Social organization of knowledge

Whitley (1984) made a distinction between "the intellectual organization of the sciences" and "the social organization of the sciences". The intellectual organization of the sciences does not coincide with their institutional organization. Furthermore, the relations between these layers of organization can be expected to vary among disciplines. How may those kinds of knowledge organization (KO) be identified? While typical intellectual KO are displayed in scientific taxonomies such as the periodic system of physics and chemistry or the Linnaean hierarchy of zoology and botany, may social organization be displayed in the way knowledge is organized in institutes of higher education and research, in the disciplinary structure of the social division of labor in society. Leydesdorff found that journals belong to the intellectual organization:


"In science studies this operationalization of the intellectual organization of knowledge in terms of texts (journals) as different from the social organization of the sciences in terms of institutions and people would enable us to explain the scientific enterprise as a result of these two interacting and potentially coevolving dimensions " (Leydesdorff, in press)


However, journals are often published by disciplines and social institutions, why Leydesdorff's quote may have to be modified.


Toulmin (1972/1977) makes a related differentiation between the "content-knowledge" of a science and the "institutional aspects" of science, such as the professional forums. Both make thus a distinction between intellectual and social forms of knowledge organization. We will here use Whitley's terminology and make a distinction between social organization of knowledge (social KO) and intellectual organization of knowledge.


Toulmin (1972/1977) suggests that science is generally continuous because either the content or the institution will remain stable while the other changes. In response then the first will adapt, in an iterative process of constant change and constant stability.


The distinction between "the intellectual organization of the sciences" and "the social organization of the sciences" is important for the theory of knowledge organization (KO). This distinction is at the heart of the theory of KO. It is not just concerned with the organization of the sciences, but with knowledge in general. (According to Harris, 2005, is science - like art, religion and history - one of the super categories adopted by modern societies for explaining and justifying certain types of human activity. Harris argues that each super category has its own semantics. The function of the super category is to integrate what would otherwise be unconnected forms of inquiry, and the result of such integrations is to draw a certain map of our intellectual world).



The way disciplines are organized in universities is an example of a social organization. For example, psychology moved from the humanities to the social sciences at the University of Copenhagen about 2002. This is a change the administrative and social organization of disciplines at the University of Copenhagen. Concepts such as "Humanities" and "Social Sciences" are difficult to understand without considering their social constitution (See: Arts & Humanities in Epistemological Lifeboat & Social studies in Epistemological Lifeboat). The social organization of knowledge is not just concerned with how disciplines are organized in superstructures, but also how they are organized in sub-disciplines, whether, for example, social psychology is a part of psychology or a part of sociology (or other possibilities). In Library and Information Science (LIS) we may ask whether Information Retrieval (IR) is a part of LIS, a part of Computer Science or whether LIS and computer science both have IR as subdisciplines (and then if they are distinct or if they form an interdisciplinary field in which there is no difference between the LIS part and the computer part). It has also recently been discussed whether Internet studies is a new field (see: Internet disciplinarity/interdisciplinarity).


The way chemical elements are classified in the periodical system is, on the other hand, an "intellectual" organization of knowledge. Scientists' theories and models of reality, whether chemical, astronomical, biological or cultural, are examples of "intellectual" classifications or organizations of knowledge. "Intellectual" knowledge organization may also be termed ontological models: They are models, theories, observations of findings of how a part of reality is structured. The most important examples of "intellectual knowledge organization" is probably the periodical system of the chemical elements and biological systematics. (See the entries "Chemistry" and "Biology" in the Epistemological Lifeboat).


Classification systems like Dewey Decimal Classification are mostly based on disciplines and are thus primarily reflecting the social organization of knowledge. Forms of bibliometric KO are based on papers citing other papers, which is also a kind of social organization of knowledge (see, for example, maps in Åström, 2002, as examples of bibliometric maps).


Social organization of knowledge may or may not correspond to intellectual organization of knowledge. Researchers may or may not organize themselves (or be organized by others) according to some ontological models of parts of the world. Chemists, for example, may be divided into organic and inorganic chemists, but are often divided into different areas of application. They are typically not divided socially according to the periodic table.


The relation between social and intellectual organization of knowledge is related to the question of realism versus social constructivism. The realist theory believe that scientists discovers fundamental structures in reality and may divide themselves accordingly. Social constructivists, on the other hand, believe that the ontological models and theories reflect social interests and structures, that ontology models do not reflect a reality, but just a construct that is formed by social interests.


Ennis (1992) examines the social structure of American sociological knowledge. He finds that a coherent structure underlies the diverse topics that sociologists study. The paper models this structure by examining the pattern of shared membership linking specialties in American sociology in 1990. Cluster analysis and multidimensional scaling reveal seven coherent clusters focusing on deviance and control, setting and context, political and macrosociology, theory and culture, numbers, stratification and work, and social psychology/gender/medical sociology. The hierarchy of clustering reveals convergences, divergences, and potential influences among them. Centrality in the field corresponds to size of specialty, while dimensions of differentiation reflect shared substantive content.






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Ennis, J. G. (1992). The social organization of sociological knowledge: Modeling the intersection of specialties. American Sociological Review, 57(2), 259-265. 


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Harris, R. (2005). The semantics of science. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.


Jenks, C. (Ed.). (1977). Rationality, Education and the Social Organization of Knowledge: Papers for a Reflexive Sociology of Education.  London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Lave, J. (1985). The social organization of knowledge and practice: a symposium. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 16, 171-213.


Leydesdorff, L. (in press). Visualization of the Citation Impact Environments of Scientific Journals: An online mapping exercise. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Available at:


Longino, H. (2002). The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. IN: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Mukerji, C. (2001). Science, Social Organization of. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science. (Pp. 13687- 13691).


Oleson, A. & Voss, J. (Eds.). (1979). The Organization of knowledge in modern America, 1860-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Click for table of contents


Philips, S. U. (1987). The social organization of knowledge and its consequences for discourse in bureaucratic settings. Discourse Processes, 10(4), 429-433.


Pierce, S. J. (1991). Subject areas, disciplines and the concept of authority. LISR [Library and Information Science Research], 13, 21-35.


Toulmin, S. (1972/1977). Human understanding. The collective use and evolution of human concepts. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Paperback edition 1977).


Whitley, R. R. (1984). The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2nd ed. with a new introduction 2000).


Åström, F (2002). Visualizing Library and Information Science concept spaces through keyword and citation based maps and clusters. In: Bruce, Fidel, Ingwersen & Vakkari (Eds.). Emerging frameworks and methods: Proceedings of the fourth international conference on conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS4), pp 185-197. Greenwood Village: Libraries unlimited. Two figures: Bibliometric_MAP_LIS.PDF; Bibliometric_LIS_2.PDF



See also: Citation network Disciplines in Knowledge Organization; Discourse community; Professions, study of. ; Social classification





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 19-02-2007