Academic journal article Environmental Values

Reframing Problems of Incommensurability in Environmental Conflicts through Pragmatic Sociology: From Value Pluralism to the Plurality of Modes of Engagement with the Environment

Academic journal article Environmental Values

Reframing Problems of Incommensurability in Environmental Conflicts through Pragmatic Sociology: From Value Pluralism to the Plurality of Modes of Engagement with the Environment

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper presents the contribution of the pragmatic sociology of critical capacities to the understanding of environmental conflicts. In the field of 'environmental valuation', nowadays colonised by economics, the approach of plural modes (or 'regimes') of engagement provides a sociological understanding of the unequal power of conflicting 'languages of valuation'. This frame entails a shift from 'values' to 'modes of valuation', and links modes of valuation to modes of practical engagement and coordination with the surrounding environment. Different social sources of incommensurability are thus detected and reframed as critical tension within and among modes of human coordination with the environment.

KEYWORDS

Incommensurability, environmental valuation, pragmatic sociology, value conflict, decision

INTRODUCTION

In this paper I discuss the contribution that the 'sociology of critical capacities' (also known as 'French pragmatic sociology'), initiated by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1999, 2006), makes to the study of environmental conflicts. Emerging in France in the 1980s, as a challenge to Pierre Bourdieu's 'critical sociology', this approach has progressively elicited an international echo, and is today a key reference in the European debate. (1) Environmental conflicts have proved to be among the most fruitful fields of application for French pragmatic sociology in recent years. (2) This should not be surprising, given the fundamental contribution of Bruno Latour's works to the development of this approach (Guggenheim and Potthast, 2012). In fact, one of the most innovative traits of the 'pragmatic turn' in French sociology (Dosse, 1999) is to consider 'nonhumans' as 'agents', assuring and stabilising coordination between human beings.

The concepts of 'hybrid forum', 'translation', 'framing' and 'overflowing', elaborated by Michel Callon to address environmental disputes, have greatly contributed to a more accurate sociological analysis of what economists (and, increasingly, activists, politicians and citizens) call 'environmental externalities' (Callon, 1998; Callon et al., 2009). Nevertheless, the actor-network approach fails to provide an account of what translations--and mediations--entail in terms of the need to conciliate competing and incommensurable 'languages of valuation' of the environment. The unequal power of these languages has been put forward as a reason accounting for forms of oppression in contemporary environmental conflicts (Martinez-Alier, 2002, 2008). Moreover, value incommensurability is frequently mobilised to provide an account of why environmental conflicts so often turn into 'intractable controversies' (Schon and Rein, 1994; Pellizzoni, 2003).

I argue that in the field of 'environmental valuation', nowadays colonised by economics, pragmatic sociology could make a significant contribution by clarifying some of the underlying sociological issues accounting for these problems of incommensurability. The shift that pragmatic sociology promotes from values to modes of valuation, and the link it establishes between modes of valuation and modes of action--the latter intended as modes of practical engagement and coordination with the environment--allow different social sources of incommensurability to be distinguished.

My argument is divided into four steps:

First, I introduce the debate on incommensurability in environmental valuation, focusing on how it has been developed in the field of ecological economics and showing some sociological dimensions of the problem that have not been adequately addressed in this literature.

Second, I introduce the pragmatic-sociology approach to valuation. I argue that the most original contribution of this approach rests upon showing a link between the modern construction of a precise 'grammar' of the legitimacy of public valuation (the public justifiable valuation) and an idea of universal justice to which commensuration is fundamental. …

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