Tuesday, July 21, 2009


An Essay on the Social Distribution of Knowledge


Social Research 13, 4 (1946) :463-78

The outstanding feature of a man's life in the modern world is his conviction that his life-world as a whole is neither fully understood by himself nor fully understandable to any of his fellow men. There is a stock of knowledge theoretically available to everyone, built up by practical experience, science, and technology as warranted insights. But this stock of knowledge is not integrated. It consists of a mere juxtaposition of more or less coherent systems of knowledge which themselves are neither coherent nor even compatible with one another. On the contrary, the abysses between the various attitudes involved in the approach to the specialized systems are themselves a condition of the success of the specialized inquiry.

If this is true for the various fields of scientific inquiry it is for even better reasons valid for the various fields of practical activity. Where our practical interests predominate we are satisfied with our knowledge that certain means and procedures achieve certain desired or undesired results. The fact that we do not understand the Why and the How of their working and that we do not know anything of their origin does not hinder us from dealing undisturbed with situations, things, and persons. We use the most complicated gadgets prepared by a very advanced technology without knowing how the contrivances work. No car driver is supposed to be familiar with the laws of mechanics, no radio listener with those of electronics. One may even be a successful businessman without an insight into the functioning of the market, or a banker without a smattering of monetary theory. The same holds good for the social world we live in. We rely upon the fact that our fellowmen will react as we anticipate if we act upon them in a specific way, that institutions such as governments, schools, courts, or public utilities will function, that an order of laws and mores, of religious and political beliefs, will govern the behavior of our fellowmen as it governs our own. In terms of the social group we may say with Scheler that any in-group has a relatively natural concept of the world which its members take for granted.

Useful as this concept is in many respects, it is clear that all the members of an in-group do not accept the same sector of the world as granted beyond question and that each of them selects different elements of it as an object of further inquiry. Knowledge is socially distributed and the mechanism of this distribution can be made the subject matter of a sociological discipline. True, we have a so-called sociology of knowledge. Yet, with very few exceptions, the discipline thus misnamed has approached the problem of the social distribution of knowledge merely from the angle of the ideological foundation of truth in its dependence upon social, and especially economic, conditions, or from that of the social implications of education, or that of the social role of the man of knowledge. Not sociologists but economists and philosophers have studied some of the many other theoretical aspects of the problem. The economists discovered that certain concepts of economics, such as perfect competition and monopoly and all their intermediate forms, presuppose that the various actors in the world of economics are conceived as possessed of a varying stock of knowledge of the economic means, ends, procedures, chances, and risks involved in the same situation. Philosophers, in their turn, have dealt with the intersubjective character of knowledge, intersubjective not only because it refers to the one real world common to all of us and because it is subject to confirmation and refutation by others, but also because the personal knowledge of each of us refers to the knowledge acquired by others--our teachers and predecessors--and handed down to us as a preorganized stock of problems, with the means for their solution, procedural rules, and the like. All these manifold problems belong to a theoretical science dealing with the social distribution of knowledge. The present inquiry is just one modest step in this direction. Its purpose is to investigate what motives prompt grown-up men living their everyay life in our modern civilization to accept unquestioningly some parts of the relatively natural concept of the world handed down to them and to subject other parts to question.


For the purpose of our study let us construct three ideal types which shall be called the expert, the man on the street, and the well-informed citizen.

The expert's knowledge is restricted to a limited field but therein it is clear and distinct. His opinions are based upon warranted assertions; his judgments are not mere guesswork or loose suppositions.

The man on the street has a working knowledge of many fields which are not necessarily coherent with one another. His is a knowledge of recipes indicating how to bring forth in typical situations typical results by typical means. The recipes indicate procedures which can be trusted even though they are not clearly understood. By following the prescription as if it were a ritual, the desired result can be attained without questioning why the single procedural steps have to be taken and taken exactly in the sequence prescribed. This knowledge in all its vagueness is still sufficiently precise for the practical purpose at hand. In all matters not connected with such practical purposes of immediate concern the man on the street accepts his sentiments and passions as guides. Under their influence, he establishes a set of convictions and unclarified views which he simply relies upon as long as they do not interfere with his pursuit of happiness.

