Re-imagining critique in cultural sociology

Authored by: Nancy Weiss Hanrahan , Sarah S. Amsler

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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Critique and judgment were once regarded as the distinguishing features of an emancipatory social science, yet their role in the study of culture has become particularly contested in recent years. The growth of identity-based politics and the proliferation of new social movements in the 1970s and 1980s, and the accompanying cultural turn within social theory, highlighted the analytical and ethical limitations of the authoritative knowledge claims that are often associated with critique. Recognition of cultural difference, now widely regarded as crucial for advancing claims for social equality and analyzing many aspects of social life, challenged universal conceptions of human freedom, including those that had been the basis of an earlier generation of critical theory. The crisis and collapse of Soviet socialism during this period seemed only to mirror the exhaustion with Marxist conceptions of domination and liberation that had been central underpinnings of both normative social critique and struggles for social justice. Within cultural sociology, these developments opened up the field to a rich exploration of cultural practices across a wide range of social and cultural groups, many of which were not previously recognized as “legitimate” culture or legitimate subjects of cultural study. This “democratization” of both the culture concept and its analysis seemed to favor interpretive over critical methodologies. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century, there was a strong “discourse of suspicion” in the field towards any normative claims that linked culture specifically to the expansion or denial of human freedom, beyond the basic theoretical observation that in practice it may do both (Reed 2007: 12).

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