Discuss with reference to one or more of the theories from chapter 4, using examples of EITHER medical knowledge OR religious knowledge OR environmental knowledge.

This essay is about knowledge and whether access to specialized knowledge means it is easier to make decisions in contemporary society, using theory of the risk society with reference to medical knowledge as an example. First it will explain what knowledge is, and how it was developed through the centuries. Secondly, it will look at risk society, introduced by Ulrich Beck. Then it will outline who are the experts, and whether they help us or not in decision-making, it will look at different types of medical knowledge, for example alternative medicine. Finally it will show an example on MMR vaccine, and how difficult it is for parents to decide what is best for their babies.

Knowledge is very diverse. It is a collection of information, skills, practices, understandings and arguments, which have been collected throughout history. People have some sort of ‘common sense’ knowledge, and if this knowledge is recognized and verified by more people, especially by experts, then this knowledge became specialized knowledge.

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In contemporary society, people have quick access to a range of knowledge. This massive production of knowledge could be seen to make decision-making easier, but in some cases not.

Medical knowledge has been developed through the centuries. Different theorists had different approaches to knowledge. For example Karl Popper was questioning the knowledge which was available at the time, he tried to falsify or verify what was found. (Woodward and Watt, 2004, p.21) Thomas Kuhn argued that most of the time scientists were copying procedures, which were introduced by earlier researchers. They developed paradigms, which are sets of assumptions, laws and methods, which are accepted by scientists and have set the standards to how the inquiries are conducted.

These paradigms may be replaced by new ones. (Woodward and Watt, 2004, p. 22) Michael Foucault believed that the knowledge is produced by discourses, it is possible to say some things, but restricts what you can say. (Woodward and Watt, 2004, p. 23) Fox Keller argues that knowledge is gendered by the social structures through which it is produced. (Woodward and Watt, 2004, p. 27)

The twenty first century brings new risks to society. It brings new knowledge about the dangers, and requires new coping strategies. In the pre-industrial society, people believed that what was happening around them, illnesses or sudden deaths were natural and that they were unavoidable. In contemporary society, people now know that events have social origins and everything that is happening, illnesses or environmental dangers, is a result of individuals and social group’s activities.

Ulrich Beck talks about society as being a self destructive society, now more than ever in the second half of the twentieth century, because people have knowledge about threats in the society. He argues that there are different risks in industrial politics. In the nineteenth- and twentieth-century, there was a significant increase in pollution levels, which had an effect only on the people who lived or worked within the local community. At the end of the twentieth-century, this pollution was getting deeper and more disruptive. Becks also argues that there are risks, which are catastrophic, such as genetic manipulation of the planet’s flora and fauna or nuclear accidents. The impact of environmental risks in the contemporary society is not tied to one place, but is global. (Woodward and Watt, p. 143)

In these situations, when people are not sure what is going on, they look to experts, who can give them some sort of information, or they look elsewhere for help. The media, as television, radio or the internet provides the most easily accessible information. This information sometimes contradicts each other. Each provides its own interpretation of the knowledge of potential risks. Then people do not know who they should believe, and this brings major effects on social behavior, such as anxieties or uncertainties. However people do not always have access to this knowledge derived from the media.

An example could be medical society. The access to specialized medical knowledge was much more difficult in the past. Doctors were the experts, and people did trust them. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability in a particular area of study. Experts have the power, because they have the knowledge.

What has happened that nowadays people do not trust the experts, as they used to? In the past general practitioner was seen as a friend, family doctor for all members of the family, somebody with authority and widely recognized in the community. General practitioners were well respected between their patients, who took their advises and treatments seriously.

So what has happened that people in contemporary society doubt and question their expertise? There might be many reasons why the trust in experts has declined; one of them could be development of complementary and alternative medicine.

These new treatments include homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology and many more. This offers brand new choices for people, new treatments, diagnosis or medicine. Patients can use them as substitution for traditional treatment recommended by their GP or as supplementary treatment together with traditional ones. People have wider choices now. Alternative medicine might help them quicker, more effectively and without pain. However many people, mainly older generation, still see them as counterfeits and charlatans because they do not have extensive medical knowledge, they did not graduate from medical school and they also do not have the same social powers as experts in medicine have. (Woodward and Watt, 2004, p. 15)

Another reason why people are not sure about decisions and in trust of experts is because there are different sources of knowledge widely available to people. Among these sources could be counted pharmacists, books, media, alternative medicine (mentioned above), folk medicine and the internet. Increased knowledge give people confidence to question their GP expertise and treatments whether or not to use their services and trust them.

In the contemporary society, where new sources of information and knowledge are emerging; it is harder for people to decide what is the best for them, or for their families.

On the TV 05,(TV Programmes, 2005, The mothers knows Best?) The programme looks at parents, who have to decide whether or not to give their child the Measles-mumps-rubella vaccine or not. They have to decide what will be the best for the health of their child. Do they give the child the vaccine and risk possible dangerous side effects or do they leave their child to the mercy of measles.

The range of information available to the parents is incredibly vast. There are also many ways in which to obtain the information. As there is so much information it can sometimes overload the parent leading to them being worried and increasingly anxious about the situation.

The amount of information does make the decision to give their child the MMR vaccine more difficult. Chemists, the internet, doctors, drug companies and health clinics all have their own opinions. In their mind set they are the correct ones and the others are wrong. As parents are not experts who are they to and then they turn to someone, who do they believe? The conflicting information leads to confusion which leads to worry. When they add the input of the media, it just gets worse.

Our grandparents trusted doctors, science and even the government to an extent. They did not have much medical knowledge or means to get the knowledge, so they did not have these problems. The big question at the end is, does it really matter? Should we not just trust the experts and ignore everything else?

As shown on the examples, with the range of knowledge, decision-making is not easy in contemporary society. Medical knowledge has been developing for thousands of years, and it is not still final. People in the twenty-first century are living in the risk society, because they are aware of the things, and risks, which are around them. The experts are all people, who has specialized knowledge and they are in power. But a range of available knowledge for almost everyone, it could happen, that one day, anyone could be the expert, even without graduating from a specialized school. The decision for the families and their members are more difficult, because they have to decide on their own, with the help of range of knowledge from different sources, what is and will be the best.


Woodward, K. and Watt., S. (2004) ‘Science and Society: Knowledge in Medicine’, in Goldblatt, D. (ed.) Knowledge and the Social Scinces: Theory, Method and Practise, London, Routledge/The Open University

DD100 TV Programmes and Study Skills 2005, Mother knows Best?, Milton Keynes: The Open University (DVD)


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