To fully explore the links between changes in knowledge and social change, it is necessary to consider what knowledge is and how it is produced. Knowledge can generally mean ideas, theories and ways of thinking, however there are different types of knowledge, specialist knowledge which covers a diverse range of subject areas such as medical and political. We all may have some common sense knowledge in certain areas but does this have any status or power compared to expert, established or institutional knowledge and how can these be defined as such?
There are three main theories, the knowledge, consumer and risk society which provide their own definitions of how changes in knowledge are linked inextricably to social change. It is these which I will be using to explain the connection, outlining strengths and weaknesses in each of the theories. I will also be looking at the social, economic, cultural and political changes in knowledge from past to contemporary society and the evidence which is used to support these claims.
It is evident that with the recent development of the internet, knowledge is more widely available. With the touch of a button we can now find out information which may have previously been restricted for those only in positions of authority, this alone is a huge change. The 1600’s saw the Royal Society (where only gentlemen were allowed) as the forefront of natural, philosophical and medical knowledge, only knowledge produced here was given value and authority as it was objective and accepted within this community.
Because this was kept for the chosen few, it held a certain amount of power for those who held it as society would hold these people as authorities and experts to be respected. There was also an added strength to knowledge if it was published in a journal but who made the decision on the validity of knowledge and what shaped or influenced their decisions? It could be that publication biases helped to shape society. So how has knowledge changed since the early days?
Women have challenged that access to knowledge only be made available to men, both legitimately and illegitimately, lifting huge limitations for women making it possible for them to be in positions of power and authority. Science seeks to question our assumptions, that knowledge should be accepted through reason, verifying and falsifying knowledge to see whether or not it is creditable, Karl Popper (in Woodward and Watt et al. , 2004, pg. 21) worked to disprove theories rather than seeking to confirm them.
Thomas Kuhn (in Woodward and Watt et al. , 2004, pg. 2) sees the link between science and social change in the form of paradigms saying that events in society make them more acceptable. There is no doubt that in contemporary society, knowledge which was once the matter of academic study and research is now used in every day life and is made readily available on the internet and through the use of advertising. We are actually bombarded with advice and information on everyday aspects of life such as parenting, relationships, shopping, personal development and health, things that we maybe thought we already knew about.
Such information can cause confusion, uncertainty and unsettlement of the more established sources of knowledge. Now we have an overview of how knowledge has moved on I would like to discuss the theory of the ‘knowledge society’, this is of a social constructionist viewpoint, that all knowledge is produced, Foucault’s theory of discourse supports this. The knowledge society claims that knowledge systems come first, that they are the instigators of social, economic, cultural and political development and change.
Daniel Bell (in Woodward, Goldblatt and Mcfall et al. , 2004 pg. 129) talks of the post-industrial society where manufacturing shrinks and the economy is dominated by service employment. He theorised that as the economy became more automated, producing more goods with less employees this would create more wealth, freeing up people to do other things, thus having new needs and desires. This in turn would gradually increase the service industry, reducing but not eliminating the class struggle between capital and labour.
Bell suggested that theoretical knowledge would become the dominant class although he was vague about what this actually was. It is now apparent that this knowledge has actually reinforced the manufacturing economy, biotechnology and telecommunications have made knowledge more important than the materials used! This suggests that social change takes place via changes in the economy and employment, we now have to increase our knowledge to work with such systems as information technology making us a more educated society.
We are encouraged as a society to educate ourselves in many areas of our lives, not just academically. The consumer society theory suggests that we now shape our identities through what we buy. We have much more choice and are able to express ourselves and give ourselves social recognition through the products we buy, for example, brand names, environmentally friendly, tested on animals, products which are suggestive of certain interests, these all say something about us.
This theory sees a shift from production where the period known as fordism produced low cost , high volume cars to one of consumption which moves through post-fordism to post-modernism which underplays materialism making the need for goods to have difference and meaning more dominant. There is an element of agency in this theory as there is more consumer choice and knowledge available we are more able to make informed choices, it is also evident that we challenge and resist these choices with campaigns on the internet such as ‘adbusters’.
Although there is a greater degree of freedom of choice, there are dangers in mass production such as the inequalities of wealth. The risk society holds a logical and coherent theory that we are damaging the environment and we know about it. The knowledge available on the degradation of the environment is extensive and so is the damage, the fact that it is irreversible and totally unpredictable has the power to make an anxious and uncertain society.
This doesn’t take into account the improved quality of life we have in contemporary society, infant mortality rates are much higher and we have less threat from disease and generally live longer. Beck argues (in Woodward, Goldblatt and McFall, 2004. , pg. 143) that politics have been transformed by the risk society, because the ideologies of the past have been unable to offer any protection from environmental threats, a new politics based on knowledge is needed. Most political ideologies now include ‘green thinking’ in their policies.
As human beings it seems we have overlooked the fact that we are part of nature and not in control of it. Science although it has produced more effective ways of manufacturing using different sources, it has failed to realise its impact on the natural world. Factors such as radio active pollution, traffic congestion, genetically modified crops all have their part to play in the degradation of the environment. In weighing up the theories it appears that they all link knowledge to social change, but did knowledge create this change or did social change create knowledge?
It could be said that we produce knowledge to understand social relations as in the social sciences. Using qualitative and quantative evidence and approaches such as positivist which is based on observation alone and interpretative which is more agency driven and includes an understanding of meanings which people give to their actions. It is difficult to suggest which may have come first, I think it is possible that they are both interrelated, sometimes knowledge comes first and sometimes social change, they both move forwards together creating changes in both directions although the knowledge society wouldn’t support my view.
There is also the possibility of the amount of knowledge available having detrimental effects on society, as it says in the consumer society view, and the risk society view. If we know about all the risks it is assumed that we must know how to solve them, or at least we must do something about them, this gives a huge responsibility to the whole of society for with knowledge of all kinds comes a certain amount of responsibility especially in the role of looking after the environment. It seems the more knowledge we have, the more changes must take place on all levels.