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1Sociological work in recent years bears witness to the attraction elicited in the discipline by a particular current in philosophy: pragmatism. Although there is still relatively limited knowledge of it in France, [1] today this current seems to be seen as a research perspective that enables the understanding and analysis of social phenomena with tools that are adapted to the questions raised by the state of the contemporary world. This is attested to by the many works published by sociologists that draw their inspiration from pragmatism and by the rate at which the founding texts have been translated and augmented with commentaries and discussions. This recent publishing activity has seen the release of work carried out in the last twenty years by those who have acknowledged the value of the pragmatist approach for the social sciences. [2]

2The areas in which this work has developed are as diverse as the themes with which pragmatism has been associated since its inception: action theory, the sociology of science, political sociology, the sociology of work, the sociology of public policy, the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of art, and feminist sociology. The extension of reference to pragmatism might suggest that this is a bit of an overrated fad, and lead us to dismiss an approach that claims to serve so many different orientations. Or instil serious doubt as to the validity of multiple interpretations of pragmatism provided by researchers depending on whether they refer to one or other of its four sources: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey or George Herbert Mead. In truth, as we will see, there is no canonical definition of pragmatism, which enables it to be legitimately cited in support of approaches with the most contrasting of appearances. Thus, before recounting the way in which recent French sociological work has made pragmatism fashionable (and without considering what has also come to light in philosophy, history, psychology, economics and even in cognitive neuroscience [3]), the figures who introduced this movement from the end of the nineteenth century to the present should be looked back on without going into too much detail.

The diversity of pragmatism

3Pragmatism is a current of thought that stemmed from the work of a somewhat marginalized philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, and who received public recognition through the work of his successor: William James—with whom Peirce vehemently dissociated himself; [4] and then through that of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Yet the aims of each of the four founders were quite different from the outset: the first concerned himself with the philosophy of logic and the theory of signs (Chauviré 1995); the second with psychology, championing the idea of a radical empiricism (Madelrieux 2008); the third, along with other things, established an open and pluralist conception of inquiry and of collective action (Garreta 1999; Madelrieux 2012); and the last developed social behaviourism which has inspired both interactionist sociology and experimental psychology (Quéré and Céfaï 2006; Ogien 2013). This original pragmatism, which never sought coherence, was succeeded by “analytical pragmatism”, which had a more theoretical orientation, when it was adopted by the logical empiricists from the Vienna Circle exiled to the United States. [5] Then, as if in reaction to this tendency, Charles Wright Mills, at the beginning of the 1950s, set out the idea of a “political pragmatism” by relating Dewey’s theses on democracy and the “Public” to the social critique imported to the United States by proponents of the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse) (Horowitz 1966). In the 1970s, a “pragmatic” pragmatism saw the light of day with the development of Jürgen Habermas’s communicational theory of action—which developed an intersubjective version of Mead’s social behaviourism and linked the pragmatic adjective with a conception of action (whereas it had previously been limited to a branch of linguistics). [6] Finally, a contemporary version of pragmatism has evolved following the rediscovery of this line of thought by American philosophers (namely Hilary Putnam [(1994) 2011, 2013] and Richard Rorty [1999]) who have rehabilitated its heritage. It is with this version above all that sociology has currently entered into dialogue, and which in France has encouraged the proliferation of translations of work by James, Dewey and Mead in the last decade. [7]

4Absence of a strict definition does not prevent us from identifying a singular style of thought. In fact, pragmatism appears less like a dogma and more like an attitude and a method, which is characterized by the adoption of several analytical principles: a) realism—an admittance that the exterior world exists independent of the descriptions we give of it and that this existence exercises control over our thoughts and actions; b) fallibilism—which considers that doubt is a principle of knowledge, in other words it maintains that the indeterminism of situations is the motor of social practice, and that their stability is a constantly provisional and revisable phenomenon; c) pluralism—subscribing to the idea that, since there is a multiplicity of conceptions of what to do in a given situation, it is through the exchange between proponents of these ideas that a collectively acceptable solution will emerge; d) holism—renouncing dualism, that is the separation between nature and culture, body and spirit, facts and values, and knowledge and action; e) naturalism—conceiving of human beings and social life as inextricably linked to their environment; f) sociality of normativity—acknowledging that objectivity and order are formed in an action in common, always totally dependent on the context in which they emerge.

