Knowledge Trouble : An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge and Intellectuals

Date: Every Thursday at 9:10 am
Place: Room 317, Sociology Department, Charles University (Celetná 20, Praha 1)
Lecturers: Julien Wacquez (CEFRES/EHESS Paris), Mihai-Dan Cirjan (CEFRES/CEU Budapest)
Language: English


From public authorities struggling with the existence of climate change to notions such as “post-truth” or “post-factual” making the headlines, the recent years have brought a constant questioning of the role of knowledge in today’s polities. Is climate-change a hoax, as claimed by the current US president? Are Western democracies threatened by false information and “post-truths”? Who produces the knowledge we are using and to what purposes? And, in the end, what does it mean “to know” something in today’s cultures?

Noticing the centrality of knowledge production for contemporary societies, the course tries to provide some basic tools for answering such questions. Thus, the first sessions of the course will inquire into the social mechanisms that make up scientific production, the way in which “science” becomes “Science.” It shows how notions and practices such as “objectivity”, “experiment”, “rationality,” or even different types of writing, are used in order to differentiate the scientist’s knowledge from our everyday concepts. Relying on some of the classical texts in the sociology of science and Science and Technology Studies (STS), this part of the course will point out not only the porousness of the boundaries between science and everyday knowledge, but also how these boundaries are enforced: how experts become experts, and how facts are produced and distributed by them.
Moving away from the social mechanisms of knowledge production, the second part of the course will focus on some of the main social actors of European modernity: the intellectuals and their claims for knowledge. We will try to unravel the social position of this awkward figure, located halfway between expert knowledge and public discourse: a figure seen simultaneously in newspapers and academic journals, in universities and talk-shows. The course will pay special attention to the genealogy of intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe: their role as capitalist critics or, on the contrary, as capitalist apologists, their function in state socialism, or simply how they changed notions of public discourse and public engagement.
The class discussions aim at offering the students the possibility of critically reflecting upon their own access to knowledge: the possible ways in which they can make use of it, imagining themselves as intellectuals, experts, or simple knowledge users in today’s capitalism.

  • Class participation. Students are, of course, strongly encouraged to attend all classes. (20 % of the final grade)
  • One short presentation of the assigned readings (15 minutes) for each student. The presentations should provide a summary of the texts, backed up by a critical analysis (including at least 3 questions to be tackled during the class discussion). The recommended readings can provide valuable support for preparing the presentation, but prior consultation with the TAs is strongly encouraged. (30 % of the final grade)
  • A 3000-word final paper (50 % of the final grade).
Programme and Bibliography

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Science within the Narrative of “Public Problems”

Joseph Gusfield, The Culture of Public Problems, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, chapter 4 “Comedy and Pathos in Drinking-Driver Research,” pp. 83-108.

Recommended :

  • Bruno Latour & Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life, Sage Publication, 1979.
  • Hayden White “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative, 1980, pp. 5-27.

Week 3: The methodological Principle of “Symmetry” in the Study of Controversies

Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press, 1988, chapter 1 “Strong Microbes and Weak Hygienists” pp.19-58.

Recommended :

  • David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, Routledge, 1976, chapter 1 “The Strong Program in the Sociology of Knowledge” pp.1-19.
  • Michel Callon, “Some element of a Sociology of Translation: domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay,” pp.196-233 in The Social Process of Scientific Investigation, Karin D. Knorr (ed.), Reidel Publishing, 1980.

Week 4: On the way scientists and non-scientists define “Nature”

Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean. Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, University of California Press, 2009, chapter 4 “Alien Species, Native Politics. Mixing Up Nature and Culture in Ocean O’ahu” pp. 145-170.

Recommended :

  • Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  • Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think, University of California Press, 2013.
  • Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life on Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Week 5: Concreteness of Reality and Common Sense

Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, Harvard University Press, 1999. (Chapter to be announced)

Recommended :

  • Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, Anchor Books, 1966.
  • Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Week 6: Knowledge or Beliefs? The Question of Rationality for Social Scientists

Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, 1980. pp.3-28

Week 7: Intellectuals now and then: from social classes to new publics Karl Kautsky, “The Intellectuals and the Workers,” Die Neue Zeit, XXII.4 (1903), online English version. Corey Robin, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 22, 2016).


  • Bertolt Brecht, “Intellectuals and Class Struggle,” New German Critique 1 (1973), 19-21.
  • Cornel West, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 2(1993-1994), 59-67.

Week 8: The emergence of a concept or the emergence of a social group? Analysing the “birth of the intellectuals”.

  • Henry Béranger ; “The Intellectual Proletariat in France,” in Les Prolétaires intellectuels en France, Éditions de la Revue, 1901, 1-6.
  • Cristophe Charle, “The Intellectuel: A Historical and Social Genealogy,” in The Birth of the Intellectuals 1880-1890, Polity Press, 2015, 11-46.

Recommended :

  • Stefan Collini, “In Their National Habitat,” in Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford University Press, 2006, 201-221.
  • Martin Malia, “What is the Intelligentsia,” Daedalus 89.3 (1960), pp. 441-458.

Week 9: Theoretical perspectives: from fields to interventions

Gil Eyal and Larissa Buchholz, “From the Sociology of Intellectuals to the Sociology of Interventions,” Annual Review of Sociology 36 (2010): 117–137.

Recommended :

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Corporatism of the Universal: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World.” Telos 1989, 81 (1989): 99–110.
  • Charles Kurzman and Lynn Owens, « The Sociology of Intellectuals», Annual Review of Sociology, 2002, 28. 63-90.

Week 10: Intellectuals in Eastern Europe: State Socialism and Centralized Redistribution


  • Vasili Markov, “Bulgarian Historians Remember Communist Culture,” in Remembering Communism. Central European University Press, 2014, 477-495.
  • Verdery, Katherine, “Modelling Socialism and Socialist Cultural Politics,” National Ideology under Socialism : Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 72-98.

Recommended :

Szelenyi, Ivan. “The Prospects and Limits of the East European New Class Project,” Politics & Society 15, no. 2 (1987): 103–144.

Week 11: Intellectuals in Eastern Europe: From Centralized Redistribution to Market Relations Vaclav Havel, “Civil Society and its Threats”, Project Syndicate.

Eyal, Gil, Ivan Szelenyi, Eleanor Townsley, “The Ideology of the Post-Communist Power Elite” in Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: Class Formation and Elite Struggles in Post-Communist Central Europe. London: Verso, 1998, 86-113.

Recommended :

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Civil Society.’” Socialist Register 26, no. 26 (March 18, 1990).

Week 12: Conclusion/Recap.

Illustration : “Back Table at the Five Spot Café/NYC: Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan.