Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2007

Modern Societies as Knowledge Societies

Lecturer: Professor Nico Stehr,
Karl-Mannheim-Professor of Cultural Studies,
Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, Germany and Fellow,
Center for the Advanced Study of the Humanities, Essen, Germany.

Main disciplines: STS and Sociology

Dates: 30 July - 3 August 2007
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

The era of industrialization, of the social order of industrial society, and of the skills and abilities that were necessary in order to master it, is nearing its end. The foundations of the social order looming on the horizon are based on knowledge. Knowledge societies are increasingly fragile; this is because the major social institutions, which still contributed quite decisively to shaping the course of the 20th century, lose their control over such societies to a remarkable degree.

We find ourselves in a transitional phase between two social formations. The observer cannot help but be struck by the growing contingency, and thus the further diminishing stability, of modern societies. The future of society is less and less a mirror-image of its past. The increasing vagueness and uncertainty of modern societies are the immediate results of the steadily climbing (and by no means unilateral) significance of a highly differentiated social institution -- namely, the scientific system and its products - for the culture and structure of our society.

In this sense, at least, it is thus possible to conclude that the growth of knowledge and its increasing social dissemination, paradoxically, produce greater social uncertainty and contingency and do not reduce differences of opinion, for instance, or form the basis for a more efficient control of central social institutions.

This newly-won insight into the simultaneous strength and fragility of scientific knowledge leads to the finding that the growing social significance of knowledge and society's dependence on knowledge will accompany the collapse of the intellectual authority of experts and a growing skepticism regarding the impartiality and objectivity of expert opinions. The representatives of specialized knowledge and expertise will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their cognitive authority and the
trust in their professional function.

The dependence on knowledge, nevertheless, will go on increasing. For despite the demystification of knowledge, the alternative cannot mean trusting instead, more or less haphazardly, in just any belief. It is necessary that we become acquainted with the idea of the contingency of knowledge, and bid farewell to the illusion that this situation is only a
transient phenomenon, which will sooner or later disappear again.

Essential readings

The required book is Nico Stehr, Fragility of Modern Societies: Knowledge and Risk the Information Age. London: Sage, 2001. The book will be provided.

The additional readings listed in the outline are suggested.


Lecture 1: Theories of Modern Society

Our theoretical understanding of modern society in terms of the master paradigms and master concepts of the social sciences, which by now effectively shape and even govern everyday perspectives of social reality, continue to be intellectual descendants of nineteenth century thought, or derivatives of classical discourse on society. There are dominant spatial as well as processual and substantive references. The prevalent spatial referent of most modern theories of society is the nation state whose sovereignty happens to be under increasing threat while the master movement is social differentiation and its inevitable accompaniment of the growing rationalization of social relations. Taken together, the sum total of the orthodox assumptions inadequately deals with the authentic variety of paramount worlds in the midst of what is claimed to be a world dominated by uniform process and culture. I will first critically outline the logic of the orthodox perspective and then attempt to offer an alternative theoretical perspective of long-term social development which is both non-teleological and non-evolutionary.


Lecture 2: The emergence of modern societies as 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.


Lecture 3: A world made of knowledge: The nature of knowledge societies

In advanced societies, in the last couple of decades, 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. 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.

Lecture 4: The knowledge-base economy

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 justifications for designating advanced modern society as a knowledge society.


Lecture 5: The moralization of the markets

Most of the important ideas about markets were conceived in a world that did not know general affluence or broad-based education — only poverty, hunger and illiteracy. Wage-earner poverty was seen as an essential condition for the expansion of production and, by the same token, the wealth of a nation was seen to be a function of the penury of its working-class. Poverty also had strong moral attributes. Poverty induced discipline in the laboring population and nourished the status quo. From the 18th century on, it was common to conclude that prosperity came with serious demoralizing effects.

The paradox is therefore that the theory of the market still widely in use today emerged in a society that no longer exists, in terms of either its system of communication, its forms of social differentiation, the role of the state, its system of social and political inequality, or its economic system. Consumers were hardly in evidence, if at all, in early theories of the market. Consumption did not create wealth. In fact, most families did not “consume.” Most families subsisted. It seems reasonable to ask therefore whether under conditions of relative prosperity and knowledgeability markets also change significantly, and whether to do the normatively right thing becomes a salient part of the conduct of all market participants and the procedures governing market conduct.


Lecture 6: Living in and governing knowledge societies

The conviction that a widespread dissemination of knowledge and skills constitutes an enormous emancipatory potential was one of the basic motives of the age of the enlightenment. A curious yet persistent feature of various contemporary discussions of the social role of knowledge, of information and of skills in modern society is its one-sidedness as well as the lethal proximity to conspiratorial theories of history. Knowledge is frequently not seen as a capacity to act, it is rather perceived as incapacitating and not as enabling but as restraining or as subservient to capital.

Lecture 7: Knowledge, civil society and democracy

The theme I would like to explore in the context of this lecture concern the multiple linkages between civil society, governance, and democracy. I will place this general question into the context of whether the presence and the nature of these linkages are co-determined by a growing knowledgeability of modern actors -- stressing growing chances of reflexive cooperation in civil society organizations, social movements and perhaps a growing influence of larger segments of society on democratic regimes as the result of actor’s improved knowledgeability.


Lecture 8: Knowledge politics

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 new or additional 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. The massive difference in and additions to human capacities to act within just a century may well be represented by two ‘bookmarks’: In 1945 humans had produced the capacity to destroy life on earth on a grand scale, while by 2045 or earlier it might be possible to create life on a grand as well as a minute scale. Thus, it seems, the speed with which new capacities to act are generated forces us to alter our conceptions of who we are and, even more consequentially, may in fact change who we are. The promises and anxieties raised by these prospects are the motor of knowledge politics in modern societies.


Lecture 9: The prospects of knowledge societies in an age of globalization

History has by no means ended, but it has certainly changed. The old rules, certainties and trajectories no longer apply. Of course, there are few opportunities for fresh starts in history. None the less, the future of modern society no longer mimics the past to the extent to which this has been the case. That is to say, the future is made from fewer fragments of the past. As a result, sentiments with respect to history that are becoming more pervasive are those of fragility and dislocation. History will increasingly be full of unanticipated incertitudes, peculiar reversals, and proliferating surprises; and we will have to cope with the ever greater speed of significantly compressed events. The changing agendas of social, political and economic life as the result of our growing capacity to make history will also place inordinate demands on our mental capacities. The fit or lack of fit between our knowledgeability and what society, the economy and culture mentally demand is one of the major challenges of knowledge societies.


Lecture 10: General review, unresolved issues and future problems


The Lecturer
Professor Nico Stehr is Karl-Mannheim-Professor of Cultural Studies at the Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, Germany. Among his recent book publications are The Governance of Knowledge (Transaction Books, 2004), Biotechnology: Between Commerce and Civil Society (Transaction Books, 2004); Knowledge Politics: Governing the Consequences of Science and Technology (Paradigm Publishers, 2005), Knowledge (with Reiner Grundmann, Routledge, 2005); (with Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler), Moralization of the Markets (Transaction Books, 2006) and Morally Coded Markets (Paradigm Publishers, 2007).