Critical Sociology's Three Themes

Interrogating the Social is divided into three sections, each of which corresponds to a substantive concern of the iteration of critical sociology put forth here:

Substantive theme

Key concepts

'Rethinking Society'

Social ontology Sociological object Modes of sociality

'Configuring Power'

Organizational mechanisms Assemblages of relations Expert knowledge

'Practicing Culture'

Artefacts Performances Belief systems

The theme of ‘Rethinking Society’ consists of a reflection on the nature of the social relations and modes of interaction constitutive of modern society or, to put it differently, the effects of varying conceptual representations of the social and the social ontologies underpinning them. Implicitly, this also stands as an examination of the disciplinary specificities of sociology, which has upheld the distinctiveness and analytical irreducibility of its object, society, in contradistinction to the ways in which other social scientific disciplines approach it. To wit, political science subsumes society under the aegis of formal institutions of political rule and governance from which its features are posited to be derived, whereas sociology insists on the relative autonomy of civil society and its institutions, mechanisms, and forms of sociation—through which a polity constructs its architecture of governance and in which it grounds the latter’s legitimacy. Economics is all too ready to equate society with the market by treating social relations as transactional exchanges between instrumentally calculating and self-maximizing individuals or to evacuate social factors through fictional ceteris paribus modelling. Against this, sociology opposes the argument that economic individualism is a historical product of modern capitalist culture that neglects communal and solidaristic types of conduct, and that the functioning of the ‘free’ market is made possible because of socially and politically institutionalized regulations. As for psychology, most of its branches represent society as an aggregation of individual behavioural traits, to which the sociological response has been to underline the impact of socio-cultural organizations, groups, and entrenched collective patterns and conventions that form a whole greater than any sum of individualized parts.

At the same time, critical sociology’s revaluing of society as an analytical object does not depend upon asserting its territorial boundedness or intrinsic capacity for social integration, since two oft-documented dynamics must be taken into consideration at all times. The first is globalization, whereby transnational flows (Appadurai 1996) and processes (of migration, capital circulation, images, political struggles, etc.) have complicated the nation-state’s necessary correspondence with and predominant influence over society and social actors within it. The nation state remains a major container of the social, of course, yet has become porous (Touraine 2003; Wagner 2000) as sociality has seeped above and below its borders to equally be found at the local and global level. For instance, residents of global cities in different regions of the world may share certain outlooks and experiences with each other to an extent that is unimaginable with their fellow citizens from rural areas. Neoliberal capitalism is the second dynamic significantly reshaping the social, for it is attempting to subjugate the totality of society to the reign of the principles of market deregulation, profit maximization, fiscal austerity, privatization, and ‘efficiency’—framed strictly in the narrow terms of output-measured productivism and cost-benefit analyses harnessed to notions of corporate return on investment. Consequently, market orthodoxy is commodifying sectors and institutions historically structured according to ideals of universal access as a fundamental right and solidaristic notions of the public good (such as healthcare and education) (Kurasawa 2002; Block and Somers 2014) or those that have attempted to organize themselves on the basis of endogenous, anti-commercial criteria of legitimation (e.g., art for art’s sake). Moreover, as a cultural discourse and worldview, neoliberalism is embedded in forms of subjectivity and types of social interaction through which actors encounter society as a realm of ruthless individualized competition in which they are playing a zero-sum game against others in the face of limited resources and opportunities. Communal projects and collectivist aspirations are marginalized in favour of the accumulation of privatized gains for individuals, who are developing techniques of management of the self as atomized and self-interested actors solely responsible for her or his social standing by inventing and marketing a ‘personal brand’; the latter is akin to a stock-market portfolio in which one must ‘invest’ and which one must grow over time to minimize risk.

