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1In the mid-1980s, as P. Bourdieu’s critical sociology and R. Boudon’s methodological individualism prevailed, a new sociological movement surfaced. It was coined “pragmatic sociology”. It will fall to the discipline’s 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 pragmatism [1]. Thus we don’t at all aim to gloss on 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 épreuves[2]”.

2We 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 Thévenot. 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.

3Throughout 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 research [3].

4The 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 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

5Pragmatic sociology’s 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 isn’t 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.

6In the early Eighties, this approach prevailed in the studies on socioprofessional categories [4]. 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 exceptionality [5]. 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 versa [6].

7Thus pragmatic sociology doesn’t 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, companies [7]), political institutions (the State, its administrations [8]), socioprofessional groups (managers, doctors, teachers, journalists [9]), or public issues [10]. It doesn’t neglect the comparative approach for it compares national societies [11] through “combinatory ethnographies”, which account for certain social operations (doing science, evaluate, care, put to death, and so on) observed in various contexts [12]. Thus how pragmatic sociology “tames the great Leviathan” doesn’t lead to relativize—let alone deny—the existence of sociological realities beyond the here and now of observable situations [13]. This sociology would otherwise renounce the basis of all sociological approaches: viewing society as a total phenomenon to be grasped as such [14].

8Pragmatic 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 doesn’t equate with a lack of consideration for structural phenomena, much less with a failure to take account of macrosociological facts. Pragmatic sociology’s main contribution is to offer an alternative conception of the connection between situational and structural realities, and therefore to bridge the “micro” and “macro” levels.

9What 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 isn’t unique in this respect: social science deserves to be understood and analyzed as a contribution to the processes whereby societies grasp themselves [15]. Such a statement doesn’t 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 naïve forms of objectivism.

How pragmatic sociology integrates phenomena’s historical temporality

10Pragmatic 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 doesn’t matter. Pragmatic sociology isn’t 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’ expectations [16]. 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 [17]. Such presentism deserves to be described as methodological. Indeed, it doesn’t 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.

11For all that, pragmatic sociologists’ analyses don’t neglect longer temporalities, which go beyond the here and now of the actions they study. In this respect, two non-mutually-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 shouldn’t 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 situation’s 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 factuality [18]. Far from marginal, this highly pragmatist topic is similar—albeit different—to a research area now popular among historians: the social and political uses of the past [19]. 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 present’s 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.

12Another 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 structured [20]. 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 accusations [21] or collectively react to a suffering [22] or the beauty of a landscape [23]. 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 scandals [24] or the lack of emotion inspired by certain kinds of suffering or certain landscapes [25]. Sometimes, a diagnostic on current 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 century’s last decades or how at the same time an issue seen as strictly technical, namely nuclear waste disposal, was politicized [26].

13In 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 doesn’t 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 action’s present and restores its relative indeterminacy. The aim of the historical survey therefore isn’t 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 aren’t equally claimed and seized by actors, which should be explained. Thus researchers should observe the present before turning to the past, rather than the contrary [27]. But then, they should take another fresh look at the present with the past in mind, asking new questions [28].

14Pragmatic 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 aren’t 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

15Pragmatic sociology doesn’t 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, altruist, or disinterested statements. Does this mean that pragmatic sociology doesn’t 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 aren’t 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 “épreuves” [29] (tests, trials).

16This is why pragmatic sociology so often focuses on the figure of the unveiling of hidden interests in public controversies [30]. 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 State’s or a lobby’s 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 out [31]. The denunciation of hidden interests can therefore be viewed as one of the most important modes of disqualification in public arenas [32].

17Yet 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 isn’t 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 interest [33]. 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.

18To 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 interests [34]. These authors seek to distinguish various regimes of engagement in which actors define each other and relate to one another in a quite different way [35]. In some regimes, actors’ activity consists in explicitly expressing or stating their interests and in considering others’ from an often 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 don’t point out interests as such—neither others’, nor their own—for the course of action doesn’t 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 haven’t 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 ones [36].

How pragmatic sociology treats what actors say

19An 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 [37]. 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 institutions [38].

20Pragmatic 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 isn’t 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) aren’t 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 critiques [39].

21Thus “taking seriously” what actors do to account for their practices and justify their behaviors doesn’t 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 practices [40]. Likewise, it doesn’t 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

22Pragmatic 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 observable [41]. Thus the sociological description of the interaction must be based on them to make them intelligible. Let us elaborate on these two statements.

