THE NEW PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE - THE DYNAMICS OF SCIENCE AND RESEARCH IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETIES, Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow. London, Sage Publications, 1994.

Steve Fuller, "Is there life for sociological theory after the sociology of Sociology:?" The Journal of the British Sociological Association, 29, 1, p. 159, Feb 1995

In a review essay, the following books are discussed: 1. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition, and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash (Cambridge: Polity, 1996); 2. The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, by Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow (London: Sage, 1994); 3. New Rules of Sociological Method, by Anthony Giddens (Cambridge: Polity, 1993); and 4. Knowledge Societies, by Nico Stehr (London: Sage, 199

The relationship between recent sociological theory and the sociology of scientific knowledge is best characterised as one of mutual aversion.(1) This is not because sociological theorists have been oblivious to the prominence of the natural sciences and their epistemic emulators in the contemporary world. On the contrary, in two of the books under review, theorists Nico Stehr and Ulrich Beck come dangerously close to reifying the significance of science under such catch-all rubrics for our times as 'the knowledge society' and 'the risk society'. The former slogan captures the increasing need for scientific expertise to license all kinds of social action, whereas the latter revokes our paradoxical dependence on science as both the source and the solution of major social problems. Together the two slogans define the parameters of 'Mode 2' knowledge production celebrated by Michael Gibbons and his band of the multinational, policy-oriented theorists.

Even the theorist whose avoidance of the sociology of science has been the most conspicuous -- the otherwise synoptic Anthony Giddens -- has recently felt the need to confront the critical literature in this field. Yet, when Giddens finally does discuss the natural sciences -- in the introduction to the second edition of New Rules of Sociological method -- he treats them, not as a species of social knowledge, but as a species of knowledge that continues to stand significantly apart from society, by virtue of 'natural' objects being unable to talk back to their corresponding scientists. The authors of The New Production of Knowledge would say that by identifying the natural sciences exclusively with what transpires within the four walls of a research laboratory, Giddens stresses the role of the sciences in producing knowledge for a disciplinary community to the exclusion of their role in distributing knowledge across society. Moreover, because Giddens uncritically takes on board the idea that human beings are equally 'knowledgeable' social agents, he gives himself little reason to examine the role that natural scientific knowledge plays in ordinary processes of social reproduction.

What is exactly lost by following Giddens in adopting a generous (or diffuse) conception of knowledge? An adequate answer to this question requires some historical perspective (Ringer, 1979). Since the end of the Franco-Prussian War, national educational systems have increasingly defined the standard of 'intelligence' in terms of a conception of 'problem-solving ability' modelled on homework assignments in classical mechanics textbooks and underwritten by a complex of biological determinants. This has allowed for an unprecedented degree of precision in the public recognition of the relative knowledgeability of agents. This was a godsend for a period when traditional status-and class-based principles of stratification were failing 'to keep people in their places'. Thus, one's percentile ranking in an 'aptitude test' now opened and closed possibilities for employment. As the new basis for social order, the image of social agents as little physicists with minds that are the unique product of 'nature' and 'nurture' made the state's investment in -- and identification with -- the research agenda of the natural sciences near irresistible. Once this historical legacy is taken into account, whatever 'equality' one still wishes to impute to the knowledgeability of agents in modern societies is best left to the probability that a given agent will end up in any one of the finely grained percentile categories that, in turn, will shape the agent's role in the processes of social reproduction. In other words, the chances that one will be regarded as knowledgeable may well be equally distributed across race, class, status, gender, and the other classic social markers.

For their part, sociologists of scientific knowledge can hardly be faulted for being anti-or even a-theoretical. The early ethnographies of 'laboratory life' conducted by Michael Mulkay, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Harry Collins, Michael Lynch, and Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar were no mere exercises in naive empiricism, but rather empirical refutations of normative philosophical accounts of science that had been given a blanket sociological endorsement by Robert Merton and his followers. Indeed, this literature has attracted considerable cross-disciplinary notoriety largely because its conclusions are seen as bearing (skeptically) on a whole host of widely accepted theoretical claims about the natural sciences' special epistemic status. Some sociologists of science have gone so far as to assert that their empirical work should be read as attempts to use science as a site for social theorising by empirical means.

