Whatever happened to social theory?

 I’ve just been reading the new book by Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People. It is a full-scale elaboration of the importance for critical social science of what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ – people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. Sayer thinks this aspect of life is systematically downplayed or misrepresented in lots of social theory. I think he is probably right about that. The notion of lay normativity was used in Sayer’s previous book, The Moral Significance of Class, and the project on ethical consumption that I have been working on, for it seems like ages, made use of what we at least understood this term to be getting at – the importance of giving credence to the evaluations of their own practices that people provide in social science encounters, not least as being able to tell us something interesting about how practices work. Here is the publisher’s blurb for Sayer’s new book:

“Andrew Sayer undertakes a fundamental critique of social science’s difficulties in acknowledging that people’s relation to the world is one of concern. As sentient beings, capable of flourishing and suffering, and particularly vulnerable to how others treat us, our view of the world is substantially evaluative. Yet modernist ways of thinking encourage the common but extraordinary belief that values are beyond reason, and merely subjective or matters of convention, with little or nothing to do with the kind of beings people are, the quality of their social relations, their material circumstances or well-being. The author shows how social theory and philosophy need to change to reflect the complexity of everyday ethical concerns and the importance people attach to dignity. He argues for a robustly critical social science that explains and evaluates social life from the standpoint of human flourishing.”

It will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, Sayer’s book gets in critical human geography. Once upon a time, when I was little, Sayer was one of the big names of Theory in geography, in the 1980s heyday of critical realism. Apart from forays every so often to call for more robust normative reflection in the discipline (most recently in Antipode), Sayer is much less of a presence now. He wrote an excellent book in the mid ’90s, Radical Political Economy: A Critique, which I remember Marxist colleagues being apoplectic about because it took seriously non-‘dialectical’ styles of social thought and made productive use of Adam Smith and Hayek.The style of theory that Sayer performs, with its close attention to argumentation, is rather uncommon in geography now. I’m not necessarily sold on all of Sayer’s arguments – I think, for example, that he might find more support for his broad thesis about human vulnerability and ethics in thinkers such as Levinas or Derrida, or for the importance of everyday attachments to things that matter in styles of cultural theory concerned with thinking about the ordinary, such as Lauren Berlant’s work; these are not traditions Sayer has much patience with. Genre blindness? But I think his diagnosis of the limits of current styles of critical thinking has a lot going for it – critical thinking does find it really difficult to give credence to ordinary dispositions as having value in and of themselves beyond their function in systems of discipline, as effects of subjectification, or as indices of unconscious dynamics, or at best residues of untapped resistance or invention.

I happen to think that Sayer over-eggs the normativity-is-important cake by insisting on making the argument with reference to ethical theories – there is a less explicitly ‘moral’ strand of philosophy concerned with rationality, reason, embodiment, and values that might inform the sort of reconstruction of social science Sayer recommends. I have been trying to write about these same issues in a rather more tentative fashion, for a series of ‘reports’ on ‘Geography and Ethics’ due to be published any time soon. The first deals with some recent accounts of justice; the second with some of the philosophy mentioned above, focussing on notions of practical reason [Sayer has lots of interesting things to say on this topic]; the third is still to be written, and will focus on the kind of social theories of value, normativity and justification that Sayer, amongst others, has been developing.

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