Berger and Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality have shown the influences on the ‘sociology of knowledge’ from 19th century German thought. Berger and Luckmann assert, “It is from Marx that the sociology of knowledge derived its root proposition—that man’s consciousness is determined by his social being.” This is also the core of Marx’s materialist conception of history and critique, which in 1846 was directed against German idealism. The core can be summed up in one sentence. “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.” In other words, social being determines consciousness. Society is a system of human relations, or relations between groups, who make moral judgements on class-interest.
The sociology of knowledge has also been concerned with Marx’s twin concepts of superstructure/substructure. Though it must be remembered that the notion of ‘superstructure’ predates Marx, which historically arose from a critique of religion and law during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 19th century Germany the social constructions of sacred religion and laws were shown to be both devoid of objective validity and bountiful in universalistic pretensions. When Marx named the concept ‘superstructure,’ he demystified metaphysical claims as ideological pretexts and abstractions, divorced from real history and reflections of the substructure. The base of the substructure is the mode of production, and the analysis of modes of production is based on study of the available material forces of production. Thus, the social relations of economic production is determined by the mode of production and the material means of existence. Marxism identified the ‘substructure’ with economic structure, of which the ‘superstructure’ was then supposed to be a direct ‘reflection.’ However, from the perspective of Wissenssoziologie, ideology should not be understood mechanistically, but dialectically.
Most critics, today, no longer try to prove in a simple and direct way that existence or society produces consciousness, knowledge or art. Such mechanical explanations, rather represent a vulgar misinterpretation of Marx. Propositions of total dependence hardly exist and are about as common as the Romantic position, which advanced the opposite line of argument; namely, artists, the creators of consciousness, actively determine social reality. Since consciousness is inherently subjective, one needs to strive towards objectivity. Take nationalism, for example, a subjective reality which involves qualities like sentiment, enthusiasm and group identity; yet an observable phenomena, nonetheless. Consciousness can really only be understood through culture, which is both material and symbolic, and thus open to empirical investigation. Though imaginative literature is bound to language, it is the most independent of all cultural forms. Thus, art, the highest expression of culture, is neither completely free nor entirely determined by material forces. To paraphrase Raymond Williams: Art, while dependent on the real economic structure, operates in part to reflect this structure and its consequent reality, and in part, to affect attitudes towards reality, and thus influence the flux of reality in either a progressive or conservative direction.
In short, the sociology of knowledge systematically analyzes the institutional organization in which intellectual activity is carried out in the framework of schools, academies, universities, learned societies, museums, libraries, research institutes, laboratories, foundations, think-tanks, publishing houses, mass circulated magazines and newspapers as well as broadcast networks. It also investigates what Berger and Luckmann call The Social Construction of Reality. They argue that the reality of everyday life is structured in terms of relevant needs, such as pragmatic interests and physical security. Accordingly, the world of everyday life for the average American has drastically changed, because American’s consciousness is now focused on the threat of terror in relation to physical security. Everyday American life reveals an inner anxiety based on the insecurity from 9-11. Finally, the new panorama of New York City acts as a continuous reminder. We argue that the response to the new security situation and identity crisis are important factors for the move towards formal empire.