The Knowledge Production of the Future

Knowledge is a social universal. We always act on the basis of knowledge that we assume to be generally known and to be shared by others. But we add new knowledge that we are continually searching for or trying to produce intentionally. And the latter is a signature of modernity. The considerations in this article focus on the societal order in which the production of knowledge has become socially constitutive for the first time in history.

The main peculiarities of the knowledge order of global social modernity can be characterised in a first approximation as those of a macroorder, as well as of a microorder.

Knowledge as a Social Universal

On the macrolevel of the formation of society, the defining principle is the functional differentiation of the social system into global communication systems such as the economy, the polity, religion, science, education, law, and a range of other function systems. All of these function systems are world systems. None of them, not even the system of science, constitutes the ‘knowledge system’ of society. This means that the production of knowledge does not take place in a specialised ‘separate’ knowledge system, but is much more a defining moment in the operations of all function systems. The production of knowledge does not take place in a specialised ‘separate’ knowledge system, but is much more a defining moment in the operations of all function systems.The societal principle of ‘knowledge’ stands orthogonal to the differentiation of function systems and it is precisely there that its overall social importance can be found.

On the microlevel, initial emphasis should be placed on individualisation as a structural principle of society; however, individuals need knowledge as something that enables them to determine and unfold their individuality. The relationship of individuals to function systems is regulated differently in every function system through the inclusion of individuals into function systems. Individuals enter these function systems as a microdiverse population with a diversified knowledge base, which at the same time implies microdiverse foundations of the knowledge of each function system. And ultimately, the expectations addressed to individuals by modern society are articulated as expectations regarding the ability of individuals to act effectively.

My article will focus on two central perspectives. First, it introduces the strategic importance of function systems as social structures and presents the knowledge order of individual function systems. In the second part of the argument, the cross-functional peculiarities of the knowledge order of modernity will be discussed.

At the end, recommendations for action will be given, derived from the trends and upheavals in knowledge orders. While the analytical passages of the text are predominantly written with a view on the system of world society, these final considerations will concentrate, in accordance with the central focus of this book, on Germany as the social system whose strategies of ensuring its future are of particular interest.

The Breakdown of Hierarchies as a Precondition of Knowledge-based Functional Differentiation

The emergence of modernity rests on the destratification of society. The stratification of society (at least as a form of primary differentiation) disintegrates and, above all, the significance of the nobility as the dominant social class diminishes dramatically from the eigh­teenth to the twentieth century. At the same time, this means that a defining social group is now in decline which founded its claim to social significance precisely on its distance to knowledge and education, looking down on intellectual social circles as uncultured ‘bores’. The decline of the nobility opened up a competition for societal status, a competition which for the first time in history is mainly based on the control of different forms of knowledge.

The most striking consequence of the breakdown of societal stratification is the pluralisation of values – which takes the place of a status-based hierarchy of values – and the horizontal pluralisation of societal communication contexts (= functional differentiation) which, as a consequence, produce very different links to societal knowledge.

Political Systems and Knowledge

The most important modern political event is the democratic revolution of the eighteenth to the twentieth century, which builds on giving each individual equal opportunities of political participation and seemingly requires a “well-informed citizen”. Its connection to the expansion of secondary education and higher education is evident.

At the same time, it is striking that a knowledge-based professionalisation of politics fails to materialise. For the polity, inclusion is more important than knowledge, and illiterate persons possess the same political rights as everybody else. In this respect, democracy is a political system that runs the risk of ignorance. The tremendous variety of knowledge bases for political action is, for this reason, often pushed to the peripheries of the system, where it exists in the form of expertise of various civil servants and advisers, commission members, and lobbyists. During the early phases of the emergence of democracies, the key political positions within parties, parliaments, and at the heads of government and ministries are primarily occupied by experts (perhaps to compensate for deficiencies in legitimacy still in place). As the democracies consolidate, the moment of legitimisation through knowledge fades away, and politicians who view themselves as generalists (without specific expertise) take its place.

