Conference Agenda

Overview and details of the sessions of this conference. Please select a date or location to show only sessions at that day or location. Please select a single session for detailed view (with abstracts and downloads if available).

Session Overview
RN29_05: Structure and Action; Lifeworld and Systems
Thursday, 22/Aug/2019:
11:00am - 12:30pm

Session Chair: Patrick Joseph O'Mahony, University College Cork
Location: GM.325
Manchester Metropolitan University Building: Geoffrey Manton, Third Floor 4 Rosamond Street West Off Oxford Road

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Latour and Anti-Dualist Social Theory: The Case of Structure and Agency

Stephen Kemp

University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

One key plank of Bruno Latour’s social theorising is its anti-dualist character. Latour has questioned the value of divisions such as culture/nature, subject/object and human/non-human and developed modes of analysis which try to avoid these divisions. In this paper I consider another division that Latour has rejected – structure/agency – and place his arguments in the context of existing debates between dualist and anti-dualist thinkers within this area. I explore the consequences of his argument for those who explicitly defend dualist approaches to structure/agency, such as Margaret Archer. I also consider how Latour’s approach relates to existing anti-dualist positions in this area such as the work of Anthony Giddens and the writings of John Holmwood and Alexander Stewart. I contend that Latour’s criticisms of dualism offer useful support to previous arguments in this area, but that his anti-dualist framework leads to problems of its own.

The World Society as an Observer: In Search of Revitalization through Sociological Systems Theory

Saburo Akahori

Tokyo Woman's Christian University, Japan

Although society is one of the most important concepts in sociology, theoretical argument over it has almost been ignored both outside and even inside sociology. In this paper we investigate how the concept of society can be useful as a technical term of sociology.

For this purpose, firstly we revisit Niklas Luhmann’s “Theory of Society”. In his terminology: (1) Society is defined as a special type within social systems that consist of communication. (2) Society is called “the encompassing social system” which includes all communications. (3) As a result, it is also called “world society”.

However the concept of world society seems to be insufficient to describe contemporary times because it is not fully universal. Then we move on to ask what we need for re-describing this globalizing era. We do not need any utopian premises. Instead we look for theoretical materials inside Luhmann’s conception. The candidates are: (1) the concept of communication media and (2) “difference-theoretical approach”. As for the former, we ask what kind of communication media enables us to communicate with each other despite increasing heterogeneity. The answer is: common platforms for communication. As for the latter, we question what kind of distinction is appropriate to observe world society. The answer is: just a simple distinction between communication and non-communication. In conclusion, through the amendments, the concept of society (i.e. world society) as singular form should be a basis to describe modernities as plural form.

Reconsidering Habermas’s System-Lifeworld Distinction

Roderick Anthony Condon

University College Cork, Ireland

The multiple crises of contemporary Europe force social theory to once again confront a longstanding thematic constellation of empirical-theoretical problems. Precarious prospects for deeper democratization in the wake of the neoliberal turn highlight the issue of capitalism forming a barrier to democracy. Furthermore, the pervasive concept of neoliberalism itself indexes a problematic boundary relation between economy and society that is as heavily criticized as it is under-theorized.

Over 30 years ago, Jürgen Habermas outlined a theoretical framework especially suited to the consideration of these issues in his two-level system-lifeworld scheme. Subjected to considerable critique at the time, this framework has come to be virtually rejected by contemporary critical theory. Yet, forming the basis of the now remarkably prescient thesis of the colonization of the lifeworld, the system-lifeworld scheme clearly retains considerable explanatory force. This urges its reconsideration at the contemporary conjuncture.

This paper will return to Habermas’s two-level theory of society, reframing the system-lifeworld distinction and rethinking economy-society boundary relations in turn. It will argue, beyond existent critiques, that the problem with Habermas’s systems theory lies in its confused elaboration in the Theory of Communicative Action, in which Parsonian and Luhmannian systems are intermixed. Seeing the true innovation of Habermas’s social theory as its communicative understanding of social order, it will reference pertinent innovations in Between Facts and Norms to recast the system-lifeworld boundary on firmer, explicitly communicative foundations. The resulting reconstruction has implications for the colonization thesis, reframing its diagnosis in way especially applicable to the critique of neoliberalism.

Critical Theory as Social Practice

Frank Welz

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Following Thomas S. Kuhn, social theories are usually understood as Kantian frameworks that enable the identification, interpretation, and reflection of social phenomena. Instead of understanding theories as neutral background assumptions of thought, my paper claims that social theories have themselves to be understood as normative social practices. Theories are both, shaped by societal changes but also intentional interventions into very specific circumstances. Inspired by historical epistemology, my exemplary discussion will include theories of Adorno, Habermas, Rosa and Luhmann. It will point out their approaches as specific reactions to specific societal transformations. -

Shaped by the Keynesian capitalism of the mid-20th century, Adorno’s critical theory introduced a theoretical framework that still assumed and promoted the possibility to steer the economy. From the 1980s onward, paralleling the transformation from the Keynesian welfare state to the post-Keynesian neoliberal order, unlike Adorno, later social theories gave up any analysis of political economy. For Habermas (promoting the public sphere), Luhmann (emphasizing the contingency of the world), and, most recently, Hartmut Rosa (promoting ‘resonance’), capitalism has already won. Their forms of theoretical ‘critique’ are no longer questioning market-society, as Adorno did. Accepting that the functional differentiation of Western societies and its underlying economic order can no longer be put into question, all three consequently developed new versions of a ‘critical’ analysis of contemporary society – aimed as practical interventions -- that are quite different from Adorno’s original critical theory. Theory construction and normative practice go hand in hand.

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