On Justification: Economies of Worth

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A vital and underappreciated dimension of social interaction is the way individuals justify their actions to others, instinctively drawing on their experience to appeal to principles they hope will command respect. Individuals, however, often misread situations, and many disagreements can be explained by people appealing, knowingly and unknowingly, to different principles. On Justification is the first English translation of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot's ambitious theoretical examination of these phenomena, a book that has already had a huge impact on French sociology and is likely to have a similar influence in the English-speaking world.

In this foundational work of post-Bourdieu sociology, the authors examine a wide range of situations where people justify their actions. The authors argue that justifications fall into six main logics exemplified by six authors: civic (Rousseau), market (Adam Smith), industrial (Saint-Simon), domestic (Bossuet), inspiration (Augustine), and fame (Hobbes). The authors show how these justifications conflict, as people compete to legitimize their views of a situation.

On Justification is likely to spark important debates across the social sciences.

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What People Are Saying

David Stark
Boltanski and Thévenot's On Justification is one of the most important contributions to the field of economic sociology in the past decade. It does not fit neatly into any of the major theoretical perspectives that currently dominate the field—institutionalism, organizational ecology, network analysis, rational choice, or transaction-cost economics. But precisely because it is so original, it has great potential to chart new territory and enliven debates. The book has already had an enormous impact in France, where it is one of the founding documents of the 'economics of conventions' school. It is sure to have a big impact in sociology in the United States and Britain too. I could list at least twenty major sociologists who have asked me when the book will be translated.
David Stark, Columbia University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691125169
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2006
  • Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Luc Boltanski is Professor at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He is the author of "Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalisme", and (with Laurent Thevenot) "Les Economies de la Grandeur". Laurent Thevenot is Professor at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is the author of "L'action au pluriel: Sociologie des regimes d'engagement", coauthor of "Les Economies de la Grandeur", and coeditor of "Les Objets dans L'Action, Cognition et Information en Societe", and (with Michele Lamont) "Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology: Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States"

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Read an Excerpt

On Justification

Economies of Worth
By Luc Boltanski Laurent Thévenot

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12516-3

Chapter One


THIS BOOK DEALS WITH the relation between agreement and discord. Its primary aim is to build a framework within which a single set of theoretical instruments and methods can be used to analyze the critical operations that people carry out when they want to show their disagreement without resorting to violence, and the ways they construct, display, and conclude more or less lasting agreements.

The issue of how agreements are reached is one of the fundamental issues that the social sciences have taken over from political philosophy, appropriating it in the languages of order, equilibrium, norms, culture, and so forth (Habermas 1984-87). But the study of the agreement-reaching process should not exclude an examination of instances in which order breaks down, as evidenced by some moment of crisis, disequilibrium, critique, dispute, or contestation. For example, there is no reason to maintain a radical opposition between sociologies of consensus and sociologies of conflict, although they derive from quite different traditions. Our intent here, on the contrary, is to treat instances of agreement reaching and critique as intimatelylinked occurrences within a single continuum of action.

Contemporary social scientists often seek to minimize the diversity of their constructs by situating them within a single basic opposition. In one tradition, rooted in Durkheimian sociology, the ordering principle rests in the notion of the collective. In another tradition, any sort of order or equilibrium is construed as the unintended result of individual choices; this principle informs approaches that borrow the rational choice model from economics. Our own perspective offers a third approach: we seek to embrace the various constructs within a more general model, and to show how each one integrates, in its own way, the relation between moments of agreement reaching and moments of critical questioning.

The opposition between what belongs to the collective and what belongs to the individual has been reinforced through a series of crosscutting critiques that often pit sociologists and economists against one another. For example, the sociologist Alessandro Pizzorno points out that utilitarian presuppositions do not suffice to account for voter confidence; some specific explanatory factor such as identification with a political party-which is totally irrelevant from a utilitarian standpoint-must be added (1990, 305). The opposition between explanations based on groups and explanations based on individuals not only marks the boundary between sociology and economics, it can also arise within each of these disciplines; the opposition between the two approaches appears so radical that, more often than not, it defines the basic methodological choice made by contemporary social scientific researchers.

It is possible, of course, to bridge the gap and develop arguments that recognize the reality of social phenomena (collective determinations) while drawing on rational calculations normally attributed to individuals (personal strategies), as when we speak of collective strategies. The kinds of explanations produced by political science in particular encourage such accommodations: this is the case with analyses that seek to address the "negotiation" (an interpersonal relationship described with reference to a market modality) of interests that are deemed "collective" in nature (a designation presupposing the establishment of a general interest). But a reaffirmation of the opposition between individualism and collectivism threatens to break these explanatory assemblages apart by foregrounding their internal contradictions.