If today's sociologists of science seem to eschew theory, it is only because what passes as 'theory' in sociology often seems more concerned with legitimating the discipline of sociology than with understanding social phenomena as such. Accordingly, the defining problems of contemporary sociological theory-the need to reconcile such binary oppositions as micro/macro, structure/agency, and positivism/ interpretivism -- are more clearly motivated by looking at the organisation of introductory sociology textbooks than at the organisation of social life itself. Pace Schutz, are there really multiple levels of social reality through which agents regularly pass, or simply multiple schools of sociology which theorists feel compelled to integrate?

Though harsh, the judgement implied in this question nevertheless captures at least some of the spirit that animates theoretical projects like Giddens'. There is a history behind the dual move of rendering the place of knowledge in society unproblematic and the relevance of natural scientific knowledge to social inquiry negligible. It is connected to why Giddens and fellow-travellers insist on calling their project 'sociological theory' rather than 'philosophy of social science', and why Giddens himself has been at pains to cast his brand of conceptual analysis as an exercise in onolopy rather than epistemology.

The relevant history is exemplified by Bryan Wilson's (1970) Rationality, a book whose contributors took seriously the skeptical challenge that social inquiry cannot adhere to the standard of knowledge supposedly met by the natural sciences (usually classical mechanics), and hence cannot be counted as a proper 'science'. To check the skeptic's arguments, defenders of sociology -- from Ernest Gellner to Peter Winch --invariably relied more on philosophical claims about the sheer possibility of sociology than on extant sociological research. Whatever else one makes of it, Giddens's refusal to defer to philosophy in this manner must be regarded as a great step toward establishing the disciplinary autonomy of sociology. On Giddens' formulation, the real question facing sociological theorists is which account of social reality most adequately grounds the widest range of empirical work that is already being done in sociology.

However, Giddens and other theorists have paid a price for their bold disciplinary chauvinism. It may be summed up as a lack of a quality: reflexivity. Although reflexivity has been marshalled for many causes over the last thirty years, a core meaning remains, namely, that the social theorist must provide an account of social reality that can explain how the theorist could come to have such an account. Nowadays, the sociology of scientific knowledge is the most productive site for discussions of reflexivity, largely because here sociologists can establish their own epistemic authority only by both subverting and reinforcing the authority of the natural sciences it studies. (Less cryptically: One must apply rigorous empirical methods associated with the natural sciences in order to show that the natural sciences do not in fact abide them.) To the casual reader of the four books under review, this lack of reflexivity is easily obscured by the common characterisation of today's world as itself 'reflexive'. Thus, when Beck, Giddens, and Lash speak of 'reflexive modernization', they mean a world in which the widening and deepening of scientific mechanisms of social control have ironically increased, rather than decreased, the level of risk and uncertainty in the world.

The basic, and profoundly correct, point here is that the goals of modem scientific nationality can yield perverse consequences once their pursuit extends beyond a mere handful of 'enlightened' elites to include the bulk of humanity. For example, 'universal' access to knowledge of high-energy physics enables a proliferation of nuclear powers, which, in turn, makes the world more dangerous than ever before. However, omitted from such an account is how Beck, Giddens, and Lash could have come to understand reflexive modernisation in these paradoxical terms -- terms which they take to be characteristic of this era. Sociologically speaking, our three theorists are not detached observers of late modern society, but rather are themselves co-products with the risks and uncertainties about which they theorise. What is it, then, about the ongoing relationship between sociological theory and social reality that now leads theorists with ideological interests as disparate as those of Giddens, Gibbons, Beck, and Stehr to embrace an essentially paradoxical yet knowledge-based view of today's world?

The rest of this essay will address the above question by reviewing three conceptual liabilities incurred by sociological theory in its current epistemologically unreflexive mode. These liabilities may be posed as a series of conflations, each of which turns on the sociologist's failure to locate him or herself within the social reality under study. Consequently, the sociologist is not afforded the conceptual space to consider how his or her position may influence the way social reality is represented:

(1) A conflation of social theorising and social research methodology.

(2) A conflation of social theorising and the 'sense-making' activities of social agents.

(3) A conflation in the definition of 'knowledge' as a discernible object or property in the world and as a residual term for whatever cannot be explained by more traditional sociological categories.

