In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epistemology

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Texts
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Abstraction
  • Social Constructionism
  • The Sociology of Knowledge
  • Empirical Sociological Studies of Epistemology
  • The Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
  • The “Science Wars,” the “Sokal Hoax,” and the Critique of Relativism
  • Knowledge and Value Commitments
  • Pragmatism
  • Canonicity

Sociology Epistemology
Justin Cruickshank
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0036


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of knowledge, with knowledge traditionally defined as justified true belief. Classical epistemology set up a dualism between the mind and a material reality external to the mind. The problem to solve then became that of explaining how ideas in the mind could be known to mirror objects outside the mind. For the rationalist tradition, the solution to this problem lay in arguing that the mind had a priori ideas, meaning ideas that existed independently of experience. For the empiricist tradition, the solution to this problem lay in arguing that the mind had a posteriori ideas, meaning ideas stemming from experience or, more precisely, sense data inputs. Alternative positions could adhere to some form of idealism or skepticism. With idealism, reality becomes defined in terms of our ideas of it, and with skepticism it is held that knowledge cannot be attained because we can never know if our ideas mirror objects outside our minds. Later, philosophical attention turned from the issue of discussing whether or not ideas in the mind could mirror objects outside the mind to language. Debates then ensued about whether truth was a matter of correspondence between a statement and a fact. Philosophers concerned with scientific knowledge addressed the issue of what method defined science. For many, there could be a sociology of error but not a sociology of knowledge. What this meant was that while a diligent application of the scientific method would explain the production of truth, error could be explained by “social factors” distorting this process. Examples of social factors could be religious or political commitments. In sociology, epistemology is not a clearly defined topic. Instead, there are a broad range of issues, which may be summarized with the following questions: Should sociology seek scientific knowledge and, if so, how is science to be defined? Can qualitative research give explanatory knowledge of relations of cause and effect as well as quantitative research? Should sociology reject any attempt to explain relations of cause and effect, on the basis that social reality does not have law-like phenomena, in order to understand the shared meanings of agents? How can theoretical abstractions be justified? Should sociologists adopt a broad definition of knowledge to include agents’ understanding of the social and political world, irrespective of whether agents’ beliefs are actually true? Should all domains of knowledge, including the knowledge produced by the natural sciences, be regarded as influenced by sociocultural factors or even completely relative to the prevailing sociohistorical environment? Should value judgments influence the production and dissemination of sociological knowledge? Has sociological knowledge contributed to the reproduction of inequalities by ignoring women and using a research process that is ultimately hierarchical and oppressive? Is a canon of classical texts of any intellectual use for the production of contemporary sociological knowledge? In other words, the issues concerning epistemology in sociology pertain to the status and range of sociological knowledge.

Introductory Texts

There are a number of books that deal with philosophical themes in the social sciences, including the issue of whether or not sociological knowledge can be akin to knowledge produced in the natural sciences. In addition to listing some of these, it is also worthwhile to list some books generally acknowledged as excellent introductory texts that deal just with philosophy or the philosophy of natural science. Blackburn 2005 and Harré and Krausz 1996 provide readable introductions to the philosophy of truth and relativism. Chalmers 2000 and Laudan 1990 provide good introductory texts on the philosophy of natural science, and Benton and Craib 2001, Macdonald and Pettit 2011, and Sarup 1993 discuss the philosophy of social science.

  • Benton, Ted, and Ian Craib. 2001. Philosophy of social science: The philosophical foundations of social thought. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

    This book addresses the issues of whether or not the social sciences should seek the same type of knowledge as the natural sciences, covering core positions such as feminist epistemology, hermeneutics, positivism, and realism.

  • Blackburn, Simon. 2005. Truth: A guide for the perplexed. London: Allen Lane.

    An excellent introduction to different philosophical perspectives on truth. Blackburn notes that the different schools of thought tend to talk past one another, and he is successful in illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of the positions he discusses.

  • Chalmers, Alan F. 2000. What is this thing called science? 3d ed. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    First edition published in 1978. A classic and accessible discussion of key philosophical positions on defining scientific knowledge by thinkers such as Popper and Kuhn, plus some thematic chapters on topics such as methods and laws.

  • Harré, Rom, and Michael Krausz. 1996. Varieties of relativism. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This informative and readable book covers many different types of relativism, including epistemological, ontological, and moral relativism, with an introductory chapter that stakes out the terms of the debate.

  • Laudan, Larry. 1990. Science and relativism: Some key controversies in the philosophy of science. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A discussion between a relativist, a pragmatist, a positivist, and a realist, all scripted by Laudan.

  • Macdonald, Graham, and Philip Pettit. 2011. Semantics and social science. London: Routledge.

    First published in 1981. This is a more technically demanding book, of interest to those with more of a background in analytic philosophy than social science. It addresses a number of key social science problems from the perspective of a philosophical treatment of semantics.

  • Sarup, Madan. 1993. An introductory guide to post-structuralism and postmodernism. 2d ed. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

    First edition published in 1988. A well-respected, critical, and accessible introductory guide, with chapters on key thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard.

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