Social Science and Social Criticism

Can, should, must social science be critical of society?

It is perhaps the Gretchenfrage for every social scientist: “how do you feel about social criticism?” My own thinking on this question is formed by three attempts to find an answer which can live up to the gravity of the question.

The Frankfurt School and the search for a yardstick

I have long been fascinated by attempts to develop a normative yardstick by which to judge whether a particular social practice or arrangement is good or bad, worthy of critic or deserving of respect.

In a certain sense, these attempts to put social criticism on an ‘objective’ normative foundation failed, and were perhaps doomed to fail. But they also produced a rich body of work at the intersection of social philosophy and empirical social science that I continue to feel drawn to.

The social philosophers of the Frankfurt School were among the first to insist on the connection between normative theorizing and empirical work. In looking at modern societies from this meta-theoretical vantage point, some of its members came to express an intuition that has always rung true to me: that despite its flaws, modernity (as an empirical phenomenon) is something (normatively) worth saving. Foremost among these thinkers is Jürgen Habermas. Habermas’ theory of communicative action is an attempt to conceive of modernization as a deeply ambivalent process - a process that has released the search for truth, justice, and beauty from their traditional shackles while also untethering the capitalist from its societal bounds.1

For Habermas, the critic is called upon when the logic of systemic imperatives - the ruthless search for profit or the unjustified exercise of administrative power - distorts and subjugates the communicative logic of the lifeworld. It would mean doing injustice to the considerable sociological complexity of Habermas’ theory to accuse him of empirical naivety. Habermas did of course not think that the lifeworld was free of power relations, even in the absence of encroaching systemic imperatives. But I always thought the major flaw in his theory was that it lacks a concept of ‘symbolic’ or ‘noumenal power’2 - of a power that affects the communicative taking and making of arguments itself, i.e., what people accept as ‘good reasons’.

Foucault and the apotheosis of subversion

This is problem is in a way the starting point for a second strand of social criticism. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault, these genealogical critics have attempt to drill holes in the solid concrete of the everyday lifeworld by asking its inhabitants to look in the mirror of their own, often dark and always contingent collective histories.3 The point of these genealogical critics, as Foucault readily acknowledges, is no longer to put criticism on normative foundation, but to elicit a “limit-experience” that “changes us, that prevents us from always being the same, or from having the same kind of relationship with things and others that we had before.”4 But this creates a problem: what is the point of eliciting such limit-experiences if there is no normative foundation from which to judge the relative quality of a given norm, practice, or social order? With no place left to stand on, the critic can only resort to celebrating the notion of subversion itself. Foucault says he does what he does so that those implicated in relations of power

“might escape them through their actions of resistance and rebellion, might transform them in order not to be subjugated any longer. And if I don’t ever say what must be done, it isn’t because I believe that there’s nothing to be done; on the contrary, it is because I think that there are a thousand things to do, to invent, to forge, on the part of those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they’re implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view all of my investigations rest on a postulate of absolute optimism. I do not conduct my analyses in order to say: this is how things are, look how trapped you are. I say certain things only to the extent to which I see them as capable of permitting the transformation of reality.”5

But why subversion - and the “limit-experience” it elicits - is better than compliance is not - and cannot be - answered. If everything solid melts into air, we can only hope to land softly.

Bourdieu and the freedom in determinism

A third strand of social criticism, most eloquently developed by Pierre Bourdieu, has maneuvered itself into a similar cul-de-sac. For Bourdieu, social criticism is deeply entangled with questions of social determinism. In his sociological work, he had demonstrated the structuring effects of social fields and social power. For Bourdieu, communicative action was always distorted by the pernicious logic of symbolic power - the power that makes the dominated accept and internalize the reasons for their domination.

But for Bourdieu there was a way out, at least sort of. For Bourdieu, and here he agreed with Foucault, there was no going back behind the knowledge and acknowledgment of our own historicity - the fact that who we are and what we believe, as individuals and societies, is profoundly shaped by social and historical forces. But this, Bourdieu insisted, does not mean abandoning the possibility of criticism but rather radicalizing it by asking about the social conditions of its possibility.

“In short, it is only through recognizing one’s historicity that it becomes possible for Reason to extricate itself from it”6

What Bourdieu means here is that we can only think of escaping our historicity - the ways in which history and society shape us - if we understand and acknowledge it, much like we could only build airplanes after we understood and acknowledged the laws of gravity. Freedom, then, does not disappear in the face of determinism but requires us to recognize it. But, Bourdieu realizes, our ability to uncover the laws that govern social life is itself a product of history.

“I tend to pose the question regarding reason, or norms in a radically historical way. My initial question would be: in whose interest is universalism? or what are the social conditions in which certain actors come to be interested in it? (…) This historicism has to be pushed to its limits through radical doubt in order to see what can still be saved 7

For Bourdieu, science itself is the product of contingent (and reversible) historical circumstances that have established a situation in which all actors have an interest in finding the truth - as opposed to politically convenient, economically lucrative, or morally comfortable lies. This is why science is so important; it carves out a socially constructed space for people to pursue the truth - and to get something out of it. Only under these conditions - however imperfect they may be - can we hope to understand and therefore at least somewhat escape - the iron laws of determinism.

The social critic as a gardener

It is here that my thinking on social criticism has arrived - at least for the moment. We, as (social) scientists are the privileged children of modernity which has put us in a position to be able to play a game in which we can win by pursuing the truth, at least in principle. And in doing so, we can provide individuals and societies with the knowledge to understand and accept their own complicity in historically grown and socially structured power relations. And it is this knowledge that they need to make - in acts of communicative interaction - decisions about their individual and collective fate that have at least the semblance of freedom. For me, then, the job of the social critic is much like the job of the gardener: to remove the weed of false freedom - freedom ignorant of its determination - in order to give the delicate flower of true freedom - freedom educated about its own determination - a chance to blossom.


  1. Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon.↩︎

  2. Forst, R. (2017) ‘Noumenal Power’, in Forst, R. (ed.) Normativity and Power: Analyzing Social Orders of Justification. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.37–51.↩︎

  3. Foucault, M. (1984) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 32–50.↩︎

  4. Foucault, M. (1991) Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombardori: Semiotext(e).↩︎

  5. Foucault, M. (1984) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 32–50.↩︎

  6. Honneth, A., Kocyba, H. and Schwibs, B. (1986) ‘The Struggle for Symbolic Order an Interview with Pierre Bourdieu’, Theory, Culture & Society, 3(3), p. 46.↩︎

  7. Honneth, A., Kocyba, H. and Schwibs, B. (1986) ‘The Struggle for Symbolic Order an Interview with Pierre Bourdieu’, Theory, Culture & Society, 3(3), p. 48.↩︎