5These principles make up a mindset (dynamic, open, antifoundationalist, and anti-intellectualist) and describe a clearly identifiable style of analysis—which can be said to have certain similarities with that of Wittgenstein (Chauviré 2012). These principles and this style can be found in certain rules that today guide some of the work of sociology—without however expressly referencing pragmatism: for example, the primacy of practice, the deterministic character of context, the place of uncertainty and contingency, and the temporality of action. It is this similarity that Louis Quéré (2012) points out by showing how social science research has included a series of themes (the practical dimension of rationality, consequentialist causation, the sensitive nature of experience, and the ecology of action) and notions (habit, inquiry, experimentation, valuation, transaction) that are either directly drawn from pragmatism, or which can be related to it. [8] Recent publications, on which this article intends to report, illustrate some of the ways social analysis has been taken over by these themes and notions.

The place of habit in the analysis of social action

6In From Habits to Social Structures (2011), the Finnish sociologist Antti Gronow provides an impressive overview of the spectrum of uses the discipline makes of pragmatism. For him, this spectrum ranges from interactionism (which seems selfevident when one recalls that two of the founders of pragmatism, Dewey and Mead, taught at Chicago and trained the young generations of sociologists there in the 1930s) to structural-functionalism (which is more surprising when one thinks of the criticisms of positivist approaches advanced by Peirce and Dewey), including rational actor theory, Charles Tilly’s political sociology, Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” approach and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus. This list makes one’s head spin: how can the same approach be taken seriously when it is possible to accommodate so many approaches with contradictory aims and ambitions?

7If Gronow does not see a problem with this, it is because he supports a reductive vision of the contribution of pragmatism to sociology. For him this comes down to a theory of action that is constructed on the basis of the notion of habit. But he presents this in a particular light, saying that it vindicates a postulate: “Action produces structures and their reproduction takes place when action is habitualized; that is, when we develop the disposition to act in a certain manner in familiar environments” (Gronow 2011: 10). And on this basis, he draws the conclusion that: “habit is a general category of action but it is also an explanation for the way in which social structures come into existence” (ibid.: 12).

8His position is not particularly well-founded. While habit is a significant notion in pragmatism, it is not the only one, nor the most fundamental. Above all, it never refers to a mechanical or routine reaction that could be the product of inculcation, conditioning or a mental trace. For Dewey and Mead, habit is a belief that is set beforehand by the resolution of practical problems and on the basis of which an individual is ready to act. But what is puzzling in their conception is that this belief does not operate as a “representation” that could be internalized once and for all. For pragmatism, habit usually remains unchanged (as an integrated scheme of action) only insofar as the new action that it informs unfolds satisfactorily. But, if this is not the case, the status of this same habit changes: it becomes the basis on which a new belief is settled on to respond to the new practical circumstance. In short, in this dialectical conception, habit is both static and dynamic: it is an “active rule in us”, that is constantly challenged by experience (Tiercelin 1993), and not a disposition that forces us to reproduce similar behaviour, nor a cognitive mechanism recorded in memory that triggers a reaction to a stimulus.

9Gronow ignores the thesis of the constitutive (and problematic) duality of habit in pragmatism. He holds, on the contrary, that it is the foundation of “a naturalist action-centered theory of social structures—a theory which does not downplay the role of reflexivity but allocates it to a phase of the action processes […] Conceptually one can say that habits mediate action and social structures” (Gronow 2011: 131). His thesis thus draws from both Stephen Turner (1994) and Neill Gross (2009). From the former, he retains the conception of habit as a “mental trace” that chemically records mediations between action and social structures in the neural circuits of the individual. [9] And from the latter, he retains the idea that sociology should give up the aim of producing a general theory of action, but instead aim, as Robert K. Merton wanted, to develop theories of the middle range. In an article that has become a reference article on the subject, Gross (2009) developed, in effect, a “pragmatist theory” in which habit is a factor that enables the identification of “social mechanisms” of low levels of complexity or possible aggregation and where “in certain circumstances—some cause X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm of human social relations” (Gross 2009: 364). From this, he concludes that pragmatism justifies the idea that “the explanation of social facts such as social structures and networks, the structures of residential segregation, common beliefs, cultural tastes, or current ways of acting, do not require us to relate them to other social facts but to describe in detail the mechanisms by which they are produced.”