23Pragmatic sociologists don’t 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 detachment [42].

24Yet pragmatic sociology doesn’t 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 don’t rely on rules of public justification or detachment, but on rules similar to what the notions of “practice” and “routine” usually involve [43]. However, the situations that characterize them aren’t 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 [44].

25Thus 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. [45] 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, doesn’t 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 bridge the gap between the categories of “practice” and “reflexivity”, by assuming that the situations are characterized by varying levels of reflexive intensity [46]. 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 increase [47]. Conversely, this perspective brings all forms of reflexivity—including sociological reflexivity—back to their practical foundations [48].

26This 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 doesn’t 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 sociability

27The 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 isn’t new since it can be traced back to the pragmatism of the early twentieth century in particular [49]. In the early Nineties, L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot 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 in [50]. This approach entails a conception of identity and socialization devoid of the emphasis that Bourdieu’s interpretation of the concept of habitus—rather than Norbert Elias’s—puts on the coherence of self. Thus, according to pragmatic sociology, individuals’ tensions and internal contradictions, as well as their symptoms (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 [51].

28This 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 philosophy [52]. 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 doesn’t grant the status of descriptive concept to dispositions since they don’t describe actions: the former are made describable by the latter. (“He has a middle-class disposition” doesn’t describe an action. The agent’s 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 can’t 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 [53].

29Moreover, 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 doesn’t 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 don’t tell us anything about the practical situations in which learning took place and the kind of épreuves that occurred during learning. They don’t 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. Basically, it can be seen as a sociology of the bodily involvement [54]. Its authors connected it with the ecological approaches in terms of situated cognition [55]. 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 acquire [56].

30Therefore, these authors renewed the understanding of the link between the shows in situation of competence or virtuosity [57] 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 épreuves whose results are still uncertain although they may in part be predictable. During these épreuves, actors’ performances or counterperformances may be judged by peers, supervisors, and so on—even by themselves—considering their ability, inability, normality, or abnormality. These épreuves 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 doesn’t prejudge “what people are capable of [58]”. Will this child be able to walk, work, or swim? It is precisely because this is uncertain that eighteenth-century and contemporary educationalists don’t agree on what can reasonably and fairly be expected from a child or be done with him/her [59]. The principle that actors’ competences shouldn’t be prejudged is of methodological nature. Although it should be followed, it absolutely doesn’t 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 can’t be set in advance by the researcher.

31It should therefore be noted that, while dispositional concepts don’t 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 actor’s observable behavior to its past ones, so as to highlight how—through which series of épreuves and devices—the tendencies or habits the actor now manifests have previously developed in him. This explanatory use of dispositionalism prevails in pragmatic sociology [60]. 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 actor’s dispositions.

How pragmatic sociology shifts the question of power

32To 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 stance’s underlying principles is that the social world’s asymmetries are all the better describable when observed from the standpoint of an epistemology of symmetry [61]. This doesn’t mean that pragmatic sociologists imagine the social world symmetrical by default, but simply that, to correctly describe asymmetries, the latter shouldn’t be prejudged and the possibility of their reversibility shouldn’t be excluded a priori, even when it is the least probable.

33Thus, since the situations of domination aren’t 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 doesn’t exist outside of the épreuves it gives rise to, so that the latter are undoubtedly the first thing the researcher should describe and analyze [62].

34These 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.

35Conversely, 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.

36While pragmatic sociology considers that a situation—whatever it is—doesn’t amount to a pre-established distribution of dominant/dominated roles, it doesn’t 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 relations [63]. 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 behavior’s 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 possible [64].

37Pragmatic sociology’s 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

38As we have just said, as regards its methodological principles, pragmatic sociology values symmetry and equality of treatment between the conflicting parties, yet it doesn’t 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 action [65]. Rather than an explanatory resource, they are what should be explained. The consequences of this approach aren’t insignificant: analytically, the inequalities produced in earlier épreuves can certainly have a predictive role (in terms of actors’ unequally distributed chances to act), but they don’t enable us to mechanically deduce either the collective action or, subsequently, the state of inequalities that will result from the new épreuve; politically, recognizing inequalities as the result of collective action and highlighting that its reproduction, if somewhat predictable, still isn’t mechanical at all is a way to focus on our collective ability to further real equality in our social relations.

