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Transcript
THE APPROPRIATION OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BY 'LAY PEOPLE':
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION?
Anne Mesny
Trinity College
Thesis submitted to the
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
at the University of Cambridge
for the degree of Ph.D.
December 1998
THE APPROPRIATION OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BY 'LAY PEOPLE':
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION?
Anne Mesny
Summary of the thesis
This thesis is a critical discussion of the significance of social science knowledge in
contemporary society. It consists in asserting the pervasiveness of the process whereby 'lay
people' routinely appropriate social science knowledge in the context of day-to-day life.
The core argument of the thesis is that lay people have developed a 'sociological
imagination', which is fuelled by the routine appropriation of social science knowledge, and
which marks the construction of self-identity.
The first chapter is devoted to the characterisation of day-to-day life in
contemporary society. I examine the 'reflexive modernity thesis' and argue that lay
appropriation of expert knowledge is an omnipresent process of day-to-day life, which
refers to the 'reflexive project of the self' in which every individual is engaged. This
theoretical framework enables me, in the second chapter, to challenge traditional
conceptions of the use of social science, which leave no place for the process of
appropriation of social science knowledge by lay people.
In the third chapter, I argue that lay appropriation of social science knowledge
should be seen as a crucial manifestation of the reflexive process between social science
knowledge and its 'subjects'. This argument is extended in the fourth chapter, which
consists in a critical discussion of the relationship between social science and common
sense, and in the presentation of a socio-historical conception of common sense.
The last two chapters are devoted to the main proposition of the thesis about the
development of a lay sociological imagination. The fifth chapter is a critical discussion of
Bourdieu’s recent work, in which he exposes his conception of the relationship between
sociology and ‘lay people’. In the final chapter, I define 'sociological imagination' as the
capacity to 'see the social in the individual'. I argue that ordinary knowledgeability, in a
period of reflexive modernity, includes the capacity to 'see the social in the individual'. Lay
people, in other words, have developed a ‘lay sociological imagination’
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Acknowledgements
Introduction
1
CHAPTER 1
DAY-TO-DAY LIFE IN 'REFLEXIVE MODERNITY'
7
1.1 Reflexive modernity
1.1.1 Institutional reflexivity
1.1.2 Reflexivity of the self
9
9
13
1.2 Individual reflexivity and expert knowledge
1.2.1 The problematisation of day-to-day life
17
1.2.2 Lay appropriation of expert knowledge
22
1.2.3 Expertise dependency
17
1.3 Individualisation, expert knowledge and self-identity
1.3.1 A ‘reflexive project of the self’?
30
1.3.2 Individualisation: the ‘dissolution of the social into the self’
30
27
36
CHAPTER 2
SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE AS A DAY-TO-DAY 'REFLEXIVE RESOURCE'
46
2.1 Traditional assumptions about the ‘uses’ of social science knowledge
2.1.1 Assumption 1: 'policy-makers are the primary users of
social science knowledge'
2.1.2 Assumption 2: 'the use of social science knowledge
can be controlled and evaluated'
2.1.3 Assumption 3: 'the use of social science knowledge
by lay people is an indirect, long-term and chancy process'
47
2.2 Social science knowledge as a reflexive resource
2.2.1 The diffusion of social science knowledge
2.2.2 The popularisation of social science knowledge
2.2.3 An uncontrollable and ‘undemonstrable’ use
59
59
64
67
2.3 Social science knowledge and reflexive modernity
71
47
51
56
2.3.1 Social science and institutional reflexivity
2.3.2 Social science knowledge and the reflexive project of the self
73
CHAPTER 3
THE APPROPRIATION OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BY ITS 'SUBJECTS'
3.1 The reflexive process between social science and its 'subjects'
3.1.1 The natural science approach
3.1.2 The reflexivity of social science
82
71
78
79
79
3.2 The relationship between the researcher and the researched
85
3.2.1 Protecting the people under study from the risks of social inquiry
3.2.2 Neutralising the resistance of the people under study
3.2.3 Participatory research
85
89
94
3.3. The appropriation of social science knowledge by its 'subjects'
3.3.1 The reflexivity of social science in a period of reflexive modernity
3.3.2 The responsibility of social scientists
98
98
101
CHAPTER 4
ORDINARY KNOWLEDGEABILITY AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SOCIAL
SCIENCE AND COMMON SENSE
105
4.1 Common sense as a form of knowledge: ordinary knowledgeability
107
4.1.1 Practical and non-reflexive knowledge
107
4.1.2 A form of knowledge driven by a practical interest and oriented
toward control
111
4.1.3 First-hand knowledge
116
4.2 A transformation of ordinary knowledgeability?
4.2.1 Common sense as transformable knowledge
4.2.2 Increased reflexivity?
119
119
120
4.3 The relationship between commonsensical claims and social scientific claims
125
4.3.1 The superiority of social science knowledge over common sense knowledge
125
4.3.2 The homology between scientific and lay theories
130
4.3.3 The transformation of social science knowledge into common sense
knowledge
133
4.3.4 Moscovici’s theory of social representations
138
CHAPTER 5
SOCIOLOGY AND ‘LAY PEOPLE’:
A CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF BOURDIEU’S RECENT WORK
143
5.1 The usefulness of sociology
5.1.1 The power of naming
5.1.2 Sociology, common sense and reflexivity
5.1.3 Freedom, social determinants and collective responsibility
5.1.4 Sociology for whom?
146
146
148
153
156
5.2 The conditions and limits of a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge
161
5.2.1 Symbolic violence
5.2.2 Lay people’s sens pratique and sociologists’ scholastic posture
5.2.3 Lay people’s limited capacities for reflexivity
5.2.4 The ‘scholastic fallacy’
161
164
167
173
5.3 The sociological interview as the occasion for a lay appropriation of
sociological knowledge
5.3.1 A provoked and accompanied self-analysis
5.3.2 Objectification and resistance to objectification
180
5.3.3 The produced naïveté of lay people
CHAPTER 6
175
175
183
'SEEING THE SOCIAL IN THE INDIVIDUAL':
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION?
191
6.1 Outlines of a lay sociological imagination
6.1.1 Sociologists’ distinctive competence?
6.1.2 A component of ordinary knowledgeability
193
193
198
6.1.3 A lay sociological imagination in an individualised society?
6.1.4 Sociological imagination, empowerment and disempowerment
209
203
6.2 Exploring lay sociological imagination: revisiting the relationship between the
researcher and the researched
214
6.2.1 ‘Giving a voice’ to lay people: the use of life-stories in sociology
214
6.2.2 Studying/enacting a lay sociological imagination: a comparison
with Touraine's method of 'sociological intervention'
219
6.2.3 The empirical study of a lay sociological imagination
223
Conclusion
Bibliography
231
238
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank Professor Anthony Giddens, who was my supervisor for three and a
half years, and who supported me until the completion of the thesis.
I am extremely grateful to Professor William Outhwaite for agreeing to supervise me
through the last segments of my work, and for reassuring me at a stage when I had run out
of self-confidence.
I could never have completed this work without the unfailing support of Michel Audet. His
frequent and detailed comments on my work have helped me greatly. His encouragements
during the period of writing up, transmitted through almost daily e-mails, have been
invaluable.
I am indebted to Jacinthe Ruel, whose friendship has been extremely precious to me during
these four years, and who had to endure me during difficult months. I can only apologise
for having been such a detestable person to live with.
I also want to thank Isabelle Dostaler, Marie Larochelle, Véronique Mottier, Ellen
O'Hagan, Natacha and Mark Wilson, as well as my family, who helped me at various times
and in various ways during these four years. My gratitude also extends to the staff at the
Arundel House Hotel. The hours spent there as a waitress have been a vital, and enjoyable,
counterpart of the hours spent as a Ph.D student.
Finally, I would like to thank Trinity College for the financial support without which I
would not have been able to complete my Ph.D. in Cambridge. I am especially grateful to
Hazel Felton and to Dr. Morley for their kindness and support.
***
To Grant, Ruth, Tiffany, Phil, Sarah, Simon, Cath, David,
Lorraine, Joe, Peggy, Nigel, Carol, Marc, Pauline, Alan,
Ricky, Tony, and Bianca, whose sociological imagination has
inspired this work.
INTRODUCTION
[Tiffany]: 'I mean, look at us, me and my baby-daughter
living here with my brother and his boyfriend, who is also
my ex-boyfriend, and who may or may not be my daughter's
father... a brilliant picture of the 'collapse of the nuclear
family', hey?' (East Enders, BBC1, February 1997).
Social science knowledge is everywhere. Just as Mr. Jourdain in Molière's
Bourgeois Gentilhomme was speaking in prose without knowing it, we all routinely,
without necessarily being aware of it, 'use' notions and ideas derived from social science in
order to make sense of our day-to-day lives. That 'lay people', whose voice Tiffany's
comment above is supposed to illustrate, routinely appropriate social science knowledge for
making sense of what happens to them is the fundamental idea which gave this thesis its
impetus.
This idea immediately raises two issues regarding, first, the category of social
science knowledge and, second, the process of appropriation of such knowledge by lay
people. I suspect that many social scientists would contest that 'the collapse of the nuclear
family' is a social scientific notion and, more importantly, that Tiffany's comment indicates
a form or 'use' of social science knowledge by lay people. I shall argue that social scientists
tend to have a restrictive and misleading conception of 'social science knowledge', and of
the uses of that knowledge, which partly accounts for them being oblivious, or suspicious,
of the process of lay appropriation of social science knowledge. This suspicion originates in
the two assumptions that there is a clear demarcation between the sphere of science and the
sphere of day-to-day life, and that the 'use' of scientific knowledge by lay people
systematically implies the distortion and the denaturation of scientific knowledge. A
frequent corollary of such assumptions is that the misuse, or the ‘abuse’, of scientific
knowledge by lay people is not directly scientists' concern.
It is certainly true that lay people often appropriate knowledge claims that are
removed from their contexts, that they do not necessarily appropriate all the ideas that are
'attached' to a particular social science concept, and that they give meaning to scientific
notions and arguments that can be at odds with the original meanings intended by the
researchers. Rather than dismissing these processes as a form of abuse of social science, I
suggest that they refer, on the contrary, to a positive form of appropriation of knowledge.
The term 'appropriation' is aimed precisely at providing a positive concept to refer to the
relation of lay people to social science knowledge, that is, a concept that breaks away from
the notion of 'abuse' mentioned above, and even from the notion of ‘use’. The term 'lay
people' also deserves an introductory remark: 'lay people' refer to virtually everyone of us:
the process I examine in the dissertation is the appropriation of social science knowledge in
the context of day-to-day life, that is, outside the professional activity of producing and
'applying' scientific knowledge1.
The analytical foundation of the thesis consists in bringing together two separate
ranges of issues which have so far been addressed independently of each other by social
scientists. The first range of issues concerns the transformations of day-to-day life in
contemporary society, and especially the transformations affecting the construction of 'selfidentity'. These issues refer to broad-ranging and contested notions, such as
detraditionalisation and individualisation, and to the place of expert knowledge in
contemporary society. The second range of issues seems at first sight more restricted in
scope, insofar as it belongs to the field of the epistemology of social science. It refers, more
specifically, to the relation between social science knowledge and its 'subjects' or, in other
terms, to the relation between social science and common sense. Instead of addressing this
epistemological issue in an a-sociological and a-historical way, I will approach it, and reconsider it, in light of the analysis of the transformations of day-to-day life in contemporary
society. By the same token, importing, as it were, the epistemological discussion of the
relation between social science and common sense into the sociological analysis of
contemporary day-to-day life will shed a new light on the latter.
1 Thus, for example, 'policy-makers' are included in my category of 'lay people': they are
'experts' in the way they 'use' social science knowledge in their professional activity of
policy-making, but they are 'lay people' in the way they routinely appropriate social science
knowledge in their day-to-day lives, that is, outside the context of their professional
activity.
Reflexivity has been a major concept used in various ways for characterising the
current period. In the first chapter of the thesis, I discuss the 'reflexive modernity thesis', as
developed in particular by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. The reflexive modernity
thesis consists in interpreting major processes, such as detraditionalisation and
individualisation, in terms of a generalisation, and a radicalisation, of reflexivity. I focus on
the sphere of day-to-day life, and examine the idea that people, in today’s society, are
increasingly reflexive regarding their own lives and their own practices. Although I contest
some of the arguments made by theorists of ‘reflexive modernity’, their general argument
about a radicalisation of institutional reflexivity and of a ‘reflexivity of the self’ is, in my
view, a valid one. Day-to-day life loses its 'natural' and 'given' character and becomes
increasingly problematised. This problematisation process concerns in particular selfidentity: in a period of ‘reflexive modernity’, self-identity becomes a project which is
enmeshed in the routine activities of day-to-day life, and which involves the continuous
elaboration and revision of self-narratives. It is in the context of this argument about an
increased individual reflexivity that I situate the process of lay appropriation of expert
knowledge. Expert knowledge is an important ‘reflexive resource’ routinely used by lay
people for their ‘reflexive project of the self’.
The second chapter marks the transition between the two ranges of issues identified
above, that is, between issues relating to the transformations of day-to-day life and of the
relation of lay people to expert knowledge on one hand, and issues relating to social science
and to the relation between social science knowledge and its 'subjects' on the other. Social
science knowledge is a particular form of expert knowledge and, as such, it is routinely
appropriated by lay people as a 'reflexive resource' for making sense of their lives and for
elaborating their self-narratives. This argument indicates a form of ‘use’ and of possible
‘usefulness’ of social science, that have been little acknowledged by social scientists
themselves. As already suggested, this neglect partly refers, in my view, to a restricted
conception of the category of ‘social science knowledge’. Social science knowledge, in the
perspective developed in the thesis, includes forms of non-academic and popular
knowledge derived from, or akin to, social science, and which are ubiquitous in the mass
media. A piece of social statistics, for example, or the media report of a psychological
study, are included in the category of social science knowledge, although they might not be
identified as such by those who mediate and who use that knowledge.
Some would argue, for example, that the statement 'in Britain most youngsters leave
home between their late teens and early twenties'2 is not social science knowledge, but
merely the statement of a 'social fact'. Yet my point is that the very idea of 'social facts' is
tied up with the development of social science, and that these 'social facts' are established
through forms of systematic social inquiry akin to social science. Although the very idea of
'fact' tends to suggest the 'given', rather than the constructed, character of this knowledge,
social facts are constructed on the basis of fundamental assumptions about the social world
which are in turn directly connected with social science. Social science knowledge, in this
enlarged sense, is omnipresent in day-to-day life, and is continuously used by lay people,
although social scientists discussing the 'uses' of social science have often failed to
acknowledge that social science knowledge has become a vernacular reflexive resource for
experts and lay people alike.
Social scientists have long acknowledged the process whereby the knowledge they
produce is reflexively appropriated by their 'subjects', that is, by the people this knowledge
is about. This epistemological debate, however, has generally been kept separate from the
socio-historical analysis of the concrete conditions of this process of appropriation. To that
extent, the significance of the reflexive process between social science and its ‘subjects’ has
been overlooked. The routine appropriation of social science knowledge by lay people can
be seen as the generalisation, and as the radicalisation, of the reflexive process whereby the
researched, that is, the 'subjects' of social science, appropriate the knowledge produced
about them by the researcher. In the third chapter, I conduct a critical discussion of the
relation between social scientists and their 'subjects'. The chapter focuses on social inquiry
itself, and on the relationship between the 'researcher' and the 'researched'. By examining
the ways by which social scientists have tried to resist, to control, or to encourage the
reflexive process between social science knowledge and its 'subjects', I raise important
2 The Independent, 2 July 1997.
issues regarding the relation of lay people to social science knowledge and regarding the
role and responsibility of social scientists.
Beyond the context of the research situation, and of the relation between the
researcher and the researched, the relation between social science knowledge and lay
people has been addressed in terms of the relation between social science and common
sense. The scientific legitimacy of social science has been based on the argument that social
science knowledge breaks with common sense knowledge. This argument is examined in
detail in the fourth chapter, in which I distinguish two levels of analysis, namely the level
of ordinary knowledgeability, and the level of commonsensical knowledge claims. At the
first level, it is often argued that common sense refers to a form of ordinary
knowledgeability that is fundamentally different from social scientists' knowledgeability. In
contrast, I argue that, first, ordinary knowledgeability is an evolving form of knowledge,
and that, second, a crucial aspect of the transformation of ordinary knowledgeability in a
period of reflexive modernity concerns people’s capacity to be reflexive regarding their
own practice. At the second level, namely that of knowledge claims, I explore the process
of incorporation of social science knowledge into common sense knowledge, in contrast to
the traditional view which states that social scientific claims systematically breaks with
commonsensical claims.
In the last two chapters of the dissertation, I develop the main proposition regarding
the development of a lay sociological imagination. The discussion of the fourth chapter
about the transformation of ordinary knowledgeability leads me to argue that lay people's
knowledgeability increasingly includes the capacity to adopt a ‘theoretical posture’
regarding their own practices. In other words, the reflexivity of ordinary action does not
refer only to ‘practical consciousness’, or to what Bourdieu calls ‘practical sense’ [sens
pratique]. The fifth chapter of the thesis is a critical discussion of Bourdieu's recent work
regarding his conception of the relationship between sociology and lay people. By
assuming that ordinary people’s relation to the social world is based on their ‘practical
posture’ - in contrast to the ‘theoretical posture’ of social scientists - I argue that Bourdieu
mistakenly views people as ‘sociologically naïve’, that is, as incapable of ‘objectifying’ and
analysing their lives the way sociologists do. I focus in particular on the collective work La
Misère du monde in which Bourdieu and his colleagues ‘give a voice’ to a large number of
ordinary people, whose self-narratives are exposed in the book. I suggest that the
sociological naiveté of these self-narratives is produced by Bourdieu methodological and
epistemological options. The possibility of revising these options leads to question the
sociological naiveté of the people studied.
In the last chapter, I generalise the argument made about Bourdieu, by suggesting
that social scientists in general have tended to treat lay people as 'sociologically naïve'. This
tendency is manifest in works which aim at 'giving a voice' to lay people, for example
works based on the exploration of people's life-stories. Ordinary people’s life-stories and
self-narratives are usually treated as sociologically naïve accounts, on which the sociologist
can imprint, as it were, his or her sociological imagination. In contrast, I suggest that lay
people have developed a lay sociological imagination which marks the way in which they
make sense of their lives and actions. A lay sociological imagination consists in a particular
way of ‘seeing the social in the individual’, that is, of relating one’s individual and personal
experience to collective, public, and global social processes. Sociological imagination, in
short, is a particular way of being reflexive about one’s own life, and corresponds to a form
of individual reflexivity and of ordinary knowledgeability that are characteristic of our
time. Sociological imagination, in particular, offers a way to articulate one’s sense of
control and of responsibility. It provides people with a way to address the fundamental
tension between lack of control and responsibility that conditions of reflexive modernity
implies.
This dissertation is the result of my own work and includes nothing which is the outcome of
work done in collaboration. It does not exceed 80.000 words in length.
CHAPTER 1
DAY-TO-DAY LIFE IN 'REFLEXIVE MODERNITY'
The characterisation of today's society and the task of determining how, or 'how
much', it differs from previous periods, are always at risks of falling into either one of two
opposite pitfalls. One is the tendency to overstate the unprecedented character of
contemporary social processes. The other, aiming at counteracting this short-sightedness,
consists in assuming that, on the contrary, 'nothing ever really changes'3. There has been no
shortage of theories about the transformations that mark day-to-day life in contemporary
society. There is little doubt that some of these transformations refer to truly unprecedented
social processes. Yet it seems fair to say that, in the course of this form of ‘modest
legislation’ (Law, 1994: 33), sociologists have not always succeeded in avoiding the first
pitfall which prompts them to celebrate, or to denounce, the accomplishment of social
processes which are still very much in the making, or which are not as clear-cut as they
assume. The idea that contemporary society is a detraditionalised society, for example, has
been increasingly put into question in the past ten years, and so has the notion of
postmodernity. Clear-cut categorisations have left place to the idea that ‘postmodernity,
modernity and tradition coexist simultaneously, even within the same society’ (Mestrovic,
1998: 18).
My concern in this opening chapter is not to review the countless theories about
contemporary society, a task which would be beyond the scope of a dissertation, let alone a
chapter. Rather, I focus on a particular conception of today's society, namely what can be
called the ‘reflexive modernity thesis’. It primarily refers to the recent work of Ulrich Beck
and Anthony Giddens and, to a lesser degree, to that of Scott Lash4 and Zygmunt
3 These two pitfalls correspond to what Bourdieu (1996: 49) calls two ‘symmetrical
illusions’ that the sociologist should avoid, namely the illusion that ‘this has never been the
case before’ [illusion du ‘jamais vu’] and the illusion that ‘it has always been so’ [illusion
du ‘toujours ainsi’].
4 Beck, Giddens and Lash are co-authors of a book called Reflexive Modernisation.
Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (1994), in which they
Bauman5. The reflexive modernity thesis is based on the idea that one of the chief
characteristics of today's society is its pervasive reflexivity, which is both institutional and
individual. At the institutional level, reflexivity means that society becomes an object to
itself and that knowledge about social practices continuously re-enters the very practices
which it was coined to characterise. At the individual level, the reflexive modernity thesis
suggests that people are increasingly reflexive about their own lives and practices, and that
they are engaged into what Giddens calls a ‘reflexive project of the self’. The chapter, thus,
will seek to answer questions such as ‘in what way contemporary society can be said to be
‘reflexive’, and in what way individuals can be said to be reflexive, or ‘more’ reflexive
than ever before?
The focus will be primarily on ‘individual’ reflexivity and on the conception of dayto-day life on which it draws. In particular I will examine the relationship, which plays an
important role in the reflexive modernity thesis, between reflexivity and expert knowledge.
The multiplication of expert claims, their heterogeneity, and their intrusion in day-to-day
life through the mass media, are seen as a major basis for the development or reflexivity.
For theorists of reflexive modernity, lay people appropriate expert knowledge in a more or
less continuous basis. In a ‘detraditionalised’ and ‘individualised’ society, lay people
problematise what used to be taken-for-granted, and continuously appropriate new
knowledge - including expert knowledge - about their practices, this knowledge thereby
becoming constitutive of their practices. Expert knowledge also plays an important role in
the reflexive project of the self, that is, in the continuous construction and reconstruction of
one's self-identity through the routine elaboration of self-narratives. Expert knowledge,
thus, can be seen as a significant 'reflexive resource' for the construction of self-identity.
confront their respective views on reflexive modernisation, and establish links between
what were, until then, pieces of research prepared independently of one another.
5 Some of Bauman’s arguments about ‘postmodernity’ oppose Beck and Giddens’ views
about reflexive modernisation (in contrast to Bauman, Beck and Giddens reject the notion
of ‘postmodernity’). Yet the views of the three authors are very similar (Warde, 1994)
regarding self-identity and the notion of ‘reflexive project of the self’.
The chapter breaks down into three main parts. In the first part, I discuss Beck and
Giddens’ major arguments regarding institutional and individual reflexivity, as well as
several points of criticism which have been addressed to the reflexive modernity thesis,
especially to the argument about an increased reflexivity of the self. I then turn to the
question of the relationship between individual reflexivity and expert knowledge. Two
contrasting theses have been developed regarding the way lay people relate to expert
knowledge: one one hand, it has been argued that conditions of reflexive modernity enable
the continous appropriation of expert knowledge by lay people; on the other hand, many
have stressed the new forms of expertise dependency which pervade day-to-day life. I
argue that expert knowledge has become an important ‘reflexive resource’ for lay people
and I discuss the notion of ‘appropriation’, which will be further defined in the next two
chapters of the dissertation. Finally, the third part of the chapter is devoted to the ‘reflexive
project of the self’. I examine in what ways it can be argued that self-identity is now fuelled
by an unprecedented reflexivity. This will lead me to question the notion of
individualisation, which is an important concept of the reflexive modernity thesis but
which, in my view, has been misconceived with respect to the assumed ‘ontology through
which we think ourselves’ (Rose, 1996: 319) on which it is based.
1.1 REFLEXIVE MODERNITY
1.1.1 Institutional reflexivity
In its broadest sense, the notion of reflexivity refers to the idea of a ‘bending-back
on itself’ (Steier, 1991: 2)6. When used to characterise contemporary society, reflexivity
refers to the ‘susceptibility of most aspects of social activity [...] to chronic revision in the
6 The notion of reflexivity has been used in a considerable number of fields of study, which
extend far beyond the social sciences, ranging from philosophy and artificial intelligence, to
art and economics. Bartlett and Suber (1987) listed as many as twenty-one different
contexts in which the notion of reflexivity has been used. This list includes economics,
humor, the law, linguistics, literature, mathematics, music, mythology, philosophy, physics,
political science, and sociology. Although the phenomena referred to in all these disciplines
are by no means homogeneous nor even comparable, they all refer to the idea of a ‘turningback on itself’.
light of new information or knowledge’ (Giddens, 1991a: 20). This conception of
reflexivity has been developed in particular by Giddens, who systematically associates
modernity7 with what he calls 'institutional reflexivity', which he defines as follows:
[institutional reflexivity is] the reflexivity of modernity, involving the routine
incorporation of new knowledge or information into environments of action
that are thereby reconstituted or reorganised (Giddens, 1991a: 243).
Reflexivity is institutional insofar as it is ‘introduced into the very basis of system
reproduction’ (Giddens, 1990: 38). In contrast to Beck, Giddens does not claim that
reflexivity characterises only the latest stage of modern development. Rather, modernity
and reflexivity are seen to be inseparable from each other. In particular, reflexivity is the
defining characteristic of modern organisations: the latter are characterised ‘not so much
[by] their size, or [by] their bureaucratic character, as [by] the concentrated reflexive
monitoring they both permit and entail’ (Giddens, 1991a: 16). In the current period,
however, reflexivity becomes radicalised and intensified, applying to almost all aspects of
social life, and pervading the private sphere and the sphere of day-to-day life. It is this
radicalisation and intensification of society's reflexivity which leads Giddens to accept the
term of 'reflexive modernity', developed primarily by Beck, for characterising the current
period8.
Institutional reflexivity crucially differs from the mere generalisation of the
'application' of expert knowledge to social practices. The idea of institutional reflexivity
opposes the idea of a controllable process of application of knowledge. The expansion of
7 For Giddens, modernity refers to 'modes of social life or organization which emerged in
Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more
or less worldwide in their influence' (1990: 1).
8 Rather than 'reflexive modernity', Giddens usually prefers the term of 'late (or high)
modernity', which refers to 'the current phase of development of modern institutions,
marked by the radicalizing and globalising of basic traits of modernity' (Giddens,
1991a: 243). Both Beck and Giddens regard the present period as a radicalisation of, rather
than a shift away from, modernity: ‘Rather than entering a period of post-modernity, we are
moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalised
and universalised than before’ (Giddens, 1990: 3). Beck is even more skeptical about the
concept of 'post-modernity': '"Post" is the expression of sociological helplessness. "Post" is
also the expression of mental laziness in sociology' (Beck, 1992c: 199).
reflexivity produces a fundamental turbulence, which refers to the impossibility of
separating social life from knowledge about social life. This crucial aspect of institutional
reflexivity is stressed very clearly by Giddens:
The social world can never form a stable environment in terms of the input of
new knowledge about its character and functioning. New knowledge
(concepts, theories, findings) does not simply render the social world more
transparent, but alters its nature, spinning it off in novel directions (Giddens,
1990: 153).
The reflexivity of contemporary society therefore implies a fundamental dislocation
between knowledge and control: more knowledge about the social world is not paralleled
by a better control over the social world. On the contrary, more knowledge of the social
world accentuates its ‘uncontrollability’:
We can no longer hold to the view that increasing knowledge about the social
and material worlds allows us thereby rationally to control them. The
socialisation of nature and the reflexive constitution of social systems are both
expressions of intensified human intervention into processes once determined
by 'given' conditions. Yet this self-same intervention creates an erratic,
runaway world and sets up new types of individual and collective risk which
we must face (Giddens, 1991b: xv).
The idea that the generalisation of the 'use' of expert knowledge about society is
coextensive with an increase in the 'uncontrollability' of society is, in my view, a crucial
aspect of the 'reflexive modernity' thesis, and one which is often neglected by authors who
study the impact of expert knowledge on contemporary society, and who celebrate the
advent of ‘knowledge society’. Institutional reflexivity does not amount to ‘knowledge
application’ (Holzner & Marx, 1979) and to the the idea that society views itself as 'an
object capable of deliberate change through the systematic use of expert knowledge'
(Holzner & Marx, 1979: 14-15).
Rather, the notion of reflexivity stresses the continuous re-entering of social expert
knowledge into the contexts it was coined to characterise. This reflexive process is at odds
with the idea of knowledge application, insofar as 'what was supposed to create greater and
greater certainty, - the advance of human knowledge and "controlled intervention" into
society and nature - is actually deeply involved with the unpredictability [of social life]'
(Giddens, 1994a: 3). In their collective work about reflexive modernisation, Beck, Giddens
and Lash (1994) stress the double-edged character of society's reflexivity, which means that
'the social and natural worlds today are thoroughly infused with reflexive human
knowledge; but [that] this does not lead to a situation in which collectively we are the
masters of our destiny' (Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994: vii).
Uncontrollability is also a chief aspect of Beck's analysis of 'reflexive modernity'.
Beck understands reflexivity primarily as self-confrontation: contemporary society has to
confront the perverse effects it has itself created. His core argument is that, after a phase of
'simple modernisation' driven by the view of a controlled intervention into society and
nature, we have now entered a period of 'reflexive modernisation' when we have to face the
unintended consequences of the very process of modernisation. For Beck, reflexive
modernity involves a shift from industrial to what he calls ‘risk society’. The latter is
characterised by a growing recognition of the risks and threats resulting from industrial
society. More specifically, risk society designates ‘a developmental phase of modern
society in which the social, political, ecological and individual risks produced by the
dynamics of innovation increasingly elude the monitoring and protecting institutions of
industrial society’ (Beck, 1996a: 24).
Beck insists that the reflexivity of contemporary society does not necessarily imply
a deliberate activity of reflection and of use of expert knowledge. He regards this point as
the major difference between his and Giddens' conception about reflexivity. As mentioned
above, reflexive modernisation, for Beck, is primarily a form of self-confrontation of the
consequences of modernisation with the basis of modernisation (Beck, 1996b: 28). As such,
it should be clearly distinguished, in his view, 'from the increase in knowledge and the
penetration of all spheres of life by science and specialisation in the sense of the selfreflection of modernisation' (Beck, 1996b: 28). Reflexive modernisation corresponds to a
‘momentous and unreflected basic state of affairs’, which is largely independent 'of the
volition and thinking of people’ (Beck, 1996a: 4, 58). Of course, Beck does not deny that
this reflexive process of self-confrontation often leads to reflection and to the deliberate use
of new knowledge and information. However, his point is that the transition from simple to
reflexive modernity first occurs 'undesired, unseen and compulsively' (Beck, 1996a: 25),
which implies that no particular 'historical agent' can be held responsible for this transition.
It is crucial, in my view, to acknowledge the two facets of institutional reflexivity,
namely, on one hand, the susceptibility of virtually every social practice to being revised
and transformed in light of new expert knowledge and, on the other hand, the
uncontrollability of such a process, the very 'success' of which implies turbulence rather
than order. It is with respect to this conception of institutional reflexivity that I will
examine, in the next chapter, the place of social science knowledge in contemporary
society. As a major form of knowledge about society, social science is deeply involved in
society’s reflexivity and, consequently, in its ‘turbulence’.
1.1.2 Reflexivity of the self
The core of the 'reflexive modernity thesis', in my view, is not institutional
reflexivity as such. It refers, rather, to the way in which the argument about institutional
reflexivity is connected to an argument about individual reflexivity or ‘reflexivity of the
self’. Virtually every individual, for Beck, Giddens, and others, develops a form of
reflexivity which is characteristic of the current period. This reflexivity means that one has
continuously to 'turn back' upon one’s actions, and to engage in the deliberate reflection
upon aspects of day-to-day life which used to be taken-for-granted, instead of being the
object of reflection and decision-making as they are now. Aspects of day-to-day life which
tended to be seen as ‘natural’, that is, immune to individual action and control, are now
seen to be the object of decision and action:
More and more areas and concerns of society that have been considered to
be natural (family size, questions of upbringing, choice of profession,
mobility, relations between the sexes) are now made social and individual,
are thereby held to be accountable and subject to decisions, and are so
judged and condemned (Beck, 1996b: 30).
Beck, Giddens and Lash share the same view about the transformation of the very notion of
‘nature’ and of what is considered to be ‘natural’: ‘ “nature” becomes transformed into
areas of action where human beings have to make practical and ethical decisions’ (Beck,
Giddens & Lash, 1994: vii). To that extent, the traditional idea of ‘nature’ becomes
obsolete: 'nature - a physical environment of human action existing independently of that
action - has all but dissolved' (Giddens, 1994a: 47).
The form of individual reflexivity characteristic of the current period has to be
distinguished, for Giddens, from a more fundamental and a-historical form of reflexivity
which he calls the 'reflexive monitoring of action', and which refers to the idea that 'all
human beings routinely "keep in touch" with the grounds of what they do as an integral
element of doing it' (Giddens, 1990: 36-7). The 'reflexive monitoring of action' is a
characteristic of all human action, and is thus distinct from the reflexivity of the self which,
for Giddens, is specific to late modernity:
The reflexivity of the self is continuous, as well as all-pervasive. At each
moment, or at least at regular intervals, the individual is asked to conduct a
self-interrogation in terms of what is happening [...] Reflexivity in this sense
belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity, as distinct from the more
generic reflexive monitoring of action (Giddens, 1991: 76).
The argument about an increased individual reflexivity, or ‘reflexivity of the self’, can be
challenged on several respects, and is far from being unanimously accepted by social
scientists. It has been criticised on at least two accounts. First, it can be argued that lay
people today are far from being these 'reflexive' and self-monitoring agents who
continuously decide about their courses of action. As Campbell puts it, the image of the
contemporary social actor as someone who, armed with extensive discursive knowledge, is
free to choose all his or her actions is simply implausible' (1996: 149). In his recent critic of
Giddens’ work, Mestrovic (1998) is even more dismissive of the argument about an
unprecedented ‘reflexivity of the self’. In his view, ‘contemporary human agents […] do
not know what they are doing or why most of the time because the contemporary social
world is simply too complex for them to be able to know these things’ (Mestrovic,
1998: 34). Giddens, for Mestrovic, ‘fails to account for the very human phenomenon of the
agent not always being able to give an adequate account for what he or she does or feels’
(Ibid.: 194). It seems important, in my view, to acknowledge that the argument about
individual reflexivity does certainly not amount to an argument about a new form of
individual omnipotence. Individual reflexivity, as characterised by Giddens and others,
does not mean that one is now able to gain such a clear representation of oneself and of the
world that one’s and others’ actions are made transparent and obvious. On the contrary, as
suggested above, an increased reflexivity implies that many aspects of day-to-day life
which, to some extent, were ‘obvious’ and taken-for-granted, have become ‘problematised’.
Another related point consists in arguing that forms of inequality are enmeshed in
the ‘reflexivity of the self’, and that this reflexivity, far from concerning every individual
equally, only characterises a restricted number of people. To the question ‘is the human
agent really as free, knowledgeable and skilled as Giddens claims?’ (Ibid.: 23), Mestrovic’s
answer is that ‘there are many agents who clearly are not. For example, the mentally
retarded, children, and uneducated are among those who are implicitly left out of Giddens’
emancipatory vision’ (Ibid.: 23). Although they do not, in my view, devote sufficient
attention to this process, theorists of reflexive modernity do acknowledge that the
expansion of individual reflexivity is pervaded by various forms of inequality. Beck, for
example, notes that 'the reflexive conduct of life, the planning of one's own biography and
social relations, gives rise to a new inequality, the inequality of dealing with insecurity and
reflexivity' (Beck 1992a: 98). Beck, however, is not very explicit as to the sources of this
new form of inequality, mentioning only that it depends on 'special social and family
backgrounds' (Ibid.). Lash is more specific: he emphasises that reflexive modernisation is
not a uniform process, and that it results in both 'reflexivity winners' and 'reflexivity losers':
Are there in fact alongside the [...] 'reflexivity winners' whole battalions of
'reflexivity losers' in today’s increasingly class-polarized, though decreasingly
class-conscious, information societies? [...] How reflexive is it possible for a
single mother in an urban ghetto to be? (Lash, 1994: 120).
For Lash, the key to this new form of inequality lies in the agents' position in the new
'information and communication structures'9.
9 Lash and Urry (1994) argue that traditional social structures - generally national in scope
- are declining in significance, and are being partially displaced by global information and
communication structures, which provide the basis for reflexive processes: 'There is indeed
a structural basis for today’s reflexive individuals. And [...] this is not social structures, but
increasingly the pervasion of information and communication structures' (Lash & Urry,
The second point of criticism that can be addressed to the argument about an
unprecedented ‘reflexivity of the self’ is precisely to argue that such reflexivity is not
unprecedented, and is not a distinctive feature of late modernity, when compared to earlier
periods. It has been argued, for example, that the propensity to revise one's practices in
light of new knowledge is a characteristic of human action in general. This argument has
been made by Adam, in the context of her discussion about detraditionalisation:
Just as tradition is central to contemporary society, so reflexivity is ontological
to all of humanity, to what it means to be human: irrespective of the strictness
of the rules that regulate social life, there is always room to redefine situations
and act in the light of experience and new knowledge (Adam, 1996: 139).
It is indeed important to examine in what way it can be argued that there is a form of
individual reflexivity which is specific to contemporary society. As is developed in the
third part of the chapter, there are, in my view, a number of elements which do point to an
unprecedented form of individual reflexivity.
1.2 INDIVIDUAL REFLEXIVITY AND EXPERT KNOWLEDGE
1.2.1 The problematisation of day-to-day life10
1994: 6). They claim that 'access to information and communication networks, as
conditions of reflexivity, is a crucial determinant of class position’ (Ibid.: 319), and that
there are ‘wild zones deserted by the mobile informational and communicational structures’
(Ibid.: 10).
10 In sociology, the ‘problematisation of day-to-day life’ can refer to the idea that everyday
life has become a topic 'worthy of consideration', in opposition to the traditional view that
the 'non-problematic' character of everyday life justifies the fact that social scientists want
to turn their attention elsewhere. Many schools of thought, theories and theorists,
In the reflexive modernity thesis, the argument about an unprecedented reflexivity
of the self is tied up with a discussion about the intrusion of expert knowledge in
contemporary day-to-day life. In this discussion, several large-range processes, such as
‘demonopolisation of science’ or ‘detraditionalisation’, are brought to the fore in order to
explain what can be understood as the ‘problematisation’ of day-to-day life, or as what
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim call the 'de-routinization of the mundane' (1996: 29). By this
theorists of reflexive modernity mean that domains of social life previously thought of as
unproblematic, and previously 'untouched' by science and expertise, are now problematised
and re-considered in the light of scientific and expert knowledge, which people combine
with other forms of knowledge in order to make sense of their world. In this view, thus, lay
people 'must become used to filtering all sorts of information relevant to their life situations
and routinely act on the basis of that filtering process' (Giddens, 1994: 6).
Among these multiple types of knowledge and information, expert knowledge
'becomes routinely interpreted and acted on by lay individuals in the course of their
everyday actions' (Ibid.: 7), rather than being confined to restricted groups of experts.
Although lay people can ignore expert claims relevant to their life-situations, this
'ignorance', as it were, is the result of a choice rather than a result of the monopolisation of
expert knowledge:
originating from different traditions, are involved in the 'problematisation of day-to-day
life' in social science. Of particular importance in this major turn in the agenda of social
scientists are feminist theory and ethnomethodology, but many others could be cited here.
In this perspective, thus, the 'problematisation of day-to-day life' refers to the idea that the
natural, non-problematic, and taken-for-granted character of day-to-day life is a
construction, in which a host of complex phenomena are involved, which should receive
systematic analysis from social scientists. Thus it is precisely the non-problematic character
of day-to-day life which becomes problematised. In the perspective developed in this
chapter, the ‘problematisation of day-to-day life’ refers to a fairly different range of
phenomena. Here the argument is that, in conditions of reflexive modernity, many aspects
of day-to-day life which used to be taken-for-granted become 'problematised' and the object
of explicit reflection on the part of individuals. In this view, the problematisation of day-today life refers not so much to a movement within social science as to a far-ranging process
conducted by people in general in the context of day-to-day life.
Information produced by specialists (including scientific knowledge) can no
longer be wholly confined to specific groups, but becomes routinely
interpreted and acted on by lay individuals in the course of their everyday
actions (Ibid.: 7).
As suggested, above, a key concept used by theorists of reflexive modernity in order to
make sense of the way lay people relate to expert knowledge is the concept of
detraditionalisation. Detraditionalisation implies that aspects of day-to-day life which used
to be implicitly resolved by tradition, and were not considered as 'problems', are now
problematised and have to be explicitly worked on, in particular on the basis of expert
knowledge. Thus ‘[i]n a society of high reflexivity the regular appropriation of expertise
[...] tends to replace the guidance of tradition’ (Giddens, 1994a: 87).
The notion of detraditionalisation is a controversial one. A number of social
scientists have challenged the assumption that contemporary society is a 'detraditionalised
society'. ‘Traditional society’, as Wagner puts it, ‘is largely a sociological construct that
was developed as a tool of comparison when trying to grasp the present’ (Wagner,
1994: 38). Beck and Giddens, however, are cautious to ‘relativise’ the idea of
detraditionalisation, by arguing, first, that it does not involve the eradication of 'traditions'.
Detraditionalisation means, rather, that traditions 'are forced into open view’ and become
‘open to interrogation or discourse’ (Giddens, 1994a: 5-6). Tradition, in other words,
becomes one form of 'authority' among others, and has to 'compete' in particular with
various kinds of expertise: ‘in conditions of high modernity, in many areas of social life,
there are no determinant authorities [...]. Forms of traditional authority become only
‘authorities’ among others, part of an indefinite pluralism of expertise’ (Giddens,
1991a: 194-5).
Second, theorists of reflexive modernity make it clear that detraditionalisation does
not mean that people are more 'free' than before from authorities. Detraditionalisation,
rather, implies 'a shift from traditional to new and different external authorities' (Adam,
1996: 139). These new authorities in part refer to scientific and expert knowledge. The
authority of modern expertise, however, differs in a significant way from the authority of
tradition, insofar as contemporary conditions of expertise 'normally offer multiple
possibilities rather than fixed guidelines or recipes for action' (Giddens, 1991a: 84). For
Giddens, people are always in a position of choice, since there are often multiple and
contradictory expert claims about a single issue. These competing expert claims constitute,
as it were, a 'market of interpretations' (Holzner & Marx, 1979: 305) and people have to
decide which interpretation they favour, that is, which authority they choose to trust. We
encounter again the idea of ‘demonopolisation of science’: the notion of 'valid' knowledge
is no longer restricted to science: ‘the target groups of the sciences in administration,
politics, business and the public sphere become coproducers of socially valid
“knowledge”’ (Beck, 1992a: 172). Scientific findings 'are interrogated, criticised, made use
of in common with other reflexively available sources of knowledge' (Giddens,
1994a: 216). The relation of 'lay people' to expertise, according to the reflexive modernity
thesis, is now marked by doubt and scepticism, which result from people’s awareness of
the revisable, contested and pluralist character of expert knowledge:
Modes of expertise are fuelled by the very principle of doubt; in assessing the
claims of rival authorities, the lay individual tends to utilise that principle in
the sceptical outlook which pluralistic circumstances almost inevitably
presuppose' (Giddens, 1991a: 195).
The way Giddens, Beck, and others characterise the contemporary way in which lay
people deal with expert knowledge has been criticised on several accounts. In particular, it
has been argued that they misconceive the way people in earlier periods dealt with
expertise. Wynne explicitly challenges Giddens' position on this issue11, and rejects the
idea that people previously were unreflexive and uncritical regarding expertise:
I argue that the supposed earlier conditions of unqualified public trust have
never prevailed, and that Giddens has reproduced what is a widespread
confusion between unreflexive trust, reflexive dependency and private
ambivalence (Wynne, 1996: 48).
For Wynne, a lack of overt public dissent or opposition towards experts or expert systems
should not be interpreted as unqualified public trust in expert systems (Ibid.: 50). In his
11 Cf. also the argument of Kroll Smith, Couch & Floyd (1995) presented in section 1.2.2,
about the distinction between lay people's relation to expert knowledge, and their relation to
experts and expert systems.
view, people have always been reflexive towards expertise, in the sense that they
'informally but incessantly problematise their own relationships with expertise of all kinds,
as part of their negotiation of their own identities' (Ibid.: 50). Lay people, 'well before the
onset of reflexive modernity and the risk society, fundamentally distrusted scientific
opinion' (Lash, Szerszynski & Wynne, 1996: 8). What is characteristic of the current
period, thus, might be the ‘visibility’ of people’s distrust and reflexivity, rather than distrust
and reflexivity as such.
This being acknowledged, it remains that contemporary day-to-day life is pervaded
by expert knowledge to an extent which is unprecedented. It is indeed possible to argue, as
Giddens does, that day-to-day life becomes increasingly made up of 'everyday experiments'
(Giddens, 1992: 8), as people try to combine, and to make sense of, multiple and
contradictory knowledge claims, the validity of which they know can only be provisional.
Scientific findings and the controversies which surround them increasingly become a
matter of public debate and a matter of day-to-day choice and decision-making. As Beck
puts it, 'private life becomes in essence the plaything of scientific results and theories, or of
public controversies and conflicts' (Beck, 1996a: 215). For example, parents routinely have
to 'find their way' among the multiple and sometimes contradictory expert claims - derived
from psychology, sociology, biology, genetics, etc. - that concern the activity of childrearing. Personal decisions, thus, ‘must be taken in the face of conflicting technical claims
and apparent uncertainties’ (Irwin & Wynne, 1996: 2), as the recent case of the ‘mad cow
disease’ has amply demonstrated.
Medical knowledge provides an obvious illustration of the way lay people have to
negotiate their way among multiple and contradictory expert claims about life-style options
related to food, diet, etc. People are increasingly familiar with the controversies
surrounding particular health risks, regarding for example HIV, cholesterol, breast cancer,
etc. In a book aimed at providing the lay public with the medical knowledge necessary for
making informed decisions about health risks, this physician gives a good illustration of the
‘imperative of choice’ that characterises the relationship between lay people and expert
knowledge: '[s]ome risks of everyday living are unavoidable. Others are avoidable, or at
least reducible. But our decisions are unavoidable. We do not and cannot know everything.
We make mistakes. But we have to choose' (Harris, 1993: 11). Harris acknowledges the
heterogeneous, contradictory, and provisional character of many medical claims on health
risks - for example regarding the use of margarine. This is precisely why he concludes that
choice is inescapable.
The omnipresence and the pluralism of expert knowledge in contemporary day-today life can lead to two conflicting pictures. On one side, which is the one favoured by
Beck and Giddens, it is argued that people are increasingly able to, and likely to,
appropriate expert knowledge and to 'reskill' themselves in order to deal with a
‘problematised’ day-to-day life. On the other side, the problematisation of day-to-day life
can be seen as a massive process of de-skilling insofar as people are increasingly dependent
upon experts and expert knowledge, even regarding the most mundane of their activities.
Bauman, for example, has developed this more pessimistic perspective about expertise
dependency. These two opposite pictures will be examined in turn in the two following
sections.
1.2.2 Lay appropriation of expert knowledge
Theorists of reflexive modernity stress that expert knowledge is increasingly open to
appropriation by lay people, and situate this process with respect to the expansion of
institutional reflexivity:
Expert knowledge is open to reappropriation by anyone with the necessary
time and resources to become trained; and the prevalence of institutional
reflexivity means that there is a continuous filter-back of expert theories,
concepts and findings to the lay population (Giddens, 1994b: 91).
The effective ‘re-appropriation’ of particular expert claims by lay people has been,
however, little studied by theorists of reflexive modernity. Beyond the proclaimed
‘principle’ that expert knowledge is the object of continuous and pervasive reappropriation
by non-experts, Giddens, for example, does not provide any empirical studies in support of
his argument. Such empirical work can be found elsewhere, in particular in the field of
‘public understanding of science’, and in the context of the 'new' social movements centred
on public response to techno-scientific risks.
Explicitly drawing on the reflexive modernity thesis12, Kroll Smith, Couch and
Floyd (1994) propose the term 'rational knowledge movements' to refer to 'movements that
are organised in part around the popular appropriation and political transformation of expert
knowledge' (Kroll Smith, Couch & Floyd, 1994: 3). The authors give two illustrations of
'rational knowledge movements', both based on medical knowledge, namely environmental
illness and popular epidemiology. In their view, these two movements illustrate an
'historical shift in the social location of theorizing misery from experts to non-experts'
(Ibid.: 26). In both cases, the authors show that the appropriation of biomedical knowledge
by non-physicians involves a shift in the locus of problem definition 'from the bio-organic
individual […] to conditions external to the person' (Ibid.: 11). In other words, these
movements recast the question of who can be held accountable or responsible for certain
illnesses and Kroll Smith et al. claim that '[i]n some cases, there is evidence that institutions
are changing in response to the popular appropriation of expertise' (Ibid.: 28).
The appropriation of expert knowledge by 'new social movements’ is often
described as an attempt to challenge scientists or scientific rationality. Beck, for example,
claims that movements concerned with issues of pollution try to contest the supremacy of
scientific rationality and try to promote, rather, a 'social rationality'. (Beck, 1992a: 30).
Beck is not very explicit, however, as to what distinguishes social rationality from scientific
12 Kroll Smith, Couch and Floyd's analysis of lay appropriation of expert knowledge is
based on what they call 'late modernity theory', which comprises the work of Beck and
Giddens, and which roughly corresponds to what I call in this chapter the 'reflexive
modernity thesis'. A major interest of 'late modernity theory', in their view, is that it
'predicts the emergence of social movements oriented to the popular appropriation of expert
knowledge' (Ibid.: 7).
rationality. In a work about 'counter-movements' in the sciences13, Nowotny addresses this
issue by noting that the social rationality characteristic of counter-movements focuses on
the question of 'science for whom?' (Nowotny, 1979: 3), a question which is usually banned
from scientific rationality. In a related vein, Douglas and Wildavsky argue that the lay
public, unlike scientists, 'do not conceal their moral commitments but put them into the
arguments, explicitly and prominently' (Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982: 73).
Beck, however, has stressed that the partial demise of scientific rationality by no
means entails the demise of science. The same process which tends to undermine the
authority of science - the multiplication of risks resulting from techno-scientific
development - simultaneously reinforces it. Most of the risks brought about by
modernisation cannot be perceived directly; they need the ‘“sensory organs” of science theories, experiments, measuring instruments - in order to become visible or interpretable
as hazards at all’ (Beck, 1992a: 27). Thus ‘science and technology are the only means of
bringing their own damage into view’ (Giddens, 1994a: 208). Along the same line, Kroll
Smith, Couch and Floyd stress that the demonopolisation of science and the lay critic of
scientific rationality do not mean that lay people are loosing trust in the efficacy of
scientific and expert knowledge. On one hand, people are increasingly sceptical of expert
systems14 and of the ‘representatives of rationality’ (Kroll Smith, Couch & Floyd,
1994: 7). Yet, on the other hand, they certainly 'do not abandon their faith in rational
knowledge’ (Ibid.: 3).
Kroll Smith, Couch & Floyd heavily draw upon the distinction between expert
knowledge and expert systems, in order to show the double-edged character, or the
ambivalence, of the way lay people relate to expertise:
13 Nowotny defines counter-movements as 'social forms of protest [...] which are critical of
scientific rationality and at times hostile to specific technological developments' (Nowotny,
1979: 1).
14 Kroll Smith, Couch & Floyd draw upon Giddens' characterisation of 'expert systems'.
The latter are 'systems of expert knowledge [...] depending on rules of procedure
transferable from individual to individual' (Giddens, 1991a: 243).
The process is one of non-professionals who separate expert knowledge (and
perhaps one or two experts) from expert systems to apprehend troubles that, in
their opinion, require a technical solution, in spite of the refusal or inability of
expert systems to acknowledge the problem (Ibid.: 1).
The ambivalence of people’s position regarding expert and scientific knowledge has also
been noted by Michael (1992), in a study about the way lay persons use scientific
knowledge about ionizing radiation. Michael’s conclusion, which draws upon a contrast
between Moscovici and Lyotard’s positions regarding the relationship between science and
lay people15, is that ‘there is neither an ineluctable, albeit mediated, Moscovician uptake of
science’s products or its supposed ethos nor the generalised delegitimation of science
portrayed by Lyotard’ (Michael, 1992: 330). Rather, Michael insists on the multi-faceted
character of the relationship of lay agents to science:
People are not solely disenchanted or disinherited in the face of science;
rather, they discursively maneuver around science in a variety of trajectories
that can, on one hand, sustain the mystique and the status of science and, on
the other, undermine them (Ibid.: 330).
Three points of criticism, in my view, can be made about the way sociologists have
studied lay appropriation of expert knowledge. Or, to put it differently, there are three
major differences between the way sociologists, such as those mentioned above, have
studied the process of lay appropriation of expert knowledge, and the way this process is
addressed in the rest of the dissertation. First, lay appropriation of expert knowledge
primarily refers, in my view, to ordinary individual action, rather than to 'extra-ordinary'
collective action. Although the action of social movements is certainly an important 'locus'
of appropriation of expert knowledge by lay actors, this should not obscure the fact that this
process of appropriation is ubiquitous in the day-to-day life of every individual, although it
might not be as visible and deliberate as in the action of social movements. As suggested in
the first part of the chapter, rather than ‘individual reflexivity’ itself, what might be
15 Michael considers that, for Moscovici, ‘science and the reified increasingly percolate
through and color the consensual, commonsensical world’ (Michael, 1992: 315), while
Lyotard argues that ‘science loses its pivotal role as arbiter of truth (Ibid.: 315).
Moscovici’s perspective about the transformation of the relationship between science and
common sense is examined in the fourth chapter (section 4.3.4).
characteristic of the current period is that expert knowledge has become a generalised
‘resource’ for individual reflexivity.
Second, it is striking, in view of the works presented above, that lay appropriation of
expert knowledge almost exclusively refers to the appropriation of techno-scientific
knowledge, medical knowledge and, in general, knowledge derived from natural science,
and never to social science knowledge. There are several elements which account for this
‘neglect’, and which are examined in the second and third chapters of the dissertation. In
my view, lay appropriation of social science knowledge is no less significant than lay
appropriation of natural science knowledge, an argument which is clear enough if we
accept Giddens’ notion of ‘institutional reflexivity’ presented in the first part of the chapter.
Finally, lay appropriation of expert knowledge has generally been seen as an
empowering process for those who ‘appropriate’. To put it differently, showing that lay
people appropriate expert knowledge has often been a way to oppose the view that
expertise 'expropriates' lay people, by undermining their own 'local' knowledge, and by
depriving them of their capacity to deal with the problems that they encounter in everyday
life. Studies about lay appropriation of expert knowledge has served to refute the thesis of a
disempowering process of expertise dependency. In my view, however, there is nothing
intrinsically empowering in the process of appropriation of expert knowledge, although the
notion of appropriation does have a positive connotation attached to it.
