Knowledge Societies

Nico Stehr
Kulturwissenschaftlicher Institut
Goethestr. 31
D-45128 Essen

Vortrag Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie March 14, 2022
(c) Nico Stehr 2002

ISSC Workshop, BBAW. Berlin, 14-15 March 2002


In advanced societies, the capacity of the individual to say no has increased considerably. At the same time, the ability of the large social institutions to get things done has diminished in the last couple of decades. These developments are related. Appropriating Adolph Lowe's astute observation, we are witnessing a change from social realities in which "things" at last from the point of view of most individuals simple "happened" to a social world in which more and more things are "made" to happen. In this brief contribution, these new realities are described as representing the emergence of advanced societies as knowledge societies. I will describe these transformations as a real and unprecedented gain from the perspective of the individual and small groups but also what may be described as a rise in the fragility of society.

First, I will refer to the concept of knowledge societies and examine the notion of knowledge, defined as a capacity to act and examine some of the objections that might be raised against my perspective. Second, I will describe the reasons for the importance of scientific knowledge as one among various forms of knowledge in advanced societies and refer to the limits of the power of scientific knowledge. Finally, I describe some of the features of the changing economy before turning to those consequences of the advancing "knowledgeability" of actors in modern society.


The foundation for the transformation of modern societies into knowledge societies is to a significant extent based on changes in the structure of their economies. The source of value-adding activities increasingly relies on knowledge. The transformation of the structures of the modern economy by knowledge as a productive force constitutes the "material" basis and one of the justification for designating advanced modern society as a "knowledge society".

I. Objections

The term 'knowledge society', is a broad historical concept. Aside from the claim that there are much more appropriate conceptual labels to describe modern society, there are at least two related and apparently powerful objections to the term 'knowledge society.

The most frequently heard reproach is that of historical repetition. The skeptics quickly offer the observation that we have always lived in knowledge societies. The term and the theoretical platform 'knowledge society' is not new; nor does it afford, as a result, any fresh insights into the architecture of present-day social systems and its forms of life. Even the rise of distant civilizations, for example, those of the Aztecs, the Romans and the Chinese, was always also a matter of their superior knowledge and information technology. Power and authority was never merely a process based on physical superiority alone. Moreover, knowledge is an essential characteristic of all forms of human activity.

The second objection refers to the concept of knowledge. It is seen as ill-defined, perhaps as too ambivalent and contradictory to allow the construction of a theory of society. Knowledge is an essentially contested term. It is therefore doubtful whether it can become a foundation stone for the analysis of social conduct.

The first objection is fair but hardly decisive. Knowledge has indeed always played an important role in human relations. This, therefore, is not at issue. What needs to be asked is why the role of knowledge has recently, that is in advanced modern societies, emerged as constitutive and increasingly displaced and modified those factors that have until now been basic to social existence. The material foundation of social action is being displaced by a symbolic foundation. Capital largely deposed land during the industrial revolution; today knowledge diminishes the significance of both factors. Constitutive for social integration and not only for the creation of new economic value is knowledge. But it is surprising that knowledge and technological change continue to constitute the Achilles' heel of contemporary economic theory. More about the category knowledge in a moment.

So despite the fact that there have also been societies in the past based on knowledge-intensive action, the idea that modern society is increasingly a knowledge society is meaningful and has practical relevance. It is as meaningful to refer to modern society as a knowledge society as it was to refer to 'industrial societies', even though there had been past social systems that were based on the work of 'machines'.if knowledge is not just a constitutive feature of our modern economy but a basic organizational principle of the way we run our lives, then it is justifiable to talk about our living in a knowledge society. This means nothing more and nothing less than that we organize our social reality on the basis of our knowledge.

II. Loss of political power through knowledge

In the 1950's the sociologist Helmut Schelsky sketched out his version of a nightmare: the use of electronic calculating machines raises the specter of the totalitarian state, he claimed. "Such a government machine can demand absolute obedience, since it will be able to predict and plan the future with perfect reliability," he prophesied, and "in the face of technically guaranteed truth, all opposition is irrational." Half a century later the American entrepreneur and futurologist Bill Joy is warning us of a development that possesses similarly nightmarish characteristics: his greatest fear is that nanotechnology might start to evolve independently of its human creators. This and other technologies of the future could put the human race on the endangered species list, he claims. Schelsky's prediction was right in line with the Zeitgeist prevailing in the middle of the last century - and as Joy's admonitions show, this Zeitgeist is showing no signs of aging. This phenomenon is the result of a symptomatic overestimation of the power of modern knowledge and technology. Yet paradoxically it is precisely knowledge and technology that are perhaps the most significant sources of the open, indeterminate society that is growing up around us today. Despite all pessimistic predictions we now find ourselves witnessing the end of the hegemony of such monolithic institutions as the state, the church and the military. The conduct of the latter's representatives betrays a growing skepticism as to their continuing capacity to regulate social conditions: controlling, planning and predicting social conditions are becoming increasingly more difficult. Society has become more "fragile". Yet it is neither globalization nor the economization of social relations that is responsible for this state of affairs but the loss of political power through knowledge.

III. The age of knowledge work

One can define knowledge as "the capacity to act", as the potential to "start something going" and as a model for reality. Thus scientific or technical knowledge is primarily nothing other than the ability to act. The privileged status of scientific and technical knowledge in modern society is derived not from the fact that scientific discoveries are generally considered to be credible, objective, in conformity with reality, or even indisputable, but from the fact that this form of knowledge, more than any other, incessantly creates new opportunities for action.

