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Varieties of Normative Inquiry: Moral Alternatives to Politicization in Sociology


This article evaluates four different ways of relating the normative side of sociology to its empirical side. Two such ways are in existence at present. The first is “dualism,” the idea that sociology provides purely scientific results to political or moral projects that are conducted on some independent normative basis. This position is commonly invoked in the idea of “value-free sociology.” The second is “monism,” the ideas that value-freedom is impossible and that sociology is inevitably value-driven, indeed perhaps that it should be openly so driven. This position is commonly invoked in the idea of “the unity of theory and practice.” These existing approaches are complemented by two that do not yet exist in practice. Both are explicitly normative in part. The first of these is a “canonical” approach, like that of the subdiscipline of political theory, in which normative inquiry within sociology would be formally recognized within the discipline and would be organized around a classical canon of normative works. The second would be a “legalist” approach, which would grow out of new genres of writing that aimed at the systematic normative evaluation of bodies of work or literatures, thus working inductively, in contrast to the canonical approach’s deductivism. The article evaluates these four positions according to four criteria: feasibility, coherence, trajectory, and open-mindedness. It concludes that the current positions (dualism and monism) are both embarrassingly weak: typically unconscious and sometimes naïve, in many cases driven by the unacknowledged – and hence uncritical - assumption that one's particular politics are in fact universally desirable. The discipline should try to create an explicit but rigorously argued normative subdiscipline, probably combining both the canonical and legalist positions.

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  1. This article is an essay. That is, it is a reflective proposal by a senior scholar, rather than a specific contribution to a scholarly literature. Most of the usual scholarly machinery is thus superfluous, and there are footnotes only for clarification, elaboration, or, in a few cases, for references to other papers by the author that support what may seem to be controversial moves in the argument.

  2. In much monist work, the word “inequality” has become more or less a euphemism for “injustice.” The word “injustice” was commonly used in articles published during the early reform years of the discipline. It disappeared during the hegemony of “scientific sociology.” The word “inequality” in effect occupies today the same rhetorical position that “injustice” occupied a century ago. See Abbott 2016c: c. 8.

  3. Moreover, each side dismisses the other side’s critique of it as being itself politically motivated. Each of the two positions is in effect “unperceivable” by the other as a legitimate position. The present analysis of the situation explicitly denies Michael Burawoy’s (2005) analysis in his celebrated ASA Presidential address on “public sociology.” Burawoy made roughly the same distinction as is made here, but on different grounds. My “dualism” is roughly his “professional sociology” plus his “policy sociology” (the latter for Burawoy is “professional sociology” used for practical ends). Similarly, my “monism” is his “critical sociology” plus his “public sociology” (which for Burawoy is critical sociology used for practical ends). But his conception of the relation between the two sides was (in my terms) the monist conception: For Burawoy, “monists/criticals” see the true normative foundations of “dualist/professional” work, but the “dualists” see nothing (nothing valid, at least) about the monists. So his view was that monists were truly reflexive, but dualists were not. By contrast, I think both sides are equal in their reflexivity (or lack of it.). After all, dualists are quite sure they see the normative foundations of monist work: they just believe that work without particular normative foundations is possible and that the monists simply refuse to do it because they want to advance a particular political agenda. Where the two views really differ is made evident by this difference in their attitudes to each other: they differ in their views of the role of normative activity and the possibility of “social science” independent of particular normative foundations. As it happens, I join Burawoy in believing that “professional sociology” in his sense – a sociology that is purely “scientific” with no account taken of values – is impossible. But it is not impossible simply because all social actors inevitably have value commitments, although of course that is true. Much more important, it is impossible because the entire social process consists in large part of the detritus of present and past value decisions. One has only to think of the various attempts at purely “scientific” analysis of race or family, in their many bizarre manifestations, to understand that this is true and that we must take open account of that fact. Given that problem, Burawoy’s analysis – statesmanlike as it was – falls apart.

  4. The notion of the “purely intellectual” is not meant to assert a position vis a vis the dualism / monism difference. Nor is it meant to claim the possibility of such a thing. I merely want to suggest that we know some things about the empirical evolution of the “non-normative” versions of sociological trajectories, and that it is useful to think about them a bit before moving into thinking explicitly about normative trajectories.

  5. Further discussion of disciplines can be found in Abbott (2001:c. 1 and c. 5). On cumulation (and non-cumulation), see Abbott 2006.

  6. This allowed the evaluation of deformations of “perfect” mobility, an ideal embodying lack of social influence. This ideal was at first defined abstractly, but very soon became quite normative in its distinction between just and unjust factors affecting perfect mobility. A book-length analysis of the evolving moral assumptions of the American mobility literature would be an example of the kind of work discussed under my fourth alternative below.

