A social scientist’s view of knowledge is a complex and diverse set of information, ideas and ways of performing ideas, which is gathered from many different sources such as people and books and stored accordingly. It can also be viewed as physical ways of performing daily tasks in which we learn the knowledge by performing the task. From the bush native of Africa to the president of the U.S. every human being requires knowledge in order to look after themselves and to function in their society. There are three forms of knowledge that are essential for this role;
Language. Words, letters, syllables and their associated sounds, either in written or spoken form allows a description to be constructed. Access to language is important as it restricts what we are able to understand and also what we cannot understand.
Institution. Groups of people or institutions are able to influence, construct and also distribute knowledge in various formats. They are also able to restrict the accessibility of knowledge.
Power. This is closely linked to the role of institutions. Cultural, economic and political power laws govern who has access to the knowledge. (Woodward et al., 2004 p.2 & 3)
Knowledge of medicines and treating illness varied enormously during the ancient period of history. Knowledge was passed from generation to generation. Experimentation in surgery and drugs, and often-combined prayer and spells and other rituals were commonplace. Illness was often seen as a result of a negative religious action. During the time of the ancient Greeks the link between religion and medicine was discarded and medicine was regarded as a separate form of study. This is the basis for the foundation of medicine development in Western society. In a social context laws were established to elevate the physicians to a separate social status in the society. This practise was continued throughout the centuries and was supported by Charles II who established the Royal Society in 1662. This institution membership consisted entirely of “gentlemen” and invited male guests. (Woodward et al., 2004 p 11&12) Women were excluded as they were unable to attend universities and other forms of higher education.. Women also faced exclusion from many other parts of everyday life. With the exceptions of a few enterprising individuals such as Inspector General James (Miranda) Barry and Mary Seacole, women were largely restricted to obstetrics. This was to change gradually throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as women were allowed greater freedom due to changes in wider society and they were able to study in universities. The exclusivity of the Society allowed ideas and knowledge to be formed and exchanged between members who saw this knowledge, especially it was published in the journal “Philosophical Transactions” as of greater value than knowledge produced outside of the Society. It is important to note that all of the articles produced are subject to publication bias by fellow scientists within their chosen background who would not publish articles that they felt were not relevant to the target reader. This suppression of knowledge would mean that weak studies would not reach a wider audience and the work may never be investigated further and the benefits would not be passed onto the public. . (Woodward et al., 2004 p18) Ideas and theories from external sources such as the public “common sense” medical knowledge is often overlooked by doctors who view it as un-scientific. Recent cases involving SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) highlighted this problem. Professor Roy Meadows quote ‘three deaths equals multiple murder’ was regarded as scientific knowledge/fact. (Woodward et al., 2004 p32). The ensuing legal cases resulted in this fact being questioned. New evidence became available shortly after the trials and the previously ignored common sense approach which mothers put the children to sleep on their backs became part of the scientific approach to SIDS. This is a good example of how wider society has caused change to an established knowledge based institution.
Social Scientists use the phrase Knowledge Society to describe societies who use knowledge as the foundations for change and growth on a economic, political and cultural basis that can affect both the individual and the organisation, both on a personal perspective up to a global position. They also state that changes in society especially in manufacturing have resulted in the requirement for knowledge, both in production and distribution, to change. Though knowledge has always been viewed, as important, traditional views towards seniority and existing knowledge are still present, these views have been overtaken by need for “change and the new”. (Woodward et al., 2004 p120)
The US commentator Daniel Bell wrote a book “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” in 1973 that outlined the changes under going large scale, predominately male operated, manufacturing society, which was gradually taking place in the USA and other western countries. He highlighted the need for profit and the existing industrial social structure, which he claimed was similar to the 19th Century model produced by Marx in which the owners (capitalists) exploited the manual working class. Bell pointed out that new technology and capitol investment and the needs from the public would result in a reduction of the manufacturing sector and the emergence of the service sector. Bell argued that this change in the economic society, where knowledge and who controls its access, would replace the existing social classes and result in a new social elite, who had access and those who did not. “Professionals” would control theoretical knowledge, as Bell refers to producers of specialised knowledge, which was not available to the public. White-collar workers, driven by motivation, would replace the existing manual, profit driven workforce. This could result in a cultural gap between the two groups. (Woodward et al., 2004 p129 &130) Bell’s work can be both criticised and supported- it is important to note that Bell made these predictions/assumptions over thirty years ago. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that large-scale manufacturing is in decline and there is an emerging service sector in western society. Since the service sector relies on personal skills and face-to-face contact then it will not reduced, as Bell predicted. Bell could not have predicted the rise of the Internet and its ability to allow people from all professions and cultures to communicate with each other and also to produce and distribute knowledge at speeds unseen before in mankind’s history. Another criticism is methods and production techniques such as biotechnology and telecommunications, the ability to digitalise knowledge into a digital format combined with cheaper and more powerful silicon chips has opened up new opportunities to develop and distribute goods and services. This theoretical knowledge has largely only affected the manufacturing economy and has not resulted in a massive social change as Bell predicted.