The decline of the nobility opened up a competition for societal status, a competition which for the first time in history is mainly based on the control of different forms of knowledge.

A different realm emerges, which probably forms the most important realm of knowledge production in the modern political system: the autonomous organisations of experts, who combine the development of specialised knowledge systems with an autonomous management of decisions by these organisations. These autonomous expert organisations are easily identified: central banks, constitutional courts, competition authorities, drug approval institutions, science and higher education institutions, and institutions of development cooperation. These expert organisations often operate on the boundary of two function systems, but they embody genuinely political decision-making. The political system accepts them, concedes autonomy, acknowledges the limits of its own decision-making ability, and thereby opens up the space for the growth of politically defined knowledge production.

Knowledge Economy and Information Economy

In the economic system, entrepreneurship is the most obvious instance of a knowledge-based institution. The variety of entrepreneurial initiatives that can be observed at a given point in time simultaneously gives an idea of the potentially economically relevant knowledge available in an economic system at this point in time, which has however only been partly explored in its relevance so far.

At the same time, the economy of the early twenty-first century world is, in a still elementary sense, founded on immaterial things (services), information (ongoing production of difference), and knowledge (generally known, but not sufficiently explored knowledge). The associated theory revolves around human capital (the knowledge incorporated within the person). The other form of knowledge incorporation is technology – and the economy can for this reason be observed as a form of a race between technology and knowledge (in other words, education). Is the knowledge incorporated into persons keeping pace with the escalation of technologies? This appears to be a key question for the economy and for society.

Pluralisation of Religion as a Knowledge Process

Since the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century and the process of confessionalisation, religion in Europe has principally assumed a pluralistic form. As soon as a world system of religions emerges, this dynamic of pluralisation reaches far beyond the borders of Europe. However, the pluralisation of religion turns into a basis for an individual’s ability to make decisions and to act, as the individual becomes capable to decide among religious alternatives and is able to acquire the knowledge required to do so. Religion is no longer inevitably attributed by birth. It is dependent on knowledge and individual decisions. This reduces the professional asymmetry between clerics and laypersons and even dissolves it in some denominations. All of them principally have the same access to religious knowledge.

Responsiveness of the System of Science

The system of science is unquestionably the social system in which the gain of new knowledge is paramount at all times. It revolves around the ongoing reorganisation of knowledge, for the purpose of acquiring new knowledge. This has been the case since the second half of the eighteenth century at the latest. But another upheaval occurred in the twentieth century. This can be defined as responsiveness, which generally indicates a structural upheaval in function systems of advanced modernity. Responsiveness always refers to the relation of a function system to its social environments. Democracy is a political system that runs the risk of ignorance. In the case of the science system, this means that in addition to the internal scientific abilities of acquiring knowledge, the science system gains the ability to autonomously define social problem areas which possess particular urgency and are, as a result, reliant on scientific research. The discovery and subsequent handling of the problem of anthropogenic climate change is an obvious example of what responsiveness means, but it is just one of many examples. This knowledge of the relevance of social problem areas and the self-programming of science based on it (naturally with the participation of politics and other function systems) represents the new form of knowledge production in science under the conditions of responsiveness.

The Omnipresence of Knowledge – the ‘Professionalisation of Everyone’

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, knowledge was primarily incorporated into the classical professions of clerics, lawyers, and doctors in Europe. These were later joined by other knowledge-based professions: teachers, social workers, educational, and health professions. The astounding trend of the twentieth century is now one that has already been formulated by the American sociologist Harold Wilensky fifty years ago: “The Professionalization of Everyone”. Knowledge-based occupational specialisation is no longer an attribute of just a few professions but is almost universal. All have a special status, all produce knowledge more than just occasionally, and moreover claim systematic stocks of knowledge which demand extensive training. Later in the twentieth century, the idea of interprofessionality was added – primarily in the healthcare sector –, which in a manner similar to ‘interdisciplinarity’ indicates that the knowledge of individual professions does not suffice for solving problems, but that different kinds of knowledge have to be brought together and to cooperate to make sure that professional decisions of sufficient quality can be made.

