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Sociological Critique, Pragmatism, and Moral Practice

This is a guest blog post by Sam Stabler (Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Yale University) reflecting upon his presentation “Sociological Critique, Pragmatism, and Moral Practice” at the International Association for Critical Realism 2016 Annual conference.

Breakdown: Dehumanization Revisited

Presenting a paper on using the ideas of Luc Boltanski at a critical realism (CR) conference is a bit odd. Boltanski isn’t strongly affiliated with CR and doesn’t seem all that concerned with the questions that preoccupy it. Indeed, when Boltanski critiques sociology it is often directed at its idealized vision of “order and coherence (Boltanski (2011:155)”, which CR provides to many a wayward sociological traveler.

I, however, did not present Boltanski to get at his philosophy of social science, but rather to explore his model of moral critique.

Mapping Judgments

As Tim Rutzou recently pointed out, CR doesn’t contain a commitment to any particular mode of judgmental rationality. That is, CR doesn’t suggest that science works because we know more about the world over time. Instead, science is more like map-making, which attempts to represent useful information in “a deft blend of ontology, epistemology, and practice.”

The map metaphor is useful because most everyone uses maps, and most everyone knows that maps have limitations. For example, a topographical map is different than a political map, which is itself different from a historical map, etc. Moreover, we know that these exclusions are good on a map because we often struggle to work with overly complicated maps.

Put differently, we know (relatively intuitively) that for a map to be useful it must contain some restrictions. Critical realists, often hold the same for social ontology more generally. Boltanski suggests that actors think about the moral claims embedded in social theory in much the same way.

Boltanski the Realist?

If both CR and Boltanski assert that the transitive change is a natural part of scientific development, Boltanski is worth revisiting because he provides an appealing model to understand how moral controversy is integrated into the process of social scientific change.

Boltanski’s model of social action begins by putting pragmatic moral justification at the center. While it is often assumed that actors can keep straight ornate justificatory schemas, Boltanski reminds us that humans in the real social world actually use multiple justificatory schemes to get through their day. Often this means that they are justifying their actions in contradictory ways [1].

This emphasis on pragmatic justificatory fragmentation seems to cast Boltanski beyond the pale of CR. Yet, Boltanski isn’t convinced that simply because moral justification plays a part in social science that this means that its findings are all-wrong [2]. In this, Boltanski, like CR, suggests that social science really is doing something.

HeadSpecifically, Boltanski argues that what social science is doing is taking these pragmatic solutions and consolidating them into new frameworks of moral reasoning that he calls “cities of justification”. The city metaphor is multifaceted, but it’s important to know that its reliability is not simply based on its moral rectitude. Rather, a justificatory city is a set of linked moral claims that must be useable in a dependable fashion by actors in a variety of contexts. While this includes lay actors of all stripes, it also includes academic sociologists too.

The Pitch

Botlanski’s model is an advance on existing accounts in the sociology of science that emphasize either structural or cultural constructivism to explain the trajectories of sociological-cum-moral controversy. Rather than interest or party, Boltanski suggests there is a third way – muddling through to find a way to solve the moral conundrum without having to discard existing justificatory frameworks entirely.

In the paper, myself and Shai Dromi explore three distinct crises in sociological practice, each of which entail explicit concerns over the moral status of sociological methods and resulted in compromises and adjustments in the pursuit of academic output. These were the critiques of i) methodological nationalism; ii), secularization theory; and iii) extensive mothering ideology all of which have flowered in the past decades.

Building on Boltanski’s work, we traced three solutions to these moral puzzles (delegitimization, partial compromise, and mystification) that are shared by lay actors and sociologists alike. Broadly, this evidence suggests that greater attention should be paid to the implicit moral frameworks sociologists are developing even when they appear to be more focused on empirical research claims. In this context, a crisis occurs where two agreed upon facts are brought to attention and reveal a conflict in justifications at the moral level. While some modes of critique – namely delegitimization – respond by challenging the very truth status of certain claims, compromise accounts explicitly hope that social scientists do not throw the scientific baby out with the moralizing bathwater.

For many readers in America, critical realism’s interest in the intransitive features social life (the “realism” part) has often overshadowed its emphasis on the transitivity of knowledge (the “critical” part). In part, this is because its journey across the pond has often missed the Bhaskarian redwood for the forests of interlocutors who surround it. My hope for the talk was to convey that Boltanski seems like a fellow traveler, but one whose emphasis on mutability, plurality, and moral vagueness could be beneficial to critical realism’s further development. In doing so, it is hoped that Boltanski’s schema is strengthened by a deepened realist ontology in line with his critique of sociology and that critical realism’s account of the transitive is strengthened with a language of moral reasoning which need not be at the expense of scientific knowledge and truth claims.

About the author:

Sam Stabler is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Yale University, where he is studying social conflict in morally diverse societies. He is currently finishing a dissertation focused on understanding how such conflicts were shaped by the United State’s expansive colonial frontier. Empirically this means his work explores the religious and political uses of territory in the Puritan New England missionary context from colony founding (1630) through to the early national period (the early 19th century). Sam discovered critical realism through his work as a comparative historical sociologist and has found it useful to enrich his understanding of sociological theory, sociology of religion, and cultural demography.

Sam would like to thank Timothy Rutzou, Laura Donnelly, Benjamin Lamb-Books, and Shai Dromi for their thoughtful comments on a draft of this blog post.


[1] There’s both an intuitive appeal and a growing body of social scientific work to back some of these claims. Vaisey’s (2009) popular approach to moral justification resonates with this view, as does our intuitive understanding of moral justification. When I jump back in horror I usually do so before cognitively working out why, although when pressed I can often come up with multiple reasons for my disgust.

[2] It’s a stretch, but I think a convincing one to suggest that there’s a nugget of realism underlying Boltanski’s whole system.  For instance, he suggests that “[a] new city [of justification] thus has a chance of being established only in historical circumstances where an increase in the speed and number of displacements brings about significant social changes. (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005:522).” Or, as comparative historical sociologists have often suggested (Gorski 2004; Steinmetz 1998)– when real casual mechanisms are at work.


Boltanski, L., and E. Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism: Verso.

Boltanski, Luc. 2011. On Critique: John Wiley & Sons.

Gorski, Philip S. 2004. “The poverty of deductivism: A constructive realist model of sociological explanation.” Sociological Methodology 34(1):1-33.

Steinmetz, George. 1998. “Critical realism and historical sociology. A review article.” Comparative studies in society and history 40(01):170-86.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675-715

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