Normative Versus Analytical
The tension between normative and analytical tendencies undergirds the development of the social sciences and is particularly formative for critical sociology because the latter’s drive to provide rigorous analysis of the existing social order is indissociable from a normatively grounded critique of it. Indeed, as mentioned above, since it is content to adopt an apparently value-free and detached stance towards the observable social world in order to circumscribe itself to empirically accurate or theoretically sophisticated description or explanation, a purely analytical stance indirectly contributes to the status quo’s acceptance and perpetuation. Instead of problematizing how established institutional arrangements, discourses, and practices are implicated in the exercise of power and the entrenchment of socio-economic hierarchies, ‘disinterested’ analysis legitimates the continued functioning of these arrangements, discourses, and practices as self-evident or necessary features of social life. By contrast, critical sociology simultaneously aims to produce an explanatory diagnostic of the current mode of social organization and a radical putting into question of the systems of exclusion and mechanisms of domination undergirding it, informed by the emancipatory objective of overturning them to foster projects of personal and collective autonomy.
Nonetheless, critique must be anchored in aforementioned norms of analytical rigour to avoid devolving into simplistic sloganeering of the type that instrumentalizes or devalues the endogenous worth of academic work by subsuming it to requirements of political activism, thus generating work characterized by evidentiary selectivity, confirmation bias, or the hermeneutically impoverished a priori assumption that all social processes and actors can be reduced to the effects of the machinations of overarching ideologies, structures, and relations of power. Such a politically instrumentalizing form of critical scholarship often presumes the presence of these overarching forces rather than attempting to demonstrate whether they exist and how they function in the specific cases under study, while frequently depriving social actors of agency by assuming that they are the bearers of these same forces—without attempting to make sense of their self-understandings, experiences, or taking into consideration their capacity to negotiate, utilize, subvert, and transform subordinating and exclusionary structures and discourses. The emancipatory aims of critical research do not absolve it from the analytical burden of empirically and conceptually establishing how particular instances of what are claimed to be systemic modes of domination manifest themselves and the devices and processes through which they operate, as well as their differential impacts upon persons and groups involved in concrete situations or events.
Accordingly, an analytically and normatively informed critical sociology performs a radical denaturalization of the established mode of social organization and punctures the commonsensical qualities of types of social interaction. Critique thereby undermines the naturalness or inexorability of structural configurations and interactional habits, revealing them to be contingent and arbitrary conventions that create and reproduce forms of domination; a social arrangement taken for granted as the only possibility (‘there is no alternative’) or a developmental zenith (‘this is the final stage of history’) is reframed as a partial and flawed socio-historical construct (‘it could have been, and can be, otherwise’). Through the lens of denaturalizing critique, institutions and conventions can be viewed as incomplete products of compromises and struggles between social forces or temporary stabilizations of relations of power.
Critical sociology employs two well-known techniques of denaturalization, namely, immanent and transcendent critique. The former problematizes the social order by pinpointing and accentuating its endogenous contradictions, that is, the incommensurable gap between a society’s or institution’s stated ideals and actual practices or between subjects’ intentions and the consequences of their actions, or yet again, frictions between two contrary structural requirements that result in systemic erosion and eventual collapse. For its part, transcendent critique has tended to consist of a philosophical technique of juxtaposition of observable reality to universal norms or foundational principles, such as equality or autonomy. However, critical sociology utilizes more socially grounded forms of transcendent critique, namely, perspectival historici- zation and ethnologization, whereby an existing mode of social organization is relativized and put into question by being contrasted to other ways of structuring social life in the past or elsewhere (Calhoun 1995; Kurasawa 2004; Fuchs 1993). Historicizing or ethnologizing the here and now estranges it by creating temporal and transcultural distance from its immediacy and familiarity, prompting the realization that social institutions and repertoires of thought and action believed to have always existed or to be present everywhere are in fact recent and geographically circumscribed social constructs. That which is present and proximate thus can be shown to be a narrowing of the field of possibilities in relation to previous epochs and other socio-cultural settings; the uncanniness and exceptionality—rather than the self-evident normality or inevitability—of the current social order come to the fore.
An immanent and transcendent critical sociology, then, does not limit itself to the hermeneutical tasks of recovering textual meaning or making sense of actors’ worldviews. Although, as explained above, these tasks are essential if we are to avert the sort of reductionist critique that portrays subjects as victims of ideological domination or situations as epiphenom- enal manifestations of systemic forces, critical sociology must also point to the processes through which institutional discourses constitute meaning via a series of exclusions and silences, as well as the ways in which dominant forms of thought and practice inform persons’ predispositions and self-understandings (Boltanski 2011; Ricoeur 1981a; Habermas 1987, 1988). In turn, this requires that we unearth hierarchical structures and mechanisms of power that reproduce social inequalities, their disproportionate consequences on vulnerable segments of the population, and, as a result, actors’ unequal capacities to exercise agency in the face of techniques of domination and exclusion.
The negative dimension of critique can be coupled to a reconstructive counterpart derived from a normative project of political and socio-economic emancipation through structural transformation, made possible by engaging in ongoing processes of constitution and institutionalizing of personal and collective autonomy. Concretely, such a normative vision can be advanced by devising, supporting, and publicly justifying experiments with institutions devised along principles of social equity and participatory decision-making, as well as with alternative modes of practice and thought in everyday life. These experiments range from feminist revisionings of gender and sexual relations and the ecological reinvention of the human/non-human interface to public policy proposals for a different infrastructure of global economic governance (to replace the triumvirate of the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO), for the taxation of international currency speculation transactions, for the provision of a guaranteed living income to every human being, and so on.12 Yet prior to their implementation, such experimental proposals must be subjected to public deliberation and evaluation, to which critical sociology can contribute by participating in the creation of spaces within civil society where pluralistic debate and inclusionary decision-making can be enacted (e.g., participatory municipal budgeting and Occupy-like fora).13
Critical sociology’s publicly minded interventions aim to assist members of historically and systemically marginalized groups to cultivate their capacities for critique of dominant institutional arrangements and relations of power (Barthe and Lemieux 2002) and, conversely, participate in democratic spaces of resistance and alternative mechanisms of self-governance. Such interventions can contribute to enabling all citizens to be involved in projects of economic, political, and social selfmanagement according to which they reflexively create and institute equitable and inclusive laws, norms, and ways of organizing social life— while perpetually interrogating the latter’s foundations and legitimacy (Castoriadis 1997).