By ‘positive connotation’, I mean that the notion of appropriation points to the active
and creative character of the way lay people 'use' scientific and expert knowledge16. This
conception of appropriation can be related to the one used in media studies, in which the
notion of appropriation has served to oppose the view that lay people passively 'absorb'
media messages. In opposition to such a view, it has been argued that the reception of
media products by lay people is an active process which involves the creative
16 In the next two chapters, I will characterize further the notion of appropriation and
examine in more detail how it differs from the notion of 'use'.
transformation of the 'messages' in order to adapt them to the practical contexts of everyday
life. In Thompson's terms:
To appropriate a message is to take hold of its meaningful content and make it
one’s own. It is to assimilate the message and incorporate it into one’s life - a
process that sometimes takes place effortlessly, and sometimes involves
deliberate application. In appropriating a message, we adapt it to our own lives
and life contexts (Thompson, 1995: 42).
Thompson’s conception of the notion of appropriation derive from hermeneutics, and refers
to the more fundamental relation of human agents to symbolic forms. In the hermeneutical
perspective, appropriation refers to an active process of understanding and selfunderstanding (Thompson, 1995: 42): human agents, 'in interpreting symbolic forms, [...]
incorporate them into their own understanding of themselves and others' (Thompson,
1995: 42). Following this argument, expert knowledge can be seen as a particular 'symbolic
form', and as a particular kind of 'message' diffused through the mass media; as such, its
appropriation by lay people involves the same active and creative process as do media
products and symbolic forms more generally. The active and creative character of the way
lay agents ‘use’ scientific and expert knowledge and ‘reconstruct technical information
within everyday life’ (Irwin & Wynne, 1996: 10) has been well illustrated in recent studies
about ‘public understanding of science’17.
1.2.3 Expertise dependency
That expert knowledge has come to pervade day-to-day life has led many theorists to
argue that people are increasingly dependent upon expertise, especially since 'no one can be
an expert about more than a tiny part of the diverse aspects of modern social life
conditioned by abstract systems' (Giddens, 1991a: 22). Theorists of reflexive modernity
have repeatedly stressed the double-edged character of expertise and, more generally, of
reflexive modernity, which involves both new forms of ‘freedom’ and new forms of
17 Cf. Irwin & Wynne (1996), Kerr and al. (1998a&b), Michael (1992), Wynne (1996a&b,
1993, 1992). These studies are presented in the next section, since they are useful for
examining the thesis about the presumed ‘eradication’ of local knowledge that the
omnipresence of expert knowledge, for many social scientists, entails.
‘dependency’. Giddens refuses to give precedence to the latter. Without denying that
modern conditions of expertise have deskilling effects for lay people, he argues that
disempowerment always stands in tension with positive effects, and that ‘[i]n general,
whether in personal life or in broader social milieus, processes of reappropriation and
empowerment intertwine with expropriation and loss’ (Giddens, 1991a: 7).
In Giddens' work, however, such an assertion has more the status of a theoretical
principle than one of an empirical finding. In particular, it is congruent with two
fundamental assertions of Giddens’ theory of structuration, namely, knowledgeability of lay
agents and dialectic of control. Knowledgeability of lay agents refers to the ‘reflexive
monitoring of action18’ conducted by every agent, who shows a fundamental ‘competence’
about the conditions of his or her actions, this competence being embedded principally in
practical consciousness. Giddens' second assumption about the ‘dialectic of control’
consists in stating that ‘all forms of dependence offer some resources whereby those who
are subordinate can influence the activities of their superiors’ (Giddens, 1984: 16). In their
relation to modern expertise, lay people can in principle reappropriate expert knowledge in
a way which counteracts the expropriating effects of modern expertise. In Giddens' terms:
The reappropriation of knowledge and control on the part of lay actors is a
basic aspect of the dialectic of control. Everyday skill and knowledgeability
stands in dialectical connection to the expropriation effects of abstract
systems, continually influencing and reshaping the very impact of such
systems on day-to-day existence' (Giddens, 1991a: 138).
In contrast to Giddens, many authors have insisted primarily on the negative aspects
that the intrusion of expert knowledge in day-to-day life carries for ‘lay people’. Stanley
(1978), in a denunciation of what he calls the 'technological conscience', has argued that the
central role of expertise in contemporary day-to-day life implies that one agrees to give up,
as it were, one's cognitive authority:
The acceptance of 'expertise' may be defined as the conscious or unconscious
delegation of one’s cognitive authority over some part of the world to persons
18 Cf. section 1.1.2.
one regards as more competent than oneself in the exercise of cognitive
judgements' (Stanley, 1978: 97).
Such a phenomenon, for Stanley, can lead to 'technicism', when scientific and technological
modes of reasoning are extended 'to the point of imperial dominance over all other
interpretations of human existence' (Ibid.: 12). In a related vein, Lasch has argued that
expertise dependency has 'crippled the capacity for self-help' (Lasch, 1979: xv), and that
this state of dependency could be diminished by a collective distrust of experts. Lasch sees
expertise dependency as an erosion of everyday competence (Ibid.: 10), insofar as people
allow experts to define their needs for them, instead of drawing on their own experience
(Ibid.: xviii).
Bauman has addressed the issue of expertise dependency by relating it to market
dependency and consumerism. He claims that contemporary society leads to the 'socially
produced incapacity of individuals to conduct their life business on their own' (Bauman,
1987: 19). For Bauman, the key to expertise dependency is the colonisation of a growing
volume of 'needs' by experts and, more importantly, their 'translation' in terms of
marketable goods and services (Bauman, 1987: 166). Bauman’s conclusion is that 'the
modern project of individual autonomy has been subordinated and subsumed by the
market-defined
and
market-oriented
freedom
of
consumer
choice'
(Ibid.: 189).
Standardisation and commodification are certainly two important characteristics of the use
of expert knowledge in contemporary society, as Bauman rightly stresses. In my view,
however, there is nothing 'inherent' in standardisation and commodification which implies
that these features are necessarily disempowering. In fact, I will argue later in the
dissertation19 that standardisation can sometimes be ‘empowering’, insofar as it can enable
one to ‘label’ one’s personal issue by using experts’ categorisations, and to realise that one
is not alone in dealing with this issue.
More importantly, a point which, in my view, should be put into question regarding
the so-called disempowering effects of omnipresent expertise, concerns the argument that
expert knowledge undermines and even eradicates 'local knowledge', thereby expropriating
19 Cf. section 6.1.2.
lay people of their personal knowledge. The thesis of the eradication of local knowledge
can be related to the thesis of the eradication of traditions, insofar as those who argue that
traditions disappear usually assume that tradition is based on the transmission of shared
local knowledge. Such an assumption has been challenged by those who argue, like
Thompson, that traditions are still very much present in contemporary society, but that they
are mediated, de-personalised, and de-localised, losing 'their moorings in the shared locales
of day-to-day life' (Thompson, 1996: 94): ‘the transmission of the symbolic materials
which comprise traditions has become increasingly detached from social interaction in a
shared locale’ (Ibid.: 94). Along the same line of argument, it can be argued that local
knowledge is not being ‘eradicated’ but that, rather, 'all forms of local knowledge under the
rule of expertise become local recombinations of knowledge derived from elsewhere'
(Giddens, 1994b: 84).
In their attempt at recasting the terms in which ‘public understanding of science’ is
conceived20, Irwin and Wynne (1996) have stressed the varied ways ‘in which public
groups attempt to fashion locally useful knowledges from “external” and “indigenous
sources”. In place of an ‘eradication’ of local knowledge, Wynne has documented the
‘ways that “context-free” scientific knowledge is or can be contextualised or integrated into
different social and cultural settings with their particular established local knowledges’
(Wynne, 1992: 40). Kerr et al. (1998a&b) illustrate such a process of ‘combination’ of
different forms of knowledge in a particular ‘local’ context. In their study of lay people’s
understanding of genetics, the authors note the variety of types of knowledge displayed by
their interviewees, who, ‘in addition to professional experience, […] may draw on direct
personal experience or on knowledge derived from the media and other sources’ (Kerr et al,
1998b: 51). Here again, the picture that emerges from empirical study is much more
complex and much less clear-cut than the mere ‘eradication’ of local knowledge. The latter,
rather, increasingly consists in a combination of knowledges from diverse contexts:
20 Broadly speaking, Irwin and Wynne refute what they see as the ‘dominant approach’ in
the field of ‘public understanding of science’, which consists in assuming the ‘lack of
understanding’ of the public, in portraying science as if it were a value-free and neutral
activity (Irwin & Wynne, 1996: 6), and in throwing ‘all the critical research attention on the
public and the media’ (Wynne, 1992: 38).
People hold their own stock of technical, methodological, institutional and
cultural knowledge for a critical understanding of the new genetics, and this is
a product of their past experiences, both unique and culturally shared
(Ibid.: 51).
Expert knowledge, thus, is embedded in the range of actors and institutions with which one
is engaged, which involves that every individual develops ‘a unique set of knowledge from
which to judge new experiences’ (Ibid.: 52). In the fourth chapter of the dissertation, I shall
complete this argument in a discussion of ‘lay knowledgeability’, in which I reject the
assumption, made by many social scientists, that lay people’s ‘ordinary knowledge’ is
primarily, and almost ‘by definition’, knowledge derived from first-hand experience.
1.3 INDIVIDUALISATION, EXPERT KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-IDENTITY
1.3.1 A ‘reflexive project of the self’?
An important aspect of the 'reflexive modernity thesis' concerns self-identity, which
can be defined as 'the sense of oneself as an individual endowed with certain characteristics
and potentialities, as an individual situated on a certain life-trajectory' (Thompson,
1996: 93). Self-identity, it is argued, ceases to be fixed and 'given'; it becomes malleable
and has to be reflexively constructed by the individual. In Giddens’ terms:
Individuals cannot rest content with an identity that is simply handed down,
inherited, or built on a traditional status; [a] person's identity has in large part
to be discovered, constructed, actively sustained (Giddens, 1994a: 82).
Such an argument about self-identity is not specific to the reflexive modernity thesis. A
large range of social scientists agree that 'conditions for identity-formation have
significantly changed over the past three or four decades (Wagner, 1994: 170) and that,
more precisely, self-identity is now seen by every individual as 'something deliberately to
be worked on or transformed' (Holzner & Marx, 1979: 315). What is specific to the
reflexive modernity thesis, however, is the concept of reflexivity, used in order to make
sense of transformations affecting identity-formation and, more importantly, the connection
between the discussion about identity-formation, and the more general argument about
institutional reflexivity.
Giddens’ view on the transformations affecting self-identity in current society is
encapsulated in his notion of ‘reflexive project of the self’, which implies the more or less
continuous negotiation of one's sense of self-identity. The latter is achieved through the
conscious elaboration and regular revision of self-narratives, which are stories 'by means of
which self-identity is reflexively understood, both by the individual concerned and by
others' (Giddens, 1991a: 243). The reflexive project of the self, in short, is 'the process
whereby self-identity is constituted by the reflexing ordering of self-narratives' (Giddens,
1991a: 244). The same argument can be found in Beck’s work: transformations about
identity formation mean that the ‘standard biography becomes a chosen biography, a “do-ityourself-biography’” (Beck, 1994a: 15). Both authors, as well as other social scientists,
claim that ‘the self becomes increasingly organised as a reflexive project through which the
individual constructs, in the form of an autobiographical narrative, a sense of selfidentity’(Thompson, 1995: 215).
This argument about a ‘reflexive project of the self’ is consistent with what Hoskins
& Leseho describe as ‘dramatic shifts […] occurring between traditional metaphors of the
self and more recent postmodern metaphors’ (1996 : 244). More specifically, they note that
‘rather than focusing on the self as a stable entity, there has been a dramatic shift toward
viewing the self as a process [and] […] there is growing recognition of the multifaceted,
dynamic, and narrative nature of the self’ (Ibid. : 249, 257). Among the ‘postmodern’
metaphors of the self identified by Hoskins and Leseho, the ‘narrative self’, which refers to
the self ‘as a fluid, evolving character that is in a continual process of becoming’
(Ibid.: 249) is the one which is assumed in Beck and Giddens’ notion of ‘reflexive project
of the self’.
The argument about a ‘reflexive project of the self’, however, can be attacked on the
same accounts as the more general argument about ‘reflexive modernity’. That is, it can be
argued that such an argument largely exaggerates the 'unreflexive' character of identity
formation in previous periods and that, conversely, it largely overestimates, or even
misconceives, the extent in which lay people are now reflexively engaged in the conscious
elaboration of their self-identities. In other words, it is easy to exacerbate a contrast
between the current 'reflexive' construction of self-identity, and the supposedly previous
'unreflexive' acceptation of a 'ready-made' identity, especially since, as Wagner recognises,
'not very much is known about how human beings actually oriented their lives in the past'
(Wagner, 1994: 207).
Some authors have argued that the transformation affecting identity-formation,
rather than referring to a ‘new’ process, should be understood, rather, as the generalisation
of a process which was ‘always’ present, but which, however, used to concern only a
restricted number of people. For Wagner, for example, 'the constructability of social
identity was hardly accessible to the majority of the population, the peasant and industrial
working classes, and most women' (Wagner, 1994: 157-8). Yet even this less ‘radical’
argument can be opposed by saying that the ‘reflexive project of self’, even in
contemporary society, concerns only a limited proportion of the population. Such an
argument is made by Warde about Giddens’ account on identity-formation:
Giddens is right in observing that for some people self is constituted by a
narrative of personal development, and is reflexively monitored. However, his
account fits only a proportion of the population (Warde, 1994: 890).
Warde claims that Giddens offers a ‘highly individualistic, cognitive and decisionistic
model of self’ (Ibid.: 4) and that ‘his world is peopled by very self-directing persons in
serious pursuit of the coherent narrative of the self’ (Ibid.: 4). It can indeed be doubted that
such an image is a fair representation of contemporary day-to-day life, and of the
construction of self-identity. Besides, Warde notes that Bauman, Beck and Giddens ‘all
maintain that biography is a reflexive project and that lifestyles and consumption are
critical to identity-formation and reformation’ (Ibid.: 877). Yet the relationship between the
reflexive project of the self and consumption is, in Warde’s view, more ambiguous and
multi-faceted than assumed by theorists of reflexive modernity. The latter, in his view, pay
too little attention to the ‘counter-tendencies to informalisation and individualisation’
(Ibid.: 890) and tend to reproduce a ‘politico-ideological sense of the consumption process
which imputes freedom to an activity that is not in an important sense free’ (Ibid.: 890).
More fundamentally, one aspect of the argument about the ‘reflexive project of the
self’ which needs to be questioned is the unprecedented character of self-biography or selfnarratives. Theorists of reflexive modernity establish a narrow connection between the
construction of self-identity and the elaboration of self-narratives. For them, maintaining a
sense of self-identity, in today's society, involves the continuous elaboration of one's
'autobiography':
autobiography - particularly in the broad sense of an interpretive self-history
produced by the individual concerned, whether written down or not - is [...] at
the core of self-identity in modern social life’ (Giddens, 1991a: 76).
For Giddens, what seems to be characteristic of the current period is the close link between
self-identity and self-narratives. In contemporary society, 'a person's identity is not to be
found in behaviour, nor in the reaction of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular
narrative going' (Giddens, 1991a: 54). It should be clear, however, that the elaboration of
self-narratives is by no means characteristic of the current period. As Bruner puts it, 'while
the act of writing autobiography is new under the sun, the self-told life-narrative is, by all
accounts, ancient and universal (Bruner, 1987: 16).
In addition, even if we accept the argument that self-identity, in earlier periods, used
to be 'fixed' and 'given', it can reasonably be assumed that people's self-narratives have
always been malleable to some extent, that is, likely to be re-arranged and transformed. The
meaning of a past event, even in ‘traditional’ society, may not be determined once and for
all but is likely to change in the course of subsequent reconstructions, in order to account
for new events and actions, or in light of new knowledge and information. As Berger notes,
we are all engaged in ‘biographical hermeneutics’ (1963: 78), that is, in the regular
interpretation and reinterpretation of our past and present experience. For example, he
mentions the case of a Communist who reinterprets his past ‘as a captivity in the “false
consciousness” of a bourgeois mentality’ (Ibid.: 76). In this case, the 'reinterpretation of the
past is part of a deliberate, fully conscious and intellectually integrated activity’ (Berger,
1963: 75). But the construction and reconstruction of self-narratives need not be as
deliberate and conscious.
We need, therefore, to be more specific about what exactly characterises identityformation in a period of ‘reflexive modernity’, or in what ways the argument about a
‘reflexive project of the self’ really encapsulates truly unprecedented processes. Several
points, in my view, can be put forward, some of which are developed later in the
dissertation. First, it can be argued that the malleability or revisability of self-narratives is
being radicalised. Rather than referring to exceptional situations such as the conversion to a
new religion or a new political doctrine (cf. Berger’s example above, about the conversion
to communism), the revision of self-narratives in today's society is virtually a continuous
activity enmeshed in the routine actions of day-to-day life. In a qualitative study about the
role of television soap operas in teenagers’ identity-formation, Barker claims that the girls
he studied are actually engaged in a reflexive project of the self (1997: 613), which is
manifest in the way their talk about soap opera enables them to ‘negotiate through shared
understandings about how to “go on” in their society as persons within social relationships’
(Barker, 1997: 612). The construction and reconstruction of self-narratives, thus, seems to
be more deeply enmeshed in day-to-day life and more tightly connected to self-identity
than before.
Barker’s study also illustrates a second point, which consists in arguing that the
construction of self-narratives in current society draws upon an increasing range of sources,
both local and global in character. Barker’s refers more specifically to the ‘multiplying
global resources for the construction of self-identity’, among which television programmes
figure significantly. He gives the following illustration about Sandra, one of the teenagers
he studied:
Sandra deploys a range of resources drawn from a variety of times and spaces.
The most obvious resources she draws on are local and personal. They include
her mother, her friends and her school life. However, she also draws on
resources of a more globalised nature (Barker, 1997: 624).
Barker’s argument about the importance of television programmes as a locus of ‘reflexive
resources’ for the construction of self-identity supports the view, developed for example by
Thompson (1995), that media systems are essential for providing ‘the symbolic materials
for self-formation’ (Thompson, 1995: 214-5). This implies that there certainly is a form of
'mediated dependency' (Ibid.: 213) which impinges on the reflexive process of the self21. If
important 'reflexive resources' that fuel the construction of self-identity are part of media
systems, then access to these resources, and the capacity to use them, depends on the
position of the individual in the media systems.
Among the manifold ‘media messages’ pervading day-to-day life, expert
knowledge, in my view, constitute an important resource for the reflexive project of the
self, and this centrality of expert knowledge points to a truly unprecedented aspect of
identity-formation in contemporary society. Expert knowledge can be seen as an important
impetus to the construction and the revision of self-narratives. Thus it can be suggested that
lay people are increasingly likely to appropriate expert knowledge in order to make sense of
what has happened in their lives, and in order to construct and reconstruct self-narratives.
The process of appropriation of expert knowledge, in my view, is a routine process of dayto-day life insofar as it is deeply enmeshed in the reflexive construction of self-identity and,
more precisely, as expert knowledge becomes a crucial 'reflexive resource' for the
continuous construction and reconstruction of self-narratives. It is in that sense that I
suggested in the preceding section that the process of lay appropriation of expert
knowledge should not be examined only, or primarily, with respect to techno-scientific
knowledge and to social movements. When seen in the light of the 'reflexive project of the
self', the lay appropriation of expert knowledge refers to a routine activity conducted by
virtually every individual, and to a process in which social science knowledge, in particular,
is deeply involved.
Third, another characteristic of contemporary processes of identity-formation refer,
in my view, to the increasingly discursive and self-conscious aspects of the reflexive
21 Cf. also Lash & Urry's argument about information and communication structures
(section 1.1.2).
project of the self. Although, as noted earlier, it seems fair to suppose that people have
always been involved in the elaboration of self-narratives, it can be argued that this quest
for self-understanding did not have the discursive character that it has now. In that sense, it
is indeed possible to argue, as Giddens does, that 'our understanding of ourselves, as
discursively formulated and reflexively applied to transforming the conditions of our lives,
is intrinsic to the nature of modern societies' (Giddens, 1987: viii). This point immediately
brings us back to the issue, discussed in the first part of the chapter, of forms of ‘inequality’
related to this ‘new’ form of discursive reflexivity, in particular inequality regarding
linguistic and cultural ‘capital’.
1.3.2 Individualisation: the dissolution of the social into the self?
For theorists of reflexive modernity, that every individual is engaged in a reflexive
project of the self is tied up with a process of 'individualisation', which means that
'individuals are obliged increasingly to fall back on their own resources to construct a
coherent identity for themselves' (Thompson, 1996: 90). It has become a commonplace to
say that modern society is an individualised society. Yet individualisation has recently
become one of these essentially contested concepts - such as the concept of
detraditionalisation - which are increasingly put into question, and whose relevance as
analytical tools for making sense of contemporary society is being challenged.
Individualisation, in the reflexive modernity thesis, refers to a process in which
people are released from 'traditional ties, systems of belief and social relationships' (BeckGernsheim, 1996: 139), and have no choice but to become ‘the centre of their own planning
and conduct of life’ (Beck, 1992a: 88). It means that life becomes a task to be carried out,
an individual project (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996: 141). More precisely:
Biographies are removed from the traditional precepts and certainties, from
external control and general moral laws, becoming open and dependent on
decision-making, and are assigned as a task for each individual (Beck & BeckGernsheim, 1995: 2).
Far from being a process of 'liberation' only, individualisation is seen as a double-edged
phenomenon which involves both freedom and constraint:
On the one hand, [it] means an expansion of the radius of life, a gain in terms
of scope and choice. Life becomes in many respects more open and malleable.
But it also means that new demands, controls and obligations fall upon the
individual (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996: 139).
On one side, thus, individualisation involves the disintegration of the social forms which
tended to prescribe, as it were, 'ready-made' biographies. On the other side, having to create
their own biographies, individuals become tied into a network of new constraints and
regulations, which they must 'import into their biographies through their own action' (Beck
& Beck-Gernsheim, 1996: 25). Several contradictory processes are involved in
individualisation:
Individualisation at the same time implies a heightening of the subjective
latitudes open to freedom and complete dependence on the market, liberation
and standardisation of expression, heightened self-referentiality and external
control pushed almost to the limits of what is bearable (Berking, 1996: 195).
Notwithstanding these contradictory aspects, the basic argument underlying the notion of
individualisation is that 'there are fewer and fewer unquestionably given paths of life
conduct available' (Berking, 1996: 195), and that the individual has no choice but to be
actively engaged in the tracing of his or her own paths of life.
The same authors who dispute the idea that contemporary society is a
detraditionalised society are often equally critical of the idea of individualisation. The two
arguments are indeed closely connected, insofar as the notion of individualisation refers to
the 'detraditionalisation of the self' (Rose, 1996: 322). For a number of authors, ‘the whole
analytic of individualisation is misplaced’ (Ibid.: 309). Rose, for example, contests the
argument that individualisation is a phenomenon characteristic of late modernity: ‘there is
nothing unprecedented about an intense problematisation of the conduct of the self. Neither
plurality, choice or voluntarism seems peculiar to the present’ (Ibid.: 307). More
specifically:
It is not useful to oppose ‘traditional’ practices which problematize human
beings in terms of allegiance – to a community – a lineage or a group – and
‘modern’ practices which problematize them in terms of individuality and
autonomy (Ibid.: 309).
What is peculiar to the present, according to Rose, is the complex of diversified 'authorities
of subjectification', which shape the relations that people establish with themselves. ‘The
distinctiveness of our present modes of subjectification must be understood in relation to
the plethora of new rationalities and technologies for the government of conduct that have
been deployed since the start of the nineteenth century’ (Ibid.: 312-3).
In response to the criticism that ‘individualisation’, as defined by theorists of
reflexive modernity, is by no means ‘new’, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim make the same
argument as the one presented in the preceding section about the reflexive project of the
self. They agree that the imperative of leading a life of one's own is not new, but argue that
what is historically new is that it 'is now being demanded of more and more people and, in
the limiting case, of all', instead of being expected of a few, as it was the case before (Beck
and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996: 32-3). The authors thus point to a 'democratization of
individualization processes', but they make it clear that this democratisation involves
'precarious freedoms': the fact that people have no choice but to lead a life of their own can
give rise to new forms of alienation and distress. As they put it, 'failure and inalienable
freedom live in close proximity and perhaps intermingle' (Ibid.: 31).
The main difficulty with the individualisation thesis, in my view, lies beyond the
question of determining how ‘new’ the process of individualisation really is. It lies, rather,
in the argument about an ‘individualised consciousness’, that is, about the transformation
of people’s ‘ontology through which we think ourselves’ (Rose, 1996: 319). This ‘new’
ontology or consciousness, according to theorists of individualisation, amounts to ‘the
dissolution of the social into the self’, insofar as it consists in re-defining 'social' problems
and processes in terms of individual and personal problems. The idea that, in contemporary
society, forms and conditions of existence have increasingly to be individually chosen and
treated as such, implies that 'society' must be seen 'as a variable which we can manipulate’
(Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). For Beck, individualisation means that social conditions,
crises and inequalities are redefined in a way which enables people to treat them as the
result of individual decisions.
Of course, Beck does not suggest that social conditions and inequalities disappear;
rather, they are ‘redefined in terms of an individualisation of social risks’ (Beck,
1992a: 100). This means that people, in his view, see the social conditions and inequalities
that impinge upon their lives as areas of decisions under their control and responsibility. In
Beck's terms:
The institutional conditions that determine individuals are no longer just
events and conditions that happen to them, but also consequences of the
decisions they themselves have made, which they must view and treat as such
(Ibid.: 136).
The ‘dissolution of the social into the self’ thus refers to the development, in conditions of
reflexive modernity, of an ‘individualised consciousness’ which implies that ‘[s]ocial crises
appear as individual crises, which are no longer perceived (or are only very indirectly) in
terms of their rootedness in the social realm’ (Ibid.: 100). This consciousness, in my view,
presupposes what can be seen as a ‘self-imposed blindness’, which consists in ‘forgetting’,
as it were, that one does not possess the resources to forge and to direct one’s own
biography. In Berking’s terms:
Every individual human being finds himself bound to write the scenarios of
his own life, to survey the maps of his own social orientations, to direct his
own biography, his personality and his self, even though he is, in advance, in
no way in possession of the resources required to do so (Berking, 1996: 195).
Several authors outside the reflexive modernity debate have made a similar argument
about the ‘individualised consciousness’ of lay people in current society, and have
condemned the process of ‘dissolution of the social into the self’ that it involves. Although
he does not use the term of 'individualisation' as such, Sennett's argument in The Fall of
Public Man (1977) clearly illustrates the view that contemporary society, which he terms
'intimate society', is endangered by a process of dissolution of the social into the self22:
In an intimate society, all social phenomena, no matter how impersonal in
structure, are converted into matters of personality in order to have a meaning.
One's 'class' seems to be a product of personal drive and ability rather than of a
systematic social determination (Sennett, 1977: 219).
This process means that 'people are working out in terms of personal feelings public
matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning'
(Sennett, 1977: 5). They try to solve public problems 'by denying that the public exists'
(Ibid.: 27). Far from fostering individual capacity for action, this process, for Sennett,
implies the paralysis of action, since what is personalised and privatised comes to be seen
as fixed and immutable, and therefore immune to deliberate change. In his terms:
To the extent that people feel their social class is a product of their personal
qualities and abilities, it is hard for them to conceive of playing with the
conditions of class - they would be changing themselves [...] Play with the
facts of class becomes hard, because one would seem to be playing with facts
very close to the inner nature of the self (Ibid.: 267-8).
In a related vein, Christopher Lasch has argued that contemporary society23 is
fundamentally 'narcissistic', in the sense that it is characterised by an 'intense preoccupation
with the self'24 (Lasch, 1979: 25). This narcissism, in his view, is deeply alienating in the
extent to which it is based on an escalating form of dependency on experts and expert
knowledge. Lasch deplores, for example, that 'men and women no longer manage even to
raise their children without the help of certified experts' (Lasch, 1979: 10). Lasch is very
22 For Sennett, the dissolution of the 'public' into the 'personal' is the result of a process
'that began with the fall of the ancien régime and the formation of a new capitalist secular,
urban culture' (Sennett, 1977: 16).
23 Lasch is referring more particularly to American society.
24 Although Sennett and Lasch, in my view, make the similar argument that contemporary
society involves 'the collapse of the social into the self', Lasch firmly distinguishes his
position from that of Sennett. More precisely, Lasch criticizes Sennett's conception of
public life which is based on a mistaken 'eagerness to restore a distinction between public
and private life' (Lasch, 1979: 30).
critical of the 'new therapies' which, in his view, 'obscure the social origins of the suffering
that is painfully but falsely experienced as purely personal and private' (Lasch, 1979: 30).
It is right to say, in my view, that conditions of reflexive modernity imply a shift in
the way people think themselves and think their relation to the world. What should be
questioned, however, is the argument that such a transformation amounts to the rise of an
‘individualised consciousness’ that implies the negation of the social dimension. Beck,
Sennett and Lasch all argue, albeit from different perspectives, that an increasing number
of ‘social’ or ‘public’ issues are now viewed by lay agents as personal 'problems' that have
to be dealt with on an individual basis. In their view, the responsibility for issues
encountered in day-to-day life is increasingly placed on the individual rather than on
'society'. Modern expertise is seen as a crucial element involved in the ‘dissolution’ of the
social, insofar as it is based on the assumption that the difficulties that one encounters in
day-to-day life can be treated as 'solvable' problems, and can be resolved by the use of
appropriate expert knowledge. Therefore expertise contributes to the privatisation of social
problems, and to the tendency to place responsibility for them on the individual.
This argument about modern expertise has also been made by theorists studying
professions and professionalisation. Zola, for example, has denounced the tendency of
experts and professionals to use 'the metaphor, health and illness, as an explanatory
variable if not the explanation itself of a host of social problems’ (Zola, 1977: 62). For him,
'any problem viewed in terms of "illness" is by definition not social and at the same time
the expected level of intervention is also not social' (Zola, 1977: 62): 'any emphasis on the
[label "illness"] inevitably locates the source of trouble as well as the place of treatment
primarily in individuals’ (Ibid.: 62). Professionals, by labelling a vast range of problems as
‘illnesses’, place the responsibility for these problems on the individual. This process, in
Zola's view, is fundamentally disempowering, for it means that individuals are supposed to
solve problems which, in fact, largely escape individual capacity for action, and cannot be
solved by individual action alone.
Sociologists, whose very existence draw upon the creation of the ‘social’, should
indeed be greatly preoccupied with the prospect of a ‘dissolution of the social into the self’
brought by conditions and reflexive modernity, and fuelled by modern expertise. Yet, in
my view, we are far from witnessing such a dissolution of the social into the self in lay
people’s consciousness. As suggested earlier in this chapter, it is certainly the case that
contemporary society involves a re-definition of the individual's sense of capacity for
action, control and responsibility. This re-definition, however, does not imply the mere
negation of the social. It is, in my view, much more multi-faceted and ambivalent than this.
Although individuals have to treat their conditions of existence as the product of their own
decisions, they are, at the same time, increasingly aware that many features of their day-today lives are part of global processes which escape their individual control. One only has to
think of 'the agenda of global problems in which all people are involved […] - with respect
to food, energy, resources, inflation and pollution' (Alger, 1980: 156).
It is mistaken, in my view, to assume that people now have an 'individualised
consciousness' which implies that they are unaware of the social, supra-individual character
of many features of their day-to-day lives. On the contrary, it can be argued that they are
increasingly aware of the 'embeddedness' of day-to-day life in large-ranged social
processes. Such an awareness, as Thompson has argued, is tied up with the omnipresence
of mass media in day-to-day life : ‘as our biographies are opened up by mediated
experience, we also find ourselves drawn into issues and social relations which extend well
beyond the locales of our day-to-day lives’ (Thompson, 1995: 233). Thus the argument
about people’s consciousness, or ‘ontology’, in a period of reflexive modernity, should start
with the recognition that people are aware both that an increasing number of phenomena
directly impinging upon their day-to-day lives are beyond individual control, and that the
contemporary way to 'go on' in life is to 'forge' their own conditions of existence and to
treat them as if they were the products of their decisions. It is in that sense that, in my view,
individualisation is a much more ambivalent process than what has usually been assumed
by those announcing the 'dissolution of the social into the self'25.
25 In a different context - namely the analysis of the 'postmodern condition' and of the
condition of knowledge in contemporary society – Lyotard rejects the view that the
In short, I suggest that conditions of 'reflexive modernity' involve a fundamental
tension between one's sense of control and capacity for action, on one hand, and one's sense
of responsibility, on the other. This tension can be described as the imperative, for each
individual, to 'invent' a conception of responsibility and of what 'making a difference'
means, in a world when it can no longer be assumed that responsibility derives from
control. The crucial link between control and responsibility is a fundamental assumption in
Jonas' (1984) discussion of contemporary ethics. In order to feel responsible for a particular
process, one needs to have a sense of his or her capacity to act on this process and to
control it:
The first and most general condition of responsibility is causal power, that
is, that acting makes an impact on the world; the second, that such acting
is under the agent’s control; and third, that he can foresee its consequences
to some extent (Jonas, 1984: 90).
A fundamental issue in contemporary society is the necessity of maintaining a sense of
responsibility vis-à-vis global issues, especially issues regarding destructive consequences
of technological development, which are beyond individual control, but for which everyone
nevertheless ought to feel responsible, in order for society as a whole to acknowledge both
the possibility and the necessity of addressing these issues. Jonas' 'imperative of
responsibility', in my view, refers not only to the novel powers brought by technology, but
also more generally to new dialectical relations between individual action and large-scale
social phenomena.
***
There are important arguments which support the generic term of ‘reflexive
modernity’, that Beck, Giddens, and others, have used for characterising contemporary
breaking up of the 'grand Narratives' leads to 'the dissolution of the social bond and the
disintegration of social aggregates into a mass of individual atoms' (Lyotard, 1984: 15).
Although it is true that 'each individual is referred to himself' and that 'a self does not
amount to much', Lyotard opposes the thesis of the dissolution of the social into the self by
stressing that 'each [self] exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and
mobile than ever before' (Ibid.).
society. This chapter has focused more specifically on the claims about ‘individual
reflexivity’ and the ‘reflexivity of the self’, which refer to the particular reflexive posture
that lay people have adopted with respect to their own day-to-day lives and to the
fashioning of their own self-identities. Every individual is said to be engaged in a ‘reflexive
project of the self’ in which expert knowledge, as an important reflexive resource, plays a
crucial role. Lay people routinely appropriate expert knowledge in order to deal with a
‘problematised’ day-to-day life. While accepting the general claim that there is a particular
form of ‘reflexivity of the self’ which marks the way in which one deals with day-to-day
life in contemporary society, I have stressed several difficulties regarding particular
assumptions of the ‘reflexive modernity thesis’.
First, I have suggested that it might not be reflexivity as such which distinguishes
the contemporary way in which individuals make sense of their world and of their own
identities, as much as the particular form, or ‘mode’, that such individual reflexivity now
takes. What might be characteristic of the current period is, first, the accent on the
discursive component of reflexivity and, second, the unprecedented role played by expert
knowledge in the reflexivity of the self. A third component of the contemporary ‘mode of
reflexivity’ (Law, 1994: 138) will be explored later in the dissertation; it refers to
‘sociological imagination’ that is, to a particular way of connecting the social to the
individual. Second, critics are right, in my view, in claiming that theorists of reflexive
modernity have tended to neglect, or to undermine, important forms of inequality that are
embedded in the ‘new’ reflexivity of the self. Third, I have argued that the concept of
‘individualisation’, as developed by Beck and Giddens, is deeply misleading insofar as it
suggests that lay people have an ‘individualised consciousness’ which is a form of
blindness to those social conditions and processes on which individuals have little control.
Conditions of reflexive modernity, in my view, imply a crucial re-definition of the way one
may articulate individual control – or, rather, the lack of individual control –, individual
responsibility, and action, both individual and collective. As will be developed in
subsequent chapters, this fundamental – and quasi ‘existential’ – issue about control,
responsibility, and action, is at core of a ‘lay sociological imagination’.
CHAPTER 2
SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE AS A DAY-TO-DAY 'REFLEXIVE RESOURCE'
Social scientists have had to face a great deal of scepticism as to the actual uses and
usefulness of social science knowledge in contemporary society. This scepticism often
stems from the comparison between social and natural science, the latter's usefulness and
achievements being generally considered as much more obvious and indisputable than the
former's. Social scientists, when assessing the impact of social science knowledge on
contemporary society, usually make a number of implicit assumptions which pertain to an
instrumental conception of knowledge use, even when they explicitly reject what has been
called the 'engineering model'. The scepticism regarding the usefulness of social science 'is
to an important extent indebted to a restrictive if not erroneous conception of how social
science becomes 'useful' or succeeds' (Stehr, 1996: 1.2). This chapter in part aims at
examining a dominant conception of social science’s usefulness and to propose an
alternative conception which, in my view, is more in tune with the place of social science
knowledge in a period of ‘reflexive modernity’.
Social scientists have traditionally assumed that the primary 'users' of social science
knowledge are policy-makers or other experts involved directly or indirectly in policymaking. The 'use' of social science knowledge by lay people has only been addressed
marginally, and in two different – and, in my view, equally inadequate - ways. First, social
scientists have discussed the ideological and negative effects of social science knowledge
on 'lay people'; in this view, the use of social science knowledge by lay people is more
aptly described as a form of 'abuse' of scientific knowledge. Second, the 'use' of social
science knowledge by lay people has sometimes been analysed as a long-term and chancy
process whereby social science knowledge is gradually incorporated into the 'culture' of
society. In both cases, lay people are never considered to be active and competent 'users' of
social science knowledge. In the present chapter, I examine the argument, suggested in the
first chapter, that social science knowledge has become an omnipresent and everyday
‘reflexive’ resource, upon which people regularly draw for making sense of their world and
for the construction of self-identity. This argument implies the revision of a number of
traditional assumptions that have guided social scientists’ work about the 'uses' of social
science in contemporary society.
2.1 TRADITIONAL ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT
THE 'USES' OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE
2.1.1 Assumption 1: 'policy-makers are the primary users of social science
knowledge'
Concrete studies about the uses of social science knowledge in contemporary
society amounts to studies about the relationship between social science and policy-making.
A major assumption in the debate about social science’s usefulness is that the foremost
users of social science knowledge are policy-makers, or other experts and decision-makers
directly or indirectly related to the state and to policy-making. This taken-for-granted
assumption has been well-identified by Boggs:
Many studies of social knowledge use assume that seemingly by definition the
'knowledge user' is a decision maker - a person who holds a responsible
position of authority within an institution. This identity of knowledge use with
managerial authority appears in such analyses as unproblematical, fixed, or
resting on self-evident premises (Boggs, 1992: 52).
This assumption is based on the belief that the use of scientific knowledge requires specific
skills and conditions which are possessed by only a restricted and well-identified portion of
the population.
The development of social science has been narrowly connected to the development
of the state. Numerous studies in the past fifteen years have shown that this relation is less
straightforward than was traditionally assumed, and that it can vary significantly from one
country to the other26. The symbiotic relationship between social science and the state
developed first and foremost in liberal-democratic societies, which 'are almost certainly the
most hungry for social knowledge, and the most congenial to the growth and political
26 See Bulmer (ed.) (1987); Nathan (1988); Oberschall (ed.) (1972); Wagner, Wittrock & Whitley (eds)
(1991); Wagner et al. (eds) (1991); Weiss (ed.) (1977).
application of the social sciences' (Skocpol, 1987: 41)27. In these societies, the growth of
social science knowledge certainly contributed to the growth of state power’ (Holzner &
Marx, 1979: 31), and vice versa.
The growth of social science was supported by the state as long as it was assumed
that social science knowledge could contribute to the achievement of a better control and
regulation of society. Such an assumption was itself based on a particular conception of
social science - built around a strong concept of ‘causality’, and on a particular conception
of the state as the chief 'regulator' of society:
There is a symbiotic relationship between a mode of social scientific
explanation which defines human agents as objects whose behaviour is
determined by causal forces and a form of governance which relies on the
instrumental manipulation of those forces for the achievement of social
objectives and the maintenance of social order (Jennings, 1983: 34).
The symbiotic relationship between social science and the state was even stronger with the
development of the Welfare State, particularly in the United States, where the demand for
sociological knowledge partly resulted from 'the concerns of a society and a state wishing
to alleviate the inadequacies of a market economy' (Bellah, 1983: 50).
The type of social science knowledge with which governments were chiefly
concerned can be termed ‘factual social knowledge’ (Holzner & Marx, 1979: 31). That is,
social science was to produce ‘social facts’ rooted in the scientific observation of society,
about various aspects of society which the state wanted to reform or regulate. The state’s
demand for social facts was particularly strong in the nineteenth century, and particularly in
England. As Cole notes, 'a definite product of the nineteenth century was the belief that
views of society not based upon hard data were untrustworthy' (Cole, 1972: 97). For some
time, it was assumed that relevant factual knowledge about 'social issues' – for example,
27 This is so, in Skocpol's view, since 'the rise of the modern "public sphere", in which voluntary groups
propose ameliorative measures in the collective interest or in their own interest, fuels the search for
information and analysis about social problems' (Skocpol, 1987: 41).
poverty - was almost sufficient in itself to instigate adequate reforms. Social reformers in
the nineteenth century 'often believed that all that had to be done to bring about reform was
to publicise the shocking living conditions of the working classes' (Cole, 1972: 100). The
nineteenth century in England was a period in which 'people became increasingly interested
in the facts of their existence' (Cole, 1972: 96), this interest being rooted in the far-reaching
changes brought about by the industrial revolution. In particular, 'the growth of a large and
isolated factory working class created as much curiosity as it did fear (Ibid.). As early as the
1830s and 1840s, then, social surveys were conducted 'with the aim of investigating the
conditions of the working classes' (Ibid.: 82).
The notion of ‘social facts’ is coextensive with the development of statistics, and
with the application of statistical analysis to social phenomena. As Hacking puts it, 'social
facts simply became facts that are statistical in character' (Hacking, 1991: 182). Although it
has been shown that 'since nations began there have been records of a statistical character'
(Hankins, 1908: 36), statisticians like Quetelet in the nineteenth century extended the scope
of statistical inquiry to social phenomena like suicide, court convictions, prostitution,
marriages, divorces, thereby creating the new field of 'moral statistics'28. Quetelet
developed the field of 'moral statistics' with the conviction that there are social laws
comparable to the laws of physics (Hankins, 1908: 106): ‘many moral statisticians sought
to establish inductive laws and quantitative empirical generalisations about population,
society, and social processes’ (Oberschall, 1972: 3). In other words, the idea of statistical
‘social facts’ is based on a particular form of ‘empiricism’ (Bulmer, 1982: 31; Cole,
1972: 98), that is, on 'a conception of social research involving the production of accurate
data in which the data themselves constitute an end of the research' (Bulmer, 1982: 3).
Many social scientists today are quick to dismiss the view that social science is
primarily useful as a 'superior kind of fact-gathering' (Bulmer, 1982: 31), and that the
28
The term 'moral statistics' was originally coined by Guerry, but Quetelet gave it its
significance as a particular field of statistical inquiry dealing with 'such individual actions
commonly classed as moral or immoral' (Hankins, 1908: 83). Crime, in the nineteenth
century, was used as an indicator of the morality of the British nation and, therefore,
'researchers thought that if the causes of crime could be discovered, these would also be the
causes of "immorality'" (Cole, 1972: 86).
production of ‘social facts’ can be an end in itself. Although the production of ‘facts’ still
figures among the critical tasks of social science, the idea that facts ‘speak for themselves’
has gradually been abandoned by social scientists and policy-makers alike. The idea of
‘social facts’, to some extent, has been disconnected from its empiricist epistemological
framework. Producing social facts is now viewed as an active process of location,
construction and labelling of social phenomena. The role of social scientists, in this respect,
is to 'make accessible dimensions of social life which have to be labelled if they are to be
accessed by a policy effort' (Prewitt, 1983: 303). Prewitt gives illustrations such as the
notions of 'hidden economy' or 'juvenile delinquency', which are notions 'whose meaning
has either started in the social sciences or has moved from ordinary language to the social
sciences and then returned to policy discussions bearing the added meaning fixed upon
them by research' (Prewitt, 1983: 302). This capacity to locate and label phenomena gives
to social science a powerful role in the policy process (Ibid.: 303).
Social science's symbiotic relationship with the modern state was based originally
on the belief in the knowledge/control correlation, that is, on the belief that ‘effectivity of
control and correctness of knowledge are tightly related’ (Bauman, 1987: 4)29. Social
scientists today are well aware that the increasing production of social science knowledge
has not been paralleled by a better control of society, although they seldom relate this
finding to the radicalisation of society's reflexivity30, invoking instead dubious arguments
about the 'complexity' of social phenomena, or of the policy-making process. Social
scientists in general do not relate the dislocation between knowledge and control to
processes of appropriation of social science knowledge by a large range of groups and
individuals, who are not necessarily experts involved in policy-making. Their basic
29 Such a belief, in Bauman's terms, refers to a 'modern view of the world' (Bauman 1987: 3-4), in contrast to
the ‘post-modern view’ that characterizes the current period, and which is based on the recognition of the
‘relativity of knowledge’ and of the dislocation of the knowledge/control relationship (Ibid.). As has been
argued in the preceding chapter, the divorce between knowledge and control is a major point of the reflexive
modernity thesis. In the latter, however, this divorce is tied up not so much with the so-called ‘relativity of
knowledge’, as with the fact that possibilities of control and prediction are systematically undermined by the
intensification of the process of re-appropriation of knowledge by the agents constituting its 'object-matter'.
This point is developed further in the third chapter.
30 Cf. chapter one (section 1.1.1).
assumption often remains, namely that the 'users' of social science knowledge are - and
should be - primarily policy-makers and other experts.
2.1.2 Assumption 2: 'the use of social science knowledge can be controlled
and evaluated'
A second major assumption pervading the debate about the use of social science
knowledge in contemporary society is that the use process can be circumscribed, observed
and evaluated: social scientists assume that they can, to some extent, control and assess the
uses made of the knowledge they produce. Two main 'models of relevance' (Rule,
1978: 27) have been developed in order to interpret the ways in which social science
knowledge is used by, and useful for, policy-makers. These two models are called the
'engineering model' and the 'enlightenment model'. The former is also referred to as the
'instrumental model', or as the 'problem-solving model' (Weiss, 1986b: 32). In the past, the
engineering model has represented an 'ideal' that many social scientists tried to reach and,
to some extent, it still does. Directly borrowed from natural science31, its main assumption
is that factual social knowledge can serve to identify 'social problems' and to provide
solutions to them (Zetterberg, 1962: 15).
According to the engineering model, social science knowledge can enter the policymaking process in either of two ways. Either the 'research antedates the policy problem and
is drawn in on need' (Weiss, 1986b: 33-4), or policy-makers engage in the 'purposeful
commissioning of social science research and analysis to fill the knowledge gap' (Ibid.)32.
In both cases, it is assumed that social scientists can be ‘engineers of social life’, by
providing ‘the evidence and conclusions to help solve a policy problem’ (Bulmer,
1982: 42). Proponents of the engineering model tend to assume that social science
knowledge consists in a number of 'laws' that are 'confirmed and trustworthy, and which
31 Although it has been convincingly argued that this model is not an accurate representation of the way
knowledge is put into use in natural science (Weiss, 1986b: 32).
32 These two situations refer respectively to what Weiss (1986b) calls 'the knowledge-driven model' and the
'problem-solving model'. The basic assumption of the former is that 'the sheer fact that knowledge exists
presses it towards development and use' (p. 32), whereas in the 'problem-solving model', it is a particular
policy problem which dictates the utilisation of social science knowledge.
should guide the practice of "social practitioners"' (Zetterberg, 1962: 47). Although all the
defenders of the engineering model do not share Zetterberg's conviction as to the law-like
character of social science knowledge, they at least maintain that social science knowledge
can help to clarify problematic situations and reduce uncertainty, and that it influences
policy decisions in a direct, significant, and indisputable way (Weiss, 1986b: 33).
The short-lived optimism associated with the engineering model has gradually given
place to the recognition that instrumentality seldom characterises the way policy-makers
make use of social science knowledge33. Social scientists have had to confront the
disturbing conclusion that, when exploring empirically how social science knowledge is
actually used by policy-makers, the ‘engineering model’, in the vast majority of cases, does
not seem to apply (Bulmer, 1990: 128). Social scientists could hardly find cases where
particular knowledge claims originating in social science had enabled the analysis and the
resolution of a particular policy problem. Direct linkages between study results and policy
decisions seem to be the exception rather than the rule (Weiss, 1983: 219). Policy-makers,
in general, cannot point to instances in which their decisions were directly altered by
specific knowledge claims made by social scientists (Lindblom & Cohen, 1979: 5). The
empirical disavowal of the engineering model first led to pessimistic statements by social
scientists as to the real usefulness of their work. Even today, the engineering model remains
the prevailing imagery of research utilisation, a prevalence which, as Weiss puts it,
'accounts for much of the disillusionment about the contribution of social science research
to social policy' (Weiss, 1986b: 35).
Such disillusionment is paralleled by a more constructive attitude which searches
for an alternative model which would make sense more realistically of the concrete ways
whereby policy-makers 'use' social science knowledge. This alternative model has been
termed the 'enlightenment model'. Its fundamental assumption is that, although not used in
an instrumental way, social science knowledge nevertheless has a diffuse impact on the
‘frames of meaning’ used by policy-makers, who are thereby ‘enlightened’ by social
33 The dismissal of the 'engineering model' of knowledge has been paralleled by the dismissal of the 'rational
model' of policy-making (Bulmer, 1986: 16).
science knowledge. ‘Enlightenment’, in this context, means that social science can provide
frames of meaning that can change the way in which social phenomena are seen and
understood, but without pretending to provide technical solutions to social issues (Bulmer,
1982), or to facilitate intervention along strictly predictable lines (Becker, 1990: 11). The
enlightenment model, thus, is comforting for social scientists, since it states that ‘while the
immediate relevance of social research, both applied and basic, is limited, in the long run it
does shape both mass and elite perceptions of social and political reality’ (Wilensky, 1997 :
10).
The notion of enlightenment points to a discursive and conceptual type of
knowledge use, rather than a technical and instrumental use (Booth, 1990: 84). The
enlightenment model suggests that social science knowledge can have an impact on the
shape and content of policy discourse, rather than on concrete choices made by policymakers (Weiss, 1986: 219). In Bulmer’s terms:
Social research and social science [...] provide enlightenment and
understanding, an angle of vision upon the problems of the world which may
influence decision-makers and the policy process but does not provide neat
technical solutions that can be applied in any simple manner (Bulmer,
1982: xiii).
This perspective leads to a reassessment of the so-called ‘failure’, according to the
engineering model, of social science: 'what was typically characterised as underuse or
nonuse of research can generally be attributed to a mistaken appreciation of how research is
actually used by decision makers' (Booth, 1990: 81). The kind of knowledge involved in
the enlightenment model is ‘knowledge for understanding’, in opposition to the ‘knowledge
for action’ characteristic of the engineering model (Rich, 1977). For the proponents of the
enlightenment model, the conceptual uses of social science knowledge ‘should not be
viewed as failures to translate research findings into action’ (Rich, 1977: 209).
Janowitz (1970) is often cited as one of the first social scientists to discuss the uses
of social science in terms of the opposition between the engineering and the enlightenment
models. Whereas the engineering model draws on the figure of the social scientist as an
'applied researcher' who collects empirical data in order to solve specific problems
(Janowitz, 1970: 248), the enlightenment model emphasises the role of the social scientist
as a 'teacher' who recognises that he or she 'is part of the social process and not outside of it'
(Ibid.: 250). In the engineering model, it is assumed that social phenomena can be isolated
and investigated in terms of cause-and-effect relations (Ibid.: 252). In contrast, the
enlightenment model 'assumes the overriding importance of the social context, and focuses
on developing different types of knowledge which can be utilised by policy-makers and
professions' (Ibid.: 252).
Enlightenment does not necessarily concern the search for solutions to policy
problems. Rather, it can consist in turning what were non-problems into policy problems, as
in the case of child abuse (Weiss, 1986b: 38); or, conversely, it can consist in turning policy
problems into non-problems, as in the case of marijuana use (Ibid.). Enlightenment often
implies the 'revision of the way policy-makers define issues, [...] the facets of the issue they
view as susceptible to alteration, and the alternative measures they consider' (Ibid.). In sum:
Research is useful not only when it helps to solve problems. It is also useful
when it questions existing perspectives and definitions of the problematic.
Decision-makers indicate that research can make contributions to their work by
challenging ideas currently in vogue and providing alternative cognitive maps
(Weiss, 1980: 98).
Rather than problem-solving, the enlightenment model thus focuses on the definition and
conceptualisation of social issues, which can be transformed through the use of social
science knowledge by policy-makers. ‘Rational enlightenment’, in Wilensky’s terms,
consists in ‘raising the consciousness of policy-makers’ in two ways: first, ‘it helps to
specify what areas are most open to choices and maneuver and what forces are beyond the
control of policy makers’ and, second, ‘it brings to view new policy options and a wider
range of possibilities’ (Ibid. : 10).
The enlightenment model has not entirely supplanted the ‘engineering model’;
many authors present the two models as two distinct forms of relevance of social science
knowledge, which are valid in different circumstances34 (Abrams, 1985: 182). Accordingly,
they have put forward typologies of uses of social science knowledge that combine the
engineering model and the enlightenment model. The engineering model, however, is
increasingly seen as being restricted to a small proportion of knowledge claims and to very
specific circumstances, whereas the latter is presented as the most frequent and general way
by which social science knowledge is used by policy-makers (Abrams, 1985; Bryant &
Becker, 1990). Bulmer (1982), for example, presents a typology of three possible
relationships between social science knowledge and policy, namely 'empiricism',
'engineering', and 'enlightenment'. He quickly dismisses the first two, by stressing the
‘poverty of empiricism’ and the ‘doubtful usefulness of an engineering model of
application'. Enlightenment, in contrast, is presented as the most promising relationship
between social science and policy-making (Bulmer, 1982: 49).
The notion of 'enlightenment' is useful to the extent that it rejects a strictly
instrumental conception of knowledge use, and points instead to a conceptual and indirect
effect of social science knowledge on the 'frames of meaning' of the people who 'use' it. It is
useful insofar as it opens the gate to the revision of the first assumption examined in this
chapter, namely the assumption that policy-makers are the foremost users of social science
knowledge: the enlightenment model suggests that the population at large, rather than
policy-makers alone, can be 'enlightened' by social science knowledge. Another strength of
the enlightenment model is also that it implies that the 'conceptual' uses of social science
cannot be easily grasped and easily controlled. As Finch puts it: '[i]f you expect the impact
of your research to be indirect, then you must also accept that you lose control over it'
(1993: 151). Yet the proponents of the enlightenment model, however, have tried to resist,
as it were, these two implications, namely that people at large can be 'enlightened' by social
science knowledge, and that 'enlightenment' is a process which is not easily controllable.
Social scientists’ position regarding the enlightenment model is ambivalent. On one hand,
they are uncomfortable with the enlightenment model, insofar as it implies that the uses of
34 In support of the engineering model, Rothman, for example, reports that several of the decision-makers he
had interviewed in the British Social Service Departments 'cited instances in which factual information has
aided in specific, short-term service questions, such as with multiple offender delinquents [...] and day-care
for the elderly' (Rothman, 1980: 158).
social science escape their control and their capacity to grasp and demonstrate them. They
are in favour of the enlightenment model, on the other hand, to the extent that it predicts
that social science knowledge will have a positive and inevitable impact on 'enlightened
citizens'. In other words, the enlightenment model allows social scientists a very passive
and irresponsible role in the use process. It predicts a long-term diffusion of knowledge
towards its potential 'users', and an emancipatory impact on its 'users, regardless of the
knowledge claims, the 'users', or the context. For these reasons, the enlightenment model, in
my view, has not done much to renew and advance the debate about the uses of social
science knowledge in contemporary society.
