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Pragmatic Sociology: A Users Guide

Yannick BARTHE, Damien DE BLIC, Jean-Philippe HEURTIN, ric LAGNEAU, Cyril

Danny TROM
Translation of Sociologie pragmatique: mode d'emploi , Politix. Revue des
sciences sociales du politique, n103, 2013, p. 175-204.
During the last thirty years, the researchers working within the orientation
known as pragmatic sociology have produced a considerable amount of empirical
investigations relating to all areas of social life. In accordance with the theoretical and
methodological assumptions they intended to defend, they have developed
significantly new ways to conduct their inquiries, to collect data, to explore their
fields, to think through the cases and controversies they used as entry points to
explore the social order and its always problematic reproduction. The aim of this
paper is to characterize the pragmatic style in sociology by highlighting ten points
and to specify its methodological requisites and practical implications in the conduct
of research.
Over the last thirty years, the researchers who identify with pragmatic
sociology (also known as sociology of preuves1) have produced empirical surveys
relating to all areas of social life. In accordance with the theoretical assumptions they
intended to defend, they have developed significantly new ways to conduct surveys,
collect data, explore their fields, think in terms of case, as well as use controversies to
understand social order and its problematic reproduction. This paper aims to
highlight ten characteristics of the pragmatic style in sociology and specify its
methodological requisites and practical implications on the conduct of research.
In the mid-1980s, as P. Bourdieus critical sociology and R. Boudons
methodological individualism prevailed, a new sociological movement surfaced. It
was coined pragmatic sociology. It will fall to the disciplines historians to
determine how this label emerged, who identified with it, and how it came to
designate a set of heterogeneous yet somehow related approaches, which can be
unified only retrospectively and not without difficulty. This movement drew on
interactionism, ethnomethodology, situated action theories, and later the American
philosophical tradition known as pragmatism2. Thus we dont at all aim to gloss on

The latter is sometimes translated as sociology of tests or sociology of trials [N. d. T.].

The label pragmatic we borrow here doesnt imply that the designated kind of sociology is directly
inspired by pragmatist philosophers such as Charles S. Pierce, John Dewey, William James, George H.
Mead. First, this sociology doesnt claim to consist in a philosophical approach to the social and
physical world, but in a kind of sociology indeed: this implies in particular that the empirical survey,
which follows tried and tested social science methodologies, has a central and irreplaceable role.
Second, while pragmatisms influence is crucial to it (especially through the bridges built by the
Interactionist and Goffmanian sociological traditions, as well as ethnomethodology), its sources of
inspiration are nevertheless varied. Indeed, certain pragmatic sociologists significantly draw on
Durkheimianism, Weberianism, phenomenology, and Science Studies.

the use of the term. Nor do we claim exclusive rights on it. Rather, we intend to
outline a sociological practice, indifferently called pragmatic sociology or sociology
of preuves3.
We think that two approaches form the backbone of pragmatic sociology,
despite their significant differences: the anthropology of science and technology,
developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, and the sociology of action regimes,
initiated by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thvenot. In thirty years, they have led to
empirical researches relating to all areas of social life: from factories to religious
communities, from educational institutions to worlds of art, from scientific
controversies to political and financial scandals, from political institutions to charity
movements, from the media to transformations in the medical world, including the
new mobilizations related to health and environmental risks, the changes in
management, the political and social effects of statistical measures, the functioning of
financial markets, or the practices of policing and surveillance. Classic sociological
objects were therefore grasped in a new light, while other phenomena so far
considered illegitimate or simply misunderstood, like music amateurs practices, the
presence of nonhumans at the heart of social activities, or popular beliefs deemed
irrational (such as those related to Marian apparitions or UFOs), could be taken
seriously, as objects in their own right.
Throughout these studies, proper methodological postures were identified,
discussed, and revised. In accordance with the theoretical assumptions they intended
to defend, pragmatic sociologists have developed significantly new ways to conduct
surveys, collect data, explore their fields, think in terms of case, as well as use
controversies to understand social order and its problematic reproduction. This
know-how shares some of the techniques and practices used by the whole social
science community. Yet it also partly differs from them. We identify with pragmatic
sociology and try, in our work, to use its methods and develop them. We rely on its
theoretical assumptions and its conceptual frameworks to analyze the social world.
This paper primarily aims to clarify what the practice of pragmatic sociology requires
in a technical sense first. In short, the goal is to characterize the pragmatic style in
sociology and to specify its methodological requisites and practical consequences on
the conduct of the research4.
The notion of style matters. Needless to say, it refers to a style of survey,
reasoning, and rendering to a style of sociological practice. A style involves points

Due to the crucial importance of the notion of preuve in this approach, see in particular: Latour
(B.), Pasteur : guerre et paix des microbes. Followed by Irrductions, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2011 [1st
ed. 1984]; Boltanski (L.), Thvenot (L.), De la justification. Les conomies de la grandeur, Paris,
Gallimard, 1991; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris, Gallimard, 1998.
Pour un essai de prsentation synthtique de la notion, Lemieux (C.), Jugements en action, actions
en jugement. Ce que la sociologie des preuves peut apporter ltude de la cognition , in Clment
(F.), Kaufmann (L.), eds, La sociologie cognitive, Paris, Orphys-ditions de la Maison des sciences de
lhomme, 2011.

For more introductory texts on pragmatic sociology, see in particular: Brviglieri (M.), StavoDebauge (J.), Le geste pragmatique de la sociologie franaise , Antropolitica, 7, 1999; Cantelli (F.),
Genard (J.-L.), tres capables et comptents : lecture anthropologique et pistes pragmatiques ,
SociologieS, 2008 [online:]; Dodier (N.), Lespace et le
mouvement du sens critique , Annales, 60 (1), 2005; Nachi (M.), Introduction la sociologie
pragmatique, Paris, Armand Colin, 2006; Lemieux (C.), Jugements en action, actions en
jugement art. cit.

of convergence. But by no means does it involve a perfect homogeneity throughout all

the affiliated work. Likewise, although a style is identified by a set of quite distinctive
features, it can show a certain level of variability even disagreement or conflict. This
paper aims to offer a ten-point clarification of the requisites for a sociological survey
in the pragmatic style. The approach is therefore deliberately retrospective. It intends
to assess the progress of pragmatic sociology and publicize its common ground,
which we view as dynamic and open to reformulations and orientations. Thus this
paper is primarily meant for young sociologists and political scientists, so that they
get a better idea of what this sociology entails.
How pragmatic sociology bridges the micro and macro levels
Pragmatic sociologys view on macrosociological facts can be summarized as
follows: it never dissociates these facts from the operations and processes that enable
them to be described. This implies that sociologists focus on settings and activities in
which sets are aggregated, totalities assembled, collectives established, and structures
made tangible. Thus pragmatic sociology strives never to leave the situations level,
that is, the micro level. Yet the micro level isnt seen as opposed to the macro
level. On the contrary, it is viewed as the level where, from situation to situation, the
macro level itself is achieved, produced, and objectivated through practices,
devices, and institutions, without which it could certainly be deemed to exist, but
could no longer be observed and described.
In the early Eighties, this approach prevailed in the studies on
socioprofessional categories5. Their focus on the formation and composition of
statistical aggregates aimed to account for certain ways of structuring social space.
But there was an explicit methodological stance: the duality between the objectivation
processes and the objectivated structure should be suspended, while the double
movement of stabilization and extension of the statistical forms and practices should
be analyzed. Pragmatic sociologists used this approach to analyze the various formats
of summation, enlargement, and totalization whereby collective realities are
established as such and certain beings are relegated to smallness, invisibility, or
exceptionality6. In trying to account for procedures and instruments whereby actors
assess the size of social phenomena, trace causal links, and establish collective
entities, they systematically connected in situ observations to considerations relating
to the state of macrosocial configurations (on a city-wide or national scale), and vice
Thus pragmatic sociology doesnt focus only on face-to-face situations. On the
contrary, as the work accumulated over the past thirty years shows, it is also
concerned with large beings whether types of economic organization (capitalism,
markets, companies8), political institutions (the State, its administrations9),

For a review of this line of research, see: Desrosires (A.), Thvenot (L.), Les catgories
socioprofessionnelles, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2002.

Boltanski (L.), Les cadres. La formation dun groupe social, Paris, Minuit, 1982; Thvenot (L.), Les
investissements de forme , Cahiers du CEE, 29, 1986.

