From pragmatism to radical meliorism

The Dossier “From pragmatism to radical meliorism” prepared by Antoine Hennion and Alexandre Monnin was published in SociologieS in May 2020.

SociologieS, May 2020 [Dossier available online]

Presentation of the Dossier

The strange moment in which we are plunged, so difficult to grasp, gives the theme of this Dossier an unexpected topicality, even though it was obviously prepared before this crisis. Indeed, we would have done well without it, and it would be inappropriate to take advantage of it to promote this issue, if not to point out the astonishing ease with which the realities that seemed to be most firmly established can be called into question overnight (even if we don’t know for how long…). This applies as much to the role of the State, national borders and national sovereignty, the weight of debt or the place of public services, and at more personal but equally decisive levels, such as the weaving of time and space in each person’s daily life, or the questioning of what we consider important, even vital. Fragility is not the opposite of the solidity, the duration or the solemnity of things, it is not at our margins, it is neither a defect to be repaired nor a temporary state, it is our common fate.

This Dossier echoes a series of seminars and events organized around this theme and how this attention to fragility is reshaping the way we investigate. If we have, of course, been able to bring together here only a few of the participants in this long-term reflection, all the authors gathered here have contributed to it at various times: the Attachments seminar[1], the Maintaining/Supporting research seminar[2], the SPEAP training course (Master of Experimentation in Political Arts) launched in 2010 by Bruno Latour at Sciences Po[3] and the conference “From Passion for Music to Fragile Beings”[4].

In the introduction, the coordinators of the Dossier go back to this journey which has led us to re-examine our discipline and its methods. In the footsteps of pragmatism, how can we make the investigation more open to the objects in question, to the problems formulated by the people concerned, to the very constitution of things? What does it imply to renounce any posture of exteriority in relation to the worlds in progress and to abandon the idea of a “social” that would be governed by its own logic? After having located our approach in relation to the various recent currents that have claimed to be pragmatic sociology and discussing other updated forms of research-action or committed social inquiry, such as the many American-style studies, we will defend a radical conception of social inquiry, reactivating the word “meliorism” borrowed from the early American pragmatists.

The project is also to overcome a paradox inherent in the lessons on method, always on the verge of oxymoron: they force us to formulate in a general mode, and most often negative – a list of what not to do… –, ways of conducting the investigation, the close dependence of which on each particular case is emphasised at the same time. Not rushing into a reassuring analysis, as if it were at all costs a question of giving reasons for a reality that would overwhelm us; not allowing an interpretation to shut down a present that is unfolding; not forcing the analysis to have the last word… Rather than a common theoretical framework that would apply to a variety of objects, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is an attitude that we have sought together, or even a reservation, that makes us more sensitive to the stubborn indeterminacy of what is at stake. How can we sharpen the art of allowing ourselves to be caught up in the experience in progress, always open to uncertain possibilities, and to be able to grasp relevant fragments of it ourselves?

One of the central lines of our questioning therefore relates to the need to follow, step by step, the path that goes from the fragility of things observed to that of research itself, and vice versa, in order to rethink the link to be established between the two, not on the classic model of a reflexive “retreat” by the researcher on his position or of a “rise” in generality, but on the contrary on the mode of a mandatory rapprochement with the actors concerned and with problematic situations. This requirement has guided the choice of the articles gathered in this Dossier. There is a striking common feature of texts with very different writing styles: we have never ceased to realise how much this effort of restraint, of waiting, this art of “letting things happen” before resuming them, actually brought us closer to the most ordinary way in which the actors concerned deal with situations. Perhaps we are finally only reinventing ethnomethodology, or better yet, reformulating one that is no longer obsessed with the mere repetitive performance of social order, but which is on the lookout for the indecisive pulsation of things… As we can see, this requires methodological precautions and inventions, but it goes far beyond a disciplinary policy: If the world is still in the making, as William James used to say, it is indeed because the tentative and controversial formation of our common problems can only be thought of in the present, there, in the current experience – it is also because, entirely woven by the bonds that hold it together, full of future plurals, it depends on our commitments, for better and for worse.