2.1.3 Assumption 3: 'the use of social science knowledge by lay people is an
indirect, long-term and chancy process'
I have argued that policy-makers are generally considered to be the foremost 'users'
of social science knowledge and that the latter's enlightening impact on policy-making is
seen as its major form of usefulness. Ultimately, of course, the argument is that social
science is useful for society at large. In this perspective, lay people, however, never benefit
from social science knowledge in a direct way; they do not 'use' social science knowledge
as an active and conscious activity; rather, they can be 'influenced' by social science
knowledge as the latter comes to be incorporated into society's general culture. Bulmer
describes this long-term process as follows:
The findings and ideas which are put forward come in time to be part of the
general culture, and specific social science theories and findings may become
part of the defensive ideology of particular groups, as in the influence of social
research on the self-perceptions of criminals and delinquents (Bulmer,
1986: 128).
For Bulmer, the long-term character of this process partly explains why social scientists
have tended to be oblivious of it. The tendency among social scientists is often to look for
short-term 'applications' of social science knowledge, rather than exploring its 'long-term
influence' on culture. In contrast, Bulmer argues that 'some of the effects of sociological
understanding operate over a very long time-period, for example in influencing social
beliefs and practices about the position of racial minorities or women' (Bulmer, 1990: 129).
Bulmer mentions, for example, The National Commission on Civil Disorders set up
in 1968 in the USA, which employed various social scientists. In his view, the policy
recommendations produced by this commission had little immediate impact on American
social policy, but its impact upon public opinion was considerable, especially since a
paperback edition of the commission report was published and became a best-seller
(Bulmer, 1986: 21). Bulmer's conclusion about this particular commission is that 'even
though the commission work had little immediate impact upon government, it exercised a
considerable longer-term influence upon how white Americans saw issues of racial
inequality and disadvantage' (Ibid.: 21). In Britain, Bulmer draws a similar conclusion from
the analysis of the British Committee on Higher Education which, in the sixties, performed
an ‘enlightenment function’, in that it contributed to a change in the climate of opinion
regarding educational opportunity (Bulmer, 1986: 20).
When discussing the usefulness of social science knowledge for 'lay people', social
scientists tend to describe a process in which the knowledgeability and the active
participation of the people in this process is largely undermined, or not referred to at all.
Cherns refers to 'changes in the climate of opinion' or, more precisely, to changes 'in
people's belief systems', which represent, in his view, 'the most obvious, the slowest and
most chancy' way in which social research gets 'applied' (Cherns, 1979: 113). In a related
vein, Abrams, in his typology of the various possible 'uses' of sociological knowledge,
mentions ‘education’ as a long-term use of sociological knowledge aimed not so much at
policy-makers but, rather, at ‘the innocent’ (1985: 184). 'Teaching the innocent’, in his
view, ‘is a matter of changing the world through the next, or the next twenty, generations’
(Abrams, 1985: 184).
When social scientists have actually acknowledged the more direct ways whereby
social science knowledge is used by 'lay people', it is often to show that such a use is more
a form of 'misuse' or 'abuse' of scientific knowledge (Heller, 1986; Stafford & Ladner,
1990). The impact of social science knowledge on 'lay people' has sometimes been referred
to as the ‘ideological effects’ of social science knowledge, 'ideological' being understood in
a negative way. Wrong, for example, denounces the ideological use of social science
concepts and ideas by 'lay people', and explicitly indicates that he is using the term
'ideological' pejoratively (1977: 82). Terms like 'identity crisis', 'loss of community',
'organisation man', and so on, 'become blurred as a result of wide and rapid circulation' [...]
[and] each individual word loses its conceptual clarity in contributing to an overall tonal
effect' (Ibid.: 83). Wrong is aware that the diffusion throughout society of social science
concepts and ideas cannot be stopped, and that it cannot be easily controlled by social
scientists, since 'communication between social scientists and a larger public is so rapid and
extensive today that even the most arid neologisms quickly reach a wide audience'
(Ibid.: 84). What he suggests, however, is to 'restore something of the original terms, while
simultaneously taking into account the resonance they have acquired, as their creators
obviously could not' (Ibid.: 84). In Wrong’s perspective, the ‘use’ of social science
knowledge by 'lay people' is a regrettable process which hinders the 'proper' development
of social science. Such a perspective, as is developed in the second part of the chapter, is
typical of a traditional conception about the use of scientific knowledge which has been
dominant in social science.
The three assumptions presented in this first part of the chapter have obscured, in
my view, the issue of the use of social science knowledge in today’s society. They make it
impossible to acknowledge that a crucial form of 'use' of social science knowledge consists
in its routine appropriation by 'lay people', who view social science knowledge as an
ordinary ‘reflexive resource’. In what follows, I examine the arguments that should prompt
social scientists to revise the traditional assumptions which have dominated the debate
about the use and the usefulness of social science.
2.2 SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE AS A REFLEXIVE RESOURCE
2.2.1 The diffusion of social science knowledge
In a work aimed at exploring the new dynamics of science and research in
contemporary society, Gibbons et al. argue that a new form of knowledge production -
which they call Mode 2 - is emerging alongside the traditional one - Mode 1 (Gibbons et
al., 1994: vii). Characteristics of Mode 2 imply a fundamentally different conception of
'knowledge use'; in fact, it challenges the very distinction between knowledge production
and knowledge use. To some extent, it can be argued that social scientists have tended to
discuss the uses of social science knowledge only in terms of the traditional mode of
knowledge production. The focus on policy-making, the two models of ‘engineering’ and
of ‘enlightenment’, and the depreciative view about lay people’s use of scientific
knowledge are characteristic, in my view, of Gibbons’ Mode 1, and are inappropriate when
characteristics of Mode 2 are brought into the foreground.
Both categories of 'producers' and 'users' of social science knowledge have to be redefined. In the traditional view presented in the preceding section, the 'users' of social
science knowledge are policy-makers and other people in positions of authority; the
producers are social scientists working in different settings, such as universities,
government departments, commercial research firms, etc. Social scientists are supposed to
communicate their findings through institutional channels, such as research reports
designed specifically to be read by experts. As outlined above, a major assumption in this
picture is that the whole process is controllable: producers and users are clearly identified,
and so are the communication channels between the two. Clear links can be established
between particular theories or findings produced in social science and the subsequent uses
of these theories or findings by policy-makers.
Social scientists who adhere to this picture - particularly those rejecting the
'engineering model' and promoting instead the 'enlightenment model' - have noted,
however, several 'anomalies' in the relation of policy-makers to social science knowledge.
They have discovered that the main ways in which policy-makers apprehend social science
knowledge is not through the communication channels specifically designed to 'enlighten'
them. Numerous studies have concluded that a formal sequence of 'knowledge transfer'
from social scientists to policy-makers rarely occurs. Policy-makers use social research in
an 'imperceptible' way (Weiss, 1977: 11) that escapes clearly identified means of diffusion:
Concepts, generalisations, data, perspectives are absorbed from an array of
sources, unreferenced and uncatalogued, and they make their way wraithlike,
but sometimes with surprising power, into the emerging decision' (Ibid.).
Weiss notes that decision-makers 'absorb a great deal of research knowledge through
informal routes' (1986a: 230). Research reports or academic journals are not the primary
means through which policy-makers use social science knowledge. The latter, rather,
reaches policy-makers through 'stories in the media, the advice of consultants, lobbying by
special interest groups, conversations of colleagues, attendance at conferences, training
programmes, and other uncatalogued sources' (Weiss, 1986a: 218).
Consequently, it has been suggested that a key element for increasing and
improving the use of social science knowledge by policy-makers lies in the effective
dissemination of research results beyond academic or professional means of diffusion
(Bulmer, 1986: xviii). The diffusion of social science knowledge through the mass media
has recently become a cause of concern for social scientists. Weiss and Singer's (1988)
work about the reporting of social science in the national media in the United States is a
case in point. In this study, they stress the fuzzy and, in their view, unsatisfactory, ways in
which social science knowledge is diffused in the mass media.
First, Weiss and Singer claim that ‘the vast majority of social science goes
unreported’ (Ibid.: 127), for reasons which have to do partly with the concern of the media
for ‘newsworthy topics’. What is actually reported is overwhelmingly quantitative research,
and very often consists in polls and public opinion surveys (Ibid.: 56, 141). Second, the
authors note that ‘when reporters move social science from the domain of the disciplines
into the domain of news, they strip it of certain features, such as complex statistics, and
recast it in terms compatible with the norms and procedures of journalism’ (Ibid.: 3). Third,
Weiss and Singer argue that ‘an unknown proportion of studies reported in the popular
media consists of activities that most social scientists would agree do not constitute
“research” at all’ (Ibid.: 245).
One of the conclusions of the authors, therefore, is that ‘there may be a role for
social scientists who are popularizers of social science’ (Ibid.: 163), in order to enlarge the
range of social science knowledge reported in the mass media, and to improve the way in
which social science knowledge is reported. Unlike natural science knowledge, there is no
such thing as journalists specialised in the reporting of social science knowledge, with the
exception of economics: 'news organisations recognise the need for specialised reporters to
cover science but see no parallel need for specialists in the social sciences’ (Ibid.: 12).
Instead of being reported by specialists in the 'popularisation' of scientific knowledge,
social science findings are dealt with by 'hundreds of different reporters who have little
knowledge about the methods, substance, or theory of the discipline’ (Ibid.: 57). Social
science knowledge is thus disseminated in the course of the covering of a vast range of
topics such as business, politics, crime, and urban affairs. Social science knowledge is
'invisible', insofar as it is often not identified as 'social science knowledge'. This is
especially true of 'social facts', conveyed for example by social statistics, and which people
continuously 'ingest', as it were, without necessarily being aware of the social research on
which such statistics are based. Weiss and Singer deplore this 'invisibility' of social science
knowledge conveyed through the mass media:
Unemployment figures, interest rates, and other economic indicators [are
reported] without any reference to the social science research from which such
data are derived. Thus most people are likely to be unaware of them as
involving social science theories, concepts and methods (Weiss & Singer,
1988: 184).
There is no doubt that there are plenty of reasons why social scientists should be
dissatisfied with the ways in which social science knowledge is presented in the mass
media. In this regard, Weiss and Singer's work is certainly useful, especially since there
have been very few studies devoted to the mass mediatisation of social science35. My
criticism of Weiss and Singer's work, however, is situated on a different level. By focusing
primarily on what they see as deficiencies of the mass mediatisation of social science
knowledge, the authors obscure the more fundamental observation that social science
35 In an article published in 1979, Ewer expresses his profound dissatisfaction with the way sociology and
sociologists are presented in the media. His dissatisfaction, however, is based on different arguments from
those made ten years later by Weiss & Singer. Ewer argues that 'the sociologist tends to come out of the
encounter looking like some variety of liberal - tolerant of deviants, tending to blame society rather than the
person who does whatever kind of behavior the problem involves, and arguing that government needs to do
more for those involved' (Ewer, 1979: 78). Ewer regrets that sociologists are usually presented as advocates
for a particular set of prescriptions regarding a particular social problem (Ibid.: 78).
knowledge has become an omnipresent and quasi mundane resource on which journalists
continuously draw to address a great variety of subjects. The facts that there are no
'popularisers' of social science, and that people, including journalists, often use social
science knowledge without acknowledging it, are indicators of the very 'success', as it were,
of the impact of social science knowledge on day-to-day life, rather than indicators of its
failure36.
The diffusion of social science knowledge throughout society takes many different
and sometimes unpredictable ways. Following Dortier (1998), at least five major modes of
diffusion of social science knowledge can be distinguished: the ‘scientific market’, the
public debate, the market of popularisation, the education system, and social engineering.
By social engineering, Dortier refers to the multiple forms of ‘applied’ social science
knowledge that are used by ‘social engineers’ such as psychotherapists, management
consultants, publicists, human resources managers, etc. (Dortier, 1998: 44). As Dortier
notes, a large number of occupations in education, consulting, counselling or health care,
draw upon social science and are fuelled by social science knowledge. Equally important is
the fact that a large proportion of the population now has access to social science
knowledge through the education system and are less and less ‘scientifically illiterate’.
Thus, ‘not only are increasingly more people familiar with science and competent in its
method, but also many of these are engaged in activities which have a research dimension’
(Gibbons et al., 1994: 11).
Going even further, it can be argued that the ‘producers’ of expert knowledge about
the social world extend far beyond the category of social scientists:
36 By 'success', it must be clear that I do not mean that the impact of social science knowledge on
contemporary society, and the considerable but partly invisible presence of social science knowledge in the
media, have only positive aspects. My point is, rather, that social scientists have been oblivious of the
considerable impact of social science knowledge on contemporary society, independently of the question of
the positive and negative facets of such an impact. Thus, for example, I am not celebrating the 'invisibility' of
social science knowledge in social statistics. That 'social facts' are often presented by journalists as 'given',
rather than as 'constructed' on the basis of specific methodological and epistemological research options, is
certainly unsatisfactory insofar as it can obscure the possibility of 'deconstruction', that is, the possibility of
contesting that fact on the basis on the assumptions and procedures which were at the basis of its production.
The phenomena of tribal groups making videos about their communities, or
TV journalists making sophisticated programmes drawing upon the same sorts
of intellectual resources as academics do when they write their books, become
common place (Giddens, 1996: 125).
An illustration of this phenomenon can also be found in the 'self-help' books written by
people who, having confronted and eventually overcome a particular problem - such as
eating disorders, divorce, illness, domestic violence, etc. - discuss and analyse their
experience with the aim of helping other people to deal with the same problem. Authors of
self-help books often come to be considered as ‘experts’ about the particular issue they
have experienced, and they can participate in the public debate about this issue along with
scientists and professionals, whose views they often strongly oppose37. An ‘expert’, thus, is
‘any individual who can successfully lay claim to either specific skills or types of
knowledge which the lay person does not possess' (Giddens, 1994b: 84). What counts as
valid expert knowledge is not necessarily systematic knowledge derived from scientific
research, but can also refer to knowledge which is based, for example, on personal
experience. Huczynski's (1993) work about ‘management gurus’ illustrates the openness of
the category of 'expert' and ‘expert knowledge’. Authors of 'best-sellers' in management38
can be divided into three main categories, namely 'academic gurus', 'consultant gurus' and
'hero-managers', their expertise being based respectively on academic research, experience
of consultancy and experience of management (Huczynski, 1993: 40). The category of
'hero-managers' is particularly interesting, insofar as the authority of their expertise is based
on a celebration of 'common sense' and a rejection of theoretical knowledge. More
precisely, these successful business executives often put forward the 'managerial common
sense' which enables them to 'stay in touch with reality', in contrast to the theorists, 'whom
they see as being afraid to "dirty their hands"' (Huczynski, 1993: 102). Both hero-managers
and theorists are considered to be 'experts' in management, although the basis for their
expertise is different.
37 Many self-help groups are characterised by their profound critique of professionalism (Gartner &
Riessman, 1977: 12). The self-help orientation is described as 'much more activistic, consumer centered,
informal, open and inexpensive' (Ibid.: 13-4). Whereas professionalism is seen as being based on 'systematic
knowledge', self-help is seen as being based on 'experience, intuition and common sense' (Ibid.: vii).
38 The prime example has been Peters' and Waterman's In Search of Excellence, first published in 1982.
The diffusion of social science knowledge, in sum, is only one aspect of a range of
processes which together imply that more and more people regularly ‘use’ social science
knowledge in the course of their personal or professional lives. The ‘diffusion’ of social
science knowledge does not follow a logical path which would go from the diffusion of
scientific findings among the scientific community, to the diffusion of a popularised
version of that scientific knowledge to a larger public. Social science knowledge is
omnipresent in the mass media and an increasing range of people are able to ‘appropriate’
that knowledge.
2.2.2 The popularisation of social science knowledge
As noted above, the use of social science knowledge by 'lay people' has been little
addressed, because of social scientists' obsolete view of the relation between lay people and
scientific knowledge and, more broadly, of the relation between the sphere of science and
the sphere of day-to-day life. In the study discussed above, Weiss and Singer’s implicit
assumption is that scientific knowledge is systematically denatured when it reaches the
sphere of day-to-day life. Such a view reproduces a view which has been dominant in
natural science, and which social scientists have ‘imported’ in social science.
The dominant view about the relation of lay people to scientific knowledge can be
summed up in two points: first, scientific knowledge becomes 'usable' by lay people only
after a deliberate process of 'popularisation'; second, popularisation, as Green puts it,
'equals pollution' (1985: 139); that is, popularised scientific knowledge has lost many of the
attributes which made that knowledge 'scientific':
In the process of transforming and re-packaging scientific knowledge so that it
can be understood by non-specialists, the content of the knowledge becomes
degraded, so that it is distorted and less true (Green, 1985: 139).
Many social scientists implicitly endorse the view, borrowed from natural science, that
'scientific popularisation belongs essentially to the realm of non-science' (Shinn & Whitley,
1985: vii). The notion of popularisation implies that 'scientific knowledge is disseminated
to a lay audience after it has been discovered and [that] this process is separated from
research' (Whitley, 1985: 8). Independently of how adequate this conception of the relation
of 'lay people' to natural science knowledge is, such a conception is fundamentally
inappropriate in the case of social science knowledge. Whitley partly acknowledges this
point, although his account of the specificity of the relationship between lay people and
social science knowledge is not entirely satisfactory, for reasons which will become clear in
the following chapter39.
[The] simple view of the relationship between knowledge production and its
communication to the lay public is obviously incorrect for the many
intellectual fields whose vocabulary and concepts are quite close to those of
ordinary language and whose results are of clear public interest, such as most
of the social sciences and humanities in many historical periods' (Whitley,
1985: 8).
When it is used in reference to social science, the notion of 'popularisation' of scientific
knowledge is a misleading one. The 'use' of social science knowledge by 'lay people' does
not generally result from the deliberate effort of 'experts in popularisation' at making social
science knowledge accessible to, and comprehensible by, lay people. As will be developed
in the next chapter, lay people are already knowledgeable regarding the issues addressed in
social science, and are generally able to 'use' social science knowledge in order to make
sense of particular issues they face.
A large part of the social science knowledge diffused throughout society is, from its
inception, 'popular' knowledge, in the sense that its use by a large public is built into the
very process of its production. Several different processes are at stake in this conception of
social science knowledge. It refers in part to new conditions of knowledge production in
contemporary society, conditions which Gibbons et al.' have described in their 'Mode 2'40.
A crucial characteristic of this new mode of knowledge production is its accent on social
accountability. By this, Gibbons et al. mean that 'sensitivity to the impact of the research is
built in from the start' (1994: 7). This new demand for the social accountability of science is
39 Essentially, my argument will be that what Whitley describes as a 'closeness' between social science
knowledge and ordinary language should be understood, rather, in terms of the fundamental reflexivity
between social science and its 'subjects', and of the circular relationship between social science knowledge
and common sense knowledge.
40 Cf. section 2.2.1.
itself tied up with various processes, such as the generalisation of higher education and of
research, that is, the increase in the number of sites 'where recognisably competent research
is being performed' (Ibid.: 11). As already noted in the preceding section, the idea of the
scientific illiteracy of lay people, which is implicit in the notion of ‘popularisation’, can no
longer be sustained:
The previous one-way communication process from scientific experts to the
lay public perceived to be scientifically illiterate and in need of education by
experts has been supplanted by politically backed demands for accountability
of science and technology and new public discussions in which experts have
to communicate a more 'vernacular' science than ever before (Ibid.: 36).
The tendency among social scientists is still to scorn 'popular' forms of social science
knowledge, and forms of social expert knowledge which are not directly part of social
science, but which draw upon some of the methods used in social science. In a typical way,
Weiss, for example, finds it deeply unsatisfactory that policy-makers should use
'unverified, inadequate, partial, oversimplified or wrong' notions resulting from the
popularisation of social science (Weiss, 1977: 17-8). She deplores that much of the social
science that affects policy is a denatured 'pop social science, filtered through popular
coverage in newspapers, magazines, and television, attenuated by selective attention, and
reduced further by sheer forgetting of details' (Weiss, 1977: 18).
It is increasingly difficult to set the limits of what 'social science knowledge' is, and
of what it is not. For example, some would exclude from the category of social science
knowledge opinion polls carried out by various commercial institutions. Yet these opinion
polls are often based on the same 'scientific' method used by social scientists in their
quantitative studies. A large proportion of empirical social inquiry is conducted outside
universities, in independent institutes, profit or non-profit research organisations, central or
local government research divisions, research departments in industrial or commercial
organisations, etc. To restrict the category of 'social science knowledge' to the knowledge
produced in universities by academic social scientists is to risk missing the significance of
social science in contemporary society, when social science is viewed as a dominant
'discourse on society' (Wagner, 1994) produced and understood by an increasing range of
actors.
2.2.3 An uncontrollable and 'undemonstrable' use
An ambivalent conclusion follows from the argument developed above: on one
hand, the ‘uses’ of social science knowledge are more diverse, recurrent and deeply
enmeshed in the routine course of social life than has often been acknowledged by social
scientists themselves; on the other hand, the ‘uses’ of social science knowledge escape, to a
large extent, social scientists' control, and they do not conform to a an instrumental model
of knowledge use. By the same token, it is extremely difficult to ‘demonstrate’ these noninstrumental forms of ‘use’ and to ‘prove’, as it were, social science’s usefulness for
society. For example, social scientists can deplore, like Wilensky, that ‘over the last two
centuries, our knowledge of the structural and cultural roots of poverty has increased with
little effect on recent public policy and public discourse’ (Wilensky, 1997 : 7). Although,
by promoting the ‘enlightenment model’41, social scientists have acknowledged that
instrumentality does not characterise the way social science knowledge is 'used', they seem
reluctant to abandon two elements related to instrumentality, namely the possibility of
controlling the use of social science knowledge, and the possibility of demonstrating it.
Many social scientists have expressed their puzzlement that particular research
findings sometimes come to be used by non-scientists in ways which are totally at odds
with the scientist's intentions, and which he or she could not possibly predict. About the
relation of social science knowledge to policy, Wilensky notes the ‘inverse and perverse
relation between solid knowledge of a problem and the public policies adopted (Wilensky,
1997: 7). Tumin, for example, in his attempt to assess the consequences of research on
racial relations conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in the Unites States, comes to a
disparaging conclusion:
A major cause of the enormous foment of hate, anger, and despair in the
Negro community today42 [...] has been the failure of the American
government and public to respond to Negro needs in precisely the way in
41 Cf. section 2.1.2.
42 'Today' refers to the end of the sixties.
which social science research since the 1940s, and even before, has indicated
that this could and should be responded to (Tumin, 1970: 116).
Tumin emphasises the unexpected ways in which a particular research, namely the
'Moynihan thesis', has been interpreted by the people concerned by this thesis. The
Moynihan thesis was about the negative effects on the development of children of the often
broken families in Black communities. Although the research was guided by fundamentally
anti-racist beliefs, it was seriously attacked by Black people as a racist document, which
tended 'to displace the blame for the Negro situation onto the shoulders of the Negroes
themselves and thus to divest the white community of its responsibility' (Ibid.: 124).
Tumin's comment is rather disillusioned:
How ironic that such firmly based research and such courageously formulated
law should find themselves arrayed in decisive battle against some of the
persons in the interest of whose emancipation they were conceived and
executed (Ibid.: 125).
The position of social scientists has typically been to call ‘abuse’ any ‘use’ of social
science knowledge that was not intended or predicted by the producers of that knowledge.
Such a position is implicit in the claim that, ‘far from being non-applied, the social sciences
are too easily, and too loosely applied’ (Lévy-Leboyer, 1986: 24). Lévy-Leboyer argues
that social scientists should 'be more concerned about the misuse of [their] theories and
techniques than about their non-use’ (Ibid.: 26). In his view, concepts and theories
produced by social scientists are often used and accepted by the public without the
necessary prudence and reserve that one is supposed to demonstrate when dealing with
scientific constructs. He therefore suggests that social scientists 'should stand as sentries at
the door of [their] ideas and techniques' (Ibid.: 26), in order to regain some control over the
way these ideas and techniques are used. In a similar vein, Stafford & Ladner note that the
impact of a social scientific claim is only loosely related to its scientific value:
The promotion of concepts or theories by social scientists and others can have
serious consequences, even if the assumptions are weak and if the propositions
are untested’ (Stafford & Ladner, 1990: 142).
Illustrating their point with the case of the ‘underclass concept’, the authors stress that
‘once a concept is incorporated in general perceptions and becomes a guide to program
development, it is almost impossible to eradicate’ (Ibid.: 141).
The use of social science knowledge is 'undemonstrable' partly because it is difficult
to isolate social science knowledge from all the other types of knowledge which enter into
the construction of people's frames of meanings. What Booth notes in the case of policymakers is true of any other 'user' of social science knowledge: the latter 'is generally
merged with and becomes indistinguishable from other sources of knowledge and policy
inputs' (Booth, 1990: 85). Even when social scientists reduce the problem to policy-making,
the impact of social science knowledge still cannot be controlled or demonstrated. As
already noted, policy-makers 'absorb' social science knowledge without necessarily
labelling it as social science knowledge (Weiss, 1986a: 230). Besides, it seems that it is
seldom a single finding which tends to have an impact on policy-makers; rather, policymakers seems to appropriate ideas and general notions deriving from an indeterminate
number of studies (Weiss, 1986a: 218). This adds to the difficulty of grasping and
evaluating the impact of a particular piece of research. Social scientists have therefore
found it very difficult to point to specific social science findings for which it can be
demonstrated that they have had an impact on policy-making by affecting the 'frames of
meaning' used by policy-makers. For some, who still exhibit a misplaced 'complex of
inferiority' vis-à-vis natural science, this empirical difficulty of 'demonstrating' the impact
of social science appears all the more problematic when compared to natural science
knowledge and its 'obvious' instrumental usefulness for society.
The 'uncontrollability' of the uses of social science knowledge is an inescapable
feature which cannot be easily corrected by an increased vigilance of social scientists. On
one hand, it is very difficult to predict and control which theories or findings will
eventually be used, how they will be used and by whom. On the other hand, it is also
extremely difficult to assess which theories or findings have actually been used and have
'made a difference' in society. If we accept, as the enlightenment model has it, that the
impact of social science knowledge pertains to the 'frames of meaning' used by people
when making sense of social phenomena, then we have to acknowledge that such an impact
cannot be easily grasped, circumscribed, assessed, or measured, in contrast to the technical
impact emphasised in the engineering model. Acknowledging that social scientists have
little control over the uses of the knowledge they produce raises the important issue of
responsibility. One of the implications of the above argument is that, rather than trying to
regain control over the use process, social scientists should discuss the issue of how to
maintain a sense of responsibility for the knowledge they produce, knowing that the ways
this knowledge will be used largely escape their control.
Finally, recognising that social scientists have little control over the uses of social
science knowledge also challenges the assumption, implicit in the idea of 'enlightenment',
that 'use' is necessarily 'usefulness' or, to put it another way, that the use of social science
knowledge always has an 'emancipatory' effect on the 'user', provided that the latter figures
among the 'legitimate' users acknowledged by social scientists. In the first chapter of the
dissertation, I noted that the notion of appropriation does not necessarily imply a process of
‘emancipation’ or ‘empowerment’. Conversely, it is equally misleading, in my view, to
conceive the use of social science knowledge by 'lay people' only in terms of negative or
'ideological' effects of social science, that is, only in terms of 'endarkenment' rather than
'enlightenment'.
2.3 SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE AND REFLEXIVE MODERNITY
2.3.1 Social science and institutional reflexivity
In the first chapter, I claimed that one of the interests of the 'reflexive modernity
thesis', when compared to theories about 'expert societies' or 'knowledge societies', is that it
stresses the importance of social science knowledge, whereas other theories tend to focus
exclusively on techno-scientific and natural science knowledge. The conceptual key to the
argument about the importance of social science knowledge is the notion of institutional
reflexivity. Institutional reflexivity, to restate the argument made in the first chapter of the
dissertation, implies that society becomes an object to itself - what Böhme calls the ‘self-
appropriation of society’ (1992: 41) - and that knowledge about society becomes
constitutive of what this society is. Social science knowledge is deeply involved in the
'turning-back' of society on itself, since it fuels the reflexive attitude whereby social
practices are constantly cast into question and re-examined in the light of new knowledge
or information about them (Holzner & Marx, 1979: 30). The self-appropriation of society
'implies not only a certain type of social organisation, but also that explicit knowledge of
society exists, e.g. social science' (Böhme, 1992: 41).
It is in this sense that Giddens, in particular, has repeatedly asserted the significance
of social science knowledge, and especially sociological knowledge, as 'inherent elements
of the institutional reflexivity of modernity’ (Giddens, 1991: 2): ‘the reflection of which the
social sciences are the formalised version (a specific genre of expert knowledge) is quite
fundamental to the reflexivity of modernity as a whole’ (Giddens, 1990: 40). Sociology, in
particular, 'is not just about the study of modern societies; it has itself become a significant
element in the continuing life of those societies' (Giddens, 1989: 687). Giddens' position
about the constitutive role of social science and of sociology for contemporary society
challenges the wide-spread view which consists in pointing primarily to the importance of
the natural sciences, and of their technological applications, to account for the
transformations at stake in contemporary society. In this respect, Giddens is rather explicit:
The social sciences are actually more deeply implicated in modernity than is
natural science, since the chronic revision of social practices in the light of
knowledge about those practices is part of the very tissue of modern
institutions (Giddens, 1990: 40).
A related argument about the link between institutional reflexivity and social
science has been put forth by Touraine, with his concept of 'historicity'. Touraine is
concerned more particularly with sociology than with social science in general. His concept
of historicity is very close to the idea of institutional reflexivity explored in the preceding
chapter43. Historicity means that ‘society produces itself, imposes a meaning on its
43 Touraine's general concerns and perspective, however, are markedly different from those of the theorists
of 'reflexive modernity'. The concept of historicity is one of the conceptual bases of Touraine's theory of
social conflicts and social movements. The fact that society is increasingly driven by its historicity leads
practices, turns back upon itself’ (Touraine, 1977: 16). It refers to ‘this distance that society
places between itself and its activity, and this action by which it determines the categories
of its practice’ (Ibid.: 4). Societies with a strong historicity, in Touraine's terms, 'can and
must know themselves and know other societies through the use of sociology' (Ibid.: 77).
To put it the other way, sociology is 'the manner of regarding social action which is suited
to a society aware of its ability to produce and to transform itself’ (Touraine, 1981: 38).
Sociology, for Touraine, can only come into being in a society which fully recognises its
capacity to act upon itself, and which consequently gives up any reference to a transcendent
order, or to immutable ‘laws’, when trying to make sense of its development.
Social science knowledge is crucially involved in the dislocation between
knowledge and control that institutional reflexivity entails. To repeat the argument made in
the preceding chapter, the idea of reflexivity is fundamentally different from the idea of a
mere 'application' of knowledge for it is impossible to isolate, as it were, the social world
from knowledge about the social world. What gives contemporary society its peculiar
momentum is that the production of knowledge about the social world simultaneously
transforms it in largely unpredictable ways. This characteristic, however, is generally
absent from social scientists' conceptual efforts to assess the use and usefulness of social
science in contemporary society. Thus the ‘uncontrollability’ of the use process, which has
been examined in the preceding section fundamentally refers to institutional reflexivity,
and to the dislocation between knowledge and control that such reflexivity entails.
2.3.2 Social science knowledge and the reflexive project of the self
Social scientists discussing the 'uses' of social science have failed to acknowledge
the role of social science knowledge as a 'reflexive resource' routinely used by lay people in
directly, in Touraine's view, to class opposition and class conflicts, for it implies a struggle for the control of
historicity, that is, for the control of the instruments of society’s self-production. The struggle for the control
of historicity is dominated by a ruling class, which routinely takes over responsibility for historicity, and
which is normally challenged by a popular class that tries to resist this domination (Touraine, 1977: 117). It is
by reference to this resistance that Touraine asserts the crucial importance of social movements, as an actor in
the class war for control of historicity' (Touraine, 1983: 4). In the last chapter of the dissertation, I will
address another aspect of Touraine's work that is closely connected to his position about the crucial role of
sociology and of social movements, namely his method of 'sociological intervention' (see section 6.3.3).
the course of day-to-day life. In particular, social science knowledge is, in my view, an
important resource for the ‘reflexive project of the self’44. As argued above, social science
knowledge has become accessible to an increasing number of people, especially if we
accept, as I suggest we should, that the category of social science knowledge includes
popular forms of social expert knowledge derived from, or akin to, social science. Social
science knowledge pervades day-to-day life in a mediated and popularised way, without
necessarily being identified as such. The conditions and the implications of this
pervasiveness of social science knowledge have often been misconceived.
The following statement made by Thomas about the way in which social science
pervades day-to-day life illustrates, in my view, the general position of many social
scientists. By stressing the insufficiencies and the inadequacies of this position, I hope to
specify further the argument made in this chapter, namely that social science knowledge
has become a day-to-day reflexive resource for a large number of people. Thomas' position
reads as follows:
Social research permeates our everyday lives. It is the stuff of journalism,
advertising and market research. When events bring a subject to the forefront
of our consciousness - football violence, the price of North Sea Oil, famine in
Ethiopia - there are always social scientists who have carried out related
research and are prepared to tell the radio listener or newspaper reader about it
for a brief spell before returning to the normal tasks of addressing their peers
and their students (Thomas, 1987: 51).
First, as I have argued above, the presence of social science knowledge in day-to-day life
goes far beyond the explicit intervention of social scientists, who are regularly asked to
give their opinion on public issues. Social science knowledge becomes disconnected to a
large extent from its 'producers', and enmeshed in a variety of expert systems which
pervade day-to-day life. Social science knowledge in the media is conveyed not only by
social scientists identified as such, but also by journalists, politicians, militants, and many
other actors who draw, explicitly or not, upon social science knowledge, in order to
legitimise and promote their interpretation of particular social issues. I have also argued
44 Cf. section 1.3.1.
that the range of potential 'producers' of social science knowledge has itself widened, and
goes far beyond the restricted category of academic social scientists.
This brings us to a second point, which is that there is increasing competition for the
representation of the social world45, and that people have to confront multiple and
contradictory expert claims about the social issues to which they are confronted in day-today life46. Social scientists are 'competitors' in a market of interpretations, along with
various other categories of people who produce social expert knowledge outside the direct
realm of social science. Therefore, the intervention of social scientists hardly fits Thomas's
description of a 'brief spell', during which they 'tell' the public about particular issues.
Given the multiplicity and contradictory character of social expert knowledge, not only
between social scientists and other social experts, but also among social scientists
themselves, the 'enlightenment' process, at the very least, cannot be as straightforward as it
is assumed to be by Thomas and others. Rather, as outlined in the first chapter, people have
to decide which 'authority' to trust, and which interpretation to appropriate. The issue of
‘intelligence’, for example, has brought about a multiplicity of contradictory ‘facts’ aimed
at either asserting or denying that intelligence is genetically based, or that social factors
such as education or class are crucial determinants of ‘intelligence’47. Faced with these
contradictory claims, people have choose which 'fact' they want to hold true.
When people appropriate a particular 'fact' or a particular knowledge claim about an
issue such as 'intelligence', it is because this issue directly connects with their everyday
experience and because they have no choice, as it were, but to make sense of this issue in
order to 'go on' with their lives. This particular point is crucial for understanding how my
argument differs from the view illustrated by Thomas' quote above. By citing the examples
of football violence, the price of North Sea Oil, and famine in Ethiopia, Thomas suggests
that the relation of lay people to social science knowledge concerns issues which do not
45 This argument has been developed with particular significance by Bourdieu, and will be presented in the
fifth chapter (section 5.2.2).
46 Cf. section 1.2.1 in the first chapter.
47 See, for example, the recent and controversial work by Herrnstein & Murray (1994), about a supposedly
genetic basis of IQ differences between white and black people.
impinge directly on people's lives. The use of social science knowledge by lay people, on
this view, refers to some kind of new 'erudition': one becomes 'educated' about social issues
in the same way that one can be 'educated' about modern art or Greek history.
In contrast, I suggest that one appropriates social science knowledge about an issue
such as 'intelligence' in the context of what I called in the preceding chapter the
problematisation of day-to-day life, that is, in the context of a situation which demands, as
it were, that the person makes sense of a particular issue. This context refers more precisely
to the reflexive project of the self and to the continuous construction and reconstruction of
self-narratives.
Thus, for example, the appropriation of social expert claims about the issue of
'intelligence' would occur in a situation in which one has to gain for oneself, so-to-speak, an
understanding of the issue of intelligence. This situation could arise when, for example, one
has to grapple with the fact that his or her child is getting bad results at school; or when one
has to make sense of one's success in solving a difficult problem, or when one considers
adopting a child and wonders about the importance of his 'genetic legacy', etc. In a period
of 'reflexive modernity', these situations when people have to be engaged in a conscious
and discursive reflection about what happens to them or to others are virtually permanent.
Within the terms introduced in the first chapter, these situations are inscribed in the new
conditions marking the construction of self-identity and, more precisely, in the routine
elaboration of self-narratives.
***
Lay people routinely 'use' social science knowledge in the flow of their day-to-day
activities, although social scientists, for various reasons discussed in this chapter, have
seldom acknowledged this crucial facet of the 'use' of social science in contemporary
society. Social science knowledge has become a day-to-day 'reflexive resource' on which
people draw in the continuous construction of their self-identities. The notion of 'use',
however, is ill-suited to refer to this process, because of its instrumental character and of its
reference to a model of ‘applied’ knowledge which does not correspond to the way social
science knowledge reaches lay people. The notion of 'appropriation', in opposition to the
notion of 'use', contains the idea of reflexivity, which is fundamental for understanding the
place of expert knowledge in contemporary society, and especially of social science
knowledge. The notion of appropriation also refers to the idea that lay people make use of
social science knowledge only insofar as they see the relevance of this knowledge for the
issues they experience in day-to-day life. The appropriation of social science knowledge is
thus radically different from a new form of ‘scientific erudition’: it refers, rather, to the
conscious problematisation by lay people of many aspects of their lives, and to the
reflexive construction of their self-identities.
CHAPTER 3
THE APPROPRIATION OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BY ITS 'SUBJECTS'
I have argued in the preceding chapters that social science knowledge has become
an ordinary ‘reflexive resource’, which is routinely appropriated by lay people in the course
of their ‘reflexive project of the self’. In the present chapter, I come back to the
epistemological basis for the lay appropriation of social science knowledge. This
epistemological basis is what has often been called the ‘reflexivity of social science’, that
is, the fact that social science knowledge re-enters its very ‘object’ by being appropriated
by the people who constitute the ‘object of study’. The focus of the chapter, thus, is on the
relationship between the 'researcher' and the 'researched', and between social science
knowledge and its ‘subjects’. The reflexivity which is characteristic of contemporary
society is based on the generalisation and on the radicalisation of the epistemological
reflexivity between social science knowledge and its ‘subjects’.
The chapter breaks down into three main parts. In the first part, I explore in detail
what should be understood by the reflexivity of social science. This reflexivity has in fact
for a long time be denied by social scientists who tried to reproduce a mythical ‘natural
science approach’ in which there is supposedly no reflexive process between scientific
knowledge and its ‘object’. The second part of the chapter is devoted to the critical
examination of three distinct conceptions of the relationship between the ‘researcher’ and
the ‘researched’. The first conception is based on the idea that social research is potentially
harmful for the people under study and that social scientists should, therefore, try to protect
their ‘subjects’. The second conception consists for the social scientist to neutralise the
increasing subjects’ resistance to social research by promoting advocacy research. Finally,
the third conception refers to ‘participatory research’, that is, to the argument that ‘subjects’
of social research can ‘appropriate’ social science knowledge by participating actively in
the research process. I shall argue that these three conceptions of the relationship between
social scientists and their ‘subjects’ are inadequate in the way they conceive, or do not
conceive, the fundamental reflexivity of social science. The third part of the chapter aims at
connecting the argument about the reflexivity of social science to the argument made
earlier about reflexive modernity. In the last section of the chapter, I address the issue of
social scientists’ responsibility, which is a critical one, once the pervasiveness – and the
uncontrollability – of the process of lay appropriation of social science knowledge is
recognised. That social science knowledge is being routinely appropriated by 'lay people' in
the day-to-day elaboration of their 'reflexive project of the self' should bear heavily, in my
view, on the way social scientists conceive their professional activity, and their relation to
their 'subjects' who, in a period of reflexive modernity, refer to the population at large.
3.1 THE REFLEXIVE PROCESS BETWEEN SOCIAL SCIENCE AND ITS 'SUBJECTS'
3.1.1 The natural science approach
Social scientists have often wished that their 'subjects' would 'behave' in the same
way as the inanimate and 'unaware' objects of natural science. As long as the natural
science paradigm (Barnes, 1979: 25) dominated social inquiry48, social scientists tried to
reproduce the relationship that the natural scientist holds with his or her inanimate objects
of study. That is, they tried to ignore, or to neutralise, the fact that their 'objects' of study
are 'concept-bearing beings' (Giddens, 1993a: 13), who can be aware of being studied and
aware of the knowledge produced about them, this awareness implying a fundamental
instability of what it is that the social scientist tries to study. Many social scientists would
still assert that a fundamental requisite of scientific inquiry is to minimise 'the extent to
which the citizens' behaviour is altered by the observations [the scientist] makes on them'
(Barnes, 1979: 26); and many would assume that 'the disturbances can be kept significantly
small’ (Ibid.).
48 The view that natural science is the 'model' which social scientists should try to
reproduce in order for social science to grow was challenged from its inception by the
opposite view, according to which the project of social science is of an entirely different
kind from that of natural science (Mattick, 1986: 4-6). Although it is fair to say that the
'natural science paradigm' dominated social inquiry for a long time, this 'domination' was
never unchallenged.
The objective of treating the 'subjects' of social science as if they were inanimate
objects seemed, for a time, both attainable and desirable, given the particular circumstances
in which social science was practised. There was a time, for example, when anthropologists
studying foreign islanders were convinced that ethnographic fieldwork 'did usually take
place under conditions similar to those met with in natural science' (Ibid.: 194). These
conditions consisted in the exteriority and the stability of the object of study:
The field of inquiry was perceived as exterior to themselves, something which
could be observed by an outsider without significant distortion. The lives of
the islanders were thought not to be seriously disturbed by the presence of the
ethnographic team (Ibid.).
In Barnes' view, the natural science approach was dominant in anthropology until
approximately nineteen-twenty-five (1967: 194). In that period, 'the ethnographer took for
granted that the observations and records he made did not significantly disturb the
behaviour of the people studied' (Ibid.: 196).
The belief that conditions of inquiry characteristic of natural science could be
reproduced in ethnographic fieldwork has much to do with the fact that, for the most part,
only illiterate non Western people were studied. This does not mean that the people under
study were unaware of the fact that they were being studied, or that they did not 'react' in
some way to the research situation, thereby transforming the 'object-matter' that the
anthropologist was seeking to study. Neither does it mean that the people studied did not
have an idea of the purpose of the research and were not able to 'learn' from the research. In
the case of illiterate people, however, social scientists can more easily ignore their subjects'
awareness and knowledgeability, and deny the reflexivity inherent in social inquiry, since
this reflexivity does not lead to discursive elaboration on the part of the 'subjects'.
Studying illiterate people also implies the neutralisation of the reflexive process
which would otherwise occur when the 'subjects' of research have access to the published
material generated by the research. As Szwed (1974) notes, '[w]orking in distant places,
largely with nonliterate peoples, anthropologists have seldom had to face their informants
as critics of their published work' (1974: 153). Malinowski, for example, 'was not much
concerned with any influence his published work might have on the islanders or on the
Papuan administration' (Barnes, 1967: 195). This means that the people studied seldom
appropriated the knowledge produced about them, either because they did not have access
to the publications in which that knowledge was conveyed, or because they did not have the
cultural 'tools' for this appropriation, i.e. they could not read or if they could, they could not
make sense of social scientists' jargon.
In contrast to anthropology, the first sociological studies took place in a 'Western'
context, and the people under study were more likely to be 'literate'. Yet the natural science
approach could also for a time dominate sociological inquiry, to the extent that no direct
contact was established between social scientists and the people they were studying.
According to Barnes, 'it was not until the end of the [nineteenth] century that the
importance of listening directly to the citizens began to be recognised by social scientists'
(Barnes, 1979: 29-30). Social scientists tended to be systematically suspicious of the people
they were studying. The people under study were suspected either of lying deliberately
about the information sought by the researcher (Cole, 1972: 83), or of being simply
incompetent in providing this information. For example, the British survey pioneers
studying poverty, such as Booth and Rowntree, 'did not trust the poor to tell the truth, in
particular the truth about their earnings' (Miller, 1983: 20). In the early days of surveying,
information about the people under study was provided by a special group of informants
who 'supplied information about social inferiors judged incapable of answering for
themselves' (Goyder, 1987: 193). The principle followed by social scientists was that 'social
researchers should only interview other professionals, acting as informants, giving proxy
information to the researcher' (Marsh, 1985: 206). In such conditions, social scientists are
less likely to acknowledge the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its
subjects since the reflexive process, in this case, is not simultaneous with the research itself.
In sum, a situation approximating that of natural science inquiry could be found in
social science in the following conditions: no contact between the researcher and the
researched; the people under study are unaware that they are being studied; and they remain
unaware that they have been studied and do not have access to the knowledge generated by
the research. As will be developed below, not only are these conditions unlikely to arise in
contemporary society, but trying to maintain them also runs against the very principle of
institutional reflexivity which is at core of the dynamics of contemporary society, and
against the possibility of making social science 'useful'.
3.1.2 The reflexivity of social science
For those who acknowledge the impossibility of reproducing the natural science
approach in social science, the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its
'subjects' is an inescapable one. The fundamental reflexivity of social science process has
long been acknowledged, albeit sometimes in contrasting ways:
Social theories do not bear upon an independent object; [t]he objects they bear
upon are not resistant to the alterations in self-understanding which these
theories bring (Taylor, 1983: 85).
The 'findings' of social science do not remain insulated from the 'subjectmatter' to which they refer, but consistently re-enter and reshape it [...] Rather
than attempting to marginalise and treat purely as a 'problem', the potential
incorporation of social scientific theories and observations within the reflexive
rationalisation of those who are their 'object' - human agents - we have to treat
the phenomenon as one of essential interest and concern to the social sciences
(Giddens, 1993a: 9; 1979: 244).
Certain items of knowledge, especially social and psychological theories such
as psychoanalysis, come to codefine social states of affairs because they
become integrated into institutional structures and subjective experiences,
which in other respects such conceptual items are supposed to describe and
explain (Berger, cited in Holzner & Marx, 1979: 40).
Men, unlike physical objects, are self-aware. This self-awareness means that
the predictions and descriptions of sociologists of the social world are not
separate from that social world but form part of it. This implies that there can
never be any recurrent situations to study in sociology because study of a
situation changes that situation. Thus sociology can never be a science and
must always cause change (Easthope, 1974: 2).
People ‘talk back’ [and] change the ‘laws’ which govern their behaviour, and
generally act in a way which creates difficulties from a research point of view’
(Gustarsen, 1986: 153).
An interviewed housewife who described her suburb […] in sociological
jargon represented the voice of sociology feeding back on itself through the
voice of a corrupted respondent […] More and more of our respondents have
clearly been so corrupted’ (Wrong, 1977: 18).
The last two quotations indicate that the reflexivity between social science knowledge and
its ‘subjects’ is sometimes viewed as a vice. Some clearly do not view the appropriation of
social science knowledge by its subjects as a positive process. They tend to complain about
the increasing number of 'contaminated’ subjects, that is, of people who 'talk back' to the
social scientist by using social science concepts and ideas. In 'orthodox' sociology, the
reflexive process between social science knowledge and its 'subjects' has been referred to
as ‘self-fulfilling’ and ‘self-negating prophecies’. These notions, however, are too
restrictive for grasping the full significance of the reflexivity of social science. They mean
that, in some cases, the people under study 'bias' the research by either fulfilling or negating
the prediction or the hypothesis made by the researcher. The reflexive process between
social science and its 'subjects' extends far beyond these two possibilities and is not an
'extra-ordinary' process that only concerns a limited number of research situations. As
Wrong puts it, '[f]ar from being no more than intriguing oddities, Merton’s "self-fulfilling"
and "suicidal" prophecies reflect possibilities inherent in the relationship between social
science and its object domain' (Wrong, 1990: 23).
The reflexive process between social science knowledge and its 'object-matter' has
often been described as a crucial difference between social science and natural science. To
repeat, the argument is that social science, unlike natural science, is 'inevitably involved in
a "subject-subject relation" with what [it is] about' (Giddens, 1984: 348). Yet the difference
between social science and natural science on this point is not as obvious as it may seem. In
particular, it is not at all clear that the reflexive process between social science knowledge
and its 'objects' has no equivalent in natural science. It has been argued, convincingly in my
view, that social theorists tend to have a misleading and obsolete view of natural science
inquiry, and that they tend to both exacerbate and misconceive the differences between the
social and the natural sciences (Knorr-Cetina, 1981).
First, it has been argued that ‘in the natural sciences too observations about a series of
events can influence the course of these events’ (Knorr-Cetina, 1981: 343). For example,
by observing a particle, the physicist cannot help but to modify the trajectory of this
particle. In contrast to social science, however, this reflexive process does not draw upon
the awareness and the knowledgeability of the ‘objects’ of the research. Second, it is clear
that the process of lay appropriation of scientific knowledge concerns natural science as
much as social science. That is, people appropriate natural science knowledge and might
revise their own knowledge and change their behaviour as a result of this appropriation. It
is crucial to account for this appropriation process in natural science, since focusing only
on social science reinforces an ‘unfortunate tendency to see the cognitive content of the
natural sciences as having no direct political impact on the lives of lay actors’ (Lynch,
1993a: 200).
But it is equally crucial to recognise that, although lay appropriation of scientific
knowledge concerns natural science as much as social science, this process is a reflexive
one only in the latter's case. In Giddens' terms:
The concepts and theories produced in the natural sciences quite regularly
filter into lay discourse and become appropriated as elements of everyday
frames of reference. But this is of no relevance, of course, to the world of
nature itself; whereas the appropriation of technical concepts and theories
invented by social scientists can turn them into constituting elements of that
very ‘subject-matter’ they were coined to characterise, and by that token alter
the context of their application (Giddens 1993a: 86).
For example, although research about the chemical composition of nicotine might
transform the behaviour of smokers, it will not transform the chemical composition of
nicotine. Thus, 'while natural science theory also transforms practice, the practice it
transforms is not what the theory is about' (Taylor, 1983: 74).
Lay appropriation of natural science knowledge is especially significant in a period
in which ‘nature’, as argued in the first chapter, becomes increasingly 'socialised'. To put it
differently, the boundaries between the object-domain of the social sciences and that of the
natural sciences are increasingly blurred. People today are less and less likely to consider
that there is a ‘natural world’ independent of their actions and that ‘natural scientific
knowledge’ does not directly concern them. For example, scientists' predictions about
pollution rates can be reflexively appropriated by people who might behave so as to fulfil
or to negate these predictions. Besides, theories of the natural world can be challenged,
questioned and appropriated not so much regarding the explicit knowledge of the ‘natural
world’ they assert but, rather, regarding the particular conception of the human agent which
makes that knowledge possible, what Habermas (1987) calls the ‘constitutive interest’ of
that knowledge.
3.2 THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE RESEARCHER AND THE RESEARCHED
3.2.1 Protecting the people under study from the risks of social inquiry
A number of social scientists claim that social research is potentially harmful for the
people under study and that, therefore, the researcher should protect his or her ‘subjects’
from the potential harms of the research (Bower & de Gasparis, 1978: 3). This conception
is manifest in the debate about 'ethics' which has flourished in social science over the past
thirty years. This debate has, to some extent, followed the upsurge of ethical issues in
biomedical research (Beauchamp et al., 1982: 6). It is primarily the activities of biomedical
scientists, rather than those of social scientists, that 'have drawn predominant attention to
the ethical problems concerning human research subjects' (Beauchamp et al., 1982: 4). As
will become clear later, this tendency to borrow concepts and arguments from the debate in
biomedical research has contributed to obscure the differences between social science
research and biomedical research, in particular, with respect to the actual 'powerlessness' of
the people under study and their capacity to appropriate the knowledge produced.
Social scientists' assumption about the asymmetry of power inherent in the
researcher-researched relationship has a strong historical basis. For a long time, the people
who were the 'object-matter' of social inquiry generally belonged to disadvantaged groups
of society, such as ethnic minorities, welfare recipients, criminals, delinquents, college
students, or military recruits. The focus of scientific attention in sociology and
anthropology was on 'the powerless rather than the powerful, the poor working class at
home and the conquered tribal people overseas' (Barnes, 1979: 34). To some extent, it is
precisely this characteristic, as suggested in the first section, which partly explains why
social scientists could treat their 'subjects' merely as 'objects'. Yet in the late sixties and
early seventies, social scientists became increasingly concerned with the asymmetry of
power built into the dominant mode of research in social science:
Subjects for social research tend to be recruited from the relatively powerless
segments of the society or organisation and thus come into the research
situation at a disadvantage. This disadvantage is further exacerbated by their
limited power within the structure of the research situation itself (Kelman,
1972: 990).
Two main categories of 'risks' or of potential 'harms' have been distinguished,
namely, on one hand, the risks associated with the scientific investigation itself and, on the
other hand, the risks related to the uses of the knowledge produced. The first category of
risks refers, for example, to the stress, the emotional harm and the various psychological
difficulties that participation in a study might cause (Bower & Gasparis, 1978: 12). These
'psychological' risks have led to discussions about invasion of privacy, breach of
confidentiality, coercion - the ‘exercise of undue pressure to induce a subject to participate
when he would rather not’ (Bower & Gasparis, 1978: 12) - and deception. Deception of the
'subjects' of social inquiry was almost systematic in psychology: the 'subjects' of
psychological studies either did not know until the study was completed that they were
being studied, or did not know the true purpose of the research. More generally, deception
refers to ‘misstatement of the purposes of a study or the uses that will be made of its results,
[...] disguise of the variables being measured, [...] misleading description of the study’s
procedures, or [...] misinformation about its sponsorship’ (Bower and Gasparis, 1978: 17).
Many social scientists would still argue that, 'from a methodological point of view, social
research is often at its best when the subject is unaware that he is being studied' (Kelman,
1972: 999). However, most of them would now agree that, from an ethical point of view,
social scientists should avoid deceiving their 'subjects'.
Social scientists’ response to this first category of risks has often been to pose the
principle, borrowed from bio-medical research, of 'voluntary informed consent'
(Beauchamp et al., 1982: 28). Although social scientists are aware that the latter is no
panacea, since it might be very difficult to ensure the genuine 'informed' and 'voluntary'
character of the subjects' consent (Bower & Gasparis, 1978: 39), they argue that 'most of
the problems could be resolved or at least minimised with strict adherence to the norm of
voluntary informed consent' (Kelman, 1972: 1002). This norm acknowledges two
fundamental rights of the 'researched', namely 'the right to refuse participation in a study,
and the right to withdraw from it' (Ibid.: 1006).
The second category of risks, namely, those related to the impact of social science
knowledge outside the direct context of the research itself, brings the discussion about
'ethics' onto an entirely different level. Here, the focus is not only on the subjects who have
actually been 'studied' by the researcher during the inquiry but, more generally, on the
groups which these individuals ‘represent’. In other words, these risks apply not only to
types of research which involve direct contact with 'subjects', but also to any type of social
research which generates knowledge about specific groups - the poor, single-mothers,
adolescents, business executives, footballers, etc. - or about the population at large. In
Bower and Gasparis' terms, these risks are ‘collective risks’, that denote the ‘harm a study
might cause to others beyond the individual subject himself’ (Bower & Gasparis, 1978: 12).
