“The Real and the Possible in Social Science”
Tracés, vol. 24. French Journal of Social Science.
The rise of social constructionism has opened a new area of research about possibilities in social science. This may have been a secondary consequence, but it has generally been left unquestioned. The insistence on the radical contingency of social phenomena – which goes hand in hand with the idea of their constructibility – leads to consider the possible integration, as objects of knowledge, of various phenomena that were, if not artificially eliminated by linear causal models, at least neglected by classical social science : randomness, serendipity, uncertainty, etc. As opposed to two of the main classical explanatory paradigms in social science – rational choice theory and mechanistic models – social constructionism highlights two aspects of the possible that, we argue, have to be taken seriously. First, possibility is irreducible to mere subjective ignorance. Second, possibility is closely connected to social change. Possibilities are not simply zones of indetermination in a system. They are objective tendencies that play a role in the evolution of the system.
However, the unqualified application of constructionist principles can be risky: the possibilities that constructionists mention tend to be under-determined, if determined at all. When constructionism goes beyond the mere assertion that things could have been different, the possibilities invoked are generally left unspecified. One would like to know more about them: could we not consider for example various degrees in the possibility of an alternative or investigate the effective conditions required for individuals and groups to construct possibilities?
We therefore suggest that we should in a sense follow the social constructionists in taking seriously the idea that possibilities are a legitimate subject of inquiry for social science, but that we should also, contrary to social constructionists, engage in the effort of precisely specifying and qualifying those possibilities of interest. We propose to focus on “realistic” or “determinate” possibilities – as opposed, for instance, to the possibilities revealed by uncontrolled exercises of the imagination.
The consideration of “realistic” or “determinate” possibilities also has an important practical aspect. For sure, without the conviction that “another world is possible”, there is no project of social transformation – whatever that transformation may consist in. However, the mere allusion to an unspecified alternative is not enough. We need to know more. Social science certainly has a role to play there. So the consideration of “realistic” or “determinate possibilities” in social science also has an important practical, critical and perhaps political potential.
This upcoming issue of Tracés invites all interested researchers to submit contributions dealing with possibilities in this “realistic” or “determinate” spirit. Being an interdisciplinary journal, we welcome papers from the whole spectrum of the social sciences, taken broadly to include sociology, economics, history, political science, anthropology, psychology and philosophy. We welcome epistemological reflections as well as empirical case studies, or analysis of classical works of social science.
Papers can be submitted in English or in French. Accepted papers in English will be translated in French.
For details and submission instructions, please visit
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