The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the relationship of knowledge to a social base—although what is meant by knowledge and social base is likely to vary from author to author. All the major sociological theorists regarded this as an integral part of their theory. Émile Durkheim for example, in his sociology of religion, suggested that the basic mental categories by means of which we order the world are rooted in the way we organize society. Max Weber, in his sociology of religion, gave considerable weight to material conditions influencing the formation of religious beliefs.
Marxism related knowledge specifically to a theory of ideology. The social origins of knowledge are seen as related to the possibility of grasping truth. It is sometimes argued that the content of knowledge depends upon social or economic position: the bourgeoisie will come to look at the world in one way (say in terms of individual competition and survival of the fittest), the proletariat in another (the point of view of co-operative enterprise and mutual support). These different viewpoints come directly from the experience of each class in the productive process. A more sophisticated tradition, building upon the work of Hegel and associated with György Lukács and the Frankfurt School (see critical theory), argues that it is the form of knowledge rather than its content that is important. Thus, for Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923), the thought appropriate to the bourgeois period is marked by formal logic. It is analytic in form, breaking down its subject-matter into component parts, and centres around a number of so-called antinomies—categories such as subject and object which cannot be brought together into a coherent whole. Marxist thought, on the other hand, is claimed to be synthetic, totalizing, and dialectical. Each form represents the experience of a different social class. For both approaches the proletarian forms of thought are closest to the truth.
The most explicit formulation of the sociology of knowledge as a separate area of study is that of Karl Mannheim. In Ideology and Utopia (1936), he developed the standard non-Marxist view, arguing that a range of social positions (not merely social class) determine forms of knowledge and that it is not possible to grant one point of view greater truth-value than another. However, by virtue of their ‘relatively detached’ location, intellectuals can mediate between different positions and produce a more complete view.
As a distinct sub-area, the sociology of knowledge seems to begin and end with Mannheim, although various combinations of his ideas (and those of Marxism) can be found in the sociologies of modernity, religion, and science—the last of these often focusing on the knowledge-effect of particular institutions. These discussions are always haunted by the problem of relativism: how can one make a universal claim that all knowledge is dependent on social position since, presumably, such a claim is itself context-bound? This problem is discussed at length in Werner Stark 's The Sociology of Knowledge (1958)—still one of the most exhaustive introductions to the classic literature.