They refer to the possibility, for example, that ‘the interests of collectivities might risk
some future setback as a result of a research study’ (Ibid.: 29).
Two different arguments can be distinguished as to the 'collective risks' of social
research. First, there is the argument that particular knowledge claims produced by social
scientists might be detrimental to the people these claims are about. For example, Kelman
argues that social research about 'deviance' is often detrimental to the communities studied,
because it perpetuates the ideology of 'blaming the victim':
By focusing on the carriers of deviant behaviors (who are drawn most often
from the ranks of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the minority groups) such
research may reinforce the widespread tendency to explain such behavior
more often in terms of the pathology of the deviant individuals, families, and
communities, than in terms of such properties of the larger social system as
the distribution of power, resources and opportunities (Kelman, 1972: 1009).
Such an argument has been echoed by Warwick (1982: 114), who claims that, by
presenting interpretations that tend to 'blame the victims of social injustice for their present
position' (Ibid.: 114), this type of study entails the 'victimization' or 'scapegoating' of the
people under study.
Second, the argument can be pushed further by saying that social research,
regardless of the particular 'findings' and claims produced, is always detrimental to the
people who are the 'subjects' of the research. This argument has been made by Barrett about
anthropological research. By exposing 'the inner workings of a social system, especially
those involving the poor and the impotent' (1984: 4), anthropological inquiry at the same
time also indicates how these people can be controlled. In consequence, Barrett sees only
one path open 'to an ethically-attuned’ anthropology: ‘the focus must switch from the
traditional subjects of research - the victims and the powerless - to the victimizers and the
affluent' (Ibid.: 4). Only then, he argues, can the subversive nature of anthropological
inquiry be transformed into an advantage. Barrett's study of white supremists draws
precisely upon this hypothesis:
In view of the lack of substantial research on victimizers compared to that on
the victims, and the possibility that research actually is negative in its
consequences, my judgement was that a greater scholarly and social
contribution could be made by plugging into the other side, so-to-speak
(Ibid.: 7).
Barrett acknowledges, however, that studying the powerful with the aim of undermining
their power cannot serve as the ethical basis of social inquiry. As he puts it, 'it is
improbable that a discipline can endure if the bulk of its research has the purpose of
undermining the people who are investigated' (Ibid.: 23). What Barrett advocates, rather, is
a 'muscular anthropology' (Ibid.: 24) based on the recognition 'of the overwhelming
significance of differential power' (Ibid.), and in the active engagement of the researcher in
the 'politics of fieldwork'.
Barrett's argument is questionable on various accounts. First, he, as well as many
other social scientists who stress the ‘risks’ of social research for its ‘subjects’, tend to
overestimate their capacity to foresee and to evaluate the actual effects of their research on
the people under study. It is, in my view, very difficult to predict the impact of a particular
research on its direct and indirect 'subjects'. As Kelman puts it:
In social research, it is often impossible to predict the consequences of the
research (particularly the consequences of publication of the findings) or even
to describe in advance what will happen in the course of the research (Kelman,
1982: 89).
Second, the same social scientists tend to assume that the people under study will be
'harmed' by the research unless they, social scientists, make sure that the risk is minimised.
In other words, the possibility that the people under study might act so as to benefit, rather
than suffer, from the research, is not addressed. Nothing is said about the possibility that the
people under study, or the people who are potentially affected by a particular research
project, appropriate the 'findings' or the 'theory' generated by the research in order to foster
their own interests. The people under study are assumed to be powerless and unaware of
what is at stake in the research. It is certainly no longer true that social scientists primarily
study people from 'disadvantaged' groups of society. Research about 'those in power', for
example about the inner workings of the modern state, is probably as substantial as research
on disadvantaged groups of society, and the 'subversive' effect of social research, to use
Barrett's term, concerns both types of research. Besides, even in cases where the 'subjects'
of research belong to disadvantaged groups of society, social scientists tend to exaggerate
the powerlessness of their subjects. As is developed below, that social scientists have had to
face the increasing ‘resistance’ to research on the part of their ‘subjects’ indicate that the
latter are far from being powerless and dupes of ‘what is going on’ in social research.
3.2.2 Neutralising the resistance of the people under study
Since the early seventies, social scientists have been confronted to the explicit
resistance of people who refuse to ‘be studied’, or who tend to impose their conditions
before agreeing to be studied: people 'increasingly resist being subjects of inquiry,
especially for purposes not their own' (Hymes, 1974: 5). This resistance primarily refers to
the 'collective risks' of social research, rather than to the risks associated with the inquiry
itself. That is, the 'subjects' of social research, before agreeing to be 'researched',
increasingly want to assess the possible impact of the research for them and the groups or
collectives to which they belong. Citizens, as Barnes puts it, 'have begun to organise in
order to exercise control over the inquiries made about themselves' (Barnes, 1979: 72).
In this context, social scientists' concern is not so much the 'protection' of their
'powerless subjects' as, rather, the need to convince knowledgeable 'subjects' that the
research will be useful from their point of view rather than exclusively from the point of
view of the researcher. Resistance to research, then, has led to the recognition that the
'subjects' studied by social scientists are in principle 'capable both of grasping the new
knowledge generated by social research and of inferring its implications for their activities'
(Giddens, 1987: 47).
Although the phenomenon of resistance to social research is certainly as old as
social research itself, it is only recently that it has been taken seriously by social scientists.
Initially, resistance was taken as a sign of the incompetence of the people under study,
rather than as a manifestation of their competence, and of their awareness of potential
negative effects of social research from their point of view. For example, survey
researchers, since the mid-seventies, have had to confront the fact that 'completion rates in
sample surveys have been declining and that it is becoming more difficult and expensive to
obtain satisfactory response rates'49 (Orlans, 1976: 52). People who refused to respond to
social surveys were implicitly thought of as 'deviants too selfish or ignorant to perform
49 The population census, which can be viewed as ‘the longest standing social survey’
(Hakin, 1985: 46), represents a unique case regarding resistance and nonresponse, since it is
usually compulsory. In other words, people have no choice but to 'respond', unless they
'choose' to pay the fine or to risk imprisonment for refusing to respond. The census,
however, is a very good illustration of the debate about the potential harms of social
research for the people studied. Every time it is conducted, the census generates public
debate about the data collected, the confidentiality procedures, the utilisation of the data
and, more generally, about 'the political dangers of conducting, and publishing such a
detailed account of the whole populations' (Ibid.: 39).
their duty when approached by researchers' (Goyder, 1987: 16). Social scientists assumed
that nonrespondents were 'the uneducated, the foreign, the seemingly least estimable
portion of society' (Ibid.: 35). Only recently has nonresponse been considered as an active
strategy of 'resistance to social research', from 'subjects' who often see surveys 'as part of a
drift towards an authoritarian information society in which privacy and confidentiality
mean nothing' (Ibid.: 4).
Beyond issues of privacy and confidentiality, people refuse to be 'studied' for the
more fundamental reason that they often believe the research will be detrimental to their
own interests and freedom. As Barrett puts it:
Perhaps there was a time when we were able to persuade our subjects, and
believed ourselves, that our research efforts would be of great practical benefit
to them. But most people are too sophisticated to swallow this line now. The
residents of ghettos, for example, have become apprehensive about
researchers, and often unwilling to accept them into their communities
(1984: 3).
When presented with a particular research proposal, the subjects of the research are
increasingly inquisitive, or simply curious, about many aspects of the research, from
methodological procedures to interpretation of results, from sponsorship to publication
arrangements. The issue of resistance has therefore forced social scientists to consider the
usefulness of the knowledge they produce for the people who are the 'object-matter' of that
knowledge:
Resistance to social research will be overcome when we have done far more
than heretofore to win the confidence of the communities and populations we
are studying by protecting their rights to privacy and by demonstrating that
what we are doing can be of some value to them - in other words, by
committing ourselves as social scientists to major social change (Josephson,
1979: 110).
Most social scientists today acknowledge both the extent and the legitimacy of their
subjects' resistance to social research. Some argue that they should act as their subjects'
advocates. The term of 'advocacy research' has come to refer to a form of social inquiry, the
aim of which is to serve the interests of the people under study, who generally belong to
minorities and disadvantaged groups (Mishler, 1986: 129). The idea of 'advocacy research'
implies that the people under study usually lack the resources to foster their own interests
by themselves, and that they need the support of the researcher who agrees to be their
'advocate' (Kutchins & Kutchins, 1978: 28).
It can be argued that situations in which social scientists de facto act as their
subjects' advocates extend beyond the explicit practice of 'advocacy research'. For example,
research sponsored by the people who are 'researched' is often an implicit form of
'advocacy research'. The role of advocate is increasingly imposed on social scientists by the
'subjects' of the research, who only agree to be 'studied' if the researcher agrees to act as
their advocate. The new 'rules of the game' in anthropology imply, for example, that a
researcher studying Native American culture 'may expect, perhaps as a requirement for
continuing research, to testify in support of land claim litigation’ (Clifford, 1986a: 9).
The notion of advocacy is useful insofar as it rejects the idea that social scientists
can, and should be, 'detached observers'. To some extent, social research is always
advocacy research, although social scientists' advocacy role was generally not directed to
the people under study. Social scientists have come to acknowledge that they have often
acted as the passive advocates of certain actors, and especially of the governments that
hired them, although this advocacy role was denied in order to preserve the natural science
principle of 'scientific detachment'. They acknowledge that the social scientist, whether he
or she wants it or not, plays a political role, and that this role has often been to serve the
interests of the powerful50:
50 The argument that all social research is 'advocacy research' has also been made from a
different, a-political point of view. Lane, for example, claims that all social research is
advocacy, ‘at the minimum advocacy for certain ways of viewing society and its problems'
(Lane, 1978: 184). Sociological findings about the negative impacts of racial
discrimination, for example, imply, in his view, a form of advocacy which consists in
improving 'the perceived or actual advantage of a client or target group’, in this case, blacks
and other minorities (Ibid.: 180). The social scientist de facto plays the role of an advocate,
‘whether for an intellectual viewpoint on social reality, for the rights of a given set of
actors, for a desired policy outcome, or for a specific set of social processes’ (Lane,
1978: 184). In the same vein, Weber argues that 'sociology's major contribution to
advocacy has been in producing theories which have been used to develop rationales for
Science and professional practice, in their attempts to develop 'objective truth'
and actions in the 'public interest', have served the socio-politically dominant
sectors of the society to the exclusion of those that are marginal (Schensul &
Schensul, 1978: 122).
In the sixties and seventies, 'advocacy anthropology' emerged precisely as a response to the
criticism that anthropologists had been the passive advocates of the colonial state, and had
served indirectly to perpetuate 'colonial rule'. Anthropologists acknowledged that their
work lacked tangible benefits for the populations under study (Stull et al., 1987: 33).
'Advocacy anthropology' was aimed at reorienting the impact of anthropological research,
by showing that anthropologists could work 'directly for and within the community and not
on behalf of external institutions' (Schensul, 1987: 212). The earliest activities involving
advocacy in American anthropology concerned American Indians and their claims to
religious freedom and to land (Schensul & Schensul, 1978: 134). In the sixties and
seventies, projects emerged involving the association of anthropologists with ethnic
minorities and community activists. These projects were based on the idea that
anthropological research could be used to facilitate the empowerment of local communities'
(Schensul et al., 1987: 10). In the mid-seventies, minority communities acknowledged the
need for scientific knowledge in order to support their action, and accepted that
'anthropologists became collaborators with community activists in research directed toward
social change' (Ibid.). 'Advocacy research', then, rather than implying that other forms of
research do not involve some form of advocacy, refers to social research in which advocacy
is explicitly directed towards the 'subjects' of the research.
A major difficulty with the idea of advocacy research is that it implies that people
cannot be their own 'advocates'; that they cannot, or are unable to, appropriate the
social change and in producing research findings that have been used to effect change'
(Weber, 1978: 8). Lane and Weber's conception of 'advocacy' mainly relies on the
'enlightenment' function that social science supposedly exercises regarding policy-making
(cf. Chapter two). Lane assumes that ‘social policy is the most appropriate vehicle for
applying sociological understanding to the amelioration of social problems’ (Lane,
1978: 174). In this view, as social science knowledge is incorporated into the policymaking process, it is assumed that this process will prove useful for the relevant actors in
society.
knowledge produced by the researcher for fostering their own interests. Therefore, to some
extent, the point of criticism expressed above regarding the idea that social scientists' role is
to protect their 'subjects' from the risks of social research also extends to the idea that social
scientists' role is to be their subjects' advocates. In both cases, the impact of social science
knowledge on the people being researched is viewed as a process which occurs
independently, as it were, of these people's knowledgeability.
3.2.3 Participatory research
The third and last conception of the researcher-researched relationship to be
explored in this chapter is, on many counts, more satisfactory than the two others. It is
based on the notion of 'participatory research', and its core idea is that, by participating
actively in the research process itself, and in the production of social science knowledge,
the 'subjects' of the research can be empowered51. Participatory research consists in
involving the people studied as active participants in a joint effort with the social
scientist52 (Kelman, 1972: 1004). Thus, in participatory research, the people under study
'are not "subjects", or "clients", or "data sources", they are co-learners' (Elden & Levin,
1991: 128). Both participatory and advocacy research aim at fostering the interests of the
people under study. The major difference between the two forms of research is that
51 I use the term 'participatory research' as a generic term to refer to the various forms of
research based on the idea that the 'subjects' of research can be empowered through their
active participation in the research process. Certain forms of action-research, participatoryaction research, cooperative inquiry, etc., are thus included in the broad category of
'participatory research'. Although there are significant differences between these various
forms of participatory research (Heron, 1996), it is beyond my concern to review them
here.
52 Participatory research has sometimes been merely a way to 'neutralize', as it were, the
resistance of the people under study, by including them in the very conduct of the inquiry,
and by suggesting that the research would be useful for them, and not only for the social
scientists. Participatory research is often used as a way to obtain the consent of the subjects,
without really involving them in the research process. As Heron notes: 'It is rare to find any
full-blown commitment to collaboration about research method. In practice, it may be
reduced to no more than seeking fully informed consent of all informants to the researcher's
pre-existent or emerging operational plan, and to modifying the plan in order to obtain such
consent' (Heron, 1996: 9).
participatory research is based on the idea that the 'subjects' of the research, through their
active participation in the research process, can be their own advocates. In other words,
participatory research aims at promoting 'self-advocacy' (Davidson & Rappaport,
1978: 85). Participatory researchers reject the idea that social research is systematically
degrading, intrusive or potentially harmful for the people under study. They claim, rather,
that social research, when it is based on the active participation of the 'subjects' in the
research process, 'may represent an enriching and personally satisfying experience for the
subject' (Kelman, 1972: 1001).
Participatory research is generally a form of 'action-research', since it implies two
basic characteristics of action-research – ‘feedback’ and ‘change’. (Bowes, 1996: 2.7).
Feedback means that there is 'some sort of explicit interaction between the researcher and
the field' (Bowes, 1996: 2.7), and 'change' means that the research aims 'to alter existing
professional practice, or organisational structure, or community activity' (Ibid.).
Participatory action-research can be seen as a 'form of action-research that involves
practitioners as both subjects and coresearchers' (Argyris & Schön, 1991: 86). Another
point of connection between action research and participatory research is what Winter calls
a ‘consensual politics of inquiry’ (1987: 21), which refers to the principle that the
researcher acts ‘in collaboration with the subjects of the research, so that his problems are
also their problems (Ibid.). In participatory action-research, then, the researcher works with,
rather than on, the researched (Bowes, 1996: 2.8).
Participatory research is viewed as a means of reducing the differential of power
between the researcher and the researched, and as a means of avoiding the 'exploitation' of
the latter. For example, participatory research has been developed by feminist researchers,
who 'do not want to exploit women as research subjects, but prefer to empower them to do
their own research on what interests them' (Heron, 1996: 7). Two kinds of participation are
generally involved in participatory research, namely epistemic participation and political
participation (Heron, 1996: 20). Epistemic participation refers to 'the relation between the
knower and the known', while political participation refers to the relation between the
'subjects' of the research and the decisions that affect them (Ibid.).
Participatory research has been described as a way of 'democratising science'
(Maclure & Bassey, 1991: 190), insofar as the 'subjects' of research become active
participants in activities in which they traditionally have no role to play, and which are
often considered as the scientist’s chasse-gardée. Participatory research can also be a way
of
'demystifying' science: ‘collaborative research demystifies the research process,
allowing those who will utilise the results the opportunity to understand and shape the data
collection process’ (Schensul, 1987: 212-3). This partnership between the researcher and
the researched also implies that 'the subject, along with the investigator, [is] interested
personally in the process or outcome of the research and involved actively in making it a
success' (Kelman, 1972: 1003).
Participatory research can be criticised for its 'patronising' or arrogant assumption
that researchers 'have the power to emancipate, by giving power' (Bowes, 1996: 2.17). The
concept of empowerment tends to perpetuate a dichotomy between a ‘powerful outsider’
and a ‘powerless insider’, and to suggest an 'injection of power' from outside (Ibid.: 2.10).
Participatory researchers often tend to exaggerate the helplessness or the incompetence of
their 'subjects' before they become involved in the research and, consequently, they tend to
overstate the empowering or emancipatory effect of participatory research. In opposition to
this arrogance of many participatory researchers, Bowes stresses that the competence and
the autonomy of the women with whom she worked in an action-research project:
[T]he women with whom we worked [...] were completely competent and
capable of speaking, presenting their views of the world and acting upon them:
they did not need an action-research project to do this, though the project did
become an effectively mobilised resource which helped strategies, which
might otherwise have been difficult, to be pursued (Bowes, 1996: 8.3).
In my view, participatory researchers tend to perpetuate an epistemological fallacy
regarding the reflexivity of social science. This fallacy consists in viewing the reflexive
process between social science and its ‘subjects’ as a characteristic of participatory research
rather than a characteristic of social science in general. In particular, they tend to see the
process whereby the 'subjects' of social science appropriate social science knowledge, and
'talk back' to the researcher, as an attribute of participatory research. Or they suggest that in
participatory research only, the use of social science knowledge is built into the research
process, whereas in non-participatory research the use occurs a posteriori, once the
knowledge has been produced by social scientists. For example Elden & Levin claim that,
in 'non action' and 'non participatory' research, it is 'only the researcher or those who can
extract meaning from research reports (largely other researchers)' who can learn from the
research (1991: 131). The same epistemological fallacy can also consist in claiming that, in
participatory research, the knowledge produced during the inquiry is fed back into the
situation under study and immediately used by the people whom the knowledge is about,
transforming the situation under study through a process of 'collaborative learning'. Zuñiga,
for example, describes the participatory research he conducted in the following way:
The knowledge generated was simultaneously fed back into the situation,
altering the scientific research model into a fluid one, in which the scientific
products were diffused as they were produced and were immediately utilized
to alter the situation that had originated them (Zuñiga, 1983: 343-4).
In Zuñiga’s claim and in the others mentioned above, the epistemological fallacy consists in
attributing to participatory research characteristics that are by no means specific to
participatory research. It is crucial to acknowledge that the reflexive process between social
science and its ‘subjects’ characterises social research in general, as I have argued in the
first section of the chapter, and not participatory research only. The difference between
participatory and non-participatory research is that the participatory researcher
acknowledges the process and try to play an active and positive role in it. In contrast, other
social scientists either do not acknowledge the reflexive process between social science
knowledge and its 'subjects' or, when they do, they try to minimise its effects.
The epistemological fallacy also leads participatory researchers to assume first, that
the people studied by social scientists are generally 'naïve' and, second, that only
participatory research can reduce this naïveté. Kelman, for example, in promoting
participatory research, argues that ‘unlike many of the procedures that are now in common
use, participatory research [calls] for increasing the sophistication of potential subjects,
rather than maintaining their naïveté’ (Kelman, 1972: 1003). The condescension of some
participatory researchers towards the ‘subjects’ involved in their research is manifest in the
following remark by Bower & Gasparis: ‘[i]t is not beyond imagination that subjects may
learn something as a result of their participation in some social research studies’
(1978: 45).
A positive aspect of participatory research, thus, is that the reflexive process
between social science knowledge and its 'subjects' is not viewed as a 'vice' of social
inquiry. But participatory researchers, make the misleading assumptions that, first, this
reflexive process is characteristic of participatory research alone and, second, that the
reflexive process can be controlled and 'supervised', as it were, by the researcher. They
suggest that the appropriation of social science knowledge by its ‘subjects’ is conditional
on the participation of the ‘subjects’ in the research process. Equally misleading is their
argument about the necessary involvement of the social scientist as a 'mediator', a
'facilitator', or a 'translator', in the process of appropriation of social science knowledge by
its subjects. In short, the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its
'subjects' is recast into the restricted framework of the collaborative interaction between the
researcher and the researched. In contrast, I have argued that the appropriation of social
science knowledge by its 'subjects' is not a process which is limited to the practice of
participatory research. In fact, the practice of participatory research is marginal to the wideranging and routine process of appropriation of social science knowledge by its 'subjects'
which, in a period of reflexive modernity, is a pervasive process of social life.
3.3 THE APPROPRIATION OF SOCIAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE BY ITS 'SUBJECTS'
3.3.1 The reflexivity of social science in a period of reflexive modernity
In the second chapter of this dissertation, I argued that social scientists have seldom
discussed the uses of social science knowledge by 'lay people' but, rather, have focused
almost exclusively on policy-makers. The discussion conducted above in this chapter
completes and modulates the argument. Social scientists have indeed been concerned with
the usefulness of social science knowledge for its ‘subjects’. This concern, however, has
generally been fuelled by the assumption that the 'subjects' of social research can benefit
from it only through the active engagement of the researchers in forms of advocacy
research or participatory research. It is primarily the inquiry itself, and the circumstances in
which it is conducted, that are seen as the primary elements ensuring that the knowledge
produced will be used by, and useful for, the 'subjects' of the research.
In contrast, I argue that the reflexive process between social science knowledge and
its 'subjects' becomes, in a period of 'reflexive modernity', generalised and radicalised, and
that, in other words, the appropriation of social science knowledge by its 'subjects' is a
process which extends far beyond the 'moment' of social research itself. Two series of
arguments support this view. First, as claimed earlier in this chapter, social scientists have
often underestimated the capacity of their 'subjects' to appropriate the knowledge produced
during the research. The people under study tend to be considered as powerless, naïve, or
incompetent agents. Second, social scientists have often failed to recognise that the
'subjects' of social research, in conditions of reflexive modernity, are not only those
‘physically’ involved in the research, but that they refer also to a vast range of other people
and often to the population at large.
The following example borrowed from Giddens (1984) will serve to illustrate my
argument. Let us suppose that a researcher produces the claim that 'the higher up children
of working-class origins are in an educational system, the lower the chance they will drop
out, as compared to children from other class backgrounds' (Giddens, 1984: 347). The
reflexive process between social science knowledge and its object-matter means that, if
parents or children got to know about this claim, 'they could build it into their assessment of
the very situation it describes and therefore in principle undermine it' (Ibid.). To repeat,
such a process is not restricted to research that includes direct contact with the people under
study. The reflexive process between social science and its subjects is the epistemological
basis of institutional reflexivity and, thus, a crucial element of ‘reflexive modernity’. Many
social scientists are still reluctant to acknowledge the significance of this reflexive process
in contemporary society. Murray, for example, whose definition of reflexivity - ‘the human
capacity to comprehend and respond to description and prediction in confounding ways’
(1983 : 311) - is typical of the view that reflexivity is a ‘vice’ of social science, claims that
it is not a significant process :
While reflexivity may act to frustrate some kinds of predictions (face to face)
and may act generally to shorten the half-life of scientific theories (by
inducing people to modify their reactions), practically speaking I doubt that it
has much effect on the general relevance of social science to social policy
(Murray, 1983: 312).
Social science knowledge cannot be kept insulated from its potential appropriation by the
people who are the 'object-matter' of that knowledge, or from its incorporation within
everyday action (Giddens, 1993a: 9). In the example given above, a large range of agents,
from the working-class and from other classes, can appropriate this particular 'finding'
about class and education, and incorporate it into the way they make sense of their own, or
of others', dropping out from school.
Lay people are increasingly aware that virtually every aspect of their lives is being
studied; they are increasingly likely to have access to that knowledge, to have the
educational and cultural 'resources' to understand it, and to appropriate it in some way. To
come back to the example of Malinowski mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, new
conditions of production and of the diffusion of knowledge mean that 'the Trobriand
Islanders now know of Malinowski's books and one of them has reported that Malinowski
did not understand their system of clans and chiefs' (Barnes, 1967: 205). In anthropology,
the traditional conception of a ‘native’ largely ignorant of the knowledge produced about
his or her culture has been increasingly put into question. As Clifford argues, different rules
of the game are emerging due to the increasing presence of what he calls the ‘indigenous
ethnographer’ (Clifford, 1986a: 9):
If the ethnographer reads culture over the native's shoulder, the native also
reads over the ethnographer's shoulder as he or she writes each cultural
description. Fieldworkers are increasingly constrained in what they publish by
the reactions of those previously classified as nonliterate’ (Clifford,
1986b: 119).
There have been numerous illustrations that people increasingly know when they are the
object of a particular social inquiry and, more importantly, that they know how to ‘use’, and
how to take advantage of, the knowledge produced through this enquiry. As Barrett puts it:
'[w]e have lost our anonymity. No longer can we assume that our books and reports will not
be read by the 'natives'. Indeed, the ranks of anthropologists have begun to include the latter
themselves' (Barrett, 1984: 1). A world of developed reflexivity is one in which 'those who
are the subjects of anthropological treatises are likely to read them, react to them, and
perhaps use them in local and even political battles' (Giddens, 1996: 122).
3.3.2 The responsibility of social scientists
The recognition that the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its
'subjects' has unprecedented scope in contemporary society raises a number of issues about
the 'role' of social scientists and their responsibility regarding the knowledge they produce.
A crucial characteristic of the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its
'subjects' is its uncontrollability. This uncontrollability concerns the two principal
‘moments’ of the reflexive process: it concerns, first, the reflexivity which is simultaneous
to the inquiry itself and, second, the reflexivity which follows the diffusion of the
knowledge produced, and which can consist in the appropriation of that knowledge by the
people directly and indirectly concerned by that knowledge.
In face of the important effects that can be enmeshed in the reflexive process
between social science knowledge and its subjects, social scientists have tried to set the
outlines of their responsibility as producers of knowledge. Barnes, referring more
particularly to ethnography, presents two options which, in his view, are open to the social
scientist: one option is to minimise the reflexive process so as to minimise its potential
effects; the other is to try to control the reflexive process:
[the ethnographer] is aware that what he writes may well become the basis for
action designed to alter what he describes and will therefore either take special
steps to prevent this happening or, alternatively, he will seek consciously to
influence and even to take responsibility for such action (Barnes, 1967: 195).
I have suggested above that Barnes’ first option, namely trying to prevent the
reappropriation of social science knowledge by its 'subjects', is mistaken in at least two
respects. First, the reflexive process between social science and its 'objects' is inescapable,
whether social scientists acknowledge it or not. Second, this reflexive process is at the basis
of institutional reflexivity: it is precisely through the reflexive process between social
science knowledge and the people this knowledge is about, that social science has such an
important impact on contemporary society. Only in the perspective of a mythical 'natural
science approach' can social science's reflexivity can be considered as a 'vice' whose effects
should be minimised.
Barnes' second option, namely, trying to control the reflexive process in order for
the social scientist to maintain a sense of responsibility regarding the knowledge he or she
produces, raises a fundamental issue. This issue has been identified in the first chapter of
the dissertation, in which I argued that lay people routinely have to come to terms with
situations in which they have to maintain a sense of responsibility for events which largely
escape their individual control. To some extent, the social scientist today is caught in the
same situation. The 'uses' of social science knowledge or, rather, the appropriation of social
science knowledge by the extended 'subjects' of that knowledge, largely escape social
scientists' control. Few social scientists nowadays would argue that they should not be
concerned with the uses of the knowledge they produce, and that they should not feel
responsible for them. The figure of the 'distant researcher' has become untenable in
contemporary society and in the new mode of knowledge production that characterises it53.
The ‘distant researcher’ is one of three possible positions outlined by Piron (1996)
regarding the issue of responsibility54. The distant researcher, which she calls the 'classical
researcher' denies that social scientists have a responsibility regarding the effects of the
knowledge they produce, since their task is only one of production of knowledge. The
classical researcher 'keeps a distance he deems necessary between his [or her] work and its
consequences' (Piron, 1996: 148). The second position is that of the 'guilty researcher' who,
being acutely aware of the differential of power between the scientists who 'name the
53 Cf. the discussion of Gibbons et al. (1994) in chapter two.
54 Piron's argument refers more particularly to anthropology, but it can be generalized, in
my view, to other social sciences.
world' and the people 'who are being named', becomes almost paralysed by this power. As
Piron puts it, the guilty researcher 'is submerged by his position of power towards those he
studies and tries to escape from this predicament' (Ibid.: 148). The position of the 'guilty
researcher' is characteristic of many of the scientists whose work I have examined in the
second part of the chapter, that is, scientists concerned with protecting the 'subjects' of
research from the 'risks' of social research, and even the scientists engaged in advocacy
research and participatory research.
The position of the 'guilty researcher' is equally inadequate. The guilty researcher
has an 'inflated' conception, so-to-speak, of his or her own importance, and of the
specificity of his or her activity. As argued earlier, the activity of 'naming the world' is by
no means exclusive to social scientists. There is, in contemporary society, an increasing
competition for the representation of the social world, and many other agents, apart from
social scientists, are legitimate competitors engaged in the activity of 'naming the world'.
Besides, the ‘guilty researcher’ tends to exaggerate his or her 'subjects' powerlessness and
inability to 'use' social science knowledge to foster their own interests.
The third position examined is what Piron calls the 'responsible researcher'
[chercheur solidaire]. The latter acknowledges that he or she cannot control the effects of
the knowledge she produces, but assumes that he or she nevertheless has a responsibility
towards them. This responsibility, in Piron's view, is located in the 'production' of
knowledge, but in a way which is radically different from the classical researcher's concern
for 'production', as opposed to utilisation. The responsible researcher's concern for the
production of social science knowledge is based on the idea that the future 'uses' of social
science knowledge are built into the knowledge-claims themselves and into what Piron
calls the 'forms of humanity' [formes d'humanité] conveyed through that knowledge (Piron,
1996: 144). By this she means that the production of social science knowledge, instead of
being exclusively governed by a concern for the 'validity' of knowledge, should also be
governed by a concern for the forms of humanity - that is, the implicit conception of the
human agent, his or her freedom, and his or her capacity for action - that underlies that
knowledge55.
Piron’s figure of the ‘responsible researcher’ parallels the argument that the
responsibility of social scientists crucially concerns the forms of identities that social
science knowledge conveys, especially the senses of freedom and of individuality that are
constitutive of modern identity (Taylor, 1989). Later in the dissertation, I will develop the
argument that sociologists' responsibility refers more particularly to the way sociological
knowledge enables to ‘see the social in the individual’, in a way which does not lead to the
paralysis of individual or collective action.
55 The idea that the responsibility of scientists lies primarily in the 'forms of humanity'
implicitly contained in the knowledge they produce, and which is appropriated by lay
people, has been developed by Wynne, albeit in different terms. In the context of his
analysis of the relation of lay people to expertise (cf. section 1.2.1), Wynne emphasises
scientists' neglect of the cultural/hermeneutic character of expert knowledge. Expert
knowledge, in his view, 'tacitly and furtively impose prescriptive models of the human and
the social upon lay agents' (Wynne, 1996: 59).
CHAPTER 4 : ORDINARY KNOWLEDGEABILITY
AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SOCIAL SCIENCE AND COMMON SENSE
Common sense refers to lay people’s ordinary knowledge, a type of knowledge
which, despite its likely inaccuracies, enables most of us to cope successfully with day-today life. It is usually assumed that social science knowledge breaks away from common
sense, and that it often demonstrates that particular common sense knowledge claims are
false. The opposition between common sense knowledge and social science knowledge
and, arguably, the ‘superiority’ of the latter over the former, can be addressed at two
distinct levels. The first level is the one referred just above: it is the level of the knowledge
claims themselves. Thus we can compare common sense knowledge claims and social
science knowledge claims on a particular issue and show, for example, that the former are
being contradicted by the latter, and that the claims produced by social scientists, by virtue
of their scientific status, are more accurate than commonsensical claims. But the
comparison between social science knowledge and common sense knowledge can also be
addressed at a second level, which concerns the form of knowledge. This second level is
the level of knowledgeability rather than knowledge. At this level, the question is whether
common sense knowledge and social science knowledge refer to two distinct forms of
knowledge, that is, whether they share the same epistemological bases or not.
The two levels are of course tightly connected. It can be argued that the difference,
or the opposition, between social science claims and commonsensical claims (i.e. the first
level described above) results from the difference between two distinct forms of
knowledgeability (i.e. the second level). It is therefore the second level which is the main
focus of the chapter, insofar as an argument regarding differences in forms of knowledge is
more consequential, as it were, than an argument about the accuracy or inaccuracy of
knowledge claims. Or, to put it more adequately, the first level of knowledge claims, in the
following discussion, will be addressed only insofar as it is often based on an argument
regarding the second level, namely that of knowledgeability or form of knowledge. I will
draw particular attention on the work of social psychologists – in particular theorists of
social representations and attribution theorists – who have devoted many empirical studies
about the ‘content’, as it were, of common sense, and about the comparison between
commonsensical knowledge and scientific knowledge.
The clarification of what should be understood by ‘common sense’, and the
discussion of the relationship between social science knowledge and common sense
knowledge, are essential for the general argument of the dissertation. They are essential,
more precisely, in order to assert the very plausibility of the process of lay appropriation of
social science knowledge. The present chapter aims at clarifying what conception of
common sense and of its relation to social science underlies the very idea of a lay
appropriation of social science knowledge. Claiming that lay people routinely appropriate
social science knowledge implies that this knowledge somehow becomes incorporated into
people’s common sense knowledge. Such a process can not be taken-for-granted, and does
in fact challenge several assumptions frequently made by social scientists about the notion
of common sense and about the relationship between social science and common sense.
The chapter breaks down into three sections. The first two sections are devoted to
the notion of common sense, understood at the second level presented above, that is, the
level of ordinary knowledgeability. In the first section, I discuss three characteristics of
ordinary knowledgeability that social scientists have repeatedly stressed, namely that
common sense is a non-reflexive form of knowledge, which is driven by psycho-affective
processes rather than by logical or scientific criteria, and which essentially stems from firsthand experience. In the second section of the chapter, I question these presumed attributes
of ordinary knowledgeability by suggesting that, instead of assuming that ordinary
knowledgeability is an invariable form of knowledge with immutable characteristics, we
should view ordinary knowledgeability as a ‘transformable’ form of knowledge which, in
contemporary society, might be undergoing significant transformations. Finally, in the third
section of the chapter, I turn to the level of knowledge claims themselves, and I examine
the relationship between commonsensical claims and social scientific claims, in light of the
conception of ordinary knowledgeability developed in the first two sections. This
relationship is essentially circular: on one hand, scientific claims draws upon
commonsensical claims in many acknowledged and unacknowledged ways; on the other
hand, social scientific claims continuously infuse common sense as they are disseminated
throughout society, and as they are appropriated by the people this knowledge is about.
Without denying the importance of the first ‘half’, as it were, of the circular relationship, I
will focus on the second one, namely the incorporation of social scientific claims into
common sense.
4.1 COMMON SENSE AS A FORM OF KNOWLEDGE : ORDINARY KNOWLEDGEABILITY
4.1.1 Practical and non-reflexive knowledge
As noted in introduction, common sense can be explored at the level of ordinary
knowledgeability, that is, the level of the ontological and epistemological basis upon which
commonsensical knowledge claims draw. The notion of ordinary knowledgeability suggests
that there are procedures and basic assumptions which are characteristic of the way ‘lay
people’ construct common sense knowledge. Exploring ordinary knowledgeability means
exploring ‘mundane reason’ (Pollner, 1987), which comprises a ‘network of beliefs about
reality, self and others’ (Ibid.: ix). In the same vein, Forguson defines common sense as a
‘shared network of beliefs about the world and our relation to it, which informs our own
behaviour and which we implicitly presuppose whenever we interpret others as rational
beings inhabiting a common world with ourselves’ (Forguson, 1989: 157).
Several traditions in social science have devoted attention to ordinary
knowledgeability. The general aim was often one of rehabilitation of common sense: social
scientists showed that, contrary to appearances, the most mundane social practices of dayto-day life mobilise a large range of implicit knowledge, and that ordinary agents display a
fundamental competence when dealing with the routine activities of day-to-day life.
Students of ordinary knowledgeability often aim at showing how sophisticated common
sense is, in contrast to a traditional view which regards common sense as an approximate,
simplistic, or misleading form of knowledge. Forguson, for example, begins his study of
ordinary knowledgeability with the statement that ‘the individual members of our species
would not get along as successfully as they do on this earth if their common sense beliefs
about the world, and about why people act as they do, were not for the most part true’
(Forguson, 1989: iv).
The exploration of ordinary knowledgeability owes much to ethnomethodology. The
latter has significantly contributed to the raising of common sense as a legitimate and
crucial object of inquiry in social science. Ethnomethodology offers a way of ‘of revealing
the richly layered skills, assumptions and practices through which the most commonplace
[...] activities and experiences are constructed’ (Pollner, 1987: ix). In part based on
phenomenology and the work of Schütz, as is especially clear in Garfinkel’s writings,
ethnomethodology refers to the study of ‘the body of common-sense knowledge and the
range of procedures and considerations by means of which the ordinary members of society
make sense of, find their way about in, and act on the circumstances in which they find
themselves’ (Heritage, 1984: 4). The object of study in ethnomethodology is the procedures
routinely used by social agents ‘to analyse, make sense of, and produce recognisable social
activities’
(Furnham,
1988: 213).
The
fundamental
question
at
the
heart
of
ethnomethodology is: ‘How do social actors come to know, and know in common, what
they are doing and the circumstances in which they are doing it?’ (Heritage, 1984: 76).
For Garfinkel, this question constitutes a direct challenge to the Parsonian treatment
of human action, which is based on the ‘internalisation of values’, and which amounts to a
‘disregard for the entire common-sense world in which ordinary actors choose courses of
action on the basis of detailed practical considerations and judgements which are
intelligible and accountable to others’ (Ibid.: 34). Parsons analyses human action as ‘the
product of causal processes which, although operating “in the minds” of the actors, [are] all
but inaccessible to them and, hence, uncontrollable by them’ (Ibid.: 22). For Garfinkel, this
implies treating people as 'cultural dopes', enmeshed in a normative system that operates
behind their backs. Hence, he sees the task of the social scientist as being the elucidation of
the ‘ethnomethods’ routinely used by ordinary members of society, and which are the basis
of the production and reproduction of society.
The rationality of social life, instead of being treated as a ‘given', is viewed, rather,
as an active accomplishment of human agents, whose reflexivity is involved even in the
most constraining of social norms. Reflexivity, in ethnomethodology, is a fundamental
component of ordinary knowledgeability. Ordinary agents are ‘reflexive’ in the sense that
they 'continuously monitor the circumstances of their activities as a feature of doing what
they do’ (Giddens, 1991: 35). As noted in the first chapter of the dissertation, Giddens has
termed this commonsensical reflexivity the ‘reflexive monitoring of action’. For the
ethnomethodologist, acknowledging this fundamental reflexivity of ordinary agents is
crucial, since it implies that ‘the actors have “insight” into the normative background of
their own actions’ (Heritage, 1984: 23). The competence of ordinary people means that
they continuously use ‘“seen but unnoticed” procedures for accomplishing, producing and
reproducing “perceivedly normal” courses of action’ (Ibid.: 118). In other words, the
ethnomethodologist rejects the ‘rule-governed’ model of action, which bluntly states that
social rules and norms operate as determining and constraining factors on human action. In
contrast, Garfinkel shows, through concrete cases like the ‘greetings exchange’, that norms
and rules are reflexively constitutive of the situations to which they are applied.
We need to be very clear, however, as to what ‘reflexivity’ actually means in this
context. When it is used to characterise ordinary knowledgeability, reflexivity refers to a
form of competence which is practical and, as it were, oblivious to itself. Lay agents are
reflexive, but this reflexivity does not ordinarily reach the level of discursive
consciousness, and it does not entail any questioning of the procedures which are used in
order to make sense of the world. Common sense knowledge is not ordinarily reflected
upon; it is mobilised in order to deal with day-to-day life, and it is not questioned explicitly.
In fact it is this practical, ‘unreflective’, and taken-for-granted character which enables
people to go on with their lives in an efficient way. For this reason, ordinary
knowledgeability has often been described precisely as a non-reflexive, or even ‘antireflexive’ form of knowledge. It is non-reflexive insofar as reflexivity would entail a
certain measure of discursiveness, reflection, critical distance, or ‘objectification’56. In this
56 The notion of ‘objectification’ will be explored in detail in the next chapter, in the
discussion of Bourdieu’s work.
sense, one of the chief characteristics of common sense becomes its ‘non-reflexivity’. And
this ‘non-reflexivity’ has often been ‘glorified’ by students of common sense as a necessary
condition for its ‘efficiency’.
The non-reflexive character or ordinary knowledgeability, and the positive aspect
that is associated with it, are central in phenomenology. Phenomenological terms for
‘common sense’ are the ‘life-world perspective’, or the ‘natural attitude’, which refers to
‘the normal pre-reflective attitude within which we do our daily living’ (Giorgi, 1990: 67).
The central feature of the natural attitude is that it takes the everyday world for granted
(Natanson, 1967: xxvi), in the sense that ‘[it] does not raise serious and persistent questions
concerning the nature of the everyday experience but, instead, takes that experience as a
fact’ (Douglas, 1973: 14). The task of the phenomenologist is precisely to suspend the
‘belief in the reality of the world as a device to overcome the natural attitude’ (Schütz,
1967b: 229), what Husserl calls the ‘phenomenological epoché”, or the ‘transcendental
phenomenological reduction’. In ordinary life, there is normally no occasion or reason to
perform this reduction:
No motive exists for the naïve person to raise the transcendental question
concerning the actuality of the world or concerning the reality of the alter ego,
or to make the jump into the reduced sphere’ (Schütz, 1967b: 135).
Only in exceptional circumstances, when, for example, ‘a newly appearing phenomenon of
meaning resists being organised within the store of experience’ (Ibid.: 136), can the natural
attitude momentarily reach a reflection of a higher order. Thus, the break from the natural
attitude performed by the phenomenologist aims at understanding the natural attitude
‘better than it understands itself’ (Giorgi, 1990: 67). The ‘theoretic stance’ of the
phenomenologist implies to ‘stand back from, to reflect upon, to re-view the experience
taken for granted in the natural stance’ (Douglas, 1973: 15).
The necessary absence of reflexivity, thus, is a crucial element which is brought to
the fore when social scientists try to characterise the difference between common sense and
social science: for many social scientists, ordinary knowledgeability is essentially non-
reflexive, whereas scientific knowledgeability is reflexive. This argument will be examined
further in the second part of the chapter.
4.1.2 A form of knowledge driven by a practical interest and oriented toward
control
For many social scientists, there is another fundamental difference between ordinary
knowledgeability and scientific knowledgeability, which has to do with the interest, or the
‘psychological function’, that are rooted in common sense knowledge. For these scientists,
ordinary knowledgeability is driven by a practical interest, that is, an interest for making
sense of the world in the ‘here and now’, in order to choose an appropriate course of action.
We find this argument in Schütz’ work, who argues that common sense knowledge, in
contrast to social science knowledge, is 'built up ad hoc, as a product of practical, interested
engagement with the world’ (Heritage, 1984: 61). Schütz asserts that ‘there is a difference
in kind between the type of naïve understanding of other people we exercise in everyday
life and the type of understanding we use in the social sciences’ (Schütz, 1967a: 140). For
him, ‘scientific theorizing does not serve any practical purpose; its aim is not to master the
world but to observe and possibly to understand it’ (1967b: 245). In contrast, common
sense is always guided by a practical interest, which implies that ‘[i]n ordinary life we call
a halt to the process of interpreting other people’s meanings when we have found out
enough to answer our practical questions’ (1967a: 38). Therefore, ‘the maximum possible
grasp of subjective meaning in the social world cannot be expected on the common-sense
level’ (Ibid.). Ordinary knowledgeability, in this perspective, is driven by a practical
interest which subordinates the construction of knowledge to the successful ‘elucidation’
of the concrete and urgent situations of day-to-day life.
A radicalisation of a related argument consists in claiming that ordinary
knowledgeability is driven by a ‘psychological imperative’, which consists in common
sense knowledge being congruent with the affective and psychological well-being of the
person. Here again, the argument serves to assert the difference between ordinary
knowledgeability and scientific knowledgeability: whereas the scientist follows a logic of
scientific efficacy, the lay person follows a logic of ‘affective’ efficacy. Such a perspective
can be found very prominently in social psychology, and especially in the theory of social
representations57. The concept of social representations is a key concept in social
psychology. Social representations, for social psychologists, constitute the ‘popular
knowledge’ that the members of a same group have in common. They serve as a common
stock of notions whose meanings will be clear for every member of the group (Mannoni,
1998: 74).
For social psychologists, social representations are a key element of the ordinary
epistemology on which common sense knowledge is based (Mannoni, 1998: 3). The main
characteristic of this ordinary epistemology is the prevalence of psychological congruence:
One of the properties of social representations is that of giving the priority to
psychological congruence over logical coherence, and to affective-cognitive
efficiency over theoretical-scientific efficacy (Mannoni, 1998: 4).
‘Psychological congruence’ implies that the lay person constructs and sanctions knowledge
claims which assist him or her in the control of his or her life. This is what attribution
theorists have called the ‘control function’ of lay theories58 (Hewstone, 1983: 17).
Attribution theory consists in 'the study of perception or inference of causation, usually held
by lay people about their own or other’s behaviour' (Furnham, 1988: 1). It focuses on the
'locus of causality' of lay explanations. For example, lay explanations of poverty have been
57 See Carugati (1990), Farr (1993), Jodelet (1989), Mannoni (1998), Moscovici (1984,
1982, 1981, 1961), Moscovici & Hewstone (1983), Purkhardt (1993). An exhaustive
presentation of the theory of social representations is beyond the scope – and the object – of
this chapter. Rather, I will focus on the way ordinary knowledgeability is characterised in
the theory of social representations, as well as on the way social psychologists, and
Moscovici in particular, have analysed the process of transformation of social science
knowledge into common sense (see section 4.3.3. in this chapter).
58 Attribution theorists have outlined three primary functions of lay theories, namely, the
control function, the self-esteem function and the self-presentation function (Hewstone,
1983: 17). In their view, common sense explanations of social phenomena can be explained
with respect to one or several of these 'functions'. The control function refers to the
individual's 'motivation to achieve a degree of control over the physical and social world’;
the self-esteem function refers to the ‘need to protect, validate and enhance feelings of
personal worth and effectiveness’; and the self-presentation function is about gaining public
approval and avoiding embarrassment (Ibid.).
ranged in three categories, depending on what causes people attribute to the phenomenon of
poverty, or who or what can be held responsible for poverty: ‘individualistic’ explanations
consist in placing responsibility on the poor people; ‘structural’ explanations place
responsibility on social and economic factors; and ‘fatalistic’ explanations rely on luck and
fate to explain the phenomenon of poverty (Furnham, 1988: 136-7). Similar studies have
been conducted by attribution theorists with respect to other issues, such as addiction,
illness, crime, etc. Lay theories of addiction, for example, can be divided between
biological, psychological, and sociocultural theories (Ibid.: 78). Likewise, lay theories of
illness causation have been analysed according to four alternative assumptions as to ‘who’
can be held responsible for an illness: responsibility can be placed on the patient, the
natural world, the social world, or the supernatural world59 (Ibid.: 115).
The control function refers to the individual's 'motivation to achieve a degree of
control over the physical and social world’ (Hewstone, 1983: 17). For Bains, such a
motivation pertains to an 'ideology of control' (Bains, 1983: 142) which is characteristic of
at least modern society, and which means that individuals are socialised in a such a way
that they will tend to maintain a view of the world that emphasises their capacity to exert
control and mastery over their environment (Ibid.: 127). Thus, when accounting for a
particular issue, especially a distressing one, lay people, according to attribution theorists,
tend to ‘blame’ individuals themselves rather than external circumstances:
All those who have studied how […] attributions are usually made have
been struck by one thing: that personal causes are generally preferred. It is
more natural to blame individuals than circumstances (Moscovici, 1982:
126).
For example, the tendency of parents to blame themselves when their children contract
leukaemia can be explained, according to attribution theorists, by reference to the control
59 Although they seldom acknowledge the point in these terms, these studies about the
different lay theories that people develop about a particular issue cast into question the very
idea of common sense, that is, the idea that it refers to knowledge claims that are common
to virtually everyone in the same society. By showing how different people, or different
groups of people, tend to give different, and sometimes contradictory, explanations of the
same issue, students of 'lay theories' suggest that ‘common sense’ is a multi-faceted form of
knowledge, which is certainly less homogeneous than social scientists usually assume.
function performed by this type of lay explanation: blaming themselves, according to
attribution theorists, enables these parents to maintain a sense of control over the situation,
and to sustain the belief that, somehow, they 'can make a difference' regarding their
children's predicament (Hewstone, 1983: 17). Attribution theorists often refer to the control
function of lay explanations as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (Hewstone, 1983: 10), or
as 'control biases' (Bains, 1983: 142). The bias, or the error, lies in lay people’s tendency to
attribute internal rather than external causes to phenomena, in order to maintain a sense of
control over what happens to them:
When attempting to explain other’s social behaviour, lay people tend to ignore
or play down situational forces and constraints preferring to locate the ‘causes’
of human behaviour in an individual’s personality, motives, etc. (Furnham,
1988: 6).
Attribution theorists stress that the ‘attribution error’ is only an error in terms of logic; it
ceases to be an 'error' in light of the psychological function performed by internal
explanations. The ‘personalism’ that characterises lay theories is what distinguishes,
according
to
attribution
theorists,
ordinary
knowledgeability
from
scientific
knowledgeability (Moscovici, 1982: 132). The lay person is viewed as a ‘naïve scientist’,
insofar as ‘he is impervious to information, limits himself to confirming his theories instead
of falsifying theories, and explains everything he observes on the basis of personal causes’
(Ibid.: 127). According to attribution theorists, this naivety is essential for preserving the
individual’s ‘ontological security’. The ‘personalist’, or individualistic character of many
lay attributions is thus positive in the sense that is reinforces people's capacity for action,
and their sense of responsibility for what happens to them. For example, internal
explanations of health mean that people typically assume more responsibility for their
health, guard against accidents and disease, seek more information about health
maintenance, and learn more about illnesses and diseases that they contract’ (Ibid.: 117). In
contrast, for the people who attribute illness to germs ‘which are external and random in
who they affect’ (Ibid.: 118), the victims become blameless and therefore powerless. In the
same vein, attribution theorists have argued that the way in which unemployed people
explain their situation often shifts from external to internal explanations, as they 'decide' to
'do something' about their situation: ‘people out of work for long periods of time tend first
to offer societal (external) attributions for their own (and others) unemployment, but [...]
these explanations then tend to become fatalistic, and finally individualistic, with the
unemployed blaming themselves for their plight’ (Ibid.: 130).
Schütz’ argument about the practical interest at core of lay knowledgeability, and
social psychologists’ argument about lay people’s ‘attribution error’, have at least two
points in common. First, they both assert that ordinary epistemology is fundamentally
different from scientific epistemology. Second, they locate the difference in the practical,
immediate, and urgent interest which drive lay people’s construction of common sense
knowledge, and in lay people’s preference for knowledge claims that stress the possibility
of individual’s control. It is certainly accurate, in my view, to claim that common sense is
driven by a practical interest. By this it should be simply understood that people construct
and appropriate knowledge claims only insofar as this knowledge enables them to make
sense of their world. This does not mean, however, that common sense knowledge is
systematically built up in conditions of urgent solving of concrete situations. Such an
argument reinforces the view, presented in the first section of the chapter, that common
sense is a non-reflexive form of knowledge. In this view, lay people do not have the luxury,
as it were, to reflect upon and to critically examine their knowledge. As suggested in the
first chapter, my own argument is that this conception of day-to-day life is inadequate: dayto-day life should not be conceived as a mere succession of urgent situations which
mobilise unreflected knowledge. There are indeed many occasions in day-to-day life during
which lay people critically examine their own commonsensical knowledge, as has been
amply demonstrated, for example, by research on public understanding of environmental
hazards (Irwin & Wynne, 1996). We should also, in my view, be extremely suspicious of
social psychologists’ argument about lay people’s systematic tendency to favour knowledge
that confirms their individual capacity for control and for ‘making a difference’. This
argument will be examined in the subsequent chapters of the dissertation, since it directly
challenges one of the major claims made in the dissertation, namely that lay people
routinely develop a ‘lay sociological imagination’.
4.1.3 First-hand knowledge
A third characteristic of ordinary knowledgeability that is often stressed by social
scientists concerns the empirical basis of common sense knowledge. Ordinary
knowledgeability, it is argued, draws upon first-hand experience: the lay person constructs
common sense knowledge on the basis of his or her direct experience. To put it differently,
ordinary knowledgeability is bounded, as it were, by direct experience. Here again, the
argument serves to assert an epistemological difference between ordinary and scientific
knowledgeability:
[ordinary knowledge refers to] knowledge that does not owe its origin, testing,
degree of verification, truth status, or currency, to distinctive professional social
inquiry techniques but rather to common sense, casual empiricism or thoughtful
speculation and analysis (1979: 12).
In this view, the epistemological difference between ordinary knowledgeability and
scientific knowledgeability thus concerns both the construction and the validation of
knowledge claims. Common sense knowledge rests entirely on practice: commonsensical
claims ‘are generalisations acquired through observation and analysis of practice and tested
pragmatically in practical situations' (Furnham, 1988: 189).
It seems clear enough that there are indeed epistemological differences between the
way common sense and social science knowledge are constructed and validated. However,
the argument that common sense knowledge rests primarily on first-hand experience is a
dubious one. Wilson stresses the absurdity of this argument:
If all we could know of the world was what we could find out on the basis of
first-hand experience, we would know little [...] We mostly depend on others
for ideas, as well as for information about things outside the range of direct
experience (Wilson, 1983: 9-10).
The assumption which, in my view, needs to be questioned, is the idea that common sense
knowledge refers to a homogeneous and unified body of knowledge, whose origin and
construction exclusively rely on first-hand experience. Ordinary knowledgeability cannot
be defined with respect to the origin of the knowledge claims that it comprises. What
people hold true about the world is based on a combination of first-hand experience, and of
the appropriation of claims made by others, including those made by social scientists.
The argument that ordinary knowledgeability rests on local, first-hand knowledge, is
especially difficult to maintain in a period of reflexive modernity. As argued in the first
chapter, the notion of ‘local knowledge’ is being redefined in a society in which many
forms of abstract systems and of expert knowledge pervade day-to-day life. Holzner and
Marx' (1979) go as far as to announce the emergence of a 'post-modern common sense',
which refers to a shift from an emphasis on 'stable, substantive capsules of folk knowledge
[to] a means-oriented attitude to accessing information that is known to be socially stored'
(Holzner & Marx, 1979: 25). In their terms:
Common sense in [...] a highly differentiated, self-reflective, knowledgeoriented society must necessarily take a form that is different from the pattern it
took in a society in which most knowledge at hand was traditionally
transmitted, learned through apprenticeship, or generated in its use (Ibid.: 19).
For Holzner and Marx, post-modern common sense involves 'a greater willingness to utilise
specialised professional services' (Ibid.: 345) and it includes 'knowledge of how to find and
benefit from the service most appropriate to a problem' (Ibid.).
The argument that common sense knowledge primarily refers to first-hand
knowledge gained through direct experience has been opposed from a different perspective
by Moscovici, in his theory of social representations. He claims that common sense is now
made of second-hand rather than first-hand knowledge, a phenomenon directly connected
with the growth of science and the diffusion of scientific knowledge in society. Moscovici’s
theory of social representations was, from its inception, ‘conceived in order to study how
the game of science becomes part of the game of common sense' (Moscovici & Hewstone,
1983: 101). More precisely, Moscovici and Hewstone argue that there are now two distinct
forms of common sense knowledge, namely an 'old common sense' made of first-hand
knowledge, and a 'new common sense' made of second-hand knowledge (Ibid., 1983: 99).
The ‘old common sense’ is a 'residue of widely shared knowledge, which may be
systematised by science' (Ibid.), and which is still prevalent ‘in the spoken world, that of
conversation and rumour' (Ibid.: 105). The ‘new common sense’ is tied up with the
development of modern science and is made of scientific knowledge that has been
transformed into common sense knowledge.
It follows that lay people, for Moscovici and Hewstone, have become 'amateur
scientists' who consume, digest and transform scientific knowledge on a continuous basis.
Science has come to be a 'hobby':
Ordinary people consume developing scientific knowledge and use it in their
everyday communication and behaviour. But they do not simply process this
knowledge; they turn it into a game of 'science as a hobby', a modern version of
common sense (Ibid.: 101).
The authors indicate that referring to lay people as 'amateur scientists' aims at replacing the
pejorative term of 'naïve scientists' that is often ascribed to lay people (Ibid.: 99). The 'new
common sense', by virtue of the authority of science, and of the massive diffusion of
scientific knowledge throughout society, increasingly 'dethrones' the 'old common sense'.
Hewstone and Moscovici's conclusion, therefore, is that 'many so-called common-sense
explanations are derived and not "first-hand". They are the result of a transformation of
scientific explanations that impose upon a society, or a particular group, at a given time'
(Ibid.: 125). The merit of Moscovici’s argument is that it stresses that common sense
knowledge cannot be assimilated with first-hand knowledge. Moscovici, however, goes too
far towards the opposite position which consists in arguing that, in contemporary society,
common sense is now ‘science made common’ (Moscovici, 1984: 29). As suggested
earlier, it is more adequate, in my view, to abandon the idea that common sense knowledge
draws upon a unique source of knowledge or upon a unique form of experience; rather, it is
best seen as an heterogeneous form of knowledge, which partly, but certainly not entirely,
draws upon social science knowledge. As suggested in the first chapter, this implies that
social scientists should study how lay agents ‘fashion locally useful knowledges from
“external” and “indigenous” sources (Irwin and Wynne, 1996: 213). The issue of the
incorporation of social science knowledge into common sense is addressed in more detail in
the last part of the chapter.
4.2 A TRANSFORMATION OF ORDINARY KNOWLEDGEABILITY?
4.2.1 Common sense as transformable knowledge
Ordinary knowledgeability has often been conceived as a form of knowledge with
immutable characteristics: as argued above, common sense is assumed to be a practical,
non-reflexive form of knowledge, which performs the ‘psychological’ function of
preserving the individual’s ontological security at the cost of ‘attributions errors’, and
which is based primarily on the individual’s first-hand experience. These supposedly
fundamental characteristics of ordinary knowledgeability serve to establish the difference
between common sense and social science, insofar as social science is described as a
reflexive form of knowledge, which is free from ‘attribution errors’ and which goes beyond
individual first-hand experience. In what follows, I explore the view which consists, in
contrast to the traditional perspective presented above, in putting into question the
‘immutable characteristics’ of ordinary knowledgeability, and in suggesting that ordinary
knowledgeability is a heterogeneous and evolving form of knowledge. Specifically, I want
to examine the argument that ordinary knowledgeability is a ‘transformable’ form of
knowledge which, in a period of ‘reflexive modernity’ is indeed being transformed in
important ways.
The argument about the ‘transformability’, as it were, of ordinary knowledgeability,
has already been introduced above through the works of Moscovici and Hewstone, and of
Holzner and Marx. In both works, the authors claim that common sense, as a form of
knowledge, is being transformed, and both relate this transformation to the unprecedented
role, in contemporary society, of expert and scientific knowledge. In my view, however, the
transformation of ordinary knowledgeability does not amount to a one-way causal
relationship between the growth of science and the transformation of common sense. It
refers, rather, to conditions of ‘reflexive modernity’, which have been examined in the first
chapter of the dissertation. These conditions refer specifically to institutional reflexivity and
the ‘reflexivity of the self’, to the problematisation of day-to-day life, to the imperative of
‘discursivity’, which means that tends to explain discursively what was, to some extent,
only implicitly known, and to the new tensions that characterise the way one might
articulate a sense of control, of responsibility, and of capacity for action in contemporary
society.
4.2.2 Increased reflexivity?
The argument that ordinary knowledgeability is a practical and non-reflexive form
of knowledge – whereas the hallmark of science is reflexivity - can be challenged on at
least three accounts. First, one can argue that reflexivity is, and has always been, a
characteristic of ordinary knowledgeability which many social scientists have failed to
grasp. I mentioned this argument in the first chapter of the dissertation about the reflexive
modernity thesis. Second, the argument can be, conversely, that the reflexivity of science is
largely overrated and that, therefore, reflexivity is not a key for distinguishing between
ordinary knowledgeability and scientific knowledgeability. Third, it can also be argued that,
although it might have been true that ordinary knowledgeability is a practical and nonreflexive form of knowledge, this is less and less the case in contemporary society.
Although I shall briefly address the first two arguments, I shall devote particular attention
to the third one, that is, the argument about an ‘increased reflexivity’ of ordinary
knowledgeability. This argument will be specified and developed in the next two chapters
of the dissertation. In the present chapter, my aim regarding this argument is twofold. First,
I want to argue that common sense is malleable, not only at the level of knowledge claims,
but also at the level of knowledgeability. Second, I suggest that one aspect of this
malleability concerns the evolving capacity of lay agents to be reflexive about their own
life and practice.
The argument that lay knowledge is reflexive, and that, conversely, science is not as
reflexive as often assumed, has recently taken a renewed significance in the field of ‘public
understanding of science’. Wynne, in particular, has devoted several works (Irwin &
Wynne, 1996; Wynne, 1996a&b, 1993, 1992), to the twofold thesis that, on one hand,
‘“modern” science exhibits much less reflexive capacity to problematize its own founding
commitments than is supposed’ (Wynne, 1993 : 334), and that, on the other hand,
“traditionalist” lay publics enjoy a much greater capacity for such reflexivity in relation to
science than is usually recognised’ (Ibid.: 334). Wynne uses the concept of reflexivity in
the particular sense that is prevalent in the sociology of knowledge: it refers to the ‘process
of identifying, and critically examining (and thus rendering open to change), the basic,
preanalytic assumptions that frame knowledge-commitments’ (Ibid.: 324).
Wynne notes that the dominant approach in research about lay understanding of
science places science as ‘the ultimate repository of reflexivity in that it is thought to
expose its own founding assumptions and to be able to reflect critically upon them’ (Ibid.:
323). In this same traditional perspective, ‘publics are usually seen as unreflexive cultural
dupes who are tradition-bound and incapable of critical reflection upon epistemic issues
and their own relationship to knowledge’ (Ibid.: 325). Ordinary knowledgeability, in this
dominant perspective, draws upon traditional modes of thought and is immune, as it were,
to critical testing (Ibid.: 323-4). In a way related to the way attribution theorists have
viewed lay people as being ‘control-minded’60, many students of public understanding of
science have assumed that lay people are ‘security-minded’, that is, that they ‘crave for
certainty, [and are] unable to face up to the inevitable uncertainties in scientific knowledge
about, for example, environmental hazards’ (Wynne, 1993: 324).
In opposition to this traditional approach, Wynne claims that research about public
understanding of science ‘has found ample evidence about the reflexivity of lay people in
problematising and negotiating their own relationship to “science”’ (Ibid.: 330).
Conversely, the same authors argue that science is not reflexive, insofar as it is usually
unable to question its own precommitments, ‘so that these can be negotiated, rather than
blindly imposed on society’ (Ibid.: 324). Wynne’s (1996a&b) research about sheepfarmers
in the Lake District of Northern England illustrates both claims61. Lay reflexivity, in this
case, means that the farmers ‘showed themselves to be more ready than the science experts
60 Cf. section 4.1.2.
61 Following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, these farmers experienced radioactive fallout which contaminated their sheep flocks and upland pastures, and were restricted from
selling their sheep freely.
to reflect upon the status of their own knowledge, and to relate it to that of others and to
their own social identities (Wynne, 1996b: 40).
The thrust of Wynne’s argument is that lay reflexivity is not a ‘new’ process as
such, but one that social scientists have often failed to grasp. As suggested in the first
chapter, Wynne explicitly rejects the view, supported in particular by theorists of ‘reflexive
modernity’ such as Giddens, that lay people used to be unreflexive in their relation to
science and expertise. For Wynne, ‘the supposed earlier conditions of unqualified public
trust have never prevailed, and […] Giddens has reproduced what is a widespread
confusion between unreflexive trust, reflexive dependency and private ambivalence
(Wynne, 1996a: 48). In his view, people have always been reflexive towards expertise, in
the sense that they 'informally but incessantly problematise their own relationships with
expertise of all kinds, as part of their negotiation of their own identities' (Ibid.: 50).
In contrast, Wynne also claims that scientists and experts, contrary to what is often
assumed, are not reflexive, insofar as they showed ‘no overt ability to reflect upon their
own social positioning, that is, upon the latent social models which their scientific
interventions imposed on the farmers’ (Wynne, 1996b : 43). Wynne formulates an
interesting hypothesis in order to account for scientists’ lack of reflexivity, namely that
‘perhaps the distribution of reflexive capability (or impulse) is itself a contingent function
of social relations of power’ (Ibid. : 43). Reflexivity, in other words, should not be viewed
as a ‘natural’ or ‘intrinsic’ property of social agents but, rather, as a highly social feature,
which might be ‘brought about only by criticism and a related sense of insecurity, rather
than by any intrinsic qualities of self-criticism’ (Ibid. : 43).
The same line or argument can be pursued regarding the explicit or implicit
character of lay knowledge, or regarding the practical or discursive character or ordinary
knowledgeability. Instead of viewing the practical character of lay knowledgeability as an
essential and immutable feature, it can be argued, first, that the boundary between the
implicit and explicit components of lay knowledge is a shifting one and, second, that the
key to understand this ‘malleability’ of lay knowledgeability is eminently social. Only by
accepting these two claims as valid ones can it then be possible to suggest that, in a period
of reflexive modernity, the discursive and explicit component of lay knowledge takes a new
significance.
The arguments that lay knowledge is first and foremost implicit or practical
knowledge, and that lay knowledgeability precludes reflexivity, are tightly connected.
Wegner and Vallacher’s (1981) work in social cognition can be used here in order to clarify
this point. Their argument concerns what they call ‘common-sense psychology’, but it can
be generalised, in my view, to refer to common sense knowledge in general. Wegner and
Vallacher draw an important distinction between an implicit and an explicit form of
common-sense psychology: the implicit form refers to ‘how people think about the social
world’, whereas the explicit form refers to ‘how people think they think about the social
world’ (Wegner & Vallacher, 1981: 226). The implicit form of common sense knowledge
has been the one to which social psychologists, and social scientists more generally, refer
first and foremost when analysing common sense. In this dominant perspective, common
sense knowledge is implicit ‘because the individual understands aspects of the social world
through his system of common-sense theory, and not by looking at the theory itself’ (Ibid. :
229). This implicit character of common sense knowledge implies that such knowledge, or
‘theory’, is undiscoverable by means other than scientific investigation by social scientists
(Ibid. : 230). Or, to put it differently, this dominant perspective about ordinary
knowledgeability means that ‘the matter of whether the everyman can describe or report on
some aspect of his common-sense theoretical system is largely irrelevant to scientific
decisions on the existence or form of such a system’ (Ibid. : 230). The assumption about the
implicit character of common sense knowledge, thus, goes hand in hand with the
assumption that ordinary knowledgeability is a non-reflexive form of knowledge.
In the ‘explicit theory’ of common sense, the everyman’s ‘accounts, descriptions,
hypotheses, attributions and explanations themselves are seen as the corpus of commonsense [knowledge] that is to be studied by [social scientists]’ (Ibid. : 231). It is in this
perspective that the work of attribution theorists62, for example, can be situated. The
interest of Wegner and Vallacher’s work in this respect is that they raise very explicitly the
question of the shift from implicit to explicit common sense knowledge : ‘How does the
person come to know explicitly the features of implicit theory? To what extent does this
happen?’ (Ibid. : 232). Their answer, although it springs from a very different perspective,
parallels Wynne’s argument’s presented above, namely that one of the keys to lay
reflexivity lies in the global social environment, in particular social characteristics of the
group considered, and in the social incentives which make it both possible and necessary
for the lay person to shift from implicit to explicit common sense knowledge.
For Wegner and Vallacher, thus, ‘explicit self-knowledge is available to the
individual only because of the social functions such knowledge may serve’ (Ibid. : 237).
There are two social factors, in their view, which are at stake in the shift from implicit to
explicit common-sense knowledge, namely, first, the ‘availability of descriptive terms in
the social lexicon’ (Ibid. : 237) and, second, ‘the degree to which social forces promote
attention to implicit theory’ (Ibid. : 238). Regarding the first factor, the authors refer
explicitly to the process which is at core of the present dissertation, namely the lay
appropriation of social science knowledge, in their case psychological knowledge :
As the terminology of scientific psychology becomes assimilated into popular
culture, it is possible that social cognitive psychologists will becomes
increasingly amazed at the ‘insights’ of the everyman that are produced by this
new common lexicon (Ibid. : 238).
As will be developed in the third part of the chapter, at stake here is a process of
transformation of common sense, in part prompted by the massive diffusion of social
science knowledge in society.
The key point in this section has been to suggest that the practical character of
common sense knowledge, and the lack of lay reflexivity that is associated to it, are
contingent characteristics which may well, in a period of ‘reflexive modernity’, undergo
important transformations. The current period, in my view, provides the ‘social incentives’
62 Cf. section 4.1.2.
to which the authors presented above refer : people have increasingly to articulate in a
discursive way their understanding of their actions, and of the social world more generally.
The key to such a process is not that 'lay people' are more 'clever' than they used to be, or
that they behave more and more like 'amateur scientists', as Moscovici has suggested.
Rather, it can be argued, in my view, that the current version of what ‘being a competent
agent’ implies an effort toward reflexivity, that is, toward the continuous and discursive
examination or re-examination of one’s life and practice.
4.3 THE
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COMMONSENSICAL CLAIMS AND SOCIAL SCIENTIFIC
CLAIMS
I now turn to the second level at which the notion of common sense, and the
relationship between social science and common sense can be addressed, that is, the level
of knowledge claims. The first level, namely the level of knowledgeability, has been the
focus of the first two parts of the chapter. As suggested in introduction, the two levels are
tightly connected: the differences that many social scientists note between commonsensical
claims and social scientific claims are the direct consequence of the essential difference
they see between ordinary knowledgeability and scientific knowledgeability. More
specifically, those who claim that ordinary knowledgeability is first and foremost a
practical and non-reflexive form of knowledge (whereas scientific knowledgeability is
discursive and reflexive) stress the opposition between the claims produced by the two
forms of knowledge and, further, tend to assert the superiority of social scientific claims
over commonsensical claims. The tendency to treat common sense as an immutable form of
knowledge also applies to the level of knowledge claims: the transformation of
commonsensical claims has not drawn much attention from social scientists.
4.3.1 The superiority of social science knowledge over common sense knowledge
A common view of the relationship between commonsensical claims and social
scientific claims is that social science should aim at improving 'upon the presumptions of
common sense beliefs, correcting when they happen to be false and remodelling them when
they are expressed in an imprecise fashion' (Giddens, 1987: 57). Although a lot could be
said about the way Giddens, and many other social scientists, designates common sense
knowledge63, such a view seems to be a non-problematic and convincing one. Thus it
seems reasonable to assume that commonsensical claims are sometimes mistaken or
imprecise, and that one of the roles of social science is precisely to shed light on these
inaccuracies. Yet beyond this general and non-problematic view, three points need to be
noted regarding the way social scientists, and sociologists in particular, have addressed the
relationship between social scientific claims and commonsensical claims.
First, the view that commonsensical claims are sometimes inaccurate or imprecise is
often radicalised to the point where commonsensical claims are considered to be
systematically false. Such a radicalisation often characterises the introductory chapters of
textbooks in social science. Wegner gives the following description, in my view very
accurate, about the way social scientists – in his case social psychologists – assert the
superiority of scientific claims over commonsensical claims :
A standard ploy in the introductory chapters of several social psychology
textbooks [is] the presentation of a set of maxims, proverbs or bits of folk
wisdom as ‘common sense theories’ of social psychology. Then, when certain
pairs of maxims are shown to conflict, and the utter senselessness of commonsense psychology has thereby been demonstrated, the writer is free to appraise
students of the virtues of the scientific approach to these matters (Wegner,
1981 : 231).
Joseph’s (1986) introductory book to sociology provides an illustration of the ploy
described by Wegner. Entitled Sociology For Everyone, Joseph's book aims at
demonstrating the usefulness of sociological knowledge regarding the decisions ordinary
people have to make in day-to-day life. Joseph does so by exposing what he takes as
'common sense assumptions' about various phenomena of everyday life. He then shows
how these assumptions are false in light of the sociological knowledge produced about
these phenomena. Examples of common sense assumptions are: 'only a stable family can
ensure the successful upbringing of children' (Joseph, 1986: 8), 'the increasing divorce
63 In particular the way commonsensical claims are designated as ‘presumptions’ and
‘beliefs’ rather than as knowledge claims as such.
figures indicate something is seriously wrong with society' (Ibid.: 51), or 'class is less
important now than it was fifty or hundred years ago' (Ibid.: 71). Joseph's general argument,
as stated by Giddens in the preface of the book, is that [t]he common sense beliefs which
individuals hold both about their own societies and those of others, can frequently be
shown either to be bluntly mistaken, or to be at least contentious' (Ibid.: ivx).
The example of Joseph’s textbook brings us to the second point, which consists in
noting that social scientists, when asserting the difference between commonsensical claims
and social scientific claims, tend to assume, rather than investigate, what claims can be
counted as commonsensical claims. Joseph, for example, does not indicate how he came up
with these 'common sense assumptions' such as those mentioned above. We do not know
about any empirical evidence which enables him to assert that the claim 'only a stable
family can ensure the successful upbringing of children' is a commonsensical assumption
made by a large number of ‘lay people’. It could be argued somewhat ironically that Joseph
endorses a very commonsensical view of what common sense knowledge is.
The same criticism could be addressed to Giddens (1989) who, in his own textbook,
lists a number of statements which are supposed to be part of 'common sense', and which,
in the light of sociological research, are proven to be 'wrong or questionable' (Giddens,
1989: 14). These statements include: 'how long people live is dependent upon their
biological make-up and cannot be strongly influenced by social differences', or 'most
people everywhere value material wealth, and will try to get ahead if there are opportunities
to do so' (Ibid.). Many people, in my view, and not only 'sociologists', would contest that
such statements are an accurate description of 'what they think'. In other words, it remains
to be seen that statements such as those listed by Joseph and Giddens are actually part of
'common sense'. Ultimately, this argument raises the question of the plausibility of the very
idea of 'common sense', as a body of knowledge claims that are shared by everyone. As
suggested in the first section of the chapters, it is mainly social psychologists who have
tried to investigate the knowledge claims made by lay agents about particular social issues.
Sociologists, in contrast, have shown little interest in the matter.
Finally, the third point of criticism that can be addressed to the way social scientists
frequently assert the superiority of social scientific claims over commonsensical claims
concerns the ‘versatility’ of commonsensical claims. Just as ordinary knowledgeability is
often seen as an immutable form of knowledge, the transformation of commonsensical
claims is hardly addressed by social scientists. In particular, the educating and 'correcting'
role of social science vis-à-vis common sense is never pushed to the point where common
sense becomes effectively 'corrected' by social science, that is, where commonsensical
claims are transformed and ‘incorporate’ claims produced by social scientists. It is crucial,
in my view, to acknowledge that, as Giddens puts it, social science findings ‘both disturb
and contribute to our common sense beliefs about ourselves and others’ (Giddens,
1989: 14). ). This apparently paradoxical claim loses its contradictory character when seen
in a dynamic rather than in a static perspective. A particular social science 'finding' or
theory can first contradict common sense, but can then gradually lose its ‘disruptive’
character by being diffused throughout society, and eventually incorporated into common
sense.
The question of the ‘superiority’ of social scientific claims over commonsensical
claims is a critical one for social scientists, insofar as they have often had to face the
devastating comment that social science is merely common sense 'disguised' with scientific
jargon, a 'pseudo-science that expends a great deal of effort describing or proving what we
already know' (Furnham, 1983: 105). The phenomena that social scientists investigate, and
about which they produce scientific knowledge, are already the object of common sense
knowledge. The business of social science 'is everybody's business and not left by default to
academic social scientists to investigate' (Wilson, 1983: 89). In Bauman's terms:
Those human actions and interactions that sociologists explore had all been
given names and theorised about, in however diffuse, poorly articulated
form, by the actors themselves. Before sociologists started looking at them,
they were objects of commonsensical knowledge (Bauman, 1990a: 11).
For some social scientists, this means that social science de facto 'compete' with common
sense for the elucidation of the social world. Some see this feature as the source of their
difficulty in asserting the truly scientific character of social science, as well as its
usefulness. Lange, for example, clearly condemns what he calls the ‘pseudoscientific
competition’ of common sense:
Sociology's central topics are aspects of everyday life for which common
sense has already provided workable explanations and socially appropriate
action guidance. Perhaps no other science faces such formidable
pseudoscientific competition, and this competitive situation probably adds to
societal impatience or hostility toward the state of sociological knowledge
and its relatively low level of direct applicability (Lange, 1987: 25).
That social science and common sense aim at grasping the ‘same’ phenomena implies
something rather different from, and much more consequential than, Lange’s frustration. It
means that common sense knowledge is an integral part of the ‘object’ the social scientist
wants to study: ‘common sense beliefs cannot be treated as mere impediments to a valid or
veridical characterisation of social life, [f]or we cannot describe social activity at all
without knowing what its constituent actors know, tacitly as well as discursively’ (Giddens,
1984: 336).
The crucial argument that common sense knowledge is the necessary and inescapable
basis for the construction of social science knowledge has been developed in a large range
of traditions and schools of thought in social science, among which hermeneutics and
phenomenology figure prominently. Schütz’ phenomenology, in particular, is based on the
interplay between the ‘first-level constructs’ used by ordinary agents in order to make sense
of their social world, and the ‘second-level constructs’ created by social scientists in order
to develop models of ordinary agents’ actions. The key point in phenomenology is that
understanding ordinary agents' ‘first-level constructs’ is a precondition for creating accurate
‘second-order constructs’: ‘the thought objects constructed by the social scientist refer to
and are founded upon the thought objects constructed by the common sense thought of man
living his everyday life upon his fellowmen’ (Schütz, 1953: 3). Phenomenologists'
argument about the interplay between first- and second-level constructs has been echoed by
Giddens with his notion of the 'double-hermeneutic':
The conceptual schemes of the social sciences [...] express a double
hermeneutic, relating both to entering and grasping the frames of meaning
involved in the production of social life by lay actors, and to reconstituting
these within the new frames of meaning involved in technical conceptual
schemes’ (Giddens, 1993a: 86).
An important difference between Schütz' and Giddens' conceptions of the relationship
between social science and common sense, however, is that Schütz fails to insist on the
fundamentally circular relationship between the two levels of the 'double-hermeneutic'.
Schütz stresses that common sense is a necessary resource for the construction of social
science knowledge but he never addresses the reverse process, namely that social science
knowledge is also a resource for common sense knowledge.
4.3.2 The homology between scientific and lay theories
It is mainly in the fields of social psychology and of social cognition that research has
been conducted about the first level of common sense, that is, the level of knowledge
claims. Social psychologists have explores the ‘lay theories’ which ordinary agents
construct in order to make sense of their lives:
In an attempt to make sense of the social and physical world and to see it as
stable, orderly, predictable and understandable, people develop theories or
arrive at explanations for phenomena salient to their lives (Furnham, 1988: 19).
Referring to common sense knowledge as ‘theories’ is not innocuous. It suggests the
‘comparability’, as it were, of scientific and lay knowledge. Using the term ‘theory’ which usually suggests a sophisticated form of knowledge, and is often associated with
science - in order to refer to lay knowledge, indicates a parallel between the lay theorist's
thinking and the scientific theorist's thinking (Groeben, 1990: 21). In particular, students of
lay theories stress that the lay agent, just as the scientist, aim at the explanation, prediction
and change of the world, and that, further, the argumentational structure of lay and
scientific theories is similar, although it generally remains implicit in the case of lay
theories (Groeben, 1990). These social psychologists suggest that ‘lay people’ are much
more knowledgeable about psychological phenomena than other psychologists have usually
been ready to acknowledge.
Students of lay theories, thus, have stressed the similarities between lay and
scientific theories, rather than the differences. To some extent, they oppose the view that
scientific understandings are superior to lay understandings, and that the former ‘appear as
true reflections of what the lay person understands only feebly’ (Gergen & Semin,
1990: 2):
Lay people can, and do, formulate theories that are explicit, coherent, and
falsifiable, as do ‘scientists’ who are frequently far from infallible in their own
model-building (Furnham, 1988: 7).
In the same vein, Semin & Krahé have argued that lay conceptions of personality contain
well-formed propositions similar to those of scientific theories of personality. This finding,
in their view, casts into question 'the implicit and thus unexamined assumption that lay
persons do not have access to so-called higher-order explanations' (Semin & Krahé,
1987: 206). The parallel established between lay and scientific theories involves a
reconsideration of science as much as it does a reconsideration of common sense:
‘scientific, explicit theories are not as sophisticated and unambiguous as presupposed, nor
are lay theories as muddled or fallacious’ (Furnham, 1988: 208). Students of lay theories
have stressed the homology between lay and scientific theories, that is, the similarities
between scientific and lay explanations about particular social phenomena. Semin et al.
(1981), for example, have compared commonsensical conceptions of extroversionintroversion, and a scientific conception of it, namely that of Eysenck. The question the
authors set out to answer was the following:
If subjects naïve to psychology were asked to describe what they understand by
extroversion-introversion, would their account correspond to that offered by
Eysenck as long as a viable method for the comparison were obtained? (Semin,
Rosch & Chassein, 1981: 77)
They conclude that the major traits of Eysenck's theory of extroversion-introversion are
present in lay conceptions of these notions, and that 'lay people' therefore share an 'implicit
personality theory' which enables them to categorise people as extrovert or introvert in a
way consistent with the scientist's categorisation (Ibid.: 78). Semin et al. conclude that there
is an 'inter-penetration of common-sense with scientific conceptions' (Ibid.: 207), which has
not been addressed by social scientists, because of their implicit assumption that 'lay
persons do not have access to so-called higher-order explanations' (Ibid.: 206).
Furnham (1988) has extended the comparison between lay and scientific theories to
a large range of phenomena. His exploration of 'lay theories' focuses not only on
‘psychological phenomena’, that is, phenomena studied by psychologists, but also on social
phenomena addressed by other social sciences such as poverty, wealth, unemployment,
alcoholism, delinquency, etc. His work is organised according to the various social sciences
to which the phenomena under study refer: thus he successively examines lay theories in
psychology, in psychiatry, in medicine, in economics, in statistics, in law, and in
education64. In each case, Furnham reviews studies which have demonstrated the parallel
between scientific and lay theories. For example, he cites Rock's finding that 'all the
different academic theories of crime and delinquency are to be found in common-sense
formulations' (Furnham, 1988: 27). Yet Furnham also identifies major differences between
scientific and lay explanations of social phenomena. Apart from the banal argument that
scientific theories tend to be more explicit and more coherent than lay theories, he notes
that lay people 'generally underestimate the importance of external or situational factors in
explaining behaviour' (Ibid.: 6). This argument refers to the ‘psychological function’ that
lay theories, according to attribution theorists, necessarily perform, and to the ‘attribution
errors’ that lay people regularly commit. As will be developed in the last chapter of the
dissertation, the two assertions that, first, lay people’s attributions are systematically
internal rather than external, or personalist rather than ‘social’ or ‘structural’ and, second,
64 There is no chapter, in Furnham's book, devoted to ‘lay theories in sociology’, although
Furnham includes sociological theories at various points in his analysis, when he wants to
contrast biological, psychological and sociological models of lay explanations. As will
become clear later, this absence is not fortuitous, but refers, rather, to what I consider to be
a major misconception of attribution theorists’ perspective on 'lay theories'. A major
argument of attribution theorists is that 'sociological issues' tend to be re-translated by lay
people in psychological terms, and that, therefore, there is not any sociological lay theory.
This argument springs in part from the functionalist perspective characteristic of many
social psychologists. This point will be developed later, since it contradicts the central
argument of the next two chapters, namely, that lay people’s knowledgeability includes, in
a period of reflexive modernity, a ‘lay sociological imagination’.
that this characteristic stems from a ‘psychological function’ that lay explanations have to
perform are, in my view, deeply mistaken.
4.3.3 The transformation of social science knowledge into common sense knowledge
The above discussion of the two levels of common sense – the level of
knowledgeability and the level of knowledge claims – leads us to a process which is at core
of the dissertation, namely the incorporation of social science knowledge into common
sense knowledge. It can be argued that a number of commonsensical claims derive from
social science research, and that ‘[m]uch of what we regard as common-sense, “what
everyone knows”, is based on the work of sociologists and other social scientists’ (Giddens,
1989: 15). The process of incorporation of social science knowledge into common sense
knowledge has been addressed in the second chapter about the ‘uses’ of social science. I
argued then that the significance of social science for lay people is seldom analysed in
terms of the routine and active appropriation of social science knowledge by ‘lay people’.
In light of the analysis conducted in this chapter, three elements, in my view, need
to be acknowledged in order to address properly the process of lay appropriation of social
science knowledge. First, at the level of ordinary knowledgeability, we need to
acknowledge that there is no difference in nature between lay and scientific
knowledgeability and that, in particular, reflexivity and discursiveness are certainly not the
privilege of scientists only. Second, it is important to recognise that common sense
knowledge draws upon a number of sources which goes far beyond first-hand experience.
In contemporary society, expert and scientific knowledge, diffused through mass media,
become an important source of knowledge, on which lay agents routinely draw in order to
make sense of their lives. Third, the dynamic character of common sense - at both levels of
knowledgeability and of knowledge claims - should be acknowledged. Common sense
knowledge is continuously produced and reproduced by lay agents and new knowledge
claims become incorporated into common sense, partly under the impetus of social science.
The incorporation of social science knowledge into common sense is a process
which is difficult to grasp empirically and to ‘demonstrate’. The more social science
knowledge is incorporated into common sense through its routine appropriation by 'lay
people', the more this impact of social science tends to be concealed: original ideas and
findings in social science tend to ‘disappear’ to the degree to which they are incorporated
within the familiar components of practical activities (Giddens, 1993a: 15). If common
sense in part derives from expert claims which have become commonsensical through their
widespread appropriation by lay people, these claims have lost their expert character in the
process and are often no longer recognised as such. As Geertz puts it:
Whether the plain man has become a genuine Copernican or not, he has
surely been brought round, and quite recently, to a version of the germ
theory of disease. But it is as a bit of common sense, not as an articulated
scientific theory, that he believes it (Geertz, 1983: 87).
The process, then, is one of transformation of knowledge from the realm of expertise into
the realm of common sense, and not only one of ‘transfer’ or even of ‘translation’. Once
transformed into common sense, social science knowledge has lost the very attributes
which made it identifiable as expert knowledge. Abrams humorously refers to this
phenomenon as the ‘Cheshire Cat problem’:
Insights, concepts, language which began life as sociology filter into the world
of taken-for-granted common-sense and common discourse and to the extent
that they are indeed used in that world are no longer perceived as sociology [...]
[W]hat is seen as sociology is likely to be that which has not yet been found
useful. When demystification fails the demystifier is an irritant; when it
succeeds the demystifier is redundant (Abrams 1985: 202).
This argument can also be a response to the frequent accusation addressed to social
scientists that ‘social science is merely common sense’: instead of denoting the 'triviality' of
social science knowledge and the worthlessness of social science, such an assertion can also
be viewed as denoting the actual and significant efficiency and usefulness of social science.
As Furnham puts it:
One argument used by psychologists to refute the ‘all psychology is common
sense’ objection is that because psychology is frequently popularised people
become more knowledgeable about psychological principles, which in turn are
regarded as common sense (1988: 56).
In the same vein, Brickman gives the following account of the gradual incorporation of
social psychological knowledge into common sense:
A finding in social psychology cannot remain non obvious as people hear it
again anymore than a joke can remain funny to people who hear it again and
again. More generally, we may propose that discoveries emerge from a region
in which we disbelieve them into a zone in which we find them interesting, and
then a zone in which we find them obvious, and eventually perhaps, into a
further region in which we are again oblivious to them (cited in Furnham,
1988: 27).
As noted in the second chapter of the dissertation, the process whereby social science
knowledge is transformed into common sense cannot be a predictable or controllable one. It
would be extremely difficult to anticipate, in view of a particular social research finding,
what impact this finding will have on our everyday beliefs, and whether it will lead to any
transformation of our commonsensical views. Thus, ‘[t]here is no necessary match between
changing common-sense interpretations of social phenomena and the ideas and theories of
social science. Many different connections and oppositions between these are possible'
(Giddens, 1993a: 14). Yet despite this ‘uncontrollability’, I have suggested that the
‘incorporation’ of social science knowledge into common sense is a crucial aspect of social
science’s usefulness in contemporary society, and of the way social science contributes to
‘changing the world’. What Semin & Krahé note here about psychological theories
concerns social science knowledge at large:
If one were to take a general interactionist perspective on lay and psychological
models of behaviour, i.e. that they stand in a relation of mutual influence, then
one can assume that behaviour can be influenced and modified to the extent
that psychological theories are assimilated by lay theories, which in turn
should, at least theoretically, lead to a consequent modification of the
psychological model, etc. (Semin & Krahé, 1987: 200)
It is crucial to acknowledge, as Semin & Krahé do, that there is a 'dialectical relationship’
between social science knowledge and ‘social reality’ (Ibid.: 206).
Few social scientists have devoted empirical research to the transformation of social
science knowledge into common sense. In sociology, a few studies have traced specialised
terms created or popularised by sociologists, which have passed into common sense.
Because they can easily be related to a body of expert knowledge, a specific theory, or a
particular expert or scientist, it is argued that these ‘catchwords’ provide evidence of the
influence of sociological knowledge upon common sense. Wrong’s work about the
influence of sociological ideas on American culture (1990) represents one of these few
attempts to grasp empirically the impact of sociological knowledge on common sense.
Wrong tries to ‘identify broadly concepts and notions originating in academic sociology
that have entered the awareness, or at least the vocabulary, of Americans during the past
half century’ (Wrong, 1990: 19). The first step of his inquiry concerns terms and
catchwords, since ‘[a]t the most obvious and direct level, a few terms of unmistakable
academic sociological provenance have passed into popular parlance, or at least into the
common argot of journalists’ (Ibid.: 24). Wrong mentions, for example, ‘charisma’,
‘Gemeinschaft’, and ‘life-style’.
Yet the mere use of a catchword does not mean that the analysis, or the theory of
which it was part, has actually been appropriated by the people who use the catchword.
Beyond the presence of particular terms in the commonsensical vocabulary, it is difficult to
demonstrate that the related knowledge claims have passed into common sense, and to
show how they have been transformed in the process. More interesting in Wrong’s article,
therefore, is the second step of his inquiry, namely his attempt to identify ‘vague and
inchoate sociological ideas affecting the outlook of Americans’ (Ibid.: 25). His list of
‘sociological ideas’ is not based, however, on empirical investigation. The first of these
sociological ideas is about ‘the loss of community and the wish to recover it’; the second is
the idea that ‘society made us so we should not be blamed’; and the third is the idea that
‘we made society and can remake it into something different’ (Ibid.).
Beyond the question of the empirical validity of what Wrong assumes to be
commonsensical claims made by American people, the difficulty with his research and, for
that matter, with any research that focuses on the transformation of social science
knowledge into common sense knowledge, is that it tends to be oblivious to the two-way
relationship between social science and common sense. What Wrong presents as the result
of a one-way impact of sociology upon common sense could also be seen as a
manifestation of the impact of common sense on sociology, and it seems impossible to
disentangle the two processes which are involved in a relationship that is essentially
circular. In other words, the difficulty with any sort of study that seeks to grasp the impact
of social science knowledge on common sense comes from the circular relationship
between the two forms of knowledge. Wrong himself acknowledges the difficulty: ‘How
can one identify the source of an idea common to both academic sociologists and a larger
public?’ (Wrong, 1990: 24). To repeat, common sense is as much a resource for social
science knowledge as the latter is a resource for commonsensical knowledge:
The relation between technical vocabularies of social science and lay concepts
is a shifting one: just as social scientists adopt everyday terms and use them in
specialised senses, so lay actors tend to take over the concepts and theories of
the social sciences and embody them as constitutive elements in the
rationalisation of their own conduct’ (Giddens 1993a: 165).
Another attempt at grasping the incorporation of social science knowledge into
common sense has been made by Berger (1965), in his work about psychoanalysis. Insofar
as psychoanalytic theory constitutes a relatively well-defined body of knowledge, with a
specific vocabulary that can be readily identified, it seems easier to point to
commonsensical terms and ideas which derive from lay appropriation of psychoanalytic
theory65. Berger’s argument is that ‘everyday life, as expressed in the common speech, has
been invaded by the terminology and interpretative schemes of psychoanalysis66’ (Berger,
1965: 27). He points to terms such as ‘repression’, ‘frustration’, and ‘rationalisation’, and to
the very concept of ‘unconscious’, which ‘have become matter-of-course expressions in
broad strata of the population’ (Ibid.). Psychoanalysis has come to pervade everyday life 65 This does not mean that the concepts and ideas of psychoanalysis do not themselves
derive from common sense. A term like 'repression', for example, although it has a very
specific meaning in psychoanalytic theory, is also part of the common vocabulary; its
psychoanalytic meaning draws upon the meaning that the term 'repression' has outside of
psychoanalytic theory.
66 By psychoanalysis, Berger is referring to ‘an assortment of ideas and activities derived
in one way or another from the Freudian revolution in psychology’ (Ibid.: 26).
particularly in the US - through a range of ideas and assumptions concerning, for instance,
sexuality, marriage and child-rearing. These ideas and assumptions are the expressions of
what Berger calls ‘psychologism’, that is, a ‘psychological model’ which has become
‘operative in the taken-for-granted world of everyday life in our society’ (Ibid.: 35), and
which consists of propositions that ‘every sane person in a society believes as a matter of
course’ (Ibid.: 27). Some of these propositions include the following: ‘Only a relatively
small segment of the total self is present to consciousness. The unconscious is the matrix of
decisive mental processes [...] Sexuality is a key area of human conduct. Childhood is the
key phase of human biography’ (Ibid.: 35). A related argument in made by Moscovici
(1961), in his early study of the transformation of psychoanalytical knowledge into
common sense, which is at the origin of his theory of social representations. Moscovici’s
study, which is discussed below, is certainly the most systematic attempt to study the
transformation of social science knowledge into common sense.
4.3.4 Moscovici’s theory of social representations
In the first part of this chapter, I discussed Moscovici’s argument about a ‘new
common sense’ based on the transformation of scientific knowledge into commonsensical
knowledge, and which increasingly supersedes an ‘old common sense’. The initial aim of
Moscovici’s theory of social representations was to ‘describe and explain how the
innovations and discoveries of science diffuse into and transform common sense
understandings in modern societies (Purkhardt, 1993: xiv). Common sense, for Moscovici,
is made of social representations, which can be defined as ‘a set of concepts, statements and
explanations originating in daily life in the course of inter-individual communications’67
(Moscovici, 1981 : 181). Social representations, in his view, are characteristic of ‘modern’
67 Moscovici’s concept of ‘social representations’ draws upon – yet breaks with –
Durkheim’s concept of ‘collective representations’. For Durkheim, collective
representations, which are opposed to individual representations, ‘constitute a social reality
sui generis that exists independently of individuals’ (Purkhardt, 1993:3). Moscovici, in
contrast, ‘asserts the potency of the individual in the dynamics and transformation of social
representations (Ibid.: 20). Rather than a sociological concept, the notion of ‘social
representations’ is, in Moscovici’s theory, a social psychological phenomenon which is
intimely related with the individual’s psychology and cognition.
society as opposed to ‘traditional’ society’ : they ‘are the equivalent, in our society, of the
myths and belief systems in traditional societies; they might even be said to be the
contemporary version of common sense’ (Ibid. : 181). As already suggested, Moscovici
argues that social representations are rooted in science or, to put it differently, that common
sense is now ‘science made common’. ‘If science in former times took common sense as its
starting point and stripped it of its commonplace character, in our times, common sense is
science made more commonplace’ (Ibid. : 192).
Such an argument is based on Moscovici’s distinction between the ‘consensual’ and
the ‘reified’ universes. For him a distinctive feature of contemporary society lies in the
division between these two types of universe. Science is the mode of knowledge
characteristic of the reified universe, whereas social representations are the one
characteristic of the consensual universe of common sense (Ibid. : 187). Social
representations are the ‘translation’, or the ‘accommodation’, so-to-speak, of scientific
knowledge into the consensual universe68. They provide explanations for ‘things and
events so as to be accessible to each of us and relevant to our immediate concerns’ (Ibid. :
187). Thus ‘every representation tends to turn an unfamiliar thing, or the unfamiliar in
general, into something familiar’ (Ibid. : 188). In Moscovici’s perspective, the process of
transformation of social science knowledge into common sense is one in which ‘meaning is
68 A major difficulty with Moscovici’s argument concerns his characterisation of the
reified and the consensual universes. As Purkhardt notes, many of the attributes that
Moscovici associates with the consensual universe and the formation of common sense are,
in fact, equally characteristic of science and of the so-called reified universe. In particular,
‘science (as well as common sense) is an historical and cultural endeavour that involves the
social construction of reality through people’s interactions with and communication about
their environment’ (Purkhardt, 1993: xiii). More generally, Moscovici’s theory is oblivious
of the reciprocal impact that common sense has on social science. Commonsensical
knowledge does influence the questions that scientists ask, the evidence they ‘discover’, as
well as the conclusions at which they come (Ibid.: 89). There is therefore a two-way
relationship between social science and common sense, which Moscovici, in my view, fails
to acknowledge with his dubious distinction between a reified universe (a universe of
‘forces, objects and events unaffected by our desires and consciousness’ [Moscovici, 1981:
187]) and a consensual universe (a universe of ‘objects and events […] accessible to
everyone and [which] coincide with our immediate interests’ [Moscovici, 1984: 22]).
conferred on something that was devoid of meaning in the consensual universe’ (Ibid. :
197).
Moscovici explores this process in La psychanalyse. Son image, son public,
published in 1961. At least two differences can be noted between Moscovici's and Berger’s
analyses about the incorporation of psychoanalytic theory into common sense. First,
Moscovici's work is an empirical study – based on sample surveys, questionnaires, and indepth interviews - of common sense knowledge about psychoanalysis. In other words,
Moscovici, in contrast to Berger, and the others authors mentioned in the preceding section,
does not assume the content of commonsensical knowledge; rather, he tries to investigate it.
This characteristic in part accounts for the second difference between Moscovici and
Berger's work, namely that the former, unlike the latter, insists on the transformation – as
opposed to a mere transmission – of psychoanalytic theory as it becomes incorporated into
common sense.
Moscovici’s research first consists in identifying the psychoanalytical terms that
people spontaneously associate with psychoanalysis, such as 'complex', 'repression',
'unconscious', or 'libido' (Moscovici, 1961: 34). He then argues that psychoanalytic theory
has led to new classifications which have changed people's conception of 'madness' and
'normality' (Ibid.: 50). His point is also that the incorporation of psychoanalytic theory into
common sense is a selective process, since there are some important concepts and ideas
from psychoanalytic theory which have not become part of common sense. For exemple,
the concept of 'libido' was initially not incorporated into common sense, because of its
'incompatibility with social norms' (Moscovici, 1961). In view of the answers given by his
respondents, Moscovici shows that the commonsensical model of psychological activity, at
the time of the study, was based upon the core concept of 'complex', that it included the
explanatory notions of 'unconscious', 'conscious' and 'repression', but that it ignored the
notion of 'libido' (Ibid.: 296).
The effective incorporation of scientific knowledge into common sense depends, for
Moscovici, on the capacity of the former to give sense to otherwise meaningless or
unfamiliar experiences in day-to-day life. It is at this point that his work on psychoanalysis
serves as an empirical basis for establishing his theory of social representations. The
formation of social representations about psychoanalysis requires specific processes which,
in Moscovici’s perspective, are common to all social representations. In particular, the
formation of a social representation requires a double process of 'anchoring' and of
'objectification', which transforms abstract, unfamiliar concepts into familiar and concrete
experiences69 (Moscovici, 1961: 404). The psychoanalytical concept of neurosis,
according to Moscovici, has passed into common sense and allowed otherwise unfamiliar
and strange behaviours to be categorised and labelled. Purkhardt, in her discussion of
Moscovici’s work, gives a good account of this non-mechanical incorporation of social
science knowledge into common sense:
Common-sense knowledge does not act as a sponge that soaks up scientific
innovations indiscriminately. Rather, we select those scientific ideas and
objects which, in one way or another, are useful to us in everyday life. That is,
they have some connection with what we already know or do, or they impinge
on our lives in such a way that we are forced to take notice (Purkhardt,
1993: 113).
This argument echoes the claim I made in the second chapter that lay appropriation of
social science knowledge cannot be viewed as a new form of ‘erudition’. People
appropriate social science knowledge insofar as they consider that it concerns them directly
and to the extent that it can be used as a reflexive resource in order to make sense of their
lives and in order to fashion their own ‘self-identities’.
***
Common sense is not a static and invariable form of knowledge. At the level of
ordinary knowledgeability, the way in which people provide themselves, as it were, with
knowledge about themselves and the world, is being transformed. The ‘non-reflexive’ - in
69 More specifically, ‘anchoring’ consists in ‘reducing threat and unfamiliarity by
imposing familiar categories and providing linguistic names’, and ‘objectification’ is the
process that ‘transforms abstract, unfamiliar concepts into familiar and concrete
experiences’ (Moscovici, 1961: 404).
the sense of ‘practical’ rather than ‘discursive’ - and ‘first-hand’ character of common
sense, which have usually been seen as essential properties of ordinary knowledgeability,
have to be re-considered. At the level of ordinary knowledge, people’s ‘lay theories’ also
need to be seen as socio-historical constructs which reflect the way people’s comprehension
of the world is being transformed, in part as a result of the appropriation of social science
knowledge. In particular, people’s sense of control and of capacity for action, rather than
being determined once and for all by some psychological ‘functions’ – as attribution
theorists have argued - are likely to be re-defined in crucial ways in a period which
involves radical transformations of the relationship between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’, and
between the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’. This hypothesis is explored further in the final
chapter of the dissertation.
CHAPTER 5
SOCIOLOGY AND 'LAY PEOPLE':
A CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF BOURDIEU’S RECENT WORK
The four preceding chapters served to pave the way for the exploration of the main
proposition of the dissertation about a ‘lay sociological imagination’, which is presented in
the two remaining chapters. In the present chapter, the argument about a ‘lay sociological
imagination’ is introduced through a critical discussion of Bourdieu's recent work. In recent
publications70, he develops arguments which, as noted by several commentators71, clearly
depart from some of his earlier positions about the role of sociologists in contemporary
society, and about the relationship between sociology and ‘lay people’. Bourdieu has
generally stressed the fundamental difference between ordinary knowledgeability and
scientific knowledgeability. On that respect, he can be ranged among those who argue, as
discussed in the preceding chapter, that common sense and social science refer to
fundamentally different forms of knowledge. At first sight, Bourdieu’s conception of
ordinary practice and of ordinary knowledgeability seems to rule out the very possibility of
a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge. In order to appropriate sociological
knowledge, one needs, according to Bourdieu, to adopt what he calls a scholastic posture,
and this posture is normally at odds with ordinary practice. In other words, people outside
the scholastic fields do not normally have the dispositions to grasp and to appropriate
scientific knowledge, including sociological knowledge.
In his recent work, however, Bourdieu’s position about the way lay people can
relate to sociology has undergone significant changes. In particular, the collective work
done in La Misère du Monde (Bourdieu et al., 1993) under his direction marks, in my view,
a significant turning point in his position about the possibility of a lay appropriation of
sociological knowledge. The nine hundred pages of in La Misère du Monde consist for the
70 Bourdieu (1998a&b, 1997, 1996, 1991b); Bourdieu et al. (1993).
71 See for example Verdès-Leroux (1998), Hamel (1998, 1997), and the commentators in
the special issue of Magazine Littéraire (1998) devoted to Bourdieu.
most part in the transcription of about sixty life-stories collected during interviews with
‘ordinary people’, who were experiencing various forms of distress and suffering in their
day-to-day lives. This work represents ‘the most varied collection of biographical excerpts
gathered by a single team of researchers to date, a rich synchronic slicing of French
society’ (Simeoni & Diani, 1995: 27). Each transcription of interview is preceded by the
sociologist's72 presentation of the interviewee or, in Bourdieu’s terms, by the analysis of
the relevant social conditions and social determinants which enable the reader to 'decode'
the narrative. Thus the guiding principle of the book, as presented by Bourdieu in the
preface, is to give the reader the sociological instruments which will enable him or her to
apprehend the people interviewed as ‘necessary’ (Bourdieu et al, 1993: 8). By this he
means that, once we know the social conditions that ‘make’ people what they are, we come
to understand why they could not be and think otherwise. This principle is reaffirmed
throughout the book, and especially regarding people whose views and lives would be, in
other circumstances, quickly judged and condemned by many readers, for example, people
who are overtly racist, or who regularly commit violent acts. The point of La Misère du
Monde is also to demonstrate the ‘socially induced’ character of many forms of despair and
suffering experienced by the people who were interviewed.
Contrary to most of Bourdieu's previous works, La Misère du Monde is aimed at a
large audience, that is, an audience of both specialists and non specialists. This
characteristic represents an important evolution of Bourdieu's position regarding the
potential usefulness of sociology for lay people or, to put it differently, regarding the
possibility of a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge. Bourdieu seems now to
acknowledge the possibility that lay people can use sociology to objectify their own
practices, that is, to uncover the objective structures that 'govern' these practices. His
argument in La Misère du Monde indicates that the particular circumstances that would
enable such a process can primarily be found in the process of sociological inquiry itself,
that is, during the interview between the sociologist and the person ‘under study’.
72 Bourdieu and/or one of the twenty-two other sociologists who conducted the interviews.
The chapter is composed of three main parts. In the first part, I discuss Bourdieu’s
position about the usefulness of sociology for society in general, and for ‘lay people’ in
particular. Bourdieu holds a very persuasive position regarding the ‘enlightening’ or
‘emancipatory’ impact of sociology, which lies in the uncovering of social determinants.
The awareness of the social determinants that bear upon one’s life and actions contributes
to, rather than denies, individual freedom. Yet Bourdieu has usually been pessimistic as to
who in effect benefits from sociology. Until recently, Bourdieu indicated few ways in
which lay people could benefit from sociology’s ‘enlightening’ impact.
The second part of the chapter deals precisely with the conditions and limits of a lay
appropriation of sociological knowledge. I examine Bourdieu’s concept of sens pratique on
one hand, and his concept of scholastic posture on the other, the former characterising
ordinary knowledgeability, while the latter primarily concerns sociologists and other
scientists. The key difference between the two forms of knowledgeability lies in a concept
discussed extensively in the dissertation, namely reflexivity. Lay people, for Bourdieu, do
not normally have the ‘luxury’ to be reflexive about their own lives and actions. Pretending
that they do, and that they could appropriate sociological knowledge in order to objectify
their own practice would amount to committing what Bourdieu calls the ‘scholastic
fallacy’.
Finally, in the last section of the chapter, I turn to Bourdieu’s conception of
sociological inquiry, which is exposed very explicitly in La Misère du Monde. The
sociological interview, under specific circumstances, can be, for the interviewee, a form of
self-analysis prompted and guided by the sociologist. This self-analysis is based on the lifestory produced by the interviewee during his or her interaction with the sociologist. The
sociological interview, in other words, can sometimes be the occasion, for the interviewee,
to adopt a reflexive or scholastic posture vis-à-vis his or her own life. Yet I shall argue that
the epistemological and methodological options taken by Bourdieu and his colleagues in La
Misère du Monde deny, rather than demonstrate, the interviewees' reflexivity regarding
their own lives and practices, and their ability to appropriate sociological knowledge in
order to objectify their own practices. In fact, nowhere in Bourdieu's work is the contrast
between the sociological imagination of the researcher, on one hand, and the sociological
naïveté of the researched, on the other, made so blatant and, apparently, empirically 'valid'.
I shall argue that, had Bourdieu’s epistemological and methodological options been
different, the sociological interviews with the same persons could have served to
demonstrate exactly the opposite, namely, the reflexive and 'theoretical' capacities of the
interviewees who, in my view, routinely employ a sociological imagination in order to
make sense of what happens to them. This discussion of the status and the use of life stories
in La Misère du Monde will be the basis of a more general argument, developed in the next
chapter, about the use of life-stories in sociology, and about the way sociologists have tried
more generally to 'give a voice' to their 'subjects' and, in certain cases, to ‘enlighten’ them
in the process.
5.1 THE USEFULNESS OF SOCIOLOGY
5.1.1 The power of naming
Bourdieu’s position about the potential usefulness of sociology can be introduced
with his more general argument about all forms of representation of the social world,
sociology being only one of these forms. At stake in any activity - scientific or otherwise of representation of the social world is a struggle over what Bourdieu calls the 'power of
naming'. Knowledge claims about the social world have a 'theory effect', which means that
'a more or less authorised way of seeing the social world [...] helps to construct the reality
of that world'73 (Bourdieu, 1991: 106). The more widely a particular representation of the
social world is authorised, the more powerful the theory effect will be. For Bourdieu,
contemporary society is marked by an increasing competition for the representation of the
social world. By this he means that a growing range of agents produce more or less
authorised and legitimate knowledge claims about the social world74. The 'authorised'
73 Bourdieu’s argument about the ‘theory effect’ of social science knowledge parallels the
argument made in the fourth chapter about a 'dialectical relationship’ between social
science knowledge and ‘social reality’ (section 4.3.3).
74 Bourdieu’s point about an increasing competition for the representation of the social
world is in line with the argument developed in the first chapter of the dissertation about the
character of these claims often stems from an explicit reference to their scientific character,
and thus to social science:
Due to the existence of a social science, and of social practices that claim
kinship with this science, such as opinion polls, media advising, publicity, but
also pedagogy and even the conduct of politicians or government officials,
businessmen, and journalists, there are, within the social world itself, more
and more agents who engage scholarly, if not scientific, knowledge in their
practices and more importantly, in their work of production of representations
of the social world and of manipulation of these representations (in Bourdieu
& Wacquant, 1992: 250).
