Critique of anti-essentialist sociology
This research project revolves around anti-essentialist thinking, which can be understood as one of the key characteristics of contemporary sociological theorizing. Its significance is considerable – not because anti-essentialist approaches convey a somewhat different perspective on society, but because they oppose the classical notions of how to achieve scientific knowledge with a fundamentally different understanding of science. Instead of attempting to gain knowledge by unambiguously determining the object of research – for example, by uncovering essences, causalities or general laws of behaviour – they assume, conversely, that it is indeterminate in principle. The crucial scientific achievement, then, is not to show how the object of research is determined but to reveal what degrees of freedom it possesses.
The aim of the project is to comprehensively work out the contours, potentialities and limits of the anti-essentialist mode of doing science across theoretical boundaries for the first time. This is such an important undertaking to tackle right now, as anti-essentialist approaches are currently – in the context of political distortions such as the proclamation of a ‘post-truth era’ – put into question. Could it be possible, critics ask, that the current crisis of truth is linked to a scepticism nurtured by anti-essentialists? It is this and similar questions that must be explored in order to find out: how to proceed with anti-essentialist sociological thinking.
The project approaches its task from three different angles. Firstly, by systematically reconstructing the anti-essentialist scientific logic from key works of pragmatism, poststructuralism, systems theory and network theory. These anti-essentialist theories are four of the most important theoretical approaches available to sociological theorizing at present. While those theories are different, sometimes even drastically different, with regard to how the social and the society are conceptualized, remarkable commonalities emerge with regard to the underlying understanding of science – especially in what concerns a common renunciation of ontological, epistemological and methodological essentialisms. Secondly, the project’s aim is approached by historically reconstructing important anti-essentialist figures of thought present in crucial sociological debates – debates that revolve around the question of how and when statements about society are true statements. Here, special attention is paid to the early dispute over methods, the positivism dispute and the essentialism-constructivism-debate. Finally, a third facet of anti-essentialist thinking is reconstructed empirically, by a qualitative discourse analysis on the question: what influence anti-essentialist theorizing has, in practice, on the contemporary political discourse. Together, these three research measures uncover the scientific program of anti-essentialism, and they help to show how it may be further developed in future.
Brichzin, Jenni; Schindler, Sebastian (2018): Why the wish to look »behind« things can be a problem. Ways of knowing politics beyond conspiracy theory. Leviathan 46 (4), pp. 575-602. German.
Brichzin, Jenni (2018): Network research. Review of the anthology: Löwenstein, Heiko; Emirbayer, Mustafa (ed.): Networks, Culture, Agency. Problem solving in relational methodology and social theory. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 70 (2), pp. 315-318.