways of looking at the world. Marx might put the point along these lines: one’s position within the system of property and technology introduces a bias into one’s beliefs about how the world works. 

So let’s look at Mannheim’s theory. Mannheim opens his book with these words in the expanded English edition of 1936:

This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it actually functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action. (1)

The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscure. (2)

The sociology of knowledge seeks to comprehend thought in the concrete setting of an historical-social situation out of which individually differentiated thought only very gradually emerges. (3)

Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. He finds himself in an inherited situation of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. (3)

Many of these statements can be understood in terms of the general problem of beliefs about reality that human beings face in the world: we have perceptions and needs, and we are forced to arrive at concepts and explanatory ideas through which we can organize our perceptions and pursue our needs. Knowledge frameworks do not come to human beings full-blown; instead it is a major historical and cultural task to create such frameworks. And this is just as true for the problem of knowing how social relationships work as it is for understanding the workings of the natural world. The conceptual frameworks and explanatory hypotheses that we form are contingent and historical products, and they have a social history.

Mannheim argues in this 1936 introduction that it takes a certain level of complexity of society to permit us to even begin to notice the specific and controvertible presuppositions of our knowledge frameworks. Essentially, this is the period in which people with different interests and life situations come into communicative interaction with each other. Disagreement raises the possibility of cognitive criticism. Two ideas are particularly core for his sociology of knowledge, ideology and utopia.

The concept “ideology” reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely, that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. (40)

The concept of utopian thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. (40)

The intellectual activity of “unmasking” is an antidote for both of these frames of thought: a revealing of the distortions associated with a certain framework and a revealing of the interests that make these distortions understandable (41). And one needs to subject his/her own position to this same critical method: “As long as one does not call his own position into question but regards it as absolute, while interpreting his opponent’s ideas as a mere function of the social positions they occupy, the decisive step forward has not yet been taken” (77). 

Here is an interesting passage on the historical relativity of conceptual systems:

Our definition of concepts depends upon our position and point of view which, in turn, is influenced by a good many unconscious steps in our thinking. The first reaction of a thinker on being confronted with the limited nature and ambiguity of his notions is to block the way for as long as possible to a systematic and total formulation of the problem. [e.g. Positivism.] (103)

Mannheim’s formulation of the issue, and his use of the concept of ideology, makes his theory appear to be an extension of Marx’s theory of historical materialism and his theory of ideology . He was in fact extensively influenced by Georg Lukacs (link). But I don’t think that Ideology and Utopia is intended to be a faithful development of Marxian concepts. His reasoning seems to have many similarities to that of Weber, and the question he is ultimately interested in is the ways in which human knowledge and belief are themselves contingent, conditioned creative activities. His theory ultimately has much less to do with the burden of class interests on knowledge than would a more orthodox Marxist theory have had.

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