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Social Epistemology  

What is social epistemology and how does it apply to library science research?
Last Updated: Jul 11, 2013 URL: http://libguides.se.edu/social_epistemology Print Guide RSS Updates

Social Epistemology Defined Print Page


From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
First published Wed Dec 14, 2005

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.



Epistemology and Library Science

"Lack of knowledge of epistemology is possibly the greatest barrier to improving library and information science."

~ Laurence B. Heilprin

 Heilprin, Laurence B. "Response." In The Foundations of Access to Knowledge: A Symposium, edited by Edward b. Montgomery, pp. 26-35. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, 1968.


Applied Social Epistemology

In chapter four, "An Epistemological Foundations for Library Science" of The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (1972), Shera includes guidelines, and explanations for understanding and applying the theory of social epistemology. to summarize a few:

  • People need information to keep their minds active
  • Society must provide for the acquisition and assimilation of new information and knowledge to keep citizen's minds active and healthy
  • Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we know
  • S.E. is the study of the nature of the intellectual process in society
  • New knowledge should come from S.E. to explain the interaction between knowledge and social activity
  • Social epistemology should be an interdisciplinary study between sociology, anthropology, linguistics, economics, physiology (human nervous system), psychology, mathematics, and information theory. 
  • S.E. research will be applicable to real-world issues especially in the field of LIS
  • "The aim of librarianship is to bring to the point of maximum efficiency the social utility of man's graphic record."
  • Librarians are mediators between man and his graphic record
  • Librarians should strive for mastery over ways to provide access to recorded knowledge
  • Bibliographic and information systems should be structured as closely as possible to man's uses of recorded knowledge
  • The tools and methods of librarianship in managing collections are : classification schemes, subject headings, indexes, and other devices for the subject analysis of bibliographic units.
  • Librarians' tools tend to become inflexible, closed, fragmented and non-holistic systems into which each unit of information is fitted.
  • The structure and communication of knowledge involve an open process that changes with the needs and functions of individuals and society



Social Epistemology

Social Epistemology, as defined by Egan and Shera (1952) is "the study of those processes by which society as a whole seeks to achieve a perceptive or understanding relation to the total environment - physical, psychological, and intellectual."

Egan, Margaret E., and Shera, Jesse H. "Foundations of a Theory of Bibliography," Library Quarterly 44 (July 1952): 125-37.

Shera's (1970) more succinct definition, "social epistemology is the study of knowledge in society."

Shera, Jesse H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Robert Audi (1998) defined SE this way, "If individual epistemology is roughly the theory of knowledge and justification as applied to individual persons...social epistemology is roughly the theory of epistemology and justification as applied to groups of people."

Audi, Robert. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1998.


Figure 2: Framework for Knowledge Work Analysis (Efimova, 2004)

From this framework the following processes can be identified:

  • Organising personal information ("Personal Information Management")
  • Making sense of information (personal)
  • Negotiating meaning (social)
  • "Creating" new ideas
  • Establishing and maintaining a personal network
  • Collaborating in communities



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