The Anthropological Paradox

The Sociology of Knowledge as Perspective of the General Theory of Society

by Radosław Sojak (Author)
©2018 Monographs 248 Pages


This book seeks to analyse the categorial structure of sociological theory. The analysis is based on three assumptions: first, sociological theory is in a state of structural crisis; second, one of the symptoms of the crisis is the existence of many theoretical dichotomies which hinder the unification of sociological knowledge; and third, sociology of knowledge may analyse the causes of sociological theory’s structural crisis. Drawing on Foucault’s work, the author defines the source of theoretical crisis as an anthropological paradox: the involvement of man in a dialectic of being created and defined by what is objective while, at the same time, transcending this condition into the subjective. This study argues that insights found in works by Luhmann, Latour, Collins, Shapin, and others provide a chance for a formulation of a theoretical language for sociology that escapes the anthropological paradox.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the Author
  • Explanatory Text
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Goals of the treatise
  • Perspective of the analysis
  • Map of the treatise
  • Analytical method
  • Part 1. The discipline of dialogue
  • Chapter 1. Diagnosing sociological theory
  • Twofold unstable identity
  • Does theory oblige?
  • Theory does oblige!
  • Tradition does oblige!
  • Mosaic of metaphors and categories
  • Starting point for further analysis
  • Chapter 2. The lasting of sociological theory in the light of neo-Durkheimian sociology of knowledge
  • Durkheim as a classic thinker of the sociology of knowledge
  • Cognitive foundations of the society
  • Knowledge of men – knowledge of objects
  • Continuations of Durkheim’s sociology of knowledge
  • Mary Douglas’ analytical scheme of “grid & group”
  • Science from neo-Durkheimian perspective – the concept of Stephan Fuchs
  • Conclusions – completing the diagnosis
  • Part 2. The anthropological paradox
  • Chapter 3. General mechanics of systems according to Niklas Luhmann
  • Chapter 4. The Split Man – Concepts of Michel Foucault
  • Unwanted vocabulary
  • From similitude to representation
  • Poisoned well of humanity
  • Chapter 5. The anthropological paradox and philosophy
  • Three steps towards epistemology (Richard Rorty)
  • Conclusions
  • Part 3. Entanglements and the way out
  • Chapter 6. The diversification of theory
  • Max Weber
  • Émile Durkheim
  • Chapter 7. Unification in practice
  • Anthony Giddens and Piotr Sztompka: elements of the theory of structuration
  • Structuration and the analytic of finitude
  • Piotr Sztompka’s theory of society’s emergence
  • Pierre Bourdieu
  • Chapter 8. The way out of the anthropological paradox
  • Initial ascertainments
  • Why not realism?
  • Why not relativism?
  • Escape to the other side of the mirror
  • Chapter 9. Main currents in the sociology of scientific knowledge
  • The origin of the “actor-network theory” against the sociology of scientific knowledge
  • The strong program of the sociology of knowledge
  • Program of empirical relativism
  • Examining the discourse of science
  • Anthropology of laboratory work
  • Chapter 10. Actor-network theory arrives at the general theory of society’s perspective and moves away from sociology
  • Secrets of laboratories
  • The first story
  • Translations, transformations, transfers, and inscriptions
  • Black boxes – traveling laboratories
  • The Great Division
  • The second story
  • The Constitution of Modernity
  • The History of the Constitution
  • A-socio-logy
  • Critique of the sociology of scientific knowledge
  • New vocabulary
  • “Action-Network Theory” and sociological theory
  • Epilogue – the final question
  • Summary
  • The question of the price
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


The concept for this work crystalized, to a large degree, thanks to opportunities from two research-related travels. The first was a three-month-long research stipend at Oxford University, funded by the Stefan Batory Foundation and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Professor Jean Floud of Nuffield College took me under her wing and took exceptional care of me while there. Also at Oxford, during meetings in All Souls College organized by Professor Leszek Kołakowski for the Polish scholars and stipend holders, I had a unique early opportunity to present some of the concepts now developed in this work. I would like to thank all participants who took part in those discussions, as well as my fellow stipend holders: Natalia, Andrzej, Mateusz, and Rafał. The acquaintances I made during a year-long stay at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as a Fulbright Junior Research Grantee were equally important. Help I received from Professor Stephen Fuchs went far beyond a typical mentor’s support. The opportunity to take part in the courses of Professor Krishan Kumar and James Hunter also had a significant impact on my work.

