Normative sociology and phronetic social science are research programmes that aim to overcome the dead end of positivism and the obfuscating effects of cryptonormativity, promising renewed social science disciplines that engage normatively with the public. In this article, I aim to deepen our understanding of social science’s (re)turn to normativity by examining how the disciplinary aims of such programmes fare against their conception of practical reason. I consider Tariq Modood’s presentation of the Bristol School of Multiculturalism as a form of normative sociology and begin from its understanding of practical reason after Michael Oakeshott, before specifying Modood’s recommendations, also with reference to other prominent versions of normative sociology. I then show that Bent Flyvbjerg’s phronetic social science, an Aristotle-inspired programme that has received widespread attention, is a particularly useful object of comparison: it bears high proximity to the Bristol School of Multiculturalism by being contextualist, dialogical, and prising public engagement. Most importantly, it too espouses antirationalist arguments via the emphasis it places on the Aristotelian notion of phronesis (practical wisdom). I argue that Oakeshott’s and Aristotle’s insights on the character and growth of practical reason both clarify and problematize the disciplinary aims of normative sociology and phronetic social science. Thus, to develop and defend normative social science, it is necessary to address a host of resulting challenges, most centrally the following: phronesis as an intellectual virtue based on one’s disposition, character, and experience largely eludes disciplinary-level training of the kind that social scientists and political theorists have received, exercise, or provide to students.

Social scientists have turned towards normativity as a means of effecting what they see as a more meaningful contribution to society in comparison to what can be achieved via the aim of providing disinterested technical knowledge (perceived as enshrined in the discredited positivist conception of social science). In this article, I wish to explore one assumption involved in this turn—namely, that social science disciplines, rather than particular individuals, are capable of cultivating strong abilities in the use of practical reason (via the shared training, knowledge, and tools they offer), which in turn lend weight to their normative interventions. Whilst this issue is certainly not new, harking back to the modern (e.g., Werturteilstreit) and ancient (e.g., Aristotelian political philosophy) origins of the social sciences, it is particularly consequential for how their present state and future trajectory may be understood.

In this article, I aim to provide sustained reflection on recent social science programmes that share the idea of normative intervention as a disciplinary aim—namely, normative sociology and phronetic social science.1 Both tie the exercise of practical reason to disciplinary knowledge and skills and thus raise questions about what social science can bring to normative considerations. I will show that these two programmes are intertwined in interesting ways and thus can shed light on each other. Most centrally, they start from similar understandings of practical reason, which, nevertheless, if fully developed, end up working against them. I will take my lead from Tariq Modood’s (2022a, 2022b) recent article and companion interview in Civic Sociology, where he lays claim to the label “normative sociology,” a label also used by Abbott (2018) and Sass (2018). The discussion will proceed via a series of elaborations and comparisons: I will first explore Modood’s avowed fundamental commitments to Michael Oakeshott’s conception of practical reason and briefly contrast his own version to other renditions of normative sociology, before comparing it to phronetic social science (Flyvbjerg 2001). The latter’s emphasis on the Aristotelian notion of phronesis (practical wisdom) will point us in the direction of Aristotle’s insights on the growth of practical reason, which will be shown to not only trouble the idea of phronetic social science but also support (together with Oakeshott’s antirationalism) reservations against normative sociology too.

In a series of recent publications, Tariq Modood (2019, 2020, 2022a, 2022b) has advocated a form of normative sociological inquiry as exemplified through his work, as part of the Bristol School of Multiculturalism (BSM) (Parekh 2000; Modood 2013; Levey 2019). Modood’s work affords an important opportunity to consider carefully the offered conception of normative sociology and to examine the coherence of the aims it sets for social science. As intimated, appeals to a normative sociology, as opposed to various possible normative positions taken by individual sociologists, invoke a disciplinary justification for normativity and a host of other disciplinary-level criteria. It is these aspects of Modood’s contention that I wish to take up and not, for instance, his position on multiculturalism.2

