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Social epistemology is a sub-branch of epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge. Social epistemology can be roughly characterised as the study of the social dimensions of knowledge. However as pointed out by the philosopher Alvin Goldman, "many individual writers and groups of writers have sharply divergent views on what social epistemology is or should be"1. Part of this can be attributed to the relative newness of the disipline. Like many emerging fields in the humanities and social sciences, social epistemology is constituted in part by the struggle to define what it is. Views vary from author to author.
It is possible to split social epistemologists into two broad camps: the radical and the non-radical. These correspond roughly to approaches that are anchored within classical philosophy of science and science studies respectively.
1) The non-radical approach to social epistemology is essentially the study of the contribution of various social mechanisms to the growth of knowledge. It takes the traditional conception of knowledge as the justified, true beliefs of individuals as a point of departure, augmenting it with the social factors that impinge on these beliefs.
One central topic in social epistemology is "testimony," construed broadly i.e. the habit we have of learning from other people. One central question in social epistemology is: assuming that we are very often justified in believing something based on the testimony of other people, where does this justification come from, and in particular, does it necessarily come from observations we have made regarding other people's reliability?
2) Radical social epistemologists believe that taking account of the effects of social factors on the production of knowledge will have much more serious consequences for epistemology. Knowledge, on this view, is better understood as a "collectively accepted system of belief"2. The preference for talking neutrally about the "production" of knowledge rather than presumptively celebrating its "growth" is characteristic of radical approaches. These take the real role of epistemology to be the construction of a sociological account of how actual research communities work rather than the maintenance of a philosophical justification for its existence. They advocate the study of scientists using the methods of sociology, anthropology, history, economics, psychology and such humanistic disciplines as rhetoric and philosophy. A noted example of work by radical social epistemologists is Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life:The Construction of Scientific Facts3.
While radicals often take an empirical or descriptive approach to research communities, some, such as Steve Fuller, explicitly propose to "describe our cognitive pursuits for the sake of prescribing for them"4. Like Alvin Goldman, Fuller calls his approach "social epistemology" by name. In 1987, he also founded a journal called Social Epistemology and in the following year wrote the first book on the topic.
Some contemporary philosophers such as Helen Longino and Miriam Solomon have attempted to find a middle way between these non-radical and radical approaches. Accepting epistemology's project of justifying knowledge (unlike the radical approach), they have nonetheless argued that knowledge is not primarily held by individuals, but rather by social groups. For them, social processes (or, at least, processes with the approval of a community), are necessary for the justification of knowledge. This move away from knowledge as justified primarily by an individual's relationships to his beliefs and the world marks a departure from more traditional approaches to epistemology.
1. What Is Social Epistemology? A Smorgasbord of projects Pathways to Knowledge:Private and Public, Oxford University Press, Pg:182-204, ISBN 0195173678
2. Relativism, Rationality and Sociality of Knowledge, Barry Barnes and David Bloor, in Rationality and Relativism, Pg:22 ISBN 0262580616
3. Laboratory Life:The Construction of Scientific Facts, Latour, B. and Woolgar, S., Prinston University Press ISBN 069102832X
4. Social Epistemology, Steve Fuller, Indiana University Press, p.3
- Steve Fuller, Social Epistemologist
- Social constructionism
- Longino, Helen. 1990. Science as Social Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691020515
- Longino, Helen. 2001. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691088764
- Remedios, Francis. 2003. Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Lexington Books. ISBN 0739106678
- Schmitt, Frederick F. 1994. Socializing Epistemology. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0847679594
- Solomon, Miriam. 2001. Social Empricism. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0262194619
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