There is obviously a lot of sociology in the background to Sen’s thought, sometimes quite explicit. This post just notes a number of issues that require sociological clarification so far. The reading of Sen undertaken here will be a sociological critique of Sen’s sociology.
He refers with approval the ‘anthropological’ turn in the later Wittgenstein and ‘ordinary language philosophy’ and links this to Gramsci (via Sraffa). From Gramsci he takes the idea that our language constructs our concerns, meanings and understandings. One always belongs to a particular grouping that shares the same mode of thinking and acting. We are all conformists of some conformism or other, of the group.
Sen insists on a notion of veracity and objectivity but grounded in public standards of communication and discourse, mentioning Habermas. He points to the need for ‘countervailing’ power in the public discussion against overly powerful sectional interests and the crucial necessity of impartiality.
In the pursuit of impartiality and objectivity he invokes Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘impartial spectator’. These can be ‘real’ outsiders or hypothetically constructed outsiders on the basis of a will to self-distancing. It will be interesting to see how this compares with Norbert Elia’s account of personal and community detachment as characterises scientists and the scientific community.
But Smith’s and Sen’s impartial observer can only be superficially impartial to the group and issues viewed as an outsider. The observer’s own way of understanding the world (familiar and alien) that is not impartial with respect to its own ‘habitus’ and will tend to translate the strange culture into its own concepts and frameworks of meaning. Also, as a reflexive exercise imagining a detached (preconcpetionless?) observer, we would understand the outsider’s apparent view in our own language and meaning frameworks. If we have access to ‘real’ impartial observers then we would likewise assimilate their account to our own language, etc.
We would need to see how Sen’s ideas and formulations stack up against or alongside reasonably established sociological ideas like, for instance, identity formation and ideological construction, the embeddedness of behaviours and attitudes in networks of social practices, the well rehearsed and established critique of methodological individualism and voluntarism, the operations and structures of power, dependency, dependency, and so on.
I have just recieved a copy of Sen’s The Idea of Justice. Despite the fact that the term ‘capitalism’ does not appear in the subject index, the subject matter is of great relevance to an investigation of capitalism, and particularly a normatively based critique of capitalism. This is evidently what Sen has in mind, to some extent at least. In the introduction he cites the work of Marx (as an example of a ‘realization-focussed comparative’ economist as opposed to the ‘transcendental institutionalists Sen finds so dangerously unhelpful) with approval. Further, in the his previous article he refers to in the first chapter (Sraffa, Wittgenstein and Gramsci) he speaks with approval of the influence Gramsci had on the latter Witgenstein via Sraffa). In the same article he identifies the differing normative relevances of depicting profit as the just reward of capital, as a factor of production, or as surplus value extracted from labour. However, Sen goes on to say that he doesn’t find it necessary to be sceptical about unrestrained capitalism on such technical and theoretical grounds “rather than on the mean streets and strained lives that capitalism can generate, unless it is restrained and supplemented by other – often non-market – institutions”. p1247 Journal of Economic Literature Vol XLI December 2003). Obvious and remediable injustice on the ground and its causes are what concerns Sen.
Sen seems to be popping up everywhere these days. He was mentioned by a couple of speakers at the recent Roundhouse Critical Theory conference and his latest book The Idea of Justice will be the discussion topic at the BSA Theory study group at the forthcoming BSA conference in April. So I had a quick look at his 1987 book On Ethics and Economics. This is a detailed critique of the narrow impoverishment of modern economics focused as it is on producing logistic and predictive models of markets based upon the notion of a purely self interested rational actor. “… there is nevertheless something quite extraordinary in the fact that economics has in fact evolved in this way, characterizing human motivation in such spectacularly narrow terms”. Sen claims in its origins modern economics had both a practical ‘engineering’ aspect and one concerned with human behaviour in the round and ethical considerations of what a good life should be. Both these aspects are fully present in Adam Smith for instance, but modern economics has expunged the ethical, normative aspects to produce a distorted orthodox “Smithian” view. To the extent Smith was at all sociological, this has been erased.
While looking for information about Sen on the web I coincidently found a blog entitled Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (by-line “In 2009, we again saw why Adam Smith’s invisible hand often appeared invisible: it is not there.” Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 31 December 2009. The blog post I found was Amartya Sen’s Two Brilliant Essays on the Relevance of Adam Smith Today. I shall be looking at these soon. Thanks to Gavin Kennedy for bringing my attention to these, albeit via the beneficence of Google.