Presentation of the articles

The articles in this Dossier deal with a variety of objects: the work of maintenance agents (Jérôme Denis and David Pontille), a meeting organized with so-called precarious people (Anthony Pecqueux), support at the end of life (Anne-Sophie Haeringer), life near Fukushima “after” the disaster (Sophie Houdart) and finally, through a triple interview conducted with them by a researcher (Yaël Kreplak), the conception of inquiry defended by artists who, in various forms, make this way of working the basis of their work (Thierry Boutonnier, Gwenola Wagon and Alexis Guillier). On the other hand, the problems posed by all these authors seemed to us to be formulated in similar terms, around something like a pragmatics of attention: a shift from the object of sociological analysis to the questioning of the experience itself and the ways of grasping it. Another way of putting it, in any cases it is a matter of taking Erving Goffman’s famous formula “what is going on?”, but without limiting it more or less explicitly to the social relations that define an ongoing situation: by opening it up to the very constitution of the objects or beings in question. Aren’t they also passers-by?

Antoine Hennion et Alexandre Monnin

Introduction générale [Full text]

General Introduction

From pragmatism to radical meliorism: investigating in an open world, acknowledging its fragilities, considering the possibility of disasters.

Open investigations into fragile entities
Defending a radical version of pragmatism
Acknowledging the radical uncertainty of what may happen
Overcoming professional and disciplinary divides
A pragmatics of attention
For radical meliorism?

Jérôme Denis et David Pontille

Maintenance et attention à la fragilité [Full text]

Maintenance and attention to fragility

The first article highlights this uncertainty about the very nature of things, about objects the least of which we can say is that their ontological status is not easy to determine: traces, leaks. What makes graffiti a stain, or a provocation, or an urban decor, or even a work of art? What is the material reality of a leak, or even the likelihood of a leak?

Inspecting a water tank – going down (© J. Denis)

By investigating the maintenance work of urban equipment, the authors thus extend towards the fragility of things the questions raised, on the one hand, by the sociology of work and professions and, on the other hand, by work on diagnosis, vision, perception. How, from clues invisible to others, do the “maintainers” make the departure between the insignificant and what needs to be dealt with? How do these agents themselves describe the practical training that sharpens their sense of good alertness? The analysis thus inevitably shifts away from the idea of a rupture, a failure to be repaired, a defect to be corrected: on the contrary, through the art of body contact and the floating attention that, equipped as they are with regulations, tools and acquired skills, these professionals on the lookout develop, it is the uncertain continuity of life of the things they reveal to us, while learning to auscultate it, before possibly taking care of it.

Anne-Sophie Haeringer et Anthony Pecqueux

La vulnérabilité comme ouverture à la contingence. Deux enquêtes situées [Full text]

Vulnerability as openness to contingency. Two situated studies

How can we account for situations whose very object is indetermined – more than that, whose indeterminacy is a necessity, if not the only means of achieving their object? The formula suits, first of all, for reporting on a meeting of the regular “place of speaking” open to precarious people, whose process Anthony Pecqueux accompanies, being careful, like the organizers, not to “over-determine” it, as we very rightly say. Far from creating an artistic blur, under the pretext that we know nothing about these people, nor what they exactly want (if that even makes sense), this absence of a clear object, as compared to the “management” of more structured meetings, requires constant intervention on the part of the organizers, as if they were juggling with possibilities while trying to drop none. The same formula applies equally to palliative “care”, defined precisely by the abandonment of the very objective of curing or even treating anything: death is not their “end”, in both senses of the word. The case opens up a quasi-experimental space to the mere presence of the present: any gesture to be made, here and now, is only a matter of attention, never sure to be right. Uncertainty is not accidental but definitive, it is never possible to know if the right thing was done. But Anne-Sophie Haeringer shows that, far from diminishing or putting into perspective the very notion of care, the removal of all finality opens up, on the contrary, an infinite range of registers.

From the indeterminacy of the objects in question to the attention of professionals, we thus move back to the trouble of the researcher, who shares this doubt. In their two-voiced article on these separate inquiries[5], it is in turn ethnomethodology and conversation analysis that the authors push into their limits. The description changes status when it does not seek to identify elements that give rise to an external analysis, but to remain open to possible unfinished projects, to the interweaving of leads that will not be followed, but which could also have been taken up. Indeterminacy gains a real status: it does not mean that everything is possible, but on the contrary, it calls for increased attention, difficult to instrument, not only to the famous “what is happening”, but to everything that could have happened, or perhaps did happen, without ever having an answer, or a feedback from the people helped. Whether it is a question of wondering what the group brings to the precarious, or the care of patients who will soon die, it supposes that, remaining in indeterminacy, both the actors and the researcher give up having the last word. But isn’t this more the condition than the limit of any investigation?