10The social mechanisms approach gave birth to the “analytic sociology” school (see Hedström and Bearman 2009) which aimed to produce an explanation of action devoting a particular place to actors in the determining of their behaviours while also maintaining that they are determined structurally. Gross’s version of the notion of “social mechanism” in effect acknowledges that individuals act to resolve practical problems they encounter in daily life and that their actions result from the “aggregation or chains of actors employing habits to resolve problem situations” (Gross 2009: 375) and from creative improvisations used when habits prove inappropriate. The use made here of the notion of habit ignores the fact that in the pragmatist conception of the notion it is used above all to describe, and not to explain. In this conception what is important for the current interaction is the constant reconfiguration and provisional stabilization of operational beliefs. This is something altogether different to what the social mechanisms approach aims to do, namely producing a causal explanation of action by demonstrating how it is determined by habits that are fixed but susceptible to adapting to circumstances. [10] It is because Gronow adopts a causalist point of view that he allies Bourdieu with pragmatism, asserting that his notion of habitus, blessed as it is with the twin property of being structured and structuring, has characteristics that pragmatism confers on that of habit. It is undoubtedly needless to recall (as Gronow indicates elsewhere) that Bourdieu has explicitly rejected such a comparison.

11In truth, the “pragmatist theory of social mechanisms” is in total contradiction to the spirit of pragmatism, or at least with one of its most important pillars: fallibilism, the trace of which can be found in the notion, for Dewey and Mead, of the indeterminacy of situations. Because, if there is one thesis to which all of pragmatism can adhere, it is that which asserts that when individuals have to solve the problems that result from the essential incompleteness of action, they engage in an “inquiry” and implement experimental procedures in order to find a practical solution to it. This thesis, which focuses on uncertainty and the random manner in which it is exercised, seems to prohibit the production of any causal explanation—whether or not this would enable the identification of a middle range “mechanism”. Gronow’s position takes no account of the fact that, for those who accept the indetermination thesis, the phenomenon to analyse in order to explain action in common is the sequential series that imprints a specific dynamic and gives it its configuration. This is what Michele Leclerc-Olive (2012) also insists on in the introduction she provides to the French translation of an important work by Mead: The Philosophy of the Present. Here, in a well-argued way, she presents Mead’s thesis according to which the present contains in itself everything an analyst needs to account for observed phenomena, to the extent that it updates the past while incorporating expectations of the future.

12Ultimately, one could say that Gronow seizes upon the notion of habit, empties it of the properties pragmatism confers upon it and transforms it into a substratum of a stable “culture” that lodges in the brain and guides the actions of individuals without their knowledge. In this construction, habits are presented as constraining forces determining individual behaviours automatically. As he writes in conclusion: “The main argument that I have put forward is that action and the phenomenon of habituality are essential in explaining social reproduction. Habituality is not the only key to such explanations but it is a key nevertheless—and one that has not been taken into account as much as it should be. Habits are bodily and therefore it can seem that they are a purely individual phenomenon. However, due to the intersubjective nature of human sociality, we almost instinctively take the habitual attitudes of others into account and adjust our own action accordingly” (Gronow 2011: 131). This is a position that could be said to completely neglect the dynamic nature of the conception of the duality and plasticity of habit that pragmatism supports. [11]

13One way to be faithful to this conception is to follow the path laid by Dewey’s reflections on the notion of value, which Alexandra Bidet, Louis Quéré and Gérôme Truc have recently reminded us, he saw in terms of valuation. [12] In introducing this notion, Dewey intended to reject the idea that an order of values that is fixed for eternity exists, externally imposing immutable behaviour on individuals who internalize it. For him, a value is revealed as individuals discover together “what they care about” when they are mutually involved in an inquiry or more generally in an action situation. In other words, rather than holding values to be a given that sociology or philosophy should bring to light empirically, they should be understood as shared principles of action that develop and are discovered in the course of a practical activity in which the use made of them occurs. This is what Émilie Hache does in her aptly named book, Ce à quoi nous tenons [What We Value].

