Seton Hall University
Department of Sociology/Anthropology


SOCI 3417 Sociology of Knowledge 
Prof. Philip M. Kayal 
Spring, 2002
Office Hours: MTR: 10-11:00am; 12-1:00pm and 2:00-2:30pm and by Appointment
Office: A&S Hall 214

Course Outline and Description

This course will examine the question of "knowledge" from a sociological point of view.  What is knowledge? How do we come to create and know knowledge?   Are there different "knowledges" and "ways of knowing?" If so, how are they created and what are their sources? How do we know if  what we know is true or false?  What are the characteristics of different "knowledges?" These are some of the questions we will cover. We will be concentrating on the relationship of social structure to individual and collective consciousness.  This is a basic or classical sociological question and our readings will reflect the historical literature rather than more contemporary sources (mainly because the "older" stuff is better, available, and classic).  As students, however, you will apply what you learn to a contemporary issue, question, or problem like papal infallibility, sexuality, Zionism, the Palestinian question, foreign policy, "terrorism," AIDS, health, evolution vs. creationism, etc.

To do well in this class, it is necessary that you understand and utilize the sociological imagination, that is, the link between social arrangements and all personal beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and, of course, problems. To reacquaint yourself with this basic idea, read, as soon as possible, Berger (l971) and Mills (l956) as indicated in your syllabus. Both articles examine the relationship between the "inner" and "outer" life. They are on reserve in the library and are considered classics. 

As sociologists, our objective is to determine the "nature of knowledge" in itself and compare it to "social knowledge" or socially created and/or acceptable everyday knowledge.  In our society, institutionally manufactured knowledge and what we know are often synonymous. This tells us a lot about how we, as a society, construct, interpret and view "reality." While knowledge from a sociological perspective is created by human beings, other forms of knowledge or knowing might exist independently of our activity.  In other words, do we create knowledge or discover what is there already.  An interesting discussion of this question can be found in Bensman and Gerver (l958) and Goldstucker (l973). They discuss "Art" as a form of knowing. Even though art is situated, and the article "old," the truth of the article is eternal.

It is our thesis as sociologists that the social structure of an group of people will affect the production, ordering, and presentation of "information." This would also be true of particular individuals (intellectuals, scientists, teachers, etc.) since their social and professional characteristics will affect how they think and what they think about. In other words, the social organization of a particular society will affect the form that knowledge will take in that society.  Of course, the phenomenon of the individual psyche also has a place in the determination of "knowledge."

What becomes obvious as the course goes on is that logic or reason, as such, is not necessarily related to what people know or believe to be true (or maybe it is).  Our emphasis, in any case, will be on the social determinants of "knowledge" and how we come to know things as real.  To become acquainted with this idea, you should read the article by Zabrowski (l953).

As sociologists, we should also be concerned with "how we have come to believe what we have!" A fascinating question in itself. Berger would refer to "supporting plausibility structures" which must be present to help us make sense out of the world.

What this all means is that we will have to determine what "knowledge," broadly conceived, consists of. This is no easy task. It could refer to scientific data, ideas, opinion, emotions, perceptions, surveys, etc.  This question is crucial to sociology. In fact, European and American sociology stress and delimit different categories of knowledge.  A further question would be the "truth" content of either the ideas, beliefs, or information we have as individuals and members of society. We would also have to query as to how "ideas" are produced. In other words, what is their relationship to the environment (more particularly, social structure)?

In this regard, the question is determining how  ideas affect the environment we live in and vice versa? In order to appreciate this discussion, we will have to examine the social creation of reality and/or the social context in which reality is defined.  Hence, read the text by Berger (l967). Pay attention to how ideas and social structure interact to create each other and how social arrangements affect individual consciousness. Read (Glock, 1973).  These are classics.

Since social worlds (meaningful and integrated symbol systems) can only be created in and through language, we will have to examine the role and place of language in the world-building. The social development of the mind can take place only through communications which create a sharing whereby meanings are enhanced, deepened and solidified.   As sociologists, we can query as to "how determining is language." In a related vein, we can attempt to deal with the whole question of free will and determination.

Karl Marx, for example, spoke of economic determinism and Durkheim referred to the "collective consciousness" from which the individual mind springs.

Part of this course, will deal with "imagery creation" within the context of psycho-social interaction.  We will examine the process of legitimating what is "real."  We will also look at the relationship between economic and religious idea systems and the natural evolution and expression of an idea system throughout society. (What ideas lead to is the point here).

On a psychological level, we will examine the fit between individual psyche's and certain ideas and belief systems.  (See here, classic articles by Tawney, (l957) and Weber (1958).  We will also examine the relationship between economic and religious ideas and systems and the natural evolution and expression of these ideas in social and cultural forms.

Some of the readings listed below appear dated, but they really aren't.  We will all contribute articles and news events as the course progresses.  It would be very useful to concentrate on some contemporary event in light of the perspective of the course.  AIDS, its social meaning, for example, would be an excellent focus. Since our emphasis will be on be on seeing "knowledge" in context, that is as "related," certain topical themes and projects will be developed.

SUMMARY: After discussing the nature of society and social life, we will distinguish between definitions of knowledge and truth in European and American sociology (for example, the European and American reaction to President Clinton's "indiscretions."  We will then examine the relationship of ideas to social settings or structures (for example, sexuality and deviance) and the role that ideology plays in socially constructing reality (Palestinians and Zionism). .  We will then focus on language in the social building process and our final effort will be an examination of the application of our perspective to the specific analysis of information found in the popular press.  This is an exercise in "deconstructionism."

Term Projects

In addition to sporadic internet assignments, students are expected to formally prepare three related term projects.

Do Exercise 1 or 2 below:

  1. using your own beliefs, attitudes, values, or knowledge of something, discuss how this came to be part of your consciousness.  What are the social sources of your opinion, belief, attitudes, etc.  What influenced your acceptance of them? Do this project using the language of the course (ideology, knowledge, socialization, plausibility structures, etc.
  2. Identify some peculiar American ideas, or beliefs, or activities that distinguish us as a people and relate them to some other American facticity like capitalism or religion: For example our ideas about "newness," mobility, etc." Or our ideas about salvation, poverty, etc.
  3. Do Exercise 3 or 4 below:

  4. Immediately begin tracing a news story throughout the semester, paying attention to the assumptions behind the reporting, and how different people view the issue differently and why.  For example, what is the issue around women's ordination in Roman Catholicism? Why is not an issue for Episcopalians?  For whom is abortion an issue? Why?  What is the Palestinian perspective on their rights and why is their position believable or not (even better, why is the Israeli position so  accepted)?  Tracing the pro and con around some issue is essentially what you are doing.
  5. Pick some famous American event and examine why it made sense at one time and not another. For example, Woodstock or the 60's in Europe and America. Hippies then and hippies no more. How come? See article: Mark Lilla, "Still Living with '68," The New York Times Magazine.  August 16th, 1998 (on reserve).
  6. Do project 5 or 6 below

  7. Pay attention to TV commercials or to ads in Newspapers.  What are their assumptions, objectives, audience, implications, hidden messages, etc. What is the image of reality created therein?  Pick 5 commercials and explain their "meaning" to me. What was Madison Avenue trying to tell us? In other words, "deconstruct" a commercial!
  8. After reading Kayal, Philip. 1992. "The Sociological Imagination in AIDS Prevention Education Among Gay Men," Advances in Medical Sociology. Vol. III. Edited by Gary L. Albrecht and R. Zimmerman. Greenwich Conn: JAI Press, discuss its content from the perspective of the Sociology of Knowledge.  In other words, Explain why it is a paper in the sociology of knowledge by out-lining its argument.  How did the idea of safer sex come about and why was it thought a solution to the fulmination of HIV, the purported cause of AIDS?

Related Themes:

There are several areas or activities that lend themselves to easy analysis from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge (that is, the perspective of relatedness). Among these are: health and medicine, religion, sports, sexuality, humor, deviance, marijuana use, etc.

General Issues:

Students are expected to attend all classes punctually.  Only serious excuses will be considered as reasonable explanations for an absence.  All reports should be properly footnoted and references to authors and sources used, noted.  Unless otherwise indicated, assignments should be typed and returned on time. There will be a minimal of three tests per semester. Students will be notified of any exams at least one week in advance.  Other readings, than those on the syllabus, will also be assigned. Your grade will be derived from these exams, class participation, evaluation of your work, and general class demeanor (punctuality, courtesy, etc.). Attendance is expected and required.



In addition to the individual articles listed below, students should red the following articles as they are assigned in class. Berger and Kellner, "Marriage and the Construction of Reality." Albert, Edward. "Illness and Deviance: The Response of the Press to AIDS," In Feldman and Johnson, The Social Dimensions of AIDS.  The articles from the Henslin reader: "The Sociology of the Vaginal Examination," "The Survivors of the F-227," and "On Being Sane in Insane Places." And "Trust and Cabbies," for a comment on how we typify and read reality. We take so much for granted, like gender and sexuality. Let's look at these two articles to see how "we" make up these concepts: Lorber, "The Social Construction of Gender," and Hubbard, "the Social Construction of Sexuality." Of course, language interferes with all of this, so read the article on Womenspeak and Menspeak by Henley, Hamilton, Thorne. This last article can be used in reference to objectivity and its relationship to language. Does language come first to create and/or shape reality or vice versa. You might also read Zimbardo and Rosenhan in Henslin Down to Earth Sociology. Articles from this reader (those listed above) will be on reserve. 

  1. The Nature of Society and the Sociology of Knowledge (re: Berger, Section I).
  2. Legitimization (Berger, Section II).
  3. A Sociology of sociology.
  4. Ideology
  5. Ideas and Social Structure (Berger, Section III)


In addition to Berger (assigned book), the following are considered sociological classics in the field.  Very little has been done since then.

 Some useful websites in the Sociology of Knowledge


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