See: Hermant (E.), Latour (B.), Paris, ville invisible, Paris, Les empcheurs de penser en rond-La
Dcouverte, 1998; Didier (E.), En quoi consiste lAmrique ? Les statistiques, le New Deal et la
dmocratie, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2009.

socioprofessional groups (managers, doctors, teachers, journalists10), or public

issues11. It doesnt neglect the comparative approach for it compares national
societies12 through combinatory ethnographies, which account for certain social
operations (doing science, evaluate, care, put to death, and so on) observed in various
contexts13. Thus how pragmatic sociology tames the great Leviathan doesnt lead to
relativize let alone deny the existence of sociological realities beyond the here and
now of observable situations14. This sociology would otherwise renounce the basis of
all sociological approaches: viewing society as a total phenomenon to be grasped as
Pragmatic sociology is original in that it distances itself from other approaches
that view situations as determined by structures, which only sociologists could bring
to light. Indeed, according to pragmatic sociology, the refusal of this kind of
structural analysis doesnt equate with a lack of consideration for structural
phenomena, much less with a failure to take account of macrosociological facts.
Pragmatic sociologys main contributions is to offer an alternative conception of the
connection between situational and structural realities, and therefore to bridge the
micro and macro levels.

Callon (M.), ed., The Laws of the Markets, Oxford-Malden (MA), Blackwell, 1998; Callon (M.),
Millo (Y.), Muniesa (F.), eds, Market Devices, Oxford-Malden (MA), Blackwell, 2007; Boltanski (L.),
Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.

Linhardt (D.), Ltat et ses preuves. lments dune sociologie des agencements tatiques ,
Clio@Thmis, 1, 2009; Linhardt (D.), Muniesa (F.), Du ministre lagence. tude dun processus
daltration politique , Politix, 95, 2011; Lemoine (B.), Les valeurs de la dette. Ltat lpreuve de la
dette publique, PhD dissertation in political science, Mines ParisTech, 2011; Moreau de Bellaing (C.),
Ltat, une affaire de police ? , Quaderni, 78, 2012; Cantelli (F.), Pattaroni (L.), Roca (M.), StavoDebauge (J.), eds, Sensibilits pragmatiques. Enquter sur laction publique, Berne, Peter Lang, 2009;
Normand (R.), Expertise, Networks and Tools of Government: The Fabrication of European Policy in
Education , European Educational Research Journal, 9 (3), 2010.

Boltanski (L.), Les cadres, op. cit.; Dodier (N.), Les mutations politiques du monde mdical.
Lobjectivit des spcialistes et lautonomie des patients in Tournay (V.), ed., La gouvernance des
innovations mdicales, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2007; Normand (R.), La profession
enseignante lpreuve du Nouveau Management Public. La rforme anglaise de la Troisime Voie ,
Sociologie du travail, 53 (3), 2011; Lemieux (C.), Existe-t-il quelque chose comme une profession
journalistique ? , in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivit journalistique. Onze leons sur le rle de
lindividualit dans la production de linformation, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2010.

Charvolin (F.), Linvention de lenvironnement en France. Chronique anthropologique dune

institutionnalisation, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2003; Barthe (Y.), Le pouvoir dindcision. La mise en
politique des dchets nuclaires, Paris, Economica, 2006; Cefa (D.), Terzi (C.), eds, Lexprience des
problmes publics, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2012.

For instance: Lamont (M.), Thvenot (L.), eds, Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology:
Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
2000; Kovenova (O.), Les communauts politiques en France et en Russie. Regards croiss sur
quelques modalits du vivre ensemble , Annales, 66 (3), 2011; Debourdeau (A.), De la solution au
problme. La problmatisation de lobligation dachat de lnergie solaire photovoltaque en France et
en Allemagne , Politix, 95, 2011.

Dodier (N.), Baszanger (I.), Totalisation et altrit dans lenqute ethnographique , Revue
franaise de sociologie, 38 (1), 1997; Rmy (C.), La fin des btes. Une ethnographie de la mise mort
des animaux, Paris, Economica, 2009.

Callon (M.), Latour (B.), Le grand Lviathan sapprivoise-t-il ? , in Akrich (M.), Callon (M.),
Latour (B.), Sociologie de la traduction. Textes fondateurs, Paris, Presses des Mines, 2006.

On this technical necessity of sociology, see: Kaufmann (L.), Trom (D.), eds, Quest-ce quun
collectif ? Du commun la politique, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2010.

What does this alternative conception consist in? It is based on the need to
grasp macrosociological realities within the social reality in which they unfold. Thus
the macro level is viewed as the result of performances that can be empirically
observations. This holds for the sociological reasoning itself, which isnt unique in
this respect: social science deserves to be understood and analyzed as a contribution
to the processes whereby societies grasp themselves16. Such a statement doesnt
constrain them to renounce the objectivation of aggregated realities. But it requires
them to view the objective knowledge they produce or use as a practical achievement,
and therefore to break with certain nave forms of objectivism.
How pragmatic sociology integrates phenomenas historical temporality
Pragmatic sociology seeks to grasp phenomena in their concrete observability.
This is why the situation the present of the action as it unfolds forms the basis of
surveys. Whether the studied situations are recent or belong to a distant past doesnt
matter. Pragmatic sociology isnt confined to the study of our societies present.
Rather, it aims to study any action, past or present, as it unfolds. In doing so, this
approach is very similar to that of certain historians, who endeavor to account for
past actions within the effective horizon of their authors expectations17. In line with
these historians, pragmatic sociology tries not to project onto past facts the
knowledge of their repercussions. Likewise, it tries to account for the relative
indeterminacy that prevailed in past actions and was often erased by them 18. Such
presentism deserves to be described as methodological. Indeed, it doesnt presuppose
that present phenomena are of greater analytical interest than past ones. It only
requires that the latter be examined using the same methodology as present ones,
that is for a pragmatist researcher in accordance with their relative indeterminacy
and internal dynamism.
For all that, pragmatic sociologists analyses dont neglect longer temporalities,
which go beyond the here and now of the actions they study. In this respect, two nonmutually-exclusive stances can be distinguished within pragmatic sociology. The first
is more strictly presentist. It sticks to the ethnomethodological principle that, when
analyzing action, researchers shouldnt take account of any element external to the
order resulting from the action being achieved. Thus the historical past can be
included in the survey only if the situations participants call for it. The researcher
then determines when, how, and by means of which material and organizational
supports actors themselves refer to the past, reinterpret it, and produce its
factuality19. Far from marginal, this highly pragmatist topic is similar albeit

See: Latour (B.), Changer de socit, refaire de la sociologie, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2006.


For a discussion on this comparison: Cerrutti (S.), Pragmatique et histoire. Ce dont les sociologues
sont capables , Annales, 46 (6), 1991; Boureau (A.), La croyance comme comptence , Critique,
529-530, 1991; Lepetit (B.), ed., Les formes de lexprience. Une autre histoire sociale, Paris, Albin
Michel, 1995; Van Damme (S.), Lpreuve libertine. Morale, soupon et pouvoirs dans la France
baroque, Paris, CNRS ditions, 2008; Offenstadt (N.), Van Damme (S.), Les pratiques historiennes
au risque de la sociologie pragmatique , in Brvigliri (M.), Lafaye (C.), Trom (D.), eds, Comptences
critiques et sens de la justice, Paris, Economica, 2009.

On the importance of this stance, see: Callon (M.), Latour (B.), eds, La science telle quelle se fait,
Paris, La Dcouverte, 1990; Latour (B.), Pasteur, op. cit.

See the issue edited by: Heurtin (J.-Ph.), Trom (D.), Se rfrer au pass , Politix, 39, 1997.

different to a research area now popular among historians: the social and political
uses of the past20. It contributes to the study of historical phenomena by bringing in
an analytical reflexivity that forces the researcher not only to acknowledge its
contemporaries abilities to produce their presents historicity, but also to specify the
degree to which these shared abilities differ from his/her own, as well as how they
both derive from the same processes of conflicting objectivation of the past.
Another way pragmatic sociology brings in temporalities that go beyond the
here and now of the situations can be described as genealogical. It consists in
inquiring into the past of a society, group, or organizational device, so as to account
for the fact that, throughout their actions and judgments, contemporary actors are
faced with constraints they inherit, but can also use certain resources passed on by
their predecessors (already pioneered means of action, justifications already formed,
etc.). Whether it focuses on pilgrims waiting for Marian apparitions, anti-AIDS
activists calling out to the authorities, elected representatives cursing one another in
the National Assembly, slaughterhouse workers struggling with the animals they have
to put to death, foremen claiming manager status within their companies, or
journalists seeking to verify the information they came across, the observation of
practices must be compared with the way forms of collective life and professional
worlds were historically structured21. This can lead the researcher to inquire into the
historical formation of certain shared action forms and reasoning patterns which
have become a common and even sometimes socially compulsory focus of study
such as those that help publicly formulate accusations22 or collectively react to a
suffering23 or the beauty of a landscape24. These genealogical surveys will enable the
researcher to explain and, to a certain extent, predict the lack of mobilization
prompted by the denunciation of certain scandals25 or the lack of emotion inspired by
certain kinds of suffering or certain landscapes26. Sometimes, a diagnostic on current

See: Hartog (F.), Revel (J.), eds, Les usages politiques du pass, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2001;
Hartog (F.), Rgimes dhistoricit. Prsentisme et expriences du temps, Paris, Seuil, 2002. The
difference between this work and pragmatic sociology is that the latter doesnt consider the past
accomplished once and for all and therefore ready to be used. On the contrary, it sees it as always in
the making, each of its new mobilizations necessarily leading to its partial reinterpretation and

See respectively: Claverie (.), Les guerres de la Vierge. Une anthropologie des apparitions, Paris,
Gallimard, 2003; Dodier (N.), Leons politiques de lpidmie de sida, Paris, ditions de lEHESS,
2003; Heurtin (J.-Ph.), Lespace public parlementaire. Essai sur les raisons du lgislateur, Paris,
Presses universitaires de France, 1999; Rmy (C.), La fin des btes, op. cit.; Boltanski (L.), Les
cadres, op. cit.; Lemieux (C.), Mauvaise presse. Une sociologie comprhensive du travail
journalistique et de ses critiques, Paris, Mtaili, 2000.

