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1 - Figures of Descent from Classical Sociological Theory: Luc Boltanski

from Part II - Luc Boltanski and (Post-) Classical Sociology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2014

Bridget Fowler
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

Luc Boltanski, whose work is reaching a crescendo, has made an enduring contribution to sociology. His distinction lies chiefly in his inventive crossing of the approach to domination in the Marxist and Weberian traditions with the interest in moral and symbolic representations of the Durkheimian tradition. Yet, it also bears all the fascination of his early alliance with his master, Bourdieu, and his subsequent public break from him. In particular, we see the mature Boltanski wrestling productively with a fruitful conceptual framework for understanding the contemporary mode of production, and the reappearance within it of mass precariousness in relation to work. Within this framework, perhaps the main virtue of Boltanski's sociology has been to enrich our understanding of subjective meanings at moments of indeterminacy. Thus, he puts under his microscope the rationales for subaltern actors' private and sometimes secret actions, such as abortion (e.g. 2004), as well as the evolving ideological legitimation selected by the dominant class (e.g. with Ève Chiapello, 2005 [1999]) and the justifications for oppositional moments of mass resistance (2011 [2009]).

There are three phases to Boltanski's writing. In his initial period, in which he sometimes co-authored articles with Bourdieu, even his independent publications possess close affinities with the latter's constructivist realism (see, for instance, 1987). Yet, already at this stage, he shows signs of being a critical advocate of Bourdieusian theory, disagreeing occasionally on less important matters. In his middle period (1990s), Boltanski offers insights into different social universes (cités) or justifications, but now within a wider framework of a de facto relativist perspectivism (2006 [1991]; 2012a [1990]; 1999 [1993]). His last period elaborates an original critical theory and firmly eschews a normative relativism, combining sociological enquiry with political or ethical reflections.

Certain modes of analysis are constant throughout these three phases. These include, notably, his dissection of the ideology and doxa shared by avant-garde neo-liberal policymakers. This long-standing research underpins his early work (2008 [1976]), the mid-career On Justification (2006 [1991]: 313), and his later magisterial reading of managerial texts, with Chiapello, in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005 [1999]; see also 2008: 197–208).

Type
Chapter
Information
The Spirit of Luc Boltanski
Essays on the 'Pragmatic Sociology of Critique'
, pp. 67 - 88
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2014

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