Thursday, October 9, 2008

Review: 'The Contribution of Sociology' by Kieran Healy

'The Contribution of Sociology'

Kieran Healy, Duke University. (His website is here.) A chapter in: A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd edition). Robert Goodin, Philip Petit, and Thomas Pogge, eds. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. (Buy it here.)

One of the best social-science articles I’ve recently read is ‘The Contribution of Sociology,’ written by Kieran Healy, formerly a sociologist at Arizona University, currently teaching at Duke. The paper is a chapter in a book titled A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd edition, 2007). It is concerned with, as Prof. Healy puts it, “productive exchange between disciplines.” As I interpret the article, the key questions are: What has sociology contributed to political philosophy? And what might sociology contribute in the future? Prof. Healy offers clear answers to both these questions.

As I read it, the article presents three main arguments.

1. There are structural obstacles preventing productive exchange between social-science disciplines. Prof. Healy eloquently discusses these obstacles:

Productive exchange between disciplines faces a paradox. Modern fields of inquiry are large, differentiated, and always growing. This means their boundaries are extensive, and there are many areas of potential contact between them. We are spoiled for shared topics and overlapping questions. Yet differentiation also entails a high degree of specialization at any particular point, and so traffic across disciplinary borders is less common than it ought to be.

He then sums up the paradox:

The trouble with inter-disciplinary work is that you need disciplines in order to do it, and a discipline is a kind of exclusive conversation.

2. Sociology has made important theoretical and empirical contributions to political philosophy. The strength of Prof. Healy’s study is his wide understanding of social theory, both classical and contemporary. The classical theorists he summarizes are Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel. One small question: If Marx is always to be counted as a classical social theorist, shouldn’t Adam Smith be included as well? Both Marx and Smith share a similar orientation toward social structure as (a) economically driven, and (b) independent of human agency. That said, I think I alone have this quibble. I will accept convention’s way in this case, because Prof. Healy more than makes up for it with an interesting juxtaposition of Durkheim and Simmel. Discussing them together is new to me, and allows for interesting insights into each.

The most exciting news with social theory, however, has to do with its contemporary achievements even more than its classical foundations. In this light, Prof. Healy argues that sociology has made three main contributions to contemporary political philosophy. The first is the comprehensive work of Jurgen Habermas. His account of Habermas begins with the ‘multidimensional’ nature of Habermas’s theory.

The classical sociological theorists influence Habermas’s thought in two key ways. They orient him to the system-level question of social integration (and more specifically political legitimacy) in modern societies, and they alert him to the gap between the formal self-description of institutions and their actual operation in practice.

I wish Prof. Healy spent more time parsing out this statement. What accounts for the gap between formality and practice? And what might the gap mean for the study of politics? He never goes there. I will speak more about this below, in my conclusion.

The second and third contributions of social theory to political philosophy, as recounted by Prof. Healy, are found within ‘communitarianism’ (he discusses Amitai Etzioni and Philip Selznick) and what he refers to as the liberal tradition (namely, John Rawls). I don’t disagree. However, my view is neither Etzioni nor Rawls has much of anything illuminating to say about relations of power. In particular, Rawls’s famous notion of the “original position” – in which justice becomes fair insofar as a situation is viewed without reference to one’s interests or ability to act on one’s interest – is to my reading purely hypothetical and, I will say it, the opposite of sociological. That is, a social commentator who discounts power is just not being realistic about social relations.

In addition to theory, Prof. Healy contends that empirical sociological research on inequality and mobility is a key contribution to political philosophy. Such a discussion suggests that a worthwhile political philosophy must contend with shifts in real-world contexts. He writes:

Wage stagnation and rising inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, especially in the United States, has brought the relationship between social mobility and inequality back to the forefront of policy debates.

Another line of empirical inquiry is the role of society in structuring individual health (he might have mentioned Foucault’s concern with ‘bodies’) and the role of culture in structuring social structure. It is with the latter concern – the role of culture in shaping social reality – that Prof. Healy raises the seminal work of Pierre Bourdieu. This brings me to Prof. Healy’s third argument.

3. Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural approach is the leading sociological paradigm for future research. What does sociology offer as an approach to the study of politics? This is a question about future research and methodology: As a way of doing, what could sociology contribute? As I read him, Prof. Healy proposes a heavily cultural paradigm in which sociology would do well to follow the track of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. About Bourdieu, he writes:

Of the leading approaches, Pierre Bourdieu’s project might be the one most likely to generate productive interdisciplinary engagement.

I don’t want to take anything away from Bourdieu. His notions of habitus, symbolic power, and conceptual fields of inquiry are central concepts of contemporary sociology. But I want to end this review by using Prof. Healy’s article to raise a criticism of Bourdieu in favor of a dimension of Habermas that Prof. Healy ignores. This neglected part of Habermas, I think, could help make stronger the emerging cultural paradigms within sociology.

Above, I said I wish that Prof. Healy had dealt more with the question of the gap between the self-description of institutions, and the operation of institutions in practice. What accounts for the gap?

To this end, I am surprised that Prof. Healy’s account of Habermas ignores the seminal role that American pragmatists John Dewey and, especially, George Herbert Mead play in Habermasian theory. The pragmatists are social-psychologists, and are the behavioral answer that, within Habermas's conceptualization, balance Parsonian systems theory. In particular, Habermas uses the pragmatists to help explain the gap between formalized structure and the operation of structure in practice: institutions have their formalized rules, but they are always and everywhere dependent upon individual behavior for their practical outcomes. Human habits and reflectiveness shape the institutions every bit as much as the institutions shape individuals. With his notion of habitus, Bourdieu offers half this formulation. But where in Bourdieu is the sustained attention to the reflective nature of human psychology?

Prof. Healy’s chapter shows a deep engagement with sociology not simply as a stand-alone animal with its own concerns, but as a crucial part of social-scientific knowledge as a whole. I am curious, though, to hear his thoughts on the role of the pragmatists, human behavior, and individual psychology within sociology, and social-science in general. To my mind, it is with a multidimensional behavioral-structural approach that sociology will in the future maximize its contributions to social-science knowledge. I don’t see such multidimensionality within Bourdieu, or in any event, without sustained re-examination of the pragmatists.

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