Social scientists, and other agents involved in the competition for the representation of the
social world, are de facto imposing particular concepts, categorisations, and ideas which,
'by structuring the perception which social agents have of the social world [...] [help] to
establish the structure of this world' (Ibid.: 105). In contrast to a traditional view which
states that science, and social science in particular, should be and remain a-political,
Bourdieu acknowledges that social science is an eminently political activity. This
characteristic has nothing to do with the explicit political positions or activities of particular
social scientists; rather, it refers to the inherent possibility of changing the social world by
changing the representations people have of the social world. In Bourdieu's terms:
Specifically political action is possible because agents, who are part of the
social world, have a (more or less adequate) knowledge of this world and
because one can act on the social world by acting on their knowledge of this
world (Ibid.: 127).
Therefore, there cannot be any 'neutral' statement about the social world. Social facts in
particular, are no less 'neutral' than a theoretical or explicitly prescriptive statement. Any
descriptive statement about the social world is potentially prescriptive:
Even the most strictly constative scientific description is always open to the
possibility of functioning in a prescriptive way, capable of contributing to its
own verification by exercising a theory effect through which it helps to bring
about that which it declares' (Ibid.: 134).
demonopolisation of science and the pluralism of expertise in a period of ‘reflexive
modernity’.
Bourdieu's analysis of the 'theory effect' of social science knowledge refers to the
reflexivity of social science, which I discussed in the third chapter of this dissertation. His
conception of sociology's eminently 'political' character is also, in my view, a direct
reference to the process of appropriation, by ordinary agents, of social science knowledge.
Rather than the result of an active process of appropriation, however, Bourdieu analyses
this impact of social science in terms of the ‘reification’ of social science knowledge. The
social world is increasingly pervaded by a 'reified sociology' (Bourdieu, 1990: 54), in the
sense that sociologists 'must expect to encounter the social science of the past concretised
in the object of their study' (Ibid: 182). As will be developed later in the chapter, it is a
general characteristic of Bourdieu’s work that the impact of sociology on society, or its
usefulness, are never addressed in terms of an active and positive process which is in part
accomplished by ordinary agents. The idea of a ‘lay appropriation of sociological
knowledge’ is, on many accounts, at odds with Bourdieu’s perspective. This is precisely
what makes it particularly interesting to examine the idea of a lay appropriation of social
science knowledge in light of Bourdieu’s arguments about the relationship between
sociology and lay people.
5.1.2 Sociology, common sense and reflexivity
In the increasing competition for the representation of the social world, sociologists
and other social scientists, in Bourdieu’s view, have a special status, by virtue of their
position in scientific fields and of the specific dispositions that this social location enables.
For Bourdieu, the hallmark of scientific knowledge is the break with common sense that it
sets out to achieve:
The construction of a scientific object requires first and foremost a break with
common sense, that is, with the representations shared by all, whether they be
the mere commonplaces of ordinary existence or official representations, often
inscribed in institutions and thus present both in the objectivity of social
organisations and in the minds of their participants (Bourdieu & Wacquant,
1992: 235).
The break with common sense is a fundamental characteristic of both social and natural
science, but is more important in social science, 'where the separation between everyday
opinion and scientific discourse is more blurred than elsewhere (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 13).
The construction of the scientific object implies rejecting the 'pre-constructed' objects
provided by common sense, which other ‘experts’ in the representation of the social world
often take for granted instead of questioning it. The construction of the scientific object is
an absolute requisite in order to avoid falling into a ‘spontaneous sociology’:
The task of constructing the object cannot be avoided without abandoning
research to preconstructed objects - social facts demarcated, perceived, and
named by spontaneous sociology (Ibid.: 34).
The social scientist needs to realize that ‘the preconstructed is everywhere’ (in Bourdieu &
Wacquant, 1992: 238). Like any other social agent, he or she relies on common sense in
many acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. Breaking away from common sense is,
thus, far from being an easy task:
There are all sorts of preconstructed objects that impose themselves as
scientific objects; being rooted in common sense, they immediately receive the
approval of the scientific community and a wider public (Bourdieu et al.,
1991: 249).
The social scientist thus needs to deny his or her familiarity with the social world, which he
or she experiences like any other agent: ‘familiarity with his social universe is the
epistemological obstacle par excellence' (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 13). The sociologist has to
resist the 'illusion of immediate knowledge' (Ibid.: 111) provided by common sense, an idea
directly borrowed from Durkheim, who argues that the sociologist 'must feel himself in the
presence of facts governed by laws as unsuspected as those of life before the science of
biology has evolved' (Durkheim, 1982: 38). Bourdieu's conception of the preconstructed
objects of common sense draws heavily on Durkheim's concept of 'pre-notions'75 and on his
principle that the basis of all scientific method consists in discarding systematically the prenotions provided by common sense (Durkheim, 1982: 72) and formed 'by and for
75 For Durkheim, pre-notions are ‘the products of common experience, [and] their main
purpose is to attune our actions to the surrounding world' (1982: 61).
experience' (Ibid.: 61)76. In Durkheim's terms, the break with pre-notions is a necessary
condition for the construction of 'social facts':
As soon as we consider facts per se, when we undertake to make a science
of them, they are of necessity unknown for us, things of which we are
ignorant, for the representations that we have been able to make of them in
the course of our lives, since they have been made without method and
uncritically, lack any scientific value and must be discarded (Ibid.: 37).
In contrast to Durkheim, however, Bourdieu is very suspicious of the notion of 'social fact',
and of the scientific imperative of submission to the facts which, in his view, 'leads to pure
and simple surrender to the given' (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 37). What is often presented as a
given social fact - a piece of social statistics, for example - is always, in Bourdieu's view,
the product of a construction which the sociologist should examine carefully, in order to
avoid submitting herself or himself to it without even being aware of this submission.
Breaking free from commonsensical understanding is a task which implies that the
social scientist be reflexive about his or her own practice. Reflexivity, in Bourdieu’s
perspective should be a crucial characteristic of social science. A reflexive sociology is a
‘sociology of sociology’, understood as an indispensable instrument of the sociological
method, rather than just a specialty among other 'specialised sociologies' (Bourdieu,
1990: 178). The sociology of sociology, in other words, ‘is not an end in itself: if it is the
alpha of any rigorous sociological practice, it is not its omega’ (Bourdieu, 1991c: 385). A
reflexive sociology is a sociology of intellectual practice: it involves the ‘inclusion of a
theory of intellectual practice as an integral component and necessary condition of a critical
theory of society’ (in Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 36). For the social scientist, being
reflexive implies being aware of his or her own presuppositions and, more particularly, of
the social roots of his or her scientific dispositions:
The sociology of sociology is the means of giving its full force to what
Bachelard called ‘epistemological vigilance’ and to arm the scientist against
all the presuppositions he or she tacitly accepts as a social agent and that she
76
Bourdieu also explicitly draws upon the work of Bachelard, and on the latter's
conception of the natural scientist's necessary break with common sense (Bourdieu et al.,
1991: 248).
is forever tempted unknowingly to reintroduce into his or her discourse
(Bourdieu, 1991c: 385).
Sociologists, for Bourdieu, need to be aware of their own position in the social space, and
of the social determinants which structure their modes of reasoning, and their scientific
practice more generally. The sociologist, like any other social agent, is situated in a
particular 'field', and has a particular 'habitus'77: sociologists are not ‘above’ or ‘outside’ the
social space and the social struggles, but are inevitably part of them, whether or not they
want to be. On the other hand, sociologists, unlike most other social agents, do have an
instrument - namely, sociological analysis - by which they can bring to light what, in
ordinary practice, remains hidden from view.
Sociologists therefore can achieve an awareness of the social conditions and
determinants of their own practice that ordinary agents normally cannot achieve.
Sociologists can also gain insight into other agents’ practices, and bring to light the social
determinants which are embedded in others practices, and of which the agents themselves
are unaware. In this sense, sociologists occupy a special position in the social space by
virtue of their scientific habitus, which includes particular reflexive abilities. The scientific
status of sociology, then, does not stem from the deliberate seclusion of scientific activity
from social space. Bourdieu’s argument is precisely that such a seclusion can never be
achieved and that it refers to a fallacious view of science. The scientific status of sociology
stems, rather, from sociologists’ continuous effort to objectify their own practices as well as
others.
Although the sociologist cannot help being part of the competition for the
representation of the social world, her specific task is to take the competition itself as her
object of study, and to uncover the mechanisms of symbolic domination at stake in this
competition. Sociology, then, 'must take as its object, instead of letting itself be caught in it,
the struggle for the monopoly of the legitimate representation of the social world'
(Bourdieu, 1990: 180). Sociologists can and must raise themselves to a 'second degree',
which other competitors cannot normally reach:
77 The concept of habitus is discussed in section 5.3.2.
[i]t is one and the same thing to find oneself inevitably involved in the
struggle for the construction and imposition of the legitimate taxonomy and,
by raising oneself to the second degree, to take as one’s object the science of
this struggle, that is, the knowledge of the functioning and functions of the
institutions that are involved in it - such as the education system or the great
official organisations of census and social statistics (Bourdieu, 1990: 180-1).
In other words, sociologists must refrain from using the same strategies of symbolic
domination that are used by the other agents involved in the competition for the
representation of the social world. The political character of social science, therefore, does
not mean that social scientists can use their knowledge as instruments for symbolic
imposition; on the contrary, Bourdieu claims that social science 'can constitute itself only
by rejecting the social demand for instruments of legitimatization or manipulation'
(Bourdieu, 1990: 186).
Bourdieu is well aware, however, that knowledge claims produced by sociologists
become part, whether they want it or not, of the competition for the representation of the
social world:
Due to the fact that he produces representations of the social world endowed
with the authority of science, the sociologist is engaged willy nilly in the
symbolic struggles for the imposition of legitimate principles of vision and
division of the social world involving other specialists in symbolic production
(Bourdieu, 1991c: 375-6).
Moreover, Bourdieu’s position about the ‘detachment’ of sociologists from symbolic
imposition has considerably evolved in recent years. Regarding issues which seem to
concern him greatly, Bourdieu has been increasingly engaged in the resolute defense of
particular sociological representations and explanations, and has accepted the idea of using
his knowledge of ‘how symbolic domination works’, in order to promote particular notions
or ideas issued from sociological research, and in order to undermine those which he thinks
are fallacious or dangerous78. His recent work Contre-feux (1998a) brings together articles
78 He has also been actively involved in French public and political events such as
students’ demonstrations in 1986, strikes of the French railway employees in 1992 and
1995, a demonstration of unemployed people in 1997, etc.
originally published in French newspapers such as Le Monde and Libération, in which
Bourdieu, for example, takes a stand against neoliberalism, rejecting specific policies or
political figures which, in his view, exemplify neoliberalism.
5.1.3 Freedom, social determinants, and collective responsibility
Sociology, for Bourdieu, potentially has an enlightening or emancipatory impact on
those who can understand and use sociological knowledge. Sociological analysis consists in
unveiling the social structure and the social determinants that condition people's life, by
being internalised in their habitus: ‘the sociologist discovers the necessity, the constraint of
social conditions and conditionings, right in the very heart of the “subject”, in the form of
[…] the habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 15). It is precisely the study of social determinants
which, in his view, represents a major contribution of social science to human freedom:
Contrary to appearances, it is by increasing the degree of perceived necessity and
by providing a better understanding of the laws of the social world, that social
science gives more freedom. Any progress in the understanding of necessity is
also a progress in the possibility of freedom (Bourdieu, 1980b: 44-5)79.
For Bourdieu, social life would be much less distressing if people knew about the social
mechanisms that make them foster their own distress (Bourdieu, 1980b: 33). Sociology’s
enlightening effect, thus, lies in the consciousness of social determinants that it enables: ‘by
expressing the social determinants of different forms of practice […], the sociologist gives
us the chance of acquiring a certain freedom from these determinants’ (Bourdieu, 1990:
15).
Bourdieu reaffirms this conception of the usefulness of sociology in La Misère du
Monde (1993), which was explicitly devoted to studying forms of suffering routinely
79 My translation. For this and the following quotations from Bourdieu's works (especially
La Misère du monde and Méditations pascaliennes), for which no published English
translation is available, the original French text is generally given in the corresponding
footnote. Here: 'Contrairement aux apparences, c’est en élevant le degré de nécessité perçue
et en donnant une meilleure connaissance des lois du monde social, que la science sociale
donne plus de liberté. Tout progrès dans la connaissance de la nécessité est un progrès dans
la liberté possible'.
experienced by ordinary people in today’s society. Sociological analysis, by exposing the
social conditions and conditionings of one’s distressing situation, could enable one to get
rid of the guilt one often feels for one’s own distress (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 944). In his
terms:
However sceptical one may be regarding the actual usefulness of sociology,
one cannot ignore the positive effect that the sociological message can have in
enabling those who are suffering to impute their misfortune to social causes
and therefore to feel exculpated, and in uncovering the often concealed social
origin of all the forms of distress, including the most intimate and secret ones
(Bourdieu, 1993: 944)80.
The empowering project of sociology consists in giving people the sociological 'clues'
which would enable them to understand why they are what they are and, further, to claim
'the right to be what they are'.
We should try to display and disseminate the scientific stance, which is both
objectifying and empathetic and which, when it is turned back on itself,
enables one to accept what one is, and even to claim the right to be what one is
(Bourdieu, 1980b: 42)81.
Such a position is an unequivocal response to the frequent criticism addressed to
sociologists who, like Bourdieu, stress the deterministic character of 'objective' social
conditions which escape individual control. The criticism consists in accusing Bourdieu and
others of virtually annihilating the capacity for individual action, and of ruling out the
possibility of freedom, since the individual is trapped, as it were, by social determinants. In
response to this criticism, Bourdieu claims that ‘it is through the illusion of freedom from
social determinants that social determinations win the freedom to exercise their full power’
(Bourdieu, 1990: 15). Freedom, in Bourdieu's view, does not imply 'being free from social
determinants'. No one, in his perspective, can be free from social determinants. Those who
80 'Pour si sceptique que l’on puisse être sur l’efficacité sociale du message sociologique,
on ne peut tenir pour nul l’effet qu’il peut exercer en permettant à ceux qui souffrent de
découvrir la possibilité d’imputer leur souffrance à des causes sociales et de se sentir ainsi
disculpés; et en faisant connaître largement l’origine sociale, largement occultée, du
malheur sous toutes ses formes, y compris les plus intimes et les plus secrètes'.
81 'Ce qu'il faudrait divulguer, disséminer, c'est le regard scientifique, ce regard à la fois
objectivant et compréhensif qui, retourné sur soi, permet de s'assumer et même de se
revendiquer, de revendiquer le droit à être ce qu'on est'.
tend to think that they are - intellectuals and sociologists, for example - are fundamentally
mistaken. Freedom, rather, implies being aware of the social determinants that impinge on
one's life.
Stressing the social constraints which determine one’s life is only one aspect of
sociology’s twofold purpose. The sociologist’s role is also to ‘denaturalise’ or to
‘defatalise’ those social phenomena which are considered to be ‘bound to happen’ or
simply ‘natural’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 15). In this sense, sociology stands very much against the
idea of determinism and of social ‘laws’. Against proponents of neoliberalism who, in his
view, have an interest in diffusing the idea that there are economic and social laws, which
we can only hope to learn to cope with, Bourdieu emphasises that ‘economic and social
laws operate only insofar as we let them operate’ (Bourdieu, 1998a: 62). In the same vein,
he claims that ‘sociology teaches us how groups work and how to use these sociological
laws in order to invalidate them’ (Ibid.: 63). In sum, depending which social phenomena he
or she is studying, the sociologist might stress either concealed possibilities of individual
action or, at the opposite, the illusion of individual action. In Bourdieu terms: ‘sociology
[…] discovers the arbitrary and the contingent where we like to see necessity or nature, and
[…] it discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free
will’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 14).
A crucial key to Bourdieu’s conception of the emancipatory impact of sociology lies
in the notion of collective responsibility. As suggested above, sociology can enable one to
understand that the responsibility for one’s distress is collective as much as individual. It is
structural conditions which ‘cause’ poverty, illness, unemployment, violence, etc., and for
which members of a society are collectively responsible. For Bourdieu, this notion of
collective responsibility is one of the most important notions ‘invented’ by social and
sociological thought (Bourdieu, 1998a: 14). For example, Bourdieu welcomes the fact that,
regarding the issue of a child’s good or poor results at school, ‘the logic of collective
responsibility gradually tends to supplant the logic of individual responsibility’ (Bourdieu
et al., 1993: 598), in part thanks to the diffusion of sociological findings. For Bourdieu,
however, the notion of collective responsibility is currently being endangered by
neoliberalism and the form of individualism that it promotes, and which Bourdieu
vigorously opposes. For him, individualism is what leads one to ‘blame the victim’ and to
put the responsibility of social suffering on the individual (Ibid.: 15). Neoliberalism, which
Bourdieu claims is expanding in today’s society, and in France more particularly, tends to
deny the relevance of sociological imagination and sociological research.
5.1.4 Sociology for whom?
It is clear from his position about freedom and social determinants discussed above,
that Bourdieu regards sociology as a discipline which can be useful for society in general,
and which carries a strong ‘enlightening’ or ‘emancipatory’ component. Being useful,
however, does not necessarily imply the sociologist’s active engagement in the
‘competition for the representation of the social world’. Until recently, Bourdieu advocated
a detachment of sociologists from public debate and pressing ‘social problems’, this
detachment being based on the relative autonomy of the scientific field, and being a
requisite for sound scientific research. More importantly, Bourdieu was very pessimistic as
to the effective usefulness of sociology: in his view, the people whose interest would be to
appropriate sociological knowledge, do not possess adequate 'instruments of appropriation'
to do so. In contrast, those who do possess these instruments have no interest in 'using'
sociological knowledge, and sometimes have a strong interest in ignoring it, since it would
unveil mechanisms of domination, the effectiveness of which is conditional on their hidden
and unacknowledged character (Bourdieu, 1990: 50).
In the past ten years, however, Bourdieu has multiplied his direct interventions, as a
sociologist, in the French public debate82. This has sometimes meant denouncing particular
political viewpoints, politicians, or policies. As already suggested above, his most recent
work, Contre-feux (1998a) is a plea against ‘neoliberalism’ which, in his view, carries a
fallacious discourse consisting in reifying social or economic laws, instead of stressing the
ways these laws could be changed or could cease to apply (Bourdieu, 1998a: 61-2). There
82 About topics such as the construction of Europe, immigration, the education system, the
impact of television, etc.
has been, in my view, a significant turn in Bourdieu’s work regarding the audience at which
his works are aimed, and regarding the potential usefulness of sociology for lay people,
including in particular the people who are the ‘subjects’ of sociological research.
Bourdieu’s position about the relationship between sociology and lay people can be
explored by distinguishing between the same two levels I distinguished in my discussion of
the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its ‘subjects’83. The first level
is the level of sociological inquiry itself which, in this case, takes the form of qualitative
research and involves a direct interaction between the sociologist and the lay person who is
the ‘subject’ of the research. In La Misère du Monde, the research consisted in interviewing
a large range of ‘lay people’ and in constructing their life-stories in a way which would
display the social conditions which enable the reader to understand these people and their
lives. What is of interest at this level are the implications, for the interviewees, of the
interaction with the sociologist, and the way the interviewees may, or may not, appropriate
the sociological knowledge produced about their own lives and practices.
The second level refers to the relationship that lay people have with sociological
knowledge outside the particular context of a research situation in which they are directly
interviewed by a sociologist. It refers in particular to the way lay people might appropriate
sociological knowledge diffused through the mass media. Here the issue is whether lay
people, outside the context of sociological inquiry and of a direct contact with sociologists,
can use sociological knowledge in order to make sense of their own lives and practices (or
that of others). There in one allusion, in La Misère du Monde, to this large-range process of
lay appropriation of sociological knowledge. As already mentioned above, this allusion
concerns the way in which people – parents in particular – explain why some children fail
at school. The argument reads as follows:
One cannot but assume that the diffusion of major social science findings about
education, particularly findings about the social determinants of success and
failure at school, must have contributed to transform children’s and parents'
83 Cf. chapter 3.
perceptions of the education system, whose effects they already know in
practice (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 598)84.
This example refers to Bourdieu’s argument, which I presented in the preceding section,
about the notion of ‘collective responsibility’. The massive diffusion of sociological
knowledge about education and the school implies that virtually everyone has appropriated
the idea that failure at school cannot be explained only by reference to individual
'aptitudes'. Lay people increasingly tend to include ill-defined social factors in their
explanations, such as insufficient resources allocated to the education system, the way
teachers are trained, or the logic of the whole education system and the need to reform it
(Bourdieu et al., 1993: 598). This means, as will be argued later, that people are not
'sociologically naïve' vis-à-vis the issue of children's success or failure at school and that
their 'sociological imagination' is tied up with the massive diffusion of social science
knowledge in society. What Bourdieu and Champagne note here about schooling can, in
my view, be extended to many other social issues.
Bourdieu, however, has often expressed pessimistic views as to the effective
usefulness of sociology for lay people. Although people, were they to appropriate
sociological knowledge, could benefit from the ‘disculpation’ effect of sociology, this
process is fraught with difficulties, due in particular to the fact that lay people often do not
have the resources - both material and cultural - for appropriating sociological knowledge.
He claims that 'those who have an interest in unveiling the mechanisms of domination [...]
hardly ever read sociology and, in any case, they can't afford it' (Bourdieu, 1990: 50).
Bourdieu's doubts about the process of lay appropriation of sociological knowledge in part
refer to people’s lack of material resources, and of cultural and linguistic capacities - or
‘capital’. Although, as will be developed below, people are certainly not equally
‘equipped’, both materially and intellectually, regarding their capacity to be reflexive and to
appropriate sociological knowledge, this form of inequality escapes any simple reference to
social class or material wealth. Numerous studies have shown that lay people, even among
84 'L'on ne peut pas ne pas supposer que la diffusion des acquis majeurs des sciences
sociales à propos de l'éducation, et en particulier à propos des facteurs sociaux de la
réussite et de l'échec scolaires, a dû contribuer à transformer la perception que peuvent
avoir de l'École des enfants et des familles déjà instruits en pratique de ses effets'.
the disadvantaged groups of society, are able to grasp and to appropriate scientific
knowledge, to see how such knowledge can serve their interests, and to resist social
research when they believe it threatens their interests85. Contrary to what Bourdieu claims,
people, in my view, 'read - or hear - sociology' virtually every day.
In his recent work Bourdieu seems to have a more optimistic view about the capacity
of lay people to benefit from sociology. La Misère du Monde exemplifies his intention,
which departs clearly from his intention in earlier works, to write a book aimed at a large
audience, and whose sociological perspective could potentially be used by lay people in
order to make sense of their lives and to understand others’ lives. In his recent discussion of
Bourdieu’s work, Hamel refers to La Misère du Monde as a ‘daring experiment in
qualitative methodology in sociology’ (Hamel, 1998: 11), precisely ‘insofar as the work is
presented in such a way that anyone can understand it’ (Ibid.). Bourdieu himself describes
his work in La Misère du Monde as a step toward the ‘democratization of the hermeneutic
posture’ (Bourdieu et al.: 923). That ‘lay people’ could use, and benefit from, sociological
knowledge, is a goal that Bourdieu reaffirms very explicitly in his recent work Contre-Feux
(1998a). More particularly, he expresses the wish that sociology be useful for social
movements:
That of which we may dream, us researchers, is that a part of our studies be
useful to the social movement, instead of being lost, as it is often the case
today, because it is interpreted and distorted by journalists or hostile
interpreters86 (Bourdieu, 1998a: 64-5).
To that purpose, Bourdieu acknowledges the need to ‘invent new forms of expression,
which would enable to communicate to militants the most advanced results of sociological
research’ (Ibid.: 65). The work La Misère du Monde illustrates one of these new forms of
expression, aimed at communicating the sociological perspective to lay people in general,
and not only to militants in social movements. This new form of expression lies in the
85 Cf. section 3.2.2.
86 ‘Ce à quoi nous pourrions rêver, nous chercheurs, c’est qu’une part de nos recherches
puisse être utile au mouvement social au lieu de se perdre, comme c’est souvent le cas
aujourd’hui, parce qu’interprétée et déformée par des journalistes ou par des interprètes
hostiles’.
transcription verbatim of the interviews conducted by the sociologists, that is, of the lifestories produced by the interviewees during their interaction with the sociologists. For
Bourdieu, the transcription of the interviews permits ‘the delivery of a more accessible
equivalent of complex and abstract conceptual analyses […]. [They are] capable of
touching and moving, of appealing to sensibility, without pandering to sensationalism,
[and] can bring about conversions of thought and view that are often the prior condition to
understanding’ (Bourdieu et al.: 922).
The most obvious transformation of Bourdieu’s position regarding the way lay
people can relate to sociology concerns the first level identified above, namely the level of
sociological inquiry itself. The turning-point in his position lies in the expression
‘accompanied self-analysis’, which Bourdieu uses for characterising the type of qualitative
research he and his colleagues conducted in La Misère du Monde. During these interviews,
the people under study became involved in a form of self-analysis, which was provoked
and guided by the sociologist. In some cases, interviewees were able to appropriate the
sociological stance imported by the researcher, and to benefit from it. This particular
conception of the relationship between the researcher and the researched87 is discussed in
the third part of this chapter.
5.2 The conditions and limits of a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge
5.2.1 Symbolic violence
The effective impact of sociology on society and, more specifically, its potential
usefulness for lay people is approached with considerable suspicion by Bourdieu, insofar as
it can easily become a case of 'symbolic violence'. Concepts, ideas and categorisations,
especially those produced by social scientists, have an effect of imposition which can be
seen as a form of symbolic domination:
87 Which completes the analysis of various conceptions of the relationship between the
researcher and the researched conducted in chapter 3.
[W]e are exposed to the ontological slippage which leads from the existence
of the name to the existence of the thing named, a slippage all the more
probable, and dangerous, in that, in reality itself, social agents struggle for [...]
symbolic power, of which this power of constitutive naming, which by naming
things brings them into being, is one of the most typical demonstrations
(Bourdieu, 1990: 55).
The characteristic of symbolic domination is that the dominated - that is, the people who
have appropriated these concepts, ideas and categorisations - are unaware of being
dominated. Symbolic violence is a type of violence that 'can be exercised only with the
complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they
themselves exercise it' (Bourdieu, 1991: 164).
In denouncing the symbolic violence associated with many forms of authorised
naming, including social science, Bourdieu has more particularly in mind what he calls
'official naming', that is, the categorisations and concepts formulated by the agents of the
state, such as the occupational categories, which everyone is familiar with, and tends to
take for granted. Official naming refers to a form of symbolic violence which is all the
more pervasive as it 'has on its side all the strength of the collective, of the consensus, of
common sense (Bourdieu, 1991: 239).
What I call in this dissertation ‘the appropriation of social expert knowledge by lay
people’ can very well, according to Bourdieu’s perspective, be the result of symbolic
domination. Bourdieu’s denunciation of symbolic domination is aimed primarily at what is,
in his view, pseudo social science knowledge, particularly the type of expert knowledge
about ‘social issues’ diffused in the mass media. Bourdieu's repeated denunciation of the
way the media ‘talk’ about social issues is a leitmotiv of his recent work. In Sur la
télévision (1996), Bourdieu argues that mass media, and television in particular, tend to
involve ‘a pernicious form of symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu, 1996: 16). Television pretends
to be an instrument of ‘recording’ of social reality, whereas it is essentially an instrument of
‘creation’ of that reality (Ibid.: 21). About television, Bourdieu enumerates various
mechanisms which, in his view, have transformed what could have been a ‘great instrument
for direct democracy’ (Ibid.: 8) into one of reproduction of the symbolic order (Ibid.: 14).
These mechanisms refer to the constraints of the journalistic field which, for example,
prompt journalists to look for the ‘scoop’ and to ‘dramatise’ social issues, instead of
conducting a ‘detached’ analysis of these issues.
In La Misère du Monde, Champagne's criticism of the media's vision [vision
médiatique] echoes that of Bourdieu (in Bourdieu et al., 1993: 61-79). Champagne strongly
criticises the media coverage - especially television coverage - of 'social problems'.
He focuses more specifically on a 'social problem' that has been omnipresent in the
public debate in France in the past ten or fifteen years, namely, the 'problem of the suburbs'
[le mal des banlieues]88. Champagne observes that many inhabitants of these suburbs have
appropriated the concepts and the explanations proposed by various 'experts', and relayed
by journalists, about this so-called 'mal des banlieues'. These inhabitants tend to 'talk back'
to the journalists who regularly interview them, by using the notions and ideas that the
media have imposed on the problem, thus telling the journalists what the latter want to hear
(Ibid.: 68). For Champagne, this appropriation process is the result of the interviewees'
cultural deficit, which leads them to appropriate blindly the claims diffused by the media,
and which prevent them from being critical of these claims. In Bourdieu’s perspective, the
'social knowledge' used by journalists and diffused in mass media is not 'proper' social
science; it has the 'appearance' of social science, but is aimed primarily at serving the
interests of the powerful.
Symbolic violence, thus, represents an important limit to a positive appropriation of
sociological knowledge by lay people. People might use concepts or ideas that have been
imposed upon them by experts who promote particular representations of the social world,
without being aware of this imposition. Without denying the possibility of symbolic
violence, it would be deceiving, in my view, to assimilate systematically the appropriation
of social science knowledge by lay people with a case of symbolic violence. Lay
appropriation of social science knowledge can very well be, in some cases, a form of
88 This problem refers to the high levels of unemployment, poverty, delinquency, and
crime, especially among young people, in many suburbs of the major cities in France. The
population in these suburbs is often characterised by a large proportion of immigrants.
resistance to symbolic domination. In my view, people are in general less powerless and
naive vis-à-vis the media than Bourdieu and Champagne tend to suggest. In fact,
Champagne himself acknowledges that some people, among those he interviewed, do
question the social representations diffused by the media and be critical of the journalists
that produce or reproduce them. He notes that a proportion of the inhabitants in the
'banlieue à problèmes' firmly reject the 'journalistic vision' of the problem, and are aware of
the stigmatisation involved in the label 'banlieue à problèmes' that is used to describe the
place where they live (Ibid.: 73)89. Bourdieu, in his analysis of mass media, and of
television in particular, also tends to overstate, in my view, the facility with which lay
people let themselves be caught in processes of symbolic violence. He indicates one way of
counteracting the manipulative processes embedded in television: this way is to try to
‘generalise the conditions of access to the universal’ (Bourdieu, 1996: 77). By this he
means that, in order to be able to appropriate in a lucid way the knowledge claims diffused
through television, people need special dispositions which they can acquire only if the
conditions of access to this kind of ‘knowledgeability’ are developed. Although, as already
noted, I certainly do accept the idea that the generalisation of these conditions of ‘access to
the universal’ is far from being completed, a large number of ‘lay people’, in my view, are
able to develop the kind of knowledgeability which prevents them to be the dupes of
journalists, or of other social experts consecrated by television.
5.2.2 Lay people's sens pratique and sociologists’ scholastic posture
The most serious limit to the process of lay appropriation of social science
knowledge that can be found in Bourdieu’s work concerns his characterisation of the
fundamental difference between ordinary practice on one hand, and of scientific practice on
the other. For him, common sense and social science refer to two different forms of
89 In the same vein, the French film-director Mathieu Kassowitz, in his powerful film “La
Haine”, which is half-way between documentary and fiction, stresses the way people living
in these so-called banlieues à problèmes are able to ‘play’ very consciously the journalists’
game’. Young people especially, who are often the target of the media’s attention, are far
from being ‘cultural dopes’, unaware and uncritical of the representations that journalists
tend to impose about them and their lives.
knowledge, or modes of relating to the world, namely the practical and the theoretical
modes respectively. The practical mode that is characteristic of common sense involves an
immediate 'competence' in making sense of the world, but a competence that is, as it were,
oblivious to itself. In contrast, the theoretical mode of the social scientist involves a
distance vis-à-vis the immediate intelligibility of the world. Thus, theoretical knowledge
'owes a number of its most essential properties to the fact that the conditions under which it
is produced are not that of practice' (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 70). In order to be able
to study social processes, the sociologist adopts a theoretical or scholastic posture, which is
fundamentally different from the logic of the agents actually involved in these processes:
‘as soon as we observe the social world, we introduce in our perception of it a bias due to
the fact that, to study it, to describe it, to talk about it, we must retire from it more or less
completely’ (Ibid.: 69).
The concept of 'practical sense' [sens pratique] is the chief notion proposed by
Bourdieu for characterising ordinary knowledgeability. The practical mode of relating to
the social world is a relation of 'placid ignorance' [docte ignorance] insofar as it does not
contain the knowledge of the practices that it generates (Bourdieu, 1980a: 175). That is,
practical sense implies immediate comprehension, but a comprehension which is unaware
of itself (Ibid.: 37). By this, Bourdieu means that practical sense is what enables people to
act in a way that is in general appropriate in the circumstances, and which is taken-forgranted as being the only way to act in the circumstances90. People's practical sense is the
direct manifestation of their habitus, that is, of ingrained dispositions which both enable
and determine particular patterns of perception, thought and action. Habitus is defined as 'a
system of durable, transposable dispositions which functions as the generative basis of
structured, objectively unified practices' (Bourdieu, 1979: vii). As the result of the
'internalisation' of the objective structures that constrain one's actions, habitus is what
enables one to experience the world as 'natural' and predictable. To put it differently, the
day-to-day familiarity of practical experience is the result of the correspondence between
objective structures and internalised structures [structures incorporées] (Bourdieu,
90 Cf.:'Le sens pratique est ce qui permet d'agir comme il faut sans poser ni exécuter un "il
faut", une règle de conduite' (Bourdieu, 1997: 166).
1980a: 44). This correspondence gives the illusion of immediate knowledge (Ibid.), in the
sense that what appears to the agent as natural and 'given' is the result of an active process
of incorporation of social structures. This immediate knowledge excludes any interrogation
about its own conditions of possibility (Ibid.). One of the virtues of the concept of habitus,
in Bourdieu's view, is that it enables one to grasp the immediate comprehension of the
world that people routinely achieve, without having to assume that agents are 'rational' in
the sense that their action is based on the explicit analysis of the processes pertaining to it
(Bourdieu, 1997: 185).
In Bourdieu's perspective, then, social agents are actively and inventively engaged
in practice, insofar as they continuously construct their social world through the 'choices' of
their habitus (Bourdieu, 1991: 51). This construction, however, operates on a practical
level, without involving reflexivity vis-à-vis this construction, and without involving
discursive consciousness:
The essential part of one's experience of the social world and of the labour of
construction it implies takes place in practice, without reaching the level of
explicit representation and verbal expression (Ibid.: 235).
To the extent that he emphasises the active and creative character of ordinary practice and
of 'common sense', Bourdieu is in line with traditions such as phenomenology and
ethnomethodology
that
share
this
concern
for
demonstrating
agents'
ordinary
knowledgeability, which is mobilised even in the most mundane practices. Beyond this
shared
concern,
however,
Bourdieu
clearly departs
from
phenomenology and
ethnomethodology. These traditions, in his view, tend to take for granted the ideas of 'a
universal subject' and of a 'natural attitude', instead of showing the structural conditions
which both enable and constrain ordinary practice. In other words, the sociologist must
explain, rather than assume, 'what appears as a universal property of human experience,
that is, the fact that the familiar world tends to be 'taken-for-granted', perceived as natural'
(Bourdieu, 1990: 130).
For Bourdieu, in sum, reflexivity is a key concept that marks the difference between
ordinary and scientific practice or, to put it differently, between lay people’s sens pratique
and scientists’ scholastic posture. In this perspective, the lay appropriation of social science
knowledge is at best a rare and unusual process, which means that a lay person, perhaps
only temporarily, has been able to take the disposition characteristic of the scholastic fields,
that is, to be reflexive about his or her own life and action. There are circumstances which
enable such a process to happen. These circumstances, however, Bourdieu sees as being
extra-ordinary. People’s potential capacities for reflexivity are, according to Bourdieu, de
facto severely limited, for reasons which are exposed next.
5.2.3 Lay people's limited capacities for reflexivity
There is a quasi glorification, in Bourdieu's work, of the practical, tacit, and 'antireflexive' knowledge of lay people. Any attempt by a lay agent to depart from his or her
'practical posture' is often judged negatively by Bourdieu; that is, it is judged to be doomed
to fail, and it is usually seen as usurpation of the sociologist's role. It is almost as if lay
people are not supposed to reflect upon their own practices:
As soon as agents reflect upon their practice, thereby adopting a quasi
theoretical posture, they lose any chance of expressing the truth about their
practice and, above all, the truth about their practical relation to practice: the
scholastic approach leads them to take a position on their practice which is
neither the position of the actor, nor that of the scientist (Bourdieu,
1980a: 152)91.
In certain circumstances, however, Bourdieu does acknowledge that ordinary agents can
develop forms of reflexivity which departs from their usual ‘anti-reflexive’ sens pratique.
But these capacities for reflexivity are, according to Bourdieu, severely constrained and
limited. Although in principle, ‘habitus is one principle of production of practices among
others’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 108), it is only in exceptional circumstances that it ‘may be
superseded […] by other principles, such as rational and conscious computation’ (Ibid.).
91 'Dès qu'il réfléchit sur sa pratique, se plaçant ainsi dans une posture quasi-théorique,
l'agent perd toute chance d'exprimer la vérité de sa pratique et surtout la vérité du rapport
pratique à la pratique: l'interrogation savante l'incline à prendre sur sa propre pratique un
point de vue qui n'est plus celui de l'action sans être celui de la science'.
Practical sense, as argued above, is based on the correspondence between objective
structures and the internalised structures of the habitus, which implies that 'the "choices" of
the habitus are accomplished without consciousness of constraint' (Bourdieu, 1991: 51).
Bourdieu recognises, however, that the coincidence between structure and habitus is
sometimes disrupted. In fact it is in such a situation that the sociologist can easily
demonstrate the 'constructed' and constraining character of what generally appears as given
and natural. It is by studying a situation in which the correspondence between people's
habitus and their social conditions was broken, that Bourdieu first developed his argument
about the practical mode of relating to the world.
This situation refers to Bourdieu’s early study of proletarian and sub-proletarian
Algerian people. In this study, Bourdieu notes the permanent discrepancy between, on one
hand, these people's habitus and, more precisely, their economic dispositions, which were
adapted to a 'pre-capitalist' world and, on the other hand, the capitalist economy in which
they now have to act (Bourdieu, 1979: vii). The object of the study, thus, was the problem
of the genesis of new economic dispositions (in particular, the genesis of a particular
temporal consciousness) adapted to the developing capitalist economy, which had been, to
a large extent, abruptly imported and imposed on Algerian people. The discrepancy
between habitus and structure indicated, in this case, that the economic structures changed
more rapidly than Algerians’ economic dispositions:
Because they do not change in the same rhythm as the economic structures,
dispositions and ideologies corresponding to different economic structures,
still present or already swept away, coexist in the same society and sometimes
even in the same individuals (Bourdieu, 1979: 4-5)
Bourdieu acknowledges that a form of reflection can result from the temporary suspension
of the familiarity of the social world. This form of reflection, however, remains oriented
toward practice and cannot be compared with the theoretical or scholastic posture of social
scientists. It does not mean, in other words, that people's practical sense gave place to a
form of reflexive and discursive consciousness of structural conditions. In Méditations
Pascaliennes, Bourdieu makes this point explicit:
Habitus has its defects, its critical moments of puzzlement and discrepancy:
then the relation of immediate adaptation is suspended in an instant of
hesitation which can prompt a form of reflection which has nothing to do with
scholastic thinking, and which is always oriented towards practice (Bourdieu,
1997: 191-2)92.
Bourdieu, in my view, underestimates the occasions in which there is such a
disruption of the usual coincidence between people's dispositions and the structural
conditions of their position in the social world. For him, this disruption of the ‘immediate
adjustment of habitus to field’ refers to situations of crisis (Bourdieu, 1990: 108). The
reflection resulting from this disruption, which Bourdieu tends to regard as exceptional,
temporary, and incomplete is, in my view, an omnipresent characteristic of ordinary
knowledgeability in today’s society. In the concluding pages of his Méditations
Pascaliennes (1997), Bourdieu acknowledges that the perfect coincidence between
structure and habitus is increasingly lost in contemporary society, and briefly alludes to the
large-scale social processes involved in this transformation, such as the generalisation of
access to education:
We no longer live in a world where an almost perfect coincidence between
objective tendencies and expectations meant that one's experience of the world
was a continuous succession of confirmed anticipations (Bourdieu,
1997: 276)93.
However, he never pushes this argument to a point at which it puts into question his
conception of ordinary practice and of people's practical sense. As argued in the fourth
chapter94, social scientists have often tended to treat ordinary knowledgeability as an
‘immutable’, rather than a ‘transformable’ form of knowledge. Bourdieu never
contemplates the argument, which I made in the preceding chapters of the dissertation, that
92 'L'habitus a ses ratés, ses moments critiques de déconcertement et de décalage: la
relation d'adaptation immédiate est suspendue, dans un instant d'hésitation où peut
s'insinuer une forme de réflexion qui n'a rien à voir avec celle du penseur scolastique et qui
[...] reste tournée vers la pratique'.
93 'C'en est fini à jamais de ces univers où la coincidence quasi parfaite des tendances
objectives et des attentes faisait de l'expérience du monde un enchaînement continu
d'anticipations confirmées'.
94 Cf. paragraph 4.2.1.
new large-scale social processes might be tied up with a fundamental transformation of
people's knowledgeability, and that such a transformation might involve that lay people
routinely develop a theoretical posture that superimposes, as it were, their practical
orientation to the social world. Ordinary knowledgeability, in my view, now involves a
form of reflexivity which means that lay people routinely develop a theoretical posture
regarding their own practices and others' practices.
In his work about Algeria, Bourdieu stresses the sociological naïveté of the
proletarian and sub-proletarian Algerian people whom he studied, and their lack of
reflexivity regarding their own practices. They were generally sociologically naive, in
particular, regarding the issue of unemployment. The interviewees, depending on their
experience, showed different levels of awareness of their situation of unemployment
(Bourdieu, 1979: 56). Bourdieu distinguishes between three levels of awareness: at the first
level, there is no awareness of unemployment as such; at the second level, the awareness is
not formulated but exists 'in practice'; and at the third level, the awareness takes a
discursive form. More precisely:
Unemployment can first exist 'in itself', without being grasped as
unemployment; at a second level, 'consciousness' of unemployment can
manifest itself in practice without becoming explicit, or becoming so only in
very rudimentary forms of discourse such as the pleonastic statement of the
given. The expression of consciousness of unemployment therefore marks the
transition to a third level. From this point on, consciousness and its expression
come hand in hand; the wealth and clarity of the content of consciousness
grow at the same time as the wealth and clarity of the expression it receives
(Bourdieu, 1979: 57).
The third level, that of ‘consciousness of unemployment’, means that one becomes aware
that one's individual and personal situation of 'not having a job' is experienced by many
others, and that it is part of a social problem named 'unemployment', the causes of which go
largely beyond their individual and personal circumstances. It means, in Bourdieu's terms,
grasping one's own situation 'as one aspect of a whole system' (Ibid.: 61).
Bourdieu stresses that most of the Algerian sub-proletarians he interviewed never
reached the third level of discursive consciousness. They had no ‘sociological imagination’
regarding their situation of unemployment. More precisely, Bourdieu argues that these
persons never reach the consciousness that unemployment originates in the inadequacies of
the 'system' rather than in their own inadequacies. Here again, Bourdieu's argument
deserves to be quoted at length:
Because their awareness of the objective barriers to getting a job or adequate
wages brings them back to their awareness of their incapacities, their lack of
education or occupational skill for example, the sub-proletarians tend to
attribute their inadequacies to the inadequacies of their own being rather than
to the inadequacies of the objective order. They can never attain an awareness
of the system as being also responsible for their lack of education or
occupational skill, that is, both for their inadequacies and for the inadequacies
of their being (Ibid.: 61).
For Bourdieu, the capacity to fully grasp the relation of one's own situation to the whole
system cannot normally be achieved by any ordinary agent, since 'the social agent
necessarily cannot grasp as a totality a system which only ever appears to him in profiles'
(Ibid.: 93).
He notes, however, that the relative consciousness of the relation between one's
experience and the 'system' varies considerably from one class situation to another (Ibid.).
Reflexive abilities, and the capacities to adopt a theoretical posture, are certainly distributed
unequally within the population, and depend upon the individual’s social conditions. One
can wonder why, then, all the interviewees in La Misère du Monde are treated as equally
sociologically naïve, although their class situations vary from one extreme of the social
scale to the other95. A major interest of the life-stories collected in La Misère du Monde is,
in my view, the remarkable diversity of the interviewees, with respect to their age, sex,
education, experience, occupation, geographic origin, political convictions, etc96. This
95 The two extremes being represented, for example, by two homeless people (pp. 505-15)
on one hand, and an engineer from the most prestigious Grande École (pp. 799-807) on the
other.
96 This diversity can be illustrated by the following list of some of the interviewees, as they
are named by Bourdieu and his colleagues: 'a young female police inspector (pp. 290-8); a
couple of Portuguese immigrants (pp. 480-6); a teacher in literature (pp. 655-72); a
journalist (pp. 725-35); an elderly woman (pp. 896-901); a communist worker (pp. 340-8);
diversity gives its force to the general argument of the book, which is, as already noted, that
any agent is legitimate in thinking what she or he thinks and that any agent experiences
forms of distress originating in specific social conditions of which she or he is the 'product'.
The exceptional diversity of the people studied could, in my view, have been
exploited in another way, namely in order to illustrate how these people are able to adopt a
'theoretical posture' regarding their own lives and practices. It could have served to study
how ordinary knowledgeability has come to include the capacity to employ a 'sociological
imagination' when reflecting upon one's life. The ability to take a 'theoretical posture' and to
employ a 'sociological imagination', in my view, tend to become a generalised feature of
ordinary knowledgeability in a period of reflexive modernity. The diversity of the people
studied in La Misère du Monde could have served to examine people's differential
capacities to adopt a theoretical posture and to employ a 'sociological imagination'97.
Bourdieu’s argument about the sociological naiveté of Kabyle peasants, who live in
an oral and non-literate social environment, does not apply, in my view, to the majority of
people in ‘developed societies’. In La Misère du Monde, Bourdieu never takes into account
the differences in the social conditions of the people he studies, such as the level of
education or of literacy, and which should imply, according to his own perspective about
social determinism, different propensities to develop theoretical, reflexive, or scholastic
dispositions. Although the general orientation of his work is precisely to stress the
determining character of social conditions, which shape the way people - sociologists and
'lay people' alike - think and act, this orientation is absent from his analysis of ordinary
a magistrate (pp. 305-15); a young militant from the Front National (pp. 768-76); three
unemployed executives (pp. 585-92); two agricultural labourers from Béarn (pp. 524-9)'.
97 In particular, it would have been interesting to study how people who are engaged in
political and militant activities which are based on the notions of 'social system' and of
collective action have, or do not have, an increased propensity to adopt a sociological
imagination regarding their own lives. It seems reasonable to suppose that interviewees
such as a worker attached to the Communist Party (pp. 340-8), a local delegate of the
Socialist Party (pp. 437-45), a feminist militant (pp. 453-65), or a militant from the Front
National (pp. 574-77), have acquired the capacity to relate individual and personal
experiences to general characteristics of a 'social system', independently of the question of
how inadequate or deceptive the sociologist thinks this characterisation of the 'system' is.
knowledgeability. Lay people’s practical posture is treated as a universal and immutable
characteristic, which does not appear to vary according to social conditions. The director of
a French high school in 198998 seems to be as 'sociologically naive' as the Kabyle peasant
in the Algeria of the 1960s. Yet Bourdieu does acknowledge elsewhere that schooling, for
example, implies the opportunity to gain the permanent disposition to be reflexive and to
put some distance with the ‘real’ (Bourdieu, 1997: 29). Since going to school concerns a
vast majority of the population, we should then conclude, following his own argument, that
reflexivity and the capacity to adopt a ‘scholastic posture’ extend far beyond scholastic
fields.
5.2.4 The 'scholastic fallacy'
Bourdieu’s warning about the unlikeliness, so-to-speak, of a process of lay
appropriation of social science knowledge can be encapsulated in his concept of ‘scholastic
fallacy’. To repeat, the social scientist, for Bourdieu, adopts a theoretical or ‘scholastic’
posture, which ordinary agents usually do not, and cannot, adopt. If the sociologist is not
aware of his or her 'intellectual bias' (Ibid.: 39), he or she runs the risk of committing the
'scholastic fallacy', which consists in studying ordinary practice as if ordinary agents were
using a theoretical, instead of a practical logic, and as if they could free themselves from
the urgencies of practice:
[The scholastic fallacy] induces to think that agents involved in action, in
practice, in life, think, know and see as someone who has the leisure to think
thinks, knows and sees, as the scientists whose mode of thought presupposes
leisure both in its genesis and its functioning, or at least distance and freedom
from the urgency of practice, the practical bracketing of the necessities of
practice (Bourdieu, 1990: 112).
The fallacy thus consists in ‘putting into the minds of the people you are studying what you
have to have in your own minds in order to understand what they are doing’ (Bourdieu,
1990: 80). Avoiding the scholastic fallacy is the aim of a reflexive sociology which, as
described earlier in this chapter, refers to the 'inclusion of a theory of intellectual practice as
98 One of the interviewees in La Misère du Monde (pp. 685-98).
an integral component and necessary condition of a critical theory of society' (Bourdieu &
Wacquant, 1992: 36). Sociologists need to be reflexive about their own practice precisely in
order to maintain the distinction between the theoretical and the practical modes of relating
to the world:
Whenever we fail to subject to systematic critique the presuppositions
inscribed in the fact of thinking the world, of retiring from the world and from
action in the world in order to think that action, we risk collapsing practical
logic into theoretical logic (Ibid.: 39).
The scholastic fallacy, in short, can be viewed as a form of ethnocentrism (Bourdieu,
1997: 65) which consists in ignoring, or in 'forgetting', that the way in which sociologists
approach the social world is generally not the way in which other agents approach the
social world.
The sociologist's posture includes a disposition to regard his or her experience and
practice as an object about which one talks and thinks (Ibid.: 74). Such a scholastic
disposition implies the possibility to put aside, as it were, the economic and social
constraints pertaining to the situation, as well as the actions and the practical engagement
that these constraints tend to induce (Ibid.: 24). In the recent Méditations Pascaliennes,
Bourdieu reaffirms that the scholastic disposition is the exclusive posture of those who
have access to academic and scientific fields. Although he admits that the scholastic posture
is a 'universal anthropological possibility' (Ibid.: 27), and that scholars and scientists do not
in principle have a monopoly on the scholastic posture, the conditions for its actual
development can mainly be found in scientific and intellectual fields. Consequently
scientists and scholars are de facto the principal agents who can have a scholastic posture
regarding the social world: ‘although they do not have the monopoly on the scholastic
posture, only those who have access to the scholastic universes are in a position to fully
achieve this universal anthropological possibility’99 (Bourdieu, 1997: 27).
99 ‘Force est de constater que, s’ils n’ont pas le monopole de la posture scolastique, seuls
ceux qui accèdent aux univers scolastiques sont en mesure de réaliser pleinement cette
possibilité anthropologique universelle’ (Bourdieu, 1997: 27).
Bourdieu's argument about the scholastic fallacy represents, in my view, one of the
most serious attacks that can be addressed to my argument that 'lay people' routinely
appropriate social science knowledge in order to make sense of, and to reflect upon, their
experience and that of others. Only a very small proportion of the population, in Bourdieu's
view, have the scholastic disposition that would enable this process of appropriation to
occur. Arguing, as I do, that such a process characterises virtually every social agent, would
certainly be regarded by Bourdieu as a patent case of scholastic ethnocentrism. When
characterising the social interaction between the sociologist and the people he or she is
studying, Bourdieu does in fact acknowledge that lay people can be reflexive and can
appropriate sociological knowledge in order to objectify their own lives. In the third part of
the chapter, I shall argue that this capacity for reflexivity is not restricted to the interaction
with a sociologist. Drawing upon the difference, as Bourdieu himself does, between an
‘oral, non-literate culture, and a literate, scholarly culture’ (1990: 103), I suggest that
contemporary society, at least in developed countries, is increasingly characterised by a
‘scholarly culture’. The scholastic disposition, in other words, tends to become a
generalised characteristic of ordinary knowledgeability.
5.3 THE
SOCIOLOGICAL INTERVIEW AS THE OCCASION FOR A LAY APPROPRIATION OF
SOCIOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE
5.3.1 A provoked and accompanied self-analysis
In the first part of the chapter, I examined Bourdieu’s position about the usefulness
of sociology and, more specifically, its usefulness for lay people, through their capacity to
appropriate sociological knowledge in order to objectify their own lives and practices.
Although lay people, in principle, could benefit from sociology in such a way, Bourdieu
makes strong arguments suggesting that a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge is, in
practice, an unlikely process. In this section, we turn to Bourdieu’s characterisation of the
interaction between the sociologist and the people he or she is studying. The research
situation or, more precisely, the interview conducted by the sociologist with his or her
‘subject’ provides, in Bourdieu’s view, the occasion for an appropriation, by the
interviewee, of sociological knowledge, although Bourdieu does not refer to the process in
those terms. He argues, rather, that the sociological interview can be the occasion for the
‘subjects’ of the research to conduct a ‘self-analysis’ which, in his view, is otherwise
unlikely to occur in the normal course of day-to-day life.
The research that led to the publication of La Misère du Monde marks a real turningpoint in Bourdieu’s conception of sociological inquiry100 and, more specifically, of the
interaction between the sociologist and the people whom he or she studies. For Bourdieu,
the type of sociological inquiry conducted in La Misère du Monde amounted, for the people
who were being interviewed by him and his colleagues, to a form of ‘self-analysis’ that was
provoked and directed by the sociologist who was conducting the interview (Bourdieu,
1991: 3). The research interview was the occasion, for the interviewees, to put into
question, and to reflect upon, their own lives and conditions, which are usually, in the
course of day-to-day life, taken-for-granted: ‘in many cases, we had the feeling that the
interviewee took the opportunity given to her to question herself’ (Bourdieu, 1991b: 3). For
Bourdieu, the interview with the sociologist represents a unique episode in the lives of
these people, for it gives them the opportunity to talk about their experience in the context
of a non-violent communication (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 905) and to construct a viewpoint
about themselves and the world:
Some of the interviewees, especially among the most destitute, seem to grasp
this situation [the sociological interview] as an exceptional opportunity
offered to them to testify, to make themselves heard, to transfer their
experience from the private to the public sphere; an opportunity also to
explain themselves, in the fullest sense of the term, namely to construct their
viewpoint on themselves and on the world and to display the point from
which they see themselves and the world and from which they become
comprehensible, justified, and primarily for themselves (Ibid.:915)101.
100 Various extracts from La Misère du Monde had been published beforehand, especially
in the journal Actes de la Recherche en Science Sociale, which is directed by Bourdieu.
Besides, Bourdieu has explained and commented the research conducted in La Misère du
Monde in other publications, for example in Méditations Pascaliennes (1997) and in
Contre-Feux (1998).
101 ‘Certains enquêtés, surtout parmi les plus démunis, semblent saisir cette situation
comme une occasion exceptionnelle qui leur est offerte de témoigner, de se faire entendre,
de porter leur expérience de la sphère privée à la sphère publique; une occasion aussi de
The sociologists in La Misère du Monde assisted the interviewees in an attempt to be
reflexive about their own lives, and to reach a certain level of self-knowledge, the latter
usually being, for Bourdieu, the exclusive privilege of those situated in the scholastic fields:
‘our task was to assist the interviewees who were the most remote from the scholastic
condition in a process of comprehension and self-knowledge which [...] is usually restricted
to the world of skholé’ (Bourdieu, 1997: 75)102.
