Social Epistemology

First published Mon Feb 26, 2001; substantive revision Fri Aug 18, 2006

Social epistemology is the study of the social dimensions of knowledge or information. There is little consensus, however, on what the term "knowledge" comprehends, what is the scope of the "social", or what the style or purpose of the study should be. According to some writers, social epistemology should retain the same general mission as classical epistemology, revamped in the recognition that classical epistemology was too individualistic. According to other writers, social epistemology should be a more radical departure from classical epistemology, a successor discipline that would replace epistemology as traditionally conceived. The classical approach could be realized in at least two forms. One would emphasize the traditional epistemic goal of acquiring true beliefs. It would study social practices in terms of their impact on the truth-values of agents' beliefs. A second version of the classical approach would focus on the epistemic goal of having justified or rational beliefs. Applied to the social realm, it might concentrate, for example, on when a cognitive agent is justified or warranted in accepting the statements and opinions of others. Proponents of the anti-classical approach have little or no use for concepts like truth and justification. In addressing the social dimensions of knowledge, they understand "knowledge" as simply what is believed, or what beliefs are "institutionalized" in this or that community, culture, or context. They seek to identify the social forces and influences responsible for knowledge production so conceived. Social epistemology is theoretically significant because of the central role of society in the knowledge-forming process. It also has practical importance because of its possible role in the redesign of information-related social institutions.

4. Conceptions of the Social