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Book review

Peter Burke's Social History of Knowledge—ambitious, fascinating, and exhaustive

Editor's note: this is the first book review the Signpost has published in exactly three years. Those interested in reviving this long-dormant section by submitting their own review should contact the editor-in-chief.

Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: Volume II: From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012). £17.99/$24.95.

Professor Peter Burke in 2009.

Peter Burke's A Social History of Knowledge: Volume II: From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia is a broad and wide-ranging look at how knowledge has been created, acquired, organized, disseminated, and sometimes lost in the Western world over the last two and a half centuries, a sequel to his 2000 book covering the prior three centuries, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot. The key word is social: Burke's interest is the institutions that create and manage knowledge, not the individuals who make particular discoveries or innovations happen. In this sense the book is a firm rejection of the "great man" historiography of the 19th century in favor of overarching cultural trends. Of course, this has long since become the standard practice of historiography, and Burke himself, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at Cambridge University's Emmanuel College, is firmly in the mainstream of his field. Normally, this wouldn't be worth commenting on, but this work is a pure crystallization of this historiographical trend. It’s a book where the Homebrew Computer Club is discussed, but neither Steve Jobs nor Steve Wozniak are mentioned. This is appropriate in the age of Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger are mentioned, but what is important is not their personal innovations but the institution they created that allows thousands of others to innovate and disseminate knowledge.

Burke divides his book into three large sections. The first describes the processes and institutions developed for gathering, analyzing, disseminating, and employing knowledge, beginning with the great scientific expeditions of the 18th and 19th century, ravenously acquiring artifacts and scientific and cultural knowledge like it was imperial plunder, and in many ways it was. The amounts of material accumulated are still staggering, even from the perspective of the computer age. It’s an excellent way to open the book, because the next logical question is "What do we do with all of this knowledge?" Burke spends the rest of the book examining the social structures that sprang up around such knowledge. How do we gather it? The professionalization of scholarship and the development of systems of fieldwork and surveying. How do we organize it? The Dewey Decimal System, the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus, and other frameworks. How do we spread it? The printing press, museums, World’s Fairs, public lecture programs, television. (Though the sometimes Anglocentric book unfortunately omits Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and, perplexingly for a book framed by two encyclopedias, the Encyclopedia Britannica from its otherwise comprehensive look at the mass dissemination of knowledge.) How do we use it? The development of more and more sophisticated ways of retrieving information and putting it to use in new ways, for business and industry, government, and warfare.

The second section, "The Price of Progress", describes what was lost along the way. Much of this was lost in a tangible way: lost languages, misplaced data, the destruction of museums and libraries, or the deliberate destruction of records in government purges. Other knowledge was deliberately discarded: pseudosciences like astrology or phrenology were abandoned as new knowledge was discovered to replace it. Burke also discusses more intangible losses, like the loss of interdisciplinary and generalist knowledge and expertise as knowledge production became more professionalized and specialized, as disciplines and sub-disciplines were created and split off from one another, like psychology from philosophy or the splitting of natural history into geology, botany, and zoology.

The final section provides three thematic frameworks for examining the previous sections. The first is geographical, both literal and social. On the small scale, Burke discusses the rise of grouping together of scholars in institutions like universities and the subgroups that arise, like the Chicago School, a movement in sociology that arose at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s. On a larger scale, Burke discusses knowledge as a nationalistic movement and the institutions and projects that arose from that drive. On the most macro scale of all, Burke discusses the rise of the idea of "The Commonwealth of Learning" and what makes it to the center and what gets pushed to the fringes. The second framework is sociological contexts that scholars operate in, the demands and constraints of economics and politics, and the issues of gender, class, and nationality. The third is chronological, examining discrete fifty-year periods from the "reform of knowledge" (1750-1800) to "the age of reflexivities" (1900 to the present).

Of most interest to readers here is the discussion of Wikipedia. Despite its mention in the title, substantial discussion of Wikipedia is limited to about one and a half pages towards the end of his coverage of "the age of reflexivities", though given the broad scope of this work, Wikipedia receives a lengthier treatment than almost all other specific institutions mentioned in the book. In this work, Wikipedia seems to be used mostly as a convenient historical bookend and Burke misses several opportunities to integrate discussion of Wikipedia into larger historical trends he discusses. For example, in his discussion of "amateur scholars" Burke fails to link Wikipedia to previous efforts to draw on the efforts of an amateur collective, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which was compiled with the assistance of hundreds of non-professional volunteers. Also, Wikipedia's value in synthesizing and disseminating information could have been mentioned in a discussion of the glut of information and Wikipedia's inherent interdisciplinarity could have provided a counterpoint to the trend of moving from generalism to specialization.

Overall, it is an ambitious, fascinating, and exhaustive catalog of 250 years of knowledge, though it may be a bit dry to those not already interested in the topic. Burke limits himself to the Western world, which may frustrate some readers, but includes parts of the Western world that are often overlooked in such broad survey works, like Scandinavia and Latin America. Burke excels at outlining broad trends in a comprehensible way, at broadening the scope of understanding of knowledge production to worlds beyond academia, and describing the interconnectedness between those worlds. It's doubtful that we will see another work quite like it.