Sociology of knowledge

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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. (See also: sociology of scientific knowledge) It is not a specialized area of sociology but instead deals with broad fundamental questions about the extent and limits of social influences on individual's lives and the social-cultural basics of our knowledge about the world.[1]

The sociology of knowledge was pioneered primarily by the sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Their works deal directly with how conceptual thought, language, and logic could be influenced by the sociological milieu out of which they arise. While neither author specifically coined nor used the term 'sociology of knowledge', their work is an important first contribution to the field.

The specific term 'sociology of knowledge' first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists, most notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim, wrote extensively on it. With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the 20th century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied much more closely to everyday life in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society (compare socially constructed reality). The 'genealogical' and 'archaeological' studies of Michel Foucault are of considerable contemporary influence.

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Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) is credited as having been the first professor to successfully establish the field of sociology, institutionalizing a department of sociology at the Université de Bordeaux in the 1890s. While his works deal with a number of subjects, including suicide, the family, social structures, and social institutions, a large part of his work deals with the sociology of knowledge. In 1902, he published, with Marcel Mauss, "De quelques formes primitives de classification", an essay that examines how the various ways in which a society is organized structurally impacts the formation of a society's categories and logical grouping systems.

One of the most important elements of Durkheim's theory knowledge is his concept of représentation collectives (collective representations). 'Représentations collectives' are the symbols and images that come to represent the ideas, beliefs, and values elaborated by a collectivity and are not reducible to individual constituents. They can include words, slogans, ideas, or any number of material items that can serve as a symbol, such as a cross, a rock, a temple, a feather etc. As Durkheim elaborates, 'représentations collectives' are created through the intense interaction of religious rituals. They are products of collective activity and as such these 'représentations' have the particular, and somewhat contradictory, aspect that they exist externally to the individual (since they are created and controlled not by the individual but by society as a whole), and yet simultaneously within each individual of the society (by virtue of that individual's participation within society). Through 'représentations collectives' the group exerts pressure on the individual to conform to society's norms of morality and thought. As such, collective representations help to order and make sense of the world, but they also express, symbolize and interpret social relationships.

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