The ideal type that we propose to call the well-informed citizen (thus shortening the more correct expression: the citizen who aims at being well informed) stands between the ideal type of the expert and that of the man on the street. On the one hand, he neither is, nor aims at being, possessed of expert knowledge; on the other, he does not acquiesce in the fundamental vagueness of a mere recipe knowledge or in the irrationality of his unclarified passions and sentiments. To be well informed means to him to arrive at reasonably founded opinions in fields which as he knows are at least mediately of concern to him although not bearing upon his purpose at hand.

All three types thus roughly outlined are, of course, mere constructs devised for the purpose of the present investigation. As a matter of fact, each of us in daily life is at any moment simultaneously expert, well-informed citizen, and man on the street, but in each case with respect to different provinces of knowledge. Moreover, each of us knows that the same holds good for each of his fellowmen and this very fact codetermines the specific type of knowledge employed. For example, for the man on the street it is sufficient to know that there are experts available for the consultation should he need their advice in achieving his practical purpose in hand. His recipes tell him when to see a doctor or a lawyer, where to get needed information and the like. The expert, on the other hand, knows very well that only a fellow expert will understand all the technicalities and implications of a problem in his field and he will never accept a layman or dilettante as a competent judge of his performances. But it is the well-informed citizen who considers himself perfectly qualified to decided who is a competent expert and even to make up his mind after having listened to opposing expert opinions.

Many phenomena of social life can be fully understood only if they are referred to the underlying general structure of the social distribution of knowledge thus outlined. This resource alone makes possible a sociological theory of professions, of prestige and competence, of charisma and authority, and leads to the understanding of such complicated social relationships as those existing among the performing artist, his public, and his critics, or among manufacturer, retailer, advertising agent, and consumer, or among the government executive, his technical adviser, and public opinion.


The three types of knowledge discussed above differ in their readiness to take things for granted. The zone of things taken for granted may be defined as that sector of the world which, in connection with the theoretical or the practical problem we are concerned with at a given time, does not seem to need further inquiry, although we do not have clear and distinct insight into and understanding of, its structure. What is taken for granted is, until invalidation, believed to be simply "given" and "given-as-it-appears-to-me"--that is, as I or others whom I trust have experienced and interpreted it. It is this zone of things taken for granted within which we have to find our bearings. All our possible questioning for the unknown arises only within such a world of supposedly preknown things, and presupposes its existence. Or, to use Dewey's terms, it is the indeterminate situation from which all possible inquiry starts with the goal of transforming it into a determinate one. Of course, what is taken for granted today may become questionable tomorrow, if we are induced by our own choice or otherwise to shift our interest and to make the accepted state of affairs a field of further inquiry.

In referring to a shift of our own interest we have touched upon the core of our problem. Before we can proceed in our analysis of the three types of knowledge under consideration, it is necessary to clarify the relationship between interest and the distribution of knowledge.

It is our interest at hand that motivates all our thinking, projecting, acting, and therewith establishes the problem to be solved by our thought and the goals to be attained by our actions. In other words, it is our interest that breaks asunder the unproblematic field of the preknown into various zones of various relevance with respect to such interest each of them requiring a different degree of precision of knowledge.

For our purposes we may roughly distinguish four regions of deceasing relevance. First, there is that part of the world within our reach which can be immediately observed by us and also at least partially dominated by us--that is, changed and rearranged by our actions. It is that sector of the world within which our projects can be materialized and brought forth. This zone of primary relevance requires an optimum of clear and distinct understanding of its structure. In order to master a situation we have to possess the know-how--the technique and the skill--and also the precise understanding of why, when, and where to use them. Second, there are other fields not open to our domination but mediately connected with the zone of primary relevance because, for instance, they furnish ready-made tools to be used for attaining the projected goal or they establish the conditions upon which our planning itself or its execution depends. It is sufficient to be merely familiar with these zones of minor relevance, to be acquainted with the possibilities, the chances, and risks they may contain with reference to our chief interest. Third, there are other zones which, for the time being, have no such connection with the interests at hand. We shall call them relatively irrelevant, indicating thereby that we may continue to take them for granted as long as no changes occur within them which might influence the relevant sectors by novel and unexpected chances or risks. And, finally, there are the zones which we suggest calling absolutely irrelevant because no possible change occurring within them would--or so we believe--influence our objective in hand. For all practical purposes a mere blind belief in the That and the How of things within this zone of absolute irrelevancy is sufficient.

But this description is much too rough and requires several qualifications. First, we have spoken of an "interest at hand" which determines our system of relevances. There is, however, no such thing as an isolated interest at hand. The single interest at hand is just an element within a hierarchical system, or even a plurality of systems, of interests which in everyday life we call our plans--plans for work and thought, for the hour and for our life. To be sure, this system of interests is neither constant nor homogeneous. It is not constant because in changing from any Now to the succeeding Now the single interests obtain a different weight, a different predominance within the system. It is not homogeneous because even in the simultaneity of any Now we may have most disparate interests. The various social roles we assume simultaneously offer a good illustration. The interests I have in the same situation as a father, a citizen, a member of my church or of my profession, may not only be different but even incompatible with one another. I have, then, to decide which of these disparate interests I must choose in order to define the situation from which to start further inquiry. This choice will state the problem or set the goal in respect to which the world we are living in and our knowledge of it are distributed in zones of various relevance.

Second, the terms "zones" or "regions" sof various relevance might suggest that there are closed realms of various relevance in our life-world and, correspondingly of various provinces of our knowledge of it, each separated from the other by clean-cut border lines. The opposite is true. These various realms of relevances and precision are intermingled, showing the most manifold interpenetrations and enclaves, sending their fringes into neighbor provinces and thus creating twilight zones of sliding transitions. If we had to draw a map depicting such a distribution figuratively it would not resemble a political map showing the various countries with their well-established frontiers but rather a topographical map representing the shape of a mountain range in the customary way by contour lines connecting points of equal altitude. Peaks and valleys, foothills and slopes, are spread over the map in infinitely diversified configurations. The system of relevances is much more similar to such a system of isohypses than to a system of coordinates originating in a center O and permitting measurement by an equidistant network.

Third, we have to define two types of systems of relevances which we propose to call the system of intrinsic, and the system of imposed, relevances. Again, these are merely constructive types which in daily life are nearly always intermingled with one another and are very rarely found in a pure state. Yet it is important to study them separately in their interaction. The intrinsic relevances are the outcome of our chosen interests, established by our spontaneous decision to solve a problem by our thinking, to attain a goal by our action, to bring forth a projected state of affairs. Surely we are free to choose what we are interested in, but this interest, once established, determines the system of relevances intrinsic to the chosen interest. We have to put up with the relevances thus set, to accept the situation determined by their internal structure, to comply with their requirements. And yet they remain, at least to a certain extent, within our control. Since the interest upon which the intrinsic relevances depend and in which they originate has been established by our spontaneous choice, we may at any time shift the focus of this interest and thereby modify the relevances intrinsic to it, obtaining thus an optimum of clarity by continued inquiry. This whole process will still show all the features of a spontaneous performance. The character of all these relevances as intrinsic relevances--that is, intrinsic to a chosen interest--will be preserved.

We are, however, not only centers of spontaneity, gearing into the world and creating changes within it, but also the mere passive recipients of events beyond our control which occur without our interference. Imposed upon us as relevant are situations and events which are not connected with interests chosen by us, which do not originate in acts of our discretion, and which we have to take just as they are, without any power to modify them by our spontaneous activities except by transforming the relevances thus imposed into intrinsic relevances. While that remains unachieved, we do not consider the imposed relevances as being connected with our spontaneously chosen goals. Because they are imposed upon us they remain unclarified and rather incomprehensible.

