The Cryptonormative Swamp: a Response to Abbott's 'Varieties of Normative Inquiry'

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    How should sociology engage with normative questions? This itself is a normative question, one basic to the character and aims of the discipline, and so perennial.Footnote1 It is welcome to see it raised anew by Abbott (2018) in the pages of this journal. Abbott describes the different kinds of normative orientations that populate sociology, and he also criticises them. He suggests that the discipline is laden with unreflective and implicit normative commitments and a creeping (and mostly facile) politicization. He proposes that this situation could be rectified were normative inquiry afforded a central place within sociology. Such inquiry might take two forms: the “canonical” and the “legalistic”. My purpose here is not to assess Abbott’s position, since I largely support it. Rather I consider the questions of means and feasibility. Abbott’s argument, as he puts it, has strong implications for the discipline and weak implications for individual sociologists. Draining sociology of its normative slurry would require wholesale institutional change. As such, there is little that individual sociologists can do in the short term, since there are no structures to motivate desirable forms of normative inquiry. Though I accept most of Abbott’s premises, I draw a different conclusion. Indeed, Abbott’s premises can just as well imply weak implications for the discipline and strong implications for individual sociologists. What is more, this is the more normatively and practically desirable conclusion to draw. Sociologists can and should contribute to normative inquiry, immediately, since there exists a vast opportunity to do so in a distinctly sociological fashion, as exemplified in the normative sociology of James Coleman.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)448-455
    JournalThe American Sociologist
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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