This special collection builds on a growing chorus of voices calling to bridge the gap between normative concerns and sociological practice, and indeed to develop normative forms of sociology. Although the collection’s articles constitute a small sample of (normative) sociology’s rich and evolving landscape, they demonstrate not only how normative traditions are deeply embedded in sociology’s history, but also how they are being invoked in new and creative ways. Our authors’ work illuminates the unity between sociological and normative concerns by reconstructing important chapters of the discipline’s engagement with ethical reflection, and by chartering possible paths for normative sociology. Contributors further engage with the normative value of intellectual resources located beyond standard academic boundaries, such as religious resources, and emphasize the importance of researchers reflecting upon their own normative assumptions. Finally, they frame normativity in terms of layered engagements: calling on social scientists to consider participatory research paradigms and to build bridges between research and the general public in the search for social justice.

In this special collection, “The Quest for Normativity: Challenges and New Directions in Social Research,” we begin with the premise that social research has grappled with the place and possibilities of normativity since its inception, but that normativity remains problematically marginal in sociology, at least in the English-speaking world. “Normativity” has traditionally been widely accepted in humanistic subjects like philosophy and theology, in the subdiscipline of political theory within politics, and—following the so-called ethical turn that entailed a deepened focus on subjectivities and moral positionalities—also in anthropology. Within sociology, however, normative turns have been more tentative or partial, remaining in tension with the continued dominance of positivist research in the discipline.

And yet normative traditions are deeply embedded in sociology’s history and are being invoked in new and creative ways at present, both in ways that cross disciplinary boundaries and those that make explicit claims on the sociological terrain. To give but one example, in his book Processual Sociology (2016), Andrew Abbott recognises the inescapability of social science research as a moral endeavor. Accordingly, Abbott argues for a more skillful use of normative theories within sociology—and indeed for the development of a normative branch of the discipline. Abbott is not alone in stating that normative reasoning can and sometimes should play a central role in sociology, however. As the contributions of this special collection testify, and other special issues on these and related subjects demonstrate (Dépelteau 2017; Dierks 2021; Powell 2018; Price 2019), normative turns can be made from multiple perspectives, each of which connects us to different aspects of sociology’s history and potential future forms.

Although the contributions to this special collection offer only a small sample of this rich and evolving landscape, they illustrate how normative inquiry can serve as a bridge between different key sociological concerns: from ethnicity to religion, and from economic life to sociology’s practice and self-understanding. While not explicitly engaged in a community of normative social science, contributors have—each in their own way—moved beyond positivist tendencies in sociology with nuanced and thought-provoking methods and theories. They have also inspired us to map out the ever-changing sociological terrain, recognizing that sociological cartography is by definition an ongoing and therefore unfinished task.

In a first contribution, Galen Watts offers a timely reconstruction of an important but somehow neglected chapter in the history of sociology’s engagement with ethical reflection: social science as public philosophy (SSPS)—a view put forth by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton in their classic Habits of the Heart (1985), but with roots in the work of classic social researchers such as Alexis de Tocqueville. In revisiting and further theorizing SSPS against the background of recent conversations around normativity, Watts’s article will be invaluable to sociologists seeking to navigate two extremes commonly found in the North American sociological field: positivism and unreflective normative commitment.

In “The ‘Normative Turn’ in Sociological Theory: Sociology’s Garden of the Forking Paths,” Daniel Chernilo and Sebastian Raza posit three paths of theories of normativity in the social sciences: Neo-Durkheimianism, Neo-pragmatism, and Critical Realism. The authors illuminate the centrality—if lack of clarity—of normativity to classical sociological theory, contending that there has not been an explicit normative turn but rather a channeling of normative theories into these different paths. In so doing, they unsettle assumptions about causality and the structure of human agency. Chernilo and Raza further show how different interlinked temporal and spatial dimensions shape the agendas of each of these paths, with Neo-Durkheimianism focusing on spaces of ritualism to past normative commitment; Neo-pragmatism focusing on spaces of reasons to present problematic events; and Critical Realism focusing on spaces of aspirations to imagined future states. By tracing these theoretical paths, they draw attention to normative frameworks of conducting social research on subjects such as reason, ritualism, and aspirations, along interpretive, narrative, or biographical lines (as in the work of Jeffrey Alexander, Andrew Abbott, and Margaret Archer, respectively).

