December 17, 2013

Luc Boltanski Quote


The problems posed by the way in which the notion of domination was employed in critical sociology derive from the fact that it is at once too powerful and too vague in character. Extensive use of the notion of domination leads to conceiving virtually all relations between actions in their vertical dimension, from explicit hierarchical relations to the most personal of links. By the same token, what the sociologist will establish, in critical fashion, as a relationship of domination is not necessarily presented or even lived by actors in this register; and the later might even turn out to be offended by such a description. (If, for example, as a sociologist you explain to a man engrossed in the enchantment of love that the passion he experiences for his companion is in fact merely the result of the effect of social domination that she exercises over him, because she comes from a higher class than his, you risk meeting with some problems in getting your viewpoint accepted.) This extension of the notion of domination leads to extending the notion of violence in such a way as to stretch physical violence, which is experienced and described, at least in a number of cases, precisely as violence by the actors themselves, in the direction of symbolic violence (a key notion in Bourdieu’s sociology), which invariably is not experienced as such.

To explain how and why actors are dominated without knowing it, the theory must accord great importance to the illusions that blind them and appeal to the notion of the unconscious. An initial consequence is that actors are often treated as deceived beings or as if they were ‘cultural dopes’, to use Harold Garfinkel’s phrase. Their critical capacities in particular are underestimated or ignored. Another consequence is that preponderant weight is given to the dispositional properties of actors, at the expense of the properties inscribed in the situations into which they are plunged, and an attempt is made to explain virtually all of their behaviour by the internalization of dominant norms, above all in the course of the education process. It takes the form of an incorporation, which inscribes these norms in the body, like habits – a process that accounts for the reproduction of structures. However, by the same token, situations are neglected, sometimes in favour of dispositions and sometimes of structures. While situations can be observed and described as clearly by the actors who are continually immersed in them in the course of their everyday life as by sociologists, knowledge of structures is accessible exclusively to that latter. Their unmasking in fact requires the use of instruments of a macro-social character and, in particular, statistical instruments, based on the construction of categories, nomenclatures, and a metrology. But this is also to say that the instruments of which the exposure of structures is going to be based are largely dependent on the existence of powerful centres of calculation invariably places under the supervision of state or inter-state organizations. It follows, as numerous works over the last thirty years have shown, that these macro-social instruments, as well as the categories and metrologies on which they are based, must themselves be regarded as products of social activity and, in particular, the activity of states, so that they occupy the dual position, embarrassing to say the least, of instruments of social knowledge and objects of that knowledge.

Finally, a third consequence is to increase the asymmetry between deceived actors and a sociologist capable – and, it would appear from some formulations, the only one capable – of revealing the truth of their social condition to them. This leads to overestimating the power of sociology as science, the sole foundation on which the sociologist could base his claim to know much more about people than they themselves know. Sociology then tends to be invested with the overweening power of being the main discourse of truth on the social world, which leads it to enter into competition with other disciplines laying claim to the same imperialism. Above all, however, the critical enterprise finds itself torn between, on the one hand, the temptation of extending to all forms of knowledge the unmasking of the ‘ideologies’ on which they are based and, on the other, the need to maintain a reserved domain – that of Science – capable of providing a fulcrum for this operation. Finally, let us add that the intensification of the difference between sociological science and ordinary knowledge leads to an under-estimation of the effects of the circulation of sociological discourses in society and their re-appropriation/re-interpretation by actors – which is rather problematic in the case of a sociology that claims reflexivity. These repercussive effects of sociology in the social world are especially important in contemporary societies on account of the fact, in particular, of the enhanced role of secondary and university education (not to mention the role of the media), which leads actors to seize on explanatory schemas and languages derived from social science and to enlist them in their daily interactions (particularly in the course of their disputes.)

- Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation


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