The University – the Control Centre of Knowledge

If one separates analytically the university (as an educational organisation) from science (as a function system of society, which is admittedly very closely based on the educational organisation of the university), the production of knowledge takes place only to a limited extent in the university. This limited knowledge production, which is specific to the university, is related to the practice of teaching and learning at the university and to curricular matters. In all other respects, the university receives knowledge – from the science system and other function systems – and merges it into degree programmes which serve the creation of human capital and the specialised training of graduates. In this respect, however, the university can be considered the most important societal control centre of knowledge, which takes knowledge from many social contexts, reorganises it into degree programmes, and returns it to society through education as knowledge incorporated into people.

The Public Sphere and the Audience

A first general characteristic of the knowledge system of modernity is that knowledge is principally public – esoteric knowledge, as was common in Europe in the Early Modern Era, is no longer conceivable and no longer legitimate –, and that it is usually disclosed in the form of a publication (scientific, literary, mass media). The audience to whom the knowledge is addressed is a universal, unlimited audience. Related to the broad public is the understanding that each piece of knowledge should additionally be available in a popular, easily accessible form (as an explicit popularisation, public understanding of science, abridged version, executive summary, abstract, and the like). Authors should master these forms and learn them explicitly. All these aspects embody the close connection between knowledge and inclusion.

‘Flows’ and Connectivity

Another central characteristic of knowledge in present-­day society lies in its increasingly insecure storage. Knowledge is carried by a complex population of informed individuals among whom it is distributed, it consists of ‘flows’; it is movable and continually changing. Knowledge must be able to connect to other knowledge, and in this way incessantly creates interrelationships while referring to alternative futures.

Organisations and Networks

Simultaneously, the significance of organisation, at least that of the individual organisation, is put into perspective. In the case of the university, we emphasised that the university is the centre for the social control of knowledge coming from many other systems. But even the individual university is small in relation to the immensity of the knowledge interrelationships in which it stands. One American organisational consultant aptly summarised the finite nature of the organisation using the example of the economic enterprise: “there are far more smart people outside any one organization than inside”. Knowledge is carried by a complex population of informed individuals among whom it is distributed, it consists of ‘flows’. However, this means that in the attempt to reliably orientate ourselves towards relevant societal knowledge, we are no longer able to rely on our own organisation as a sufficiently complete storage place of knowledge. This may then weaken the loyalty towards the organisation one works for. Members of a working organisation have to integrate themselves into networks with members of other organisations in order to receive sufficient access to knowledge in other organisations – which perhaps also endangers the exclusivity of the knowledge of the member’s own organisation. The same phenomenon also shows in scientific co-authorship as a central knowledge process in the science system, where access to members of one’s own university plays a relatively small role in recruiting co-authors in the first place. The knowledge processes of the scientific community are extensively transferred from organisations into networks.


After emphasising that the public mode of knowledge in the modern age demands diverse forms of publication, it must now be elucidated that digital forms of publication are growing increasingly frequent, either in addition to other forms of publication or as the exclusive mode of publication. This brings with it significant changes. Digital publication (for example, on scientific platforms such as makes system boundaries relatively invisible and, as a result, easy to overstep. Any type of knowledge can be accessed from every starting point. Hetero­geneous knowledge corpora can be connected among one another far more easily. Far greater knowledge landscapes can be traversed at significantly greater speeds. And the Internet embodies a fascinating instance of the copresence of the communications of all function systems within one unique knowledge-based system. While this does not change the fact of functional differentiation, it makes the mobilisation of influences across the borders of function systems considerably more likely.