Must all developments in the social sciences conform to this dichotomy? How can we deal with empirical materials and results produced by disciplines that appeal alternately to one or the other of these explanatory modes? How might we imagine bringing them together and coming to terms with their contradictions in a way that goes beyond the unsatisfying juxtaposition of common references to the economic and social realms, to individual interests and collective forces?

The Critique of Sociology's Lack of Realism

Scholars who account for human behavior in terms of individual choice challenge the first approach by showing that its "holism" is untenable and that it remains too tainted by metaphysics to satisfy the requirements of science. They hold that one cannot base an explanation on the reality of so-called collective phenomena; on the contrary, what one has to show is how these phenomena can result from the behavior of the only beings pertinent to the analysis, the individuals involved. From this standpoint, it would be more fitting conceptually to treat persons as individuals than as agents, for we would be positing individuals free from all normative constraints who can follow the dictates of their personal appetites. This line of argument, crystallized in the opposition between collectivist and individualist disciplines, implies that sociology takes people in groups as its only empirical subjects, whereas economics, a more realist discipline, concerns itself only with individuals.

F. A. Hayek's Scientism and the Study of Society offers a particularly trenchant formulation of these critiques. The author contrasts "methodological individualism" with a "scientistic approach treating as facts those collectives which are no more than popular generalizations"-or, as he puts it later on, "vague popular theories" (1952, 38, 54). To dismantle the totalist (collectivist) prejudice, he borrows the terms in which Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos formulated their critique of sociology: "[I]n the imagination as in direct observation, [collective acts] always reduce to a sum of individual actions. The 'social fact,' as recognized by certain sociologists, is a philosophical construction, not a historical fact" (210-11 n. 29).

Individualism: A Different Social Metaphysics

Our work seeks to bring to light certain elements of similarity underlying the apparently irreconcilable methodological opposition we have described (an opposition that becomes particularly pronounced when it is expressed as an antinomy: "individual" vs. "collective"). To this end, we shall focus on those aspects of the competing modes of explanation that remain obscured when this antinomy is used to elucidate their differences.

First of all, let us note that an explanation based on social factors can also recognize persons. Indeed, this dual constraint accounts for the importance granted by such explanations to the internalization of collective determinations, in the form of a quasi unconscious lying deep within every human being. In parallel fashion, and contrary to what the term "individual" generally implies, whether it is used by economists who vaunt "individualism" or by sociologists who critique it while denouncing the anomic character of risky trade among competitors (Durkheim 1997 [1893], xxxi-xxxviii), individuals as viewed by economists-individuals who enter into relationships in a marketplace-function as qualified persons. We shall seek to show that, on the contrary, the conception of the individual required by economists to make their argument imposes constraints on the social actor that make him a moral being. We are not using the term "moral" here as it is used by certain theoreticians of liberalism, in the limited sense of having a benevolent disposition that would compensate for self-interested greed. We shall try to show that moral capacity is presupposed in the construction of an order of market exchanges among persons, who must be capable of distancing themselves from their own particularities in order to reach agreement about external goods that are enumerated and defined in general terms. The fact that the goods are private property often obscures the hypothesized common knowledge that the universality of their definition implies. The conventions defining common knowledge allow acquisitive desires to compete and adapt to one another, but these conventions generally remain implicit (natural) in economic theory. We shall relate them to Adam Smith's efforts to define persons who display this moral capacity in terms of the notions of "sympathy" and "impartial spectator" that he develops in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1976 [1759]).

As soon as one can show persons acting "under" the group, or point to the convention of market competition that weighs "on" individuals, the opposition begins to fade, suggesting that the collective/individual dichotomy is not the appropriate way to account for the differences between the two models. The models cannot address their common object, human commerce, without making a twofold reference, on the one hand to the singular status of these persons, and on the other hand to the possibility of transcending the particular traits of persons and laying a foundation for agreement in what we shall call a higher common principle. This principle can be spelled out in quite different ways, depending on whether it is expressed through the collective will or through the universality of market goods. The tension between reliance on general forms and reference to particular persons does not result, then, from a confrontation between the two explanatory systems; rather, it is intrinsic to each system. A bilevel configuration, incorporating both the level of particular persons and a level of higher generality, forms a common theoretical framework that constitutes the two systems as a political metaphysics.

