Notes on: Bauman, Z.  (1976) Towards a Critical Sociology.  London: Routledge.

Dave Harris

Chapter one

Social life can appear as natural as a necessity, and this is developed in a number of positivist traditions, especially Durkheim, where social facts are treated as things [but see the actual Durkheim here].  Ideas or values can also be seen as things, which enables a social science by giving them a natural status.  What happens is that this functional argument leads to understanding actual present society itself  as naturalist, via a 'slippage'.  Thus for example Shils produces the idea of different sets of values, core and peripheral, and describes a whole range of social practices which ensure conformity to them.  Parsons also has a series of idealised management mechanisms, although he does allow for possible tensions between them [Merton even more so].  In Parsons there is again a range of norms from the mundane to the central: central values and social goals can only be grasped by sociologists.  Patterns are simply imposed usually through interactions in groups [the example is drawn from WI Thomas, and the pressures of gossip and so on].  This approach provides a solution to the fears of lack of constraint, again prominent in Durkheim who argues there are no other natural constraints to regulate human beings.  There is no alternative, and social coercion is necessary for functionalists: the only freedom is seen as leading to market anarchy.  There can be a choice of coercion, and values are preferred to force, even in the communist East: Durkheim is a softer option than Stalin! (23). 

The whole approach is been ridiculed by Goffman who sees a whole stress on values and social order as the result of the experience of McCarthyism, when moral zeal was mocked.  On the rebound, moral pressures were generalized into a social theory again.  Goffman stresses the possibilities of playing the system, however, and his sociology is critical in the sense that it shows that the emphasis on central values is not really genuinely moral, but phony, and that beliefs do not actually govern social life, more the impression of conforming to them.  However, central values are still necessary to avoid radical doubt, and there must be pretence in social life .  Nevertheless, social conformism present a hostile environment for the individual.

An early crisis for functionalist sociology took the shape of the emergence of the subjective.  The problem is that sociology must also be grounded in common sense, in experience, and this led to the problems of defining freedom and constraint at the level of experience.  Again social science can claim a superiority here as the only discipline which grasps the 'real' laws and limits behind experience.  The fear of freedom is still present, and sociology offers a scientific authority to complement religious authority: sociology has a new role to explain the inevitable limits of social life, as a kind of theodicy. There are other religious underpinnings to functionalism as well [Gouldner is good on this].  Thus it is possible to see deviancy as irrationality, to connect with Weber's insistence on rationality as the best form for modern societies, or as something which reconciles the individual and the social.

In these ways, sociology is closed to the possibilities of [political] freedom.  It is rooted in the common sense fear of freedom, and it claims to be superior technically and cognitively.  It is powerful because it is rational, scientific rather than metaphysical or ideological.  There is something in this argument, but sociology is wrong to stay at this level.  It does so because it's responding to technical developments and convergences, which it sees as more important than mere ideological differences, like those between East and West [in the dear dead days of the Cold War]..  Sociology can positively investigate social responses, analysing cultures and identifying structural limits.  This is what produces the interest in 'inevitability': sociology works at the level of cultural and structural possibilities rather than engaging in direct behaviourism [in policy terms].

[Political?] knowledge is never seen as emerging from any sort of dialogue with social sciences, which means functionalist sociology inevitably takes the side of those who see others as objects.  If it does have an enlightening impact at all, this will be to encourage the manipulators [of the Goffman kind].  There is no discourse of emancipation or enlightenment.

Chapter two

The roots of sociology in common sense experience is never really examined.  It is clear that common sense provides the categories crucial to analysis, for example in defining objects.  This has led to Husserl's critique of empiricism, establishing how thought develops into certainty, and criticizing Descartes for being too eager to assume a knowledge of objects.  Husserl attempted to end the splits between epistemology and ontology, through categories of noesis and noema [roughly the qualities of thoughts and of things, both treated as phenomena and connected together].  Similarly, both subject and object were seen as abstractions, both were common in the 'natural attitude'.  The critique was able to show that individual consciousness also involve reductions of reality. 

