April 16, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Knowledge, language and society

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my academic career, I became interested in pragmatics, the linguistic study of the use of language in society. Twenty years on I have become involved in the study of science in society (or Science and Technology Studies, STS for short), where the topics of knowledge and society have been discussed for some time.

The ‘pragmatics of knowledge’

A week ago I was asked to participate in a conference panel on the “Pragmatics of knowledge”, by one of my earliest mentors in the field of (societal) pragmatics, Jacob Mey. This made me think about the relation between knowledge, language and society, more specifically the relationship between the use of knowledge in society and the use of language in society. Up to that email it had not occurred to me to explore the link between the two topics, something that should however be done more in the future. Knowledge and language mutually shape each other through their use in society. Knowledge is created, disseminated, accessed, changed, restricted etc. through language. Over and above this relatively straightforward relation between knowledge and language, language also has a more political relationship with knowledge. In the context of society a certain type of language can be invested with power and authority; it has a political force that determines to some extent what knowledge is valued or deemed useful and what knowledge is deemed unimportant or useless. This has been demonstrated, for example, through the new language of ‘research excellence’ here in the UK.

But what about the ‘pragmatics of knowledge’? In the email I got, the panel convenors quote from a call for papers by two anthropologists from the University of Western Australia: “[in] the popular notion of a global knowledge economy, knowledge becomes reduced to a commodity form”  (see Anthropology News, December 2010, p. 17). What pragmaticists like Jacob Mey are interested in instead is ‘knowledge in use’. Not knowledge as a static and economic commodity that can be generated and traded, but knowledge as used by users in society. Such reflections on knowledge, use and society take place within what has become known as social pragmatics, a sub-discipline of linguistic pragmatics which now has its own journal Pragmatics and Society. This new field is concerned with how language use and social normativity influence and shape each other.

STS and pragmatics

Pragmaticists are therefore beginning to be interested in topics that STS scholars are also investigating, such as (open) access to knowledge, (free) distribution of knowledge, in who profits from knowledge, who doesn’t and why.  Another overlap between STS type studies of knowledge and expertise and the pragmatics of knowledge is the focus in STS on the ‘co-production’ of knowledge and the focus in pragmatics on language use in social interaction within social situations. In fact, one could speak about the co-production of knowledge and language in society.

Both fields want to overcome a prevalent pipeline or conduit model of knowledge and language and replace it with a contextual or situated and interactional model that takes into account values and frames and highlights issues of participation and emancipation. In both fields language and knowledge are viewed as public goods rather than private properties. Both fields would, I suppose, also challenge a view of knowledge according to which the only knowledge that counts in society is knowledge that is countable. Instead there should, I claim, be much more emphasis on the ways that knowledge is nurtured, appreciated, cherished and treasured – words that  seem to be disappearing from the vocabulary of the modern ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘knowledge society’.

The use of knowledge in society and the use of language in society

Although work between STS scholars and pragmaticists has not yet begun, they have certain intellectual traditions in common or could have them in common in principle. One such tradition is a type of thinking about knowledge started by the Austrian-born British economist and Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek in 1945. He was one of the first to think about  ‘the use of knowledge in society’ in an article for the American Economic Review in 1945 entitled precisely “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. He pointed out that: “Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” He goes on to discuss the various values attached to these types of knowledge or expertise and how they are related to each other, all topics that are still being discussed today in STS.

About 20 years later the sociologists of knowledge Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann talked about the crucial role that language plays in the construction of knowledge and society (in everyday live), and shortly afterwards Jacob Mey began to think about language and society from a pragmaticist’s perspective.

Knowledge as process not product

In a present-day context, it is time to problematise, particularise and pluralise knowledge in a pragmatically oriented way by looking critically at the role of language in the production and use of knowledge. In this way, knowledge may become a means to emancipate and liberate thinking, acting, and speaking in a world threatened by large-scale and commoditisation, not only of language, but indeed of life itself. Both language and knowledge are living processes, not lifeless products—a fact that is all too often overlooked. This processual aspect of knowledge comes across more clearly in the German word for science, namely Wissenschaft, or the continued creation of knowledge. And this is something we all contribute to through language and many other means.

Brigitte Nerlich, Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy

Acknowledgment: The three Ps ‘problematise, particularise and pluralise’ were first used by David Livingstone in the context of a project on Cultural Spaces of Climate Change led by Georgina Endfield here at the University of Nottingham.

Posted in Knowledge Society