Collective action as inquiry

14In keeping with the perspective advanced by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers and inspired by the theses of Peirce, Dewey and Mead, Hache seeks to develop what she calls a “pragmatist ecology,” based on one of the theses of pragmatism: members of a society use “collective intelligence” in order to resolve the practical problems they face through an “inquiry” conducted in an experimental way. Her interpretation is marked by her conception of pragmatism, which she sees as “an art of consequences that focuses on the effects that its propositions induce to confirm the truth” (Hache 2011: 12). This leads her to adopt a constructivist vision of inquiry, which she holds to be a middle range approach according to which individuals, acting in concert, construct a world in the making. But, for Dewey, inquiry is simply “a method for organizing experience” that is part of a given environment and the outcome of which no one can prejudge since it is an open and pluralist discovery process.

15Because she is interested in political issues, Hache adopts Dewey’s thesis on what “constitutes the public”, looking to highlight its “moral” dimension. She proposes, in effect, that inquiry necessarily implies the individual responsibility of those involved: “For Dewey, it makes no more sense to separate political reflection from its moral consequences than to separate our moral preoccupations from their involvement in politics. In fact, taking into account these moral demands, by obliging us to deal with innumerable beings together, leads us to rethinking the political composition of our societies” (ibid.: 13). Hache, in keeping with the type of pragmatism championed by Latour, [13] expands Dewey’s notion of “public” to “beings” who are not only humans (animal species or natural things). She calls on us to pursue “the effort to be empirical to the ends, in the sense of supporting our moral concerns wherever they are found, even if it commits us to involvement in what is not supposed to concern us; finally, an awareness not to separate our actions and ideas from their consequences” (ibid.: 141–2).

16Drawing on the example of political struggles against global warming and against GMOs or for the support of AIDS patients, Hache asserts that these actions seek to “take into account the associations of beings who make up our collectivity, endeavouring to be careful not to separate them in all identical cases.” She presents these struggles as manifestations of a form of political action that fully integrates nature, biodiversity and future generations, in the order of preoccupations that justify them. To support her presentation, Hache leans on a pragmatist argument drawn from Mead (2011: 54) “‘Put yourself in the place of the other’ in the sense of an obligation to take experience into account and not as a means of doing without it, to highlight that we can share the same world [without sharing] an identical world.”

17Hache therefore combines Latour’s symmetrical sociology with two principles from the pragmatist approach: pluralism and holism, which enables her to introduce an interesting distinction between morality and moralism. According to her, an inquiry carried out by individuals who feel concerned by a public problem aims to produce a solution acceptable to all through a collective examination of available scientific data on the subject in the context of public debate, that is discover together “what they value” (that they did not know at the beginning of the inquiry). Hache then goes on to assert that “the moral dimension in politics calls for another way of doing politics that does not make collective struggles independent of individual emancipation and refuse to pay attention to individuals to the detriment of others, in other words does not separate the ends from the means” (2011: 172). In short, while moralism relates to the imposition of a set of rules imposed from the outside by an institution that has the full legitimacy to do so, morality stems directly from collective action directed at resolving a public problem. In Hache’s proposed pragmatist ecology, citizens today have to weigh up the decisions they take to resolve public interest questions faced by developed societies in terms of their responsibility for the future. To associate ethics and inquiry so closely is a particular way to interpret an often highlighted dimension of Dewey’s approach: its consequentialist nature. But such an interpretation is problematic when one recalls the importance for pragmatism of the theme of indeterminacy. For, from this point of view, the question is raised as to how an individual can adjust his action (or decision) to the consequences this would bring, while fully admitting that this action (or decision) is made in the course of an inquiry whose conclusion is constitutively unknown and unexpected. Hache evades this question and thus provides an interpretation of consequentialism that relates it to determinism.

18In truth, Dewey is less consequentialist than Hache (and many others with her) would like. The use she makes of pragmatism in terms of individual responsibility enables her to place political action on the level of ethical choices and commitments (which is a little like the approach found in care theories, which could be said to be in line with Jane Addams’ pragmatist analysts) (Seigfried 1996). [14] But we can argue that, for Dewey, inquiry is less a question of anticipating the consequences an act might have than of the type of normativity involved in a dynamic process of “determination of an indeterminate situation”.

The plurality of normativities thesis

19In a recent book, Roberto Frega (2013) shows how pragmatism redefines traditional normative theory from top to bottom. While normative theory focuses on the prescriptive nature of norms that are seen as fixed and implacable, pragmatism holds that it is appropriate, in contrast, to conceive of norms by considering the way in which they are applied in a flow of interactions that are formed in action in common. This approach allows the assertion that a plurality of normative orders exists to which individuals refer in each aspect of social and political life they are normally involved in; and that these normative practices (justification, criticism, revision, maintenance, adjustment, etc.) used to resolve the problems that are posed in an unexpected way in constantly changing situations, continuously modify the content of norms that are used as guides for action.

20Thus, in this dynamic and pluralist conception, norms are presented as criteria that individuals use to conduct inquiry and act in a way that is adjusted to an “endin-view”; and the pertinence of these criteria is rediscovered “each time afresh” [15] in the use made of them for needs of an inquiry conducted in specific contexts. These criteria have two properties: they are known by those who have to use them so that their action is acceptable to others (they do not operate as an external constraint); they are a reserve of justifications to explain what is happening and what is being done.

21The pragmatist theory of normativity is purely abstract. And, in particular, it has nothing to say on the subject of the way in which an “inquiry” is led. In other words, it accounts neither for what the public issue is, nor for the way in which individuals organize debate and seek to agree on the consequences to be considered in order to resolve the issue, nor how valid judgement criteria are known to the “community of inquirers”, nor how their validity is criticized in the practical verification of their correction. This absence of an empirical foundation to the pragmatist theory of normativity was the key criticism made in a symposium, published in 2011 in Qualitative Sociology, which discussed the relationship between pragmatism and ethnomethodology. In a lengthy article that explores this question, Mustafa Emirbayer and Douglas W. Maynard (2011) set out three elements of pragmatism that can be found in ethnomethodology’s propositions: 1) a call for a return to practices and to concrete experience of the social world; 2) the idea that problematic situations give rise to collective activity aimed at their resolution and the production of a situation that is made intelligible; 3) the conception of the use of everyday language as an order of practices through which problematic solutions are determined and the naturalness of the social world is ongoingly and mutually accomplished. But, for both these authors, while the cardinal principles of pragmatism are very similar to those underlying the sequential analysis of practical activities championed by Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks (2007), they have never been subjected to empirical confirmation. Certainly Emirbayer and Maynard recognize that such confirmation is not the responsibility of the work of philosophy. They contend that this work is done by ethnomethodology, without however making explicit reference to pragmatism as Anne W. Rawls (2011) reminds us in the same symposium.

22For Louis Quéré and Cédric Terzi, while the complementary relationship between pragmatism and ethnomethodology that Emirbayer and Maynard establish is essentially correct, they lament however that the latter are too blind to phenomena clearly identified in the work of pragmatists. These are, in particular, those phenomena the analysis of which would enrich ethnomethodology’s conception of experience, which, according to them, is too strictly limited to a detailed description of the exercise of practical reasoning. Quéré and Terzi (2011) therefore suggest that ethnomethodological research would benefit from taking into consideration what comes under the aesthetic and experimental nature of experience and the role played by emotions in the understanding of situations and in guiding action. They favour a truly pragmatist inspired perspective in sociology that would extend the scope of its investigations from an analysis in terms of interactions to an analysis in terms of “transaction” [16]—i.e., taking into account that joint activity consisting of “determining an indeterminate situation” is always framed by the environments and the emotions involved in the understanding of what is happening and how to get along with others (Bidet, Boutet and Chave 2013: 172–91).

