The importance of marxist “sub/superstructure” scheme within sociology of knowledge

The sociology of knowledge has been particularly fascinated by Marx´s twin concepts of “substructure/superstructure” (Unterbau/Ueberbau). It is here particularly that controversy has raged about the correct interpretation of Marx´s own thought. Later Marxism has tended to identify the “substructure” with economic structure tout court, of which the “superstructure” was then supposed to be a direct “reflection”. It is quite clear now that this misrepresents Marx thought, as the essentially mechanistic rather that dialectical character of this kind of economic determinism should make one suspect. What concerned Marx was that human thought is founded in human activity (“labour”, in the widest sense of the word) and in the social relations brought about by this activity. Substructure and superstructure as best understood if one views them as, respectively, human activity and the world produced by that activity. In any case, the fundamental “sub/superstructure” scheme has been taken over in various forms by the sociology of knowledge, beginning with Scheler, always with an understanding that there is some sort of relationship between thought and an “underlying” reality other than thought. The fascination of the scheme prevailed despite the fact that much of the sociology of knowledge was explicitly formulated in opposition to Marxim and that different positions have been taken within it regarding the nature of the relationships between the two components of the scheme.

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The sociology of knowledge of Berger and Luckmann

The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for “knowledge” in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such “knowledge”. And in so far as all human “knowledge” is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations, the sociology of knowledge must seek to understand the process by which this is done in such a way that a taken-for-granted “reality congeals for the man in the street. In other words, we content that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality.

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The validity of sociological knowledge

To include epistemological questions concerning the validity of sociological knowledge in the sociology of knowledge is somewhat like trying to push a bus in which one is riding. To be sure, the sociology of knowledge, like all empirical disciplines that accumulate evidence concerning the relativity and determination of human thought, leads towards epistemological questions concerning sociology itself as well as any other scientific body of knowledge. As we have remarked before, in this the sociology of knowledge plays a part similar to history, psychology and biology, to mention only the three most important empirical disciplines that have caused trouble for epistemology. The logical structure of this trouble is basically the same in all cases: how can I be sure, say, of my sociological analysis of American middle-class mores in view of the fact that the categories I use for this analysis are conditioned by historically relative forms of thought, that I myself and everything I think is determined by my genes and by my ingrown hostility to my fellowmen, and that, to cap it all, I am myself a member of American middle class?

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“Ideology” and “false consciousness”

The sociology of knowledge in­herited from Marx not only the sharpest formulation of its central problem (that is “man´s consciousness is determined by his social being”) but also some of its key concepts, among which should be mentioned particularly the concepts of ‘ideology’ (ideas serving as weapons for social interests) and ‘false consciousness’ (thought that is alienated from the real social being of the thinker).