Social Knowledge: Definition & Networks

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about a sociological concept known as social knowledge and gain insight into how social knowledge evolves and influences your life. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the quiz.

What is Social Knowledge?

If you are now or have ever been a student, then you know that there are many different resources out there through which you can acquire new knowledge. For some people, studying or preparing for tests is as simple as reading through a textbook, taking notes, or watching presentations. While these are the standard means through which people gain knowledge, there are other resources for knowledge and information that may seem less obvious, like the people who are around us every day.

The collective body of knowledge produced by your community or social circle is what is known as social knowledge. In a social or cultural context, social knowledge can be the collective knowledge base of small groups, like a family, or it can be a massive and constantly evolving body of knowledge, like Wikipedia. The defining characteristic of social knowledge is that it is a product of the group sharing and contributing knowledge, not the sum total of a group's knowledge.

Social knowledge is produced through an ongoing collaboration and contribution of knowledge.
social knowledge

Because it doesn't have a very clear definition, one may easily misinterpret what is and what isn't a product of social knowledge. Wikipedia, for example, is a product of social knowledge because it is a site that produces a collective knowledge base through collaboration and participation. Websites like Google, on the other hand, are what is known as an aggregator, which is created by pulling together information into one collection. In very simple terms, you can think of Wikipedia as an ongoing classroom discussion, while Google is more like an encyclopedia or a reference book.

Social Knowledge and Networks

Fundamentally, all knowledge involves people to a certain extent. If you're reading a textbook, for example, that book was written by at least one person who spent time researching the topic and choosing what to include in the book. This, however, is not the type of knowledge of which social knowledge makes reference. If, in contrast, you were involved in a discussion with the authors of that book, or were a part of a group that shared such knowledge on a regular basis, that would be considered social knowledge.

The theory behind social knowledge is that it is not simply the sum total of a group's knowledge, but that it is the product of relationships and connections within a particular group. These groups are what are known as a social knowledge network, and their size and influence can often depend on the group. For example, families can be considered a social knowledge network because that particular collection of people, through their relationships with one another, has produced a collective knowledge about certain subjects, like family history or genealogy, which develops and is shared through informal conversations and interactions.

On a much larger scale, the internet has produced massive social knowledge networks through websites like Wikipedia, or other sites where people regularly gather to share information on a particular topic. Websites like these are what are known as a wiki, which is a digital application that allows for collaboration and often requires user-generated content in order to remain relevant.

Unlike the traditional top-down model of information transmission that you are familiar with from schooling or formal presentations, social knowledge networks and wikis don't rely on the curation of information, or on a central control. Instead, they are an evolving collective knowledge resource produced by community participation.

Benefits and Challenges of Social Knowledge

Over the last fifteen years, the internet and digital technology have allowed the size and influence of social knowledge networks to grow exponentially. Because of this growth, we are able to share knowledge and information faster than ever before, speeding up the evolution of culture and society. The benefits of these expanded networks can be seen everywhere from employment opportunities and health care to national security and humanitarian aid, which are able to quickly and effectively address previously challenging social problems.

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