In The Social Construction Series Part 1: 7 Reasons Why Understanding Social Constructions Is Important, I write about the need to understand how the world is actually socially constructed. All of it. Important.
One of the most important social constructions to understand is how knowledge is socially constructed. Numerous books and articles have been written on this topic, from both a theoretical and practical perspective.
Here, we will explore the social construction of knowledge likewise. Both theoretically and practically. Ready? Let’s go.
Let’s first define knowledge.
noun ˈnɒlɪdʒ/ /ˈnɑːlɪdʒ/
- [uncountable, singular] the information, understanding, and skills that you gain through education or
- experience practical/medical/scientific knowledge
- knowledge of/about something He [she] has a wide knowledge of painting and music.
- There is a lack of knowledge about the tax system.
There we go.
Now before we go onto our discussion, let’s take a look at what two prominent philosophers had to say about knowledge, Jurgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault.
“Habermas argues that domination is an obstacle in the pursuit of true knowledge” (Anttonen, Saila. 1999).University of Leeds
“Foucault, however, argues that all knowledge is constituted and socially constructed under conditions of power” (Anttonen, Saila. 1999).University of Leeds
And, what prey tell, do both of these philosophers consider an obstacle to knowledge for some, and a boon for others? Power.
Let’s now consider the social construction of knowledge.
How is Knowledge Constructed?
Knowledge is continually produced, internalized, and practiced, or acted upon. Though not always in this order. Sometimes intellectual knowledge precedes practical knowledge, and sometimes practical knowledge precedes intellectual knowledge. Depends.
Think about a time when you learned something through doing. For instance, learning how to drive a car. You can possess the intellectual knowledge about how to drive a car, yet until you actually drive a car, you don’t possess the knowledge necessary to drive a car.
You need both. And, in fact, some would argue, as would I, that practical knowledge outweighs intellectual knowledge. For it is in the doing, or practice, that we learn the most.
We accumulate the real knowledge about something when we do it.
Conversely, however, you can ask me to create a presentation on the social construction of knowledge, yet unless I possess the intellectual knowledge about the social construction of knowledge, I will be unable to create that presentation, try as I might.
Therefore, knowledge is constructed two ways. Through our intellect and through practice. Both.
Who Constructs Knowledge?
Everyone constructs knowledge. From a young child to an older adult, knowledge is continuously produced, internalized, and practiced. Knowledge is all around us. Everywhere.
Think about an interaction you’ve had recently where you learned something new, or taught someone something new. That is knowledge production.
Knowledge is produced, internalized, and practiced continuously, all day, every day.
Yet, there is some knowledge that is considered more illusive, more special, or maybe the more appropriate term is specialized. You typically go to University, College, or Trade School to learn about these types of specialized knowledge.
Who Constructs Specialized Knowledge
Simple answer, experts. Yet, what does that really mean? Ah, good question. Someone is considered an expert when they have attained a reasonable amount of intellectual and or practical knowledge about a particular subject or topic. Simple. Why does this matter?
Because the humans that have constructed this knowledge, are just that, human. Meaning that they are like you, like me, and like everyone else. Full of strengths and weaknesses. Both
People often get caught up in the term, expert, thinking that because someone has a degree or certification in one specialized area or another, that they should know what is best for us, or know the best path to take in a certain area of our lives.
Yet, because experts are also human means that they are not infallible. Important. Additionally, because we know that the world and all knowledge within it is socially constructed, we also know that there are many, many ways to understand a subject or topic. Many ways. Not one.
Further, not all knowledge about a particular subject or topic has yet been discovered. Meaning that there is always something more to learn. Always.
Here is what Socrates said about knowledge.
“At the trial, Socrates says, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” Socrates put emphasis on knowledge all his life because he believed that “the ability to distinguish between right and wrong lies in people’s reason not in society.”The Independent
Ah, wonderful. According to Socrates, then, it is up to the individual, each one of us, to distinguish between right and wrong. And that includes distinguishing between the right and wrong of what someone is telling us is true about our bodies, families, community, and the greater world.
Of course, that does not mean that we don’t need assistance from others, and access to the knowledge we need to make informed decisions and choices. Quite the contrary. More assistance and access is needed.
How is Knowledge Disseminated?
Knowledge is disseminated in many different ways. We’ve covered some of them already, such as through Universities, Colleges,and Trade Schools. Yet, knowledge is also produced, internalized, and practiced in many other social contexts, which are typically referred to as social institutions.
Before we go further, let’s define the term social institution.
“Typically, contemporary sociologists use the term to refer to complex social forms that reproduce themselves such as governments, the family, human languages, universities, hospitals, business corporations, and legal systems. A typical definition is that proffered by Jonathan Turner (1997: 6): “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Ah, helpful. Thus far, we’ve covered the social construction of knowledge within University, College, and Trade Schools, yet as you can read above, there are many social institutions that socially construct knowledge.
