August 16, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

On the division of social knowledge and its breakdown

Most social scientists reading this title will think, aha that’s modelled on Émile Durkheim’s De La Division du Travail Social (The Division of Labour in Society) (1893). They ‘know’ that book; at least its title. It’s part of their knowledge repertoire. What’s underneath the title may not go very deep or may be forgotten, as in my case, but that knowledge, however deep, is their knowledge. This is not the type of knowledge that my typical physicist friend might have or would need to have (but some of course have). They have other knowledge. They may (pretend to) know and, even, to understand the equation E=mc2. And so we could go on forever. Why am I talking about this? Because we are currently observing the breakdown of the division of social knowledge and with it the breakdown of society.

In the past, people knew stuff they needed to know and they also knew people who knew more than they did about stuff and whom they could ask if they needed that knowledge: experts they’re called. Most people paddle, as I once said, at the shallow end of knowledge and get by perfectly well, but they also know little bits at great depth and can share that knowledge with others; lets say, about cars or Picasso or genomes or climate change. They can even pool internationally dispersed but essential expert knowledge and make it available to others, say in the way the IPCC does on a regular basis. This specialisation of knowledge is useful, scientifically and socially.

Open knowledge

Alfred Schütz, another classical sociologist, argued that knowledge (or rather ideal types of knowledge) is socially distributed between experts (where judgements are based on warranted assumptions), well-informed citizens (where judgements are based on reasonably founded opinions), and the person in the street (where judgements are based on recipes). But keep in mind that these types of knowledge generally co-habit in every individual, expert in one type but person in the street in another.

Expert knowledge is not only socially but also geographically distributed, i.e some social groups have some type of expert knowledge, while others have another; and these social groups (scientists, layers, medics, engineers, art historians, even sociologists, etc.) can work together while being located in different countries. Knowledge doesn’t stick to borders. And, ideally, it’s public, not private. But, and now we come to the but.

Closed knowledge

People no longer want to use public, shared, pooled, consensual or expert knowledge. They don’t trust it. They seem to think that the little bit of narrow and shallow knowledge or recipe knowledge they have is enough for them – and others. Enough even to make important decisions. This is encouraged by governments who are dismantling the institutions of knowledge generation, pooling and sharing, such as universities and governmental and intergovernmental agencies, say environmental agencies in the United States. This dismantling and deregulation can be seen in action over there, but it is also becoming observable over here.

The worst is that this will change what the division of social knowledge is all about, namely generating and gathering knowledge efficiently, knowledge that then can be shared and used by everybody who needs it, wherever they are and whoever they are, even if they haven’t generated it themselves.

The division of social knowledge AND, most importantly its sharing, pooling, mingling and changing, might soon be happening not according to divisions of expertise but according to national borders and political, even tribal, divisions. Where once knowledge flowed freely between experts and citizens of all nations, it will be stuck at barriers, impeded by walls; it will be hoarded, guarded and possibly suppressed. It will also be in competition with fake knowledge, a type of knowledge that’s gathering more trust than warranted (validated, evidenced) knowledge.

Knowledge breakdown and anomie

Of course, knowledge has always been hoarded; it has been made accessible to some and not others…. All this has caused real problems for knowledge and science. That’s however trivial compared to what’s going on now. We now live in a world where ignorance is valued and knowledge is devalued, where opinion trumps expertise, were fake information and disinformation gain currency and real information is derided. This threatens societal cohesion and solidarity which Durkheim had praised as a by-product of the division of social labour and, I’d add, is also a by-product of the division social knowledge.

If the division of social labour and knowledge disintegrates, this may lead to what Durkheim calls ‘anomie’ or, as summarised here, “a breakdown of the ties that bind people together to make a functional society, a state of social derangement. Periods of anomie are unstable, chaotic, and often rife with conflict because the social force of the norms and values that otherwise provide stability is weakened or missing.” [People who know their Durkheim will probably laugh at what I am saying here!]

If public and socially distributed knowledge is completely dismantled and deregulated and knowledge is no longer produced in and for society, this has not only repercussion for knowledge but also for the cohesion of society, for trust and cooperation, for culture and science, for meaning and civilisation, for  politics, peace and prosperity, even for reality itself.

Universities as open knowledge institutions need to do everything they can to prevent this from happening.

(And alongside the breakdown of social knowledge we should also talk about the breakdown of social infrastructure)


Image: Munch: The Scream (1893; same year as publication of La Division)

Posted in Knowledge Society