Market Square

Knowledge and Power

In their book The Power of Scientific Knowledge Grundmann and Stehr ask two important questions:

  1. How does scientific knowledge become powerful in practice?
  2. What counts as knowledge for this purpose?

This post presents some of the key points they highlight. The authors are not aiming to produce a general theory of knowledge application, but rather to provide ‘some historical-analytical tools and data for such an endeavour’. [It should be noted that they employ the more inclusive German understanding of the word ‘science’ which encompasses knowledge produced by the social sciences]

  1. What Counts as Scientific Knowledge?

Harold Kroto, a British chemist and Nobel laureate, presents a simple answer to the question ‘what counts as knowledge’. Kroto argued that there are many theories but only a few that are true. True theories are facts that have been found to work in practice through experimental work.

This explanation is not sufficient to explain how some knowledge becomes powerful while other knowledge is largely ignored. It presents only an ex post facto response to the question, taking no account of a wide body of evidence from the history of science and the sociology of science which shows that research is always accompanied by:

  • uncertainty
  • experimenter’s regress, and
  • trials of strength between proponents and opponents the theory often decided only by a generational shift i.e. ‘opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up familiar with [the theory]’[1]

A number of models employed in the past to deal with this question emerge from the literature. Two of the more successful are presented here. They emerge the traditional philosophical distinction between truth and utility, which can be traced back at least to Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620). When we employ this distinction theory and practice are alienated from each other. The ruling code in science becomes truth and not usefulness. Truth con­trols use. This forms the basis of the Necessitarian Model.

Necessitarian Model:
The Necessitarian Model conflates knowledge with truth. For knowledge to become powerful it must represent objectivity and truth. Grundmann and Stehr argue that this is the ‘taken-for-granted answer among the public, many policymakers and members of the scientific community’. But it is deceptive. Several studies now show that what counts as objectivity and truth is subject to historical change.

Insofar as the Necessitarian Model still holds sway in modern society, and it does, the reason can be linked to dominant norms in the scientific community. Knowledge, truth and power may be conflated in light of scientific norms that insist that ‘knowledge claims are at their best if they are trans-historical and trans-situational’. Accordingly, absence of context-specificity is seen as benefit, as adding to the validity of a knowledge claim.

The Instrumental Model is similar to the Necessitarian Model, indeed it may be thought to build on its claims.

Instrumental Model:
The traditional instrumental model of knowledge rests on a number of basic assumptions:

  1. Knowledge is determined by the ‘logic’ of science in conjunction with the nature of the world of objects.
  2. Societal and cultural factors surrounding the producers of knowledge have no influence on the production of knowledge or on the context of justification.
  3. Knowledge exists independently of the context of application. It is ‘value neutral’ and can be applied for good or bad purposes.
  4. Scientific knowledge is objective and rational and universal. Its utilization is not impeded by the special circumstances of time, place, and social condi­tions.

Set against these models, Grundmann and Stehr present a new understanding of how knowledge becomes powerful in practice.

Grundmann and Stehr’s Approach:
The authors move away from notions of ‘knowledge as pure objectivity’ or ‘knowledge as truth. They define knowledge as the capacity to act (or capability of taking action); that is, as the possibility of ‘setting something in motion’. This understanding actually derives from Bacon. The famous invocation ‘scientia potentia est’, is usually attributed to Bacon and translated simply as ‘knowledge is power’. In fact Bacon claimed that the particular utility of knowledge came from its ability to set something in motion. Accordingly, Grundmann and Stehr translate ‘potentia’ as potential, not power. Knowledge is the potential to effect change.

We know that when new knowledge comes into a policy field, it can destabilize existing social relations. When that happens, interests have to be redefined; they are no longer understood as ‘a given’. With this in mind, we can understand knowledge as the first step toward action. Knowl­edge puts us in a position to change reality.

There has always been interest in the power and promise of scientific knowledge. By contrast, systematic considerations about the influence of social condi­tions on knowledge are relatively recent. Perhaps since the Enlightenment, the prevailing view has been not what knowledge will do to our society, but instead what a deficit of knowledge might do. More is always better, and ‘concern with the impact of knowledge on soci­ety receded as a problematic issue’.


  1. How does Knowledge become Powerful?

Once ideals become institutionalised in policies they assume a kind of reality that hides their earlier contingency. An element of historical inevitability arises; as though what has happened was bound to happen. When the link between knowledge and politics starts to appear inevitable it becomes the task of the historian and critical social scientist to ‘unravel this apparent inevit­ability’:

“Michel Foucault used the term discourse to describe the reality of thoughts and practices enshrined in a specific historical period. He used the term archaeology to describe the efforts needed to analyze and deconstruct these discourses.”

Knowledge can become powerful in two different ways, either through technical or through social applications.