In a paired interview and essay, Professor Tariq Modood describes his own dual locality in political theory (in which he received his PhD) and sociology (in which he holds his professorial chair at the University of Bristol), and how this pairing has allowed him to embrace “normativity with a capital N.” Located specifically in the British context, Modood has developed and led the Bristol School of Multiculturalism, which has pioneered an unabashedly normative and interdisciplinary intellectual project while also opening an academic space from which key thinkers on multiculturalism in Europe have emerged, including Nasar Meer, Bhikhu Parekh, and Varun Uberoi. For Modood, researchers’ positionality and normative standing should be explicit rather than implicit, and their responsibilities for shaping public life not only recognized but fulfilled. For example, multiculturalism, here understood as an ideal type of group recognition and inclusion in the national sphere, has played an important role in embedding these values into policies aimed at creating more social equality by way of combating the exclusion and racialization faced by Muslim communities in the United Kingdom.

In “‘Capitalizing’ on Catholic Social Teaching: Seeking Normative Principles for Constructive Social Capital in the Catholic Tradition,” Marc Rugani turns to the vast intellectual resources of the Catholic Church, which has long grappled with social questions. Rugani shows that what he terms the “four permanent principles of Catholic social doctrine”—(1) the common good, (2) solidarity, (3) subsidiarity, and (4) the dignity of the human person—can serve as guiding normative principles for research on the social world. He thus overrides assumptions about disciplinary boundaries, instead bringing into constructive conversation Catholic understandings of social capital and the social sciences. Needless to say, normative debates within sociology could benefit from following Rugani’s example in conversing with other religious and spiritual traditions.

Turning to the economic sphere, in his article “Egalitarianism and Economic Rents in Distributional Inequalities,” Dustin Avent-Holt unpacks the normative underpinnings of the notion of economic rent. Focusing on different types of egalitarian frameworks (luck and relational egalitarianism), Avent-Holt demonstrates some of the normative shortcomings of the notion of economic rents as an egalitarian tool, and how to begin to address them. His analysis invites sociologists interested in social stratification and inequality to examine their normative assumptions, a task with important policy implications given the outrageous levels of social and economic inequality we face today.

In “The Ethics of Participatory Action Research with People Living in Poverty,” Bruno Tardieu, Donna Haig Friedman, Bonita Benett, Stacy Randell-Shaheen, Maya El Remaly, and Alicia Barbas offer guidelines for enhancing the ethical standing of participatory action research (PAR). Following in the footsteps of communities (such as the San) who have raised their voices to improve the standards of research ethics, Tardieu and colleagues suggest ways in which participatory action researchers can minimize the risk of symbolic violence and epistemic injustice. Their article thereby enriches a method committed to liberation and social justice, while offering reflections that will be helpful to researchers seeking to partner with vulnerable groups in their quest for emancipation.

Finally, in “The Role of Social Research in Opposing Injustice,” Saori Murakami shows how a social science committed to normative inquiry can shed light on the many ethical and sociopolitical dilemmas facing those searching for a better world—for example, by contributing to the exercise and refinement of practical reason. Highlighting the need for dialogue between social research and the general public, including social movements, Murakami further suggests some of the ways in which academics can contribute to aligning public reasoning with ideals like social justice and democracy. Murakami’s framework can be productively applied in a variety of settings and represents a welcome addition to the toolbox of activists, citizens, and scholars.

In the course of working on this special collection, we have been pleasantly surprised to see the confluence of scholars engaging with similar ideas independently of each other. This is a testament, we believe, to the importance of the questions raised by normativity within social research—but also a reflection of the inescapable plurality of both sociology and normative theories. This pluralism is, as Abbott (2004) has argued, a source of strength, creativity, and renewal for the discipline. Our hope is that this special collection will enrich ongoing conversations as to the place of normativity within sociology and the human sciences.

There are no competing interests.

Abbott, Andrew. 2004. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton Company.
———. 2016. Processual Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dépelteau, François. 2017. “Foreword to ‘Value Neutrality or Axiological Engagement.’” Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie 54 (4): 388–91.
Dierks, Dennis. 2021. “Introduction: Understanding Diverse Uses of Painful Pasts: A Plea for Conscious Normativity.” International Public History 4 (2): 85–88.
Powell, Christopher. 2018. “Presentation: A Pragmatic Approach to Understanding Sociologists’ Differing Views on Value-Neutrality.” Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie 55 (2): 298–301.
Price, Leigh. 2019. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Normativity.” Journal of Critical Realism 18 (3): 221–38.
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