See: Boltanski (L.), Claverie (.), Offenstadt (N.), Van Damme (S.), eds, Affaires, scandales et
grandes causes. De Socrate Pinochet, Paris, Stock, 2007; as well as the issue edited by: Blic (D.),
Lemieux (C.), lpreuve du scandale , Politix, 71, 2005.

Boltanski (L.), La souffrance distance. Morale humanitaire, mdias et politique, Paris, Mtaili,

Trom (D.), Voir le paysage, enquter sur le temps. Narration du temps historique, engagement
dans laction et rapport visuel au monde , Politix, 39, 1997.

De Blic (D.), Le scandale financier du sicle, a ne vous intresse pas ? Difficiles mobilisations
autour du Crdit Lyonnais , Politix, 52, 2000.

Boltanski (L.), Godet (M.-N.), Messages damour sur le Tlphone du dimanche , Politix, 31,
1995; Cardon (D.), Heurtin (J.-Ph.), Martin (O.), Pharabod (A.-S.), Rozier (S.), Les formats de la
gnrosit. Trois explorations du Tlthon , Rseaux, 95, 1999; Trom (D.), Zimmerman (B.), Cadres

situations will lead the researcher to reconstruct the conflicting dynamics that
generated them how the social critique of capitalism gradually became questioned
in France in the twentieth centurys last decades or how at the same time an issue
seen as strictly technical, namely nuclear waste disposal, was politicized 27.
In this respect, pragmatic sociology is similar to traditional historical sociology
for it also tries to reconstruct the historical dynamics that shape current situations.
However, they differ in that pragmatic sociology doesnt only seek to understand how
the dead seize the living, but equally and, in a way, primarily examines how the
living seize the dead. Thus pragmatic sociology analytically prioritizes the actions
present and restores its relative indeterminacy. The aim of the historical survey
therefore isnt so much to trace lines of historical continuity as it is to made current
situations more intelligible, particularly by considering the fact that the numerous
legacies these situations inherit arent equally claimed and seized by actors, which
should be explained. Thus researchers should observe the present before turning to
the past, rather than the contrary28. But then, they should take another fresh look at
the present with the past in mind, asking new questions29.
Pragmatic sociologists introduce the historical past in their analyses in various
ways. Certain studies take account of this past only if actors themselves refer to it
explicitly, whether to celebrate it or to confront one another about it. Thus they tend
to analyze how our societies produce their histories and historicize the present, as
well as how researchers are themselves involved in this process. In other studies,
researchers try to reconstruct the historical past of the studied situations in a
genealogical (that is, regressive) approach. Thus they aim not only to explain the
constraints on present situations or, inseparably, the resources available to actors,
but also to observe such situations in a different way, by asking why certain legacies
of the past arent being activated. In any case, a methodological presentism prevails,
which constitutes one of the main forms of unity and coherence of the pragmatic
approach. It is based in particular on the idea that no action can simply or
mechanically be inferred from the past for it always entails its own indeterminacy.
Far from rejecting the historical perspective or the genealogical survey, this approach
is just another way of practicing them.
How pragmatic sociology reexamines the questions of interests
Pragmatic sociology doesnt aim to disclose vested interests supposedly
concealed behind more general arguments. Nor does it aim to track down hidden
agendas or more or less conscious ulterior motives behind certain actors universalist,
et institutions des problmes publics. Les cas du chmage et du paysage , in Trom (D.), Cefa (D.),
eds, Les formes de laction collective. Mobilisations dans des arnes publiques, Paris, ditions de
lEHESS, 2001.

See respectively: Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.; Barthe (Y.),
Le pouvoir dindcision, op. cit.

The approach is then more similar to the explanation model Philippe Descola calls regressive
history, as opposed to the idea of mythical genesis. Descola (P.), Pourquoi les Indiens dAmazonie
nont-ils pas domestiqu le pcari ? , in Latour (B.), Lemonier (P.), eds, De la prhistoire aux missiles
balistiques. Paris, La Dcouverte, 1994.

Trom (D.), Situationnisme et historicit de laction. Une approche par induction triangulaire , in
Laborier (P.), Trom (D.), eds, Historicits de laction publique, Paris, Presses universitaires de France,

altruist, or disinterested statements. Does this mean that pragmatic sociology doesnt
deal with the question of interests? Quite the opposite: the formation of interests is
the focus of many studies affiliated to pragmatic sociology. Yet interests arent
conceived as an explanatory factor of action or speech, but as one of their products.
Rather than being a convenient and inexhaustible resource that enables the
sociologist to explain actors behaviors, interests become a focus of research in their
own right. The sociologist should therefore explain how they are defined, stabilized,
and transformed throughout controversies, polemics, and other studied preuves30
(tests, trials).
This is why pragmatic sociology so often focuses on the figure of the unveiling
of hidden interests in public controversies31. Actors frequently use unveiling as a way
to define and impute interests to their opponents: what they claim to be a just war,
based on humanitarian grounds, is really motivated by the States or a lobbys oil
interests; your commitment as an artist to Kosovo actually conceals your
professional ambition and your desire to achieve peer recognition, and so on. Thus
highlighting hidden interests is a common figure of public denunciation, whose
conditions of effectiveness should be studied, particularly in relation to the shared
normative constructions whose history can be sketched out32. The denunciation of
hidden interests can therefore be viewed as one of the most important modes of
disqualification in public arenas 33.
Yet the figure of denunciation is far from being the only way actors strive to
produce interests and manifest them to one another. The reference to interests isnt
limited to a denunciation; it can also correspond to a protest, so as to build alliances,
alter positions, or recruit other actors to support a cause by showing them that it is
in their own interest34. In such situations, the identification of interests and their
reformulation which go hand in hand are operations whereby actors define one
another, either by creating distance or by pointing out similarities.
To that effect, we need to keep in mind that referring to interests is but one
way of distancing oneself or coming closer. This is why a certain number of pragmatic
sociologists refuse to equate all social actions with strategic behaviors indexed to the
pursuit of individual or collective interests35. These authors seek to distinguish
various regimes of engagement in which actors define each other and relate to one
another in a quite different way36. In some regimes, actors activity consists in
explicitly expressing or stating their interests and in considering others from an often

Callon (M.), lments pour une sociologie de la traduction : la domestication des coquilles SaintJacques et des marins pcheurs dans la baie de Saint-Brieuc , LAnne sociologique, 36, 1986;
Bidet (A.), La gense des valeurs : une affaire denqute , Tracs, 15, 2008.

Boltanski (L.), La dnonciation , Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 51, 1984.


See previous section.


Sociology runs the risk to lose track of this from the moment it also resorts to this kind of critical
operation. See: Trom (D.), De la rfutation de leffet NIMBY considre comme une pratique
militante. Notes pour une approche pragmatique de lactivit revendicative , Revue franaise de
science politique, 49 (1), 1999.

Callon (M.), Law (J.), On Interest and Their Transformation: Enrolment and CounterEnrolment , Social Studies of Science, 12 (4), 1982.

