Limiting Knowledge

21st Social Research conference at The New School
Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy
February 24-25 and May 27, 2010
John Tishman Auditorium 66 West 12th Street, NYC


Papers from the conference are published in Social Research Volume 77, Number 3 (Fall 2010).

There is no question that the free access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret. The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safe guard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?
Of course, there is no need to be a student of history to know that the kinds and severity of limits wax and wane, over time. In fact it would appear that all stable democracies (the United States is a case in point) appear to place structural limits on limits; that is they appear to have a built-in capacity to ‘return’ from periods in which access to knowledge and information is severely limited—such as the period after World War II or after the McCarthy period in the U.S. to a more “normal” state. What processes account for this? How have whistle blowers and investigative journalists increased freedom of information and public accountability? What is it that explains why periods in which limits increase invariably seem to be followed, after some time, by a relaxation of limits and a return to some mid-point – between maximal and minimal limitations?
The central question asked by this proposed conference was, where is America today with respect to the limits on our access to information, limits on what we can keep confidential and what the government and other institutions can keep secret? How can the public gain access to information and how do we decide what information is a citizen’s right to know? What information endangers individuals’ or the country’s well-being and safety? Are the ever-increasing number of technological innovations fundamentally transforming what we can know and what we cannot? What can remain confidential and what cannot? On the one hand, technology has aided access to information and knowledge to broader and broader communities, thus eroding limits, while on the other hand, technologies are increasingly used by governments, businesses, and other social institutions to monitor and interfere with what we can know and cannot know and what is private and what is not.
The conference recognized that it is not only governments which impose limits on knowledge and control the flows of information. Limits and accessibility to information also are affected by political manipulation of the scientific enterprise, by funding decisions, by research communities themselves which decide what to explore and what not to, by the government’s censorship (both explicit and implicit) of the media as well as the media’s own role in controlling or increasing the public’s access to information and, sometimes, misinformation. Less obvious are the limits imposed by the culture itself which both implicitly and explicitly may control what questions can and should be asked and which are ignored. These forces all together have serious impacts on what we seek to know and what we are content not to know.
Because the question of the limits on knowledge and their relationship to power, policy, intellectual life, and privacy in a democracy is eternal, and because what has been made possible by technology and globalization has so drastically altered the possibilities both of limits and no limits, the question of limits has become more urgent than ever, which is the reason we organized a Social Research conference on this subject. The conference will not only examine the question of limits in the new global environment but the ways in which limits may both support or undermine democracy.


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The director and founder (1988) of the Social Research conference series is Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research, who has been the editor of Social Research since 1970. For the history of the conference series, visit the Social Research conference series site. For information about other public events at The New School, see the university calendar.Find information about the more than 70 degree programs offered at The New School. For general information about The New School, visit the Quick Facts page.


This conference was made possible by generous support from Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Russell Sage Foundation.

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