39This emphasizes that symmetry and equality aren’t merely methodological principles. Quite often, they also correspond to a claim made by actors. In On Justification, L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot attempted to account for this—to consider the ideal of equality, as mobilized in social practices, to be an object of study [66]. But their approach didn’t 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 isn’t 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, don’t 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 isn’t because the social world is egalitarian, but precisely because it isn’t. Therefore, the fact that an unequal public action is socially needed doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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.

40We 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 effects [67]. In this respect, the program of pragmatic sociology doesn’t assume that those who don’t 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 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 it [68].

How pragmatic sociology avoids relativism

41Any 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 épreuve 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 épreuve, but we can also think of Al Qaeda’s 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 former’s 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.) aren’t all of a piece and, like anyone else, are subject to internal contradictions. Such an approach could certainly be described as relativistic.

42However, pragmatist sociologists would remind us that these are methodological principles, which certainly don’t 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. Thévenot, 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 can’t be deemed equivalent, all behaviors aren’t equally acceptable, and some should be unanimously considered scandalous and degrading and shouldn’t 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 aren’t totally subjective or arbitrary. We see in passing that certain authors don’t hesitate to describe the On Justification[69] 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” can’t be organized along hierarchical lines. In doing so, they don’t 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” principles [70].

43The second element that puts a brake on relativism is more closely linked to the notion of épreuve 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 Pasteur’s theory on his opponent Pouchet’s “spontaneous generation” theory isn’t arbitrary: Pasteur successfully passes the tests that Pouchet does not [71]—for instance, when the sterilizations Pasteur carries out prove effective. From this perspective, all definitions of reality aren’t equivalent. Their unequal values, however, shouldn’t be reified or prejudged by the researcher but should, on the contrary, be understood as the result of épreuves, remaining as such vulnerable to a new épreuve. In other words, certain realities prove more “real” than others, in that they resist better the various épreuves 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 couldn’t pass (de facto, but not de jure) the tests of reality it was very systematically subjected to from the sixteenth century on.

44Taking 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 sociology’s normative orientation. This sociology stresses the importance of épreuves 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

45Pragmatic 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 relations [72]. Pragmatic sociology stems precisely from the limits and impasses of the so-called critical sociology and suggests trying out a new kind of critical engagement in sociology.

46What are these limits and impasses? It is often believed that pragmatic sociologists disagree with the so-called critical sociologists on the content of the latter’s 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.

47Critical 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 dull [73].

48Based 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 hasn’t (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 épreuves do these devices enable? Which don’t 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 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 épreuves (which they currently do), and/or would increase their critical competences or access to certain material and organizational supports [74].

49The three stages we have just distinguished for greater convenience redefine sociology’s critical scope in three ways. 1° Critique of the intellectual-centrism and the intellectual power’s undue claims. For the aim is, first of all, to show critique’s 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 world’s legitimate critique. 2° Critique of conservatism and of the refusal of public confrontation. For the aim is, secondly, to show how critique’s work is always limited for actors because the material and organizational devices whereby they operate or oppose don’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t “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 sociology’s 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 practice [75]. This triple redefinition of sociology’s critical scope stresses that a real political radicalism requires sociological radicalism, not the contrary.


51All 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 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.

52The kind of sociology discussed in this paper—whether we call it pragmatic sociology or “sociology of épreuves”—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 (institué) on practices without feeling obligated to underestimate the strength of the establishing (instituant) resulting from these very practices. It identifies with social science’s critical ambition without thinking it necessary to devaluate actors’ critical competences. Since we can’t 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.