The sociological interview, provided that it is done under specific conditions that
are detailed below, can be a truly exceptional form of communication (Bourdieu et al.,
1993: 914): ‘the researcher contributes to create the conditions for an extra-ordinary
discourse, which could have never been spoken, although it was already there, waiting for
its conditions of actualisation’ (Ibid.). The interviewees could sometimes express
experiences and reflections that they had so far repressed or kept for themselves (Ibid.:
915). For Bourdieu, the work done in La Misère du Monde was a political as much as a
scientific experience, in the sense that it gave people the opportunity to express their deeply
ingrained distress and discontent, by using, as it were, the authorised voice of the
sociologist who was to expose their problems and preoccupations (Ibid.: 529). In order to
perform this task, the sociologist must be in a position of complete receptivity, a position
which hardly ever occurs neither in public nor in private life (Ibid.: 530).
In his discussion of La Misère du Monde, Hamel goes as far as to say that this work
exemplifies a new qualitative method in sociology, which he terms ‘provoked and
accompanied self-analysis’ (Hamel, 1997: 1). The self-analysis is ‘provoked’ insofar as ‘in
all cases it takes place when requested or ‘provoked’ by sociologists in order to pursue the
object of their study’ (Ibid.: 5); it is ‘accompanied’, since ‘the interviewer must accompany
s’expliquer, au sens le plus complet du terme, c’est-à-dire de construire leur propre point de
vue sur eux-mêmes et sur le monde et de rendre manifeste le point, à l’intérieur de ce
monde, à partir duquel ils se voient eux-mêmes et voiet le monde, et deviennent
compréhensibles, justifiés, et d’abord pour eux-mêmes’.
102 '[il s'agissait d'] assister les enquêtés les plus éloignés de la condition scolastique dans
un travail de compréhension et de connaissance de soi qui, comme le 'souci de soi' qu'il
présuppose, est d'ordinaire réservé au monde de la skholé '.
the interviewee’ (Ibid.: 5) in her process of ‘objectification’, which she could not conduct
on her own. The interviewee's self-analysis is a consequence that might, under certain
circumstances, result from the interaction with the sociologist. Contrary to what Hamel
suggests, it is not, in Bourdieu's perspective, an explicit goal of sociological inquiry. Or, to
put it differently, leading the interviewee to conduct a self-analysis is a means serving the
ultimate goal of the inquiry, namely to grasp the objective structures which bear upon the
interviewee's life.
It is certainly not qualitative research as such which represents a turning-point in
Bourdieu's La Misère du Monde; as presented in the preceding section, his first studies
about, for example, Algerian people were based on qualitative methods and on in-depth
interviews with the 'subjects' of the study. What differs markedly from his earlier work,
however, is the idea that sociological inquiry, and more precisely, the life-story constructed
during the interview between the sociologist and the 'subject', is the result of a joint effort
toward objectification [objectivation participante] (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 8). Participatory
objectification consists for the sociologist in helping the interviewee to uncover the social
determinants that bear upon his or her life:
The interviewer assists the interviewee in an effort, which is both painful and
gratifying, at uncovering the social determinants of the interviewee’s opinions
and practices, particularly those which are difficult for him or her to accept or
to even acknowledge (Ibid.: 912-3)103.
It is clear for Bourdieu that such a process of ‘participatory objectification’ does not
characterise any form of qualitative research or any interview between the sociologist and
the people under study. On the contrary this process can only occur in very specific
circumstances, which refer, on one hand, to the social familiarity between the interviewer
and the interviewee and, on the other hand, to the competence of the interviewer, who must
have a thorough knowledge of the interviewee’s conditions, and who must be used to
dealing with the social effects of the research situation.
103 ‘l’enquêteur assiste l’enquêté dans un effort, douloureux et gratifiant à la fois, pour
mettre au jour les déterminants sociaux de ses opinions et de ses pratiques dans ce qu’elles
peuvent avoir de plus difficile à avouer et à assumer’.
In La Misère du Monde, the familiarity, or the social proximity, between the
sociologist and the people under study meant that the interviewers were invited to choose
their interviewees among friends and acquaintances104, or people to which they could be
introduced by friends or acquaintances, as a way to ensure the conditions of a ‘non-violent
communication’ between interviewer and interviewee (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 907). The
social proximity between interviewer and interviewee is a way to minimise the fact that ‘the
biographical interview is a particular case of encounter between two social classes’ (Peneff,
1995: 53) and that this asymmetrical relation can sometimes result, ‘at least in the case of
working-class informants, in self-censored utterances downplaying, even sometimes
inverting the experience of the interviewee’ (Ibid.: 54). When there is a social proximity
between the sociologist and the people he or she is studying, the interview is more likely to
turn into a joint process of objectification, in which socioanalysis concerns as much the
sociologist’s as the interviewee’s practice:
When a young physicist questions another young physicist (or an actor
another actor, an unemployed person another unemployed person, etc.) with
whom he shares almost all the characteristics likely to operate as major factors
for explaining his practices and his representations, and to whom he is related
by a relationship of profound familiarity, his questions find their principle in
his own dispositions, which are objectively in agreement with those of the
interviewee; the most brutally objectifying of these questions have no reason
to appear as threatening or aggressive because his interlocutor knows perfectly
well that he shares with him most of what his questions prompt him to reveal,
and thus the risks which he runs in doing so. Nor can the interviewer forget
that in objectifying the interviewee, he objectifies himself (Bourdieu et al.,
1993: 908).
As is suggested in the last part of this long quotation, the methodological option which
consists in seeking the social proximity and the familiarity between interviewer and
interviewee is also, for Bourdieu, a crucial way to minimise the interviewee’s resistance to
objectification. This point is developed in the next section of the chapter.
104 Or, rather, the interviewers were chosen and given subsequent training, according to
their social proximity with the people whom Bourdieu wanted to study (Ibid.: 907).
The second condition for participatory objectification, namely the competence of
the interviewer, refers primarily to the sociologist’s prior sociological knowledge of the
interviewee’s life conditions (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 919). Only with this prior knowledge
can the interviewer assist the interviewee in his or her attempt to conduct a self-analysis.
The success of the joint process of objectification also lies in the sociologist’s capacity to
control the possible distortions produced by the social interaction between the interviewer
and the interviewee. Although the social proximity between interviewer and interviewee is
a way to minimise these distortions, it has to be accompanied by the sociologist’s constant
vigilance and reflexivity. Not all sociologists, for Bourdieu, have achieved this level of
competence.
5.3.2 Objectification and resistance to objectification
As noted above, the interviewee’s self-analysis prompted by the sociological
interview takes the form of a participant objectification. In Bourdieu’s perspective,
objectification means uncovering the objective structures which determine the
interviewee’s life and practice; it means elucidating the person’s dispositions or habitus, by
relating them to her social positions, to which her dispositions are objectively linked. In this
joint effort toward objectification, the interviewee’s and the sociologist’s contributions are,
however, markedly different. As developed in the second section of this chapter, lay
people’s knowledgeability, for Bourdieu, primarily lies in their sens pratique, which
normally excludes a consciousness of objective relationships: ordinary knowledgeability is
attached to ‘substantial realities, individuals, groups, etc.’, whereas objective relationships,
which ‘cannot be shown or touched, […] must be conquered, constructed and validated by
scientific work’ (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 918). In the joint process of objectification, the
sociologist, thus, has the role of uncovering the objective structures which are only
implicitly ‘contained’ in the interviewee’s discourse, although the interviewee herself is not
aware of it. The sociologist must pay attention not only to what the interviewee says, but
also, and perhaps more importantly, to what she or he does not say:
Social agents do not have ingrained knowledge of what they are and of what
they do; more precisely, they do not necessarily have access to the principle of
their discontent or their distress and the most spontaneous declarations can,
with no intention of dissimulation, express something quite different from
what they are apparently saying (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 918-9)105.
For Bourdieu, thus, the interviewees in La Misère du Monde could not be aware of
the real causes of their distress or dissatisfaction until they were assisted and ‘guided’ by
the sociologist. Although they do not know these causes consciously and discursively, they
do know them at a practical level, and better than anyone else (Ibid.: 919). For the
sociologist, objectification, thus, implies going beyond the practical consciousness of social
agents: it implies to ‘bring out into the open, to make visible’ and, further, to ‘make public,
known to all, published’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 81). Formalisation, for Bourdieu, is what enables
the sociologist to see the general in the particular or, in his terms, to ‘go from a logic which
is immersed in the particular case to a logic independent of the individual case’ (Ibid.).
Formalisation carries a strong liberating impact for the people whose practices and forms of
distress are suddenly put into words, insofar as these practices become legitimate or
‘authorised’, and cease to be experienced as personal drama:
Certain practices which had been experienced as a drama so long as there
were not yet any words to say them and think them undergo a veritable
ontological transmutation by virtue of the fact that, being known and
recognised publicly, named and authenticated, they are made legitimate, even
legalised, and may thus declare and display themselves (Bourdieu, 1990: 85).
Objectification, in the concrete situation of the sociological interview is, in
Bourdieu's perspective, fraught with difficulties, one of the most serious being the
interviewee’s resistance to objectification. There is, according to Bourdieu, a very general,
if not universal, fear of objectification (Bourdieu et al.: 909), which refers to the
apprehension of having ‘one’s subjective reasons reduced to objective causes, and the
choices that one thinks one has made freely reduced to the effect of objective determinism’
(Ibid.: 907). Lay people, especially when put in the context of a formal interview with an
'expert' such as a sociologist, tend to resist the latter's attempt at objectification. This
105 ‘Les agents sociaux n’ont pas la science infuse de ce qu’ils sont et de ce qu’ils font;
plus précisément, ils n’ont pas nécessairement accès au principe de leur mécontentement ou
de leur malaise et les déclarations les plus spontanées peuvent, sans aucune intention de
dissimulation, exprimer tout autre chose que ce qu’elles disent en apparence’.
resistance often takes the form of a 'semblance' of reflexivity and of objectification; that is,
the interviewee tries to be reflexive about her own life and to 'objectify' it, but this attempt,
according to Bourdieu, is generally fallacious and superficial. For example, Bourdieu notes
the ‘artificiality of the vision that informants proposed to [him] when, in their concern to
play the game, to be equal to the situation created by the theoretical questioning, they
turned themselves as it were into the spontaneous theoreticians of their practice’ (Bourdieu,
1990: 21). One of the most subtle forms of resistance to objectification, thus, consists in the
interviewee giving the appearances of conducting his or her own self-analysis (Bourdieu et
al., 1993: 912).
During the sociological interview with the sociologist, any spontaneous attempt, on
the part of an interviewee, to be reflexive about his or her own experience, is generally
dismissed by Bourdieu as a self-deceiving form of objectification, whose aim is merely to
resist the interviewer's objectification (in Bourdieu et al., 1993: 912-3). Bourdieu is rather
severe with his interviewees’ spontaneous attempts to objectify their own practices:
Nothing is more remote […] from participant objectification […] than the
false and complacent objectification which, being only half-demystifying, is
thus all the more mystifying, and which brings all the pleasures of awareness
without in fact putting anything essential in question (Ibid.: 913)106.
Only when it is directed and controlled by the sociologist is the lay person's reflection on
the social determinants of his or her opinions and practices considered as valid and
empowering (Ibid.: 919). The sociologist, however, can sometimes be tricked, as it were,
by the interviewee, when the latter is especially efficient in imposing his or her own vision
of the situation that is discussed during the interview (Ibid.: 910).
5.3.3 The produced naïveté of lay people
106 ‘Rien n’est plus éloigné […] de l’objectivation participante […] que la fausse
objectivation complaisante, démystification à demi, et par là doublement mystificatrice, qui
procure tous les plaisirs de la lucidité sans rien mettre en question d’essentiel’.
In La Misère du Monde, Bourdieu and his colleagues were particularly careful to
avoid the 'scholastic fallacy', since sociologists, in Bourdieu’s view, are especially likely to
commit the scholastic fallacy when their work involves collecting lay agents' discourses
about their actions or others' actions. In his Méditations Pascaliennes, Bourdieu comments
on the empirical work done by him and the other sociologists who took part in La Misère
du Monde and explains that the main difficulty, for the interviewers, was to avoid
introducing a scholastic bias, by asking questions that call for a scholastic disposition,
which the interviewees generally did not have (Bourdieu, 1997: 74-5). The major aim of La
Misère du Monde, which Bourdieu sees as an eminently political one, was to give a
discursive expression, that is, a quasi theoretical status, to experiences lived by people who
do not have access to the conditions allowing the development of the scholastic posture
(Ibid.: 74). It was, in his words, to ‘give a voice […] to people who, usually, are spoken
rather than speak themselves’ (Bourdieu, 1991b: 4)107. The sociologist, through a constant
reflexive attitude vis-à-vis her interaction with the interviewee, was to avoid imposing her
own scholastic posture, that is, her own ‘reflexive’ and ‘theoretical’ way of talking about
the interviewee's experience.
Although the interaction with the interviewee is described as a joint effort to grasp
the objective structures that bear upon him or her, I have argued above that the sociologist
in fact has the privilege of identifying and of analysing the social conditions of which the
people studied are the ‘product’. The social conditions and determinants of an interviewee’s
life are implicitly contained in his or her self-narrative108, but they necessarily escape the
consciousness of the interviewee. The interviewees, thus, are assumed to be 'sociologically
naive', that is, unable to reach on their own a consciousness of the objective conditions
which would enable them to understand their own suffering.
107 ‘donner la parole […] à des personnes qui, d’ordinaire, sont parlées plus qu’elles ne
parlent’.
108 For Bourdieu, this is not a characteristic of self-narratives in general. Rather, the selfnarratives in La misère du monde contain the sociological keys for their elucidation, only
because the sociologists have asked ‘the right questions’ during the interviews out of which
the narratives are produced (cf. Bourdieu et al., 1993: 903-39).
I claim, however, that the interviewees’ 'sociological naiveté' in La Misère du
Monde, is the consequence of the methodological orientations adopted by the interviewers.
Although it has all the appearances of a valid empirical ‘finding’, this sociological naïveté,
in my view, is primarily the product of specific methodological options advocated by
Bourdieu and made particularly clear in his methodological appendix (Bourdieu et al.: 90339). Had these options been different, the interviewees would not have been sociologically
naive. One major methodological option lies in the type of questions asked to the
interviewees. Most of these questions can be described as voluntarily 'factual', in the sense
that they only call for constative and factual informations about a particular event of the
interviewee's life. For example:
'What are your contacts with the young people who live here? How do get
on with them?' (p. 145);
'What do your daughters do now?' (p. 666);
'I would like you to tell me about the difficulties you have had...' (p. 896);
'At school, when you were a child, did your parents help you with your
homework?' (p. 88);
'Do people have trouble finding jobs here?' (p. 113).
As suggested above, such a characteristic is, in Bourdieu's perspective, part of a deliberate
strategy aimed at minimising the symbolic violence inherent in the relationship between the
researcher and the ‘researched’. Although I agree with this aim, this strategy, in my view,
has the ‘side-effect’ of confining the interviewees in a non-reflexive and practical mode,
thereby suggesting that they are unable to adopt a reflexive, theoretical posture regarding
their own lives. In other words, the 'sociological naïveté' of the interviewees is produced by
the type of questions asked by the sociologists.
Had these questions been different, the same people, in my view, would have been
able to talk about their own lives from a 'theoretical posture', employing what I shall call in
the next chapter a 'sociological imagination'. They could have done so only to the extent
that the interviewers would have allowed themselves to ask questions that invite a critical
and reflexive posture, for example, questions like 'How come there is so much tension
between you and the young people who live here?', 'Why do you think there is such a high
level of unemployment in your area?', ‘Why do you think your daughters have difficulties
at school?’, etc. I am aware that such questions and, more generally, the project of inviting
and of displaying the interviewees' sociological imagination, is not immune to the pitfalls
identified by Bourdieu, such as symbolic violence, the interviewees' resistance to
objectification, or the artificial production of stereotyped answers. Acknowledging these
potential difficulties, however, need not entail abdicating the entire project of displaying lay
people's sociological imagination, especially when this abdication implies the risk of
producing a misleading representation of lay people as being sociologically naive. In short,
instead of supposing that the sociologist should not prompt the interviewees to adopt a
theoretical posture, in order to avoid the scholastic fallacy and symbolic violence, I suggest
that the sociologist, on the contrary, could facilitate the reflexive discourse of the
interviewees who, in any case, have numerous occasions in day-to-day life to adopt a
theoretical posture regarding their own lives. Such a project would involve a radically
different form of interview from the one adopted in La Misère du Monde, as well as a
different conception of the use of 'life-stories' in sociology.
In the next and final chapter of the dissertation, I extend my criticism about
Bourdieu’s tendency to treat lay people as sociologically naive agents. This criticism, in my
view, concerns more generally many social scientists who have tried to give a voice to their
‘subjects’, by interviewing them and by collecting their ‘life-stories’. Without anticipating
the argument of the next chapter, it is worth, in drawing the present chapter to a close,
examining the argument made by Chambon (1995) in a recent article about biographical
research. Chambon’s position about the way the type of questions asked by the sociologist
‘produce’ the type of answers given by the interviewee parallels my own argument about
the produced character of the sociological naiveté of the interviewees in La Misère du
Monde. In this article eloquently entitled ‘If you ask me the right questions, I could tell
you’, Chambon examines the asymmetric distribution of roles in interviews between
sociologists and lay persons, and the extent to which the ‘question/answer arrangement’
(Chambon, 1995: 126) shapes the constitution of the interviewee’s life-narrative. Once it
has been admitted that the type of questions asked by the sociologist is crucial in order to
understand the variations that exist in the narratives produced by the interviewees, the
question for Chambon becomes ‘how to encourage complexity [or, in my terms, reflexivity]
in the conduct of life histories’ (Ibid.: 133).
Chambon takes the example of an interview that Bourdieu conducted in 1978 with
the Moroccan poet Mouloud Mammeri, in which the narrative produced during the
interview contained three types of material, namely ‘descriptive, reflective and reflexive
material’ (Ibid.: 134). Mammeri was able to be a ‘partner’ in the interview (Ibid.: 134)
rather than a naive interviewee, and to display forms of reflection and reflexivity that were
an integral part of his life-story. Of course, the long-term acquaintance of Bourdieu and
Mammeri, as well as the ‘commonality of their social positions as intellectuals’ played an
important role in the process. As Chambon puts it, ‘the immediate question which comes to
mind is whether such methods of interviewing can be used other than with highly verbal or
intellectual respondents’ (Ibid.: 134). Here Chambon, in line with my own argument, gives
an affirmative response, namely that lay people in general, rather than intellectuals or
highly educated respondents only, are able to produce reflexive accounts of their own lives
and practices. In support of this argument, Chambon mentions a research conducted by
Hugues (1971) about race relations in a factory settings, which was based on a series of
interviews with factory workers. In contrast to what Bourdieu and his colleagues did in La
Misère du Monde, the questions that Hugues asked to his interviewees were not confined to
a descriptive or ‘factual’ level. Rather, Hugues’ interviews were based on three different
types of questions:
The first is at the descriptive level; the second, ‘what do you mean’ elicits a
reformulation of and reflection on the description; the third, ‘why do you
think?’ and ‘how do you account for that’, elicits a stepping back from the
description and a more distanced reflection on the first reflective statement
(Chambon, 1995: 135).
When the sociologist tries to ‘give a voice’ to his or her ‘subjects’ by interviewing them
and by transcribing their discourse, it is possible, in my view, to give them a ‘space of
interpretation’ (Ibid.: 135) without necessarily falling into the pitfalls identified by
Bourdieu, in particular symbolic violence and scholastic fallacy. It is possible to allow the
interviewees to be reflexive about their own lives and practices, without assuming that this
lay reflexivity is merely a fallacious form of resistance to the sociologist’s objectification.
Allowing the interviewees this ‘space of interpretation’ would amount to acknowledge that
lay people are not ‘sociologically naive’. Their reflexivity, and their ‘sociological
imagination’, can only be displayed, however, insofar as the sociologists’ epistemological
and methodological options enable it. As sociologists, we need to acknowledge that ‘there
is no reason to suppose that we are different from those we study’ (1994: 16). As Law puts
it, this is certainly a necessary component of a ‘modest sociology’ (Ibid.: 16).
***
Bourdieu’s general position about the usefulness of sociology is, in my view, a very
powerful one. At a general level, the usefulness of sociology for society lies in the diffusion
of the notion of collective responsibility and in the elucidation of forms of symbolic
domination. Sociological imagination enables one to uncover the objective structures that
bear upon one’s life, and to feel ‘disculpated’ from forms of suffering rooted in social
conditions that escape one’s individual control and responsibility. I share Bourdieu’s
position about the importance of the notion of ‘collective responsibility’, about the
potentially ‘disculpating’ effect of sociology, and about the awareness of social
determinants as a contribution to individual freedom. The point at which I depart from
Bourdieu’s position, however, concerns the actual possibilities for the actualisation, as it
were, of the potential usefulness of sociology for lay people.
Bourdieu, particularly in his recent work, has addressed the issue of sociology’s
usefulness at the level of the research interview between the sociologist and the person
under study. For Bourdieu the sociological interview gives the interviewee the opportunity
to conduct a self-analysis, which is accompanied by the sociologist, and which can lead to
the consciousness of the social determinants that bear upon his or her life. I have developed
three principal points of criticism regarding Bourdieu’s argument.
First, I have argued that it is misleading to suggest that the main occasion for a lay
appropriation of sociological knowledge occurs during the process of sociological inquiry
and, more precisely, during the interview between the sociologist and a lay person.
Although I agree that the sociological interview may often entail an appropriation, by the
interviewees, of sociological knowledge, there are, in my view, many other occasions in
day-to-day life for a lay appropriation of sociological knowledge, a process which draws in
part upon the massive diffusion of sociological knowledge throughout society, and the
increasing level of education among ‘lay people’. This also means that a lay appropriation
of sociological knowledge does not necessarily require the ‘assistance’ of a sociologist, and
that the self-analysis which leads to an awareness of social determinants evoked by
Bourdieu can take place without it being guided and accompanied by a sociologist. This
point echoes the argument I made in the third chapter, about the tendency of participatory
researchers to overstate their role in the process of appropriation of social science
knowledge by its ‘subjects’.
The second point of criticism concerns the way Bourdieu, in his recent empirical
work, has managed to ‘give a voice’ to the lay persons interviewed by him and his
colleagues. In contrast to his assertion that the interviewee’s life-story, which is produced
during the interview with the sociologist, is the result of ‘participant objectification’, it is
the sociologist, and the sociologist only, who seems to have the privilege of objectifying the
interviewee’s life and practice. Partly as a result of his methodological options, his
interviewees are presented as ‘sociologically naive’, and unlikely to be reflexive about their
own practice. The unintended consequence of Bourdieu’s methodological options aiming at
minimising the risk of symbolic violence and of resistance to objectification is to prevent
the interviewees from displaying their ‘sociological imagination’ and their capacity to
objectify their own lives and practices. As a result, lay people are portrayed as
‘sociologically naive’ although, in my view, there are far from being so.
Beyond methodological considerations, I have also argued – and this is my third
point of criticism - that lay people’s ‘sociological naiveté’ is also the result of Bourdieu’s
conception of lay people sens pratique. The concept of practical sense implies that lay
people, in contrast to sociologists and other experts situated in scholastic fields, cannot
normally develop a scholastic and theoretical posture vis-à-vis their own lives and
conditions. For Bourdieu, lay people can only experience the social world with their
'practical sense', and are necessarily involved in practice in such a way as to be unable to
develop the form of reflexivity characteristic of the scholastic posture. In contrast, I claim,
as developed in the fourth chapter of the dissertation, that there is no difference in nature
between lay people’s knowledgeability and sociologists’ knowledgeability. The concept of
sens pratique, in my view, does not do justice to lay people’s knowledgeability, especially
in a period of late modernity, in which the capacity to take a ‘reflexive’, ‘scholastic’ or
‘theoretical’ posture is more generalised than ever. In sum, the process of lay appropriation
of sociological knowledge, in my view, is a much more generalised and mundane process
than Bourdieu seems to be ready to acknowledge.
Despite the above points of criticism, three of Bourdieu’s arguments need to be
taken seriously, when studying lay appropriation of sociological knowledge. First, I have
examined the extent to which studying the appropriation of social science knowledge by lay
people is merely a manifestation of what Bourdieu calls the 'scholastic fallacy'. The interest
of Bourdieu's argument is that it points to the inequality regarding the acquisition of the
material and symbolic instruments that enable the development of a theoretical and
reflexive posture. Although ordinary knowledgeability includes the possibility of
appropriating social science knowledge, the conditions for this appropriation are certainly
not the same for all people. Second, we need to take seriously the argument that the
appropriation of social science knowledge by lay people is a form of symbolic violence.
This argument is tied up with the third one, which states that the appropriation of social
science knowledge by its 'subjects' is a form of resistance to 'objectification'. We cannot
assume, in my view, that the lay appropriation of social science knowledge necessarily
refers to a disempowering process of symbolic domination. Such a possibility is certainly
enmeshed in the process. But my point is precisely that we need to acknowledge that there
are both disempowering and empowering aspects in the process of lay appropriation of
social science knowledge.
CHAPTER 6
'SEEING THE SOCIAL IN THE INDIVIDUAL':
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
This final chapter brings together the threads of the preceding chapters in order to
explore the core argument of the dissertation about a ‘lay sociological imagination’. The
two main concerns which have guided the discussion in the previous chapters are made
very apparent in the present chapter. The first concern refers to the characterisation of lay
knowledgeability and to the argument about a possible transformation of lay
knowledgeability in conditions of what has been characterised in the first chapter as
‘reflexive modernity’. The second concern refers to the relationship between sociologists
and the lay agents that constitute their ‘objects of study’ or, to put it differently, it refers to
the reflexive process between social science knowledge and the people this knowledge is
about. The idea of a ‘lay sociological imagination’ directly refers to this reflexive process,
and it has important implications about the way in which sociologists relate to ‘lay people’,
and the way in which they can pretend to ‘give a voice’ to the lay agents they study, in
particular by collecting and analysing lay agents’ life-stories. The idea of a lay sociological
imagination, thus, involves a reconsideration of the way sociologists treat lay people's
accounts about the social world. It involves, in other words, a reconsideration of the
relationship between, on one hand, the narratives constructed by sociologists about their
subjects’ lives and experiences and, on the other hand, the narratives constructed by these
‘subjects’ themselves about their own lives and experiences.
The argument about a lay sociological imagination consists in three related points:
first, on the basis of the analysis conducted in the two preceding chapters, I suggest that lay
knowledgeability increasingly includes the capacity to be reflexive about one’s own life
and practice, and to give a discursive form to this reflexive posture. Second, I argue that
this lay reflexivity is in part fuelled by what can be called a lay sociological imagination,
which consists in a particular way of ‘seeing the social in the individual’. Third,
acknowledging that lay people routinely use this sociological imagination when making
sense of their lives has important implications regarding the relationship between
sociologists and lay agents or, to put it more bluntly, between ‘professional sociologists’
and ‘lay sociologists’. It implies, in particular, the revision of epistemological and
methodological options which tend to produce sociological research in which lay agents
invariably seem to be ‘sociologically naive’, such as in Bourdieu’s La Misère du Monde
discussed in the preceding chapter.
The chapter consists of two main parts, which respectively deal with the two
concerns outlined above. In the first part, I clarify the outlines of what can be understood by
a ‘lay sociological imagination’. In the perspective of the ‘transformability’ of common
sense (cf. chapter 4), sociological imagination can be seen as one aspect of the
transformation of ordinary knowledgeability. A lay sociological imagination consists in
‘seeing the social in the individual’, in both a ‘simple’ and a ‘strong’ versions which are
explored below. Insofar as it seems to contradict the widely-accepted idea that
contemporary society is an individualised society, the idea of a lay sociological imagination
is examined in light of the individualisation thesis, which has been presented in the first
chapter of the dissertation. Although many sociologists would consider that a sociological
imagination is a form of enlightenment, I stress that processes of both empowerment and
disempowerment are attached to the development of a lay sociological imagination.
In the second part of the chapter, I examine the implications of the argument about a
lay sociological imagination for the practice of sociological research, and for the
relationship between sociologists and the lay agents they seek to study. As already
introduced in my discussion of Bourdieu’s recent work (cf. chapter 5), a traditional
perspective in social science consists in assuming that sociological imagination is
sociologists’ distinctive competence, and that lay agents, in contrast, are essentially
‘sociologically naive’, that is, unable to ‘see the social in the individual’ when making
sense of their lives and conditions. This traditional perspective largely infuses what has
been called in sociology the ‘life-story approach’, that is, sociological research which is
based on the collection and analyses of lay agents’ life-stories. In opposition with this
traditional perspective, I try to specify the kind of social research that could be done once it
is acknowledged that lay people routinely use a sociological imagination, which is not,
therefore, the exclusive competence of professional sociologists. I also examine the way
sociologists could study, display, and nourish lay agents’ sociological imagination, by
comparing such a project with Touraine’s method of sociological intervention.
6.1 OUTLINES OF A LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
6.1.1 Sociologists’ distinctive competence?
The term of ‘sociological imagination’ – or other equivalent terms, such as
‘sociological consciousness’ or ‘sociological eye’ – has been used to refer to sociology’s
particular way of thinking about the human world. Several authors, such as Mills (1959),
Berger (1963), Hugues (1971), and Bauman (1990a), have tried to characterise this
particular ‘imagination’, ‘consciousness’ or, in my terms, ‘knowledgeability’. Two major
points should be noted regarding the way such authors have characterised sociological
imagination. First, ‘sociological imagination’ is often characterised in terms which seem to
refer to social science in general, rather than to sociology only.
Berger's analysis of ‘sociological consciousness’ is a case in point. It starts with the
argument that sociological consciousness is a mode of thinking characteristic of modernity,
which could not have emerged in pre-modern times (Berger, 1963: 37). Sociological
consciousness supposes the idea of relativism, which is itself an idea that becomes
'possible' and dominant with the advent of modernity:
Sociology is so much in tune with the temper of the modern era precisely
because it represents the consciousness of a world in which values have been
radically relativised’ (Ibid.: 61).
For Berger, sociological consciousness is likely to emerge in a society marked by
‘alternation’, that is, by the ‘possibility of choosing between varying and sometimes
contradictory systems of meaning’ (Ibid.: 68). Accordingly, the first dimension of
sociological consciousness is what he calls the ‘relativising motif’, which refers to the
awareness that ‘not only identities but ideas are relative to specific social locations’
(Ibid.: 66). Berger identifies two others dimensions of sociological consciousness, namely
‘debunking’ and ‘unrespectability’. The ‘debunking motif’ refers to the ‘awareness that
human events have different levels of meaning, some of which are hidden from the
consciousness of everyday life’ (Berger, 1963: 41). This awareness in part implies a
‘measure of suspicion about the way in which human events are officially interpreted by the
authorities, be they political, juridical or religious in character’ (Ibid.). It is in this sense that
sociological consciousness also comprises, according to Berger, an ‘unrespectability motif’.
Berger stresses that unrespectability by no means implies a revolutionary attitude. On the
contrary, he argues that ‘sociological understanding is inimical to revolutionary ideologies,
not because it has some sort of conservative bias, but because it sees not only through the
illusions of the present status quo, but also through the illusionary expectations concerning
possible futures, such expectations being the customary spiritual nourishment of the
revolutionary’ (Ibid.: 60).
It could easily be argued, in my view, that the dimensions of ‘sociological
consciousness’ outlined above are not exclusive to sociologists and that they concern,
rather, other social scientists as well. For example, one could claim that the ‘relativizing
motif’ stressed by Berger is even more relevant in anthropology and history than in
sociology. In a similar vein, the ‘debunking motif’ seems to characterise psychology as
much as sociology. Rather than being the 'hallmarks' of sociology, the aspects of
‘sociological consciousness’ identified by Berger refer more generally to the advent of
social science in a so-called ‘disenchanted’ secular society. When seen in light of the
reflexive modernity thesis explored in the first chapter of the dissertation, ‘sociological
imagination’ is by no means a mode of thinking characteristic of sociologists alone; rather,
it refers to a generalised mode of thinking, and to a dominant discourse, in modern society.
The second point precisely concerns the ambiguity as to who actually possesses and
employs sociological imagination in modern society. As suggested above, Berger and
others stress the symbiotic link between modernity and sociology, and they describe
sociological imagination in such general terms that it seems to refer to the way of thinking
of an entire society. Berger explicitly notes that the ‘relativizing motif’ has become part of
everyday imagination, and is no longer ‘the possession of a small group of intellectuals’
(Ibid.: 64). At the same time, however, sociological imagination is presented as
sociologists’ ‘trademark’, that is, as their distinctive mode of thinking and competence.
The ambiguity thus lies in the simultaneous claim that 'sociological imagination' is the
common mode of thinking in modern society, and that it is sociologists' specific
'imagination', which is markedly distinct from, and which breaks with, common sense. Lay
people, for many sociologists, do not normally use a ‘sociological imagination’. Mills, for
example, is quite explicit:
Ordinary men [...] do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the
interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.
They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the
structural transformations that usually lie behind them (Mills, 1959: 5).
Although he argues that sociological imagination 'is becoming the major common
denominator of our cultural life' (Ibid.: 14),
Mills claims that its acquisition by the
population at large is slow and uncertain, and that 'many social scientists are themselves
quite unaware of it' (Ibid.: 15). Thirty years after Mills, Bauman (1990a) reasserts the same
point but, rather than mentioning Mills' dubious argument of 'quality of mind', he argues
that 'lay people' are so much involved in the flow of day-to-day life that they cannot have
the opportunity to acquire a 'sociological imagination'. In his terms:
Deeply immersed in our daily routines, we hardly ever pause to think about
the meaning of what we have gone through; even less often have we the
opportunity to compare our private experience with the fate of others, to see
the social in the individual, the general in the particular - this is precisely what
sociologists can do for us. We would expect them to show us how our
individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with fellow human
beings (Bauman, 1990a: 10).
Bauman also argues that sociological imagination is an ‘antifixating power’ which consists
in opening up 'the possibilities that common sense naturally tends to close down’ (Bauman,
1990a: 15-6).
Sociologists’ argument that ordinary people do not have the ability or the
opportunity to develop a sociological imagination rests upon a view of contemporary day-
to-day life which is, in my view, highly misleading. As argued in the first chapter, I contest
the view that day-to-day life implies action and urgency through and through, and that 'lay
people' cannot have the 'luxury', as Bauman puts it, of pausing to think about what is
happening to them. This view of lay people as being totally 'submerged' by the necessities
and the urgencies of day-to-day life, to a point at which they cannot be reflexive about their
lives, is particularly mistaken when it is used for making sense of day-to-day life in a
period of 'reflexive modernity'. One could say that one of the necessities or urgencies of
day-to-day life in reflexive modernity, is precisely for 'lay people' to be reflexive about
their own lives and experience.
When discussing ordinary knowledgeability, sociologists, as argued in the fourth
chapter, tend to overestimate the taken-for-granted and the familiar character of people's
day-to-day experience of the social world. They tend to exaggerate the extent to which
ordinary experience is treated by lay people as something unproblematic and natural. This
tendency, of course, serves sociologists' claim that sociology is useful precisely because it
enables one to ‘defamiliarize the familiar’ (Bauman, 1990a: 15). Only by overstating the
familiarity of day-to-day life can sociologists praise their discipline as playing the role of a
'meddlesome and [...] irritating stranger' (Ibid.: 14). In Bauman's view, sociology is what
enables lay people to become aware of, and to reflect upon, their taken-for-granted
conceptions of day-to-day practices: 'Suddenly, the daily way of life must come under
scrutiny. It now appears to be just one of the possible ways, not the one and only, not the
"natural" way of life' (Ibid.: 15).
Sociologists' tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of day-to-day life for lay people
can be opposed on at least two counts. First, there are many other elements, apart from
sociology, which disturb the familiarity of day-to-day life, and disrupt its taken-for-granted
character. One only has to think of the way people are now regularly confronted with other
ways of life, for example, through travelling or through television. Numerous studies about
the impact of mass media on contemporary day-to-day life have suggested that 'exposure to
the media stimulates the faculty of imagination and enables individuals to distance
themselves from their immediate social circumstances' (Lerner, cited in Thompson,
1996: 94-5). In contrast to what Bauman implies, it seems clear that, nowadays, one can
hardly consider one's way of life as the only possible one.
Second, even if one accepts the idea that sociology is a major, if not the only,
'meddlesome and irritating stranger' in people's day-to-day life, the argument developed in
the preceding chapters suggests that lay people routinely 'defamiliarise the familiar' through
the routine appropriation of sociological knowledge. Social science knowledge has come to
pervade day-to-day life and is routinely called for, among other ‘reflexive resources’, in
order to make sense of one’s life. It seems increasingly difficult, thus, to assume that
familiarity is the hallmark of day-to-day life. This idea is coextensive with my argument
about ordinary knowledgeability: in contrast to what many social scientists argue, ordinary
knowledgeability does not exclude the possibility of adopting a 'theoretical posture'109, and
of being reflexive about one's life and experience.
My argument about a lay sociological imagination can be illustrated by using the
very same example that Mills give in order, precisely, to rule out the idea of a lay
sociological imagination, that is, to show that lay people do not ordinarily employ a
sociological imagination. Mills takes the case of marriage and divorce to illustrate how
sociologists’ imagination on these topics differs from the lay perspective. The latter, in his
view, does not comprise the notion of 'social structure' but, rather, consists in interpreting
issues such as divorce only in terms of 'personal troubles'. For example:
Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but
when the divorce rate is 25% this is an indication of a structural issue having
to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that
bear upon them (Mills, 1959: 9).
In contrast to what Mills seems to imply, it seems to me quite clear that virtually everyone
is now aware of the statistics concerning divorce rates, and that anyone experiencing
'personal troubles' in his or her marriage will also be aware that these personal troubles are
in many ways similar to what other couples experience, and that they are related to social
processes affecting society at large. It is difficult to imagine someone getting married
109 Understood in Bourdieu's sense (cf. section 5.3).
nowadays who would not be aware of the statistics regarding divorce rates and of the
discourse of social experts about this particular 'social problem'. It is very likely that social
science knowledge about marriage and divorce will be appropriated in some way and
integrated into the person’s decision to get - or not to get - married. As is developed below,
lay people are increasingly able to ‘see the social in the individual’.
6.1.2 A component of ordinary knowledgeability
The conception of sociological imagination which I want to develop in this chapter
opposes the idea that sociological imagination is sociologists’ exclusive competence.
Sociological imagination, in my view, has become part of ordinary knowledgeability. In the
fourth chapter of the dissertation, I examined the notion of common sense by distinguishing
between two levels, namely the level of ordinary knowledgeability – common sense as a
form of knowledge – and the level of ordinary knowledge – the knowledge claims routinely
used and appropriated by lay people in the course of day-to-day life. I have suggested that,
instead of considering ordinary knowledgeability as an immutable form of knowledge
characterised by a non-reflexive and non-discursive relationship to what is ‘known’,
ordinary knowledgeability should be viewed as a ‘transformable’ form of knowledge
which, in contemporary society, increasingly takes a reflexive and discursive mode. In the
fifth chapter, the discussion of Bourdieu’s work has led to the argument that lay people
increasingly do have the ‘capital’ and the structural possibilities for developing a theoretical
posture vis-à-vis their own practices and the social world in general. That is, they are able
to develop a form of discursive reflexivity in order to ‘objectify’ their own lives and
conditions. The idea of a lay sociological imagination is an extension of the argument about
the transformation of ordinary knowledgeability. Sociological imagination refers to one
particular way in which lay people, in contemporary society, turn back upon their own
practices and reflect upon them.
Sociological imagination, in other words, is a particular way in which one may
‘objectify’ one’s own life and practice. It consists, more specifically, in ‘seeing the social in
the individual’110. A first approximation of what can be understood by the ability to 'see the
social in the individual' can be found in Mills' (1959) well-known work about sociological
imagination. Mills claims that the hallmark of sociological imagination lies in the relation it
establishes between the 'individual' and the 'social'. Sociological imagination, in his terms,
'enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’
(Mills, 1959: 6). Sociology's fundamental assumption, in Mills' view, is that ‘the individual
can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within
his period, [...] he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all
individuals in his circumstances (Ibid.: 5).
Numerous authors have echoed Mills' characterisation of 'sociological imagination',
and have made a similar argument that sociology is essentially about seeing the social in
the individual. Bauman, for example, claims that sociology’s task is to view ‘human actions
as elements of wider figurations’ (Bauman, 1990a: 7). 'What sociologists can do for us',
according to him, is to ‘compare our private experience with the fate of others [...], [to] see
the social in the individual, the general in the particular’ (Bauman, 1990a: 10). In a similar
vein, Kennedy affirms the usefulness of sociology by noting that ‘[m]any problems and
opportunities you face as an individual will be similar, though not identical, to those facing
thousands, if not millions, of other people your age’ (Kennedy, 1989: 1). Bierstedt makes
the same point by claiming that 'sociology helps us to free ourselves from [...]
particularistic controls and to learn to see a more universal society and a single human race'
(Bierstedt, 1970: 50). Sociology, in his view, enables us 'to see the eternal in the passing
present, the universal in the particular fact, and the abstract in the concrete event' (Ibid.).
‘Seeing the social in the individual’, thus, first implies seeing the general in the
particular, or seeing the collective scope of what one experiences at an individual level. It
implies acknowledging that what one first experiences as personal and individual issues is
generally experienced by many other people in similar circumstances, and that these
110 This definition can be found in Bauman's account of 'what thinking sociologically'
means (1990a: 10). As is made clear below, Bauman's characterisation of sociological
imagination, however, differs from mine in an important way.
collective experiences seem to refer to processes which go beyond one's individual
experience. I shall refer to this first characterisation of sociological imagination as the
‘simple’ version of what sociological imagination means. As is developed below, this
simple version will be complemented by a ‘strong’ version of what a lay sociological
imagination means. The ‘simple’ version of sociological imagination, that is, the capacity
to see the supra-individual dimension of one's personal and individual experience, refers to
social science in general, rather than exclusively to sociology111.
In its ‘simple’ version, sociological imagination consists in acknowledging the very
existence of the 'social'. Social science in general is based on the assumption that 'singular
human beings can be treated as externally related individuals' (Österberg, cited in Wagner,
1994: 107). As such, it is a mode of thinking that pervades sociology as much as
psychology, for example, does. The latter, as Rose notes, 'is inextricably bound to the
emergence of the "social" as a territory of our thought and our reality' (Rose, 1990: 103).
Psychological knowledge, to that extent, is infused by a 'sociological imagination':
As human beings at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries came to understand
themselves as inhabited by a psychological interiority that was simultaneously
unique to the individual and subject to general processes and laws, a reciprocal
'social' territory was born (Rose, 1996: 318).
A lay sociological imagination thus means that the lay agent has learned to gauge her or his
experience by situating it at a 'supra-individual' level and by appropriating the idea that
there are social processes which need to be taken into account in order to make sense of
personal experience.
It could be argued that situating one's individual life and experience at a 'supraindividual' and general level has always been a characteristic of the way in which human
111 To that extent, one could object to the term 'sociological imagination', and suggest,
instead, terms such as 'social imagination' or 'social scientific imagination'. I nevertheless
choose to retain the term 'sociological imagination' for two main reasons. First, its ‘strong’
version is, in contrast to the 'simple' version, tightly connected to sociology. Second, my
argument about a 'lay sociological imagination' is a direct challenge to sociologists'
conception of their own exclusive mode of thinking, and of their conception of lay people's
sociological naïveté.
beings relate to their world and give meaning to their lives112. In fact, it could even be
argued, at the opposite of my argument, that a characteristic of the contemporary way of
situating oneself in the world is the tendency to see oneself as a unique individual rather
than as a mere element of general and supra-individual categories. Heelas mentions
Burckhardt's claim that, during the Middle Ages, 'man was conscious of himself only as a
member of a race, people, party, family, a corporatism - only through some general
category' (Heelas, 1996: 8). What I call the 'simple' version of sociological imagination is,
however, very different from the consciousness of the Middle Ages described by
Burckhardt. The capacity to 'see the social in the individual' implies, rather than opposes,
the category of the 'individual', and the notion of 'individuality'.
More precisely, seeing the social in the individual does not mean that people in
contemporary society are not conscious of themselves primarily as individuals with unique
properties. It means, rather, that the contemporary way of seeing oneself as a unique
individual is itself based on the capacity to relate one's individual experience to the 'social'
sphere. This idea can be found – albeit in other terms – in Bauman’s work about modern
expertise. The 'existential foundation’ of modern expertise, for Bauman, lies in what he
calls a 'paradox of individuality', that is, in the fact that people 'feel both the need to belong
and the need to be individuals' (Bauman, 1992b: 81). Individuality, in contemporary
society, can only be constructed through social confirmation113 (Bauman, 1992b: 88):
On the one hand, the individual needs to establish a stable and defensible
difference between his own person and the wider, impersonal and
impenetrable social world outside. On the other hand, however, such a
112 Religion, for example, can be seen as being based precisely on this ability to see one's
life as part of general, supra-individual processes.
113 Bauman’s analysis of modern expertise, as notes in the first chapter, essentially consists
in stressing the new forms of dependency and of disempowerment attached to modern
expertise and, in particular, to this paradox of individuality upon which it partly draws. My
argument is very different. In my view, Bauman's 'paradox of individuality' refers more
generally to people's 'new' capacity to 'see the social in the individual', and should not be
viewed as an alienating process tied up with expertise dependency and market dependency,
although, as is argued below (cf. section 6.1.3), the development of a lay sociological
imagination is certainly marked by specific processes of disempowerment.
difference, precisely to be stable and reliable, needs social affirmation and
must be obtained in a form which also enjoys social approval (Ibid.: 84).
‘Social approval’, in my view, refers in an important way to the large-scale diffusion of
social science knowledge and, more precisely, to the social facts and the categories
produced by social scientists and disseminated throughout society. The ability to ‘see the
social in the individual’ consists in relating one’s individual experience to some social
category or social fact produced by social scientists. To put it differently, a lay sociological
imagination primarily consists in acknowledging that there are ‘social facts’ about society
which can be brought to light by social experts, and to which one's personal and individual
experience can be related. In contemporary society, the idea that one is a unique, noninterchangeable, individual means that one's individual life is a unique combination of
experiences which all refer to 'social' processes, and can be understood at a general, supraindividual level. The capacity to see the social in the individual, in sum, leads to the redefinition, and certainly not to the eradication, of the idea of 'individuality'.
Lay sociological imagination is tied up with the massive diffusion of ‘factual social
knowledge’. Although it is certainly accurate to affirm that the belief in the possibility of
the ‘cognitive mastery of society’ (Wagner, 1994: 133) has seriously eroded, the very idea
of ‘social facts’ is one which remains widely accepted. In particular, one routinely sees
oneself as an element of a ‘statistically analysable population’ (Stanley, 1978: 145). As
noted in the second chapter, statistics is the dominant form of expression of ‘social facts’,
and it represents a very large proportion of the social science knowledge actually diffused
through mass media (Weiss & Singer, 1988). The omnipresence of social statistics in dayto-day life is, in my view, a crucial element that accounts for the development of a lay
sociological imagination, in the ‘simple’ version discussed so far.
There is little doubt that the current period is one in which the observational
capacities of society have reached an unprecedented level. People see it as a routine and
‘natural’ feature of social life that virtually every aspect of day-to-day life is the object of
some sort of social research, that it has been 'labelled' by experts and translated into ‘social
facts', and that it is related to specific ‘social problems’, the latter generally leading to
specific policies and governmental actions. As a component of lay knowledgeability,
sociological imagination means that an ordinary procedure, in order to make sense of one's
experience, is to relate this experience to 'social problems' and 'social facts' constructed and
analysed by social experts. It consists in making sense of one’s experience by ‘translating’
it into the language of ‘social facts’ and ‘social problems’. This procedure, in my view,
corresponds to a way of grasping one's experience which has no equivalent before the
massive dissemination of factual social knowledge throughout society. In that sense, the
ability to ‘see the social in the individual’ is tied up with the development of empirical
social inquiry and with the multiplication of social expert claims about every aspect of dayto-day life. To that extent, 'seeing the social in the individual' is a distinctive characteristic
of people’s knowledgeability in contemporary society.
The simple version of sociological imagination thus implies relating one's personal
troubles to a clearly identified 'social problem', such as divorce, depression, 'mid-life crisis',
etc. When confronted with a particular issue in day-to-day life, a commonsensical
procedure now consists in assuming that this issue is being addressed at a 'social' and
collective level, that it has been named and circumscribed by social experts, who provide
people with legitimate ways of elucidating what happens to them. Making sense of one’s
experience or of others’ experience thus implies being able to describe and explain it in
terms of the categories and the ‘social facts' offered by social experts and scientists. The lay
sociological imagination consists in an enlarged capacity and propensity to compare one's
personal and private experience with the fate of others. The possibility of such a
comparison is rooted in the growth and omnipresence of factual social knowledge, be it
akin to sociology, psychology, economics, or other social sciences.
6.1.3 A lay sociological imagination in an individualised society?
There are two facets to a lay sociological imagination, to which I refer as the
‘simple’ and the ‘strong’ versions. The 'strong' version of the capacity to ‘see the social in
the individual’ consists in acknowledging that there is a 'social structure' which pervades
one's individual experience and conditions of action, and which largely escapes individual
control. In this strong version, sociological imagination implies to see that the individual is,
to some extent, 'shaped' by the social. This aspect of sociological imagination has often
been stressed as the specific insight offered by sociology:
It is in sociology that the student is most likely to discover the ways in which
the structure of his society, the content of its culture, and the character of its
norms all help to socialize him, carving out of the biological material the
person that he has become (Bierstedt, 1970: 55).
Seeing how the individual is shaped by the social is often referred to in terms of
determinants, constraints, or pressures. Kennedy, for example, in his book aimed at
introducing sociology to lay people, defines the 'sociological view of life' as one that
consists in ‘realising how important social pressures are to you’ (Kennedy, 1989: 2). More
accurately, the ‘strong’ version of 'sociological imagination' refers to the very idea of a
social 'structure', independently of the more or less 'deterministic' or constraining senses
one confers on the notion of 'structure'. It implies acknowledging that there is such a 'thing'
as a social structure that 'inhabits' one's individual experience (Abbott & Wallace, 1990: 4),
and which lies beyond one's control and, to some extent, one's awareness.
The argument about the strong version of sociological imagination refers to the
same kind of processes explored by social psychologists, namely the issue of the way in
which lay people attribute causes to particular events, and the way in which they achieve a
sense of control and of responsibility. People's ‘attributions’ - to borrow the terms of
attribution theorists presented in the fourth chapter – are, in my view, increasingly infused
by their capacity to see how the individual is shaped by the social. Their sense of control
and of responsibility regarding what happens to them is being transformed, in part because
they are increasingly aware of the large-scale social processes which impinge upon their
day-to-day lives114. Contradictory aspects can be distinguished in the way in which people,
114
Thus I disagree with Calhoun’s (1991) argument, according to which maintaining a
sense of autonomy in current society implies the suppression from consciousness of ‘social
determinants’: ‘the very notion of being an autonomous individual consists of freedom
from the bonds of determination by direct relationships and certain ascribed statuses of
traditional culture and the suppression from consciousness of the equally strong
determinations of indirect relationships and disciplinary patterns of culture (Calhoun,
1991: 114).
in a period of reflexive modernity, define the extent to which they are in control of, and
responsible for, what happens in their lives.
Some of these aspects can be examined by going back to the widely-held view that
contemporary society is an 'individualised' society, and by examining how my argument
about a lay sociological imagination opposes or confirms such a view. The notion of
individualisation has been discussed in the first chapter as one of the chief concepts
associated with 'the reflexive modernity thesis': individualisation is tied up with
detraditionalisation and the expansion of social reflexivity, and means that forms and
conditions of existence have now to be individually chosen and treated as such. The idea of
'individualisation' seems to deny any possibility of lay sociological imagination, especially
in the perspective developed by Beck and other authors whose claims I have discussed in
the first chapter. In their perspective, individualisation implies 'the dissolution of the social
into the self', insofar as people tend to perceive social issues exclusively in terms of
individual and personal issues, and tend to lose sight of the rootedness of these issues in the
'social' sphere.
In my view, however, the fact that people have to treat their conditions of existence
as the product of their own decisions does not mean that they are unaware of the 'social'
dimension of the issues they encounter. On the contrary, the imperative of a 'do-it-yourself
biography' (Beck, 1994a: 15) has to be combined with the ability to 'see the social in the
individual'. This combination produces a tension that marks the way people construct their
identities and define their span of control and responsibility. In the first chapter, I described
this tension as a rupture of the traditional link between control and responsibility. This
tension results from the combination of, on one side, the consciousness of the limited
character of individual capacity for control and change and, on the other side, the
'imperative of responsibility' rooted in conditions of reflexive modernity, which implies that
people have to act as if they were mastering their conditions of action, and have no choice
but to feel responsible for what happens in their lives.
Social science knowledge is involved on both sides of the coin. That the keys for
individual action to a large extent lie beyond individual’s control and power, is an idea that
derives partly from the routine appropriation of social science knowledge, sociological as
well as psychological, economic, etc. Equally, though, the idea that people are responsible
for their lives, and can work upon their conditions of action, is also fuelled by social
science knowledge, especially by the ‘counselling’ branch of social expertise. As argued
above, lay sociological imagination implies that people tend to translate their troubles into
‘social problems’, which are presented by social experts as 'resolvable'. People are
encouraged to work on these problems with the help of appropriate experts. By treating a
large range of social phenomena as ‘problems’ demanding ‘solutions’, social science
routinely conveys the message that people, through the appropriate use of expert
knowledge - and the occasional recourse to particular experts - can work on the problems
they encounter in their day-to-day lives. Thus, to come back to an example used in earlier
chapters, when trying to make sense of their child’s poor results at school, parents can
appropriate expert claims which stress their responsibility and their capacity to 'make a
difference', and to change the situation. At the same time, they are increasingly aware, in
part through the same process of appropriation of social science knowledge, of the largescale social processes which have 'produced' the situation, and over which they have little
control.
The argument about a lay sociological imagination, in its ‘strong’ version,
challenges two different theses about the 'individualised' consciousness of ordinary people
in contemporary society. As already suggested, it first opposes the argument that the
contemporary period implies, as it were, the 'collapse of the social into the self'. Such an
argument has been developed, albeit in different ways, by authors like Beck, Bauman,
Lasch and Sennett, whose views have been presented in the first chapter. The common
ground between these authors is that each argues that people's 'individualised
consciousness' is the product of conditions characteristic of the current period. These
authors thus share a socio-historical view of lay people's individualised consciousness.
Beck's argument is that individualisation is coextensive with reflexive modernisation, and
with the ubiquity of choices and risks in day-to-day life. Bauman's perspective concerns
modern conditions of expertise and the disempowering effects of the omnipresence of
experts and expert knowledge. He argues that the relation of people to expertise is marked
by a 'consumer attitude', which implies that the burden of social issues in placed on the
individual, who is supposed to 'consume' expert knowledge in order to solve privatised
issues. The consumer attitude, in Bauman's terms, 'privatises issues so that they are not
perceived as public; it individualises tasks so that they are not seen as social' (Bauman,
1990a: 204).
