Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Are Academics and Engineers Both "Knowledge Class?"

I turn today to a wonderful little book, Alvin Gouldner's The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Writing in the 1970s, before the term "knowledge class" came into regular sociological use, Gouldner talked about the "new class" which was contending with the old corporate bourgeoisie (Gouldner remained a kind of Marxist) for world domination.

Gouldner argued that the new class was made up of both intellectuals and the technical intelligentsia. He uses "intellectuals" in a familiar way – academics, writers, thinkers not in directly applied or corporate settings, especially in the humanities. For the other half of his new class, though, he needed to stretch ordinary language a bit; hence, technical intelligentsia. In this category Gouldner encompasses scientists, engineers, and the kind of corporate managers who control complex systems through their technical knowledge. Gouldner is joining together what C.P. Snow famously separated in his image of the "two cultures" – humanities and science – that divide (British) universities.

Most of the time, the concerns of humanistic intellectuals and scientific engineers are poles apart. If anything, when Gouldner was writing, in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, the two groups and cultures seemed more in opposition to one another than they do now. But Gouldner saw a deeper structural commonality and an underlying common interest. When knowledge itself is under attack, the intellectuals and the intelligentsia make common cause. When rationality is criticized, academics and engineers are on the same side. When the book burnings begin, the brave philosophers and brave scientists will man the barricades together.

Deep down, Gouldner argued, a common culture and a parallel structure unite the new class, what I am calling the knowledge class. The common culture is what Gouldner terms the Culture of Critical Discourse, or CCD (which is think is a sly Catholic joke). The highest value, and most honored practice, of the culture of critical discourse is to examine the principles underlying any practice, to dissect the reasons and causes that lead people to act a certain way. The aim is to see if those practices still seem justified after such scrutiny. And this criticism is also self-criticism; CCD requires that its practitioners constantly examine their own practice, including, paradoxically, the practice of critical discourse itself, to see if it can be justified. A measure of the success of the knowledge class is that almost any college catalogue today will list "critical thinking" as one of the most important aims of education.

The structural position that unites intellectuals and intelligentsia is their control of the knowledge necessary to make the social system run. In Marx's day, a "factory" was simple enough that the owner/entrepreneur could master the whole production process. Today, just about any kind of manufacturing is too complex to for the nominal owners to follow. The social system as a whole is of gargantuan complexity. No one could master it, and it is the life's work of millions of smart people to understand parts of it. Moreover, the whole social system now depends on countless feedback loops, reflexive channels that bring ongoing information back to the system, allowing continuous adjustment. The people bringing and interpreting that feedback are essential to the working of the system. They are integral members of the knowledge class.

The knowledge class does not rule the modern world, but the modern world could not function without the knowledge class.


LMR said...

The phrase "technical intelligentsia" was also used during the Soviet era to refer to engineers/other professionals who worked in technical fields. During the Soviet era, when no one had anything, being considered intellectual or intellegentsia carried alot of weight and so the term was developed to refer to those people who weren't writers or artists but still thinkers.

Anonymous said...

I'm more familiar with the Chinese communist revolution, so judging from that it seems like the only way that such a label could carry weight would be if it was heavily cemented to the person's feet and fasioned into some sort of shoe. Again, this comes from my understanding of Maoism not Leninism, and sorry about the sidetrack, just curious about the differences i guess.


Gruntled said...

The French term "intellectual" is rooted in the 19th century Russian "intelligenty" in the first place, so the Soviet usage has an honorable pre-revolutionary heritage.

Russell Smith said...

I'm curious how you'd interact with David Brooks' book Bobos In Paradise in which he identifies this "knowledge class" as being the true leaders of American culture -- he doesn't make the distinction btwn humanities and sciences, but seems to lump them together in the same class.

A second curiosity is how this might relate to the concept of the Creative Class, as identified by Richard Florida -- where the creatives are not just artists, but a whole additional set of folks who have to use creative thinking skills in their professions (including researchers, designers, engineers, etc). His thesis is that the new knowledge class is marked more by creativity than by critical thinking.


Paul Jolly said...

Two things:

1) Social feedback loops are awesome. The concept alone is staggering.
2) I personally do not consider Engineers (computer or otherwise) to be in line with Academics in the “Knowledge Class.” I am of the opinion that engineers are in the highest class employment of the working class, but not in line with Academics. Union-worker fathers who scratch their heads when their sons major in Humanities or Philosophy (or Sociology), brag to their co-workers when their sons get engineering degrees. I think engineering is still considered “work” by the lower classes, just work to be done by the most intelligent of the workers; whereas Academic fields are considered a waste of time because they are neither understood, nor appreciated. Granted, the opinion of union workers does not a social class distinction make, it is but one example of difference (some more nuanced than others) between these occupational classes. Where I run into the stumper is on occupations like biological engineering. I wonder if maybe the field of science you practice is a class reflection (biology vs. physics for example) when it comes to engineers.

wha said...

Arts and sciences are not mutually exclusive as I am often reminded by my architecture-student girlfriend. Perhaps engineers are cross-overs that exist in both or neither, realm.

Gruntled said...

Florida cites Bobos is Paradise as pretty much what he means by "creative class." The core of Brooks' argument is that the bourgeoisie and the bohemians have merged (hence, bobos). This group would include what is normally meant by knowledge class. The difference is that Brooks focuses on the culture of the bobos, rather than their place in the system of production.

I think there is still a structural difference between knowledge workers and corporate managers/bureaucrats. Engineers work for corporate managers, but when push comes to shove, their deepest commitment is to the triumph of rationality. Thus, they are a latent member of the knowledge class.