Sociology 3523
SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE
(Peter Weeks, Spring 2003)

Course Description:

This course is concerned with the social organization of knowledge — in terms of ‘information', ‘facts', science, ideology, common-sense and popular culture. For our purposes, ‘knowledge' refers to sets of ideas accepted by a social group or society in terms of what is real for them. Rather than being a specialized area of sociology, the sociology of knowledge deals with the broad, underlying questions about the extent and limits of social influences on people's lives and the social-cultural foundations of our knowledge of the world. Basically, we can divide the approaches to this field between "the social determination of knowledge" (the ways in which social organization influences people's beliefs and ideas) and "the social construction of reality" (that social reality is produced and communicated, and that knowledge itself shapes social organization).

A major issue is the control of information and expertise, especially by state and corporate bureaucracies, the professionals & other types of ‘experts'. The social organization of knowledge is considered in the context of information technology, whether print, electronic mass media or computer technology (as in the Internet) where masses of information are disseminated with great speed. An important underlying question concerns the distinction between ‘knowledge' and ‘information' in terms of assessing relevance, authenticity, and credibility of that information.

Exercising power through knowledge is, to a significant extent, accomplished through a distinctive ‘official discourse' which is impersonal, abstract, and far removed from the language of the everyday experience of people. These characteristics give that discourse an appearance of objectivity, facticity, and credibility — such that the decisions (often political) in producing it are not at all visible to the public who reads the resulting reports, statistics, and news stories. In fact, we can validly state that we live in a society where knowledge in the form of texts (printed or electronic) is so pervasive that we take it for granted. We need analytical frameworks to sort out the various effects of these and their related technologies on our lives.

In the sociology of knowledge, we can draw on these major sociological traditions:
(a) a Marxist analysis of ideology — concerning the relation of ‘knowledge' to social class position,
(b) phenomenology — exploring the structure of common-sense knowledge and "the social construction of reality" in everyday situations,
(c) ethnomethodology concerning practical reasoning, and
(d) feminist theory — which explores the practices and structures through which women's contribution to knowledge has been systematically excluded. The work of Dorothy Smith on the social organization of knowledge will be the particular focus.

In addition, we shall be introducing critical discourse analysis to consider the detailed structures of language and images in relation to the exercise of power.

The course will be based on lectures but with frequent class discussions and the use of audiovisual materials.

Required Text:
The major articles for this course have been edited by the instructor into a reader entitled Readings in the Sociology of Knowledge. It is to be available for sale in the U.N.B. Bookstore within the first two weeks of the course.
Due to time limitations, copies of articles on new topics will be circulated.

Assignments & Evaluation:

A. Class Participation 15%
Participation in group discussions and attendance in class make up this item.

B. Report 20%
This is a critical summary of some of the key ideas in articles and discussions in class that have arisen some time before the due date.

C. Midterm within Class Period 30%
Essay-style questions provide an occasion to synthesize one's knowledge and display the cumulative connections among central concepts.

D. Formal essay or project demonstration/presentation 35%
This individual-based assignment will be the last formal requirement of the course. This is to be approximately 15 pages on a topic from the list of recommended topics to be distributed in class. There will NOT be a final examination. It is due on MARCH 21st.

Topics & Readings:

1. Introduction. What kinds of knowledge should sociology consider? Basic distinction between the social determination of knowledge and "the social construction of reality" as approaches to our subject.
Reading: * What is Knowledge? by E. Doyle McCarthy

2. Knowledge & Power: Marxist analysis of ideology:
(a) classic statements:
Readings:
* The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
* Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Carl Boggs, Jr.
* Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser
(b) application to specific ideologies, including those of globalization:
Reading:
The Politics of Common-Sense: Why the Right is Winning, Michael W. Apple
One or two brief articles to be circulated.

3. Knowledge & Power: Recent Approaches:
(a) bureaucracy, corporatism, and globalization,
Reading: * The Nation-State, Information and Control, Anthony Giddens
(b) dispersion of power & surveillance — Foucault's analysis,
Reading: * Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault
(d) "textually mediated social organization",
Reading: * Textually Mediated Social Organization, Dorothy E. Smith

4. Critical Discourse Analysis: focus on language:
Readings:
* Double Speak. William Lutz
* Plastic Words, Uwe Pörksen
* The Principles of Newspeak, George Orwell (from 1984)

5. Phenomenological Tradition: "The Social Construction of Reality", including common-sense & other types of knowledge:
Readings:
* The Foundations of Knowledge in Everyday Life, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann (extract only)
* Legitimation, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.

6. Ethnomethodology: Practical Reasoning in terms of "facts", the problems of versions, and the nature of discovery.
Readings: to be circulated.

7. Information Technologies:
(a) claims regarding "the information society" and the promises of digital technology:
Reading: * Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte
(b) implications for our conceptions of "knowledge", "ideas", "information", "facts", and the associated problems of relevance.
Reading: * Ideas and Data, Theodore Roszak
(c) "artificial intelligence" — including the question of whether computers can think, the tendency to model ourselves on computers, and even the question of what is "mind"?
Reading:
* Can a Machine Think?, Graham Button, Jeff Coulter, John R.E. Lee, and Wes Sharrock

1006 Introduction to Sociology
2313 Deviance
2513 Sociology of Communication
2613 Sociology of Gender
3013 Classical Sociological Theory
3023 Modern Sociological Theory
3513 Sociology of Education
3523 Sociology of Knowledge
3563 Sociology of Music
3573 Sociology of Art & Culture
4013 Senior Seminar
4033 Advanced Sociological Theory


Dr. Peter Weeks / Sociology / Faculty / STU Homepage