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    Boltanski (L.), « La dénonciation », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 51, 1984.
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    See previous section.
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    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 réfutation de l’effet NIMBY considérée comme une pratique militante. Notes pour une approche pragmatique de l’activité revendicative », Revue française de science politique, 49 (1), 1999.
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    See for instance: Corcuff (P.), Sanier (M.), « Politique publique et action stratégique en contexte de décentralisation. Aperçus d’un processus décisionnel “après la bataille” », Annales, 55 (4), 2000.
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    Relating to various objects, see: Chateauraynaud (F.) La faute professionnelle. Une sociologie des conflits de responsabilité, Paris, Métailié, 1991; Doidy (E.), « (Ne pas) juger scandaleux. Les électeurs de Levallois-Perret face au comportement de leur maire », Politix, 71, 2005; Lagneau (É.), « Ce que Ségolène Royal n’a pas assez vu. L’AFP entre réalismes politique et économique », Réseaux, 157-158, 2009.
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    See: Chiapello (È.), Artistes versus managers. Le management culturel face à la critique artiste, Paris, Métailié, 1998; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (È.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.; de Blic (D.), « Moraliser l’argent. Ce que Panama a changé dans la société française (1889-1897) », Politix, 71, 2005; Fillion (E.), À l’épreuve du sang contaminé. Pour une sociologie des affaires médicales, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2009.
  • [39]
    See: Stavo-Debauge (J.), « En quête d’une introuvable action antidiscriminatoire. Une sociologie de ce qui fait défaut », Politix, 94, 2011.
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    Callon (M.), Rabeharisoa (V.), « La leçon d’humanité de Gino », Réseaux, 95, 1999 [« Gino’s Lesson of Humanity: Genetics, Mutual Entanglements and the Sociologist’s Role, Economy and Society, 33 (1), 2004].
  • [41]
    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 l’action. Éléments de pragmatique sociologique », Réseaux, 62, 1993; Lemieux (C.), Mauvaise presse…, op. cit., p. 116-117.
  • [42]
    For an analysis of several empirical cases of this kind of “rise in generality”, see: Boltanski (L.), Thévenot (L.), eds, Justesse et justice dans le travail, Cahiers du CEE, 33, 1989.
  • [43]
    See in particular: Thévenot (L.), « Le régime de familiarité. Des choses en personne », Genèses, 17, 1994; Thévenot (L.), L’action au pluriel…, op. cit.; Breviglieri (M.), L’usage et l’habiter. Contribution à une sociologie de la proximité, PhD dissertation in sociology, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1999.
  • [44]
    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 réalité, Louvain-la-Neuve, Peeters, 1992; Rémy (C.), « Activité sociale et latéralisation », Recherches sociologiques, 34 (3), 2003; Datchary (C.), La dispersion au travail, Toulouse, Octares, 2011.
  • [45]
    Boltanski (L.), La condition fœtale. Une sociologie de l’engendrement et de l’avortement, Paris, Gallimard, 2004 [The Fœtal Condition: A Sociology of Engendering and Abortion, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013]; Rémy (C.), « Quand la norme implicite est le moteur de l’action », Déviance et Société, 29 (2), 2005; Lemieux (C.), « Du pluralisme des régimes d’action à la question de l’inconscient : déplacements » in Breviglieri (M.), Lafaye (C.), Trom (D.), eds, Compétences critiques…, op. cit.
  • [46]
    See: Breviglieri (M.), Trom (D.), « Troubles et tensions en milieu urbain. Les épreuves citadines et habitantes de la ville », in Cefaï (D.), Pasquier (D.), eds, Les sens du public, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2003; Breviglieri (M.), « L’insupportable. L’excès de proximité, l’atteinte à l’autonomie et le sentiment de violation du privé », in Breviglieri (M.), Lafaye (C.), Trom (D.), eds, Compétences critiques…, op. cit. For a theorization of the continuist hypothesis mentioned here, see: Lemieux (C.), Le devoir et la grâce. Pour une analyse grammaticale de l’action, Paris, Economica, 2009.
  • [47]
    See the analysis of corporate recruiters’ practical judgements and intuitions by Eymard-Duvernay (F.), Marchal (E.), Façons de recruter. Le jugement des compétences sur le marché du travail, Paris, Métailié, 1996. For the case of physicians, see: Dodier (N.), L’expertise médicale. Essai de sociologie sur l’exercice du jugement, Paris, Métailié, 1993. For the case of journalists, see: Lagneau (É.), « Une fausse information en quête d’auteur. Conflits d’imputation autour d’une annulation de dépêches AFP », in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivité journalistique…, op. cit.
  • [48]