See for instance: Corcuff (P.), Sanier (M.), Politique publique et action stratgique en contexte de
dcentralisation. Aperus dun processus dcisionnel aprs la bataille , Annales, 55 (4), 2000.

efficiency-oriented perspective. In others, however, actors denounce the interests

they attribute to others, particularly by highlighting their incompatibility with the
general interest or with certain impartiality and equity requirements. In still others,
actors dont point out interests as such neither others, nor their own for the
course of action doesnt let them bring this figure out. Developed in particular in the
sociology of the regimes of engagement, this perspective aims to closely observe how
individuals collectively produce their interests, which requires taking account of the
situations of social life in which such interests havent formed yet. In some respects,
this approach is very similar to that developed by other movements within pragmatic
sociology such as, in particular, the anthropology of science and technology which
invite us to consider the importance, in the formation of the interests, of the presence
or lack of interest-producing devices. For instance, the success of a technical
innovation can be analyzed as being due to its ability to enable social groups to
identify and recognize themselves, by instilling new interests into their members or
shifting preexisting ones37.
How pragmatic sociology treats what actors say
An important characteristic of pragmatic sociology consists in taking
seriously actors justifications and critiques. What does this entail? It entails both
accounting for their practical foundations and analyzing their social effects. First,
accounting for their practical foundations: it is important to understand how
critiques and justifications are generated from a certain kind of social practices, that
is, faced with a certain kind of practical contradictions actors have to deal with. This
is why, in pragmatic sociology, taking justifications and critiques seriously involves
inquiring into practices and, more specifically, reconstructing the contradictory
logics of practice, which give rise to actors critical activity 38. Second, analyzing their
social effects: it is important to account for the kind of efficiency or relative
inefficiency attached to actors critical operations and justifications within the social
world in which they live or act. Their arguments, justifications, and critiques are
certainly not, as such, able to transform the state of social relations. However, the
actions consisting in arguing, justifying, and criticizing can do so, if only marginally
(for instance, making a leader justify him/herself should be viewed as altering the
preexisting political and social relations, if only minimally). Thus, in pragmatic
sociology, taking justifications and critiques seriously entails exploring the possible
effects of critiques on the reshaping of collectives, the transformation of
sociotechnical devices, and the reform of institutions39.

See in particular: Thvenot (L.), Laction au pluriel. Sociologie des rgimes dengagement, Paris, La
Dcouverte, 2006.

Akrich (M.), Callon (M.), Latour (B.), quoi tient le succs des innovations ? 1. Lart de
lintressement , Annales des Mines. Grer et comprendre, 11, 1988.

Relating to various objects, see: Chateauraynaud (F.) La faute professionnelle. Une sociologie des
conflits de responsabilit, Paris, Mtaili, 1991; Doidy (E.), (Ne pas) juger scandaleux. Les lecteurs
de Levallois-Perret face au comportement de leur maire , Politix, 71, 2005; Lagneau (.), Ce que
Sgolne Royal na pas assez vu. LAFP entre ralismes politique et conomique , Rseaux, 157-158,

See: Chiapello (.), Artistes versus managers. Le management culturel face la critique artiste,
Paris, Mtaili, 1998; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.;
de Blic (D.), Moraliser largent. Ce que Panama a chang dans la socit franaise (1889-1897) ,
Politix, 71, 2005; Fillion (E.), lpreuve du sang contamin. Pour une sociologie des affaires
mdicales, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2009.

Pragmatic sociology involves systematically analyzing the practical

foundations and social effects of critical operations and justifications. By doing so,
with regard to what actors say, it emphasizes a quite different kind of epistemological
break from that advocated by the critical sociology of domination. The goal is neither
to reveal the underlying strategies in general arguments, nor as previously stated
to reveal particular interests. Since this task is usually carried out by actors
themselves as any researcher studying controversies or cases can observe the
pragmatic sociologist seeks to examine how actors do so, with what kind of proof and
material supports, and whether they succeed or not. Thus the sociologist isnt quite at
the level where actors themselves tend to spontaneously explain their mutual actions
and judge them. He/she makes an additional effort, not only because, most often
unlike actors, he/she tries to grasp all viewpoints involved in the fight (treating them
symmetrically), but also because he/she inquires into the practical foundations of
critical operations and justifications as well as into their social effects. This amounts
to identifying the elements actors (and the researcher) arent immediately aware of:
the kind of practical contradictions that generates the studied critical process or the
kind of social or institutional mechanisms that limits the publicization and the social
effects of critiques40.
Thus taking seriously what actors do to account for their practices and justify
their behaviors doesnt mean simply recording their viewpoints or translating them
into a scientific language. Nor does it mean simply considering that actors are right to
say what they say: it means taking into account that there are reasons for them to say
it reasons related to the real contradictions of their practices41. Likewise, it doesnt
mean considering that what actors say adequately describes what they do: it means
considering that what they say is an integral part of the way they describe what they
do their discursive practices coming with a form of efficiency, which varies
according to the individuals and the situations.
How pragmatic sociology does justice to actors reflexivity
Pragmatic sociology refuses to analyze action from a perspective that contrasts
practical activities with reflexive ones. It assumes that it is impossible, when
analyzing action, to isolate a level totally lacking actors reflexivity on their own
actions or on others. This refusal to dissociate the analysis of practices from the
analysis of the corresponding forms of reflexivity results from the following
observation: no action is ever devoid of reasons. The latter are made describable in
the course of actions, and are therefore both material and observable42. Thus the
sociological description of the interaction must be based on them to make them
intelligible. Let us elaborate on these two statements.

See: Stavo-Debauge (J.), En qute dune introuvable action antidiscriminatoire. Une sociologie de
ce qui fait dfaut , Politix, 94, 2011.

Callon (M.), Rabeharisoa (V.), La leon dhumanit de Gino , Rseaux, 95, 1999.

The pragmatic approach breaks away from mentalism on this point. The researcher endeavors to
describe actors reasons for acting only through what makes them observable in situation, that is: the
interaction itself, its actors mobilization of certain material supports, their reaction to their partners
attitudes, and their possible verbal exchanges. See: Dodier (N.), Les appuis conventionnels de
laction. lments de pragmatique sociologique , Rseaux, 62, 1993; Lemieux (C.), Mauvaise
presse, op. cit., p. 116-117.

Pragmatic sociologists dont assume that actors are always fully aware of the
reasons for what they do, nor that they could, if needed, clearly express them to
themselves or others. Rather, they consider that actors reflexive relation to their own
actions or to others should be considered in gradual terms. At the upper end of this
gradation, there are forms of maximal reflexivity, characteristic of the public
situations in which they are expressed as justifications opposable to third parties.
True, at first, pragmatic sociology looked into these situations because it initially
examined the moments of quarrels during which the participants reasons for acting
the way they do become the object of a collective explanation requiring a high level of
Yet pragmatic sociology doesnt claim to outline a general model of action
based on the analysis of the actions characteristic of these most public configurations.
It would be mistaken to consider that in all circumstances actors act as if they were
subject to strong constraints of publicity. On the contrary, pragmatic sociology has
been lead to take account of the formats of action below the public action format.
These formats dont rely on rules of public justification or detachment, but on rules
similar to what the notions of practice and routine usually involve44. However, the
situations that characterize them arent a-reflexive, that is, devoid of reasons. But the
reflexive relation then takes on minimal, non-opposable, and often nonverbal forms.
They can sometimes be observed only through details a hesitation, a readjustment
of the body, a glance, etc. indicative of a misalignment however tenuous and
fleeting it may be of the action in relation to itself 45.
Thus pragmatic sociology is aware that, in many social situations, action can
be very little reflexive. Some of its supporters have even tried to restore the notion of
the unconscious or, more precisely, to explore the idea that any action, like any
judgment, necessarily involves an unconscious part.46 But this sociology does dispute
the idea that a practice, whatever it be, can be completely devoid of reflexivity. It
therefore distances itself from the conception that our most empirical practices
proceed from a mechanical adjustment to others and to the environment a relation
that excludes any kind of reflexive mediation. Indeed, such conception of practice,
which establishes action only in the regularity of habits, doesnt explain the
interactional dynamics that make it possible and spark an increased reflexivity
among actors. Conversely, considering the reasons actors actions are based on helps

For an analysis of several empirical cases of this kind of rise in generality, see: Boltanski (L.),
Thvenot (L.), eds, Justesse et justice dans le travail, Cahiers du CEE, 33, 1989.

See in particular: Thvenot (L.), Le rgime de familiarit. Des choses en personne , Genses, 17,
1994; Thvenot (L.), Laction au pluriel, op. cit.; Breviglieri (M.), Lusage et lhabiter. Contribution
une sociologie de la proximit, PhD dissertation in sociology, cole des hautes tudes en sciences
sociales, 1999.

Observing such dynamic misalignments of an individual or collective action requires a high level of
descriptive accuracy and sharpness. See: Piette (A.), Le mode mineur de la ralit, Louvain-la-Neuve,
Peeters, 1992; Rmy (C.), Activit sociale et latralisation , Recherches sociologiques, 34 (3), 2003;
Datchary (C.), La dispersion au travail, Toulouse, Octares, 2011.

