Social epistemology refers to a broad set of approaches to the study of knowledge that construes human knowledge as a collective achievement. Another way of characterizing social epistemology is as the study of the social dimensions of knowledge. One of the enduring difficulties with defining "social epistemology" is that of determining what the word "knowledge" means in this context. There is also a challenge in arriving at a definition of "social" which satisfies academics from different disciplines. Social epistemologists may be found working in many of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, most commonly in philosophy and sociology. In addition to marking a distinct movement in traditional, analytic epistemology, social epistemology is associated with the interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).
The term "social epistemology" was first used by the library scientists Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera in the 1950s. Steven Shapin also used it in 1979. But its current sense began to emerge in the late 1980s. In 1987, the philosophical journal Synthese published a special issue on "social epistemology" which included two authors that have since taken "social epistemology" in two divergent directions: Alvin Goldman and Steve Fuller3. Fuller founded a journal called Social Epistemology: a journal of knowledge, culture, and policy in 1987 and published his first book, Social Epistemology, in 1988. Goldman's Knowledge in a Social World came out in 1999. Goldman advocates for a type of epistemology which is sometimes called "veritistic epistemology" because of its large emphasis on truth. This type of epistemology is sometimes seen to side with "essentialism" as opposed to "multiculturalism". But Goldman has argued that this association between veritistic epistemology and essentialism is not necessary.
In 2012, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Social Epistemology, Fuller reflected on the history and the prospects of the field, including the need for social epistemology to re-connect with the larger issues of knowledge production first identified by Charles Sanders Peirce as cognitive economy and nowadays often pursued by library and information science. As for the "analytic social epistemology", to which Goldman has been a significant contributor, Fuller concludes that it has "failed to make significant progress owing, in part, to a minimal understanding of actual knowledge practices, a minimised role for philosophers in ongoing inquiry, and a focus on maintaining the status quo of epistemology as a field."
The basic view of knowledge that motivated the emergence of social epistemology can be traced to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, which gained in prominence at the end of the 1960s. Both brought historical concerns directly to bear on problems long associated with the philosophy of science. Perhaps the most notable issue here was the nature of truth, which both Kuhn and Foucault described as a relative and contingent notion. On this background, ongoing work in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS) was able to assert its epistemological consequences, leading most notably to the establishment of the "Strong Programme" at the University of Edinburgh. In terms of the two strands of social epistemology, Fuller is more sensitive and receptive to this historical trajectory (if not always in agreement) than Goldman, whose "veritistic" social epistemology can be reasonably read as a systematic rejection of the more extreme claims associated with Kuhn and Foucault.
Social Epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy
As a field within analytic philosophy, Social Epistemology foregrounds the social aspects of knowledge creation and dissemination. What precisely these social aspects are, and whether they have beneficial or detrimental effects upon the possibilities to create, acquire and spread knowledge is a subject of continuous debate.
Within the field, `the social' is approached in two complementary and not mutually exclusive ways: `the social' character of knowledge can either be approached through inquiries in inter-individual epistemic relations or through inquiries focusing on epistemic communities. The inter-individual approach typically focuses on issues such as testimony, epistemic trust as a form of trust placed by one individual in another, epistemic dependence, epistemic authority etc. The community approach typically focuses on issues such as community standards of justification, community procedures of critique, diversity, epistemic justice, and collective knowledge.
Social Epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy has close ties to, and often overlaps with Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. While parts of the field engage in abstract, normative considerations of knowledge creation and dissemination, other parts of the field are `naturalized epistemology' in the sense that they draw on empirically gained insights---be that natural science research from, e.g., cognitive psychology, be that qualitative or quantitative social science research. (For the notion of `naturalized epistemology see Willard Van Orman Quine.) And while parts of the field are concerned with analytic considerations of rather general character, case-based and domain-specific inquiries in, e.g., knowledge creation in collaborative scientific practice or knowledge exchange on online platforms, play an increasing role.
Important academic journals for Social Epistemology as a field within analytic philosophy are, e.g., Episteme, Hypatia, Social Epistemology, and Synthese. However, major work within this field is also published in journals that predominantly address philosophers of science or in interdisciplinary journals which focus on particular domains of inquiry (such as, e.g., Ethics and Information Technology).
Present and future concerns
At this stage, both varieties of "social epistemology" remain largely "academic" or "theoretical" projects. But both emphasize the social significance of knowledge and therefore the cultural value of social epistemology itself. A range of journals publishing Social Epistemology welcome papers that include a policy dimension. More practical applications of social epistemology can be found in the areas of library science, academic publishing, guidelines for scientific authorship and collaboration, knowledge policy and debates over the role over the Internet in knowledge transmission and creation.
- Feminist Epistemology
- Sociology of knowledge
- Steve Fuller, Social Epistemologist
- Social constructionism
- Social philosophy
1. "What Is Social Epistemology? A Smorgasbord of projects", in Pathways to Knowledge: Private and Public, Oxford University Press, Pg:182-204, ISBN 0-19-517367-8
3. A comparison of Goldman and Fuller can be found in Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller's Social Epistemology, Francis Remedios, Lexington Books, 2003. pp. 106 –112.
4. Social Epistemology, Steve Fuller, Indiana University Press, p. 3.
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- Schmitt, Frederick F. 1994. Socializing Epistemology. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-7959-4
- Solomon, Miriam. 2001. Social Empricism. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-19461-9