Conflating Theory and Method

The first conflation occurs whenever a theorist claims to be characterising the contemporary social world, but is in fact using an aspect of that world as an occasion to explicate the conceptual framework of one or more theorists, often 'classical' ones who lived up to a century ago. Thus, what at first seemed to be an empirical observation that might decisively bear on the validity of alternative theories of late modernity is now revealed to be merely an example of the continuing relevance of theorists from an earlier era. Regular readers of sociological theory will recognise this tendency immediately, though perhaps they may not have noticed the mixed messages it sends about just how sharply the present breaks with the past. For example, the tendency is evident in Stehr's strategy of framing his treatment of today's knowledge societies around a critical exegesis of the futuristic accounts of 'post-industrialism' offered by Daniel Bell and Raymond Aron over a generation ago. However, since Giddens comes closest to an explicit endorsement of sociological theory as a project in its own right, an extended example is perhaps best taken from his work.

A key feature of Giddens's analysis of reflexive modernisation is a process he dubs 'detraditionalization', whereby behavioural patterns associated with a tradition are continued long after the social contexts that historically gave them meaning have been discontinued. The pedigree for this concept is impressive, but also old. Giddens draws on Halbwachs' analysis of dreams, Freud's of compulsion, and Weber's of the capitalist ethic. Although Giddens sprinkles his discussion with contemporary examples, such as anorexia nervosa, it is difficult not to be left with the impression that 'detraditionalization' is more useful as a second-order concept for what is common to Halbwachs, Freud, and Weber than as a first-order concept for grasping a phenomenon sufficiently recent and distinctive to warrant the neologism 'reflexive modernization'.

Lest the reader be misled, I do not believe that there is anything wrong with drawing on the ideas of past theorists in order to illuminate the present condition. In fact, it may be especially illuminating to reveal the (understandably) dated and parochial character of such theorists, if only to motivate a fresh look at what is distinctive about our times. I only object to the suggestion, implicit in the practice of the theorists under review, that the best way to understand contemporary social life is by thinking 'through' (or 'against') the corpus of earlier sociological theorists. Ironically, while most of our theorists -- certainly Giddens and Stehr -- would hold up their hermeneutical approach to theory as indicative of an historical sensitivity that is often lacking in contemporary social research, I would argue that, in fact, the opposite is the case -- or, rather, a tradeoff is being made in historical perspective.

What Giddens and Stehr gain by way of highlighting the historical continuity between the projects of past and present theorists, they lose by neglecting the variety of exigencies that, at various times, have driven sociologists to devote the bulk of their energies to theorising. To put it bluntly, it is not at all clear that Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, or even Bell and Aron, would recognise what Giddens and Stehr are doing as proper extensions of their original theoretical urges. Marx was designing the blueprint for the socialist revolution, Durkheim and Weber were laying disciplinary foundations in rather different national university settings, and Aron and Bell have primarily wanted to influence policymakers. None of these aims is common to Giddens and Stehr. In that case, how is one to socially situate their theorising

As is all too often the case, the natural sciences have been down this road before. In the seventeenth century, the field of 'natural philosophy' was populated not only by Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, but also by Descartes, Hobbes, and Gassendi. Today, of course, we call the former trio 'scientists' and the latter 'philosophers'. The two groups were distinguished in their own day by whether they believed that anything genuinely new could be discovered by experimental means. Although the people we now call philosophers were generally sympathetic to the emerging interest in experiment, they nevertheless held that, at least in principle, it was possible to reach the same conclusions by reasoning from first principles or by fathoming the full meaning of such ancients as Aristotle, Lucretius, or Pythagoras. Indeed, the philosophers understood the turn from the liberal to the manual arts that characterised experimentation to indicate either that one had not fully clarified the logic of one's own inquiry or that one primarily wanted to appeal to audiences who did not possess the preferred dialectical and hermeneutical skills.

Today's sociological theorists uncomfortably resemble these seventeenth century philosophers. Social phenomena do not seem worthy of sustained discussion unless other theorists can be presented as having already found the phenomena worthy of discussion. Ideally, social theorising preempts, rather than prepares, empirical research -- at least among the intellectually acute. (This seems to be Giddens' attitude toward sociologists empirically investing the difference between the natural and social sciences.) In cases where theorists offer conflicting testimony about a given social phenomenon, one concludes that the phenomenon is 'deep', not that someone is wrong. (This captures not only Stehr's practice but also the more policy-oriented theorising of Gibbons et al., as will be noted below.) It would be worthwhile for sociological theorists to consult Shapin & Schaffer's (1985) classic social history of seventeenth century natural philosophy to catch a glimpse of what fate may lie in store for them.

