This essay will explore the definition of the word knowledge, the diversity of different forms of knowledge, and how advances in technological knowledge has brought about many changes in our daily lives and how old orthodoxies are being challenged bringing about social changes in today’s world. It will also look at the connection between two different social science theories – the ‘knowledge society’ and the ‘risk society’ and identify their strengths or weaknesses. What exactly is meant by the word ‘knowledge’?
It, without doubt comes in different forms. There are different types of knowledge such as practical knowledge, institutional knowledge, common-sense knowledge and expert knowledge. There are specific areas of knowledge covering subjects such as medicine, religion and politics. Knowledge includes ways of thinking, different ideas, theories and explanations. Expert knowledge has authority and a great deal of power attached to it, it is different to and much more than simply personal knowledge – i. e. ersonally knowing a lot about a particular subject – it is socially sanctioned in a way that personal knowledge is not.
There are different types of expert knowledge, for example, medical, religious, political, environmental and this expert knowledge is usually attached to an institution or authoritative body. For example we trust doctors because of their status as experts and they have become experts through years of training and the qualifications they’ve obtained which is backed by the authority of professional associations.
The legitimacy of medicine, religion and politics seems to be undergoing a change and new orthodoxies are emerging. For example within medicine, doctors and the medical profession on the whole do not seems to command the respect that perhaps they did thirty or forty years ago and this is probably the case in other knowledge systems too.
Generally speaking there is decline in trust among the general public in expert knowledge systems and this may be because not only do the public now have access to uch more information through the rapid growth of communication technology but also because they have been exposed to fundamental disagreements again, through the access of much more information. It could also be because on the one hand although some diseases and illnesses are being eradicated, others appear to be on the increase such as allergy sufferers and this is encouraging people to look for alternative remedies, taking more responsibility for their bodies and taking action to ‘prevent’ rather than ‘cure’.
The introduction of complementary medicines such as aromatherapy and homeopathy for example has challenged the knowledge foundations of western medicine and this can create a ripple effect because if members of the public start doubting the medical professional it may lead them to start questioning who else or what else they can trust. Furthermore, the introduction of complementary medicines may create greater uncertainty for people because although it does not carry the status of traditional medical expertise, a choice still has to be made.
The connection between knowledge and social change can be explained by two theories which are ‘knowledge society’ and ‘risk society’. The idea of the knowledge society suggests that knowledge is at the heart of social, economic, cultural and political development and change. We live in a world of transformations, affecting almost every aspect of what we do and this includes changes in knowledge and social change.
Firstly, there is an increasing volume of knowledge and types of knowledge – with the massive increase in number of people going into higher education coupled with the number scientific and research institutes and laboratories that exist. Secondly, the significant changes in the way in which knowledge is stored, produced and distributed. With the internet we are no longer limited to a book anymore so access to knowledge is simpler and easier to be much more widely distributed and this has had a massive impact on people’s daily lives.
On a daily basis we are inundated with information about every aspect of our lives, everything and anything from what we should eat to where we should invest to what colour we should paint our houses and this in itself has created a whole range of ‘experts’ who advise us on aspects of our lives. But what constitutes being an ‘expert’? In today’s society it seems you only have to be famous to have authority on a subject which is usually unrelated to the reason for being famous! Such an explanation does tend to be attractive in terms of its empirical adequacy.
Advances in technology (which is as a result of new knowledge) has resulted in a major shift in the way we work – jobs now require new skills that did not exist fifty years ago – for example computer literacy – and many jobs such as coal mining have completely disappeared. Furthermore, automization has meant fewer people are employed in manual jobs but has meant an increased production of goods due to better efficiency. This in turn has meant more choice and therefore the opportunity for greater consumption.
Social status is becoming shaped by these patterns of consumption (by buying a product we are constructing our own identities through association) and this is a huge shift in social relations which has been brought about by the knowledge revolution. This theory is comprehensive because knowledge includes ideas, ways of thinking and practices within the areas of economic, social, cultural and political life so it is wide ranging in its approach and it does seem to be the main instigator of change in these areas because these changes are happening and not much can be done to stop them.
In summary, the knowledge society does seem to offer a coherent explanation of the connection between knowledge and social change although it does put an emphasis on IT/technological knowledge. The other approach focuses on the ‘risk society’ – is there too much knowledge? Dangers have always been present but in today’s society with the amount of information we have access to, the more we know, the more aware we are of risks and dangers that exist in the world.
The difference is that previously some of these existed, we just didn’t know about them so it was a simple case of “ignorance is bliss! “. In addition, with the lack of trust in experts and with world wide problems reaching us all, regardless of class, risk now seems unavoidable and much more widespread. It could be argued that this theory is not empirically adequate because it is unclear whether access to knowledge provides us with an egalitarian society or simply promotes a much more unsettled world which contributes to a sense of insecurity, uncertainty and greater anxiety.
It is not comprehensive because some may argue that knowledge puts us in the driving seat in certain situations and it has clearly had an impact on typical political ideologies because knowing about risks and their possible consequences is a driving force in changing political agenda (and has also meant the introduction of new political groupings such as The Green Party). It does not seem to offer a coherent explanation of the connection between knowledge and social change and moreover totally overlooks overall improvements in general lifestyles and life expectancy.
Knowledge has always been important but changing times means changing knowledge and changing knowledge means changing times! It difficult to establish which is cause and effect but in previous societies knowledge seemed to be based on more established knowledge and was much more limited whereas in contemporary society priority has been given to new knowledge. The sheer explosion of knowledge in new technologies has undoubtedly been responsible for change and development in ways of thinking, ideas and practices within economic, social, cultural and political life – it is clear that we have to move with the times or risk being left ehind and this means adapting the way we live our daily lives because of the introduction of new knowledge. So to conclude, in the 21st century we have access to a plethora of information, much more instantaneously, we demand and are subjected to countless choices, we have to learn new technical skills and knowledge to be able to remain in the workplace and we have to adapt to a world which is becoming ‘global’ rather than ‘local’.
These changes in our social behaviour have come about because of increased knowledge (be it mainly technological knowledge) although to what extent these changes have changed our lives is another issue! There is no doubt, however, that changes in knowledge systems and social changes are directly correlated and although this knowledge revolution may be open to different interpretations, it is undisputed that it has revolutionized many aspects of economic and social life.