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Engaging pluralist perspectives in civic interventions: neopragmatism and social research» (session 1 of 2)

June 29, 2021 10:45
June 29, 2021 12:15

Rainer Diaz-Bone, University of Lucerne; Kenneth Horvath, University of Lucerne; Guy Schwegler, University of Lucerne; Simon Schrör, Weizenbaum Institute in Berlin, Humboldt University


Kenneth Horvath, University of Lucerne

Anke Schad-Spindler, University of Vienna; Stefanie Fridrik, University of Vienna; Oliver Marchart, University of Vienna; Friederike Landau, Radboud University Nijmegen

Guy Schwegler, University of Lucerne

More and more sociological theorizing and methodological strategies set out to highlight pluralities in the social world. Recent pragmatist and neopragmatist approaches have played a key role for deciphering such pluralities and outlining their relevance for understanding social orders and the dynamics of their transformation (e.g. situational analysis, relational sociology, actor-network theory, economics and sociology of convention; see Barthe et al. 2013; Corcuff 2011; Nachi 2006). Compared with older and more traditional research paradigms (e.g. positivism, neofunctionalism, rational-choice approach), these contemporary sociological perspectives on the question of plurality refrain from any definite judgment regarding what counts as good, right, or fair. In this sense, one could be led to believe that the practice of “critique” is left to social actors alone. Any attempt of social researchers to intervene in a given social context would therefore become harder both to articulate and to legitimize. 

At the same time, we recognize an increasing request for scientific knowledge by civic actors and agencies in the face of unfolding societal crises and against the background of a growing awareness of social inequalities and institutional deficiencies (accelerated in times the COVID19 pandemic). Already in classical pragmatism, social research was regarded as a resource to be applied and tested for its capacity to improve societal institutions. Neopragmatist sociology continues the pragmatist position to link science to a common good and focuses the tensions of different ways of engagement and critique (see the book series “Raisons pratiques” at EHESS, Paris and “Soziologie der Konventionen” at Springer VS.). In contrast to classical pragmatism, however, neopragmatist sociology is aware of the close interrelation of science and society articulated in the concept of “performativity” of the sciences (Michel Callon): the social sciences perform society. Therefore, social research cannot be restricted to an analytical standpoint only, but is itself entangled in the plurality of empirical normativities, being, among others, coined by epistemic values which correspond to different views of “the social.”

We would like to present research approaches and methodologies that explore and display perspectives and possibilities for interventions and social experimentations in light of their embeddedness in pluralities. Applying the neopragmatist approach, the contributions will discuss ways of designing social research for situations which are structured by a plurality of everyday rationalities to decide on matters of “truth” and “justice” (i.e. orders of justification). In situations like these, scientific actors (knowingly or not) ally with civic agencies to mobilize, apply, test, and adopt knowledge, which enables informed civic intervention. 

References : 

Barthe, Yannick, Damien de Blic, Jean-Philippe Heurtin, Éric Lagneau, Cyril Lemieux, Dominique Linhardt, Cédric Moreau de Bellaing, Catherine Rémy & Danny Trom (2013): Sociologie pragmatique: mode d’emploi. Politix. Revue des sciences sociales du politique 26 (103), pp. 175-204.

Corcuff, Philippe. 2011. Les nouvelles sociologies. Entre le collectif et l’individuel. 3rd ed. Paris: Armand Colin.

Nachi, Mohamed. 2006. Introduction à la sociologie pragmatique. Paris: Armand Colin

Invoking controversy, deciphering normativities: the method of “qualitative experiments” and the objectives of critical social research after the pragmatic turn

Kenneth Horvath, University of Lucerne

French pragmatic sociology (including the Sociology of Conventions and the Sociology of Critique) suggests a novel understanding of what it means to do critical social research. Boltanski uses the notion of “complex positioning from within” to capture the challenges that this understanding implies: Being always already embedded and effective in the social world they critically engage with, scholars can no longer claim a superior and/or transcendent epistemic standpoint for critiques of the social world. Apart from profound epistemological and ontological questions, this understanding also raises an important methodological question: How to do non-affirmative (= critical) research while at the same time taking the critical capacities of social actors seriously? This paper discusses whether and why the quasi-interventionist method of qualitative experiments offers a possible answer to this question. It outlines the key idea of qualitative experiments and illustrates how this research approach can be put into practice using an ongoing study on the discriminatory dynamics of digital education as an example. Digital education is a fitting example because it is beset with implicit and explicit normativies on all levels (implying permanent critical involvement by social actors themselves) as well as linked to wide-reaching consequences for the distribution of educational opportunities and life chances (warranting the demand for doing critical social research). In the presented project, participants involved in digital education meet in discussion workshops where they work on tasks designed to invoke open, concrete and critical dispute about big data and algorithmic sorting in education. This procedure follows the idea of focusing on situations of conflict and controversy as privileged entry points for social analysis, but acknowledges that these controversies sometimes do not occur “naturally”, for example in settings that are marked by strong professional ethics, social desirability, or multiple black-boxing. The challenges of constructing suitable tasks which further concrete judgement as well as critical reasoning will be discussed. The paper closes with a discussion of how qualitative experiments may allow to achieve both: empirically explicating normative orientations of social actors and strengthening the position of critique in the social world.

