Though not an issue in the debates surrounding rigorous, theoretical epistemology, in practice culture and trust in authorities plays an enormous role for most of our beliefs outside of our expertise.

In areas of the utmost importance, for example in politics, some (descriptive) claims are regarded as so outrageous, far-fetched or thoroughly discredited, people are not willing to listen to you – you'll get reflexively shut down. Still, a huge percentage of the population might not be able to present a convincing case against it.

Further it is the case that in the real world, normative claims and descriptive claims are considerably entangled. At least in that way that if the truth of a descriptive claim would be socially undesirable or disruptive to basic cultural norms, it is held to a higher standard of evidence.

What would be a good starting point to read about the social aspects of societies? How societies as a whole achieve consensus and how they come to “know” something? And if some of those rules can be regarded as “justified” and some legitimately as “flawed” (e.g. without at least some acceptance of claims by authorities without checking the evidence, nothing would work – yet there still seems to be a significant difference between the U.S. and North Korea)?

  • 1
    "How societies as a whole achieve consensus and how they come to “know” something?" Should we revive Sociology if Knowledge? I personally was not a fan of K. Mannheim. Here is Adorno on Mannheim, PDF. users.ipfw.edu/tankel/PDF/Adorno.pdf || This is an area of tremendous complexity This may be of interest: Guy DeBord PDF archive.org/details/CommentsOnTheSocietyOfTheSpectacle
    – Gordon
    May 26, 2018 at 4:32
  • What was Alfred Schutz doing? I don't know if he could be helpful or not. plato.stanford.edu/entries/schutz You are asking excellent, difficult questions. The postmodern world, no facts only interpretations, is a world up for grabs. [Above I meant to write: "Sociology of Knowledge"].
    – Gordon
    May 26, 2018 at 4:40
  • 1
    this is a sociology or anthropology question...not a philosophical question. May 26, 2018 at 5:28
  • Is it about "social aspects of societies" or something else? Reading the first word as 'epistemic' it's a q about ideology, reading the second as ;knowledge' it's about SSK.
    – sand1
    May 26, 2018 at 8:53
  • I ma thinking about the death penalty, which has been proven in every way to be counterproductive. It is in some sense the conflict between superstition and evidence, unconscious and conscious policy making. It could be seen as emergence of as much tolerance of ambiguity as current social coherence can withstand huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/…
    – CriglCragl
    May 26, 2018 at 22:52

1 Answer 1


Social epistemology

Alvin Goldman makes very much your point :

Epistemology has historically focused on individual inquir- ers conducting their private intellectual affairs independently of one another. As a descriptive matter, however, what people believe and know is largely a function of their community and culture, narrowly or broadly construed. Most of what we believe is influenced, directly or indirectly, by the utterances and writings of others. So social epistemology deserves at least equal standing alongside the individual sector of epistemology. I do not challenge the integrity or propriety of individual epistemology. I am prepared to concede that much of our perceptual knowledge, memorial knowledge, and introspective knowledge is achieved on a purely individualistic basis. But given the weight and significance of social causes for a very large sector of our beliefs, these social causes should receive a much larger proportion of epistemological attention than they have traditionally received. Social factors play an increasingly important role in current theories of semantical concepts, types of theories that lie outside the scope of the current essay. A rising interest in social factors is also visible in the recent epistemological literature, but as yet there is no consensus on how the field of social epistemology should be constructed or conceived. (Alvin I. Goldman, 'Social Epistemology', Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Vol. 31, No. 93 (Dec., 1999), pp. 3-19: 3-4.

How the field should be constructed or conceived

Here you will have to explore the major texts to get a sense of what makes best sense to you - what appears most fruitful. Here's my advice on where you might start :

Justin Cruickshank, Raphael Sassower, Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology ISBN 10: 1786600919 / ISBN 13: 9781786600912 Published by Rowman Littlefield International, United Kingdom, 2017

Vincent F. Hendricks, Social Epistemology: 5 Questions ISBN 10: 8792130534 / ISBN 13: 9788792130532 Published by Automatic Press Publishing, 2014

Rebecca K. Webb, A Conflict of Paradigms: Social Epistemology and the Collapse of Literary Education ISBN 10: 0739117564 / ISBN 13: 9780739117569 Published by Lexington Books, United States, 2008.

Steve Fuller, Social Epistemology (Science, Technology, and Society), ISBN 10: 0253352274 / ISBN 13: 9780253352279 Published by Indiana Univ Pr, 1988.

Raymond Boudon, The Crisis in Sociology: Problems of Sociological Epistemology (European Perspectives: a Series in Social Thought & Cultural Criticism) ISBN 10: 0231051786 / ISBN 13: 9780231051781 Published by Columbia Univ Pr, 1981.

The doyen of social epistemology is Steve Fuller. I suggest his book, despite dating from the late 1980s, is the best place to start.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .