Methodological naturalism involves setting aside all theological and metaphysical notions such as being or essence, redefining all phenomena in terms of physical and empirically accessible qualities. We can apply this approach to the idea of truth itself.
Talcott Parsons defined a fact, not as a state of affairs, but as a statement about some state of affairs. Building on this, we can understand facts as statements with a particular social status. From there, we can examine facticity, and by extension truth, as a normatively ordered social institution.
Drawing on Foucault and Marx we can understand norms, including epistemological norms, as fetishized power relations. In fetishization, a concrete relation among people gains the appearance of a disembodied agency. Defetishizing the norm allows us to translate fetishized normative claims into their defetishized political equivalents.
So for example, when we talk about wanting our research to be free from political interference, this translates into a demand for autonomy: the power to determine for ourselves, as researchers, the rules of our intellectual production. And when we object to the distortion or denial of established facts, this functions as reassertion of the epistemic authority of the network of researchers who produced those facts.
Knowledge can never truly “be apolitical”. It can only appear apolitical when it operates in harmony with some particular institutionalized formation of power relations. So-called alternative facts, therefore, function as alternative claims about who shall have the power to confer the institutional status of truth on statements. Using this analysis, we can reframe what we call “post-truth politics”, not as a conflict between politics and truth, but as the rejection of one established politics of truth in favour of a different set of politico-epistemic relations.
Relativizing the conflict in this way does not mean taking no sides. Myself, I prefer the authority of sociologists to the authority of the alt-right. But, like a nation that goes to war without knowing its actual military and economic resources, like a politician who campaigns without knowing their actual base of support, like a company that sells a product without knowing the actual market for that product, a scholarship which responds to the question “why should people believe what we say” with the answer “because what we say is true” is a scholarship with no strategy for success.
So what should we do? I propose a few analytical categories for thinking about how to proceed.
First, we can think about the sources of our support in terms of patrons, clients, and audiences. Who are our patrons — who pays for what we do, and why? Who are our clients — who depends on us for the realization of their own goals, and why? And who are our audiences — who wants to believe the stories that we tell, and why? The composition of each of these groups changes continually and we need to track these changes.
Second, I propose that we think about what we do in terms of three kinds of services or goods that we provide: mapping, legitimation, and problem-solving.
My mapping, I mean: our empirically rigorous accounts of social phenomena. This is the bread and butter of our discipline, of course. Let’s keep in mind that all maps involve reductions in the complexity of what they describe, and all reductions require choices, priorities, values.
The second kind of service we provide is legitimation. Intentionally or not, our mappings can legitimate or delegitimate various social projects. Although mapping and legitimation interpenetrate each other, we still need to keep them distinct while thinking carefully about the relation between the two.
Finally, there is problem-solving. As a rule, people tend to adopt beliefs that help them solve problems in their lives, while rejecting beliefs that make their lives more difficult.
Psychology, for instance, has obvious utilities. People with depression, or schizophrenia, for instance, can get therapeutic interventions that alleviate their problems, restoring or enhancing their agency.
What can sociology offer of comparable utility? This is where we are weakest, I think. No matter what the political climate, and especially in these difficult times, sociology needs to make itself useful.
Of course, to whom it should make itself useful, and to what ends, and how — these are crucial questions.
* This post is the text of a presentation given for the panel “‘Committing Sociology’ After Trump’s Election”, François Dépelteau and Howard Ramos, organizers, Canadian Sociological Association 52nd Annual Conference, Ryerson University, Toronto, 31 May 2017.