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Social epistemology

Social epistemology

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Social epistemology is a broad set of approaches to the study of knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

, all of which construe human knowledge as a collective achievement. Another way of positioning social epistemology is as the study of the social dimensions of knowledge. One of the enduring difficulties with defining social epistemology is defining what knowledge means in this context. There is also a challenge in arriving at a definition of social which satisfies academics from different disciplines. Social epistemologists may be found working in many of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences
Social sciences
Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

, most commonly in philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 and sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

. In addition to marking a distinct movement in traditional, analytic epistemology, social epistemology is associated with the interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies
Science and technology studies
Science, technology and society is the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture...


The emergence of social epistemology

The term "social epistemology" was first used by the library scientists Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera
Jesse Shera
Jesse Hauk Shera was an American librarian and information scientist who pioneered the use of information technology in libraries and played a role in the expansion of its use in other areas throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s....

 in the 1950s. Steven Shapin
Steven Shapin
Steven Shapin is a historian and sociologist of science. He is currently the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University...

 also used it in 1979. But its current sense began to emerge in the late 1980s. In 1987, the philosophical journal Synthese
Synthese is a scholarly periodical edited by Johan van Benthem, Vincent F. Hendricks and John Symons specializing in papers in epistemology, methodology and philosophy of science...

published a special issue on social epistemology, which would include two authors that have since taken the discipline in two divergent directions: Alvin Goldman
Alvin Goldman
Alvin Ira Goldman is an American professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He previously taught at the University of Michigan and at the University of Arizona. He earned his PhD from Princeton University and is married to Holly Smith, a well known ethicist, former...

 and Steve Fuller3. Fuller founded a journal called Social Epistemology
Social Epistemology (journal)
Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is a quarterly academic journal. The journal was established in 1987 and is published by Routledge in collaboration with the Society for Social Studies of Science and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology...

: a journal of knowledge, culture, and policy
in 1987 and published his first book, Social Epistemology, in 1988. Goldman's Knowledge in a Social World came out in 1999; he is currently editor of the journal Episteme: a journal of social epistemology, which was founded in 2004. While the aims and scope of these two journals overlap in many respects, Social Epistemology is more open to science studies in addition to philosophy, while "the principal style [of Episteme] is that of analytical philosophy". Goldman advocates for a type of epistemology which is sometimes called veritistic epistemology because of its large emphasis on truth. This type of epistemology is sometimes seen to side with "essentialism" as opposed to "multiculturalism". But Goldman has argued that this association between veritistic epistemology and essentialism is not necessary.

The basic view of knowledge that motivated the emergence of social epistemology can be traced to the work of Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term "paradigm shift," which has since become an English-language staple.Kuhn...

 and Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

, which gained in prominence at the end of the 1960s. Both brought historical concerns directly to bear on problems long associated with the philosophy of science
Philosophy of science
The philosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods and implications of science. It is also concerned with the use and merit of science and sometimes overlaps metaphysics and epistemology by exploring whether scientific results are actually a study of truth...

. Perhaps the most notable issue here was the nature of truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

, which both Kuhn and Foucault described as a relative and contingent notion. On this background, ongoing work in the sociology of scientific knowledge
Sociology of scientific knowledge
The sociology of scientific knowledge ' is the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing "with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."...

 (SSK) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS) was able to assert its epistemological consequences, leading most notably to the establishment of the "Strong Programme
Strong programme
The strong programme or Strong Sociology is a variety of the sociology of scientific knowledge particularly associated with David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald A. MacKenzie, and John Henry. The strong programme's influence on Science and Technology Studies is credited as being...

" at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

. In terms of the two strands of social epistemology, Fuller is more sensitive and receptive to this historical trajectory (if not always in agreement) than Goldman, whose self-styled 'veritistic' social epistemology can be reasonably read as a systematic rejection of the more extreme claims associated with Kuhn and Foucault.

Present and future concerns

At this stage, both varieties of social epistemology remain largely "academic" or "theoretical" projects. But both emphasise the social significance of knowledge and therefore the cultural value of social epistemology itself. Both journals, for example, welcome papers that include a policy dimension. More practical applications of social epistemology can be found in the areas of library science
Library science
Library science is an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field that applies the practices, perspectives, and tools of management, information technology, education, and other areas to libraries; the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and the...

, academic publishing
Academic publishing
Academic publishing describes the subfield of publishing which distributes academic research and scholarship. Most academic work is published in journal article, book or thesis form. The part of academic written output that is not formally published but merely printed up or posted is often called...

, knowledge policy
Knowledge policy
Policies are the paradigms of government and all bureaucracies. Policies provide a context of rules and methods to guide how large organizations meet their responsibilities. Organizational knowledge policies describe the institutional aspects of knowledge creation, management, and use within the...

 and debates over the role over the Internet in knowledge transmission and creation.

See also

  • Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social – including political and economic – phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the Aristotelian concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, common sense, or prudence. Phronesis is the intellectual virtue...

  • Sociology of knowledge
    Sociology of knowledge
    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...

  • Sociology of scientific knowledge
    Sociology of scientific knowledge
    The sociology of scientific knowledge ' is the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing "with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."...

  • Steve Fuller, Social Epistemologist
  • Social constructionism
    Social constructionism
    Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. A social construction is a concept or practice that is the construct of a particular group...

External links