To clarify and enable a deeper grasp of the disciplinary aims and issues raised by the advocated conception of normative sociology, I highlight its affinities with arguments for a phronetic social science (Flyvbjerg 2001; Schram and Caterino 2006; Flyvbjerg, Landman, and Schram 2012). The fact that phronetic social science has produced significant debate and has programmatically attached itself to numerous studies contributes to this choice. But the comparison is crucial, moreover, because it helps us amplify the Oakeshottian elements that Modood’s normative sociology is committed to by placing them together with Aristotelian insights on practical reason. Thus, by emphasising the overlap between normative sociology and phronetic social science, we are led to attach greater weight to what Oakeshott and Aristotle remind us about the nature of practical reason and to clearly articulate a set of interconnected challenges that would need to be met by social science programmes aiming at normative intervention.

Having made the structure of the argument clear, my first task is to explore the BSM’s reliance on Michael Oakeshott, sketching his conception of practical reason, before proceeding to explicate and contextualise Modood’s recent recommendations for normative sociology.

The Bristol School of Multiculturalism, so dubbed by Levey (2019), encapsulates the work conducted over the span of more than three decades by Tariq Modood, Bhikkhu Parekh, Nasar Meer, and Varun Uberoi, among others. The BSM’s identity within political theory is determined by its distancing itself from liberalism—without, however, being antistate—while seeking, apart from symbolic recognition, institutional accommodation for minority groups. Levey summarises the BSM in terms of its approach, principles, and vehicle for their implementation as follows: Its approach is bottom-up, starting from the demands made by actual (groups of) people for recognition and inclusion. In this it is affiliated with theorists such as Iris Marion Young and Charles Taylor. It is dialogical and dynamic, goes beyond “negative difference” to “positive difference,” and appreciates the inevitability of struggle. Among its principles, seen as inferred from the approach, are commitment to equality without seeking equal outcomes; inclusion of religious groups too; the according of centrality to dialogue, which can take place interculturally via reliance on “operative public values”; and emphasis on the significance of belonging. Finally, the vehicle for achieving the above is a malleable “thick” national identity. Levey concludes, in summary: “The BSM is distinctive in multicultural political thought. Fundamentally critical of liberal doctrine and highly assertive of cultural minorities’ identities and right to belong, it is also accepting of liberal operative public values and supportive of a remade national identity” (2019, 219–20; but see Kymlicka 2019 for an argument that downplays the distinctiveness of the BSM).

For present purposes, we are concerned with the fact that the BSM has an avowedly Oakeshottian identity (see Uberoi 2021 for the influence of Oakeshott on Parekh and Modood), which shapes its understanding and deployment of practical reason. Michael Oakeshott is known for explicitly rejecting the impulse to abandon political traditions in order to build new institutions on the basis of rational principles, recommending instead that politics be conceived as the pursuit of intimations. Oakeshott’s work provides an important resource for the BSM’s contextualism (Modood and Thompson 2018), which holds that “political theory should take its cue, not from abstract political principles, but from operative public values in the social contexts in question, which theorists should explore by pursuing intimations” (Lægaard 2021, 622). Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that Oakeshott’s conception is expounded as part of his account of political education and is therefore also tied to a view of how politics may be learned and studied and indeed what the academic inquiry into politics can achieve. As such, it also bears implications for normative political theoretical and sociological pursuit, which may not sit well with the BSM’s aims. Fleshing out some of the features in Oakeshott’s conception is necessary in order to examine what they imply for normative disciplinary study.

