The last generation has witnessed the emergence of a special field of sociological inquiry: the sociology of knowledge (Wissenssoziologie). The term "knowledge" must be interpreted very broadly indeed, since studies in this area have dealt with virtually the entire gamut of cultural products (ideas, ideologies, juristic and ethical beliefs, philosophy, science, technology). But whatever the conception of knowledge, the orientation of this discipline remains largely the same: it is primarily concerned with the relations between knowledge and other existential factors in the society or culture....


1. Where is the existential basis of mental productions located?

a. social bases: social position, class, generation, occupational role, mode of production, group structures (university, bureaucracy, academies, sects, political parties), "historical situation," interests, society, ethnic affiliation, social mobility, power structure, social processes (competition, conflict, etc.).

b. cultural bases: values, ethos, climate of opinion, Volksgeist, Zeitgeist, type of culture, culture mentality, Weltanschaungen, etc.

2. What mental productions are being sociologically anaylzed?

a. spheres of: moral beliefs, ideologies, ideas, the categories of thought, philosophy, religions beliefs, social norms, positive science, technology, etc.

b. which aspects are analyzed: their selection (foci of attention), level of abstraction, presuppositions (what is taken as data and what as problematical), conceptual content, models of verification, objectives of intellectual activity, etc.

3. How are mental productions related to the existential basis?

a. causal or functional relations: determination, cause, correspondence, necessary condition, conditioning, fucntional interdependence, interaction, dependence, etc.

b. symbolic or organismic or meaningful relations: consistency, harmony, coherence, unity, congruence, compatibility (and antonyms); expression, realization, symbolic expression, Strukturzusammenhang, structural identities, inner connection, stylistic analogies, logicomeaningful integration, identity of meaning, etc.

c. ambiguous terms to designate relations: correspondence, reflection, bound up with, in close connection with, etc.

4. Why? manifest and latent functions imputed to these existentially conditioned mental productions.

a. to maintain power, promote stability, orientation, expoloitation, obscure actual social relationships, provide motivation, canalize behavior, divert criticism, deflect hostility, provide reassurance, control nature, coordinate social relationships, etc.

5. When do the imputed relations of the existential base and knowledge obtain?

a. historicist theories (confined to particular societies or cultures).

b. general analytical theories.

Source: Robert K. Merton, "The Sociology of Knowledge," in Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957), 456, 460-1.


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