For A Sociology of Ignorance in The Knowledge Society

Sheldon Ungar, Ignorance as an Un-Identified Social Problem, British Journal of Sociology , 2008, Vol. 59, Issue 2, pp. 301 – 326.

This article uses as its starting point the idea of the persistence of ignorance in the knowledge society and deplores the fact that ignorance is an understudied topic in sociology. Therefore, there is a need for a sociology of ignorance using two central concepts: functional knowledge deficits (FKD… I can see why the author would not use that shortcut) and the knowledge-ignorance paradox (KIP).

"[The article] argues that we have at best a knowledge economy byt not a knowledge society, and that conflating the two is a serious source of confusion and error. Functional knowledge deficits are not so much a result of the shortcoming of individuals as they are expectable products of the knowledge revolution and the social organization of contemporary societies." (302)

Indeed, Ungar argues that ignorance, like knowledge, is socially produced and constructed and diffused throughout the social structure. In this sense, it is possible to establish a social ecology of ignorance that outlines its different forms and separates it from other attitudes (such as stupidity).

Ungar’s main point though is that we need to distinguish between knowledge economy and knowledge society. We have a knowledge economy with more and more specialized fields and sub-fields and ever more specialized and narrow fields of knowledge. Each sub-field and type of knowledge defines an area of expertise, that is, a class of actors who possess, or are expected to possess, that specialized knowledge. But deeper and narrower knowledge means also fields of ignorance.

In this sense, according to Ungar, we can certainly talk about knowledge economy, but speaking of knowledge society is a bit premature as ever more specialized knowledge necessarily breeds corresponding ignorance, especially in general knowledge pertaining to social, practical, political and personal issues. It is indeed possible to indetify different types of ignorance or varieties of functional knowledge deficits, such as political, historical, scientific or economic that are often lumped together as part of what is often defined as a social problem: youth ignorance when ignorance-as-problem is mixed with the culture war and takes on moral dimensions.

"Behind the idea of the knowledge society is the sense that there is so much more to know than in the past. This idea is coupled with the expectation that people will be better informed, as widespread knowledge is integral to the idea of the knowledge society (Castells 1996: 20-1; Ungar 2003a; Webster 1993: 218). However, research monitoring knowledge reveals a host of significant illiteracies beyond the political realm. For virtually any knowledge domain, survey results reveal considerable gaps between what people know and what researchers presume they should know." (308)

So what is the knowledge-ignorance paradox (KIP)?

"[KIP] captures how the growth of specialized knowledges implies a simultaneous increase in (general) ignorance. The theoretical unfolding of the KIP suggests that pockets of observed public knowledge – rather than ignorance – are exceptional and require specific explanation." (311)

Rather than treating knowledge as the norm and ignorance as a disappearing exception, KIP reverses that logic and takes ignorance as the norm and as a Durkheimian social fact that should be treated as such, that is, object of sociological investigation. In this case, the "new economy" requires more  and more specialized knowledge at the expense of general Schützian stock of knowledge. When one’s knowledge is more and more limited to expertise in a narrowly-defined sub-field, then, the probability of knowledge overlap or at least general knowledge of related domains diminishes and ignorance grows.

"Whether the knowledge demands of specific occupational roles are onerous or not, increases in the volume and complexity of information have escalated the entry costs to virtually every other knowledge domain. (…) But the narrowing and differentiation of specialties means that the sheer number and diversity of conceptual anchors continue to multiply. As proliferating technical terms and ideas (or what librarians call ‘twiggings’) are overlaid with new facts and frequent revisions, specialty knowledge domains become forbidding to outsiders. All but the most persistent non-specialists are effectively precluded from keeping up with developments." (312)

With such high entry barriers, more and more topics can no longer be discussed and we are left with reliance on experts on more and more subjects (and the media are useless for this as well). This, of course, increases the social power of certain groups at the expense of others (or the citizenry in general). One need only remember the intelligence experts that were omnipresent on television between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the run-up to the Iraq war, or more recently, the financial experts who now claim innocence when faced with economic collapse. Such asymmetric knowledge claims from experts becomes problematic, according ot Ungar, when, as part of maintaining their power, they hide their own specialized shortcomings (see Jon Stewart’s destruction of Jim Cramer for a good example of what happens when this is exposed).

Ungar mentions two exceptions to this process: AIDS activists who made a point in becoming experts on the science of HIV-AIDS, and amateur astronomers. But otherwise, being a well-informed citizen (as pre-condition of democracy) becomes harder and functional knowledge deficits accumulate. Ergo, according to Ungar, the obvious nature of the knowledge economy coupled with the absence of knowledge society.

"The fundamental status of ignorance as an enduring and often serious problem emerging from the KIP is mostly unrecognized. Since knowledge production and associated pressures to keep up in specialty domains continue to increase, the predicament of being broadly uninformed is likely to worsen." (314)

The problem is that living in the risk society creates the need for more knowledge of a variety of technologies regarding subjects as diverse as food production, climate and environmental pressures, diseases or terrorist threats, to name only a few. In this risk context, groups are actually able to mobilize ignorance against specific technologies (for instance, the anti-vaccination crowd in relation to autism, or the anti-GMO movement). The invocation of "unknown unknowns" is a way of selling ignorance as social dynamic and political tool.

At the same time, the presence of ignorance in the midst of the knowledge economy allows the individualization of remedy. Ungar mentions the "don’t die of ignorance" campaigns that have sprouted on a variety of topics, from AIDS to sex education. These campaigns put the burden strictly in individuals: it is up to individuals to get themselves educated on these topics and then to take appropriate measures in terms of behavior modification to avoid certain risks. In these campaigns, there are no more victims, only individuals who fail to inform themselves or failed to act upon the right information.

Where does this leave the question of a sociology of ignorance then? Ungar concludes,

"Information is no longer a scarce resource; attention and interest are. Given the specialty KIP and associated entry and speech barriers, it is not surprising that people evince ‘reading reluctance’ and find the pursuit of broad-ranging knowledge outside occupational specialties exceedingly costly. The ideal of the well-informed citizen is scarcely a viable aspiration anymore, and questions about the extent to which people have the conceptual anchors and background information to deal with functionally important issues need to be more directly and systematically addressed (as opposed to whether they can name local politicians). Sociologically, it is not the sheer amount of ignorance that counts but how it is produced and distributed in different groups and realms of knowledge." (321)

One can see the damage of this, as I have mentioned before, with education reform where education is perceived as specialized skills acquisition rather than "education" in the full sense of the term, that is, something that takes time and involves the mastery of broad ranges of knowledge seen as necessary for one’s full participation into the public sphere.

The dysfunctions associated with over-specialization are also now painfully obvious in the context of the current crisis with the discovery that only a few people actually understood the financial games being played with all these "exotic" products that were going to generate wealth forever. One can also see how over-specialization allows for the concealment of incompetence within narrowly-defined fields. It remains to be seen whether one of the consequences of this crisis is "the return of the informed citizen."

3 thoughts on “For A Sociology of Ignorance in The Knowledge Society

  1. I foresee this study being complicated by the problem of “ignorance-doubling.” I’ll offer two examples of what I mean by ignorance-doubling.

    First, take the troubling phenomenon of people on the right of politics advocating free-trade. Why do they do that? One can talk about conspiracies and false consciousness, there is much to be said and one finds oneself ignorant of much of it.

    There is a problem. The previous paragraph assumes an ignorance of Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage. More accurately it assumes that our hero has come across it, perhaps in some garbled account in a newspaper, and has not understood it. He fails to understand this basic law of economics but does not realise that it is important and does not realise that it is important, both form what it tells us about trade, and because it explains why people on the right of politics advocate.

    One piece of ignorance, about Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, leads on to more ignorance. Without the true explanation of advocacy there is forests of sociological explanations. Our hero cannot keep up with them as they are patched and mended to try to make them work, s he suffers from lots of secondary ignorance.

    If he could only go back and study Ricardo’s Law, not only would that solve the primary ignorance, but all the secondary ignorance would evaporate.

    My second example is Simpson’s paradox. It is not as well
    known as Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage and I’ve
    written a short essay

    to bring out why it matters.

    Think about the way that the newspapers are full of health
    stories. Tomatoes cause cancer. Tomatoes protect
    against cancer. Whatever. The stream of stories is endless
    and we all find ourselves ignorant of the latest health

    Notice though that this is all secondary ignorance, caused
    by not grasping Simpson’s paradox. All this non-experimental
    work is worthless. If we could but rid ourselves of the
    primary ignorance of not grasping Simpson’s paradox all our
    secondary ignorance would go away.

  2. Pingback: A Knowledge Economy but an Ignorance Society? « ignorance and uncertainty

  3. Pingback: What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair | The Global Sociology Blog

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