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Sociology of knowledge

The sociology of knowledge is the study of the social origins of ideas, and of the effects that prevailing ideas have on societies. (Compare history of ideas.)

The term first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists wrote extensively on it, notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim with Ideology and Utopia. 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 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.

Although very influential within modern sociology, the sociology of knowledge can claim its most significant impact on science more generally through its contribution to debate and understanding of the nature of science itself, most notably through the work of Thomas Kuhn on The structure of scientific revolutions (see also: paradigm).

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Karl Mannheim

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Phenomenological sociology

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Michel Foucault

A particularly important strain of the sociology of knowledge is the criticism by Michel Foucault. In "Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason", 1961, he argued that conceptions of madness and what was considered "reason" or "knowledge" was itself subject to major culture bias - in this respect mirroring similar criticisms by Thomas Szasz, at the time the foremost critic of psychiatry - and himself now an eminent psychiatrist. A point where Foucault and Ssasz agreed was that sociological processes played the major role in defining "madness" as an "illness" and prescribing "cures".

In "The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception", 1963, Foucault extended his critique to all of modern scientific medicine, arguing for the central conceptual metaphor of "The Gaze", which had implications for medical education, prison design, and the carceral state as understood today. Concepts of criminal justice and its intersection with medicine were better developed in this work than in Ssasz and others who confined their critique to current psychiatric practice.

Finally, in "The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences", 1966, and "The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969, Foucault introduced the abstract notions of mathesis and taxonomia. These, he claimed, had transformed 17th and 18th century studies of "general grammar" into modern "linguistics", "natural history" into modern "biology", and "analysis of wealth" into modern "economics". Not, claimed Foucault, without loss of meaning. The 19th century had transformed what knowledge was.

Perhaps Foucault's best-known and most controversial claim was that before the 18th century, "Man did not exist". The notions of humanity and of humanism were inventions or creations of this 19th century transformation. Accordingly, a cognitive bias had been introduced unwittingly into science, by over-trusting the individual doctor or scientist's ability to see and state things objectively. This study still guides sociology of knowledge and has been claimed to have sparked single-handed much of postmodernism. Foucault is taught as core curriculum to French high school students, who also study Nietzsche and his claim that "God is dead".

Bruno Latour

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The sociology of mathematical knowledge

Studies of mathematical practice and quasi-empiricism in mathematics are also rightly part of the sociology of knowledge, since they focus on the community of those who practice mathematics and their common assumptions. Since Eugene Wigner raised the issue in 1960 and Hilary Putnam made it more rigorous in 1975, the question of why fields such as physics and mathematics should agree so well has been in question. There is simply no explanation for this, other than sociological agreement, and usefulness of mathematics to predict unobserved phenomena in physics - pure circumstance, and nothing that a mathematician would call a "proof".

George Lakoff and others who advocate a cognitive science of mathematics argue that the social interactions and disciplined practices of what is now called cognitive science are the only way to overcome the now-generally-acknowledged cognitive bias in mathematics itself, or alternately, that it cannot be overcome at all, and thus that the sociology of knowledge and its creation and editing are only applicable to the human species.

An interesting artifact in the sociology of knowledge is the Erdos number derived from the graph of all mathematicians who collaborated with Paul Erdos, thousands of them, on number theory. Serious studies of this graph have barely begun, but there appear to be collaborations sparked purely by the graph as structure in itself. Thus, the notions of sociology of knowledge, and of sacred geometry in the form of the graph itself (Erdos' feat is unlikely or impossible to repeat, certainly in any near term future), seem to be converging, with no more insight as to why mathematics works well to organize what we call "knowledge", and what Foucault called a "mathesis".