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.
About ten years ago, the University of Texas at Austin was running a successful program in its Department of Anthropology, called ‘Science, Technology, and Society’ (STS). The program (directed by Professor Elizabeth Keating) organized workshops, international meetings, and local forums, where relevant issues were discussed and state-of-the-art articles and informal papers were produced, discussed, and disseminated (this was all before the advent of blogging; as a consequence, some of the STS heritage has unfortunately been committed to the paper medium’s inherent oblivion).
My wife (whose Ph.D. was being supervised by Elizabeth) was an active member of the group and produced a number of papers for various publications (Journal of Pragmatics, International Journal of Language and Linguistics, RASK) and conference contributions (the dissertation itself was defended in April of 2012). Unfortunately, in 2007, with the arrival of a new dean, the funds were cut short and the program scuttled; as a result, the structure that Elizabeth so successfully had put in place, was disbanded. Individual remnants of the program are in existence until today, and people are still active on an informal basis, e.g. by organizing, or participating in, conferences and workshops at meetings such as the AAA’s annual conferences and the upcoming American Pragmatics Association’s first conference in 2012.
All of this goes to say that I welcome Brigitte’s sharing of thoughts on a subject dear to my heart, and I am particularly glad to see that the STS tradition is still alive and well in Nottingham and other places.
I would like to play a bit on Brigitte’s German etymologizing at the end of her blog entry, where she alludes to the fact that in German, science is called ‘Wissen-schaft’, by recounting a personal anecdote from an earlier, more idealistic period of my life.
Back in 1947, I was a resident volunteer in an old people’s home for a period of six weeks or so. Having been assigned to the men’s division, my task was, among other things, to help the old guys, many of whom were incapacitated in various ways, with their weekly bathing routines. I remember in particular one wise old gentleman named Karl (a pseudonym), who used to entertain me about his life and various exploits prior to his being hit by a paralysis of the lower parts of the body. His condition was such that I had to carry him in my arms to the bathing facility, put him into the bathtub, and wash him from top to bottom — including his US football-sized untreated hernia (at times, things could get pretty messy, due to his lack of control, but let me not go there).
Karl had been addicted to smoking earlier in life, and one of the things I remember (and want to quote) him for was his (German) quip: “Das Rauchen is eine Leidenschaft weil es Leiden schafft” (‘Smoking is a passion because it makes you suffer’; the pun gets lost in translation). So here is my pragmatic version of Karl’s apophthegm: “Die Pragmatik ist eine Wissenschaft weil sie pragmatisches Wissen schafft” (‘pragmatics is a science because it creates pragmatic knowledge’) — offered here in the spirit of the upcoming panel on ‘Pragmatic Knowledge’ at the AMPRA conference, Charlotte, NC, October 9-20, 2012.
(For particulars, go to http://clas-pages.uncc.edu/ampra/)
Mey, Inger. 2012. Learning through interaction and embodied practice is a scientific laboratory. Austin, Tex.: Department of Anthropology, University of Texas (Ph. D. diss.)
Thanks for reading the blog and sharing your thoughts and memories on STS on the one hand on ‘Wissen-schaft’ on the other. I very much hope that we can keep on thinking about science, language and society here in Nottingham, especially within the new Leverhulme programme on ‘Making Science Public’. I also hope that we can in some way or other do some creative ‘Wissenschaft’ on the topics we will be exploring over the next five years. And congratulations to Inger. Her PhD sounds fascinating. If ever she wants to give a talk here in Nottingham and bring you along, please let me know! I bet I could find some money somewhere.