Sen and sociology

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.

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