The method of democracy

23One of the great contributions of pragmatism to sociology is, as said, the introduction of an original research subject in the analysis of politics: the constitution of public problems. This subject has emerged in sociology today (around the notion of public space) (Berger, Céfaï and Gayet-Viaud 2011) and in political science (around the notion of participation) (Zask 2011). How does this research use elements of the theory of inquiry? In The Public and its Problems, Dewey (2012b: 56–9) wrote that “the problem of discovering the state is not a problem for theoretical inquirers engaged solely in surveying institutions which already exist. It is a practical problem of human beings living in association with one another […]. What is needed to direct and make fruitful social inquiry is a method which proceeds on the basis of interrelations of observable acts and their results.” And he gives this method a name: democracy, understanding this term in the sense of a collective undertaking of knowledge production (inquiry) in which anyone interested in a public issue contributes with equal ability and engages in an experimental approach to find a rational solution (Putnam 1992).

24Dewey’s propositions on the subject of “the method of democracy” are a response to what he sees as “the” problem of modern societies: the “eclipse of the public”—i.e., the depoliticization of citizens in urban America at the beginning of the twentieth century. [17] The only way to remedy this according to Dewey (2012b: 141), is to ordinary citizens to participate fully in political activity by constituting a Public in order to bring together “the conditions which must be fulfilled if the Great Society is to become a Great Community; a society in which the ever-expanding and intricately ramifying consequences of associated activities shall be known in the full sense of the word, so that an organized, articulate Public comes into being”. At the same time, Dewey admits that the issues that arise in advanced industrial societies are more and more complex. He therefore pleads for a specific division of labour if “inquiry, indeed, is a work which devolves upon experts,” they must provide all the data they accumulate to members of society who Dewey recognized as possessing “the ability to judge of the bearing of knowledge supplied by others on common concerns. […] Until secret, prejudice, bias, misrepresentation, and propaganda as well as sheer ignorance are replaced by inquiry and publicity, we have no way of telling how apt for judgment of social policies the existing intelligence of the masses may be” (ibid.: 155). In short, Dewey advocates the improvement of the conditions for public debate and asserts that this “depends essentially upon the freeing and perfecting processes of inquiry and the dissemination of their conclusions” (ibid.: 155).

25Dewey’s theory of inquiry envisages a world in which experimentation is the method used to resolve problems and to fix (and change) values and habits. But, as was said above, this theory does not really express an opinion on what individuals can and should do in concrete terms to be able to organize and conduct an inquiry. Dewey says no more than that ordinary citizens master the use of judgement criteria and the principles of rationality that enable them to do it in a satisfactory way. [18] But, as Emirbayer and Maynard have pointed out, it is for research in sociology or the ethnography of politics to demonstrate empirically that this is indeed the case, by studying how members of a society carry out inquiries that maintain and renew the permanence of the collectivity in which they live. And that is exactly what some of the texts in a book edited by Céfaï and Terzi (2012) do, providing an excellent overview. Using an ethnographic method, the studies found here describe the way in which groups of individuals come to engage in a procedure of “constituting the public problem” and to lead it to an end, with all the hesitations and impediments that this joint and pluralistic activity forces them to overcome. These works analyse how the relationship between experts and “public” come together, how a collective intelligence is formed through mutual investigation and how use of this resource enables the resolution of the problem under consideration. The ethnographic approach Céfaï and Terzi (ibid.: 20) therefore aim to promote, seeks to trace “the natural history of a public problem” in order to account for “a transformation of experience such that the latter comes to integrate problematicity indices through passive syntheses.”