Conflating Theorising and Sense-Making

There are many rhetorical advantages to saying that non-sociologists are really little sociologists in disguise. One is that it presumably pays the non-sociologists a compliment, at least according to the sociologist's own set of values. Non-sociologists appear as sophisticated reasoners, ever sensitive to the social markers in their environments, and always knowing much more than they can tell (i.e., their silences are pregnant never empty). Of course, not only does such an image flatter the non-sociologist, but it also provides a 'deep' object of inquiry for sociologists to pursue. One is reminded of priests who need to impute souls to people in order to have something to minister. Here a cynic might wonder whether the sociologist is engaging in anything more than a form of methodological ventriloquism by claiming that social agents are 'already' theorising by the time the sociologist arrives on the scene. Is the 'etic' is already inscribed in the 'emic', the 'third-person' in the 'first-person' perspective?

Once again taking Giddens as our culprit, we can identify two problems with this way of relating the sociologist to fellow social agents. The first problem is creeping reflexivity. Even granting some sort of analogy between the sense-making of social agents and the theorising of sociologists, the two activities clearly perform quite different, if not opposed, social functions. Indeed, if sociological theorising were truly like ordinary sense-making, then Giddens would be forced to consider the kind of world he is helping to construct by theorising in the way he does. Whereas social agents give sense-making accounts in order to achieve closure to multiply meaningful situations, unreflexive sociological theorists like Giddens hover detachedly above the social realities they theorise about. In this respect, sociological theorists could learn something from their corresponding lay theorists.

The second problem with treating both sociologists and non-sociologists as theorists is that it gives the impression that social theorising is essential for the conduct of social life, from which one may then conclude that lay agents are likely to benefit by adopting the sociologist's more systematic form of theorising. This is a problem because it misdiagnoses whatever ability sociology may have to facilitate social life, which has less to do with a conceptual point about the proto-sociology of social agents than with the simple fact that sociology has been integral to the mechanisms of social control for most of its history.

In that case, the allusion to 'methodological ventriloquism' may have put an earlier point too mildly. Rather, 'applied' sociologists have been actively involved in designing the industrial, urban, educational, and administrative regimes that their more theoretical cousins are inclined to see as happy coincidences between the ways in which theorists and lay people think about the social world.

Admittedly, the applied side can never be completely repressed, even amidst the abstractions of sociological theory. Giddens' own favoured dead metaphor, 'social reproduction', recalls the interests of the early German and French sociologists in mass education as the means for reproducing the 'social organism' whose functions were defined by the nation state. Given all of the above, it is most ironic that when Giddens does manage to discuss the possible epistemic effects of encounters between sociologists and non-sociologists (the so-called 'double hermeneutic'), he is only concerned with sociologists being unable to protect the integrity of their research, not with social agents being unable to protect the integrity of their lives.

Conflating Knowledge and Ignorance

Of the authors under review, Stehr and Gibbons et al., are the most convinced that we live in a 'knowledge society' that is not just the latest phase of 'industrial' or 'modern' society, but the dawn of a new age in which scientific and technical knowledge will acquire unprecedented significance as an instrument of power and a factor of production. What is most striking about this bit of theorising is not the apocalyptic tone with which it is delivered, but the paradoxical arguments that are mobilised in its support -- and especially the way these arguments are simply articulated without any expressed need for resolution.

A natural starting point is to ask what it is about knowledge in our own time that makes it so uniquely significant. Unfortunately, the answer becomes mysterious very quickly because knowledge seems to share a key property with the old chemical substance, phlogiston: Its contribution to a social process or outcome is defined as whatever is left after all the other known factors have been removed. Thus, Stehr offers at least three definitions of knowledge in this vein. According to one, (technical) knowledge is what accounts for the rise in economic output in cases where labour and capital inputs have remained constant over time. According to a second, (symbolic) knowledge is what accounts for the value of goods that are not directly tied to material supply or demand. According to a third, (pragmatic) knowledge is, ceteris paribus, what enhances one's capacity for action.

Although Stehr periodically complains about the failure of previous theorists to define knowledge adequately, his own solution is simply to enumerate negative definitions of seemingly different phenomena (note the words in parentheses above) and then gather them as evidence for the promethean character of knowledge in today's world. Absent a clear sense of how these three definitions are interrelated, an uncharitable reader can be left with the idea that Stehr has over-interpreted the linguistic fact that 'knowledge' is made to do a lot of possibly too much -- semantic work in contemporary English usage. This impression is reinforced by further claims about knowledge being both a private and public good, a principle of social change and social order, a source of increased oppression as well as of diminished irrationality.