Sophie Houdart

En déroute. Enquêter non loin de la centrale de Fukushima Daiichi, Japon [Full text]

Disarroyed. Investigating near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Japan

This very shift becomes the central object of Sophie Houdart’s account of her own approach in Fukushima, which this time evokes rather the reflexive ritual now required in anthropology. The article attempts another experiment, something like an inquiry into the inquiry, less during its course than in its failures, which make the said inquiry more and more doubtful (one would rather say “doubting”). The author tries to report as scrupulously as possible on her “rout”, even though she had taken part in several meetings with researchers who had returned to Fukushima after the disaster. What is going on in the vicinity of the power plant today? But this question alone forces her to question any pre-established method. There are no holds and it is imperative to let go of what you thought you had. Nothing is there that can be observed. You have to go there yourself, be afraid of a danger lurking in the ground and impossible to locate, take measures that stop nothing. The insistent questioning of “what is happening” takes on a more vital meaning here than ever before: Both for the actors – whom we see gradually learning to live with an invisible, mobile, intangible threat, any measure of which proves to be variable, even useless – and for the researcher who, beyond her own worries and the constant doubt about the reason for her presence, sees all the clues change meaning and her interpretations contradict one after the other, while, as she discovers with surprise, the inhabitants reconnect many other threads with a territory in which, above all, they continue to simply live, by re-inhabiting it. In order to make the presence of a past heard thus, Sophie Houdart, half writer, half researcher, must also reinvent ways of writing what is happening to her, the only way to say what is happening, beyond and below the catastrophe, without any summons being possible.

One house was still standing, which made me realise, as in the negative, that a village had existed in this place. (© S. Houdart)

Yaël Kreplak, Thierry Boutonnier, Gwenola Wagon et Alexis Guillier

Des artistes, des enquêtes, des pratiques ingénieuses [Full text]

On artists, inquiries and artful practices. A conversation between Yaël Kreplak, Thierry Boutonnier, Gwenola Wagon and Alexis Guillier

It is not enough to be sensitive to what is happening: how can we make it perceptible, how can we make it into a public problem? In order to make the researcher’s posture gradually shift a step further, the fourth article shifts the perspective a step further, in a more open but also more partial way, towards horizons other than that of the social sciences. Indeed, far from the small, selective and globalised milieu of recognised artists, a large number of highly committed artists are investigating in their own way the worlds in the making – and using the term project, which is also common with researchers nowadays. Like poets, who sometimes seem to have said better in four lines what it took a sociologist a thick book to formulate, they put in a different form, to make them visible and debatable, situations that, even more explicitly than in the case of researchers, they partly “stage” themselves, while relying on various forms of inquiry. Beyond words or complacent counterparts, are there indeed cross lessons to be learned from these distinct ways of shaping things?

Alexis Guillier, Images from the film Notre-Dame de France, 57 min, 2019

In order to open a track, rather than pretending to create even a provisional terminology, Yaël Kreplak questioned the ways of making of three artists with very different aims and actions, one of them (Thierry Boutonnier) having gone through the experience lived at SPEAP a few years ago, in a training course whose explicit aim, on problematic realities, was to open up passages between the investigation in the social science, political debate and artistic form. However, the article is not a collection of three interviews, but rather an inquiry into the very different ways they have of conceiving the inquiry: Thierry Boutonnier, based on collective actions organized with residents to develop other relationships with non-human beings and territories; Gwenola Wagon, based on the imaginary reinvestment of nodal places where the ongoing transformations driven by digital technology are played out; Alexis Guillier, by opening, in the most physical sense, the belly of a giant statue of the Virgin, one of those “irresolute” objects: by making it resonate, by reconstituting its history, by showing its materiality, he gives it back the power of topicality.

[1] Seminar organised by Antoine Hennion at the CSI from 2008 to 2017.

[2] CSI research seminar, organised by Jérôme Denis, Anne-Sophie Haeringer, Antoine Hennion and David Pontille. See the « personal report » by Antoine Hennion in Pragmata [Available online]

[3] Master of Experimentation in Political Arts.

[4] « De la Passion Musicale aux êtres fragiles », Conference organised by Alexandre Monnin, Clermont-Ferrand, 24-26 September 2018.

[5] These two inquiries were designed and discussed as part of the same project, « Haparêtre », which prompted the authors to present them together in a double paper.