the one with the commentary on boltanski and thevenot 1999

I read Boltanski and Thevenot’s 1999 article in the European Journal of Social Theory (B&T). Let me state my views up front. First, the basic ideas are actually fairly simple. But in sticking with the genre of European critical theory, simple, yet  important, points hide behind poor writing. Second, the paper’s basic observation didn’t strike me as totally original. Third, the paper is still very important because there’s a very important research problem that *could* have been developed further. In more detail:

1. B&T’s basic point is that people employ different ways for justifying certain actions or practices. The main insight is that there are multiple ways that social life can be justified. E.g., something can be justified in terms of its cost or in terms of aesthetics. The consequent problem is how, empirically, people resolve conflicting claims over what is justified.

I have to say that I was very, very underwhelmed by this basic point. Perhaps there is a context that I am missing and that this might be viewed as important in that context. From my view, I thought of work addressing the point that people use different justifications to order or organize social situations. For example, we can go back to Kenneth Burke’s analysis of motives and justifications, or we can reread the many analyses of framing that stem from Goffman’s seminal book. More recently, there’s a lot of work on classification, commensurability, and competing institutional logics. I found Tilly’s approach to justificaiton, Why?, to be interesting. In one way or another, these works all deal with struggles over the legitimate or appropriate valuing of people and objects.

Perhaps B&T is a big deal if you are a hard core Bourdieuian and you think that all people do is parrot the institutional imperatives of their social field. That’s really a problem with Bourdieu. If B&T helps you get beyond that, then great. But if you read other sociology, it’s a lot less impressive.

2. The importance of this paper, in my view, is what is hinted at the end. B&T raise the point that resolution of the conflict stemming from rival justifications is complicated and messy. Sometimes you get compromises, sometimes you get domination, and sometimes the  issue is left unresolved.

That’s a very fertile observation. I sure wish that the book deals with that topic because it is truly an open question in social theory.  It would be a real accomplishment to come up with a convincing theory of how rival justifications are resolved and back it up with some systematic evidence. I am way more interested in the resolution of justifications than classifying them. Would such a theory employ a rational choice approach? A cognitive approach? Perhaps readers more versed in B&T’s works can tell me if that is addressed in the book length treatment of this argument, or in the articles.

Written by fabiorojas

December 26, 2010 at 12:17 am

5 Responses

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  1. I am not quite sure how to read this post. First of all, I haven’t seen the paper that is being referred to, but bought and scimmed their book on justifications.

    A few things strike me. The basic point in the book is not that people employe different ways of justifying things. This cannot be stressed clearly enough. If that was the basic point, you can find references to this in the ancient greek philosophers – philosophy is a discipline that has more years of experience with that term (justification) than all other disciplines combined. The recent sociological references that are being made are hence not that interesting, if the basic point was the fact that people justify things differently. Not at all!
    Furthermore, a few of the sociological references relate to motives. An issue very different from justification, hence plain misleading to introduce.

    Naturally, the basic point relates to what kind of classification is introduced. Their classification looks quite intruiging, but as stated, I have only scimmed it – I look forward to start reading it today.

    Just to emphasize: My point relate to the book, not the paper.

    Finally, concerning resolutions of conflict. To be able to introduce some sort of hierarchy or systematic differences would be truly interesting – I would be surprised if this was possible. Pleasantly suprised, that is!



    December 26, 2010 at 11:12 am

  2. I agree that the justification/reasoning perspective is far from novel (better expositions that also properly cite prior art are offered by Townley Reason’s Neglect 2008, Cambrige U Press and Toulmin, 2001, Return to Reason, Harvard U Press).

    The conceptual framework is interesting, but in the end it is difficult to judge. The authors themselves admit that (1) other justifications exist and (2) these different ‘worlds’ mesh and combine. Thus, the empirical accuracy of the model is questionable: the orders of argumentation could be developed in different ways and it is unclear whether a project of such ambition can be carried out (i.e. is there a complexity hazard?).

    In my opinion, Foucault has elaborated the world of reasoning (‘rationalities’) with geneological approach with far greater empirical plausibility and depth of material. I would feel that such projects are quite ambitious enough.

    As I noted previously on this blog, I find it problematic that the model they come up is supported with neither acceptable theoretical (analytical) or empirical material. Thus, I find it somewhat difficult to consider their work as a solid building block for further articles.



    December 26, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  3. […] Boltanski sur la Vie-des-idées, et une lecture américaine de Boltanski, sur […]


  4. […] Europe these days? Most of my readings are from sociologists based on this side of the Atlantic. I read Boltanski and Thevenot. Enjoyed it, but didn’t blow me away. What else is out […]


  5. Nice post.Thanks for that.
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    January 29, 2012 at 10:30 pm

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