Outlining Foundational Principles

In addition to the conceptual pairings and oppositions discussed in the previous section, the version of critical sociology presented in Interrogating the Social can be elaborated through five overlapping principles, which are adopted as alternatives to commonplace assumptions and can be operationalized in specific ways.

Level

Principle

Counter-principle

Operationalization

Ontological

Sociocentrism

Individualism

Collectivism

Epistemological

Social

constructivism

Social naturalism

Historicization and ethnologization

Analytical

A priori indeterminacy

Determinism

Pragmatic

determination

Methodological

Perspectivalism

Abstraction

Contextual

situationalism

Theoretical

Pluralism

Paradigmaticism

Post-paradigmatic

agnosticism

The first such principle is sociocentrism, the belief in the causal or explanatory primacy of societally based processes, group dynamics, and communal factors—such as collective memory, symbolic systems, and organizational influences—in the analysis of particular phenomena or situations. Durkheim’s famed intervention in the Dreyfus Affair, ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals,’ advanced a classic sociocentric position in its assertion that, far from being a natural reflection of the ontological precedence of the individual over society, individualism was an effect of modern society; the cult of the individual was a sacred belief made possible by such a society, collectively shared among its members (Durkheim 1970). Hence, sociocentrism refutes the widespread belief that society can be reduced to an accumulation or aggregation of individuals, focusing instead on the play of collective forces that exist above such individuals and function independently of them. In addition, sociocentrism is opposed to moral individualism, the notion that persons are self-sufficient or self-interested persons representing monadic atoms competing with each other for finite resources and gains (as in the mythology of homo economicus). Contra rational-choice models of action, then, choice is less the expression of instrumentally rational calculation or the exercise of personal freedom of selection among an unlimited range of options than the outcome of a societally created and delimited range of possibilities and dispositions.

Critical sociology is supported by a social constructivist epistemology, designed to counter naturalizing explanations of the existing social order that portray the latter as an inexorable or necessary outcome of supposedly eternal and universal forces or, yet again, biologically derived conceptions of human nature rooted in evolutionary or genetic determinism. By contrast, social constructivism denaturalizes the institutional status quo and the doxa of commonsensical beliefs and practices. The aforementioned processes of historicization and ethnologization unsettle the taken-for-granted character of this status quo and common sense by demonstrating that they represent socially arbitrary arrangements and conventions, resulting from ongoing struggles among actors, structures of domination, or provisional decisions to stabilize economic, political, and cultural factors in specific epochs and places. To this extent, the concomitant radical destabilization of the inevitability and legitimacy of systemic configurations and traditional worldviews can disrupt their unreflexive reproduction and repetition over time, while inciting persons and groups to imagine and experiment with alternative projects of collective organization of social life.

A priori indeterminacy, the third foundational principle of a critical sociology, is used here to indicate that the analytical weight and causal efficacy of a sphere of the social world (political, economic, cultural, etc.) relative to others cannot be theoretically pre-determined in explanations of particular phenomena or objects, nor can the primacy of an analytical dimension over the other in conceptual pairings (structure vs. agency, etc.). This state of indeterminacy is resolved only through the process of empirical analysis and supplying of an explanatory account, when the degree and kind of such weight and causal efficacy are established on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, we can speak of a pragmatic process of situational determination of analytical or causal primacy, whereby the greater or lesser significance of one sphere or dimension varies from one case to another, or of mutual determination among spheres. Such analytical pragmatism opposes the a priori and generalized determinisms found in economism and culturalism, which assert that economic and cultural forces, respectively, are always already and intrinsically dominant—and, by rendering all other forces and aspects epiphenomenal, make investigation of the specificities of empirical cases and instances irrelevant.

Methodologically, critical sociology employs a perspectival approach that rejects ahistorical and acultural abstractions, producing a ‘view from nowhere’ extrapolated to apply everywhere. This sort of abstract thinking is manifest in presentist eternalization, that is, the assumption that modes of social organization, institutions, and ways of thinking and acting have always existed as they currently do, which occurs when research lacks proper historical perspective by restricting its temporal horizons to the present moment. Abstraction also results from ethnocentric universalization, the generalization of findings from geographically proximate or culturally familiar settings to the rest of the world because of a parochialism failing to incorporate transcultural or multi-sited perspectives. As such, critical sociologists reject the Eurocentrism of diffusionist models asserting that socio-economic, political, or cultural trends in the North Atlantic region inevitably will spread to other parts of the globe, as well as of modernization narratives according to which non-Western societies eventually will evolve into mirror images of their more ‘advanced’ Western counterparts.

Conversely, perspectivalism holds that the historicization and eth- nologization of an analytical object enables its being situated in broader temporal and transcultural contexts, which in turn strengthens scholarship in two ways: the specification of findings’ historical and geographical applicability beyond the immediate setting being studied (i.e., to what extent, if any, are these findings relevant to other epochs or regions of the world); and the comparative gauging of similarities and differences between cases in order to draw out both unique and shared features among them. Perspectivalism aims less to devise singular and all-encompassing models that account for all possible instances of a particular phenomenon, situation, or social configuration—which would require a level of abstraction so removed from empirical reality as to be of very limited methodological utility—than to point to the co-existence of, and isomorphisms among, multiple types of institutional arrangements and cultural repertoires, which vary from one setting to another according to local customs, historical trajectories, and processes of ver- nacularization of global tendencies.14

In response to the dogmatic paradigmaticism defining the various ‘theory wars’ that raged in the human sciences over the past few decades, theoretical pluralism is the fifth and final principle to which the iteration of critical sociology espoused here subscribes. A post-paradigmatic stance of this kind is characterized by scepticism towards singular, all- encompassing theoretical frameworks or conceptual systems, portrayed by their adherents as flawlessly capable of explaining all phenomena and dimensions of the social world as well as to provide us with a political-cum-normative social imaginary (Marxism, post-structuralism, etc.). No theory possesses absolute and perfect explanatory dominion over the social. As such, post-paradigmaticism steers clear of sectarian idealization and worship of intellectual idols, maltres penseurs, whose ideas and claims are uncritically and faithfully repeated and adhered to by their disciples and followers in order to police how and what is thought and written about the social. On the contrary, critical sociology can adopt a position of theoretical agnosticism, whereby it becomes impossible to establish a paradigm’s analytical worth in abstracto, outside of its demonstrated utility when applied to make sense of particular empirical objects or cases. Hence, a theory’s analytical worth is not permanently determined or absolute but circumstantial and relative to how its merits and deficiencies compare to those of other theories. In other words, theoretical approaches are not necessarily incommensurable, or mutually exclusive entities to which scholars must pledge unfailing allegiance, but instead tools whose contingent value depends upon the extent to which, and manner in which, they assist in answering a conceptual problem, shed light on a specific question about the social world, or explain a defined empirical object. Post-paradigmatic agnosticism, then, has two implications for critical sociology: acknowledging that all theoretical paradigms have relative flaws and strengths, making them more or less well suited to certain types of research and objects because they foreground and background different aspects of social reality; and engaging in the work of inter-paradigmatic articulation in order to yield hybrid models out of constituent elements derived from different theoretical traditions, amalgams that will vary and adapt according to the topic being investigated.

 
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