    See Bruno Latour’s analyses of the production of scientific and juridical reflexivities: Latour (B.), Woolgar (S.), La vie de laboratoire. La production des faits scientifiques, Paris, La Découverte, 1988 [Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979]; Latour (B.), L’espoir de Pandore. Pour une version réaliste de l’activité scientifique, Paris, La Découverte, 2007 [Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999]; Latour (B.), La fabrique du droit. Une ethnographie du Conseil d’État, Paris, La Découverte, 2002 [The Making of Law. An Ethnography of the Conseil d’État, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009].
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    See in particular: Mead (G.), L’esprit, le soi et la société, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2006 [Mind, Self and Society: From a Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1934]. For a synthetic overview of this tradition, see: Elster (J.), ed., The Multiple Self, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • [50]
    Boltanski (L.), Thévenot (L.), De la justification…, op. cit.
  • [51]
    Relating to various objects, see: Périlleux (T.), Les tensions de la flexibilité. L’épreuve du travail contemporain, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2001; Barbot (J.), Dodier (N.), « Itinéraires de réparation et formation d’un espace de victimes autour d’un drame médical », in Cultiaux (J.), Périlleux (T.), eds, Destins politiques de la souffrance. Intervention sociale, justice, travail, Toulouse, Erès, 2009; Cefaï (D.), Gardella (E.), L’urgence sociale en action. Ethnologie du Samu social de Paris, Paris, La Découverte, 2011; Breviglieri (M.), Cichelli (V.), eds, Adolescences méditerranéennes. L’espace public à petits pas, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007; Sourp (M.-L.), « Une question de personnalité. L’accès à l’information chez un “rubricard” de Libération », in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivité journalistique…, op. cit.
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    Bourdieu (E.), Savoir-faire. Contribution à une théorie dispositionnelle de l’action, Paris, Seuil, 1998; Chauviré (C.), Ogien (A.), eds, La régularité. Habitude, disposition et savoir-faire dans l’explication de l’action, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2002.
  • [53]
    This approach was initiated by one of the GSPM founders, Michaël Pollak, in his book L’expérience concentrationnaire. Essai sur le maintien de l’identité sociale, Paris, Métailié, 1990. See: Lemieux (C.), « De la théorie de l’habitus à la sociologie des épreuves : relire L’expérience concentrationnaire », in Israël (L.), Voldman (D.), eds, Michaël Pollak. De l’identité blessée à une sociologie des possibles, Paris, Complexe, 2007.
  • [54]
    Bessy (C.), Chateauraynaud (F.), Experts et faussaires. Pour une sociologie de la perception, Paris, Métailié, 1995; Hennion (A.), « Music Lovers: Taste as Performance », in Warde (A.), ed., Consumption, vol 3: Appropriation, London, Sage, 2010; Rémy (C.), La fin des bêtes…, op. cit.
  • [55]
    See in particular: Conein (B.), Dodier (N.), Thévenot (L.), eds, Les objets dans l’action. De la maison au laboratoire, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 1993.
  • [56]
    Relating to various fields, see: Hennion (A.), Comment la musique vient aux enfants. Une anthropologie de l’enseignement musical, Paris, Economica, 1988; Conein (B.), « Cognition située et coordination de l’action. La cuisine dans tous ses états », Réseaux, 43, 1990; Winance (M.), « Mobilités en fauteuil roulant. Processus d’ajustement corporel et d’arrangements pratiques avec l’espace, physique et social », Politix, 90, 2010; Moreau de Bellaing (C.) « Comment la violence vient aux policiers. École de police et enseignement de la violence légitime », Genèses, 75, 2009.
  • [57]
    Dodier (N.), Les hommes et les machines. La conscience collective dans les sociétés technicisées, Paris, Métailié, 1995.
  • [58]
    Boltanski (L.), L’amour et la justice comme compétences. Trois essais de sociologie de l’action, Paris, Métailié, 1990 [Love and Justice as Competences, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012].
  • [59]
    Garnier (P), Ce dont les enfants sont capables, Paris, Métailié, 1995.
  • [60]
    For instance: Dodier (N.), Leçons politiques sur l’épidémie de sida, op. cit.; Lemieux (C.), « Albert Londres. Le journalisme à contre-cœur », in Lemieux (C.), ed., La subjectivité journalistique…, op. cit.
  • [61]
    Latour (B.), Pasteur…, op. cit.
  • [62]
    See: Linhardt (D.), La force de l’État en démocratie. La République fédérale d’Allemagne à l’épreuve de la guérilla urbaine, PhD dissertation in sociology, École nationale supérieure des Mines de Paris, 2004; as well as the issue edited by: Linhardt (D.), Vitale (T.), « Épreuves d’État », Quaderni, 78, 2012.
  • [63]
    See: Chateauraynaud (F.), Les relations d’emprise, document de travail, GSPR-EHESS, 1999; Linhardt (D.), Moreau de Bellaing (C.), « Légitime violence ? Enquêtes sur la réalité de l’État démocratique », Revue française de science politique, 55 (2) 2005.
  • [64]
    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].