There are implications for sociology: subjectivity is now established as a topic for research; the notion of intentionality provides an active role for the subject, and a move towards deobjectification; hermeneutics is now grounded in normal human activity; meaning is considered as transcendental rather than as a matter of individual consciousness, which escapes the relativism of concrete subjectivity.  There are problems with using Husserl although, since sociology clearly works at a more concrete level [and there are always problems connecting the concrete and the transcendental!].  Sociology focuses on interactions rather than transcendental essences.  Husserl's analysis of the life world was never very detailed, since the intention was to demonstrate philosophically the existence of others and so on: there is an assumption that the other can be understood in a relation of reciprocity.  This raises problems with otherness: if people act as a genuine other, we cannot really understand them; we can assume there is reciprocity, but it is hard to actually establish this (50).  Reciprocity is conventionally assumed, but this leads to unfortunate consequences—consensus is also assumed, the existence of a conscience collective in the life world, even the notion of society as some collective personality.  Phenomenology stands as either a devastating and total critique of sociology altogether, or as an awful apology for functionalism.

Existentialism is another input.  Being is simply assumed again, rather than something to be studied, so existence must precede essence.  For Heidegger, Being became Dasein, being for other humans, the only source of genuine being, but also the greatest threat to it in the form of the crowd, das Man, the hellish others for Sartre.  What we have here is an argument about reification which takes place as the result of such collective interventions, and this prevents individual decision-making.  However, there is some possibility of dereifying events by establishing some notion of authentic being.  But authentic being is itself a reduction to a nonsocial level, a pure self, and reification is explained only as some deviation from this pure self: there is no history, no social dimension, there is only the self.  Further, thinking of relations between concrete and authentic selves produces all sorts of individual doubts moral crises and relativism, not a critical discourse.

Such existentialism has influenced social phenomenology, which is really existentialist as in Schutz, focused on individual member rather than transcendental subjectivity, and assuming shared relevancies 'from the outset'.  There is no account of a critical historical development, only an analysis of formal or universal types rather than specifics, cognitive rules rather than social divisions. Social divisions are seen formally, as zones around an individual, those within reach and so on.  The content of individual subjectivity, so to speak, is often very different, leading to a kind of relativism.  There are biological determinations.  There are multiple realities, but there are also finite provinces of meaning, as syntheses produced by consciousness, 'frames' to make meaning finite, to limit it.  Individuals have a choice between finite provinces [not very satisfactorily explained, in my view, seen in terms of a 'leap'—and every day life is the 'paramount reality'].  Individuality is therefore inevitably reproduced, as a kind of converse of Durkheim: in Schutz it takes a particular 'monadic form', or at best seems to be based on anthropological universals, although Schutz is vague.  A shared stock of knowledge is an a priori assumption, and that stock includes agreed definitions of objects, or reciprocity of perspectives, congruence of perspectives, all as a priori conditions for being with others.  These theoretical prerequisites are as powerful as the pattern variables for Parsons!

Schutz does talk about simultaneity, but he mostly describes degrees of anonymity expressed in different ideal types, hypothetical only.  Social aggregates are seen as aggregates of these personal types.  Society is merely a sediment, something out of our immediate control.  Social relations only exist as concepts and they can be criticized as concepts or typifications, but they are also necessary to reification as compared with simultaneity.  Overall, concepts are hypostasized, whereas the real processes are uninvestigated.

Overall, social phenomenology demystifies society, but sees reification of some kind as inevitable and as universal, leaving only a kind of practical freedom.  This is of course an abstraction from the current situation.  It can serve as a criticism of sociology rather than the object of sociology.  Proper critical sociology would investigate common sense to unravel 'collective objectivations'.  It is an attempt to move back to the conceptual roots of sociology rather than to criticize its objects.  All constraints operate through typifications in the same way for Schutz.

Given this philosophical reduction of the approach, alternatives might be found in the work of Mead.  Here, there is a relation between the social and individual, a dialectical process of interaction, although this is still existential, says Bauman, still rooted in mundane subjectivity.  Thus Mead's 'I' is best seen as a 'sediment of all previous acts', while the 'me' depicts 'social reality as…  an external factor' (66).  The same constraints lie behind the notions of the 'definition' and the 'situation' respectively.  Both are seen in dialectical tension in an actual act.  There are only really separate stages when one act is considered, and the two aspects merge during a process, for example in a biography, where today's definitions become tomorrow's situations (67).  Critical sociology is interested in the reverse process.

