The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Robert K. Merton

The sociology of knowledge (*)

Isis, 27 (3)

Nov. 1937, 493-503.

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.  Briefly stated, the sociology of knowledge is primarily concerned with the “dependence of knowledge upon social position” (1) and, to an excessive and fruitless degree, with the epistemological implications of such dependence.  In fact, as we shall see, there is a growing tendency to repudiate this latter problem as it becomes increasingly apparent that the social genesis of thought has no necessary bearing on its validity or falsity.

The Seinsverbundenheit of thought is held to be demonstrated when it can be shown that in certain realms knowledge does not develop according to immanent laws of growth (based on obser-

(*) This brief general survey of the subject is primarily but not exclusively based upon the following books

ERNST GRUNwAD. Das Problem der Soziologie des Wissens. Wien-Leipzig: WILHELM BRAUMULLER, 1934.  Pp. 279+viii. RM 7.50.

MAX SCHELER (ed.). Versuche zu einer Soziologie des Wissens. München und Leipzig DUNCKER & HUMBLOT, 1924.  Pp. 450+vii.

ALEXANDER VON SCHELTING. Max Webers Wissenschaftslehre. Tubingen : J. C. B. MOHR, 1934. Pp. 420+viii. RM 16.

KARL MANNHEIM. Ideology and utopia: an introduction to the sociology of knowledge.  Translated by LOUIS WIRTH and EDWARD SHILS. New York: HARCOURT, BRACE and Company; London: KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUBNER & Co., 1936. Pp. 318+xxxi. $4.00. 15s.

(1) “Seinsverbundenheit des Wissens”, a phrase which is fast becoming a ready cliché.


vation and logic) but that, at certain junctures, extra-theoretical factors of various sorts, usually termed Seinsfaktoren, determine the appearance, form, and in some instances, even the content and logical structure of this knowledge.  These non-theoretical factors may impinge upon thought in several ways: by leading to the perception of the problem, by determining its theoretical formulation, by fixing the assumptions and values which to a considerable degree affect the choice of materials and problems, and by being involved in the process of verification.

These factors manifestly influence thought in certain spheres (e.g. the social sciences and the field of opinion generally) to a far greater extent than others (e.g., the physical and natural sciences).  Hence it is quite understandable that most students of Wissenssoziologie have neglected the analysis of the development of the more firmly established disciplines.

It is manifest that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with problems which have had a long prehistory.  So far is this true, that this discipline has, already found its first historian, ERNST GRUNWALD.  As he properly indicates, some of its dominant conceptions are simply more systematic and more clearly formulated restatements of views which found expression in the writings of FRANCIS BACON (see his discussion of the Idola), to trace them no further back.  In this same tradition, marking the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment, inasmuch as it assumed that man is capable of acquiring valid knowledge concerning all problems but does not do so merely because of ‘disturbing factors’, is VOLTAIRE’s doctrine of the “priestly lie.”  From this view that man, who can know the truth, is lead to conscious dissimulation by his interests (economic, the will to power, etc.), it is not a far cry to the doctrine that ideas are the outcome of profound interests which unwittingly tincture and distort every phase of man’s thought.  NIETZSCHE starts out from this basis but adds a new facet: the fact that a judgment is false does not necessarily preclude its utility.  This distinction between truth and utility finds further expression in the works of VAIHINGER, SOREL, PARETO and G. ADLER.

According to GRUNWALD, the Christian dogma of evil, which is error in the cognitive sphere, as a necessary element of the inscrutable Divine Plan, is the second principal historical root


of the sociology of knowledge.  Certain groups, notably those of unbelievers, were stricken with blindness by God, so that their judgments cannot be valid.  Hence, it is no longer necessary to analyze their individual judgments in order to ascertain their falsity; this is pre-determined by their group-affiliation.  In the hands of HEGEL, this doctrine becomes secularized, and necessarily fallacious thought, up to a certain point, is held to be a reflection of the absolute Geist, since such thought is nothing but a means for the “List der Vernunft” to gain its own ends.  This idealistic historicism guarantees its own truth by holding that the philosopher, HEGEL himself, stands in alliance with the world-spirit; he is no longer simply a tool in the hands of the absolute spirit, but is at last able to comprehend it.  MARX substitutes the “relations of production” for HEGEL’S absolute spirit: the determinant of an individual’s thought and attitudes is found in his position in the productive process.  Just as some classes are unavoidably characterized by unavoidably distorted viewpoints (falsches Bewusstsein) - hence the motives of their members need not be impugned - so the class which is the exponent of an immanent historic process, namely the proletariat, is assured the possibility, if indeed not the certainty, of valid thought.

