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Presentation: A Pragmatic Approach to Understanding Sociologists' Differing Views on Value-Neutrality.

SOCIOLOGISTS DISAGREE ABOUT value-neutrality. In our research and teaching, should our primary or even exclusive goal be to produce descriptions and explanations that can be taken as true regardless of the values of the speaker or the audience? Or should we treat all knowledge, even the most purely descriptive empirical statements, as imbued with specific ethical or political values? Is there a third option? What does "value-neutrality" even mean? Each of us has our own answers to these questions, and the answers vary quite a lot.

Within that variance, we can perceive loosely defined clusters of scholars with similar or compatible views. This clustering has consequences: each of us wants others to understand our work and to judge it by standards that we ourselves find legitimate, and this happens more easily when we share compatible assumptions about the relationship between facts and values. So there is an incentive for us to talk to others with views similar to our own, to find epistemological comfort zones, and not to bother trying to understand or be understood by people whose views are too different.

It was with these considerations in mind that I organized the roundtable "Value-Neutral and Value-Oriented Epistemologies of the Social: A Conversation across Difference" at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Sociological Association. To expect 10 participants with differing views to reach consensus seemed unrealistic. My hope was for the participants to simply understand one another a little better coming out than going in. Therefore, I asked everyone to try not to focus on arguing for a position, but instead to explain their views in terms of their practical stakes: what concrete difference does it make to adopt one view or another on this topic? I repeated that request when asking for contributions to this collection, which includes all of the participants from the roundtable.

My asking for practical stakes has a specific rationale. It's common in academic writing to start from abstractions and proceed, deductively, toward their concrete "applications." But it is my observation (corroborated by Garfinkel) that in most situations people tend to start from relatively concrete experiences and then come up with abstractions to account for those experiences. So, arguing at the level of epistemological abstractions could be fruitless whenever those abstractions are constructed to account for different practical experiences shaped by differing social standpoints. Focusing on pragmatic stakes, then, might keep discussion closer to the concerns that actually motivate us, which could make it easier to understand each other.

The contributors to this collection have offered a diverse range of practical concerns. For Doucet (2018), diffractive methodologies call for sociologists to be accountable and to take responsibility for their participation in the making of knowledges and worlds. For Guy (2018), value-neutrality enables us to separate science and politics into distinct activities practiced at different moments. Hanemaayer (2018) asserts the value of genealogy as a way for sociologists to overcome our historical complicity in apparatuses of social control. Hart (2018) focuses not on ethico-political values but on the impacts of vanity presses and invisible colleges in undermining the value of scholarship generally. Nonomura (2018) sees reflexivity as necessary for sociology to make a practical difference in addressing social problems. Poirier (2018) expresses concern that the idea of value-neutrality functions to exclude socially marginalized groups from the mainstream of sociology. Ray (2018) examines the use of value-neutrality, in Weber's day and in ours, as a means of protecting academic autonomy from state and corporate interference, van den Berg (2018) sees value-neutrality as a means for maximizing epistemic legitimacy by ensuring that sociological research includes the perspectives of all affected groups from the very start. Whelan (2018) celebrates the ability of research to unsettle and interrogate our values, and expresses concern that this ability is increasingly hobbled by demands, from various quarters, that sociology be immediately useful.

My own view involves a duality. On the one hand, my goal as a sociologist is for research to make a practical contribution to achieving social equality. A pragmatic approach to knowledge evaluates knowledge claims by their practical effectiveness, relative to one's specific purposes--and social equality is a purpose not shared by all. On the other hand, however, I am convinced that to change the world for the better, we need knowledge of emergent social forces, forces whose intrinsic dynamics are unaffected by our ethical judgments.

By happy accident, the November 2017 issue of Canadian Review of Sociology featured a thematic section on value-neutrality (see Depelteau 2017). In keeping with the pragmatic focus of the present collection, each of the articles from that issue can also be read for the explicit or implicit pragmatic goal which they advocate. So, for instance, Rawls (2017) rejects value-neutrality because he wants sociology to center itself on the study of the cooperative social processes by which people obtain essential social goods. Vandenberghe (2017) similarly wants sociology to continue "by other means" the tradition of practical moral philosophy. Gorski (2017) wants a critical interrogation of the interplay between normative and descriptive claims. Betta and Swedberg (2017) want sociology to embrace value-freedom as a means of questioning values, both the key values of the times and the researchers' own values. Fuchs (2017) wants to defend and reaffirm the value-system of occidental modernity on which Weber's notion of value-freedom is premised. Sayer (2017) wants sociologists to reject not just Weber's idea of value-freedom but his irrationalist conception of values, and instead incorporate evaluative claims into objective description so as to engage with the problems of life. These pragmatic goals, and the arguments used to support them, have striking parallels with the contributions in the present collection.

I hope that this collection will stimulate a broad and fruitful conversation among sociologists about the practical stakes of our deeply held epistemological commitments, so that members of different epistemic communities within the social sciences can understand and benefit from each other's work as much as possible.


Betta, M. and R. Swedberg. 2017. "Values on Paper, in the Head, and in Action: On Max Weber and Value Freedom Today." Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):445-55.

Depelteau, F. 2017. "Foreword." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):388-91.

Doucet, A. 2018. "'... Casting Our Lot with Some Ways of Life and Not Others': Epistemic Reflexivity, Diffraction, Epistemic Responsibilities." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):302-304.

Fuchs, S. 2017. "Observing Facts and Values: A Brief Theory and History." Canadian Review of Sociology /Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):456-67.

Gorski, P.S. 2017. "From Sinks to Webs: Critical Social Science after the Fact-Value Distinction." Canadian Review of Sociology /Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):423-44.

Guy, J.-S. 2018. "Are Value-Neutrality and Value-Engagement Properties of Social Actors or Social Moments?" Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):305-306.

Hanemaayer, A. 2018. "Genealogy as a Counter-Human Science." Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):307-308.

Hart, R. 2018. "Valuing Scholarship." Canadian Review of Sociology /Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):309-310.

Nonomura, R. 2018. "'Committing Sociology' as a Value Commitment." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):311-313.

Poirier, E. 2018. "It's All Been Done Before: Rethinking Objectivity and Values in Public Sociology Debates." Canadian Review of Sociology /Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):314-315.

Rawls, A.W. 2017. "An Essay on the Intrinsic Relationship between Social Facts and Moral Questions." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):392-404.

Ray, D. 2018. "The Sociological Ethic and the Spirit of Power: Reflections on the Possibility of a Value-Neutrality and Its Consequences for Sociology." Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):316-318.

Sayer, A. 2017. "Values within Reason." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):468-75.

van den Berg, A. 2018. "Of Babies and Bath Water." Canadian Review of Sociology I Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):319-321.

Vandenberghe, F. 2017. "Sociology as Moral Philosophy (and Vice Versa)." Canadian Review of Sociology ! Revue canadienne de sociologie 54(4):405-22.

Whelan, E. 2018. "In Praise of Value-Interrogating Sociology." Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie 55(2):322-324.

Christopher Powell

Ryerson University

Christopher Powell, Department of Sociology, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, ON, Canada M5B 2K3. E-mail:
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Author:Powell, Christopher
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2018
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