What Is Sociology

Topics: Sociology, Max Weber, Phenomenology Pages: 26 (7531 words) Published: December 3, 2012
Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 41:3

The Meaning of Meaning in Sociology. The
Achievements and Shortcomings of Alfred
Schutz’s Phenomenological Sociology




Theories of social action such as rational choice theories (Abell 2000; Coleman 1990; Elster 1989 and 2007), Weber (1922) and early Parsons (1937) usually build on a conception of an individual actor who is capable to order his or her goals in the order of preference and act accordingly. Moreover, the actor is usually interpreted as being transparent to him or herself in the sense that there are no rejected motives or unanalysed habits directing the actor’s behaviour. Such a point of departure has been called “cognitivist” (Bourdieu 1980). The cognitivist bias inherent in many action theoretical frames of reference has triggered the criticism that a more realistic frame would take culture or the social totality as its basic concept and analyse actors as something embedded in their cultural environment. (Functionalist variants of such criticism include Durkheim 1912 and late Parsons from Parsons 1951 onwards; for structuralist variants see Lévi-Strauss 1958; Barthes 1964 and Greimas 1966). However, the drawback included in these alternative analytical frames is that the concept of action is replaced by the concept of structure, which covers up many socially relevant action-theoretical problems.

With phenomenological sociology, however, we can eat the cake and also have it. This is so because phenomenological sociology has an individual mind as its point of departure, it deals with problems characteristic to action theory, it pays great deal of attention to those cultural maps and schemes which define the environment of action to the actor, and it does not understand culture as a uniform code subordinating the subjects but emphasises instead cultural variation between the actors. This paper discusses phenomenological sociology from such an angle. The basic question is: Is the attempt to integrate action theory and cultural analysis in phenomenological sociology successful? The answer given here is an affirmative one. A further question asks whether the phenomenological © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


Risto Heiskala

synthesis is able to relieve social theory of the cognitivist bias characteristic of action theory. It turns out that here the efforts of phenomenological sociologists have been less successful, even if some progress has been made. The remaining problems have to do with the basic concepts of the phenomenological approach and especially the phenomenological definition of meaning. It is recommended therefore, that the phenomenological frame should be supplemented with such alternative analytical frames as pragmatism, neostructuralism, approaches based on Bourdieu’s work or the recent current called the “practice turn” which can be interpreted as complementary to it.

The paper opens with two sections on Alfred Schutz, the founding father of phenomenological sociology. First of these deals with Schutz’s great invention, i.e., the synthesis of phenomenological philosophy and Weber’s sociological action theory. After presenting the conceptual frame of phenomenological sociology the paper moves on to the second section on Schutz the topic of which is the dilemma of phenomenological analysis of meaning. This is followed by a section on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and social constructionism by Berger & Luckmann. In this section, it is shown that they too are captured in the trap of the phenomenological dilemma. The concluding section states why there is a reason to pay attention to such abstract issues and discusses the problems of Giddens’ structuration theory as an elaboration of those problems which emerge when due attention is not given to the attempt to solve the problem of cognitivist bias.


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