Bourdieu’s reasoned utopianism

Perhaps it is necessary, to be a good sociologist, to combine some dispositions associated with youth, such as a certain force of rupture, of revolt, of social “innocence,” and others more commonly associated with old age, such as realism, and the capacity to confront the rough and disappointing realities of the social world.

I believe that sociology does exert a disenchanting effect, but this, in my eyes, marks a progress toward a form of scientific and political realism that is the absolute antithesis of naive utopianism. Scientific knowledge allows us to locate real points of application for responsible action; it enables us to avoid struggling where there is no freedom—which is often an alibi of bad faith—in such a manner as to dodge sites of genuine responsibility. While it is true that a certain kind of sociology, and perhaps particularly the one that I practice, can encourage sociologism as submission to the “inexorable laws” of society (and this even though its intention is exactly the opposite), I think that Marx’s alternative between utopianism and sociologism is somewhat misleading: there is room, between sociologistic resignation and utopian voluntarism, for what I would call a reasoned utopianism, that is, a rational and politically conscious use of the limits of freedom afforded by a true knowledge of social laws and especially of their historical conditions of validity. The political task of social science is to stand up against irresponsible voluntarism and fatalistic scientism, to help define a rational utopianism by using the knowledge of the probable to make the possible come true. Such a sociological, that is, realistic, utopianism is very unlikely among intellectuals. First because it looks petty bourgeois, it does not look radical enough. Extremes are always more chic, and the aesthetic dimension of political conduct matters a lot to intellectuals.

(Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 196-7)

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