Sociology Intellectuals
Patrick Baert, Zeina Al-Azmeh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0261


While the sociology of intellectuals is arguably a relatively new subfield, sociology has, from its early inception, touched upon issues of intellectual life and knowledge production, broadly defined. Du Bois’s belief in the “talented tenth” has sparked sociological debate on the political and moral role of a black intellectual elite. Marxist sociologists have often been preoccupied with the question of what political role can or should be allocated to the intellectual class. Those influenced by Weber might share his interests in the religious roots of intellectual life, whereas Durkheimian scholars have explored the way in which intellectuals can play a significant role in the creation of a sense of the sacred, togetherness, or cultural trauma. The subdiscipline of the sociology of intellectuals has some overlap with that of cultural sociology and, to a lesser extent, the sociology of professions. It can also have close affinities with work conducted in intellectual history, especially if the latter is inspired by sociological theories. However, the main difference between the sociology of intellectuals and intellectual history is that the former has a more explicit conceptual bent, whereas the latter tends to be more strongly committed to a historical narrative and archival methods. The appeal for a reflexive sociology has fueled an interest in topics related to the sociology of intellectuals: issues around sociological conditions of knowledge production and dissemination of ideas. It is no surprise, therefore, that Pierre Bourdieu, a prominent and vocal proponent of the reflexive turn, has been an active and prolific contributor to the sociology of intellectuals. More recently, arguments around “decolonizing the curriculum” draw on arguments from the sociology of intellectuals, or at least bring up issues of that kind; for instance, in relation to canon formation and to the relationship between the center and the periphery. There is now a growing interest in public interventions by intellectuals on social media. It has been customary for intellectuals to portray their role as intertwined with public engagement—i.e., with the often cited notion of “speaking truth to power.” While this engagement with current political topics has undoubtedly been the hallmark of a substantial part of intellectual life for the past century, this form of commitment has recently taken new forms, especially within the context of social media. Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms have made possible a variety of “celebrity intellectuals,” such as Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, who are able to capitalize politically and commercially on their Internet visibility. The specific features of social media, especially in relation to the mechanisms of virality, have profound effects on the spread of ideas and ultimately on the very nature of what it is to be an intellectual.

Historical Antecedents

Originating during the Dreyfus affair, the term “intellectual” quickly gained currency throughout the first half of the 20th century, reflecting growing political confidence, as well as awareness of commonality, on the part of a diverse group of people involved in intellectual activities (academics, journalists, novelists, etc.). In this constellation, debates from opposing camps emerged as to the precise status and function of intellectuals in modern societies, pivoting opposing camps: those who held that intellectuals should remain independent of class alliances versus those who argue that they should serve a political role for the working class; those who claimed that they should remain objective and seek truth versus those who were more skeptical as to the feasibility of those values; those who saw them as a progressive force versus those who considered them as intrinsically bound up with the existing social order; and so on. The political contexts in which those debates took place are important: Benda 1928, Gramsci 1998, and Mannheim 1936 were written in a period of rising nationalism and fascism, whereas Coser 1965, Chomsky 1967, and Said 1994 can be seen in light of the mid-to-late-20th-century American (and, culturally, Anglo-Saxon) domination on the world stage. Whereas Benda 1928, Gramsci 1998, Mannheim 1936, Chomsky 1967 and Said 1994 take a clear stance within their respective sociopolitical contexts, Coser 1965 and Collini 2006 present a sociohistorical account of the emergence and status of the intellectual.

  • Benda, Julien. 1928. The treason of the intellectuals. New York: William Morrow.

    Originally published in French, this highly influential work posits that intellectuals lost their initial ability for dispassionate analysis and reason. Instead, they are led astray by passions and have embraced various nefarious causes, including nationalism and racism. In the process, intellectuals have adopted a cynical attitude, downgrading truth, justice, and universality for success, power, and sectarian interests.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1967. The responsibility of intellectuals. New York: New York Review of Books.

    By the mid-1960s, having established himself as a leading theorist of structuralist linguistics, Chomsky became more involved in American politics, especially in the context of the Vietnam War. In this piece, against the background of his involvement in the antiwar movement, he denounces various intellectuals who, in his view, have misrepresented history and international relations, justifying the political order and current American foreign policy. Building on writings by Dwight MacDonald, Chomsky elaborates on the idea that it is the responsibility of the intellectual to pursue truth and expose lies.

  • Collini, Stefan. 2006. Absent minds: Intellectuals in Britain. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Starting off with a dissection of the notion of “intellectual” and of its historical trajectory, this book rejects the widespread assumption that, in comparison with, for instance, France, Britain is bereft of intellectual life or a public intellectual arena. Collini points out a more complex picture, one in which key British “anti-intellectuals” were remarkably accomplished intellectuals in their own right, and the label of intellectualism seems to be an essential part of their repertoire.

  • Coser, Lewis. 1965. Men of ideas: A sociologist’s view. New York: Free Press.

    This book is mainly an attempt to explain the precise historical contexts in which the modern intellectual emerged and was able to flourish—in salons and coffee houses, for instance. Focusing on a variety of national contexts (from France and England to the Soviet Union and the United States), Coser also elaborates on the shift in the role of intellectuals, and changes in their authority and their link to power.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. 1998. Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

    This text is well-known for its notion of hegemony, introducing the idea that culture and consent are central to power. The text also includes sections on intellectuals, in which Gramsci argues against the claim that intellectuals constitute a separate class. He contends that intellectuals can be categorized according to the social function they fulfill, leading to the distinction between traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals. The former appear detached from any class, whereas the latter see their activities as tied to a specific class. Organic intellectuals can play an important role in the working-class movement.

  • Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and utopia: An introduction to the sociology of knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    An extension of the initial German publication (1929), this book contrasts ideology, which masks and maintains social order, with utopian thinking, which envisages a radical overhaul of society. Mannheim proposes a sociology of knowledge that studies the social origins of people’s beliefs, and he makes a distinction between relationism and relativism, arguing that his sociological perspective involves the former. Mannheim puts his faith in “free-floating intellectuals” able to incorporate various perspectives and to obtain a superior level of objectivity.

  • Said, Edward. 1994. Representations of the intellectual. New York: Pantheon Books.

    Based on his 1993 Reith Lectures, Said argues in this short book that the role of the intellectual is to take the position of “outsider” and to be a dissenting voice representing the marginalized who oppose the status quo. Said makes his case while engaging with the writings on intellectuals by 20th-century theorists such as Gramsci, Benda, Sartre, and Foucault, and also by drawing on literary works by Turgenev, Flaubert, and Joyce. Said discusses examples of intellectual engagement in the context of key political events, such as Vietnam and the Gulf War.

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.