During the painstaking process of collecting ideas for one’s work, the most important is the ability to present the parts so far completed to critical but, simultaneously, friendly recipients. I found such readers in the members of “Theoretical sociology 2000” section at the 11th National Sociological Convention in 2000 in Rzeszów and Tyczyn. I would like to thank all the participants who took part in our debate. For specific suggestions and comments, as well as critical analyzes of larger sections of the – what I then naively considered completed – text, I would like to thank Ewa Bińczyk, Anna Wolska, Paweł Bałdyga, and Piotr Stankiewicz. I am also grateful to students that I was fortunate enough to meet while teaching courses on the history of sociology, contemporary sociological theories, and the sociology of knowledge; as well as classes dedicated to works of Michel Foucault. So many of our meetings were inspiring and motivating.

I would also like to thank my reviewers for all their comments pertaining to my doctoral thesis, which constituted the foundation for this book: Professors Andrzej Szahaj and Marek Ziółkowski. Thanks to them, I realized not only my thesis’s shortcomings but also a new potential for development of the themes that I had undertaken.

Both critical and friendly readers are extremely important for supporting anyone when performing intellectual work. Other factors that supported my work were: the friendly atmosphere at the Institute of Sociology at the Nicolaus Co ← 11 | 12 → pernicus University in Toruń; a stipend from the Foundation for Polish Science which I received in 2000; and a promoter’s grant KBN (nr 1 H02E 025 18) that enabled me to write my doctoral thesis.

I would like to dedicate special thanks to Professor Andrzej Zybertowicz, who continuously reinvigorated me with his positive energy and the authentic happiness to be derived from the intellectual effort. Last but not least, I would like to thank my family – both close and removed – for spiritual, intellectual, and logistical support.

In short, I wish to thank a wide circle of people: so wide that, sadly, I was unable to employ every comment from every critic. Therefore, while thanking you all once again, I alone assume final responsibility for the treatise presented in this book.

Toruń, April 2003

← 12 | 13 →


Goals of the treatise

There is a lot of evidence that sociological theory is in permanent crisis. It is enough to say that, in fact, all of the more significant theoretical proposals in sociology to have emerged after the Second World War have – more or less evidently – the nature of sociological theory reforms.1 In this context, the crisis appears to be almost a driving force for the development of sociological theory.

The symptoms of the crisis, depending on theoretical preferences of the diagnostician, are usually the following:

  an insufficient link between the theory and empirical research, the inability to produce theoretical knowledge of predictive and socio(technically) applicable nature (see, e.g., Borkowski 1996);

  pre- or multi-paradigmaticality of sociological theory, alternatively, the inability to construct a sociological dictionary which would allow a free translation of different theoretical perspectives (see, e.g., Misztal 2000);

  constant entanglement into various kinds of dichotomous divisions differentiating the sociological thought, the inability to capture the totality of practice and human activity (see, e.g., Bourdieu 1990; Giddens 1984; Sztompka 1991);

  too close connection with institutions of authority; performing the function of legitimating policy measures (see e.g Brown 1977).

Some of these symptoms shall be analyzed in a more detailed way in Chapter One. Here, it is worth stressing that the crisis of sociological theory seems to be so persistent that it is possible to risk putting forward the thesis of its structural character. Such an interpretation entails the necessity to distribute the points of emphasis of the analysis in a different way than usual. The crisis of sociological theory cannot be defined as being limited to one theoretical orientation, or more generally – to one style of practicing sociology. Sociological theory has already experienced a period of dominance of the objectivism-oriented functionalism and the subjectivist approaches. There have already been fashions for the middle-range theories and the post-modernistic essays, for formalization and getting closer to literature, but there is no evidence that sociological theory ← 13 | 14 → gained any strength from these experiences – “less crisis-like.” There is yet another dimension to this issue. If we consider dichotomization to be a symptom of sociological theory crisis, then we must slightly change the approach to the dualisms which haunt sociological thinking. The question is not to attack them separately but to treat them holistically – as one of the main syndromes of the crisis.