Individuality and Knowledge

The close correlation between individuality and knowledge has already been emphasised above. Individuals need knowledge to formulate their individuality, and this knowledge takes on a different character in each individual case because, after all, individuality requires diversity. Normative educational ideals (such as the classic German idea of self-formation/‘Bildung’) largely disappear, as the difference between objective (societal) and subjective knowledge (attainable by the individual) has probably become too great. Two conceptual solutions supporting one another supersede it, and both of them have already been mentioned here. One is ‘human capital’ as a highly abstract generalisation of any kind of knowledge acquisition, which looks more to the lifetime spent in educational organisations than to what has actually been learned there. The other concept is the idea of a ‘population’ which conceives individuals and their knowledge as being sufficiently diverse. In such a population with very diverse knowledge bases innumerous different possibilities for societal structure formation arise.

Team Structures and Cooperation

At the same time, individuals are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that they are capable of cooperation. Traditional ascriptive collectivities, into which one was born, are replaced by the modern variety of newly formed social groups and – of particular interest to us – teams. Teams arise where cooperation is unavoidable because the tasks that need to be completed generate a dependency on others, without which a satisfactory production of something or solution to a problem cannot be achieved. In this understanding, there is an institutionalisation of cooperation in a wide range of societal areas (in cooperations and laboratory communities of science, sports teams, working groups in economic organisations, interprofessional teams of clinics). Team structures are a prerequisite for productive knowledge cooperation. Two of these socio-structural aspects are probably most important: the far-reaching weakening of hierarchies in teams and the presence of different but overlapping specialisations.

Reflexivity of Knowledge

The universalisation, differentiation, and temporalisation of knowledge in modern times is followed by an obvious trend. The restructuring of science which focuses science on the incessant production of new knowledge has since the eighteenth century resulted in an intensified methodical reflection. How to produce new knowledge in a reliable way? In a similar way, we can observe, with relation to knowledge, an extensive institutionalisation of forms of knowledge about knowledge or, to put it differently, the emergence of forms of knowledge that concern the control of first-level knowledge. Team structures are a prerequisite for productive knowledge cooperation.The society that arises from this is an ‘audit society’, a society in which a form of certifying knowledge is designed and institutionalised for each form of knowledge, which examines the usefulness and accuracy of first-level knowledge. This trend towards universalising control in an audit society goes hand in hand with an obvious loss in significance of the special status of professions. Professions had always been defined by the fact that only members of the same profession were able and entitled to critically scrutinise the success of their colleagues. This internalisation of control is no longer accepted in an audit society. Instead, there are designed formal and quantified observation techniques that are competently managed on the basis of knowledge by people who make a profession from this evaluative knowledge but who do not belong to the profession that they are evaluating. This too is an aspect of the ‘professionalisation of everyone’. If everyone is a professional, there are no good reasons why somebody should be exempt from controls.

Knowledge and Inequality

In a significant way, knowledge is an equaliser, a resource that can be taken ownership of. On the basis of knowledge that one has acquired and is able to manage, one can then reclaim equality to those others who previously possessed a superior status within society. But at the same time, the ubiquity of the relevance of knowledge and the high economic premium paid to those who acquired relevant knowledge, leads to an inversion to a certain extent in the function of knowledge. In individual cases, knowledge always remains an equaliser, an opportunity for advancement that can be made use of. But from a macrosocial perspective, these advantages and mechanisms of knowledge become the main cause of increasing social inequality. One can, in turn, react to this new social inequality, which is founded on the basis of equality of access to knowledge, and mount an uprising of the ignorant against the knowledge carriers, as well as a rebellion of the public against the elite, based on the universally shared expectation of inclusion. Today’s populism is in one respect exactly that, a public uprising, an uprising of non-knowledge against the privileges of knowledge.

Prof. Dr. Rudolf Stichweh (66) is a sociologist and Director of the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (FIW) of the University of Bonn, which does research on the political, scientific, and religious systems in present-day world society from a comparative perspective. As a theorist, he continues the tradition of sociological systems theory, which builds on the work of Talcott Parsons and Niklas ­Luhmann. His macrosociological work focuses on the structural history of human societies in the last 100,000 years, while trying to connect these long-term perspectives with a theory of the modern functionally differentiated world society of the past three hundred years.