It is not our business to handle here in detail the import of relevances imposed upon the individual by events in his personal life, such as disease, bereavement, acts of God, or the metaphysical problems of fate, destiny, providence, or the feeling of being "thrown into the world" which Heidegger considers a fundamental condition of human existence. But the imposed relevances have an important function within the social sphere, the study of which will lead us back to our main problem.


Our outline of the various zones of relevance revealed the world within my reach as the core of primary relevance. This world within my own reach is first of all that sector of the world within my actual reach; then, that sector which formerly was in my actual reach and is now within my potential reach because it can be brought back again within my actual reach; and finally, there is within my attainable reach what is within the actual reach of you, my fellowman, and world be within my actual reach if I were not here where I am but there where you are--briefly, If I were in your place. Thus, actually or potentially, one sector of the world is within my and my fellowman's common reach; it is within our reach, provided--and this restriction is highly important--that my fellowman has a definite place within the world of my reach as I have in his. We have, then, a common surrounding to be defined by our common interests, his and mine. To be sure, he and I will have a different system of relevances and a different knowledge of the common surround if for no other reason that that he sees from "there" everything that I am seeing from "here." Nevertheless, I may within this common surrounding and within the zone of common interests establish social relationships with the individualized other; each may act upon the other and react to the other's action. In short, the other is partially within my control as I am within his, and he and I not only know of this fact but even know of our mutual knowledge which itself is a means for exercising control. Spontaneously turning to each other, spontaneously "turning in" ourselves to each other, we have at least some intrinsic relevances in common.

But only some. In any social interaction there remains a portion of each partner's system of intrinsic relevances not shared by the other. This has two important consequences. In the first place, let Peter and Paul be partners in a social interaction of any kind whatever. In so far as Peter is the object of Paul's action and has to take into account Paul's specific goals which he, Peter, does not share, Paul's intrinsic relevances are to Peter imposed relevances and vice versa. (The concept of imposed relevances applied to social relationships does not contain any reference to the problem whether or not the imposition involved is accepted by the partner. It seems that the degree of readiness to accept or not to accept, to give place to, or to resist, the imposition of the other's intrinsic relevances could be used advantageously for a classification of the various social relationships.) In the second place, Peter has full knowledge only of his own system of intrinsic relevances. Paul's system of intrinsic relevances, as a whole, is not fully accessible to Peter. In so far as Peter has a partial knowledge of it--at least he will know what Paul imposes upon him--this knowledge will never have that degree of precision that would be sufficient if what is merely relevant to Peter by imposition were an element of his, Peter's, system of intrinsic relevances. Imposed relevances remain empty, unfulfilled anticipations.

Such is the distribution of knowledge in the social relationship between individuals if each has his definite place in the world of the other, if each is under the other's control. To a certain extent the same holds good for the relationship between in-groups and out-groups if each of them is known to the other in its specificity. But the more of the other becomes anonymous and the less his place in the social cosmos is ascertainable to the partner, the more the zone of common intrinsic relevances decreases and that of imposed ones increases.

Extending the reciprocal anonymity of partners is, however, characteristic of our modern civilization. We are less and less determined in our social situation by relationships with individual partners within our immediate or mediate reach, and more and more by highly anonymous types which have no fixed place in the social cosmos. We are less and less able to choose our partners in the social world and to share our social life with them. We are, so to speak, potentially subject to everybody's remote control. No spot of this globe is more distant from the place where we live than sixty airplane hours; electric waves carry messages in a fraction of a second from one end of the earth to the other; and very soon every place in this world will be the potential target of destructive weapons released at any other place. Our own social surrounding is within the reach of everyone, everywhere; an anonymous other, whose goals are unknown to us because of his anonymity, may bring us together with our system of interests and relevances within his control. We are less and less masters in our own right to define what is, and what is not, relevant to us. Politically, economically, and socially imposed relevances beyond our control have to be taken into account by us as they are. Therefore, we have to know them. But to what extent?


