The Sociology of Ignorance
Although the ‘sociology of ignorance’ has a long history (dating back at least to Georg Simmel's (1858-1918) reflections on secrets and the strategic importance of not knowing), debates on ignorance, knowledge gaps or non-knowledge as inherent features of knowledge making in many areas of everyday life have only recently gained broader attention from sociologists.
For example, a sociology of ignorance approach can critically explore the potentially misleading role of risk assessments when clear knowledge about probabilities and outcomes are not available, or point to the potential benefits when limits to knowledge are openly acknowledged.
Whereas ignorance has traditionally been treated as detrimental or as an unfortunate state of 'lack of knowledge', recent streams of research take a more neutral stance. Sociology of ignorance scholars investigate how actors can strategically and constructively use ignorance in their decision making processes. The constructive role of ignorance in environmental applications and in science and innovation decision making are a few examples.
In addition, these discussions raise questions about the conditions under which some actors (especially in professions (i.e., engineering, nursing, law, architecture, medicine) or in professional capacities) are legally entitled to point to their non-knowledge as explanation. They also raise questions on the varied ways that actors may seek to not know about certain things in the sense that they may consciously avoid knowledge from emerging in the first place (i.e., strategic ignorance).
There is much to explore in the sociology of ignorance and we hope this website will contribute to further dialogue in our growing community of scholars.
Matthias Gross, Sociologist and Winner of the 2013 Sage Prize for Innovation and Excellence from the British Sociological Association