The question of truth

26In a recently published study, Stéphane Baciocchi and Jean-Louis Fabiani (2012: 19–40) resurrected unpublished fragments of a course Durkheim devoted to pragmatism in 1913–14. [19] They remind us of to the ambivalence of Durkheim’s position. They point out that while he recognized the importance for sociology of an approach that accords primacy to practice and questions an overly narrow conception of rationalism, he vehemently rejected what he called pragmatism’s “utilitarian theory of truth”, which is based on Peirce’s famous maxim: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” [20] This purely empiricist definition of phenomena was unacceptable to Durkheim. For him, one cannot pretend as Peirce does, to construct a science based on doubt; and making truth fallible means renouncing producing any explanation of observed facts. [21] He therefore concluded that while sociology poses the problem of “truth in the same sense as Pragmatism, it is better placed to solve it.” And its solution is known: “Pragmatism said, it is us who make reality. But the us here is the individual […] Ultimately, it is thought that creates reality, and the prominent role of representation is to “make” a superior reality that is society itself.” (Durkheim [1955] 1981: 173–4). The research by Baciocchi and Fabiani enables us to specify the terms of this first confrontation between pragmatism and sociology.

27The quarrel about the relationship to truth is however largely over. With the emergence of theories of relativism and the relaxation of the rigours of determinism that followed, the question of truth—as an absolute criteria of objectivity—has become less crucial in scientific approaches (Kojève 1990). The gradual acceptance in scientific research circles of the positivity of doubt and the impossibility of setting uncertainty aside has given credit to pragmatism’s propositions and encouraged the acceptability of the notions they introduced to the understanding of the world: e.g., incompleteness, vagueness, pluralism, inquiry, temporality. It is on this new basis that sociology has been able to pick up the thread of its exchanges with pragmatism.

– A pragmatist sociology?

28Pragmatism and sociology have been partly linked since their origins. The reason is that these are two approaches that philosophers adopted towards the end of the nineteenth century to account for an aspect neglected by the traditions of their discipline: the social nature of human behaviour. Proof of this proximity is, indeed, the interest Durkheim immediately showed in it, and the dispute over the conception of truth that he was involved in. It is not therefore purely the result of fashion that sociologists have now agreed to resume a dialogue with James, Dewey and Mead’s work. [22] As the discussion of recent publications presented in this article has shown, this rediscovery of pragmatism meets a need to renew the human and social sciences’ analytical tools.

29This review article has reported on several different ways in which three theses of pragmatism have found a place in sociological research and theoretical debate: that of radical indeterminism (how can we account for the essential incompleteness of action and the constantly changing nature of meaning?); that of the totally contextual character of experience of the world (how can the fact that all social activity is fully and irrevocably caught up in its environment be accounted for?); and that of the emergence of the “facticity” of objects and events in the course of the sequential and sensitive accomplishment of action in common (what kind of description can adopt to apprehend what is emerging and how can the aporias of a perspective that rejects identifying a priori causes and effects be overcome?).

30This brief overview of current work in a specialized research sector has enabled us to understand the reason why sociologists are attached to it either to improve their methods with propositions from Peirce, James, Dewey or Mead, or to provide a sociological complement to pragmatism by following its spirit and method more or less faithfully and more or less completely. Hopefully it will engage the interest of sociologists in the theoretical and methodological issues that the principles of pragmatism raise for the exercise of their profession. [23] And while there can be no question of pleading for an improbable “pragmatist sociology”, nor of making pragmatism an analytical model for sociology, it seems to me that measuring up to the pragmatist position’s insights is a challenge from which sociology has not yet reaped all the benefits than can be expected. This review article has attempted to offer a glimpse of some of these benefits.