Political Metaphysics as a Social Science

Our effort to bring out common elements in seemingly contrasting explanatory methodologies-one based on "individual" behavior and one based on "collective" behavior-will allow us to sketch a new object for the social sciences, an object that can tie together the requirements for agreement and the conditions for discord.

To do this, we shall have to pay much more attention than is customary to the structure of each of the two methodological constructs. These are reduced to cursory outlines by oppositionalist accounts, and they are ignored altogether by crosscutting critiques. However, to simplify the exercise and to make our own approach easier to grasp, we shall consider only two of the theoretical developments offered by the social sciences; we shall not attempt to cover all the disciplines they include, or everything the terms "sociology" or "economics" may ordinarily designate. We have chosen to work with the sociology of collective phenomena and the economy of the marketplace because the explanatory schemas that underlie these theoretical constructs are coherent and can be integrated in a variety of ways.

Because each of these disciplines seeks to formulate laws according to which human beings enter into relationships, whether they come to terms in an expression of the collective will or negotiate their acquisitive desires in a marketplace, each relies on a rule for reaching agreement (on collective identity or market goods); each refers to a universal form that extends beyond the idiosyncratic characteristics of particular persons. Our effort to bring to light the political metaphysics underlying both economics and sociology is complicated by the break with philosophy that allowed each of these fields to be constituted as a scientific discipline. Nevertheless, we should like to suggest that each one is a product of the political philosophy that served as its matrix and in which the underlying metaphysics is clearly discernible.

Our investigation of the origins of these disciplines reveals that in each case a normative higher common principle was transformed into a positive scientific law. This reductive operation, which is characteristic of naturalism in the social sciences, is the price paid by economics and sociology for becoming associated with the natural sciences, with a political physics. But such a reduction profoundly modifies the meaning of the rule adopted for reaching agreement and the way it relates to particular persons. In political philosophy, a rule is a convention, a support that can ensure collective agreement among persons familiar with the convention. Later on, we shall see how a political philosophy is elaborated in an effort to justify such a convention. In the political physics that the social sciences are helping to develop, a rule is a scientific law that applies to persons and things alike. There is no longer any place for collective agreement about a form of generality. The two levels of political metaphysics are projected onto a single plane, one on which beings can no longer be distinguished except by the extent to which their behavior conforms to a common pattern, and this will depend on the degree to which they comply more or less scrupulously with the law.

Thus, in Durkheim's sociology, the collective being is not only a moral being (it becomes a moral being when Durkheim writes not as a sociologist but as a political philosopher) but also an object that is as real as a specific person, and even more "objective." The reductive conflation of the two levels-that of the collective moral being and that of individual persons-that is implied by the sociological realism of collective phenomena is accompanied by the metamorphosis of a principle of agreement (the general will) into a law that applies to persons. Durkheim shunts aside the resulting theoretical difficulties by developing an explanatory system based on the assumption that people will (more or less consciously) internalize-as a compelling or determining factor-the principle of political philosophy that allows them to enter into relationships with others and to reach collective agreement.

Economists are confident that they can expose the metaphysics underlying the sociological approach, and they challenge the claim that sociology is a science. Economists question the reality of collective phenomena, which they view as human constructs. Like all institutions, such constructs have to be explained in terms of the interests of individuals, which are the only realities economists are willing to recognize. This line of argument is crystallized in the opposition between disciplines focusing on the collective and disciplines focusing on the individual: the implication is that sociology recognizes only people in groups as empirical subjects, while economics, more grounded in reality, deals only with particular individuals.

However, economists feel free to condemn the social metaphysics of sociologists only because they are not aware of the higher common principle that is also embedded in the positive laws their own discipline brings to light. One can look for this principle in the property that economic actors share: they are driven by interest or needs. We shall probably be able to articulate the principle most clearly if we begin with market goods, which play precisely the same role in economic law that collective beings play in Durkheim's sociology. Individuals as seen by economists, individuals who interact in a marketplace, are not particular persons; they are moral beings capable of distancing themselves from their own particularity and coming to terms over commonly identified goods on which their acquisitive desires have converged and reached agreement. Market goods, which are commonly evaluated in terms of price, provide the framework for the political metaphysics embedded in economics.