This question leads us back to the three ideal types of knowledge described in the beginning as the expert, the well-informed citizen, and the man on the street. The last-named lives, in a manner of speaking, naively in his own and his in-group's intrinsic relevances. Imposed relevances he takes into account merely as elements of the situation to be defined or as data or conditions for his course of action. They are simply given and it does not pay to try to understand their origin and structure. Why some things are more relevant than others, why zones of seemingly intrinsic irrelevancy may conceal elements which might be imposed upon him tomorrow as matters of highest relevance is not his concern; these questions do not influence his acting and thinking. He will not cross the bridge before he reaches it and he takes it for granted that he will find a bridge when he needs it and that it will be strong enough to carry him. That is one of the reasons why in forming his opinions he is much more governed by sentiment than by information, why he prefers, as statistics have amply shown, the comic pages of the newspapers to the foreign news, the radio quizzes to news commentators.

The expert, as we understand this term, is at home only in a system of imposed relevances-- imposed, that is, by the problems pre-established within his field. Or to be more precise, by his decision to become an expert he has accepted the relevances imposed within his field as the intrinsic, and the only intrinsic, relevances of his acting and thinking. But this field is rigidly limited. To be sure, there are marginal problems and even problems outside his specific field, but the expert is inclined to assign them to another expert who concern they are supposed to be. The expert starts from the assumption not only that the system of problems established within his field is relevant but that it is the only relevant system. All his knowledge is referred to his frame of reference which has been established once and for all. He who does not accept it as the monopolized system of his intrinsic relevances does not share with the expert a universe of discourse. He can expect from the expert's advice merely the indication of suitable means for attaining pregiven ends, but no the determination of the ends themselves. Clemenceau's famous statement that war is too important a business to be left exclusively to generals illustrates the way in which a man oriented toward more comprehensive ends reacts to expert advice.

The well-informed citizen finds himself placed in a domain which belongs to an infinite number of possible frames of reference. There are no pregiven ready-made ends, no fixed border lines within which he can look for shelter. He has to choose the frame of reference by choosing his interest; he has to investigate the zones of relevances adhering to it; and he has to gather as much knowledge as possible of the origin and source of the relevances actually or potentially imposed upon him. In terms of the classification previously used, the well-informed citizen will restrict, in so far as is possible, the zone of the irrelevant, mindful that what is today relatively irrelevant may be imposed tomorrow as a primary relevance and that the province of the so-called absolutely irrelevant may reveal itself as the home of the anonymous powers which may overtake him. Thus, his is an attitude as different from that of the expert whose knowledge is delimited by a single system of relevances as from that of the man on the street which is indifferent to the structure of relevance itself. For this very reason he has to form a reasonable opinion and to look for information. What, however, are the sources of this information, and for what reason may the citizen consider them sufficient to enable him to form an opinion of his own?


Again we are referred to a main problem of the theory of the social distribution of knowledge. It seems to be a mere truism to state that only an exceedingly small part of our actual and potential knowledge originates in our own experience. The bulk of our knowledge consists in experiences not we but our fellowmen, contemporaries or predecessors, have had, and which they have communicated or handed down to us. We shall call this kind of knowledge socially derived knowledge. But why do we believe in it? All socially derived knowledge is based upon an implicit idealization which can be roughly formulated as follows: "I believe in the experience of my fellowman because if I were (or had been ) in his place I would have (or would have had) the same experience as he has (or had), could do just as he does (or did), would have the same chances or risks in the same situation. Thus, what to him is (or was) a really existing object of his actual experience is to me a speciously existing object of a possible experience." This is the basic idealization and we cannot enter here into the various modifications of the typical style in which socially derived knowledge is experienced. Within the frame of this paper we have to restrict ourselves to a few examples which are by no means exhaustive.

Socially derived knowledge may originate in four different ways. First, it may come from the immediate experience of another individual who communicates this experience to me. For present purposes such an individual shall be called the eyewitness. My belief in his report is based on the fact that the reported event occurred in the world within his reach. From "there," from his position in space and time, things could be observed and events experienced which were not observable from "here," from my position; but if I were "there" and not "here" I would have experienced the same. This belief presupposes, furthermore, a certain conformity of my system of relevances with that of the eyewitness. Otherwise I am inclined to assume that I would have observed certain aspects of the reported event which remained unnoticed by the reporter or vice versa.

