the upcoming invasion of philosophy into sociology

A while back, I asked about the relationship between philosophy and sociology. Here’s some evidence that there’s some philosophical imperialism at work these days. Specifically, more and more cultural sociologists are relying on the tools of philosophy to help them stake out new territory. Three recent examples:

  • Drawing on a bunch of traditions (yes, even critical realism), Isaac Reed argues that sociology is about “cultural landscapes”)
  • Gabriel Abend draws on phenomonology to articulate his theory of the “moral background”
  • Andreas Glaeser relies also on phenomonology, and other traditions, to argue that people are stuck in a folk cosmology

The underlying theme, I think, is that cultural sociologists have moved beyond the Swidler moment (i.e., arguing against Parsons’ theory of action) and they’ve moved back into the game of semantic systems and their internal logic. This requires an explanation of how people situate themselves in a social world and how they reason about. This naturally leads (mainly) to the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Schutz, and Berger and Luckman. But instead of letting actors become the servant of this “lifeworld,” as in institutionalism, there’s a lot more effort in explaining what is possible in that world.

If this approach to symbolic systems turns out to be of lasting value, it will be one of the rare bridges between philosophy and mainstream sociological practice.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2014 at 12:05 am

4 Responses

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  1. I remember the previous thread that Fabio linked in this post. In it, many commentators decried the unsophisticated use of philosophical terms by sociologists. This post again seems to be about the hegemony of (cultural) sociologists invoking terms from philosophy and not as the post title intimates, about the invasion of philosophers or proper philosophy into sociology. The philosophers of science and epistemologists that I have worked with over the past 5 years would likely surrender to indefinite incarceration rather than engage in the proffered areas of sociology.



    May 15, 2014 at 3:49 am

  2. Randy: Philosophy and sociology are simply different beasts. There is nothing that a sociologist could say to make a philosopher happy. But, regardless, philosophy has influenced the practice of philosophy in ways that I think reflect the original philosophical intuitions. For example, Wittgenstein’s idea that concepts are hard to pin down and that “family resemblance” is the way language (or concepts) work is actually a good starting point for thinking about culture. In other cases, the sociology is simply a translation of philosophy into terms sociologists would get. E.g., Berger and Luckmann is simply Husserl via Schutz.



    May 15, 2014 at 5:11 pm

  3. Fabio: I agree with everything you write in the comment above (notwithstanding the one typo). In the particular case of Husserl–> Schutz –> Berger and Luckman, one can do no less than agree without reservation. There are other logical reconstructions that are less clear, but that is of no import. I protest the misappropriation of some philosophical terms and the misapprehension of metaphysics and epistemology in the sociological discourse. Philosophy and sociology are, indeed, different beasts. One worships critical realism and the other dismisses it.



    May 15, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  4. Small notes: the most effective uses of philosophy tend to be when philosophers try to describe what people do. this can either be how people view the world (phenomology) or what people are tying to accomplish (JL Austin). These ideas can then be used by sociologists to explain what they are trying to identify in empirical research. I am not a philosopher, but I’ve actually a bit of the original philosophy and, in general, the sociologists we’ve been discussing have been pretty faithful to the original philosophy.

    Also, CR is definitely a minority view in sociology. When the l’affaire de CR broke out, a number of people asked me what CR was. It’s not even taught in most programs. I am not sure where you got that from.



    May 15, 2014 at 7:06 pm

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