Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Knowledge is awareness of facts, theories, concepts or principles either first-hand from observation, exploration or experience or second-hand from other (written or verbal) sources or as a result of critique and analysis.

explanatory context

Knowledge is personal and social and derived from various sources.

analytical review

Lloyd (2005, p. 195) in New Keywords writes:

Knowledge is a fiercely contested site in modern societies. Questions of who possesses it – of who is entitled to claim the genuine article – elicit strong emotions. The intensity generated by issues of evidence, of authority, and of expertise reflects a way of thinking of knowledge which has become so familiar that it is difficult to see alternatives.

Although it is an abstraction, knowledge seems a remarkably solid part of our world – a secure end-state, even a product – standing independently of the cumulative struggles of its achievement. It can come as a surprise, then, that its reputed origins emphasize a verbal use – ‘‘to knowledge’’ – which has disappeared from the way we now use the term. We cannot now ‘‘knowledge’’ our misdeeds (c.1450) or ‘‘knowleche’’ ourselves to be traitors (c.1440), as speakers could in the C15.We are unlikely to experience this as a deprivation. But keeping in mind that our familiar noun may be derived from a long-lost verb may alert us to some important but often neglected connotations of knowledge as intellectual activity.

The connotations of end-state and fixity in our current understanding of knowledge come out in the way we now think of knowledge as information or data which can be ‘‘stored’’ and ‘‘retrieved.’’ The storage metaphor is not new. Samuel Johnson (1753) could observe that ‘‘He is by no means to be accounted useless or idle who has stored his mind with acquired knowledge.’’ But such metaphors of well-stocked minds evoke an active exercise of lively intelligence. The same individual mind both stores and puts to use the acquired goods. Contemporary storage metaphors are more likely to evoke virtual repositories of computer systems and data banks. All this no doubt is in many ways a liberationfor modern knowers. It frees up a great deal of space occupied by unread books on dusty shelves; and it gives us a feeling of security, confident that we – or at any rate someone – can always find again what has been put into storage, should it ever be needed. Ironically, knowledge as solid object seems to have reached its ultimate fixity by being sent into the ether of cyberspace.

The idea of knowledge as standing independent of the processes through which it has been acquired encourages us to think that it also stands above the operations of power – above the passions, the politics, and the institutional contexts of knowers. It is a way of thinking of knowledge that has been challenged by Michel Foucault (1980). Rather than thinking of knowledge as providing a neutral standpoint from which we can evaluate the operations of power, Foucault argues, we should think in terms of changing configurations of power/knowledge in specific historical formations.

There is, however, a strong magnetism which draws us to the idea of knowledge as transcendent end-state or product. The idea of a secure – however ethereal – object, which once attained can be stored, accumulated, and cherished, is grounded largely in philosophical ideals of certainty that were refined in C17 rationalism. The conviction that indubitability attaches to any knowledge worthy of the name persists from the philosophy of Rene´ Descartes. However, C18 thinkers were more skeptical about the ideal of certainty – more prone to rest knowledge claims on experience, common sense, or probability, rather than indubitability. David Hume (1978 [1739]: 274), at the end of book one of A treatise of human nature, admonishes himself for his tendency to forget both his skepticism and his modesty in continuing to use such terms as ‘‘’tis evident, ’tis certain, ’tis undeniable.’’version of the storage metaphor, Plato has Socrates, in the Theaetetus, reflect that knowledge cannot be construed on the analogy of birds kept in an aviary; what matters is the attempt to catch and hold them – elusive though that goal may be.

One of our contemporary admirers of Voltaire, the Canadian philosopher and political theorist John Ralston Saul (1995: 313), identifies wisdom, in his Doubter’s companion, as ‘‘life with uncertainty.’’ Such an ideal is bound to be disconcerting to contemporary knowers. We expect certainty and predictability. Our vulnerabilities to fate and fortune are often recast as foreseeable, manageable ‘‘risks.’’ Our social practices often presume that when things go badly for us there is always someone who can be held accountable. As the consequences of those assumptions unfold in our legal liabilities, our insurance industries, our health systems, we may well ponder whether knowing that we do not know – but that we must nonetheless continue to think and to judge – may not be a better guide in uncertain times than the illusory security of certainty.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section 1.4

Researching the Real World Section 1.7


Lloyd, G. ., 2005, 'Knowledge' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture
and Society
, Oxford, Blackwell.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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