The circular reasoning of these doctrines is apparent.  Assuming premises which involve a radical historicism entailing the denial of the possibility of valid thought, they uniformly seek to vindicate their own contentions by mere fiat: by asserting that the historical process (transcendentally or immanently determined) is such as to exempt the writer, or the group with which be is affiliated, from error.

In contrast to these views, MAX SCHELER does not accord any one social class a monopoly of truth.  In an aphoristic fashion which did not permit him to develop his many insights, he suggests that the Realfaktoren (race, state, economy) act as selective agencies of ideas, retarding or quickening their diffusion, but not affecting their validity or determining their content.  This view does not initially preclude an analysis of the development of the physical and natural sciences since it is primarily concerned with the study of non-theoretic factors in so far as they determine the direction of intellectual interest.  An extreme historicism, on the other hand, precisely because it unwarrantably maintains that the


conditioning of thought by socio-cultural factors has a significant bearing on its validity, is compelled to eliminate these sciences from consideration, on pain of being forced into the uncomfortable position of repudiating the accumulated bulk of scientific knowledge.

SCHELER suggests that an important social development which lay behind the upsurge of modern science was the increasing division between Church and State in the late Middle Ages, and the subsequent multiplication of religious sects.  This meant an ever greater guarantee of the freedom of science since scientists could play the many authorities against one another with the result that authoritarian restrictions on science became ever less binding.  “Toleration” is not unrelated to a multiplicity of conflicting sectarian points of view.  Moreover, in contrast to the feudal ruling classes which consistently sought control over men, the new bourgeoisie were primarily concerned with acquiring the capacity and power to reshape things into valuable goods.  This change was equally manifested by a suppression of the ‘magical’ techniques of controlling groups and of the traditional ruling classes and by a new positive estimation of the possibility of controlling nature.

“Nicht der technische Bedarf bedingt die neue Wissenschaft, nicht die neue Wissenschaft den technischen Fortschritt, sondern im Typus des burgerlichen neuen Menschentums und seiner neuen Triebstruktur und seinem neuen Ethos ist ebensowohl fundiert die ursprungliche Umformung des logischen Kategorial-systems der neuen Wissenschaft als der neue gleich ursprungliche technische Antrieb auf Naturbeherrschung.” (p. 100)

SCHELER suggests further that parliamentary democracy (or regimes approximating it in structure) has been connected with science in the liberal era through a number of common presuppositions and demands.  First among these is the general belief, embodied in strong sentiments, that free discussion, the dialectic exchange of ideas and theses, would generally lead in science as well as in the political arena to truth and the politically correct.  “Freedom shall lead ye to truth” is sharply opposed to the authoritarian doctrine: my (2) “truth shall make ye free.”

(2) It might be suggested that the relevant implications of the Biblical phrase first become fully manifest when read in the setting of the previous verse: “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then [are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free.” JOHN, viii : 31, 32.]

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Belief in the “eternal truths of reason” is broken through by the relativism of positivistic science as well as by parliamentary democracy.  In its place appears the belief in unlimited discussion as a means of arriving at the true.  This, suggests SCHELER, with its Poincarean doctrine of conventionalism, of pragmatism which tests assumptions simply by an appeal to convenience, has as a consequence a Zersplitterung which comes dangerously close to an opportunism of the interests which prevail at any moment.  Hence, it leads - this was written in 1923 - in the sphere of knowledge to a demand for an “established truth” and in the political realm to the drive for the abolition of an antiquated parliamentarism, to a readiness for dictatorship, from the right or left.

“So hat der liberale Szientifismus und der parlamentarische Demokratismus sich eben in diesem gemeinsamen Prinzip langsam fast totgelaufen, um (noch) nur literarisch - nicht politisch - bedeutsamen Verzweiflungsschreien nach, Dezision’, Diktatur, Autorität Platz zu machen.” (138)

MANNHEIM’s recently translated work (3) is primarily concerned with the examination of human thought as it operates in political life “as an instrument of collective action” and not as it is normatively described in textbooks on logic.  Upon the assumption that it is the will of members of groups to change or to maintain the realms of society and nature which guides the emergence of their concepts, problems and modes of thought, MANNHEIM seeks to discriminate and isolate various styles of thinking and to relate them to the groups in which they arise.  The fact that thought is so rooted in a social milieu need not lead to error but may provide a perspective for observing aspects of a problem which would otherwise be overlooked.  Contrariwise, a given social position so limits one’s point of view as to obscure various facets of the situation under scrutiny.  These conceptions are developed by MANNHEIM in connection with his discussion of the two basic concepts, ideology and utopia.

(3) We are indebted to Prof. LOUIS WRATH and EDWARD SHILS for a lucid translation of a particularly difficult work.  This volume combines MANNHEIM’S widely-heralded Ideologie und Utopie, first published in 1929; his article “Wissenssoziologie”, published in the Handwörterbuch der Soziologie, edited by ALFRED VIERKANDT; and an introduction written especially for the English edition.


The concept “ideology” is an outgrowth of political conflict in the course of which it appears “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.” (p. 36)  As a result, the social judgments of the dominant strata constitute an apologia for the existing order.  Ideologies are of two types : particular and total.  The particularist version maintains that the views of our opponent are so bound up with his class position that he is unwilling or unable to admit considerations which destroy his claims to dominance.  Historically, the first step toward the change of the particularist to the total conception was taken by KANT in his development of a philosophy of consciousness.  This held that an infinitely variegated world is transformed into a unity through the unity of the perceiving subject who evolves principles of organization (categories) for understanding this world.  The subject is not a concrete individual but “consciousness in itself,” which, viewed by HEGEL in historical perspective as subject to continuous transformation, becomes the Volksgeist.  With MARX, the folk-spirit is broken down into consciousness of classes and unitary perspectives are held to be peculiar of classes rather than of peoples, times, or nations.

It is possible to divide the total conception into special and general forms.  Special, by interpreting opponents’ views as a mere function of their social position; general, when the analyst subjects all points of view, including his own, to ideological analysis.  “With the emergence of the general formulation of the total conception of ideology, the simple theory of ideology develops into the sociology of knowledge.” (p. 69)  This general total conception is finally divided into an evaluative, which is concerned with the epistemological bases of ideas, and a ‘non-evaluative type, which seeks simply to ascertain how certain social relations give rise to particular interpretations.

The second of MANNHEIM’S basic pair of concepts is that of utopia.  Oriented toward an as yet non-existent but concretely realizable state of affairs, conceptions which, once they pass over into action, break up the existing order, are utopian.  In contrast to ideologies which are illusory, utopias (as thus defined) are true.  Manifestly, this involves an ex post facto criterion of truth


since it is otherwise impossible to ascertain which ideas will be translated into actual situations.

Inasmuch as MANNHEIM has severely delimited, if not eliminated, the realm of valid thinking, he is compelled, as were his predecessors, to justify his own observations as true and not merely ideological.  This he strives to accomplish by indicating that there is an “unanchored, relatively classless stratum, the socially unattached intelligentsia” (sozialfreischwebende Intelligenz), who can, by virtue of their detachment, transcend class perspectives and attain valid thought, which integrates the various partial points of view.  And, by necessary inference, it is in this stratum that MANNHEIM finds his place.  Once again, the grounds of validity are found not in objective canons of truth but in the characteristics of a specifically defined group.  And on what basis can one establish this premise?

In the course of his invariably stimulating discussion, MANNHEIM states a number of theorems which might more advisedly be construed as suggestive hypotheses.  It is only in a highly differentiated society, characterized by high social mobility and democratization, that the confrontation of incompatible and mutually unintelligible universes of discourse leads to relativism.  The sociology of knowledge could itself arise only in such a society where, with the emergence of new and the destruction of old basic values, the very foundations on which an opponent’s beliefs rest are challenged.