The second thesis that is challenged by the idea of a lay sociological imagination is
the one developed by attribution theorists regarding the ‘fundamental attribution error’ that
lay people systematically make115. It is a functionalist and a-historical view of lay people's
individualised consciousness, based on the idea that there are fundamental, ‘natural’ and
immutable characteristic of human cognition. As presented in the fourth chapter, attribution
theorists have argued that the lay person tends to be a 'psychologist' rather than a
'sociologist', insofar as he or she attributes internal and individual causes to phenomena,
rather than external and social ones. Attribution theorists explain people’s individualised
consciousness by the ‘functions’ performed by internal explanations, in particular the
control and the self-esteem functions. In this perspective, the individualised consciousness
of lay people, although certainly mistaken, is 'functional': it enables people to maintain a
sense of control of their lives, however illusory this control may be.
The two theses about individualisation can be contrasted as follows. On one hand,
social psychologists have stressed the individualised consciousness of people who always
favour explanations that reinforce their belief in their capacity to control what happens to
them, and to ‘make a difference’ through individual action. In this view, an individualised
consciousness is a necessary feature of lay knowledgeability, and one which is empowering
insofar as it encourages individual action. On the other hand, various sociologists have
argued that people’s individualised consciousness is the recent product of conditions of late
modernity, and that it undermines their capacity for action, by obscuring the social and
structural determinants of social processes, and by mistakenly putting the ‘keys’ to social
115 Cf. section 4.3.3.
problems on the individual, rather than on collective action. In this view, people’s
individualised consciousness is a disempowering feature of lay knowledgeability.
I do not contest social psychologists’ assumption that, inherent in the modern, and
primarily western, conception of self-identity, and of what ‘being in the world’ means, lies
the capacity to ‘make a difference’ and to have a measure of control over what happens in
one’s life. As Law puts it:
Personally reductionist causes, origins and explanations are comforting.
Order is appreciated. Other orders are interpretable as disorder, or as stodge.
Furthermore, many agents (male agents?) like agents: they like to think that
they too are autonomous and creative (Law, 1994 : 61)
I contest, however, social psychologists’ assumption that only internal explanations can
maintain this sense of control or, to put it the other way, that external explanations
systematically undermine people’s sense of control and are necessarily disempowering.
Lay people, in my view, are increasingly aware that the conditions and consequences of
their actions in part refer to processes which are beyond their individual control, and
beyond the intended ‘difference’ these actions were supposed to make. Attribution
theorists, in my view, have been oblivious of the capacity of ‘lay people’ to appropriate
knowledge which stresses ‘external’ causes of social phenomena, and to articulate this
‘sociological imagination’ in a way which does not deny their individual or collective
responsibility and their capacity for action.
The analyses of Beck, Bauman, and others, about individualisation, are more
convincing insofar as their argument about people’s ‘individualised consciousness’ is based
on an analysis of specific conditions of late modernity, and insofar as it does not draw upon
the functionalist perspective characteristic of attribution theory. As argued in the first
chapter of the dissertation, I agree with the argument that, in a period of reflexive
modernity, people have to treat the conditions of their actions as if they were the product of
their own decisions. This conception of the individualisation process, however, does not
imply the ‘privatisation’ of social issues and the generalisation of an individualised
consciousness. Rather, the imperative to treat one’s conditions of action as the product of
one’s decisions, is itself fuelled by an increased capacity to see the social in the individual.
In short, I reject the idea that ‘lay people’ are increasingly driven by an
‘individualised consciousness’ which leads them to the illusion that they can control their
conditions of action, and which has disempowering effects by obscuring ‘real’ possibilities
for action. One could say that the fundamental debate which has animated sociologists
since the beginnings of the discipline, namely, the question of the individual capacity for
action and change, is now enmeshed in the fundamental tension that marks people's sense
of control and responsibility in contemporary society. Virtually everyone has now routinely
to confront the question of the limited character of individual action, and to constantly readjust a conception of responsibility, in order to maintain a sense of ‘being in control’,
while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of individual omnipotence. Thus
people’s sense of individual control and responsibility is not the product of them being
oblivious of the social and supra-individual character of social issues. In a period of
reflexive modernity, people have no choice but to 'invent', on a routine and continuous
basis, new ways of maintaining a sense of individual or collective responsibility, and of
capacity for action, on the basis of their growing awareness of the social and globalised
phenomena affecting their conditions for action. Although I will not pursue this argument
here, new forms of collective action could be analysed, in my view, in light of the argument
that lay people increasingly employ a 'sociological imagination' when making sense of their
world.
6.1.4 Sociological imagination, empowerment and disempowerment
Various social scientists have stressed the negative impact of the strong version of
sociological imagination. In their perspective, sociological imagination can lead to a
deterministic conception of social action, and one which evacuates individual capacity for
action and freedom. It leads one to be convinced that ‘society and social pressure entirely
determine one’s life’ (Kennedy, 1989: 2). Wrong, in a well-known article about the
'oversocialized conception of man' in modern sociology, claims that ‘the insistence of
sociologists on the importance of "social factors" easily leads them to stress the priority of
socialised or socializing motives in human behavior’ (Wrong, 1977: 40). For him, this
oversocialised conception of human action is coextensive with an overintegrated view of
society, and has come to pervade society at large. In this restricted sense, 'sociological
imagination' has become a generalised mode of thinking, and one which Wrong rejects as
being 'ideological'116.
In a related vein, Schelsky has developed the view that a sociological mode of
thinking has come to influence modern consciousness in an excessive and negative way
(Stehr, 1996: 1.29)117. Sociology, for Schelsky, has become the key science in
contemporary society, and has come to exert a powerful influence on the collective
consciousness of modern society (Stehr, 1992: 86). Sociology's influence consists in the
transformation of individual identities. The latter, for Schelsky, are now 'governed
primarily by views which stress the social embeddedness of the conduct and the beliefs of
individual actors' (Stehr, 1992: 141). Sociological imagination thus consists in the 'deemphasis of the individual and the stress it places instead on the collectivity and the
influence of the collective formations on individuals' (Stehr, 1996: 1.29). To that extent, it
leads to the 'dissolution of the person' (Stehr, 1992: 142). Like Schelsky, I argue that the
impact of social science - and not only of sociology - on contemporary society is very
significant, and that 'sociological imagination', in the sense of ‘seeing the social in the
individual’, has come to be disseminated throughout society, rather than refers to
sociologists’ exclusive mode of thinking. I also support the idea, introduced in earlier
chapters, that ‘sociological imagination’ pertains to the way in which people define and
construct their identities. Unlike Schelsky, however, I do not think that 'sociological
116 Cf. Wrong's argument about the 'ideological effects' of social science, presented in the
second chapter (section 2.1.3). Wrong's (1990) work about 'the influence of sociological
ideas on American culture’ is, in my view, more satisfactory than his thesis about the
generalisation of an 'oversocialised conception of man', insofar as it addresses the process
whereby sociological ideas and concepts become incorporated into common sense. This
work has been discussed in chapter four (section 4.3.3).
117 The work of Helmut Schelsky has not been translated into English, which is why I rely
here on Stehr's (1996; 1992) account of Schelsky's work. Stehr refers more particularly to
the following work: Schelsky, Helmut (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen. Klassenkampf
und Priesterherrschaft der Intellektuellen, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
imagination' implies the ‘dissolution’ of the person, nor that it necessarily implies the
disempowerment of ‘lay people’.
Specific disempowering and empowering effects are associated with the 'strong'
version of sociological imagination, that is, with the increasing awareness that individual
action is partly 'shaped' by determining social forces that escape individual control. In line
with Bourdieu’s position discussed in the fifth chapter, it is crucial, in my view, to
acknowledge that the recognition of 'external' causes to personal and individual issues is
not necessarily disempowering, as attribution theorists have generally assumed. A lay
sociological imagination, in its strong version, implies a consciousness that many of the
issues one has to deal with in day-to-day life are beyond one’s individual control. This
facet of sociological imagination can be empowering, in the sense that it enables one to feel
exempted from situations which largely escape one's control and for which one is not
entirely 'to blame'.
As already argued, such an argument is central in Bourdieu’s position about
sociology’s usefulness and empowering impact. The same argument has also been made
from a different perspective by students of 'new social movements'. For example, Kroll
Smith et al. (1995), whose work has already been presented in the first chapter118, have
shown that movements organised around the appropriation of expert knowledge are often
based on a 'shift in moral accountability away from the individual and towards society'
(1995: 9). The authors have studied the two movements of 'environmental illness' and of
'popular epidemiology'; in both movements, lay people, through the appropriation of expert
and scientific knowledge, have managed to 'direct attention to sources outside themselves
as the causes of their misery' (Ibid.: 10), and to suggest collective courses of action that
could not be contemplated when the locus of causality for the illnesses under scrutiny was
considered to be internal rather than external.
The combination of empowering and disempowering elements that are enmeshed in
sociological imagination equally concerns the 'simple' version, which consists in seeing the
118 Cf. section 1.2.2.
general in the particular, and in relating one's individual and personal experience to 'social
issues' identified, analysed and documented by experts. An empowering aspect of this
simple version consists in claiming that people, by using their sociological imagination,
commonly know that 'they are not alone' when dealing with particular problems. The
massive diffusion of factual social knowledge about virtually every issue that one can
encounter in the course of day-to-day life implies that people are increasingly aware that
they share their predicament with many others. Such an awareness can be comforting, in
the sense that, for example, ‘[i]f infertile couples read multiple-case reports about other
infertile couples, they probably would feel a sense of liberation to know that they are not
alone with their feelings’ (Rosenwald, 1988: 258). A potentially empowering aspect of
sociological imagination thus consists in stressing the common and comparable character
of one's personal and private experience, and the 'systematicity of what seemed random and
inexplicable' (Ibid.: 262). By relating one's private and 'puzzling' experience to a welldocumented 'social problem', one can avoid a sense of 'helplessness' vis-à-vis a particular
distressing event, and might take a particular course of action as a result.
The very same process, however, carries potentially disempowering effects, related
in particular to the standardisation of experience, and to the potential stigmatisation that
might result from the ready-made categorisations that more or less impose on the way
people make sense of their own and others’ experience. Bauman, as suggested in the
preceding section, claims that the capacity to see the social in the individual is entirely
ruled by expertise, and is merely a manifestation of the colonisation of the life-world by
expertise:
The expertise enters the life-world of the individual already at an early stage
when diffuse and vague personal unease [...] is articulated in the interpersonal
language of individual problems demanding the application of supra individual solutions' (Bauman, 1991: 208-9)
It could thus be argued, in a Foucauldian vein, that my argument about a lay sociological
imagination merely is the acknowledgement that representations of the social world have
become standardised through the massive intrusion of social expert knowledge in day-today life. It is difficult, in a world of omnipresent expertise, to escape the categories and
labels put forward by experts, and the implicit definition of ‘normality’ resulting from this
authorised activity of ‘naming’ the social world. The capacity to see the social in the
individual is certainly not immune to forms of symbolic domination which consist in the
imposition119 of 'ready-made problems' and 'ready-made solutions' by experts. In Bauman's
terms: ‘Expertise offers socially approved solutions to individual discomforts and anxieties,
having first equally authoritatively articulated them as problems that require solutions’
(Bauman, 1991: 208).
The capacity to 'see the social in the individual' cannot, in my view, be reduced to a
mere manifestation of the omnipresence of expertise in contemporary society, or of people's
compliance to a dominant discourse based on the collusion between social science and the
state, as Bauman and other theorists would suggest, although it can certainly happen that
people are caught up with ready-made problems and ready-made solutions 'created' by
social experts. The argument about standardisation is put into question by the multiplication
of discourses on society. The development of a lay sociological imagination does not
suppose the stability of an 'organised mode of representation' (Wagner, 1994) based on the
unchallenged translation of social issues into social problems. In fact, a lay sociological
imagination is more likely to emerge in a period of 'pluralisation' of modes of
representation, that is, in a period in which there is a competition for the representation of
the social world120.
6.2. EXPLORING
LAY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION: REVISITING THE RELATIONSHIP
BETWEEN THE RESEARCHER AND THE RESEARCHED
6.2.1 ‘Giving a voice’ to lay people: the use of life-stories in sociology
119 In the non-overtly violent way stressed by Bourdieu in his notion of 'symbolic violence'
(Cf. section 5.2.1).
120 Cf. section 5.1.1. See also Berger’s argument below about the relationship between
‘sociological consciousness’ and the pluralisation of systems of meaning.
The proposition developed about a lay sociological imagination has important
implications pertaining to the way sociologists study lay people and to the way the former
have tried to ‘give a voice’ to the latter. In my discussion of Bourdieu’s work, I suggested
that the type of ‘voice’ given by sociologists to their ‘subjects’ is often one which
constrains lay people to appear as sociologically naive agents, rather than as agents who are
able to employ a sociological imagination. Here I want to develop this argument by
exploring what has been called the ‘life-story approach’ in sociology. This approach refer
to types of sociological research which consist in the collection and analysis of lay agents’
life-stories. As will be developed below, the researchers who promote the life-story
approach often praise themselves to treat their subjects as competent and knowledgeable
agents, in contrast to other qualitative or quantitative methodologies. In my view, however,
the recognition of lay people’s knowledgeability in the life-story approach never goes as far
as to acknowledge their sociological imagination.
Ordinary people's self-narratives or life-stories have been the object of considerable,
though irregular, attention on the part of sociologists. The 'life-story approach' partly refers
to some of the Chicago sociologists of the 1920s and 1930s (Bertaux, 1981: 5). It has been
brought back to the fore of sociologists' agendas in the past twenty years, through the work
of, among others, Bertaux, Denzin, and Ferrarotti. In 1985 Bertaux created a journal
entitled Life Stories, the purpose of which was ‘not just to publish life stories, [but] to
encourage discussion of a central issue which still has to be resolved: is there a real place in
social and historical research for life stories?’ (Bertaux, 1985: 3). The popularity of the lifestory approach, as well as the purposes that sociologists have assigned to it, vary sometimes
significantly from one country to another (Bertaux & Kohli, 1984). It is the work by
Thomas and Znaniecki conducted in the 1920s about the immigration of Polish peasants in
Europe and America which is often cited as inaugurating the use of personal documents,
letters and autobiographies in sociology121 (Chasalinski, 1981: 119). For Thomas and
121 For Bertaux, Poland is considered to be the ‘true homeland of the life-story approach in
sociology’ (Bertaux, 1981: 3), insofar as this method has been used continuously over the
past seventy years, through public competition for the ‘best’ pamietniki. These are written
Znaniecki, 'personal life-records, as complete as possible, constitute the perfect type of
sociological material' (1958: 1832).
Rather than written documents, however, the life-story approach now refers
primarily to research based on oral interviews, during which the interviewee construct his
or her life-story with the sociologist’s assistance. In the following discussion, I will focus
precisely on this type of research based on interviews with lay agents, and in which the
interviewees’ narratives represent a specific form of 'data' for sociological analysis.
Included in my analysis are not only the works of sociologists who explicitly situate their
work within the ‘life-story approach’, but also the work of sociologists who do not refer to
the life-story approach as such, but who nevertheless base their research on their subjects
life-stories or self-narratives. Included in this second category is, for example, Bourdieu
and his colleagues’ work in La Misère du Monde.
As suggested above, sociologists' interest in their subjects' self-narratives is
associated with the recognition that 'lay people' are more knowledgeable and competent
than what is usually assumed in orthodox social science. Bertaux, who is a fervent
proponent of the life story approach, stresses that ‘if given a chance to talk freely, people
appear to know a lot about what is going on, a lot more, sometimes, than sociologists'
(Bertaux, 1981: 38). Life-stories have been seen as a stimulating way of exploring lay
people’s ‘first-level constructs’ about the social world, these constructs being the necessary
resource for sociologists' 'second-order constructs'122. Collecting people’s life-stories
through interviews enables, in other words, to 'elicit the expression of what people already
know about social life' (Ibid.: 39), in contrast to other methods such as surveys which, in
Bertaux's view, assume that 'what every individual has to say is in itself meaningless'
(Ibid.: 38). For Bertaux, thus, ‘recognizing that ‘indigenous’ knowledge has sociological
value is to recognise that the ordinary man is better informed than the sociologist; we
should no longer consider him a simple object of observation’ (Houle, 1995: 95).
autobiographies from, for example, peasants, industrial workers, and unemployed men and
women, collected by the government through public competition, and which are then used
and analysed by sociologists.
122 Cf. section 4.3.1.
Beyond the proclaimed principle of recognising the knowledgeability of lay people,
life-stories have generally been used as a way of obtaining detailed empirical 'data' about
the lives of the people who are the ‘subjects’ of the research. To put it differently,
acknowledging the competence of lay people has often merely consisted, in the life-story
approach, in treating them as ‘accurate informants’. For that reason, proponents of the lifestory approach have been greatly concerned with the accuracy and the veracity of their
subjects’ narratives (Chambon, 1995: 125). It has been argued that life-stories are biased or
inaccurate descriptions of 'what really happened', insofar as lay people, as Ross and
Conway put it, are ‘inadequate personal historians’ (1986: 126). By this, they mean that
people 'deny change and variability that are manifestly present [...], [or] they err in the
opposite direction, exaggerating the degree to which they have changed over time'
(1986: 126). In the same vein, Kárpáti stresses that 'a source of error might be the use of
retrospective data biased by purposeful distortion or inaccurate recollection' (1981: 136).
When using people's life stories as 'documents of social significance', sociologists should
be aware, in Kàrpàti's view, of the 'more or less unconscious post festa ideologizing of past
life-events, [the] reshaping and re-evaluation of life according to the special lifeexperiences and the present life-circumstances of the respondent' (Ibid.: 136).
Life-stories, thus, while demonstrating the so-called ‘competence’ of the
interviewees, serve as a particular kind of data that is then analysed by the sociologist. Lifestories are extremely useful, according to many proponents of the approach, for getting
‘accurate descriptions of the interviewees' life trajectories in social contexts’ (Bertaux &
Kohli, 1984: 215). They provide a basis on which the sociologist can draw in order to
uncover 'the patterns of social relations and the special processes that shaped them' (Ibid.).
The life-story approach, in other words, often aims at analysing 'the social structures that
form and determine individual destinies' (Antikainen, 1996: 17). It consists for the
sociologist to ‘apply’, so-to-speak, his or her ‘sociological imagination’ to sociologically
naive life-stories. The sociologist, on the basis of the interviewees’ life-stories, is thus able
to bring into the open the social structures and determinants – of which the interviewee is
necessarily unaware – which are embedded in the interviewees lives. The life-story
approach, in a nutshell, has generally been based on the assumption that lay agents are
sociologically naive and produce life-stories devoid, as it were, of any trace of sociological
imagination. It is the sociologist who has to ‘operate the mediation between the individual
history and social history’ (Gaulejac, 1995: 19). What I call the ‘simple’ version of
‘sociological imagination’ is thus denied to lay agents. It is also the sociologist who is able
to see how specific social processes have structured and ‘determined’ the life of the person
under study: lay agents, unless they have acquired exceptional and ‘unusual’ capacities for
reflexivity (Bertaux, 1997: 83), are unable to master the ‘strong’ version of sociological
imagination.
This point does not contradict the earlier statement that sociologists have used lifestories in order to show the active and 'competent' way in which ordinary people make
sense of their own lives. Life-stories have served to show both the competence of their lay
authors and the bounded character of this competence. In Denzin's terms, life-stories serve
'to reveal how ordinary people give meaning to their lives, within the limits and freedom
given to them’ (Denzin, 1986: 17). It should be clear that my argument is intended neither
to refute the idea that people's knowledgeability is 'bounded', nor that a crucial task of
social scientists is precisely to elucidate those 'bounds', which refer in particular to
unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences of action123 (Giddens,
1984: 282). My aim, rather, is to put into question sociologists' assumption that ordinary
people's knowledgeability is bounded by their inability to 'see the social in the individual',
that is, by their inability to employ a 'sociological imagination' as a way to objectify their
own lives and practices.
123
We should, however, pay attention to Hamel’s argument that the major ‘limit’, as it
were, of ‘practical consciousness’ precisely lies in its unlimited character – whereas
sociologists’ consciousness is characterised by its restricted outlook : ‘If the dimensions of
the social system escape the actors’ consciousness, it is not because that consciousness is
limited. On the contrary, it may be argued that the actors’ practical consciousness is not
only constituted by the ‘dimensions of the social system’ but also by the addition of the
whole range of dimensions that characterise the action. All of these constitute the object of
this practical consciousness which is therefore by no means limited. It is sociology that, by
definition, must try to ‘limit’ or reduce it by highlighting the ‘dimensions of the social
system and the conditions of the action’ that must be drawn from the practical
consciousness that the social actors possess of their own action, this being the very object
of sociology (Hamel, 1997 : 99).
Whereas sociologists' use of life-stories has consisted in imprinting the sociologists'
imagination on lay people's sociologically naïve self-narratives, I suggest that people's lifestories are already fuelled by a lay sociological imagination, which sociologists could set
out to display instead of 'neutralise’. Sociologists who praise the knowledgeability of lay
people have nevertheless failed to recognise that this knowledgeability includes the
potential appropriation of sociological knowledge itself and the capacity to 'see the social in
the individual'. As argued in the first part of the chapter, lay people, in my view, routinely
employ a sociological imagination and have learned to ‘see the social in the individual’, in
both the simple and strong versions outlines above. This lay sociological imagination fuels
the self-narratives and life-stories they routinely construct, including the narratives that
social scientists collect when they interview lay agents.
An important implication of my argument about a lay sociological imagination
refers to the status of lay people’s narratives or life-stories in sociological research. In the
life-story approach, people’s life-stories have been seen as the ‘perfect material’ for
sociologists insofar as their genesis was ‘untouched by the sociologist’s hand’ (Houle,
1995 : 91). As noted above, the ‘subjects’ of the research gain the status of reliable
informants about their own practice and about the social contexts in which this practice is
embedded (Bertaux, 1997 : 118). Or, as Bertaux puts it, life-stories are a ‘remarkable
instrument for the extraction of practical knowledge’ (Bertaux, 1997 : 17). This conception
of the usefulness of lay people’s self-narratives, in my view, does not put into question the
traditional logic, as it were, of the relationship between the researcher and the researched :
although ‘competent’, the latter’s knowledge is exclusively ‘practical’; although the
researched can inform the sociologist about the social context of their practice, they are
unable to articulate discursively how this social context may have determined or structured
their practice. The discourse of the people under study is still viewed as a form of ‘raw
data’, which has to be made sense of by the sociologist. In contrast, claiming that lay
people have a ‘sociological imagination’ and are increasingly able to ‘see the social in the
individual’ implies that lay people’s self-narratives cannot be considered as ‘raw data’
which is free of any trace of ‘sociological contamination’, so-to-speak. More importantly,
the role of the researched can no longer be considered to be one of ‘information’, as
opposed to the sociologist’s role of transforming this information into meaningful
sociological knowledge. To use the terms introduced in the third chapter of the dissertation,
sociological research becomes a form of ‘participatory research’ between professional
sociologists and lay sociologists. Although the former’s sociological imagination is
probably more articulate, documented and systematic than the latter’s, there is no difference
in nature between the two forms of knowledgeability.
6.2.2 Studying/enacting a lay sociological imagination: a comparison with
Touraine's method of 'sociological intervention'
I have argued that sociologists, in part due to a misleading conception of ordinary
knowledgeability and to inadequate methodological options, have been unable, when trying
to ‘give a voice’ to their subjects by collecting their life-stories, to acknowledge and to
display their subjects' lay sociological imagination. I would like to pursue my argument by
indicating how sociologists could study their subjects’ lay sociological imagination, and by
raising fundamental issues which are tied up with such a project. The main issue regarding
the empirical investigation of a lay sociological imagination consists in the inevitable
conflation, as it were, between two activities, namely the activity of studying – or
‘recording’– a lay sociological imagination, and the activity of ‘enacting’ it, that is, of
contributing to its development. In order to explore this issue, I will use Touraine's method
of 'sociological intervention' as an illustration and, more generally, as a point of comparison
between his conception of sociological research, and my own argument about a lay
sociological imagination.
Sociological intervention, which Touraine first presented and applied in The Voice
and the Eye (1981), is a method by which his author aims to renew sociological research
and methodology (Hamel, 1998: 2). Broadly speaking, sociological intervention can be
described as a ‘self-analysis that requires the active participation of social actors engaged in
a collective struggle concerning political and social issues’ (Hamel, 1997: 97). With this
method, Touraine explicitly acknowledges that there is no clear-cut distinction between the
activity of studying the emergence of a social movement, and the activity of enacting that
emergence, that is, of being actively involved in it. Sociological intervention thus consists
for the sociologist to study, thereby facilitating, the transformation of 'social struggles' into
'social movements'.
Touraine's method of sociological intervention concerns particular militant actions
and it is aimed at the militants of particular social struggles, such as the struggle of women,
students, ecologists, workers, or Solidarnosc in Poland. It aims to ‘carry out a sociological
analysis of that [militant] action in cooperation with its principal actors’ (Hamel, 1997: 97).
In Touraine’s study (Touraine et al., 1983), for example, of the anti-nuclear protest, he and
his colleagues aimed at examining the possibility of transforming the anti-nuclear struggle
into an anti-nuclear movement. A social movement, in his view, represents the highest stage
which can be reached by a social struggle when it succeeds in articulating the rejection of a
particular dominant model in terms of social conflicts and social relations. The purpose of
his work about the anti-nuclear protest, for example, was to see ‘how the generalised
rejection of a social and cultural order can be transformed first of all into a creative utopia,
and then elevated to the level of a social conflict, in which identifiable opponents fight for a
stake which they both accept as cultural orientation but to which they both give entirely
different social interpretations’ (Touraine, 1983: 9). His hypothesis, thus, was that 'the antinuclear struggle contains a social movement which might in future play as important a role
as that once played by the working-class movement' (Touraine, 1983: 116).
The method is based on the direct interaction between the researcher and the
researched, and on the latter’s narratives, which are analysed by the sociologist in a joint
process of ‘objectification’ with the people under study. The subjects’ narratives deal with
the social struggle in which they are engaged. Sociological intervention involves
discussions between the sociologists, on one hand, and the participants to a particular
struggle, as well as other interlocutors directly or indirectly involved in the struggle, such as
allies, opponents, experts, politicians, on the other hand. The sociological intervention that
Touraine conducted with anti-nuclear militants consisted in assisting the latter in conferring
to their struggle a new meaning on which the emergence of a social movement would be
based. For Touraine, the anti-nuclear protest can only become a social movement if its
meaning ceases to be merely an anti-industrial withdrawal, in order to evolve toward a
model of post-industrial modernisation. Finding a social movement in the anti-nuclear
action thus means, according to Touraine, finding 'a conflict over a stake, which implies at
least the potential presence of a societal counterproject' (Touraine, 1983: 153). The aim of
sociological intervention is, thus, to enable the participants in a particular struggle to
reconsider and to transform the meaning of their protest. This aim is achieved through a
dialogue between the sociologist and the militants, which Touraine describes as a 'selfanalysis which militants perform upon their collective action' (Touraine, 1981: 27). The
sociologist’s role is to intervene 'by incitement or hypothesis in the actors’ self-analysis of
their struggle' (Touraine, 1983: 10). Sociological intervention thus enables the participants
to adopt an ‘analytical attitude’ (Touraine, 1983: 161), and then to go back to the level of
action in order to design strategies and courses of action on the basis of the new meanings
assigned to their struggle. It is conceived as 'a movement back and forth between analysis
and action' (Touraine, 1983: 161).
Sociological intervention consists in four distinct stages. The first stage is the
formation of 'intervention groups' composed by participants in the struggle, who hold
discussions with other interlocutors chosen by themselves - in the case of the anti-nuclear
struggle, these interlocutors included industrialists, trade unionists, and ecologists
(Touraine, 1983: 10). In the second stage, the sociologists intervene in order to 'encourage
the groups to analyse the conditions and the meaning of their action' (Ibid.). The third stage
is the stage of sociological intervention as such, and is called 'conversion': during this
crucial stage, 'the researchers formulate their hypotheses and tell the groups what seems, in
their opinion, to be the highest possible meaning of their action, and help them to
understand that action from such a vantage point' (Ibid.: 10-1). If the conversion succeeds,
that is, if the participants begin to examine their struggle from the point of view of the
social movement (Touraine, 1983: 176), the last stage of the process is what Touraine calls
‘permanent sociology’. It consists in the reappropriation, by the participants, of the work
done by the sociologists. In Touraine's terms, it implies ‘handing the research back to the
actors’ (Touraine, 1983: 196). 'Permanent sociology' aims at sending the participants back
to action by studying the 'ability of the actors to transform this analysis into a programme
of action' (Ibid.: 11). Ideally, 'permanent sociology' should extend beyond the time of the
research itself, by the militants continuing the back and forth movement, initiated by the
sociologist’s intervention, between analysis and action.
In the case of the anti-nuclear protest, the phase of 'permanent sociology' involved
meetings between the researchers, the members of the intervention groups, and other
militants in the movement who did not take part in the analysis conducted by the
intervention groups. The aim of these meetings was 'to put the precise results of the
analysis to the test by submitting them for study by the militants who would use them to
evaluate and understand better their own practices' (Touraine, 1983: 148). For Touraine, the
immediate impact of this phase was that the militants were encouraged to take an
analytical, reflexive, or 'theoretical' posture regarding their militant action (Ibid.: 147-8). A
crucial point of Touraine’s ‘permanent sociology’ is, in my view, that the participants
directly involved in the intervention groups are not the only agents who can benefit from
the method; rather, other actors concerned by the struggle, who did not directly participate
in the 'conversion', can appropriate the knowledge generated by sociological intervention.
As already suggested, a chief characteristic of Touraine's method of sociological
intervention is that it intentionally merges the descriptive and the prescriptive components
of social science knowledge. The aim of the sociologist, who is 'neither observer nor
ideologist' (Touraine, 1981: 27) is as much to test the hypothesis that a particular social
struggle can become a social movement as it is to participate actively in the transformation
of this struggle into a social movement. To put it differently, in Touraine's method of
sociological intervention, studying the emergence of a social movement and contributing to
this emergence are one and the same thing. Going even further, Touraine suggests that the
validity of the claim that a social movement could emerge from a particular social struggle
is demonstrated with the effective transformation of the struggle into a social movement:
‘the intervention groups’ capacity for conversion demonstrated [...] the presence of a social
movement in that struggle’ (Touraine, 1983: 176). The conversion of the participants is, at
the same time, the ‘proof’ that the sociologist’s hypothesis about the meaning of their
struggle was a valid one:
If the sense is endorsed by the actors of the struggle invited to the discussions,
this means that the sociological theory which brought it to light is validated as
to its pertinence in explaining the action that is the object of the sociological
intervention. […] The group’s conversion to the explanation proposed by the
researchers is what gives it true validity (Hamel, 1998: 3, 4).
To some extent, the exploration of a lay sociological imagination implies the same
inescapable amalgam, stressed by Touraine, between description and prescription. Studying
a lay sociological imagination, on the basis of the life-stories produced during interviews
with lay agents, necessarily also amounts to ‘enact’ this sociological imagination. I,
however, would not go as far as to say, as Touraine suggests, that the only way to
‘demonstrate’ the validity of the hypothesis about a lay sociological imagination is to
‘enact’ this sociological imagination during research sessions between sociologists and ‘lay
people’. This argument is examined further in the last section of the chapter.
6.2.3 The empirical study of a lay sociological imagination
Touraine’s method of sociological intervention has strong affinities with several of
the arguments developed in this dissertation although, as is developed below, I also depart
from Touraine’s position in a significant way. The first affinity concerns the reflexive
process between the researcher and the researched, and the importance of acknowledging
the process of lay appropriation of social science knowledge. Sociological intervention, for
Touraine, is entirely based on the reflexive process between social science knowledge and
its 'subjects'. At the stage of ‘permanent sociology’, ‘the sociological theory is ready to feed
its object of study: the social action originally envisaged by the sociological intervention’
(Hamel, 1997: 97). In contrast to many social scientists who are either oblivious to, or try to
minimise, the appropriation of social science knowledge by their ‘subjects’124, Touraine not
only acknowledges, but also encourages, the process whereby the people under study
appropriate the knowledge that he produces about them. The success of his sociological
124 Cf. sections 3.1.1 & 3.1.2.
intervention in fact depends upon the process of appropriation, by the participants, of the
knowledge generated through the discussions with the sociologists.
Second, Touraine’s sociological intervention is based on the self-analysis125, by the
‘subjects’ of the research – in his case the militants of a particular social struggle – about
their own action. As such, Touraine seems to share the perspective developed in this
dissertation about the usefulness of sociology. Specifically, I have tried to argue that
sociology can be, and already is, useful for lay people as a reflexive resource for making
sense of their own lives and actions. Instead of restricting this usefulness of sociology to
social movements, as Touraine does, I suggest that this process of lay appropriation of
sociological knowledge, and the development of lay sociological imagination that it entails,
concern lay people at large and not only militants of social struggles. In other words, the
type of action that can be elucidated by sociological knowledge does not refer to political
action only, but refer more generally to any form of action in which lay people are engaged
in day-to-day life, including routine and apparently insignificant actions. Thus Touraine’s
method of sociological intervention could in principle be used for making sense of the lives
and events recounted by Bourdieu’s interviewees in La Misère du Monde.
There are, however, important differences between Touraine's epistemological
position about sociological intervention, and my own argument about a lay sociological
imagination. These differences concern, first, Touraine’s conception of ‘participatory
research’ and, second, his conception of common sense. First, Touraine’s conception of lay
appropriation of sociological knowledge can be criticised on the basis of the argument
made in the third chapter regarding ‘participatory research’. In line with many social
scientists involved in research which is based on the active participation of its ‘subjects’,
Touraine assumes that the successful appropriation of sociological knowledge by the
militants involved in the research is conditional on the active intervention of the sociologist.
125 The similarity on this point between Touraine’s method of sociological intervention
and Bourdieu’s practice of ‘provoked and accompanied self-analysis’ (cf. chapter 5), has
been well noted by Hamel (1997, 1998). An important common point between Touraine
and Bourdieu’s methods is that both require ‘the participation of social actors in order to
explain a social struggle or a phenomenon such as suffering’ (Hamel, 1998: 16).
In other words, he suggests that the positive appropriation of sociological knowledge by lay
people is restricted to the practice of participatory research. In contrast, I have argued that
the reflexive process between social science knowledge and its ‘subjects’, and the
development of a lay sociological imagination, are largely independent of sociologists'
actual involvement in participatory forms of research. Lay people do not need the
assistance of sociologists, as it were, in order to appropriate sociological knowledge, and in
order to develop a sociological imagination when making sense of their own lives and
conditions. Second, Touraine reproduces, in my view, an obsolete conception of common
sense, which has been criticised in the fourth and fifth chapters of the dissertation. In
Touraine’s perspective, the militants in a social struggle, prior to ‘sociological
intervention’, only have a ‘practical consciousness’ of their own action, based on their
immediate experience, and which necessarily excludes a consciousness of the ‘dimensions
of the social system’ (Hamel, 1997: 98). These lay agents, in other words, are assumed to
be ‘sociologically naive’, that is, unable to ‘see the social in the individual’, unless the
sociologist lends them, as it were, his or her sociological imagination.
Two major methodological options are open, in my view, for the exploration of a
lay sociological imagination. The first option consists in investigating the life-stories that
people construct independently of any interaction with sociologists. The second option, in
contrast, consists in studying the self-narratives that the sociologists and their 'subjects'
construct through interviews, in a joint process of ‘participatory objectification’, as
Bourdieu puts it126. The first option is based on the two-fold assumption that, as argued
earlier, the construction of self-narratives is a routine activity in a period of ‘reflexive
modernity’, and that these narratives are fuelled by a lay sociological imagination which
has become an important component of ordinary knowledgeability. The guiding assumption
of the first option, therefore, is that sociologists need not 'create' what already exists.
The difficulty with the first option, however, lies in the tracing and recording of
people’s self-narratives or life-stories. The more or less continuous activity of constructing
and transforming one's life-story can be traced in written documents, such as letters or
126 Cf. section 5.3.
diaries, which could be used by sociologists as the empirical basis for studying a lay
sociological imagination. For another part, the activity of ‘making sense and interpreting
one’s life’ takes the form of oral and conversational accounts in which the person tells
someone else about him or herself, in a variety of contexts, such as during conversations
with friends, lovers, or strangers, during job interviews, therapy sessions, etc. To some
extent, sociologists, here again, could find ways of recording these conversations in order to
analyse the self-narratives that they contain. In my view, however, most of the activity of
making sense of one’s life does not ordinarily lead to oral or written documents that could
be 'used' by sociologists in order to investigate people's sociological imagination. The
construction of one's life-story occurs primarily through the conversations that, as it were,
one has with oneself. By this, I mean that, although the construction of self-narratives is a
discursive activity, the words of this 'discourse' are not necessarily spoken or written, in a
way which could be ‘recorded’ by the sociologist. When they are, it is in the context of a
particular relation with an 'other', and this relation of course bears heavily upon the
narratives that will actually be 'spoken'.
From this, it follows that the sociologist might want to create the context for the
construction of his or her subjects' self-narratives, a situation which refers to the second
option mentioned above. This second option comes close to the methodology outlined by
Touraine in his method of sociological intervention. In this option, the relation between the
researcher and the researched becomes the occasion for the elaboration of the latter's lifestory. In other words, instead of drawing upon narratives constructed in other contexts of
the people’s day-to-day lives, the sociologist asks the people under study to tell him or her
about themselves. The narratives constructed during the interviews can then be 'used' by the
researcher in order to investigate the interviewees' sociological imagination. There is,
however, an immediate objection that many would raise regarding this second option,
which directly connects with Touraine’s method of sociological intervention presented
above. The objection consists in claiming that the investigation of a lay sociological
imagination through a joint process of objectification, by the sociologist and her 'subject', of
the latters’s life and practices, is not a valid method, insofar as the sociologist runs the risk
of inducing the subjects' sociological imagination, instead of 'discovering' it. In the same
vein, Touraine’s conception of ‘conversion’ could be rejected on the account that, for
example, ‘the conversion to the hypothesis may well be caused by the friendly feelings
inspired in the group by the sociologists or, on the contrary, by the group’s desire to put an
end to the discussion and to take their leave’ (Hamel, 1998: 6). In such a view, the first
option is more scientifically valid, because the sociologist does not interfere with the
construction of the self-narratives which will be used as 'data' for the study of a lay
sociological imagination.
This objection is, in my view, inadequate, once it is acknowledged, in opposition to
Touraine, that the ‘conversion’ of the researched, to use Touraine’s terms, cannot serve as a
scientific proof of the validity of the hypothesis regarding a lay sociological imagination.
The argument that the second option is not methodologically valid is based on the belief
that the sociologist should try to act as a detached observer who is studying an 'object' that
is 'unperturbed' by the inquiry. It is a position which considers the fundamental reflexivity
of social science as a 'vice', and which is either oblivious of, or asserts the possibility of
ruling out, the process of re-appropriation of social science knowledge by its 'objects'. As
argued extensively in the preceding chapters, I claim, in contrast, that it is neither possible
nor desirable to 'neutralise' the reflexive process between social science and its 'subjects'. It
is certainly true, thus, that investigating people's lay sociological imagination by using the
second methodological option is indistinguishable from 'enacting' it. Instead of considering
this crucial feature as a 'vice' which entails the scientific invalidity of the method, however,
I argue that such a feature is precisely what gives this method its interest and its value. This
can be illustrated by relating this second methodological option to Touraine's method of
sociological intervention.
I have stressed that, in Touraine’s sociological intervention, the sociologist
integrates two objectives, namely, that of studying the potential transformation of a social
struggle into a social movement, and that of actively contributing to this transformation. In
a related vein, studying people's lay sociological imagination, when using the second
methodological option, also entails contributing to the development of a lay sociological
imagination. The interaction between the sociologist and the people he or she interviews
represents, first, an opportunity - among many others in day-to-day life - for the
interviewees to verbalise their self-narratives. Second, provided that the sociologist does
not assume that his 'subjects' are sociologically naïve and that they are unable to adopt a
'theoretical posture', the interaction between the researcher and the researched can also be
an opportunity for the latter to increase and articulate his or her capacity to 'see the social in
the individual'. As such, the study of the lay sociological imagination can be a form of
participatory research, as this notion was characterised in the third chapter, and a form of
'socio-therapy', although I have indicated above that we should be cautious in assuming that
the development of a sociological imagination is necessarily a form of empowerment.
Finally, it should be noted that the first option, which consists in collecting
narratives produced outside the context of sociological inquiry, and which some would see
as more empirically valid than the second option, is not itself free from epistemological and
methodological difficulties. As already noted, the actual expression of self-narratives in
day-to-day life generally occurs in the context of an interaction with an 'other'. This
interaction can itself favour or, on the contrary, impede, the expression of a sociological
imagination. For example, a woman who, during a job interview, explains to a potential
employer why she had been unemployed for a year might tell her story in a way which
insists on personal and individual reasons, in order to present an image or herself as
someone who accepts responsibility for what has happened, and who maintains control,
although she - as well as the potential employer - might be well aware that there are other
reasons which are beyond her individual control. In another context, for example during a
conversation with a friend, the same person can tell the 'same' story in a very different way,
that is, in a way which displays her capacity to ‘see the social in the individual’, in both the
simple and the strong version presented in this chapter. In other words, there can be no
research situation in which the sociologist can have access to people's 'consciousness' in a
direct and 'unbiased' way. People do not make sense of their 'lives' independently of their
relation to the person to whom they 'tell' about their lives.
***
Sociologists have sometimes seen as the ultimate - but chancy - 'enlightenment
function' of sociology, that which contributes 'to the slow and erratic formation of a more
sociological collective consciousness' (Abrams, 1985: 194). I have argued that such a
consciousness - what I call a 'lay sociological imagination' - has come to characterise lay
people's ordinary knowledgeability in contemporary society. The development of a lay
sociological imagination, however, cannot be viewed as the direct outcome of sociologists'
efforts to make sociological knowledge 'useful'. Besides, as should be clear from the
foregoing analysis, the notion of enlightenment is not appropriate for grasping the idea of a
lay sociological imagination.
In this chapter, I tried to examine the proposition that lay people, in conditions of
reflexive modernity, have acquired a sociological imagination which marks the way they
make sense of their lives and construct their self-identities. I explored the significance and
the implications of this proposition with respect to a major concern of the dissertation,
namely, the relationship between social science knowledge and the lay agents who
constitute the 'objects' of that knowledge. The idea of a lay sociological imagination is tied
up with the argument that lay people routinely appropriate social science knowledge. This
process of appropriation refers, on one hand, to the fundamental reflexivity of social
science and, on the other hand, to conditions of reflexive modernity which imply that
people routinely have to reflect upon their own practices in order to go on in their day-today lives. The idea of a lay sociological imagination suggests that the capacity to see the
social in the individual has become a commonsensical way of thinking rather than
remaining the exclusive competence of sociologists.
People's capacity to see the social in the individual can be ‘demonstrated’ by
studying the self-narratives and life-stories which they routinely construct and reconstruct.
This argument has important implications as to the way in which sociologists 'use' people's
self-narratives. It implies, more precisely, a reorientation of some of the epistemological
and methodological assumptions of qualitative sociological research based on people's selfnarratives. Lay people's 'sociological naïveté', which seems to characterise most of the selfnarratives collected by sociologists is, to some extent, the result of sociologists' misguided
assumptions regarding their subjects' capacity - or, rather, 'incapacity' - to be reflexive
about their own lives and to 'see the social in the individual'. In contrast, I have argued that,
in order to be able to display people's sociological imagination, two conditions have to be
met. First, sociologists need to adopt a radically different epistemological position
regarding ordinary knowledgeability and regarding the relation between social science and
common sense. Second, they should try to develop methodological options which facilitate,
instead of 'muffle', as it were, the expression of their subjects' ability to see the social in the
individual. There can be no clear demarcation between the activity of displaying lay
people's sociological imagination and the activity of contributing to its development. This
characteristic, which some would see as a breach of scientific rules, points, in my view, to a
renewed conception of the use and usefulness of sociology in contemporary society.
CONCLUSION
Tiffany’s remark127 that her intricate family situation is a ‘brilliant picture of the
collapse of the nuclear family’ can easily be seen as a very innocuous one, which hardly
deserves that an entire thesis be devoted to it. Yet it is precisely at showing and elucidating
the not-so-innocuous character of such a casual remark that the present thesis was aimed. I
have suggested that Tiffany’s remark can be seen as a manifestation of her sociological
imagination, and as the result of a routine process of appropriation of social science
knowledge. Tiffany makes sense of her private, personal and ‘unique’ individual situation
by relating it to the a general, supra-individual and ‘scientific’ social ‘fact’, namely that of
the collapse of the nuclear family. She ‘objectifies’, in Bourdieu’s terms, her ‘subjective’
experience by appropriating social science knowledge such as social statistics about
marriage and divorce, surveys about the transformation of people’s attitudes towards
homosexuality, social research findings about ‘single-mothers’, expert accounts of the
‘goods and bads’ of the so-called disintegration of the ‘nuclear family’, the very concept of
‘nuclear family’, and so on. This capacity to see the social in the individual pertains to her
sense of control and of responsibility regarding her family situation, that is, it fuels the way
she may or may not feel distressed and guilty about the situation, the way she thinks the
situation is the result of her own doing’, and the way she thinks she can change the situation
through individual or collective action. Although Tiffany certainly feels that she, and the
other members of her ‘disintegrated family’, are responsible for the situation, she also has a
sense that the situation refers to social processes affecting society at large, and that it results
from social conditions upon which she has little control. Social science knowledge is a
significant reflexive resource upon which she draws in order to grasp and define the extent,
and the limits, of her capacity for control and action, and in order to construct her selfnarratives and, ultimately, her sense of self-identity.
In a recent article aimed at re-affirming the significance of social science in
contemporary society, Nico Stehr mentions the 'disparaging observation' (1996: 1.1) made
127 Cf. p. 1.
by the economist Thomas Sowell, that 'the production of the field of sociology in the last
five decades has not made, on balance, much of an impact on the world' (Ibid.). Stehr
firmly rejects Sowell's claim by arguing that 'such observations are driven more by
resentment than by a good understanding of the social role of ideas including those of the
sociological imagination' (Ibid.). Stehr asserts that social science has a prominent and far
reaching practical effect on contemporary society, and that this effect primarily refers to the
impact of the sociological perspective on 'ideological formations' (Ibid.: 1.30). Social
science, and sociology in particular, have made an impact on the world to the extent that
'the language of the sociological imagination succeeds in practice' (Ibid.: 1.31).
The argument developed in this thesis seems is close to Stehr's view, in at least two
respects. First, I have suggested that social scientists tend to have a restrictive and
misleading conception of the impact of social science on contemporary society, and of the
'uses' of social science knowledge. Second, I have argued that 'sociological imagination' has
become a generalised mode of thinking which is now part of 'common sense'. In contrast to
Stehr, however, I do not consider the development of a 'lay sociological imagination' as a
direct impact of sociology on society, or as the direct result of sociologists' work. Rather,
the development of a lay sociological imagination is coextensive with conditions of
'reflexive modernity' which lie far beyond the production of sociological knowledge by
social scientists. The development of social science, instead of being seen as the source, or
as the 'cause', of the development of a lay sociological imagination, itself refers to the
expansion and the radicalisation of society's reflexivity which, in my view, pertains to the
development of both social science and a lay sociological imagination. Sociological
imagination refers to a particular form of knowledgeability which concerns sociologists and
'lay people' alike. This form of knowledgeability is the basis for the production of social
science knowledge, which is carried out by social scientists and other experts, but which is
appropriated by lay people on a virtually continuous basis.
The idea of a lay sociological imagination is based on a two-fold argument
regarding, first, the increasing reflexivity that characterises ordinary knowledgeability and,
second, the particular form that this 'new' reflexivity takes in the current period. The first
part of the argument is that ordinary knowledgeability increasingly implies adopting what
Bourdieu calls a ‘theoretical’ posture regarding one’s own life and practices, in contrast to
the ‘practical sense’ which has generally been seen as the hallmark of ordinary
knowledgeability. The second part of the argument is that one way to be reflexive about
one's own life or, to put it differently, one possible 'theoretical posture', consists in 'seeing
the social in the individual', in the two versions presented in the last chapter of the
dissertation. This particular form of reflexivity, which I call 'sociological imagination', is
tied up with the very idea of a social science, and with the omnipresence of social science
knowledge in day-to-day life. Specific tensions affect the reflexive construction of selfidentity in contemporary society. They refer more precisely to the way each individual
maintains and articulates a sense of capacity for action in contemporary society.
Sociological imagination, which is fuelled routinely by the appropriation of social science
knowledge, enables people to define their control and their responsibility regarding their
own conditions of action.
The argument about the development of a lay sociological imagination has
important implications regarding, first, the ‘practice’ of social science and, second, the role
of social scientists, and of sociologists more particularly. Regarding the 'practice' of social
science, the implications of the thesis concern more specifically the relationship between
social scientists and their 'subjects'. Two major points can be distinguished. The first point
concerns a particular form of social science research, namely research which implies
grasping the 'first-level constructs' of common sense, that is, the way 'lay people' make
sense of a particular social phenomenon. I have argued that social scientists have tended to
assume the sociological naïveté of lay people and that, to some extent, the sociologically
naïve accounts that they collect are the result of this mistaken assumption. In other words,
the sociological naïveté of the people studied is an artefact of social scientists'
methodological and epistemological assumptions, which are themselves based on a
misleading conception of ordinary knowledgeability. I have tried to argue, for example, that
the interviewees' self-narratives in Bourdieu’s La Misère du monde are sociologically naïve
only insofar as the interviewers 'forced' them, first, not to adopt the theoretical posture that,
in my view, they adopt all the time in day-to-day life and, second, not to expose the
'sociological imagination' that, in my view, routinely infuses the way they make sense of
what happens to them.
For Bourdieu, such a research strategy is a way of neutralising the symbolic
violence that is potentially contained in the interviewer/interviewee relationship. Bourdieu
has stressed the symbolic violence and the epistemological mistakes that can be associated
with a research strategy consisting in encouraging the 'subjects' of the research to reflect
upon their lives and their conditions of action. Some of the difficulties identified by
Bourdieu are, in my view, extremely convincing. Yet Bourdieu has failed to acknowledge
that the strategy consisting in confining the 'subjects' of research to a practical and 'antireflexive' posture is itself a pervasive form of symbolic violence, and is itself afflicted with
serious epistemological defects.
The second point concerns social science in general rather than the particular form
of social inquiry that implies 'giving a voice' to lay people, or 'recording' the voice of lay
people. To put it differently, the argument about a lay sociological imagination has
implications regarding the study of any social phenomenon. The reflexive process between
social science and its 'object-matter', namely 'society', becomes radicalised in a period of
reflexive modernity and, more specifically, it increasingly takes the form of the deliberate
appropriation of social science knowledge by the people this knowledge is about. To that
extent, the study of any social phenomenon should account for this process of lay
appropriation of social science knowledge, however remote the research topic is from dayto-day life and from 'lay people'. The development of a lay sociological imagination is a
process which is constitutive of any 'object of study' in social science and which, therefore,
should be taken into account by any scientist studying the 'social world'.
The idea of a lay sociological imagination means that people routinely draw upon
social science knowledge to make sense of their lives and to elaborate their self-narratives.
Social science knowledge has become an important ‘reflexive resource’ for the construction
of self-identity. This, in my view, raises a number of issues regarding the role and the
responsibility of sociologists in today's society. In particular, it means that sociologists have
no choice but to become actively involved in the competition for the representation of the
social world. By this I mean that they cannot rest satisfied with a 'meta-theoretical' role
which would consist in taking the competition itself as their object of study, and in
criticizing the strategies used by different competitors, such as politicians, journalists, other
scientists, etc. If sociologists have indeed something to say about social phenomena,
including those phenomena which have become social issues and are part of the public
debate, then they should try to promote their ideas, concepts and 'findings', and try to
demonstrate the dubious or inaccurate character, in their view, of competing representations
and explanations.
One could object that the involvement of social scientists in policy-making and in
various governmental and non-governmental institutions is the sign that social scientists are
indeed deeply engaged in public discourse and in the competition for the representation of
the social world. Yet this conception of social scientists' engagement is unsatisfactory in
several respects. First, it is based on the assumption that social scientists’ interlocutors, as it
were, are primarily other experts such as policy-makers, who have been trained to
comprehend social science concepts and ideas. In contrast, I have stressed that virtually
everyone can grasp and ‘use’ social science knowledge, and that the enlightenment process
which has been stressed with respect to decision-makers, is only one aspect of a much
larger process whereby social science knowledge pervades day-to-day life and is routinely
appropriated by experts and lay people alike. Second, considering that social scientists’
engagement is confined to their role in policy-making means that the concrete impact of
social science on contemporary social life concerns only a restricted category of social
scientists only - namely those who choose to be involved in policy-making or other forms
of institutional decision-making activities - and a restricted category of social science
knowledge only - namely knowledge pertaining to public ‘social issues’. I have suggested,
in contrast, that social scientists are much more deeply engaged in the social world, whether
they want to be or not. This engagement refer to the continuous ‘dialogue’ between social
science and common sense.
Third, the thesis suggests that more attention should be paid to the many
acknowledged and unacknowledged ways in which social science knowledge pervades dayto-day life and, in particular, to the omnipresence of social science knowledge in the mass
media. We need to abandon the view that the mass mediatisation of social science
knowledge leads to its denaturation and to its systematic distortion, and that the
omnipresence of social science knowledge in day-to-day life refers to a process of
popularisation of social science knowledge. I have tried to show that such a view is based
on a mistaken conception of the relationship between social science and common sense.
Fourth, the argument developed in the thesis implies that social scientists have little control
over the effects and the ‘uses’ of the knowledge they produce. Such a statement is hardly
original, but it assumes a new significance when seen in the context of the lay appropriation
of social science knowledge. Social scientists must acknowledge that the impact of social
science knowledge as a day-to-day ‘reflexive resource’ is considerable, but that they have
little control over the process whereby lay people appropriate social science knowledge for
making sense of their lives and for constructing their self-identity.
One of the tasks of sociologists, in light of the thesis, is to contribute to the
development of people’s capacity to ‘see the social in the individual’ and, more
specifically, to contribute to the development of the empowering aspects of the
‘sociological imagination’. A crucial aspect of this task concerns the articulation between
the notions of control, responsibility, and capacity for action. People’s sociological
imagination means that they are increasingly aware of the social, supra-individual character
of the processes that impinge upon their day-to-day lives, and of the limited control they
have over their conditions of action. At the same time, they have a sense of the dialectical
relationship between localised and globalised phenomena, and of the ‘difference’ that
localised and individual action can make. The 'imperative of responsibility' (Jonas, 1984)
means that we have no choice but to take responsibility for what happens in our lives. This
sense of responsibility, however, has to be reconciled with our awareness of the limited
character of the control that we have on our lives. One’s sense of responsibility for a
particular event can no longer be based on the conviction that one controls this particular
event of process.
The tension between control and responsibility marks personal and individual
experience, for example, one’s own situation of unemployment. The idea of a lay
sociological imagination means that people are able to see the social factors that impinge
upon their personal experience and that ‘explain’ it, and upon which they have little control.
This ability to ‘see the social in the individual’ is combined with the imperative which
consists in taking responsibility for one’s life, and in treating one’s circumstances as the
product of one’s decisions. The tension between control, responsibility, and capacity for
action thus pervades the day-to-day activity of making sense of one’s experience and of
elaborating self-narratives. This tension can be 'resolved' by people in various contrasting
ways, and it is regarding these ways of articulating control, responsibility, and capacity for
action, that sociologists, in my view, have a role to play in contemporary society, and that
social science knowledge can be indeed 'useful' for lay people.
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