  7. This moral education would be imposed by the state, and therefore Durkheim’s “empirical morality” was quite as nationalistic as the German humanities had become in the late nineteenth century.

  8. Dewey discussed experts in The Public and Its Problems, Pp.123–5, 135–7, 182–4, 203–9. To be sure, Dewey did see a role for experts in informing the public about the real nature of complex social issues.

  9. See above, note 3.

  10. This reflects the general ontology of contractarian liberalism, as I have noted elsewhere (Abbott 2016a). On the problem of outcome, see Abbott 2016c, c. 6.

  11. Due process is the legal analog of the mobility literature’s focus on equality of mobility chances at a given instant rather than equality of long run result. It too is about events at a given instant, not about long-run justice per se.

  12. For a discussion of Weber’s (and Durkheim’s) positions on the matter of values in sociology, see Abbott (2016c: 258-9 (Weber); 261–5 (Durkheim).

  13. On problems with the concept of inequality, see Abbott (2016c: c. 8).

  14. The counter argument by monists is that the prohibition of ad hominem argument and anachronism were simply means of conserving the status quo. The best empirical study of these kinds of changes in academia remains the magnificent book of the late Peter Novick (1988) on the discipline of history.

  15. When gross inequality across large groups disappears, new and smaller areas of inequality are sought to justify continued investment in the inequality paradigm. An obvious example is sociology itself. Sociology’s American disciplinary association has been dominated by women for more than quarter of a century, as is evident by the long-term disparity between the gender ratio among its elected officials and the gender ratio in the association itself, the former usually exceeding the latter by a quite substantial margin. But there are still strong concerns about gender inequality in the tenured ranks of the elite departments of sociology - a social setting that involves perhaps three or four hundred people (mostly older people) in a discipline of more than ten thousand. In fact, in the younger cohorts of American sociology at present, the diversity problem in sociology is already the reverse – not domination by white men, but their near absence.

  16. Sociology during the Progressive era and the sociology of the 1950s strike one as possible examples. The more recent period has seen sociology moving in one political direction while the society – at least according to the polls – has been moving in another. As that case makes clear, perhaps we ought to question the Progressive and 1950s examples, the first because the effects of Progressivism were undercut by the rapid move of economics towards conservatism, and the second because the surface successes of scientific sociology in the 1950s concealed a considerable repression of the progressive side of sociology in response to McCarthyism.

  17. I am not, of course, taking a position for or against “human rights.” I am merely pointing out that it is a particular Western ideology to think that the set of things called “human rights” in the West constitutes a universal that ought to be recognized worldwide in perpetuity.

  18. The work of Iris Marion Young is an example.

  19. And even though Hobbes was not a lawyer, much of book I of Leviathan consists of adducing common law maxims as “laws of nature.”

  20. Factional politics has certainly been characteristic of the democracies legitimated under contractarianism, but nonetheless those societies have the usual difficulties with majority tyranny, as the case of black-white relations shows so well in the United States. The case of feminism is unique because the group involved constitutes half of the society, distributed almost orthogonally to most of the other major group differences: class, age, race, religion, etc. So faction is not the same issue in that case.

  21. See, e.g., Dewey 2016: 45–7, 194–203.

  22. For an explicit example of thinking outside Western norms in political theory, see Sass and Dryzek 2014.

  23. I have argued elsewhere that despite the many virtues of contractarianism as a general ideology for political thought, it does not provide a very helpful way to think about equity in sociological arguments, largely because the social ontology implicit in contractarian liberalism is in contradiction with the social theory of the self that is common in most versions of sociology. Contractarianism also has the problem of being unable to think about duties, rights, and welfare that may have varying distributions across the life course. See Abbott 2016a.

  24. As I have argued elsewhere (Abbott 2016b), the post 1975 steady-state demography of American academia leaves most disciplines with a flat age distribution, even though the ideal life-courses for American scholars were established in an era when the age distribution was skewed toward youth by the exponential expansion of higher education. Life stage differentiation could be a possible resolution of this problem.

  25. By “surrendering to abstraction” I mean the tendency of Western universalism to assume that abstract, contentless terms and concepts are “more universal” than concrete, contentful terms and concepts. That this is the case is one of the central ideologies of the West. The fundamental problem with this position is that all human beings are particular beings, and hence “difference” from others is a universal experience. To abstract this experience is in fact to deny it. The topic is a long one, but the Western argument does indeed have serious difficulties as an account of universals.


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Abbott, A. Varieties of Normative Inquiry: Moral Alternatives to Politicization in Sociology. Am Soc 49, 158–180 (2018).

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  • Normative sociology
  • Dualism
  • Monism
  • Canon
  • Critique