Topping off this budget of paradoxes is the idea that knowledge has a high fixed cost but a low variable cost (i.e., everyone can benefit from an invention or discovery without repeating the originator's efforts). One might think that this proliferation of knowledgeable people and products would be self-defeating beyond a certain point -- that one's relative capacity for action, say, would be diminished by everyone easily acquiring the same absolute capacity. Moreover, the 'intermediation' of all social functions with 'knowledge-workers' might just as easily be interpreted as a sign of social breakdown as of social differentiation, were we to focus on the historical increase in the number of people and discourses needed for petting the same job done. Yet, interestingly, Stehr's proclivity for paradoxes does not include entertaining the possibility that the knowledge society might mark an overall repression from industrial society.

An easy, and perhaps not entirely inaccurate, explanation for Stehr's optimism about a phenomenon with such barely coherent theoretical contours is that whatever else 'the knowledge society' might turn out to be, it seems to require the additional training and employment of academically qualified people. In a world that currently displays the exact opposite tendency, hope must surely spring eternal. A key bit of wishful thinking -- one in which Gibbons et al. indulge even more than Stehr -- is that 'tacit' human knowledge cannot be superseded by the 'proprietary' forms of knowledge contained in information technologies. Such thinking is wishful in that it supposes that post-industrial society will not catch on to the secret of industrial society's success, namely, to replace at lower cost whatever one cannot completely reproduce. If this rule-of-thumb worked for the automation of human labour, why shouldn't it work for the automation of human intelligence? Because The New Production of Knowledge was written as a primer in theory for policymakers, this optimism is even more obtrusive. Gibbons et al. expend so much effort on showing how 'Mode 2' knowledge production marks a break from the discipline-based, normal-scientific 'Mode 1' that they are hard-pressed to admit that Mode 1 is itself little more than an ideal type, one whose likelihood of being superseded is only matched by its unlikelihood of ever having existed. For while it is true that philosophers of science from the positivists to Kuhn have generally portrayed the natural sciences as self-contained epistemic communities on the model of Mode 1, the sciences have traditionally encountered resistance for their tendency to destabilise the arts-based power structures of the universities-mainly by forming makeshift alliances with the state and industry, often in foreign countries. Indeed, such fecund interdisciplinary research programmes as molecular biology and operations research have resulted from these alliances. But these developments all took place long before Mode 2 is said to have emerged. What, then, is new about Mode 2?

Strangely enough, the answer may lie in what Gibbons et al. fail to acknowledge, namely, that Mode 2 is less the permeation of industrial society by knowledge-based values and more the permeation of knowledge-based communities by industrial values. Once again, it becomes important to appreciate the exigencies that have driven sociological theory. When our authors extol Mode 2's 'social distribution of knowledge' and the natural flow of knowledge workers to positions of comparative epistemic advantage, one mustn't forget that this image was originally offered by Alfred Schutz as a way of showing the natural affinity between the epistemology of Austrian economics and the phenomenology of everyday life (Prendergast, 1986). If knowledge production promises to be more 'fluid' and 'dynamic' than it has been in the past, that is only because a final important institutional barrier to the spread of capitalism -- the value structure implicit in academic forms of knowledge -- is now in the process of being dismantled. And, presumably, if the theorist can't beat the trend, he or she might as well join it. In terms of Max Weber's typology of religious attitudes toward the world, we might therefore ask: Is there anything more to contemporary sociological theorising than an elaborate process of 'world-adjustment'? References

FULLER, S. 1993. Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

PRENDERGAST, C. 1986. 'Alfred Schutz and the Austrian School of Economics'. American Journal of Sociology 92:1-26.

RINGER, F. 1979. Education and Society in Modern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

SHAPIN, S. and SCHAFFER, S. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

WILSON, B. (ed.) 1970. Rationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

STEVE FULLER is Professor of Sociology at the University of Durham.


1. Throughout this essay I use 'sociological theory' in a relatively narrow sense and 'sociology of scientific knowledge' in a relatively broad one. Thus, 'sociological theory' covers the abstract and synthetic work largely done by and for theorists, but does not include the construction of formal systems of hypotheses the main purpose of which is to guide empirical research. On the other hand, by 'sociology of scientific knowledge', I mean to go beyond the original ethnographic work that attempted to account for scientific knowledge production in purely sociological terms without having recourse to special appeals to 'reason', 'truth', or 'objectivity'. I also mean to include general normative lessons one may draw from this body of work, especially as regards the permeability of disciplinary boundaries -- a theme that has figured prominently in my own work in 'social epistemology' (Fuller, 1993). <