In the essay “Political Education,” included in Rationalism in Politics (1991), Oakeshott points out that “[t]he form [politics / political activity] takes, because it can take no other, is the amendment of existing arrangements by exploring and pursuing what is intimated in them” (1991, 56). What is in fact intimated in and by them is “a sympathy for what does not fully appear,” which is “something less imposing than logical implications or necessary consequences […] [but] not on that account less important” (57). For Oakeshott, “a tradition of behaviour is a flow of sympathy” (59). Commenting on how that tradition may be learned, he argues that its learning is something of a mystery because it is not governed by a “sovereign purpose […] model to be copied, idea to be realized, rule to be followed […] its principle is a principle of continuity” (61). Indeed, the object “to be learned is not an abstract idea, or a set of tricks, not even a ritual, but a concrete, coherent manner of living in all its intricacies” (62), and, further, what is learned needs to be put into practice. In other words, one has also to learn how to participate in what Oakeshott famously likes to think of as a conversation.

It is worth pausing here to record the fact, which will later prove useful, that many of Oakeshott’s insights on practical discourse are not particularly novel. Indeed, as Nardin (2022) perceptively notes, many thinkers have argued that political discourse “is a discourse of contingencies and conjectures […] is persuasive and rhetorical, not a matter of demonstration or proof”—in short, it stands on the side not of geometry but of rhetoric (see Jonsen and Toulmin 1988, 72). Yet Oakeshott’s contribution in excess of classical—for example, Aristotelian—treatments of the topic consists in a series of “reflections on how practical, and in particular political, discourse can cause disasters when these points are overlooked” (Nardin 2022).

The features Oakeshott has outlined above shape his understanding of how politics may be studied in the academy. There are various forms of inquiry deemed possible, among which he lists research into the history of politics, the study of “the politics of other contemporary societies” (1991, 64), and the philosophical study of politics, which involves the spelling out of the distinctive presuppositions that situate the mode of political activity in relation to the whole of our experience. However—and this is where Oakeshott is much less inclined to allow a free hand to normative political theory—he is eager to point out that it is unable to “increase our ability to be successful in political activity [… or] help us distinguish between good and bad political projects; it has no power to guide or to direct us in the enterprise of pursuing the intimations of our tradition” (65). Instead, what the theoretical study of politics can plausibly achieve is to help us use our concepts more economically; increase our understanding of political activities by weeding out analogies that are wrong or irrelevant; and, thus, allow us to deepen our grasp of our political tradition and to make use of the full extent of its resources (66).

How does the BSM handle Oakeshott’s conception, which begins with “intimations” and ends with the limits of the (theoretical) study of politics? Regarding the beginning, that Oakeshott is crucial for the BSM is clear, for example, when Modood argues that “every political context gives some indication or ‘intimation’ of what changes are possible, appropriate, necessary […] These are matters of judgement not of rational deductive solutions, […] they point to the importance of understanding the specificity of a context” (2020, 33–34). However, the concluding implications that Oakeshott draws regarding the limits of political theory are not equally endorsed by the BSM. This is because the BSM is committed to a form of normative intervention, which may not fully respect Oakeshott’s placing of the sources of normativity within a tradition. Consider that when Oakeshott’s arguments are understood to apply more generally to moral education, they imply that our skills in moral reasoning are not the result of decontextualized rational principles or theoretical skills but, instead, of thinking from within a moral tradition, which, moreover, need not and indeed does not reside in the academy. But this argument, even if reiterated by its members, cannot be wholeheartedly accepted by the BSM (cf. Lægaard 2021, 628): by envisaging a normative role for sociology and political theory, it is forced to reject the endpoint of Oakeshott’s reasoning, which sees as sufficient the resources afforded by the (internally diverse) moral tradition itself. This point is indirectly acknowledged in David Boucher’s work (1989, 1993), which considers R. G. Collingwood, who was keener on the importance of theory for practice, as a more appropriate predecessor.

Yet ought we reject Oakeshott’s placing of such limits on the academic study of politics? Is the BSM right to refuse to follow him all the way? Is Modood’s conception of a normative sociology eminently defensible? These questions demand to be thought through carefully, including in relation to the existing configuration of political and academic institutional arrangements. Additional light will be shed by considering the matter in relation to phronetic social science. Equivalently to the BSM’s invocation of Oakeshott, it adopts an Aristotelian point of view on practical reasoning and, like the BSM, it explicitly advocates normative intervention. First, however, the conception of normative sociology needs to be understood more fully together with Modood’s thinking of the BSM as a version thereof.

