Theory and Society

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 287–311

University expansion and the knowledge society


DOI: 10.1007/s11186-007-9035-z

Cite this article as:
Frank, D.J. & Meyer, J.W. Theor Soc (2007) 36: 287. doi:10.1007/s11186-007-9035-z


For centuries, the processes of social differentiation associated with Modernity have often been thought to intensify the need for site-specific forms of role training and knowledge production, threatening the university’s survival either through fragmentation or through failure to adapt. Other lines of argument emphasize the extent to which the Modern system creates and relies on an integrated knowledge system, but most of the literature stresses functional differentiation and putative threats to the university. And yet over this period the university has flourished. In our view, this seeming paradox is explained by the fact that modern society rests as much on universalistic cosmological bases as it does on differentiation. The university expands over recent centuries because – as it has from its religious origins – it casts cultural and human materials in universalistic terms. Our view helps explain empirical phenomena that confound standard accounts: the university’s extraordinary expansion and global diffusion, its curricular and structural isomorphism, and its relatively unified structure. All of this holds increasingly true after World War II, as national state societies made up of citizens are increasingly embedded in a world society constituted of empowered individuals. The redefinition of society in global and individual terms reduces nationally bounded models of nature and culture, extends the pool of university beneficiaries and investigators, and empowers the human persons who are understood to root it all. The changes intensify universalization and the university’s rate of worldwide growth. For the university’s knowledge and “knowers,” and for the pedagogy that joins them together, the implications are many. The emerging societal context intensifies longstanding processes of cultural rationalization and ontological elaboration, yielding great expansions in what can and should be known, and in who can and should know. These changes in turn alter the menu of approved techniques for joining knowledge and knower as one. The “knowledge society” that results is distinguished by the extraordinary degree to which the university is linked to society. But it is also distinguished by the degree to which society is organized around the university’s abstracted and universalized understandings of the world and its degree-certified graduates.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+ Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA
  2. 2.Sociology DepartmentStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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