All I see is people: on being teared apart between scientific and political ideas

Dear reader, I have been pondering over the ideas presented here for a while. I must say I have no answer to the main question in this note (how do we manage the “gap” between a scientific engagement and a political one, how do we remain into critical politics when our scientific “taste” incites us to move toward other approaches, and how to conceive a critical approach relying on non-structural sociology?). This here is a bit “rawer” than what I usually put here, but I believe it is an important question. Please excuse the naïveté you will find in these paragraphs, and forgive me for talking about myself.


Once upon a time, the world of the relation between scientific and political ideas was simple and straightforward: on the one hand was the realm of individualistic approaches, anchored on microsociology and right-wing. On the other hand was that of holistic or structural approaches, interested in macrosociology and left-wing. Or at least, that’s how it was taught to me in high school. Of course, it was never stated as such, we did not call it “right wing” or “left wing”, we used other terminologies as “Marxist” or “liberal”. But the results were sensibly the same, and at its core laid the division between Bourdieu and Boudon (this was France): the milestone of structural constructionism in one corner, the radical defender of individualism and rational choice on the other.

This division justified my first sociological readings and passions: in my first years at the university I got fascinated by Pierre Bourdieu, Loïc Wacquant, Michel and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, all those of the structural constructionist school which perfectly represented what I tought politically, and in return my political ideas of course evolved in the same manner to adapt to what I was reading. But, a book leading to another, I got more interested into the other evolutions of the discipline, and the authors for whom I originally had no sympathies because of their being associated to “the right wing”, as individualists. What is more, I got taught by practitioners that the whole “holist vs individualist” approach was rotten in its core, that there was much less of a debate than I initially figured, that we [as a discipline] had moved beyond that question long ago, through the symbolic interactionist position, notably, a literature which immediately appealed to me (the way we acquire “theoretical taste” remains a mystery to me: beyond all the rationalisation we put in it, it seems to me there is a lot of immediate sympathy to a text or an approach, which may be influenced by many things).

Moving further in my readings, two things happened. First I got less exposed to the discourse according which “Sociology breeds loony leftists”, the students holding it turning themselves toward more serious – and less politically biased – disciplines, such as Law, International Relations, or Economics, which as everybody knows have no politicising effects whatsoever and are made of pure objectivity. This had the notable effect of considerably reassuring me in how I considered the discipline. Second, I slowly drifted away from structural constructionism by learning its critiques and integrating them: the renewal of actor theory, the cultural turn, theory of critique, pragmatism, and whatnot. As I approached my first actual research project, I had to acknowledge that most of my scientific resources were leading me to anchor my analysis in a non-structural approach, and to acknowledge a break with my original theoretical devotions.

Contrarily to what most people outside of French academia seem to think, the so-called hegemony of structural constructionism is – or, at the level at which is was – largely a myth. There was no problem about following those steps (on the contrary, the researchers who were teaching me had done very much the same) and this “conversion” occured very smoothly. The issue only appeared to me when I started my PhD and entered departments were either people had no knowledge of sociological theory whatsoever, or were very much into the fashion for “French theory”, that specific part of French social science which does not really make any sense except for the fact that its sources are French authors and its approach critical. The latter was defending a political stance at the same time, which led me to consider my own situation: the reification of class or race they established, their eagerness to focus only on the structural level, their distate for the microsocial, their insistance on analysing the social through social forces, and their use of the notion of agency which, paradoxically, seemed to neglect everything that was agency-related posed me problem. We had, for the most, the same political ideas, but radically different apprehensions of the social world.

Which leads me to my problem: how do we bring these two things together? I know Luc Boltanski, the theoretician of French sociology of the critique has been writing about his distance with critical sociology, and has developed the argument that “all sociology is critical anyway”, but I still remain unconvinced: how do we think social class if, as I am starting to do after Boltanski, and even more after Laurent Thévenot, we refuse to think social phenomena outside of their actualisations by actors? How do I face entities such as class, when all I see is people, or to be more specific, actors? What do we do if we follow Randall Collins in his “Microfondations of macrosociology”? The author indeed argues that

actual everyday-life microbehavior does not follow rationalist models of cognition and decision making. Instead, social interaction depends upon tacit understandings and agreements not to attempt to explicate what is taken for granted. This implies that explanations in terms of norms, rules, and role taking should be abandoned and that any model of social exchange must be considerably modified.

This is rather radical, and I must admit that I am not entirely ready or willing to pick that mantle up myself. But the question that lies in front of me is the following: how to manage these two truths, which I hold equally true in two different parts of my life, one as a researcher, that social phenomena are in last instance explainable by a theory anchored on actors, and one as a politicised individual, that the world is organised around class struggles? I would be very surprised to be the only one concerned, and I have no answers to that question so far.

Of course, all of this has to be considered through the lense of my current position as a researcher in learning. I think it is a very naïve one in last resort, which has probably been answered in quite a variety of ways. Mostly, I take it as an illustration of the complicated relation  between political and scientific ideas.


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