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    Derouet (J.-L.), École et justice. De l’égalité des chances aux compromis locaux ?, Paris, Métailié, 1992; Normand (R.), Gouverner la réussite scolaire. Une arithmétique politique des inégalités, Bern, Peter Lang, 2011; Auray (N.), « Sociabilité informatique et différence sexuelle », in Chabaud-Rychter (D.), Gardey (D.), eds, L’engendrement des choses. Des hommes, des femmes et des techniques, Paris, Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2002.
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    Boltanski (L.), Thévenot (L.), De la justification…, op. cit.
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    Callon (M.), Lascoumes (P.), Barthe (Y.), Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la démocratie technique, Paris, Seuil, 2001 [Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2009]; Linhardt (D.), « L’économie du soupçon. Une contribution pragmatique à la sociologie de la menace », Genèses, 44, 2001; Stavo-Debauge (J.), « En quête d’une introuvable action antidiscriminatoire… », art. cit.; Richard-Ferroudji (A.), « Limites du modèle délibératif : composer avec différents formats de participation », Politix, 96, 2011; Cardon (D.), « Dans l’esprit du PageRank. Une enquête sur l’algorithme de Google », Réseaux, 177, 2013; Benvegnu (N.), La politique des netroots. La politique à l’épreuve des outils informatiques de débat public, thèse pour le doctorat de sociologie, Mines ParisTech, 2011.
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    Barbot (J.) Les malades en mouvements. La médecine et la science à l’épreuve du sida, Paris, Balland, 2002; Gramaglia (C.), « Des poissons aux masses d’eau. Les usages militants du droit pour faire parler des êtres qui ne parlent pas », Politix, 83, 2008; Lemieux (C.), « Rendre visibles les dangers du nucléaire. Une contribution à la sociologie de la mobilisation », in Lahire (B.), Rosental (C.), eds, La cognition au prisme des sciences sociales, Paris, Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2008; Jobin (P.), « Les cobayes portent plainte. Usages de l’épidémiologie dans deux affaires de maladies industrielles à Taïwan », Politix, 91, 2010; Barthe (Y.), « Cause politique et “politique des causes”. La mobilisation des vétérans des essais nucléaires français », Politix, 91, 2010.
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    Pharo (P.), Morale et sociologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2004.
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    This non-relativistic stance allows L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot, for instance, to characterize the eugenic value as inherently illegitimate. (De la justification…, op. cit., p. 104).
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    Latour (B.), « Pasteur et Pouchet : hétérogenèse de l’histoire des sciences », in Serres (M.), ed., Éléments d’histoire des sciences, Paris, Bordas, 1989. See also: Lagrange (P.), « Enquête sur les soucoupes volantes. La construction d’un fait aux États-Unis (1947) et en France (1951-54) », Terrain, 14, 1990; Rémy (É.), « Comment saisir la rumeur ? », Ethnologie française, 23 (4), 1993.
  • [72]
    Barthe (Y.), Lemieux (C.), « Quelle critique après Bourdieu ? », Mouvements, 24, 2002; Trom (D.), « À propos de la “dignité” de la sociologie », Sociologie, 3 (1), 2012; Dodier (N.), « Ordre, force, pluralité. Articuler description et critique autour des questions médicales », in Haag (P.), Lemieux (C.), eds, Faire des sciences sociales, vol. 1 : Critiquer, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2012.
  • [73]
    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 régime d’impuissance », in François (B.), Neveu (É.), eds, Espaces publics mosaïques, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999; Boltanski (L.), Chiapello (È.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.; Parasie (S.), « Une critique désarmée. Le tournant publicitaire dans la France des années 1980 », Réseaux, 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 épreuve (Trom (D.), « La crise de la critique sociale, vue de Paris et de Francfort », Esprit, July 2008). Thus pragmatic sociology’s critical aim can be understood as an effort to ensure that the exercise of critique regains his grip of the social world.
  • [74]
    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 (È.), Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, op. cit.; Latour (B.), Politiques de la nature, Paris, La Découverte, 1999 [Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004] ; Lemieux (C.), Mauvaise presse, op. cit., or J. Stavo-Debauge’s article « Les vices d’une inconséquence conduisant à l’impuissance de la politique française de lutte contre les discriminations » (published in two volumes, Carnets de Bord, 6, 2003, et 7, 2004).
  • [75]
    Sociology’s 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.

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.

Yannick Barthe
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.
Damien de Blic
Jean-Philippe Heurtin
Éric Lagneau
Cyril Lemieux
Dominique Linhardt
Cédric Moreau de Bellaing
Catherine Rémy
Danny Trom
Translated by par
Nathalie Plouchard
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