(4) The use of the term “opponent” or “adversary” reflects the political source of MANNHEIM’S thought and its general inapplicability to scientific developments.  The function of political controversy, in contrast to scientific criticism and discussion, is personal or party aggrandizement at the expense of ‘opposing’, ‘competing’ persons or parties.  Hence, the objective of discrediting one’s opponent à tout prix.  In science, the “opponent”, if it be permitted to revert to anthropomorphism in order to find a parallel, is “ignorance” or the “resistance of nature to the uncovering of its secrets.”  To be sure, because of social factors which are extraneous to the pursuit of science itself, the same elements of personal aggrandizement and loyalty to a “school” or faction may intrude themselves into scientific pursuits.  But these are considered to represent unfortunate deviations from the governing norm of impersonality; they are not tactical expedients for the specific end in view.  In fact, it is the essential function of this norm of impersonality to preclude these emotional involvements of scientists with certain of “their” theories, so as to leave them willing and ready to foresake these theories when new facts demonstrate their inadequacy.  The sentiment basic to science adheres to the dominating idea of “the search for truth” and the intrusion of other sentiments [(personal vainglory, economic and political status, etc.) is apt to disturb this unbiassed pursuit of truth.  Hence, also, the jealous reaction of the scientist when loyalties to other institutions, e.g. the State, are demanded of him qua scientist, since these, as in the case of PHILIPP LENARD’S denunciation of EINSTEIN’S “Jewish physics”, interfere with the institutionalized functioning of scientific research.

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MANNHEIM propounds the further thesis that “even the categories in which experiences are subsumed, collected and ordered vary according to the social position of the observer.” (p. 130)  An organically integrated group conceives of history as a continuous movement toward the realization of its ends; socially uprooted and loosely integrated groups espouse an a-historical intuitionism which stresses the fortuitous and imponderable.  The well-adjusted conservative mentality is averse to historical theorizing since the social order, which is viewed as “natural”, presents no problems.  Only the questioning of the status quo by opposing classes leads conservatives to defensive philosophical and historical reflections concerning themselves and the social world.  Furthermore, conservatism tends to view history in terms of morphological categories which stress the unique character of historical configurations, whereas advocates of change adopt an analytical approach in order to arrive at units which may be recombined, through causality or functional integration, into new wholes.  The first view stresses the inherent stability of the social structure as it is; the second emphasizes changeability by abstracting the component elements of this structure and rearranging them anew.

In so far as it claims epistemological relevance, MANNHEIM’s discussion has been subjected to a thoroughgoing critique by Dr. VON SCHELTING (5), who clarifies many of the controversial issues involved.  His leading objections may be briefly summarized. 1. The imputation of ideological thought to one’s opponent is a rhetorical device which as a social phenomenon may be profitably studied by social science, but it is doubtful

(5) We are here concerned only with that section of SCHELTING’S book, namely pages 73-177, esp. pp. 117-167, which deal directly with the sociology of knowledge.  It may be said in passing that the work as a whole contributes much to our understanding of MAX WEBER’S methodology and clearly demonstrates its importance for present day research in the social sciences.  Cf. also SCHELTING’S lengthy review of MANNHEIM’S Ideologie und Utopie in the American Sociological Review, August 1936.


whether we are justified in adopting ideology as a central concept.  2. In the total version of the ideology concept, the entire structure of an individual’s thought is involved.  Hence there can only be ideological thought, and even science, especially social science, becomes bound to social position and is consequently invalid.  How, then, can MANNHEIM claim validity for his own thought?  Whether MANNHEIM has been led to this familiar relativistic impasse is, however, a moot point which does not lend itself to a ready solution.  At times, MANNHEIM maintains that the determination of thought by social position is not necessarily a source of error, but may often afford an opportunity for insights which are otherwise not possible. (6)  In other contexts, he asserts that such determination destroys the possibility of valid thought (7).  It seems that these contradictions rest upon a twofold confusion.  In the first place stands the tenable thesis of a greater probability of distortion and error when interest and sentiment not only motivate but also pervade the very act of cognition.  This is the familiar personal and social equation.  But this is confused with the necessity of significant bias in all situations involving “vital interestedness.”  Secondly, the fact that one’s interests and consequent definition and limitation of the problem are related to class affiliation is at times unwarrantably assumed to imply that judgments within this limited sphere are necessarily incorrect.  These are essentially distinct propositions: the grounds for choice of a problem imply nothing about the status of its solution (8).