The second source of socially derived knowledge may be the immediate experience of another individual--not necessarily an eyewitness and not necessarily reporting directly to me--to whom the observed event has its place in a system of intrinsic relevances of a configuration substantially different from my own. We will call such an individual an insider. My belief in his report is based on the assumption that the insider, because he experiences the reported event in a unique or typical context of relevance, "knows it better" than I would if I observed the same event but was unaware of its intrinsic significance.

Third, there is the opinion of another individual, based by him on facts collected from some source or another of immediate or socially derived knowledge but arranged and grouped according to a system of relevances similar to my own. Such an individual shall be called an analyst. His opinion carries the more weight with me the more I can control the facts upon which it is based and the more I am convinced of the congruity of his system of relevances with my own.

And finally, there is the opinion of another individual based on the same sources as those of the analyst but grouped according to a system of relevances considerably different from my own. He shall be called the commentator. His opinion is trusted if it enables me to form a sufficiently clear and precise knowledge of the underlying deviating system of relevances.

It is clear that the eyewitness, the insider, the analyst, and the commentator represent merely four of many ideal types of transmission of socially derived knowledge. None of these types is likely to be found in its purity. Any historiographer, teacher, editorialist, or propagandist will represent a mixture of several of the ideal types outlined. For the classification of a communicator according to these types it is immaterial whether he is or is not an expert, whether he uses this or that system of signs, symbols or artifacts for communicating, whether the communication occurs in face-to-face or any other social relationship, whether the informant is intimately known to us or whether he remains more or less anonymous. But all these factors are extremely important, even decisive, for the weight which we, the information-seeking citizens, accord the source of our socially derived knowledge.

It is impossible to enter here into all the implications of the problem. Yet even the rudimentary picture outlined would be incomplete without mentioning briefly another aspect of the social distribution of knowledge which, to a certain extent, is the opposite of socially derived knowledge. We shall call it socially approved knowledge. Any knowledge, our own originary experiences as well as any kind of socially derived knowledge, receives additional weight if it is accepted not only by ourselves but by other members of our in-group. I believe my own experiences to be correct beyond doubt if others whom I consider competent corroborate what I found, either out of their own experiences or merely because they trust me. I consider my father, my priest, my government to be authoritative, then their opinions have special weight and this weight itself has the character of an imposed relevance. The power of socially approved knowledge is so extended that what the whole in-group approves--ways of thinking and acting, such as mores, folkways, habits--is simply taken for granted; it becomes an element of the relatively natural concept of the world, although the source of such knowledge remains entirely hidden in its anonymity.

Thus, the zone of things taken for granted, the relatively natural concept of the world from which all inquiry starts and which all inquiry presupposes, reveals itself as the sediment of previous acts of experiencing--my own as well as of others--which are socially approved.

Let me close with a few remarks on the nature and function of the interplay between socially derived and socially approved knowledge and draw just one practical conclusion for the diagnosis of our present situation.

Socially approved knowledge is the source of prestige and authority; it is also the home of public opinion. Only he is deemed to be an expert or a well-informed citizen who is socially approved as such. Having obtained this degree of prestige the expert's or the well-informed citizen's opinions receive additional weight in the realm of socially derived knowledge. In our time, socially approved knowledge tends to supersede the underlying system of intrinsic and imposed relevances. Polls, interviews, and questionnaires try to gauge the opinion of the man on the street, who does not even look for any kind of information that goes beyond his habitual system of intrinsic relevances. His opinion, which is public opinion as it is understood nowadays, becomes more and more socially approved at the expense of informed opinion and therefore imposes itself as relevant upon the better informed members of the community. A certain tendency to misinterpret democracy as a political institution in which the opinion of the uninformed man on the street must predominate increases the danger. It is the duty and the privilege, therefore, of the well-informed citizen in a democratic society to make his private opinion prevail over the public opinion of the man on the street.

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