The issue? Same as with the socially constructed knowledge that Universities, College’s, and Trade Schools produce. When we internalize a socially constructed view of the world, and our place in it, we are receiving knowledge that has been produced within a very particular framework.
And, those frameworks include within them people that have biases, just like you and I. Yep. We can deny we have biases, yet we all have them. They are part of socialization.
All socialization, which just means the how, what, why, when, and where of all that you learned as a child, youth, and young adult has within it bias. It has to. It’s one way of viewing the world. Yet, it’s not the only way.
Now, choose any social institution you like, and we can discuss the problems inherent with the production, internalization, and then the eventual reproduction of that knowledge through practice, or action. What problems, you ask? Good question.
One of the largest problems, or issues, we have just discussed. Because we know that knowledge is socially constructed, and we know that all social institutions have within them a particular worldview (or bias) this knowledge then, which is often told as truth, is not truth.
This knowledge is, rather, a subjective interpretation of life and the world through one lens, or viewpoint.
However, when we internalize this socially constructed knowledge as truth, we limit ourselves. We limit that which we can really know about the world and life. If we are conscious of this fact, and continue to choose a limited framework, very well.
However, most people are unaware, so do not actively choose. They subscribe to a particular set of knowledge constructs because they were socialized to do so. Many people live their entire lives this way.
Hm. What to do? Before we get to that question, let’s take a look at obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge. Important.
What are the obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge?
As we’ve discussed, Habermas and Foucault would both argue that power is an obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge. Meaning that with more power comes more knowledge. Or, maybe, it’s that with more knowledge comes more power?
Actually power and knowledge have a reciprocal relationship. Meaning that with more knowledge, you do have more power. Likewise, with more power, you have more access to knowledge. Truth.
Well, those with power construct more knowledge, especially of the specialized kind. And, as we’ve discussed, accessing such knowledge is inaccessible for many people.
Therefore understanding how knowledge is socially constructed is important for everyone. Why?
5 Reasons Why Understanding The Social Construction of Knowledge is Important
1. Know matter how much you know intellectually, you must practice it
Practicing our intellectual knowledge is necessary to develop ourselves. When we learn something, and internalize it, the cycle of knowledge production is not complete.
We must practice that knowledge to really know it.
Once practiced, we know it through our entire selves, which is a very different experience than simply having intellectual knowledge about a subject or topic.
2. You can do something with that which you know, or are knowledgeable about
Knowing that knowledge is socially constructed, and that you are an active participant in constructing knowledge creates an opportunity for you to practice distributing your particular knowledge to others.
You are the only one that can educate someone on that which you know, just as you know it.
And, when you give out that which you are knowledgeable about, you will get back that which someone else is knowledgeable about. Meaning, that you will now have acquired more knowledge by giving someone your knowledge. Reciprocal learning.
3. Specialized knowledge is an interpretation, so question it
When we know that all knowledge is socially constructed, we know that questioning all that we learn is necessary and needed. We must question what experts tell us is true about our bodies, families, community, and the greater world.
When we begin to question other people’s truths, we create a space to develop ourselves more. Why?
Because we have created a space to learn more from the expert. Simple. When we don’t take expert knowledge at face value, we create a space to learn more about the subject or topic. Keep questioning.
4. Because bias is inherent in all socially constructed knowledge, be wary of limitation
When we accept knowledge as true, which is given to us by a social institution we limit ourselves. We limit what is knowable.
However, as was aforementioned, when we question that knowledge, we create the opportunity to learn more, and develop more. We don’t accept one worldview or interpretation of the world, which is limiting.
We know knowledge is socially constructed, so we question. We question the knowledge. We become unlimited.
5. Search for knowledge everywhere, both intellectually, and in practice
When we know that knowledge precedes and follows power, we can intentionally create opportunities to learn more. Acquiring more knowledge, both intellectually and practically, moves us forward as human beings.
When we internalize and practice what we learn, we also create an opportunity to produce something out of this knowledge. Of which this article is an example.
And, when we practice that which we know, we have more power as a human being.
In Closing: Question Everything
My final thoughts on the social construction of knowledge is to question everything. Really.
Question the knowledge you now have. Question the knowledge people communicate to you. Question all of it. Powerful.
We choose to accept the knowledge that we have, as well as the knowledge that is communicated to us as true. However, when we know that the world is socially constructed, and that all knowledge is likewise socially constructed, we create an opportunity to question these truths.
Both the ones we’ve considered as truth for most of our lives, and other people’s truths.
We also create a developmental opportunity for ourselves, and as we have discussed, for everyone that we know. We move ourselves from a limited framework to an unlimited one.
Remember, on any subject or topic, there is more to learn. Always. Because we know this to be true, there is always an opportunity to share your knowledge with someone, and for them to share their knowledge with you.
That which you know is powerful. That which you can learn about is powerful.
Knowledge that is produced, internalized, and practiced is socially constructed by you, by me, by experts, by every human being. Thus, question it, question all of it.
Definition of knowledge taken from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.