The Sociologyof Knowledge

Durkheim's sociology of knowledge is intimately tied to hissociology of religion. In the latter, he attempts to show thatman's religious commitments ultimately can be traced to hissocial commitments (the City of God is but a projection of theCity of Man). His sociology of knowledge postulates that thecategories of man's thought--his ways of conceiving space andtime, for example--can be traced to his mode of social life.

Durkheim maintained that spatial, temporal, and other thoughtclassifications are social in origin, closely approximating thesocial organization of primitive people. The first"classes" were classes of men, and the classificationof objects in the world of nature was an extension of the socialclassification already established. All animals and naturalobjects belonged to this or that clan or phratry, residential orkinship group. He further argued that, although scientificclassifications have now become largely divorced from theirsocial origins, the manner in which we still classify things as"belonging to the same family" reveals the socialorigins of classificatory thought.

Durkheim attempted a sociological explanation of allfundamental categories of human thought, especially the centralconcepts of time and space. These, he claimed, are not onlytransmitted by society, but they are social creations. Society isdecisive in the genesis of logical thought by forming theconcepts of which that thought is made. The social organizationof the primitive community is the model for the primitive'sspatial organization of his surrounding world. Similarly,temporal divisions into days, weeks, months, and years correspondto periodical recurrences of rites, feasts, and ceremonies."A calendar expresses the rhythm of the collectiveactivities, while at the same time its function is to assuretheir regularities."

Although in the light of later critical discussions of thisthesis it can be said that Durkheim failed to establish thesocial origins of the categories of thought, it is important torecognize his pioneering contribution to the study of thecorrelations between specific systems of thought and systems ofsocial organization. It is this part of Durkheim's contribution,rather than some of the more debatable epistemologicalpropositions found in his work, that has influenced laterdevelopment in the sociology of knowledge. Even when one refusesassent to the proposition that the notions of time and space aresocial in origin, it appears that the particular conceptions oftime and space within a particular society and at a particulartime in history are derived fro specific social and culturalcontexts. Here, as in his study of religion, Durkheim wasconcerned with functional interrelations between systems ofbeliefs and thought and the underlying social structure.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 139-140.



  1. Elementary Forms, pp. 10-11.


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