Venturing into pandemic cultural policy conflicts. 

Anke Schad-Spindler, University of Vienna; Stefanie Fridrik, University of Vienna; Oliver Marchart, University of Vienna; Friederike Landau, Radboud University Nijmegen

This presentation intends to take cultural politics in Austria during the COVID-Pandemic as a focal point to explore the integration of Adele Clarke’s Situational Analysis in researching and analysing political negotiation processes framed by democracy theory with reference to Chantal Mouffe and Oliver Marchart. It is a follow up of previous research on cultural governance in Austria as well as on the analysis and assessment of cultural policy conflicts of the submitting authors, and a part of the research project “Agonistic Cultural Policy (AGONART) Case Studies on the Conflictual Transformation of Cultural Quarters” that started in December 2020. The COVID crisis brings to light not only the economic vulnerability of the cultural sector once audiences and ticket revenues are no longer flowing in, but also the crisis of legitimacy, manifesting in contestations over public and political recognition, comprehension and empathy, worthiness and relevance. Starting to venture into conflicts in a time of acute and open-ended crisis likely means being confronted with both individuals and organisations in turmoil and under existential threat. This entails also the need for reflective positioning as researchers. How to proceed in the research, whom to give voice in interviews, which case studies to select, how to deal with emotions, how to react to demands to ally, take sides or mediate? What expectations to raise in terms of the outcome of the research terms of providing ‘solutions’? How to open forums for knowledge mediation processes in a time in which any form of physical gathering is potentially dangerous? In sum, venturing into pandemic cultural policy conflicts not only offers a stimulating research terrain but also demands a (self-) conscious research approach. In the context of the workshop, we want to share and discuss our methodological considerations and first empirical experiences in terms of using Situational Analysis as a sensitizing guideline to follow directions and perspectives that reveal difference(s) (in power, among others), complexity and heterogeneous positioning. This heuristic is combined with a conflict-attuned approach to cultural policy. Conflict is not seen as something destructive per se, but – as suggested by the Greek term agon (rule-governed contest) – as a necessary and productive moment of politics in the frame of what Mouffe calls “agonistic pluralism.” Possibly, new ways of dealing with conflictual situations can be tried out as the pandemic not only creates new urgencies but affects also the conditions and modes of gatherings. In this sense, instead of aiming at ‘solutions’, our research focus on negotiation processes could contribute to making cultural policy conflicts approachable and discussable.

A different theory, a different culture? Considering ontologies of cultural production in light of performativity

Guy Schwegler, University of Lucerne

From a neopragmatist perspective, the concept of performativity distinguishes how the social sciences perform society instead of just describing it. One focal point for the approach are the performative effects of the disciplines’ theoretical models: theories can be used as blueprints for the social. Prominently, these effects have been described for economic models in relation to markets. In this presentation, the concept of performativity will be used to approach the role of sociological theories within the world of cultural production. Three points will be added to the workshop’s broader theme of a pluralist perspective: (1) The presentation clarifies the process of intermediation that introduced sociological theories into the world of cultural production. Instead of a request from actors formulated towards science, the need for scientific knowledge is described as emerging from a situation with plural and overlapping worlds. (2) The performative effects of sociological theories are then understood as installing a “quality”, affecting the ontology of cultural production. This conceptualization follows the logic of the so called “Convention Theory” (Soziologie der Konventionen/EC). It not only enables one to translate the understanding of performativity beyond economics, but also to grasp the multitude ways in which theoretical concept are used. (3) Ultimately, the contingency of performative effects is stressed: depending on a respective theory, the qualities that are justified and stabilized within cultural production might differ substantially. Through the three points, the presentation highlights a two-folded engagement of its underlying research: On the one hand, considering the contingency of performativity together with other social effects (like distinction or field dynamics) problematized possible claims for legitimacy by actors. On the other hand, the presentation discusses what performatives effects the theoretical perspective of one’s own research might haven on cultural production.