Mead never tackles critical analysis in this way because he's interested in the problems of the given existence, about the origins rather than the intelligibility of the present.  He does stress the dynamics of the self against the fixity of society, but the approach developed by Berger and Luckman is better because it looks of the construction both of society and the self.  They develop processes like 'habituation' to account for regularities in social life and how actions become taken for granted.  They also describe 'realization' as a process of becoming real as well as people becoming aware.  Their approach is generally emancipatory because it is about reification [see Berger and Pullberg], and shows how selective knowledge is, how alternatives are suppressed, and how groups support their definition of reality.  Nevertheless, it is still conceptual, cognitive and epistemological.  It is equivocal in terms of the different types of sedimentation.  It is still about knowledge rather than reality, and there is still some belief that institution somehow reflect universal interests.  It is very good as a starting point at least.

Chapter three

Both kinds of sociology are too descriptive of things as they are as a foundation for action, and this produces a drift to positivism.  Values [and politics] are seen as distortions of the values and attitudes of science.  Sociology was emancipatory, but it now binds human beings to a world of facts, and has reverted back to prejudice [I note  the clear undertones of critical theory here, as in Dialectic of Enlightenment ].  Sociology lacks a critical edge [because it has been positivized] and sees reason as both moral and empirical: it has been keen to pursue great success with the latter emphasis at the expense of the critical edge developed better in the former.  This has led to an abdication from the world of politics and values, and is the source of the current problems of finding grounds for critique.

Critique must confront common sense which is inherently conservative, but this opens sociology to ridicule.  Sociology seems contrived rather than intuitively obvious, and critique seems to deny rather than build on common sense: instead of trying to accept, understand or systematize common sense,  critical sociology wishes to transcend it.  It is bound to be resisted, because commonsense comforts and regulates not challenges and questions our  very experience.  Experience very often fights back with the charge that sociology is 'unrealistic', 'utopian' and so on.  Sociology tries to be emancipatory about the ends of social action, but commonsense operates with 'decisionistic nods'.  Nevertheless, an emancipatory approach must attack common sense and the reality which it reflects, more radically than did Durkheim or Schutz.  An emancipatory programme must be anti naturalistic, and focus on the historical instead.  It must span the apparent separate poles of situation/definition, or actor/system, which constitute each other historically.  We should understand history as providing sedimented past actions and choices, not cognitive processes.

The best example of a suitable historical analysis is found in Marx, especially in the critique of political economy as abstractive, naturalizing historical events.  In his analysis, social relations look both objective and material because they are no longer face to face, no longer part of life world.  The network of dependencies which result have to be ideologized as 'reality', as 'second nature'.  It is this process that provides the current opposition between the public and private, and accounts for the opacity of social relations between actors, especially those between producers and consumers which are seen in terms of social distributions of value and money.  Simple calculations of interest replace the attempts at understanding [purposive rationality seems more 'natural' than any attempt to understand in an emancipatory way].  The economy seems all powerful because it was the first to be and is still the most abstracted: economic relations seem to be the model for all subsequent power relations [with reference to the Marxist notion of superstructure, 83].  Freedom is reserved only for those spheres where there is no immediate economic dependency—the face to face, interpersonal relations [which means that interactionists are quite wrong to celebrate these residual spheres as essential].

The aim of analysis is to show that economic relations are social, but not in the sense meant by Durkheim or Schutz.  These are too uncritical of common sense notions of social reality, and do not question distinctions like the ones between public and private.  A critical sociology must not depend on an arbitrary choice.  It must be chosen because the other approaches are unable to grasp social totality.  That totality appears as something anonymous, objective and natural, and it seems only reasonable to obey it in the interests of particular individuals.  Historical analysis must overcome these conceptions, presenting not just a succession of types or stages, which conventionally accept distinctions like the private and public [the examples here are the couples mechanical/organic, Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft], and which offer a society in the past as the only alternative to the present. 

