Analytical and Political Utility of Poststructuralism: Considering Affirmative Action

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Abstract: In this paper, I argue that a poststructuralist sociology can increase the civic capacity of sociology. Poststructuralist theories present an opportunity for sociologists to analyse societal debates with the specific goal of increasing our political participation in our societies. I suggest that the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida can be read as one path along which a poststructuralist sociology might develop. Finally, I use my own research into the current controversy over affirmative action policies in the United States as an illustrative example of a working poststructuralist sociology.

Resume: Dans cette intervention, je dis que la sociologie post structuraliste peut augmenter la capacite civique de la sociologie. Les theories post structuralistes sont permettent aux sociologues d'analyser les debats sociaux avec le but specifique d'augmenter la participation politique de notre societe. Je suggere que l'oeuvre de Michel Foucault et de Jacques Derrida pent etre prise comune un moyen selon lequel une sociologie post structuraliste pent se developper. Finalement, j'utilise una propre recherche pour mettre au clair la controverse actuelle sur l'action politique de l'"affirmative action" aux Etats-Unis comme un exemple en place d'une sociologie post structuraliste.

Combating and controlling poststructuralist thought has become an important project of many North American sociologists. (1) Many of these critics view an embrace of poststructuralist social theory as equivalent to the end of social science. Quite understandably, this unfortunate reading of poststructuralism has manifested itself in a large and growing corpus of sociological scholarship that is highly critical of poststructuralist thinking. These attacks have at least three discernible albeit overlapping themes.

Most widespread are those critics who argue that poststructuralism equals relativism, nihilism, nominalism, solipsism, or subjectivism. Others claim that this lack of scientific authority precludes the possibility of sociologists doing politics. If all views of social reality are relative then sociologists simply tell stories that are a bit more sophisticated, but no more valid, than the stories told by any other types of narrators. Finally, critics have charged that poststructuralism is incomprehensible, jargon-ridden, and little more than an elitist intellectual game. (2)

I believe these reactions have been too hasty and that many of these attacks are launched from positions of misunderstanding. Indeed, I maintain that sociologists can strengthen our political and civic roles, as well as increase our analytical abilities, through careful considerations of poststructuralist theory. We should cross disciplinary boundaries, and seek out and incorporate the relevant thinking of, for example, literary theorists, philosophers, and historians. In this paper, I argue that the works of the philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida suggest at least one path along which a poststructuralist sociology might develop. (3)

In the first sections of the paper I read Foucault and Derrida for sociology. I argue that Derrida's analyses of "text" and his decentering of subjectivity can help sociologists move away from esoteric quests for empirically-verifiable social structure and into the everyday understandings and needs of our target populations, whomever individual sociologists may perceive these populations to be. Similarly, Foucault's understandings of the productive nature of power and of genealogies of discourses of power offer sociologists the chance to participate in the political battles of our various publics. The concluding sections of the paper are an illustration of how such a poststructuralist sociology might proceed. My own research into the political struggles surrounding Affirmative Action Programs in California and the United States serves as a brief example of the alternative intellectual understandings and increased political capacity that sociologists can glean from a careful reading of Foucault and Derrida. …