Boltanski (L.), La condition ftale. Une sociologie de lengendrement et de lavortement, Paris,

Gallimard, 2004; Rmy (C.), Quand la norme implicite est le moteur de laction , Dviance et
Socit, 29 (2), 2005; Lemieux (C.), Du pluralisme des rgimes daction la question de
linconscient : dplacements in Breviglieri (M.), Lafaye (C.), Trom (D.), eds, Comptences critiques,
op. cit.

bridge the gap between the categories of practice and reflexivity, by assuming that
the situations are characterized by varying levels of reflexive intensity47. It is only by
considering that the most intuitive and the least reflexive actions still (or more
precisely, already) have reasons that we can analyze the fact that, in certain
circumstances, their reflexivity can increase48. Conversely, this perspective brings all
forms of reflexivity including sociological reflexivity back to their practical
This approach helps pragmatic sociology not overestimate actors reflexivity,
while it avoids assigning them too much awareness of what they do and say. Indeed,
this sociology is careful not to prejudge their level of reflexivity since it focuses on
determining it and how it varies in time for a person. Thus it doesnt consider that
actors are always at the highest level of their collective reflexive abilities. Nor does it
consider, however, that they are constantly at their lowest level, let alone that this
lower level corresponds to a degree zero reflexivity.
How pragmatic sociology renews the question of socialization
The last twenty years, in France, one of the main renewals in the studies on
socialization has undoubtedly been the rediscovery of the plurality of self. As it is well
known, the argument isnt new since it can be traced back to the pragmatism of the
early twentieth century in particular50. In the early Nineties, L. Boltanski and
L. Thvenot imported it into France. By defending the idea that social agents should
no longer be presumed systematically coherent with themselves, their book On
Justification argued that they should on the contrary be analyzed from the
perspective of the plurality of the sometimes contradictory logics they are involved
in51. This approach entails a conception of identity and socialization devoid of the
emphasis that Bourdieus interpretation of the concept of habitus rather than
Norbert Eliass puts on the coherence of self. Thus, according to pragmatic
sociology, individuals tensions and internal contradictions, as well as their symptoms

See: Breviglieri (M.), Trom (D.), Troubles et tensions en milieu urbain. Les preuves citadines et
habitantes de la ville , in Cefa (D.), Pasquier (D.), eds, Les sens du public, Paris, Presses
universitaires de France, 2003; Breviglieri (M.), Linsupportable. Lexcs de proximit, latteinte
lautonomie et le sentiment de violation du priv , in Breviglieri (M.), Lafaye (C.), Trom (D.), eds,
Comptences critiques, op. cit. For a theorization of the continuist hypothesis mentioned here, see:
Lemieux (C.), Le devoir et la grce. Pour une analyse grammaticale de laction, Paris, Economica,

See the analysis of corporate recruiters practical judgements and intuitions by EymardDuvernay (F.), Marchal (E.), Faons de recruter. Le jugement des comptences sur le march du
travail, Paris, Mtaili, 1996. For the case of physicians, see: Dodier (N.), Lexpertise mdicale. Essai
de sociologie sur lexercice du jugement, Paris, Mtaili, 1993. For the case of journalists, see: Lagneau
(.), Une fausse information en qute dauteur. Conflits dimputation autour dune annulation de
dpches AFP , in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivit journalistique, op. cit.

See Bruno Latours analyses of the production of scientific and juridical reflexivities: Latour (B.),
Woolgar (S.), La vie de laboratoire. La production des faits scientifiques, Paris, La Dcouverte, 1988;
Latour (B.), Lespoir de Pandore. Pour une version raliste de lactivit scientifique, Paris, La
Dcouverte, 2007 [1st US ed. 1999]; Latour (B.), La fabrique du droit. Une ethnographie du Conseil
dtat, Paris, La Dcouverte, 2002.

See in particular: Mead (G.), Lesprit, le soi et la socit, Paris, Presses universitaires de France,
2006 [1st US ed. 1934]. For a synthetic overview of this tradition, see: Elster (J.), ed., The Multiple Self,
New York, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Boltanski (L.), Thvenot (L.), De la justification..., op. cit.

(disorders, hesitations, being unable to act, moral dilemmas, and sometimes

inventiveness), help understand individuals in action, the judgments their partners
make about them, and ultimately the construction of their selves 52.
This kind of pluralistic approach of self deeply renews the analysis of the
socialization processes. It should be noted that numerous dispositional concepts,
from habits (Peirce, Dewey) to tendencies to act (Mead), are central to pragmatist
philosophy53. However, to remain within the orbit of pragmatic sociology, such
concepts require to be handled in a way French sociologists may not be familiar with.
The pragmatist perspective indeed doesnt grant the status of descriptive concept to
dispositions since they dont describe actions: the former are made describable by the
latter. (He has a middle-class disposition doesnt describe an action. The agents
action makes him describable as having a middle-class disposition.) The sociologist
should therefore at first describe action in situation, which will enable him/her to
identify the dispositions it shows as opposed to deducing action from the
dispositions attributed to the agent. Thus the researcher who acknowledges the
plural and potentially contradictory character of actions, because he/she often has to
describe them, must also acknowledge what derives from them: the plural and
potentially contradictory character of dispositions and, therefore, what is usually
referred to as learning or education. In consequence, he/she cant take actors
coherence of their selves for granted. On the contrary, he/she should see it as a
practical problem actors are trying to deal with 54.
Moreover, starting from the description of actions in situation helps precisely
assess the practical mechanisms whereby learning occurs. The approach consisting in
deducing agents actions from the dispositions attributed to them doesnt bother with
this: according to it, statements such as the institution taught the agents or the
actors internalized suffice. According to the pragmatist approach, on the other hand,
these oversimplifications are insufficient. They dont tell us anything about the
practical situations in which learning took place and the kind of preuves that
occurred during learning. They dont tell us much about the places, objects, and ways
of the socialization. In this respect, pragmatic sociology choses to carefully examine
the actors bodily involvement in the material devices they intend to use or are
ordered to master. This sociology is actually a pragmatic sociology of the body.


Relating to various objects, see: Prilleux (T.), Les tensions de la flexibilit. Lpreuve du travail
contemporain, Paris, Descle de Brouwer, 2001; Barbot (J.), Dodier (N.), Itinraires de rparation et
formation dun espace de victimes autour dun drame mdical , in Cultiaux (J.), Prilleux (T.), eds,
Destins politiques de la souffrance. Intervention sociale, justice, travail, Toulouse, Ers, 2009;
Cefa (D.), Gardella (E.), Lurgence sociale en action. Ethnologie du Samu social de Paris, Paris, La
Dcouverte, 2011; Breviglieri (M.), Cichelli (V.), eds, Adolescences mditerranennes. Lespace public
petits pas, Paris, LHarmattan, 2007; Sourp (M.-L.), Une question de personnalit. Laccs
linformation chez un rubricard de Libration , in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivit
journalistique, op. cit.

Bourdieu (E.), Savoir-faire. Contribution une thorie dispositionnelle de laction, Paris, Seuil,
1998; Chauvir (C.), Ogien (A.), eds, La rgularit. Habitude, disposition et savoir-faire dans
lexplication de laction, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2002.

This approach was initiated by one of the GSPM founders, Michal Pollak, in his book Lexprience
concentrationnaire. Essai sur le maintien de lidentit sociale, Paris, Mtaili, 1990. See:
Lemieux (C.), De la thorie de lhabitus la sociologie des preuves : relire Lexprience
concentrationnaire , in Isral (L.), Voldman (D.), eds, Michal Pollak. De lidentit blesse une
sociologie des possibles, Paris, Complexe, 2007.

Basically, it can be seen as a sociology of the bodily involvement55. Its authors

connected it with the ecological approaches in terms of situated cognition56. In
particular, they sought to account for the fact that affordances are provided or
withdrawn from actors by the sociotechnical devices they are involved in which has
a direct impact on both actors differential abilities to learn and the kind of knowledge
they acquire57.
Therefore, these authors renewed the understanding of the link between the
shows in situation of competence or virtuosity58 as well as the processes of (social,
professional, institutional, etc.) integration and exclusion. Far from being a foregone
conclusion, these processes derive from a series of preuves whose results are still
uncertain although they may in part be predictable. During these preuves, actors
performances or counterperformances may be judged by peers, supervisors, and so
on even by themselves considering their ability, inability, normality, or
abnormality. These preuves and the subsequent sanctions, whether positive or
negative, force the researcher to view the question of individuals membership in a
collective in a highly dynamic way. It renews the approach to what social science
referred to as socialization. Unlike the perspectives that attribute a given status to
actors (depending on what was up to then their status), pragmatic sociology reopens,
on principle of method, the discussion on the persons present or future identity in a
certain situation and on the status that will be attributed to them. Thus it doesnt
prejudge what people are capable of59. Will this child be able to walk, work, or
swim? It is precisely because this is uncertain that eighteenth-century and
contemporary educationalists dont agree on what can reasonably and fairly be
expected from a child or be done with him/her60. The principle that actors
competences shouldnt be prejudged is of methodological nature. Although it should
be followed, it absolutely doesnt mean that all social agents have the same abilities.
Rather, it means their competences (and therefore also their dispositions, habits,
tendencies to act, etc.) form a dynamic and adaptive system, whose limits cant be set
in advance by the researcher.
It should therefore be noted that, while dispositional concepts dont describe
actions, they contribute to make it partially visible and explainable. This is why they
are specifically interesting for social science. Thus the researcher can relate an actors

Bessy (C.), Chateauraynaud (F.), Experts et faussaires. Pour une sociologie de la perception, Paris,
Mtaili, 1995; Hennion (A.), Music Lovers: Taste as Performance , in Warde (A.), ed.,
Consumption, vol 3: Appropriation, London, Sage, 2010; Rmy (C.), La fin des btes, op. cit.