Scientific discoveries do not usually live up to the reputation of infallibility they possess: they are very often disputed, and despite its social standing scientific knowledge is almost always questionable. For this very reason it is continually losing, at least temporarily, its practical relevance. Scientific interpretations must come to a "conclusion" - only then do they have any practical value. In our modern society, this task of bringing trains of thought to a conclusion and rendering scientific insights "useful" is carried out by "knowledge workers".

IV. Living in knowledge societies

This trend towards the development of fragile social systems is the result of an (uneven) extension of individuals' capacity for action in modern societies. The power of large institutions is being increasingly undermined and replaced by small groups with a growing capacity for action. Using the term "fragility" to designate this state of affairs is intended to underline the fact that not only has the capacity of supposedly powerful institutions to "control" society declined as has their capacity to predict social developments. But what has caused society's center of gravity to shift in this way? What forms is this development taking, and what consequences will it have?

I submit that these social changes are coming about because knowledge is no longer simply a means of accessing, of unlocking, the world's secrets but itself represents a world in the process of coming into being - a world in which in all spheres of endeavor knowledge is increasingly becoming both the basis and the guiding principle of human activity. Of course all interpersonal relationships are based on the principle that people possess knowledge about each other. And political power has never been based purely on physical force; it has always relied in part on superior knowledge. Social reproduction is not just a physical but a cultural process. It implies the reproduction of knowledge. In this sense one can also consider past social structures as early forms of "knowledge societies".

Knowledge societies arise not as the result of simple, one-dimensional processes of social change. Though modern developments in communication and transportation technology have brought people closer together, regions, cities and villages are still by and large isolated from each other. The world may be opening up, and the circulation of fashions, goods and people becoming more intense, but differing convictions as to what is "sacred" still create insurmountable barriers to communication. The meanings of such concepts as "time" and "place" are undergoing transformation, but borders separating people continue to be objects of intense respect and even celebration. Though fascinated by globalization, we also live in an age obsessed by identity and ethnicity. The trend towards the global "simultaneity" of events is accompanied by a territorialization of sensibilities and a regionalization of conflicts.

V. The social role of knowledge

Attempts to comprehend the social functions of modern science and technology have always come up against a dead end. Both conservative and liberal analyses of modern society conclude with somber prophecies of a world dominated by science and technology. This vision predicts not simply the destruction of humanity's natural facilities, its emotional life, but also of its intellectual facilities and its capacity for exercising free will. Modern theories of history posit a reduction rather than a broadening of opportunities for development in today's society. However, if one is to understand contemporary political, social and economic processes, then one must cast aside such clichˇs. For it is not the reduction of our capacity for action that is currently radically transforming the institutions of modern society but a tremendous expansion of this capacity. Collective unease, obstacles to action, and individual unease and restlessness are the flip side of the transformation to knowledge societies.

Extending individual opportunities for action does not necessarily open the door to contentment - as shown by tourism, the burgeoning information media, and consumerism in general. But in discourses generated by many politicians, theologians, philosophers and social scientists, the individual is posited as a defenseless "victim" of powerful institutions. It is argued that people lose the capacity for action in proportion as science and technology triumph, fostering isolation, invading people's privacy and generating a sense of helplessness.

VI. The fragility of society

I would want to argue that the processes triggered by the growth of science and technology have the opposite effect. They increase rather than reduce our capacity for social action. What is equally striking is the growing "fragility" of social structures. Modern societies are characterized above all by "self-generated" structures and the capacity to determine their futures themselves. But modern societies are not politically fragile and socially volatile because they are "liberal democracies", they are fragile because they are "knowledge-based" societies. Only knowledge is capable of increasing the democratic potential of liberal societies.

One peculiarity of the many and varied debates on the roles of knowledge, information, and technological know-how in our modern society is their one-sidedness. They emphasize the problems caused by the individual's being cut off from specialist knowledge and technical competence - resulting in the individual's allegedly being forced into the role of "victim": exploited consumer, alienated tourist, incapacitated patient, bored school kid, or manipulated voter. The proponents of such a viewpoint also delight in exposing the "repressive" potential of the growth of scientific knowledge and the proliferation of technological artifacts - especially when the latter are exploited by such supposedly powerful entities as state and industry to exercise total social control. Yet dire prophecies that these entities would establish themselves in unassailable positions of power have not been fulfilled. For too long, debate among social scientists on the social role of knowledge was centered on social class, the state, the professions and the sciences. Yet a realistic evaluation of the social role of knowledge must come to the conclusion that the spread of knowledge has not only brought with it "enormous" risks and uncertainty but also a "liberating capacities for action".

VII. Uncertainty through knowledge

But all this does not mean that from now on every consumer, patient and school kid will immediately be able to recognize, understand and control opportunities for action that come their way. An increase in opportunities for social action should not be misconstrued as bringing with it the elimination of all risk, accident, and arbitrariness - in general of circumstances over which the individual has little control.

The flip side of emancipation through knowledge is the risks posed by the emancipatory potential of knowledge. The increasing spread of knowledge in society and the concomitant growth in opportunities for action also generate social uncertainty. For science cannot provide us with "truths", only with more or less well-founded hypotheses and probabilities. Thus far from being a source of secure knowledge, of certainty, science is a source of uncertainty and thus of social and political problems.

Knowledge societies will be characterized by a wide range of imponderabilia, unexpected reversals and other unpleasant surprises. The increasing fragility of knowledge societies will generate new kinds of moral questions, as well as a questions as to who or what is responsible for our society's oft cited political stagnation.

If knowledge is the main constitutive characteristic of modern society, then the production, reproduction, distribution and realization of knowledge cannot avoid becoming politicized. Thus one of the most important questions facing us will be how to monitor and control knowledge. This will entail the development of a new branch of policy science: knowledge policy. Knowledge policy will regulate the rapidly growing volume of new knowledge in our society and influence its development.

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