As a result new social models have been written in the 1990’s to reflect the social changes that have taken place. Charles Leadbeater used an example of the construction of a drinks can to demonstrate some of these changes. He stated that the cans have become much lighter that those of 20 years previous due to the knowledge used to create lighter materials. “Knowledge has replaced metal” (Woodward et al., 2004 p132) Leadbeaters model is a good example of how knowledge has been used to further improve existing goods. This essay/model is more of a natural extension of Bell’s theory rather than a criticism. Leadbeater’s model acknowledges the past large scale manufacturing process but he states that the companies must diversify and rely more on scientific knowledge, a highly skilled workforce and recognise the importance of marketing skills such as advertising. This models shifts away from the Marxist ideals that Bell based his model upon. Zygmunt Bauman and other social scientists argue that there has been a change to consumerism and its developing consumer culture, where the goods and services, which are purchased for their social value as, apposed to its actual use. (Woodward et al., 2004 p138) This change is called Post-Modernism, which is a progression from the Post Fordism era to which Bell based his work. Bell did not predict the growth of social consumerism in his model. One result of the Knowledge Society and the post modernism era is the growth of the ‘risk society’. According to the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck (1995), the flow of knowledge through the increasingly rapid communication technologies and the economic benefits of the sale of goods and services on a global scale has been overshadowed by the fact that Mankind faces a catastrophe, man-made or natural, on a global scale but largely chooses to ignore it. Though danger has existed in pre-industrial societies, which were unpredictable events such as earthquakes and famine, Beck argues that the industrial societies are more focused upon the role of the individual and the organisation. Beck ‘s model states the difference between those who would benefit from the danger and those who would suffer from it is much more important that the difference between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not. (Woodward et al., 2004 p142&143) This model is a slight shift away from post-modernism and highlights the political failures to address the risk factors. This can be partially criticised as environmental awareness becomes more widespread, more political organisations are beginning to address the environmental issues. Beck also mentions the increasing number of ‘experts’ who continually struggle to make everything safer. Their sometimes-contradictory efforts can result in scepticism and mistrust from the public. Recent health scares from bird flu can be used to complement this view.
It is clear that there is a much wider and diverse level of knowledge available in the late 20th Century than compared than the 1950’s. Society still regards medical knowledge as a separate, higher social status but increasingly is willing to question and offer criticism of such methods. The automation and diversification of heavy industry has resulted in the redundant workforce needing to acquire new knowledge in order to work in the emerging service sector. Whether this is a result of new demands
from the social sector or the inevitable application of mankind’s expanding knowledge to improve and enhance his surroundings are debatable and social scientists constantly produce new theories to explain and predict the continuing changes. Increasingly rapid and cheap forms of communication have allowed ideas and knowledge to be shared and accessed at speeds unimaginable fifty or even ten years ago. Exactly who controls the access to the knowledge is highly debatable and is unclear. Whether the Internet and the emerging service sector plays an important part to forming an alternative culture it is perhaps too early to say.
Woodward, K., Goldblatt, D.and McFall, L. (2004) ‘Changing times, changing knowledge’ in Goldblatt, D. (ed) Knowledge and theSocial Sciences: Theory,Method,Practise, London, Routledge/The Open University.
Word Count excluding question, name, id no. and references = 1644