See in particular: Conein (B.), Dodier (N.), Thvenot (L.), eds, Les objets dans laction. De la maison
au laboratoire, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 1993.

Relating to various fields, see: Hennion (A.), Comment la musique vient aux enfants. Une
anthropologie de lenseignement musical, Paris, Economica, 1988; Conein (B.), Cognition situe et
coordination de laction. La cuisine dans tous ses tats , Rseaux, 43, 1990; Winance (M.), Mobilits
en fauteuil roulant. Processus dajustement corporel et darrangements pratiques avec lespace,
physique et social , Politix, 90, 2010; Moreau de Bellaing (C.) Comment la violence vient aux
policiers. cole de police et enseignement de la violence lgitime , Genses, 75, 2009.

Dodier (N.), Les hommes et les machines. La conscience collective dans les socits technicises,
Paris, Mtaili, 1995.

Boltanski (L.), Lamour et la justice comme comptences. Trois essais de sociologie de laction,
Paris, Mtaili, 1990.

Garnier (P), Ce dont les enfants sont capables, Paris, Mtaili, 1995.

observable behavior to its past ones, so as to highlight how through which series of
preuves and devices the tendencies or habits the actor now manifests have
previously developed in him. This explanatory use of dispositionalism prevails in
pragmatic sociology61. It is also in this predictive use of dispositional concepts that
the question of the unequal distribution of opportunities to act or successfully pass a
test may be raised afresh. In this respect, pragmatic sociology does nothing but insist
on the importance for the researcher of describing actions in situation, insofar as the
latter, although partially predictably, are never completely so. On no account can it be
purely and simply deduced from the actors dispositions.
How pragmatic sociology shifts the question of power
To study a conflict or a controversy, the pragmatic approach supposes that
sociologists suspend their knowledge about the initial distribution of the
dominant/dominated roles or about the balance of power that eventually stemmed
from the examined situation of confrontation. One of this stances underlying
principles is that the social worlds asymmetries are all the better describable when
observed from the standpoint of an epistemology of symmetry62. This doesnt mean
that pragmatic sociologists imagine the social world symmetrical by default, but
simply that, to correctly describe asymmetries, the latter shouldnt be prejudged and
the possibility of their reversibility shouldnt be excluded a priori, even when it is the
least probable.
Thus, since the situations of domination arent totally closed most of the time,
this sociology places particular emphasis on the fact that each of the two poles of the
relationship plays an active role in the evolution of their relation although with a
very different efficiency. From this perspective, no power can be unilaterally exerted
since its exercise necessarily involves a reaction from the one who obeys or, if it be so,
resists. In this sense, pragmatic sociologists all follow the methodological principle of
the potential reversibility of the studied power relations, including when they appear
the most stable and well-established. According to them, due to their very nature,
such relations can fail even when they succeed. This has at least two implications. The
first is to ensure that an analysis of a relation of dependency, power, and domination
never erases the relative indeterminacy constitutive of it. The second is not to forget
that power doesnt exist outside of the preuves it gives rise to, so that the latter are
undoubtedly the first thing the researcher should describe and analyze 63.
These methodological presuppositions explain why pragmatic sociology
focuses on actors critical competences. Indeed, only at this cost can the researcher
measure the actual influence of power devices: by taking seriously the prospect of
challenging the relation of domination, the researcher is in a better position to
observe the effective limitations of the gestures, attitudes, and words that initiate
such a challenge.

For instance: Dodier (N.), Leons politiques sur lpidmie de sida, op. cit.; Lemieux (C.), Albert
Londres. Le journalisme contre-cur , in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivit journalistique, op. cit.

Latour (B.), Pasteur, op. cit.

See: Linhardt (D.), La force de ltat en dmocratie. La Rpublique fdrale dAllemagne

lpreuve de la gurilla urbaine, PhD dissertation in sociology, cole nationale suprieure des Mines
de Paris, 2004; as well as the issue edited by: Linhardt (D.), Vitale (T.), preuves dtat , Quaderni,
78, 2012.

Conversely, prejudging the unstoppable efficiency of domination makes it both

useless and impossible to observe the dynamics whereby this domination is
sometimes thwarted and sometimes strengthened. In this respect, pragmatic
sociology requires a sufficiently fine and precise level of description of the situations,
so that the researcher may observe and analyze actors smallest critical inclinations
and the most immediate processes that hinder them.
While pragmatic sociology considers that a situation whatever it is doesnt
amount to a pre-established distribution of dominant/dominated roles, it doesnt fail
to recognize the existence of power phenomena. It seeks a level of description where
these phenomena can be seen and analyzed as practical accomplishments. Rather
than attempting to account for observable actions with the help of the power
relations black box, this sociology focuses on actions themselves, observable as they
produce power relations64. The black box is then opened: power structures are no
longer considered as causes, but as resulting from what is observed; and rather than
pretending to exhaust the behaviors description and explanation by invoking a totem
word (power, domination, etc.), the researcher begins to study the power effects
and the arrangements that make them possible65.
Pragmatic sociologys task is therefore to describe and understand how power
devices actually work. It seeks to identify the concrete supports used in situation by
those who manage to make others perform certain actions. It seeks to analyze how
those who try to challenge the dependency or domination they suffer from go about
it, as well as the limitations they face in doing so. Finally, it tries to account for the
social work whereby power occurs and is actualized.
How pragmatic sociology analyzes social inequalities
As we have just said, as regards its methodological principles, pragmatic
sociology values symmetry and equality of treatment between the conflicting parties,
yet it doesnt deny the existence of asymmetries and inequalities as regards the
realities it studies. It intends to provide the means to investigate how such
asymmetries and inequalities are reproduced but also sometimes undone. In this
respect, it is clearly different from the critical sociology of domination, according to
which inequalities are somehow a starting point for analysis and are used as a
resource to explain action. According to pragmatic sociology, on the contrary,
inequalities should be considered a product of action66. Rather than an explanatory

See: Chateauraynaud (F.), Les relations demprise, document de travail, GSPR-EHESS, 1999;
Linhardt (D.), Moreau de Bellaing (C.), Lgitime violence ? Enqutes sur la ralit de ltat
dmocratique , Revue franaise de science politique, 55 (2) 2005.

As Bruno Latour states: The philosophers and sociologists of power flatter the masters they clam to
criticize. They explain the masters actions in terms of the might of power, though this power is
efficacious only as a result of complicities, connivances, compromises, and mixtures [] which are not
explained by power. The notion of power is the dormitive virtue of the poppy which induces
somnolence in the critics at just the moment when powerless princes ally themselves with others who
are equally weak in order to become strong. Latour (B.), Pasteur, op. cit., p. 266. [Latour (B.), The
Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 175].

Derouet (J.-L.), cole et justice. De lgalit des chances aux compromis locaux ?, Paris, Mtaili,
1992; Normand (R.), Gouverner la russite scolaire. Une arithmtique politique des ingalits, Bern,
Peter Lang, 2011; Auray (N.), Sociabilit informatique et diffrence sexuelle , in ChabaudRychter (D.), Gardey (D.), eds, Lengendrement des choses. Des hommes, des femmes et des