There is no way forward by personalizing either: it is impersonal relations that are personified in individualistic ideas for Marx [in Grundrisse].  Impersonal relations operate through 'an illusion of personal freedom' as something that can master constraints (88), including those that appear to constrain everyone else, the mass.  This is how experience confirms the system, and leaves freedom only as an intellectual or epistemological matter.  This idea is based on 'reality', sometimes on anthropology, but these terms are never criticized.  We need to open them up to critique instead of seeing them as immutable, and consider the production of new needs: the future should not be seen as bound to the past as in common sense, religious or social obsessions with order.  We need to consider social life as possessing an unlimited potentiality—how this is constrained is the task of empirical sociology.

Can and should a critical society be a science?  Truth is a matter of process, a practical question, in science and in positivism, but the type of practice is the relevant issue.  We can not just reproduce the practices of existing science [as in those elements of social science where human subjects are not told the purposes of the research].  Results from a process would be as alienated as common sense, and equally unable to break through to alternatives. 

Some sociologists have made some interesting attempts to develop alternatives.  One concerns the 'sociology of the present' developed by E Morin (94), which studies the irregular and unique event, such as a sudden crisis, which breaks taken for granted perceptions [sounds a bit like Badiou].  The danger is that this approach will be routinized, however, just like 'conflict sociology'.  Nevertheless, this approach was good for criticizing system builders like Althusser.  Nevertheless, problems were still seen as epistemological ones, a matter of self critique for sociology alone.  Another approach was pursued by Kariel, who developed a sociology of the absurd, which was relativist and was aimed at exposing ideology.  It emphasized the playful nature of social life rather than social routines, and offered a deliberate shift to consider alternatives, to enlarge understandings, to enjoy all truths.  It was 'mere intellectualism', however.  Stanley pursued a project of delegitimation, examining instances of disorder prompted by scarcity—useful but still about meanings only.  Bloch developed the notion of hope as telos, focusing on the future to be anticipated rather than bothering to critique the present.  All these approaches still operated within the viewpoint and control of social science, however (102).

Habermas developed the notion of quasi - transcendental human interests that can be understood as a matter of discourse [which seems to have anticipated the later linguistic turn].  Discourse is genuinely universal and immanent when it engenders communication.  Historically, however, it becomes distorted, and Habermas wants to restore the emancipatory interest in recovering this history.  This is to take place through rational reconstructions, as in science, but it is more than science: Habermas aims at a more universal authentication, as in Freudian psychotherapy, where authentication is required by the actor, and is to be developed into practice, seen as a correction of self deception, a personal move towards undistorted communication.  This is Habermas's novelty [and it does lead to activism, for Bauman, 105].  Social praxis is not just therapeutic, the same as the relationship between doctors and patients, however. An emphasis on praxis is still the distinguishing mark of a critical sociology rather than focusing on inherent consistencies or particular intellectual qualities. 

The issue is whether we end with dialogue, or whether it all just stays as academic discourse.  Emancipatory dialogue is very rare.  There is no need to consider it solely in terms of the working class [and Habermas seems to support a general dialogue—this is what he means by saying there is no longer a clear link between Marxist theory and politics, says Bauman, 107].  Dialogue like this involves persuasion and argumentation, and these are not just confined to social sciences, but are universal capacities.  As a result, the argument can not be as rigorous as in scientific truth testing.  Further, there are lots of excuses to say that the public are unaware or uninterested in such dialogue: but critical theory cannot accept this.  [We now know, thanks to Rancière, that authoritarian hectoring, lecturing, patronising and badgering, or hierarchy between experts and plebs can also ensue].

There can be no guarantees of development between the stages of critical analysis, between scientific tests, dialectic and practice.  We need to begin though.  We can operate heuristically, aiming to remove blocks to emancipatory conversation gradually, to be open, to be prepared to enlighten our partners, and to tolerate a lot of accountability.  This might sound 'vague', but 'freedom means uncertainty' (112).

More social theory