Social Knowledge: What Is It and How Do We Acquire It?

· April 28, 2018

All of us can see that social phenomena are very different in nature than physical phenomena. Not only do we see them differently, but we also treat them differently. But what is social knowledge? And how do we build it in our minds? Well, psychologists throughout history have sought to answer these very questions.

The study of social knowledge is a very broad and highly relevant field of research. There is a very wide field of interest and it can be considered from many different points of view. These include psychological, educational, and epistemological. In this article we’re going to talk about two specific aspects: the construction of representations of social reality and the nature of social phenomena.

Construction of social knowledge

One key aspect of social knowledge is understanding how it is built. As people, by observing how the world around us works we build representations or models that explain what we can perceive. This helps us give meaning to what happens around us and generate our own models, which are very useful as frameworks for action.

In effect, these representations make it possible to anticipate what is going to happen and act accordingly. It’s easy to see the great adaptive value of having an ability to generate and adjust valid, reliable models. For example, when we understand how electricity works and the damage it can do, we reject the idea of ​​sticking our fingers in a plug socket!

Ballerina on floor

One key aspect of the human species is our social environment. Because we live in a society, we have been able to adapt to a hostile environment, despite the natural deficiencies of humans. We’ve acquired a large repertoire of social models that help us know how to act on throughout our days in our social framework.


Three major categories

Within these representations or models of society, which is what psychology calls social knowledge, we find three major categories:

The knowledge of others and oneself

Through our experiences with others, we create models that allow us to get to know ourselves and other people. Knowing how other people’s minds work and how they think helps us anticipate their actions. Studies on the so-called “theory of mind” can be included in this section.

Moral and conventional knowledge

A person acquires the rules or norms that regulate the relationships he has in relation to others. Knowing these guidelines allows us to adapt to our community and live with others. In this area, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of morality in the human being.

The knowledge of institutions

A key aspect of social knowledge is understanding the roles that people occupy within a society. Here we’re talking about the representations and models we have about the behavior of different people within our society, be they shop workers, bank managers or politicians. This helps us carry our certain social actions without needing to know what the person in front of us is like. That’s because we do know the role that person must play.

Nature of social phenomena

Although it may seem obvious that there are differences between a physical phenomenon and a social one, describing such differences can get complicated. You can define physical facts as objective and independent of the subject and social ones as subjective and dependent. From a socioconstructivist perspective, however, this distinction has no meaning.

One attempt to understand what social phenomena are composed of is the one proposed by the philosopher John Searle. To explain the representations about the social world, he introduces three elements. Constitutive rules, the assignment of functions and collective intentionality.

Just as a game consists of rules, Searle asserts that institutions are too. The importance of these rules is that without them there could exist neither the game nor the institutions. For example, when playing chess there are rules to tell us what we can and can’t do. 

If these rules didn’t exist, the game would be meaningless. Well, the same happens with our institutions. They exist to the extent that we say they exist. One clear example is currency. There are rules that say how much each note is worth and under what conditions they can be exchanged. If these didn’t exist, then money would be mere metal or paper.

Social knowledge of money

Assigning functions

When talking about the assignment of functions, we’re referring to the attribution of functions to objects or people. We say that chairs are for sitting on and that forks are for eating with. These, however, are not intrinsic properties of the objects in question; we impose their function.

This attribution is largely collective, and it generates shared knowledge. The role of collective intentionality is important. It is important to understand the role of people and objects in society. This involves human beings sharing beliefs, desires and intentions.

All of this allows us to act within a framework where cooperation is possible. It opens the door to coexistence in an adaptive and safe society for all its members. Social knowledge helps us understand and know how to act within society.

Studying it is of great value and allows us to act on many levels. We’ll give one last example: education. The more we understand this area, the better models or pedagogical measures we will create and take on the road to creating a more just and cooperative society.