  • [1]
    This is despite the efforts made in France to communicate its importance in the social sciences, for example those of Isaac Joseph, Louis Quéré and Daniel Céfaï in sociology; those of Jean-Pierre Cometti and Joëlle Zask concerning political philosophy and political science (Céfaï and Joseph 2002; Karsenti and Quéré 2004; Cometti 2010).
  • [2]
    Different research traditions centre on the work of Isaac Joseph and Daniel Céfaï at the University of Nanterre, on Bruno Latour and Antoine Hennion at the École des Mines, and on Louis Quéré, Michel de Fornel and Albert Ogien and Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot at the EHESS.
  • [3]
    Antonio Damasio’s research (2010) on the neurophysiological explanation of consciousness is explicitly inspired by William James.
  • [4]
    So as not to be assimilated with W. James’s pragmatism, C. S. Peirce renamed his approach “pragmaticism”.
  • [5]
    On this orientation, Richard J. Bernstein (1992: 827) writes: “Questions concerning meaning, reference, truth, interpretation, translation, and language have been dominant—obsessive—concerns. In these ‘analytic’ developments, we scarcely find any discussion of ethics, politics, social philosophy, religion, aesthetics, and cosmological evolution which were so central for the classical pragmatists.”
  • [6]
    On this confusion, see Yael Kreplack and Cécile Lavergne (2008). The difference between pragmatic sociology and pragmatism was recently stated clearly in a collective work (see Barthe et al. 2013).
  • [7]
    Among which are those by Dewey (2010a, 2010b, 2011, 2012a, 2014a, 2014b), Mead (2006, 2013), and James (2007a, 2007b, 2011).
  • [8]
    On the centrality of these themes and notions in pragmatism, see Michael Bacon (2012).
  • [9]
    Turner’s thesis is explained at length in Ogien (2010).
  • [10]
    On the subtleties and difficulties linked to the use of the notion of habit in pragmatism see Quéré (2005).
  • [11]
    This is the same interpretation error that Gronow commits when likening the “capabilities” approach proposed by Sen to his conception of Dewey’s theory of the public.
  • [12]
    See Bidet, Quéré, Truc (2011). See also the review of this book by Jean-Michel Morin (2012).
  • [13]
    On this particular approach, which references James, see Hennion (2013).
  • [14]
    On the ethics of care, see Patricia Paperman and Sandra Laugier (2011).
  • [15]
    To use Garfinkel’s expression.
  • [16]
    To use Dewey’s notion (see Quéré 2002).
  • [17]
    Dewey’s book is also a response to arguments in favour of politics being relinquished to the hands of experts alone supported in the mid-1930s by Walter Lippman.
  • [18]
    Dewey notes however that ordinary citizens have to be taught the rules of inquiry and the rationality this implies because it is only by doing so that they can separate themselves from public opinion and understand the consequences of their decisions. On this subject see the study by Joan Stavo-Debauge (2012).
  • [19]
    On this book, see Karsenti (2004).
  • [20]
    The maxim was stated in 1878, in a text entitled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (Peirce, 1878). On this subject, see also Mathias Girel (2004).
  • [21]
    One way of linking Durkheim and pragmatism is developed by Cyril Lemieux (2009).
  • [22]
    It can be noted that interest in Peirce’s work has dissipated a little. This disaffection is a symptom of the fact that sociologists pay less attention today than before to questions of signification and interpretation, for which Peirce’s sign theory (the dynamic relationship between index, icon and symbol) was a significant source of inspiration.
  • [23]
    Contributors to a rich book devoted to Mead’s work have made an effort in this direction: Alexis Cukier and Eva Debray, eds, La théorie sociale de G. H. Mead (2014).

This article provides an account of a body of sociological studies recently published in France, which claims to use a pragmatist approach (that of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead), or to highlight the similarity between its analytical principles and those of sociology (the primacy of practice, the decisive nature of context, the importance of uncertainty, the temporality of action and the sociality of normativity). An examination of these publications also shows how certain notions belonging to pragmatism (habit, inquiry, experimentation, valuation, democracy and truth) have now been assimilated by different sociological approaches in different ways.


  • pragmatism
  • habit
  • inquiry
  • normativity
  • sociology of action
  • interactionism
  • ethnomethodology


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Albert Ogien
Centre d’Étude des Mouvements Sociaux
Institut Marcel Mauss
190–198, avenue de France
75013 Paris
Translated by
Toby Matthews
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