Hermeneutical Versus Structuralist
Following previous efforts to pair interpretivist and structuralist frameworks—in the Western Marxist tradition of analysis of culture (Goldmann 1986; Benjamin 1999; Kracauer 1995; Eagleton 1990; Jameson 1990), Ricoeur’s search for theoretical common ground (Ricoeur 1981c), and the structural hermeneutics of the strong programme in cultural sociology (Alexander and Smith 2003)—the version of critical sociology presented in Interrogating the Social aims to give equivalent analytical weight to each of the two poles while making them irreducible to the other. This perspective takes as one of its starting points the notion of hermeneutical reflexivity, whereby the researcher puts forth an analysis of the meaning of a contemporary form of social action, text, performance, or visual artefact by dialogically working through and locating such an analysis within existing traditions of interpretation. Consequently, interpretation requires taking into consideration canonical perspectives on forms of practice or thought, established taxonomies of genre and style, as well as overarching narratives about historical and cultural periodization. In addition, as suggested in the discussion of sociological pragmatism above, an interpretivist critical sociology is focused on making sense of actors’ experiences in the social world and their self-understandings, particularly the political and moral repertoires that they utilize to provide accounts of and justify their adoption of specific modes of thought and action.
Though a social hermeneutics generates interpretive density, exclusively relying on it for sociological analysis can lead to a sort of cultural- ist formalism, where the object of study is reified by solely examining its endogenous composition or meaning and is thus disconnected from the social context of its production and interpretation. To avert this pitfall, critical sociology turns towards structuralism, which foregrounds the exogenous political, economic, and cultural processes and institutions through which an object of study is created and understood. This kind of structuralist analysis can trace relations between actors and organizations that construct and attribute shared meanings to symbols and practices; the institutional or discursive delimitations of the range of socially recognized, politically effective, or culturally validated modes of thought and action; as well as the conventions that inform such collective modes (e.g., narrative tropes, moral codes, repertoires of political struggle, etc.). Critical sociology draws from Bourdieusian analysis of the structural distribution and hierarchical differentiation of capacities and resources among groups, as well as of the role of symbolic and material structures on social life, yet guards against the excesses of a structuralist determinism granting all causal determinacy to such structural factors in relation to supposedly epiphenomenal performances, worldviews, and events.