But must neoliberalism utterly determine the fate of the social and foreclose all other possibilities? The three chapters in the book’s first section negatively answer this query by revisiting sociological classics that supply some of the conceptual tools to formulate alternative models of sociality, models that explicitly diverge from those in which market-based individual competition and purposive-instrumental action prevail. For Mallory, Adam Smith’s writings on political friendship among strangers is just such a model, since it proposes that mutual sympathy and concern for others does not require intimate familiarity with them. Despite its limitations in addressing cultural pluralism and societal inequalities, political friendship can serve as a foundation to construct civically robust social bonds that prevent the dominance of neoliberal visions of the social. In a similar vein, Horgan goes back to Erving Goffman and Georg Simmel’s pioneering observations about anonymity and inattention in urban settings, yet puts forth a notion of ‘non-mutual indifference’ that reflects the asymmetric character of social relations while explaining one of the micro-sociological sources of inequality between groups living in cities. However, non-mutual indifference need not lead to possessive individualism or voluntary blindness to systemic socio-economic inequalities, for a principle of ‘minimal mutual recognition’ can foster urban solidarity. Simmel and Ferdinand Tonnies, another German founder of sociology, are the figures to whom Steiner turns in his chapter in order to flesh out the missing social dimensions of Chantal Mouffe’s well-known theory of agonistic politics. The resulting conception of societal agonism not only has the capacity to embrace globalized socio-cultural pluralism rather than assimilation of differences, but also fosters pluralistic discursive contest among persons and groups in a way that is civically minded and thus distinct from neoliberal principles of individualistic market competition and accumulation.

Critical sociology’s second theme, ‘Configuring Power,’ explores the question of how relations of power at different scales operate through organizational mechanisms, modes of knowledge, as well as material and symbolic resources. Of particular focus are the processes of institutionalization of power (embedded in states, private corporations, international organizations, civil society groups, etc.) and its concrete application via social, political, and economic meta-discourses whose seemingly benign meaning signification obscures vastly unequal effects among different populations and regions of the world (e.g., democratization, development, economic restructuring). Power circulates and is exercised through regimes of governance, assemblages of social relations, and techniques of control that are interwoven with forms of scientific and technocratic knowledge, as well as types of expertise and specialized epistemic cultures that validate or discredit truth claims about the social world. If unearthing structures of subjugation and resistance within formal organizations and consecrated discourses is pivotal, so is the identification of the ‘micro-physics of power’ (Foucault 1995) lodged in informal habits, beliefs, and everyday interactions. The mining of documents, statistics, and interviews with actors thus can reveal the rhetorical and institutional strategies of legitimation of a hierarchically organized social order.

Instead of presuming the generalizability of a singular configuration of relations of power across all settings, the task is one of carefully distinguishing and comparing instances of isomorphic correspondence and divergence among institutional and discursive formations, as well as noting differential impacts on dominant and subordinate segments of given populations. Such an analytical lens not only results in more precise organizational and processual taxonomies of power—including of situational and local adaptations of systemic forces—but also assists in pinpointing the most effective moments and sites of intervention through which actors can resist or subvert structures of domination and work to construct egalitarian and socially inclusive institutional forms and types of knowledge.15

Given these preoccupations, the chapters in the second part of Interrogating the Social concern themselves with the institutionalization and deployment of power through a variety of epistemic cultures and expert knowledges. Hayes follows this thread by reconstructing macroeconomic theory’s constitution of business cycles as measurable and observable phenomena with wide-ranging implications at the beginning of the twentieth century. By claiming that it could manage such cyclical fluctuations, economics acquired a disciplinary dominion over governance of the economy—a sectorial monopoly that it has maintained to this day, preventing alternative economic logics from gaining traction. Oliver and Tasson employ a similar perspective to examine the Ugandan government’s management of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on its territory, underscoring the implementation of neoliberal policies that the international development community and North Atlantic donor countries could impose via policy requirements and funding conditionality. Additionally, their chapter demonstrates that Uganda’s success in diminishing transmission rates was rooted less in religious discourses of moral regulation of sexual behaviour than in centralized government programmes and local community participation. Like Hayes as well as Oliver and Tasson, Christensen studies technologies and cultures of expert intervention, albeit in the domain of international democracy assistance. His chapter recognizes the importance of professionalized, managerial devices of programme evaluation and outcome-driven decision-making procedures in this arena, which, aside from impoverishing implemented democratic projects, create asymmetric ties between North American democracy promotion organizations and local civil society groups that they sponsor in non-democratic or transitional contexts in the global South.