We should highlight, here, an important difference in the way the reductive conflation of the two levels of metaphysics is achieved in each of the two explanatory systems we have mentioned, a difference that may account for the persistence of the collective/individual opposition in efforts to relate the two explanations. As we have seen, sociological realism achieves reduction through the internalization of collective reality, a process that takes on the aspect of an unconscious. In economics, a comparable reduction is achieved by differentiation between goods and persons. The fact that the goods in question acquire value only if they are appropriated by persons masks the fact that they need to be qualified in terms of a common definition. This commonality is the condition for reaching agreement by means of competition, and it offers persons a way to transcend their own particularities. However, the common good deriving from market competition cannot be reduced and transformed into a positive law without leaving traces on the proposed model of human understanding or of the psychology of human actors themselves. For economists, individuals are not riven by tension between their internalized collective representations and their own personal motivations, as persons are for sociologists; nevertheless, they carry within themselves the trace of a desire transformed into interest, that is, they have a direct relation with market goods that overrides all other forms of desire.


Excerpted from On Justification by Luc Boltanski Laurent Thévenot Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PREFACE How We Wrote This Book 1 Generalizing Field Observations and Producing Statistical Equivalency 1
Ordinary Identification and Scientific Qualification 3
From Comparison to Judgment 4
Construction of Proofs and Tension between the General and the Particular 7
The Tension between Different Forms of Generality 8
Attention to Critical Operations 10
Generality and the Common Goo d: Concepts of Worth in Political Philosophy 12
The Search for a Common Model 14
The Social Bond Put to the Test of Things 16
The Line of Argument 18


CHAPTER ONE: The Social Sciences and the Legitimacy of Agreement 25
The Critique of Sociology's Lack of Realism 26
Individualis m: A Different Social Metaphysics 27
Political Metaphysics as a Social Science 28
The Question of Agreement 31
Association and Forms of Generality 32
The Order of the General and the Particular 35
The Requirement of General Agreement and the Legitimacy of Order 37
The Reality Test and Prudent Judgment 40

CHAPTER TWO: The Foundation of Agreement in Political Philosophy: The Example of the Market Polity 43
A Social Bond Based on an Inclination toward Exchange in One's Own Interest 44
Individuals in Concert in Their Lust for Goods 48
The Sympathetic Disposition and the Position of Impartial Spectator 53


CHAPTER THREE: Political Orders and a Model of Justice 65
Political Philosophies of the Common Good 66
The Polity Model 74
An Illegitimate Orde r: Eugenics 80

CHAPTER FOUR: Political Forms of Worth 83
The Inspired Polity 83
The Domestic Polity 90
The Polity of Fame 98
The Civic Polity 107
The Industrial Polity 118


CHAPTER FIVE: Judgment Put to the Test 127
Situated Judgment 127
The Polity Extended to a Common World 130
Tests 133
Reporting on Situations 138
A Framework for Analyzing the Common Worlds 140
The Sense of the Commo n: The Moral Sense and the Sense of What Is Natural 144
The Arts of Living in Different Worlds 148

CHAPTER SIX: The Six Worlds 159
The Inspired World 159
The Domestic World 164
The World of Fame 178
The Civic World 185
The Market World 193
The Industrial World 203


CHAPTER SEVEN: Worlds in Confiict, Judgments in Question 215
Unveiling 215
Causes of Discord and the Transport of Worths 219
Clashes and Denunciations 223
The Monstrosity of Composite Setups 225
Setting Up Situations that Hold Together 228
The Humanity of an Equitable Judgment 231
Free Wil l: Knowing How to Close and Open One's Eyes 232
EIGHT The Critical Matrix 237
Critiques from the Inspired World 237
Critiques from the Domestic World 241
Critiques from the World of Fame 247
Critiques from the Civic World 251
Critiques from the Market World 261
Critiques from the Industrial World 269


CHAPTER NINE: Compromising for the Common Good 277
Beyond Testing to Compromising 277
The Fragility of Compromises 278
An Example of a Complex Figur e: Denunciation Supported by Compromise 282
Composing Compromises and Forming Polities 283
Developing a State Compromis e: Toward a Civic-Industrial Polity 285

CHAPTER TEN: Figures of Compromise 293
Compromises Involving the Inspired World 293
Compromises Involving the Domestic World 304
Compromises Involving the World of Fame 317
Compromises Involving the Civic World 325
Compromises Involving the Market World 332

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Relativization 336
Private Arrangements 336
Insinuation 338
Flight from Justification 339
Relativism 340
Violence and Justification 343
Afterwor d: Toward a Pragmatics of Reflection 347
The Place of Justifications in the Gamut of Actions 347
Below the Level of Public Judgment: Determining the Appropriate Action in Light of a Snag 348
From Anger to Crisis 350
The Moment of Truth in Judgment 351
The Tension of Judgment and the Qualification of Ungraspable Persons 352
Judgment between Power and Oblivion 354
The Humane Use of Judgment and Tolerance in Action 355
Knowledge about Actions 356


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