resource, they are what should be explained. The consequences of this approach
arent insignificant: analytically, the inequalities produced in earlier preuves can
certainly have a predictive role (in terms of actors unequally distributed chances to
act), but they dont enable us to mechanically deduce either the collective action or,
subsequently, the state of inequalities that will result from the new preuve;
politically, recognizing inequalities as the result of collective action and highlighting
that its reproduction, if somewhat predictable, still isnt mechanical at all is a way to
focus on our collective ability to further real equality in our social relations.
This emphasizes that symmetry and equality arent merely methodological
principles. Quite often, they also correspond to a claim made by actors. In On
Justification, L. Boltanski and L. Thvenot attempted to account for this to
consider the ideal of equality, as mobilized in social practices, to be an object of
study67. But their approach didnt fail to generate misunderstandings. Their
description of actors ideal of equality was sometimes taken as an affirmation of the
egalitarian nature of the relations among these actors. They were also criticized for
claiming that public authorities action should necessarily be egalitarian to have a
chance to impose. Yet this isnt what they suggested. True, the axiomatic of the
polities they describe is based on egalitarian principles, such as those they call
common humanity (that is, a fundamental equality between members) and
common dignity (that is, members equally shared right to be eligible for a higher
status), the polities. The polities, however, dont describe the world as it is. It is
even the exact opposite since, through this concept, the authors wanted to designate
the ideal constructions actors use as external supports to criticize the current state of
their social relations. From this point of view, if the polities are to play any role in
collective action, it certainly isnt because the social world is egalitarian, but precisely
because it isnt. Therefore, the fact that an unequal public action is socially needed
doesnt refute the polity model. For this model predicts only that, in our societies,
the less a public action respects the principles of common humanity and common
dignity, the more it can be criticized. This doesnt mean that such action will be
unanimously or massively criticized, insofar as, precisely, unequal mechanisms may
limit both the visibility of its unequal nature and the public expression of its critique.
We notice in passing that taking seriously the argumentative constraints and
the rules of evidence that affect collective action in the most public situations leads us
to shift our analysis towards the question of the socio-technical devices limiting or, on
the contrary, enabling to discuss certain policies, initiatives, or behaviors, as well as
the visibility of their effects68. In this respect, the program of pragmatic sociology
doesnt assume that those who dont seem to rebel against the injustice and inequality
they suffer from lack critical abilities. Rather, it looks into their relative lack of
material and organizational supports making up for this lack would enable them to
techniques, Paris, ditions des archives contemporaines, 2002.

Boltanski (L.), Thvenot (L.), De la justification, op. cit.

Callon (M.), Lascoumes (P.), Barthe (Y.), Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la dmocratie
technique, Paris, Seuil, 2001; Linhardt (D.), Lconomie du soupon. Une contribution pragmatique
la sociologie de la menace , Genses, 44, 2001; Stavo-Debauge (J.), En qute dune introuvable
action antidiscriminatoire , art. cit.; Richard-Ferroudji (A.), Limites du modle dlibratif :
composer avec diffrents formats de participation , Politix, 96, 2011; Cardon (D.), Dans lesprit du
PageRank. Une enqute sur lalgorithme de Google , Rseaux, 177, 2013; Benvegnu (N.), La politique
des netroots. La politique lpreuve des outils informatiques de dbat public, thse pour le doctorat
de sociologie, Mines ParisTech, 2011.

make more visible the unequal nature of certain social relations or policies. A
sociology of mobilizations is here appealed to through the study of what (in many
cases) limits the visibility and public discussion of issues and inequalities, as well as
what (in some cases) enables and produces it69.
How pragmatic sociology avoids relativism
Any sociological movement and, more generally, any social science approach
may be asked about its relativism. How indeed could a work in social science never
resort to relativism? To understand how pragmatic sociology addresses this question,
a commonly used preuve consists in asking how it would react if it had to deal with
an object likely to raise a spontaneous moral condemnation from most of us (the
issue of Nazism remains the most commonly used preuve, but we can also think of
Al Qaedas terrorism, the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide, military torture
during the Algerian War, the excision of girls, etc.). With such objects, pragmatic
sociologists would force themselves to follow the actors, whether they are Nazis,
terrorists, or excision practitioners, and to respect a principle of symmetry. They
would therefore endeavor to analyze what the actors (Nazis, terrorists, or excisers,
etc.) as well as those who condemn them and fight them do, without a priori
assuming the formers lack of rationality in favor of the latter, and by ensuring that
both sides respective arguments and points of view are treated with the same
methodological indifference. Finally, pragmatic sociologists would respect the
postulate of pluralism, in virtue of which they should admit that, despite
appearances, the actors (Nazis, terrorists, or excisers, etc.) arent all of a piece and,
like anyone else, are subject to internal contradictions. Such an approach could
certainly be described as relativistic.
However, pragmatist sociologists would remind us that these are
methodological principles, which certainly dont prevent us from holding our own
value judgments on the studied phenomena. Furthermore, two theoretical elements
of pragmatic sociology enable it to be recognized as an anti-relativist enterprise.
Derived from the work initiated by L. Boltanski and L. Thvenot, the first of these
theoretical elements is linked to the idea of a sense of justice and to the principle
that certain arguments, when expressed in public situations, can de facto be more
criticized than others. What is recognized here is the existence of argumentative
constraints and rules on the production of evidence. The more public the situation,
the stronger the constraints. For actors, therefore, all actions cant be deemed
equivalent, all behaviors arent equally acceptable, and some should be unanimously
considered scandalous and degrading and shouldnt be tolerated. The challenge is to
follow the actors to the end, in particular until they prove resolutely anti-relativist
and allow themselves to produce value judgments and assess behaviors. These
moments of moral reflexivity obey shared rules and refer to (more or less) common
expectations: this is why the resulting judgments arent totally subjective or arbitrary.

Barbot (J.) Les malades en mouvements. La mdecine et la science lpreuve du sida, Paris,
Balland, 2002; Gramaglia (C.), Des poissons aux masses deau. Les usages militants du droit pour
faire parler des tres qui ne parlent pas , Politix, 83, 2008; Lemieux (C.), Rendre visibles les
dangers du nuclaire. Une contribution la sociologie de la mobilisation , in Lahire (B.),
Rosental (C.), eds, La cognition au prisme des sciences sociales, Paris, ditions des archives
contemporaines, 2008; Jobin (P.), Les cobayes portent plainte. Usages de lpidmiologie dans deux
affaires de maladies industrielles Tawan , Politix, 91, 2010; Barthe (Y.), Cause politique et
politique des causes. La mobilisation des vtrans des essais nuclaires franais , Politix, 91, 2010.

We see in passing that certain authors dont hesitate to describe the On Justification70
model as relativistic perhaps because they focus too exclusively on the postulate of
pluralism implemented by the authors who defend in particular the idea that their
different polities cant be organized along hierarchical lines. In doing so, they dont
pay enough attention to the fact that, beyond their diversity, all polities obey the
same egalitarian axiomatic, as reflected in each of them by the so-called common
humanity and common dignity principles71.
The second element that puts a brake on relativism is more closely linked to
the notion of preuve as the anthropology of science and technology developed it. It
consists in considering that the world provides resistances and practical denials of the
definitions humans can give to reality. This is why, for instance, the success of
Pasteurs theory on his opponent Pouchets spontaneous generation theory isnt
arbitrary: Pasteur successfully passes the tests that Pouchet does not72 for instance,
when the sterilizations Pasteur carries out prove effective. From this perspective, all
definitions of reality arent equivalent. Their unequal values, however, shouldnt be
reified or prejudged by the researcher but should, on the contrary, be understood as
the result of preuves, remaining as such vulnerable to a new preuve. In other
words, certain realities prove more real than others, in that they resist better the
various preuves they are subjected to. For instance, if pragmatic sociology sought to
provide a symmetrical analysis of the Galilean controversy between geo- and
heliocentrism, it would probably demonstrate, through this analysis, that the
geocentric evidence device couldnt pass (de facto, but not de jure) the tests of reality
it was very systematically subjected to from the sixteenth century on.
Taking into account both the lack of acceptability (which may border on
illegitimacy) of certain arguments in public and the existence of reality tests
ultimately outlines pragmatic sociologys normative orientation. This sociology
stresses the importance of preuves for the collective production of truth tests and
trials whereby the most established truths are verified, that is, confirmed or denied. It
also highlights the need to develop public spaces where anyone can put to the test the
acceptability of his/her own arguments with regard to egalitarian ideals, so as to
collectively produce more justice. After all, through actions and through their ways of
carrying out sociological surveys (following the actors, principle of symmetry, etc.),
pragmatic sociologists express a preference for reviving critique and putting
certainties to the test of their collective verification.
How pragmatic sociology criticizes the social world
Pragmatic sociology casts a critical eye on the social world. Yet, to do so, it is
based on a conception quite different from those supported by the so-called critical
sociology with regard to both sociology, social critique, and their mutual relations73.
Pragmatic sociology stems precisely from the limits and impasses of the so-called

Pharo (P.), Morale et sociologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2004.


This non-relativistic stance allows L. Boltanski and L. Thvenot, for instance, to characterize the
eugenic value as inherently illegitimate. (De la justification, op. cit., p. 104).

