Three Spaces of Social Theory: Towards a Political Geography of Knowledge

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper raises doubts about the traditional justification of the autonomy of the sociological object in terms of the "discovery" of "society" as demarcated from the state. Against the tendency to homogenize social theory from an overly "Anglosaxon" or liberal image of its early history, it offers atriadic, "knowledge-geographical" tableau of interpretations of the social object-and-project, which aligns it more closely with political ideology, resisting any clear-cut delineations in state vs. society terms. In the threepartite space of emerging social science, the French and German-Italian branches stuck significantly closer to the political and staatswissenschaftliche tradition than the Anglosaxon branch, and exemplified not so much a rupture with as an innovatory continuation of "Aristotelian" political philosophy, extending and generalizing its scope of analysis from state sovereignty towards a more inclusive theory of the generation and distribution of social power. This approach introduces a new specification of the unity and diversity of the sociological object-and-project, which may be re-described as that of knowledgeable organization: an appelation which at once defines the classical promise and the classical hubris of the sociological tradition in its three intellectual-geographical zones.

Resume: Cet article met en question la justification traditionnelle de l'autonomie de l'objet sociologique comme `decouverte de la societe', differenciee de l'Etat. S'opposant a la tendance pour unifier la theorie du social dans une perspective anglo-saxonne qui insiste un peu trop sur les origines liberales de la sociologie, cet article propose un tableau epistemo-geographique triadique des interpretations de l'objet-projet social qui est plus en phase avec l'ideologie politique et qui resiste a une demarcation tranchee entre la societe et l'Etat. A l'interieur de l'espace triadique de la science sociale naissante, les courants francais et germano-italiennes demeuraient plus proches de la tradition politique de la Staatswissenschaft que de la tradition anglo-saxonne. En tant que tels, ils ne representent pas tant une rupture qu'une continuation de la philosophie politique aristotelicienne, dont ils etendent et generalisent la portee de la souverainte de l'Etat vers une theorie plus inclusive de l'emergence et de la distribution du pouvoir. Cette demarche introduit une nouvelle specification de l'unite et de la difference de l'objet-projet de la sociologie en tant que organisation instruite (knowledgeable organization). Cette denomination permet du coup de redefinir la promesse et la demesure classiques de la tradition sociologique dans sa trois espaces intellectuelles-geographiques.

The Elusive Object of Sociology

According to a widely held idol of the tribe, sociology started its career with the discovery of "society" as an entity distinct from and independent of the state (Collins and Makowsky, 1972; Goudsblom, 1977; Bottomore and Nisbet, 1979; Heilbron, 1995; Vandenberghe, 1997; 1998). Sociology, Aron has argued, marks a moment in man's reflection on historical reality "when the concept of the social, of society, becomes the centre of interest, replacing the concept of politics or of the regime or of the state" (1965 I: 15). Early sociology, Gouldner agreed, rejected the dominance of society by the state, and more generally, defocalized the importance of politics in order to concentrate upon "civil society" as its principal scientific object (1980: 363-4). Most significant in the sociological experience, Elias has written, is the conceptualization of "society" as a self-regulating nexus of events, and as something which was not determined in its course and its functioning by governments (1984: 38).

The idea appears to add the virtues of simplicity to those of self-evidence, and offers a classical justification for the existence of sociology as an autonomous intellectual enterprise. …


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