In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Sociology of Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Greatest Hits
  • Epistemology
  • Sensory Knowledges
  • Embodied Knowledges
  • Subaltern Knowledges
  • Publics, Institutions, and Knowledges
  • Knowledges and Technologies
  • The Academy
  • Knowledge Activism, Hegemony, and Ideas
  • Translations across Space and Media
  • Knowledge, Race, and Postcoloniality
  • Knowledge, Nation, and Contiguous Empires
  • Futurity and Liberatory Imaginaries

Sociology Critical Sociology of Knowledge
Prabhdeep Singh Kehal, Laura Garbes, Michael D. Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0221


This article curates scholarship around those understandings identified to be “knowledges.” It investigates their production, legitimating institutions, and their experiences and embodiments. It emphasizes those conceptualizations excluded from canonizations of knowledge. This knowledge cultural sociology (KCS) recognizes the importance of the Mannheimian tradition, and its extensions, that explain how social relations shape the articulations and validations of knowledge. However, KCS also situates knowledge within systems beyond those who produce and consume it. KCS views knowledge as itself necessarily contested, as struggles over its qualities reflect social locations and articulate social practices. In making knowledge over the subject of inquiry, KCS works to understand how knowledges’ symbols, schemas, institutions, and networks shape the terms of social reproduction and transformations. As such, KCS demands consideration of different kinds of knowledge cultural products and modes of communication. KCS is thus necessarily grounded in the question of what constitutes knowledge, and for whom and with what interests and expectations. This KCS intervention focuses on 21st-century work. This decision aims to engage scholarship that extends and challenges a 20th-century canon; including works from the 20th century signals scholarship yearning for expansion. The article is not comprehensive, but marks how knowledge is valued and ignored. To focus on this century and move beyond sociology allows engagement with ways of knowing and being that sociology has historically minoritized, moving consideration to structures and processes validating some kinds of knowledge over others. KCS is not canonization, but works toward liberation, a knowledge activism mobilizing knowledge in consequential public ways alongside more familiar scholarly ambitions. KCS moves scholarship beyond familiar networks and self-reproducing knowledge hierarchies grounded in race, gender, sexuality, religion, and world region. It seeks to move dialogue beyond knowledge silos and to identify new and ignored ideas, meanings, references, and authorities for constituting knowledges of consequence, reframing contests along the way. For example, instead of asking how excellence and diversity can be combined in knowledge production, KCS asks what anti-racist knowledge excellence can be. Accounts of epistemology ought to foreground the contexts and power relations in which those knowledge sensibilities are formed and communicated; thus, the references in this article move generally from concept to context. Likewise, sections moving toward global, post-socialist, and postcolonial discussions inform ontologies and epistemologies organizing scholarly work and public consequence. But this begins with what might be identified, in this entry at least, as the greatest hits of KCS.

Greatest Hits

This section introduces themes elaborated on in other sections. To move knowledge beyond the academy’s walls, this section offers access to this knowledge project for those without access to the full edition of this bibliographic entry, due either to their own membership fee or their institutional affiliation. KCS asks, “What shapes knowledge production?” Rodríguez-Muñiz 2015 provides an analytical, “cultural diagnostics” approach to identifying inherited limitations in disciplinary knowledge production in an analysis of scholarship on the poor. Like Rodríguez-Muñiz, Turnbull 2003 challenges sociology’s modern epistemological frameworks by showing that sociologists impose a universalizing framework in the search for rationality, rather than analyzing a heterogeneous and dynamic social world. It offers alternative epistemologies decentering rationality to understand unpredictability in social worlds. KCS then asks, “How is knowledge situated in culture and identity?” Wolfe 2016 provides a contextualized history of race as a concept, linking it to its colonial roots as a political project of exploitation. Snorton 2017 builds on this history, illuminating in a racial history of transness how subaltern identities intersect and coarticulate over time to shape current normativities. KCS is committed to understanding how knowledges relate to power. KCS asks how power operates in solidifying hegemonic discourses. Fraser 2015 explores how hegemonies and counter-hegemonies are utilized in the struggle for legitimation of advanced capitalism. KCS is always cognizant of the political stakes of knowledge. Fraser traces how hegemonic discourses constrain the perception of agency within the system. Furthermore, Gilmore 2007 identifies how state actors use “crime” as a knowledge formation under capitalism to not only manage financial surpluses into prison creation but also expose entire communities to premature death. Knowledge regimes have been used to oppress and silence, and knowledge cultures serve as meaningful sites of resistance to hegemonic discourses. This article inquires, how can KCS provide a lens toward social transformation rather than stopping at diagnosis? Nelson 2002, after revealing digital technology’s implicit White heteronormativity in the “raceless/genderless” world, offers a collection of Afrofuturist works reimagining the present, turning the social order on its head. Chari and Verdery 2009 also challenges conventional world distinctions, moving the engagement of a post–Cold War world that joins postcolonial and post-socialist studies. Together, these works preview the critical and reflexive diagnostic work of understanding how knowledge is constituted, its situatedness, and both its hegemonic power through institutions and its potentially transformative role in resistance and creations of better and worse futures.

  • Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery. 2009. Thinking between the posts: Postcolonialism, postsocialism and ethnography after the Cold War. Comparative Studies in Society and History 51.1: 6–34.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417509000024

    Proposing to liberate each “post” from its respective regional foci, the authors propose a post–Cold War approach to knowledge production. They juxtapose “native” knowledge authorities from postcolonial and post-socialist traditions to recognize the knowledge cultural power of the West’s privatization, marketization, and democratization in their ethnographic present. They invite ethnographers to apprehend traces of the past as they emerge as signs of the tenuous reworkings of empires and their successors.

  • Fraser, Nancy. 2015. Legitimation crisis? On the political contradictions of financialized capitalism. Critical Historical Studies 2.2: 157–189.

    DOI: 10.1086/683054

    Fraser refines Habermas’s 1970s argument on Legitimation Crisis by noting both the abiding and transforming legitimation crisis of advanced capitalism as a condition wherein public opinion is cast against a system that is not delivering. Fraser elaborates on how hegemonies and counter-hegemonies work in that contest, around suppositions on the subject positions and capacities for agency available to social actors and the structure and operation of the reigning social order.

  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Gilmore analyzes the rise of US prisons since the 1980s and considers the case of California’s prison growth despite falling crime rates for decades. Rather than responding to an increase in societal crime, Gilmore argues prison expansion responded to surpluses of state capacity, labor, and finance capital. Alongside diminishing labor power, legislators and anti-crime advocates expanded what constituted crime and therefore new areas of criminalization and incarceration.

  • Nelson, Alondra. 2002. Afrofuturism. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    With this introduction to a special issue of Social Text, Nelson marks the assumptions of digital technology’s raceless/genderless fiction. Nelson argues for an understanding on how multiplicity works to deflect and buttress structures of power, and turn oppressive binaries on their head. Finding forms of Black diasporic creation threatening Western knowledge monopolies, the author sets the stage for what has become a major movement of imagining alternative futures.

  • Rodríguez-Muñiz, Michael. 2015. Intellectual inheritances: Cultural diagnostics and the state of poverty knowledge. American Journal of Cultural Sociology 3.1: 89–122.

    DOI: 10.1057/ajcs.2014.16

    Rodríguez-Muñiz develops a cultural diagnostics approach to explore the “inherited cultural infrastructures” shaping knowledge production around poverty. Rodríguez-Muñiz finds a kind of “ontological myopia” that limits study of the poor and their lifeworlds, rather than one that could find a more relational and comprehensive approach. More than an analysis of a particular field, this account enhances the discipline’s capacity for more reflexive and cultural work.

  • Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on both sides: A Racial history of trans identity. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9781517901721.001.0001

    Snorton’s narrative of transness and Blackness reforms the history of transness, often beginning in the mid-20th century. Snorton interrogates how gender is understood as mutable, and traces how slavery and the production of racialized gender enabled this understanding. Using various archive materials from the mid-19th century to present-day violences, Snorton reconstructs the theoretical and historical trajectories of Blackness and transness, showing how the negation of Blackness makes transnormativity possible.

  • Turnbull, David. 2003. Masons, tricksters and cartographers: Comparative studies in the sociology of scientific and indigenous knowledge. New York: Taylor & Francis.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203304587

    In decentering rationality in our modern epistemological framework, sociologists open up the potential of analyzing the messiness of life; that is, the unpredictability and arationality of human action. Turnbull introduces epistemologies alternate to the technoscientific way of thinking that are centered in modernity, to argue for a sociology of knowledge that is locally situated and acknowledged as a heterogeneous social assemblage rather than a coherent, universalizing framework.

  • Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of history: Elementary structures of race. New York: Verso Books.

    Wolfe provides a historically and contextually grounded conceptualization of race that improves analyses of neocolonialism. Wolfe’s framework and approach unpack how race remains a relevant construct bound in exploitation, despite its changing and different meanings throughout history. The articulation of race at once critiques resurgent claims of racial biological essentialism and provides a pathway for understanding how race can be used to continue to exploit.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.