Latour (B.), Pasteur et Pouchet : htrogense de lhistoire des sciences , in Serres (M.), ed.,
lments dhistoire des sciences, Paris, Bordas, 1989. See also: Lagrange (P.), Enqute sur les
soucoupes volantes. La construction dun fait aux tats-Unis (1947) et en France (1951-54) , Terrain,
14, 1990; Rmy (.), Comment saisir la rumeur ? , Ethnologie franaise, 23 (4), 1993.

critical sociology and suggests trying out a new kind of critical engagement in
What are these limits and impasses? It is often believed that pragmatic
sociologists disagree with the so-called critical sociologists on the content of the
latters critiques of the social world or on the vehemence and intensity of these
critiques. This interpretation of the contrast between these two sociologies is
reassuring in that it places them on a political axis, the one representing the radical
pole, the other the compromising one. However, it should be noted that pragmatic
sociology reproaches the so-called critical sociology not so much for its political
radicalism as for its lack of sociological radicalism. In other words, critical sociology
is blamed for not being able to offer an analytical viewpoint that would enable
sociologists to produce a critique different from their actors, that is, for no longer
being able to provide an added value to their contemporaries critical work.
Critical sociology no doubt lost its sociological radicalism and therefore its
critical originality because the societies we live in are increasingly sociological (to
borrow Anthony Giddens phrase) and increasingly critical, as evidenced by the
spread of the previously mentioned vocabulary of interests, strategies, symbolic
domination, or inequalities. Thus the power of revelation that once gave the so-called
critical sociology a prominent place in the practice of social critique has become
considerably dull74.
Based on this observation, pragmatic sociology suggests making an additional
analytical and reflective effort to bring sociological analysis to the level where it can
again say something other than what some actors say. This effort can be divided into
three stages. 1 It starts with a survey that describes precisely what actors say and do,
so as to explain their critical competences and follow the latter in situation.
Throughout this survey, it is important to follow all the sides or, at least, not to a
priori credit one with competences the other supposedly hasnt (principle of
symmetry); furthermore, the material supports each side relies on to prove or
publicly justify what it says should be described (principle of rationality). 2 Then
comes an analysis of the way the studied actors competences are eased or hindered
by the devices whereby they act or which leave them grappling with one another:
which preuves do these devices enable? Which dont they enable? What kind of
contradictions come to light? At this stage, the survey should reveal any possible
asymmetries between the actors competences and capacities to rely on certain
material and organizational supports to act, judge, and prove. 3 It ends or may

Barthe (Y.), Lemieux (C.), Quelle critique aprs Bourdieu ? , Mouvements, 24, 2002; Trom (D.),
propos de la dignit de la sociologie , Sociologie, 3 (1), 2012; Dodier (N.), Ordre, force,
pluralit. Articuler description et critique autour des questions mdicales , in Haag (P.),
Lemieux (C.),eds, Faire des sciences sociales, vol. 1 : Critiquer, Paris, ditions de lEHESS, 2012.

This diagnosis echoes what certain pragmatist sociologists investigating on critical compentences in
France in the mid-Nineties identified as the critique crisis (Cardon (D.), Heurtin (J.-Ph.), La
critique en rgime dimpuissance , in Franois (B.), Neveu (.), eds, Espaces publics mosaques,
Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du
capitalisme, op. cit.; Parasie (S.), Une critique dsarme. Le tournant publicitaire dans la France des
annes 1980 , Rseaux, 150, 2008). This term aimed to show that a political radicalism no longer
empirically supported is doomed to critical inability or to a radicalism increasingly dissociated from
the sociological preuve (Trom (D.), La crise de la critique sociale, vue de Paris et de Francfort ,
Esprit, July 2008). Thus pragmatic sociologys critical aim can be understood as an effort to ensure
that the exercise of critique regains his grip of the social world.

end with the disclosure of the points which, if they were modified in the studied
devices, would decrease actors chances of understating the importance of certain
contradictions or avoiding certain preuves (which they currently do), and/or would
increase their critical competences or access to certain material and organizational
The three stages we have just distinguished for greater convenience redefine
sociologys critical scope in three ways. 1 Critique of the intellectual-centrism and
the intellectual powers undue claims. For the aim is, first of all, to show critiques
work as it is always already there, by describing its operations and understanding
it in the sociological sense (that is, without immediately criticizing it for being
defective, groundless, illusory, etc.). This allows the sociologist to criticize
sociologists more generally, intellectuals unjustified claim to the monopoly of
the social worlds legitimate critique. 2 Critique of conservatism and of the refusal
of public confrontation. For the aim is, secondly, to show how critiques work is
always limited for actors because the material and organizational devices whereby
they operate or oppose dont enable them to fully use their critical competences,
reveal certain contradictions, and/or access certain judgment and action supports or
the ways of producing some. This allows the sociologist to disagree with the actors
who claim that, concerning the objects of interest to them, critique is already there
and doesnt need to be done; is not (or no longer) useful; and/or that those who keep
criticizing have no good reasons to do so (they are irrational, they didnt
understand the guarantees they were given, etc.). As previously stated, sociologists
show their preference for reviving critique and putting certainties to the test of their
collective verification. 3 Critique of sociologys refusal to accept its practical
consequences. For, given the analyses on an object, the aim is, finally, to suggest or
at least to be able to suggest the material and organizational changes making the
devices more likely to help actors deploy critique by themselves and uncover the
contradictions have to deal with in practice76. This triple redefinition of sociologys
critical scope stresses that a real political radicalism requires sociological radicalism,
not the contrary.
All in all, do we know more about the specificity of the pragmatic style in
sociology? We hope at least to have dispelled certain misunderstandings. When we
focus on it, pragmatic sociology is both much more ordinary in some respects and
much more original in others. It is more ordinary because a very large number of its
assumptions, survey methodologies, and ambitions are anchored in the most classical
sociological tradition mainly American, but also very often including continental
influences, mostly Durkheimian and Weberian. Pragmatic sociology is also more

See for instance the conclusions of books such as: Callon (M.), Lascoumes (P.), Barthe (Y.), Agir
dans un monde incertain, op. cit.; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme,
op. cit.; Latour (B.), Politiques de la nature, Paris, La Dcouverte, 1999; Lemieux (C.), Mauvaise
presse, op. cit., or J. Stavo-Debauges article Les vices dune inconsquence conduisant
limpuissance de la politique franaise de lutte contre les discriminations (published in two volumes,
Carnets de Bord, 6, 2003, et 7, 2004).

Sociologys political effect expresses itself in terms of actors empowerment and self-clarification of
the critical processes in which they are involved. Such an effect derives from the preferred figure of
internal critique, that is, a critique based on actors own sense of morality rather than confronting
them with normative ideals unfamiliar to them, as does the figure of external critique.

original because, in the French context where it emerged, it challenges the most
dominant sociological doxa which takes it for granted that the micro contrasts with
the macro, that interest explains action, that behaviors can be deduced from
dispositions, or that reality is nothing but a social construction. Pragmatic sociology
is dominated in the French sociological research insofar as even respected journals
regularly happen to publish the most misinformed remarks about it. Often greeted
with concern and caution, its quite subversive project is readily attributed to
traditional opponents better identified such as methodological individualism,
idealism, anti-rationalism, or relativism, stances it is however diametrically opposed
to, as shown in this paper. In this respect, this sociology is above all a critique of
conservatism and of the refusal of public confrontation. It intends to carry on this
fight with the social world through the way it grasps its objects of study and, in its
analysis, takes into account, in its analysis, the postulates of pluralism and relative
indeterminacy. But it also intends to carry it on within the professional sociology, by
tackling its dominant forms of dogmatism and its almost inevitable processes of
thought routinization, which openly threaten it.
The kind of sociology discussed in this paper whether we call it pragmatic
sociology or sociology of preuves is aware of its imperfections for it still is in the
making. It tries to fully assess the existence of social regularities without feeling the
need to mechanize action. It seeks to account for the influence of the established
(institu) on practices without feeling obligated to underestimate the strength of the
establishing (instituant) resulting from these very practices. It identifies with social
sciences critical ambition without thinking it necessary to devaluate actors critical
competences. Since we cant say where this sociology finishes, if we were to say where
it begins, we should probably emphasize the double reversal of perspective whereby it
continually strives to revive the sociological project: on the one hand, rather than
seeing actions or social activities as the necessary result of determinism or
rationality, by seeing them as the practical achievement of social obligations or
shared expectations; on the other hand, by ceasing to consider classical notions such
as power, interest, or domination to be explanatory resources and by considering
them above all to be the observable and thus describable effects of the situations and
practices in which and with regard to which each of us is engaged.

Yannick BARTHE, Damien DE BLIC, Jean-Philippe HEURTIN, ric LAGNEAU, Cyril

TROM are researchers or lecturers-researchers in sociology or in political science.

Their work spans a wide range of objects and themes. But they all agree on the
methodological options advocated in this paper.

Pragmatic Sociology: A Users Guide

During the last thirty years, the researchers working within the orientation known as
pragmatic sociology have produced a considerable amount of empirical investigations
relating to all areas of social life. In accordance with the theoretical and methodological
assumptions they intended to defend, they have developed significantly new ways to
conduct their inquiries, to collect data, to explore their fields, to think through the cases and

controversies they used as entry points to explore the social order and its always
problematic reproduction. The aim of this paper is to characterize by highlighting ten
points the pragmatic style in sociology and to specify what are its methodological requisites
and practical implications in the conduct of research.