  1. Technical applications: through the work of scientists and engineers, and the technical artifacts they produce. The power of knowledge manifests itself in working machines or drugs.
  2. Social Applications: social scientists and their links to the political, economic, or social world. The power of knowledge manifests itself in social action i.e. effective political interventions into economy and society through laws, regulations and policies.

But how does this happen? How do we get to application? The established distinction between technology push and demand pull has generated two general theories of how knowledge becomes powerful through social action:

  1. Technology push – knowledge flows into society: it originates in basic research, continues through applied research and ends in technical or other practical applications. “This linear model makes use of the flow metaphor and implies that for knowledge to become practical, barriers have to be broken down so that knowledge can run freely (‘science push’).”
  2. Demand pull – knowledge is commissioned from users: knowledge can be produced on demand and deliver solutions as required (‘social pull’). This approach has many variants e.g. science functioning as provider of legitimation.


The Power of Ideas
If knowledge is about setting something in motion, we should ask (i) what is the utility of knowledge – what does it do? And (ii) who are the doers and what are their requirements?  Grundmann and Stehr argue that policy is based on selective bodies of knowledge, not full or comprehensive knowledge. Additionally, scientists can ‘speak truth to power’ yet find power decidedly indifferent. Accordingly, it is useful to ask what are the preconditions for knowledge to become powerful?

First, from the policy-maker/politician’s perspective, what is the utility of knowledge?
Knowledge can be used for:

  1. problem-solving and for
  2. legitimizing decisions (or both).
  3. Knowledge can also operate at the level of influencing the construction and fram­ing of policy problems without leading to specific policies.

Knowledge can also be used as a powerful tool to shape reality. This is familiar to sociologists and media studies scholars who speak of issue framing (Goffman 1974; Hajer 1995). It is well known that frames:

  1. Select segments of reality for further attention, and
  2. Provide schemata of interpretation that people use to locate, perceive, identify, and label.
  3. Define problems and determine what a causal agent is doing; they identify the forces creating the problem. Frames are instrumental in diagnosing causes and they solicit moral judgments.
  4. Suggest remedies, offer and justify treatments for the problem and predict their likely effects.

In this sense ideas can be said to have an independent power. That is to say, if in any policy issue the problem was framed in a different way, we would see a differ­ent sequence of events unfolding, leading (in all likelihood) to a differ­ent outcome.

Second, who are the doers and what are their requirements?
Clearly, frames need to be constructed and introduced into the policy process. This is where policy entrepreneurs, journalists, and political and academic elites can play an important role. Thus, any simply binary opposition between the scientist (aiming to explain reality) and the politician (aiming to turn something into reality) is complicated by the emergence of many more societal actors.

Naturally, the authors handle this issue in a more subtle and complex manner than can be rendered here. For present purposes it suffices to note that policy entrepreneurs play an instrumental role in getting an issue onto the political agenda. They do so largely by persuading others to accept their definition of the problem. If the definition of the problem tends to determine the nature of the solution this power of persuasion of critically important. It gives policy entrepreneurs significant levels of societal influence and even control.

In relation to the requirements of policy entrepreneurs and policy makers, an important precondition is that scientific knowledge is transformed into ‘usable knowledge’. In this regard the authors differentiate between:

  1. Knowledge for practice: the potential of science to be put into practice, and
  2. Practical knowledge: the actual practical use made of science

This distinction emphasises the reality that we cannot be certain a priori whether or not scientific research will ultimately be turned into knowledge for action.

Similarly, while knowledge can lead to social action, it is at the same time the result of social action. It follows that the capacity to act is by no means identical with actual action: ‘knowledge is not itself already action’.

Thus, usable knowledge is not enough. An ‘epistemic community’ is another requirement. An epistemic community is a ‘knowledge-based network of specialists who share beliefs in cause-and-effect relations, valid­ity tests, and underlying principled values and pursue common pol­icy goals’. Epistemic communities are most influential ‘where policymakers have no strong preconceived views, and the issue is a first foray’. Thus, knowledge plays an active role only where, for whatever reasons, there is latitude or necessity for decision-­making. When that latitude is present we will see that:

‘The qualities necessary for an understanding of practical knowledge, which make possible the realization of knowledge, are on the one hand particular findings, and on the other, i.e. on the side of those taking action, the control of situationally specific conditions. These abilities, which make implementing findings possible, can be called capacity to shape, in contrast to knowledge as the capacity to act. […]
In modern society, at the intersection of possibilities to take action and to shape events, the rapidly growing group of experts, advisors, and consultants as mediators of knowledge find their employment and exert their influence.’


Grundmann, R. and N. Stehr, The Power of Scientific Knowledge: From Research to Public Policy (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).
[1] Citing Max Planck, p. ix.