Regrouped under the rubric of ‘Practicing Culture,’ a third component of critical sociology’s research agenda seeks to identify and make sense of emerging cultural tendencies and narratives in order to grasp their implications for social life. Rather than speaking of culture metaphysically or abstractly, the framework proposed here engages with situated cultural artefacts, performances, and movements enacted by certain subjects and groups in particular locations and at specific moments—thereby enabling hermeneutically and semiotically thick descriptions of a panoply of cultural manifestations so as to gauge their broader significance and paradoxical or ambiguous consequences. Correspondingly, the emphasis is more pragmatic than formalist, concentrating on what social actors situationally do with culture and the meanings that can be attributed to their practices on the ground instead of formal systems of rules and structures. Put differently, the central question is interpreting the ways in which persons and communities are putting culture into practice by creating, utilizing, modifying, and remixing symbols, discourses, ideas, and rituals, as well as whether these practices employ existing conventions and habitual interactional modes or inaugurate new ones.

This analytical perspective, then, shares two of cultural sociology’s defining claims. Firstly, it blends the study of highbrow and popular culture without establishing a hierarchy of worth between them, for it is interested in noting points of intersection of these two cultural genres and observing the variations in uses and responses to each that different segments of the population generate. Secondly, it posits an a priori causative indeterminacy among economic, political, and cultural forces, thus rejecting the attribution of necessary analytical primacy to the former vis-a-vis the latter. Culture matters, and cannot be treated as an epiphe- nomenal or superstructural sphere of ideological legitimation of supposedly more foundational arenas, nor can its meanings be treated solely as the outcomes of the asymmetric distribution of material and symbolic resources across the social fabric. Furthermore, our framework explores the dialectical relationship between the creative and reiterative features of contemporary cultural production. On the one hand, culture is a space of innovation and improvisation, in which actors invent new ways of thinking and acting or resignify established ones via aesthetic creation, linguistic games, emerging technologies, or bricolage. On the other hand, culture reiterates and is read through existing symbolic and discursive patterns, which are composed of conventions of signification (styles, genres, tropes, etc.), interpretive and evaluative repertoires (Lamont and Thevenot 2000), as well as organizational and sectorial regulations, norms, and expectations.

Accordingly, the chapters in Interrogating the Social’s third section highlight groundbreaking cultural phenomena and movements whose larger social significance hitherto has been overlooked. Liinamaa discusses the manner in which creativity, as a societal and aesthetic ideal, has been converted into a public policy discourse about the creative city yielding a view of culture as an instrument of urban revitalization and economic growth. However, while participatory art cultivates a sense of play among performers and audiences, the attendant vision of creativity and of the city is complicated by the responsibilities of citizenship and the kinds of social relations thereby generated. If these sorts of ludic aesthetic performances mark an important cultural development, so do large-scale exhibitions designed for mass appeal, such as ‘Body Worlds,’ which Rondinelli approaches as a populist site where art, commerce, and techno-science meet. Indeed, the exhibition’s display of the plastinated body brings to the fore its standing as an emblematic contested cultural artefact and shifting signifier, located in a techno-utopian imaginary blurring the boundaries between the authentic and the staged as well as the living and the dead. Finally, LeDrew analyses the rise of New Atheism as a cultural movement that rapidly is gaining traction within Western public discourse because of its scientistic hostility to all forms of religion. His chapter discovers a paradox at the heart of New Atheism, namely, that its elevation of evolutionism and rationalism to the status of sacralized cultural beliefs has moved it towards a form of quasi-religious dogmatism, which contradicts the capacity for self-critique undergirding the kind of progressive secularism of which it views itself as the heir.

By proposing a strategy of articulation of conceptual pairings commonly perceived as irreconcilable, elaborating a set of foundational principles to help guide inquiry, and developing research organized around the substantive and triangulated themes of recasting the character of society and social relations, studying historical and emerging organizational and discursive assemblages through which power is exercised, and making sense of the social and political implications of new cultural practices and narratives, the following chapters aim to chart a path forward for critical sociology.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank the members of the Canadian Network for Critical Sociology, to whom I am indebted for their comments and feedback on earlier versions of this chapter. Research and writing of it were made possible through a SSHRC Standard Research Grant and a SSHRC Insight Grant.

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