3. SCHELTING properly indicates MANNHEIM’s serious confusion of essentially different spheres.  Ethical and aesthetic norms, political and religious beliefs (prejudices and convictions) and scientific judgments are all lumped under the one rubric “Wissen”, (I & U, pp. 22, 72, 84) and considerations which are applicable to some of these phenomena are tacitly extended to all.  On

(6) See, for example, pp. 42, 72, 111, 124, 153, 254.

(7) See, for example, pp. 61-62, 175-6, 184.

(8) In his essay on The Sociology of Knowledge, MANNHEIM tempers his views and grants the possibility of particularized validity to different observers in the same class position who “on the basis of the identity of their conceptual and categorial apparatus and through the common universe of discourse thereby created, arrive at similar results.” (p. 270)  But MANNHEIM does not concede the possibility of objective judgments transcending class position.


what grounds may one attribute or refuse “validity” to ethical norms!  4. MANNHEIM’s multiple criteria of “truth” - an idea’s fulfilment of function, active efficacy, etc. - are non-cognitive, non-theoretical bases for evaluating ideas.  Moreover, they presuppose the very concept of objective validity which they purport to supplant.  5. If super-particular validity is vouchsafed the “socially unattached intelligentsia”, how does one arrive at this valid generalization, except by epistemological fiat, and secondly, how can one objectively establish the fact that a specific individual is “socially unattached”?

6. MANNHEIM freely grants that the “psychological genesis” of ideas is irrelevant to the problem of their validity.  Yet, he maintains that the “social genesis” of thought involves such relevance because it is a “meaningful genesis.”  This is only apparently convincing.  The argument rests on the confusion of the theory of the irrelevance of genesis for the meaning of a judgment (which no one denies) with the doctrine of the irrelevance of genesis for the validity of a judgment.  Only the latter is maintained by epistemology.

7. Finally, the thesis of historical change in the categories of thought has not been demonstrated.  In the course of such nominal “demonstrations”, comparisons are characteristically made, not between the categories involved in the positive thought of various peoples, but between these and the categories basic to religious or magical conceptions.  This fallacy, which is shared by both MANNHEIM and SCHELER, is especially conspicuous in the work of LÉVY-BRUHL, JERUSALEM and their disciples.  In controverting this thesis, it can be shown a) that in realms other than that of positive knowledge, the negation of the principles of identity and contradiction is prevalent even in our own day and b) that in primitive groups, in addition to spheres where “pre-logicality” is dominant, there exists a corpus of technical knowledge which presupposes the canons of logic and verification basic to positive thought.

Once we leave this general problem of the epistemological relevance of the sociology of knowledge, disagreement gives way largely to consensus.  If this discipline is to bear fruit, if it is to provide insight and understanding of the complex interrelations of thought and society, it would seem advisable that its investi-


gations be restricted to problems which lend themselves to tests of fact.  In his preface to MANNHEIM’s work, Professor WIRTH describes some of these fundamental problems.

1. Determination of the shifts in the foci of intellectual interest which are associated with changes in the social structure (changes in differentiation, stratification, etc.)

2. Analysis of the mentality of a social stratum, with due regard for the factors which determine acceptance or rejection of particular ideas by certain groups.

3. Studies of the social evaluation of types of knowledge and of the factors determining the proportion of social resources devoted to each of these types.

4. Studies of the conditions under which new problems and disciplines, arise and decline.

5. Systematic examination of the social organization of intellectual life, including norms guiding such activity, sources of support, direction and foci of interests involved in such organization.

6. Study of the agencies facilitating, impeding and directing the transmission and diffusion of ideas and knowledge.

7. Studies of the intellectual: his social origins, means of social selection, degree of change or shift in class loyalties, incentives for particular pursuits, associated interests.

8. Analysis of the social consequences of scientific, and particularly technological, advance.

It is likely that the emphasis upon the metaphysical and epistemological implications of the sociology of knowledge can be traced, in part, to the fact that the first proponents of this discipline stemmed largely from philosophical rather than scientific circles.  The burden of further research is to turn from this welter of conflicting opinion to empirical investigations which may establish in adequate detail the uniformities pertaining to the appearance, acceptance and diffusion, or rejection and repression, development and consequences of knowledge and ideas.

Harvard University                                              Robert K. Merton