Another issue is that it would be naive to believe that by means of one dissertation, or a single theoretical proposal, it is possible to resolve a structural crisis. Therefore, the emphasis should be placed not on the construction of a new, alternative sociological theory but on a careful examination of the sources of the crisis. Thus, in the context of the dichotomization of sociological theory, the question shall be not to overcome one or another dualism but to indicate the assumptions being the foundation of the theoretical area in which the dichotomization is viable.2 The starting point for this analysis does not have to be a finite theoretical proposal aiming to overcome the crisis – what is meant here is rather to seek a new perspective. I perceive perspective like Mannheim – simply as a new point of view. Therefore, is it possible to observe the social from such a point of view that does not require judgments causing a permanent crisis of sociological theory?

Finally, there is the last issue. If the crisis was of a temporary nature, if it was linked with a particular theoretical orientation, then any planned changes would gain legitimacy through reference to the expected profits. Sociological theory has already been reformed in the name of: the ideal of scientific knowledge, the commitment to praxis and the continuity and inseparability of human activities, the emancipation of conscience, social development, or even sociological imagination. However, if the crisis is structural, there are no grounds for too much cognitive optimism. Thus, I believe that the question about the aim has to be replaced with a question about the price. What will we gain and what will we lose by eliminating the theoretical premises which plunge the existing sociological theory in the structural crisis? There is a possibility that the crisis of sociological theory is similar to the crisis of real socialism – it is impossible to overcome without annihilating the system… and generating completely new problems.

Summarizing, the objective of this book is to analyze the categorical structure of sociological theory. The analysis shall provide answers to the three questions: ← 14 | 15 →

1.  What theoretical constructs (and: are they the only ones to) determine the structural nature of the crisis of sociological theory?

2.  Is it possible to (and, if yes, how to) get rid of the ‘crisis’ categorical structures?

3.  What price would sociological theory have to pay for the possible notion revaluations resulting from the answers to the first two questions?

Perspective of the analysis

Since at least the times of Max Weber, a conviction has been rooted in sociology that non-perspective cognition is impossible in the humanities – it is impossible to perceive from nowhere. My book claims to be no exception in this regard. The starting point and the point of view for my analysis will be the sociology of knowledge. However, for the analysis to be supported by the sociology of knowledge, it is first necessary to prove two things. First of all, the fact that the perspective and language of the sociology of knowledge are sufficiently close to the tradition of sociological theory so that they could be used for diagnosing and analyzing the crisis of the latter. In other words, it is required to prove the relevance of the tool which we intend to employ. Secondly, it is at the same time necessary to substantiate the conviction that sociology of knowledge is remote enough from sociological theory and its issues so that it could prove to be a tool that is cognitively fertile – revealing the so far unknown dimensions of the crisis of sociological theory.

Somewhat simplified, though in a nutshell, it is possible to state that the proximity of the sociology of knowledge and sociological theory is constituted by the classical sociology of knowledge. Whereas the potential cognitive fertility of the sociology of knowledge as a tool of analysis of sociological theory is the responsibility of the non-classical versions of the former.3

The obvious lines of division between the classical and non-classical sociology of knowledge are primarily chronological (the caesura of the Second World War) and are linked to the common identification of Karol Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim as the classics (not only of the sociology of knowledge). As has been pointed out elsewhere (Sojak 1996a; Sojak 2002), this division also has theoretical grounds. Resolutions on two issues are key here. The first one pertains to the scope of the applicability of the sociology of knowledge and is connected with the question whether all knowledge is subject to the ← 15 | 16 → rules of the social influence. The extreme case, and the most differentiating one, primarily is knowledge defined as real and – from the angle of institutions – created by science and mathematics. The other issue determining the division is the manner of conceptualizing the relation between knowledge and social structure. What is meant here is whether knowledge and social structure are perceived as separate categories of analysis and whether the influence is defined as one-direction or the opposite.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Social Theory Structural crisis of sociological theory Trends in sociology Sociology of scientific knowledge Theoretical language for sociology Michel Foucault
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Radosław Sojak (Author)

Radosław Sojak is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology at Nicolaus Copernicus University (NCU) in Toruń, Poland. His research interests include social theory, sociology of science and knowledge, post-communist transformation (the role of violence and behind-the-scenes aspects of social processes) and public discourse analysis.


Title: The Anthropological Paradox
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