Although meant to provide an answer to perennial debates, the term “normative sociology” is newly minted and features in the first instance as part of Andrew Abbot’s (2018) call towards the explicit acknowledgement and elaboration of a normative subdiscipline within sociology. The call is followed by a contribution by Jensen Sass (2018), who articulates possible reservations and a proposal for a variation. Both articles were published in American Sociologist.3 “Normative sociology” in Abbott’s and Sass’s conception promotes forging a synergy between political theory and sociological work to improve their respective weaknesses. Philosophers and political theorists are typically well trained in logic and argument; sociologists not so much, the argument goes. The possible problem with sociological work is its “pseudonormativity,” a term which refers to when “normative commitments held consciously by sociologists, and sometimes expressed explicitly, [are only] weakly justified, and would cut no ice among normative theorists” (Sass 2018, 449). But sociologists are thought to be, as a rule, much more adept at empirical work. As a disciplinary project, then, normative sociology is an attempt to bring together critical social theory, which, although empirically engaged, is lacking in explicit normative justification, and political theory, which, although explicit about its grounding in norms, is perhaps lacking in empirics.

Modood (2022a, 2022b) echoes Abbott and Sass in calling for interdisciplinarity and seeing the BSM as being governed by an equivalent drive to marry political theory with sociological empirical sensitivity.4 But why does Modood advocate normative sociology?

Firstly, the phrase “normative sociology” itself is appealing because it wears its mission on its sleeve. According to Modood, seeing one’s work under that label amounts to being explicit about normative positions in a way that sociologists have perhaps shunned in the past, even though in practice their work has been shaped by normativity. The label is therefore convenient because it forces one to stop trying to pretend that one’s practice is purged of normative commitments. It is seen as futile: such commitments are inescapable. This is a point of broad agreement among Abbott, Sass, Modood, and many others; indeed, it seems to be a taken-for-granted assumption in contemporary social science (but see Tsilipakos 2022).

What kind of normative commitments are being invoked? In methodological reflection on his way of proceeding, Modood (2019, 2020) mentions at least two kinds of normativity, including, on the one hand, sensitivity to and engagement with reasons and justification and, on the other hand, positive or negative evaluation, which, for instance, may be implicit in terms such as “othering” or “racialisation.” It is perhaps not entirely clear whether we should think of those evaluations and, accordingly, of sociologists’ normative commitments as spanning the (overlapping) domains of the religious, ethnic, political, aesthetic, moral, etc. An obviously difficult question suggests itself: how wide is the range of these sociological normative commitments? And how unanimously can they be adopted, indeed, or do they imply the presence of opposed factions within sociology, as is the case in political philosophy?5

Leaving aside this thorny question for now and with it the issue of inescapability, it is clear that normative commitments, whatever they may be, ought to be openly declared rather than smuggled in, deliberately hidden away, or merely left in the shadows, from where they might exercise insidious effects. The issue for Modood, as for Abbott and Sass, is that even though many sociological schools (e.g., Foucauldian sociology, some versions of feminism, critical race theory) pride themselves on being critically committed, they fail to bring those commitments into the open and to subject them to scrutiny. There are, of course, exceptions. But Modood’s point is that whilst many schools may be highly Socratic in criticizing others, they are much less Socratic towards themselves. For Modood, to be self-critical regarding one’s normative position is necessary if that position is to be justified, and in the end justifiably held. This is where the potentially troublesome notion of theory enters. Justification requires the employment of some mode of political theoretical discourse in dialogical relation to other academics, policymakers, citizens, and minority groups.

Modood presents the BSM as embodying the above desirable features. According to his account, the BSM is not only explicit about its values and normative commitments, it is self-critical (also in the sense of being sensitive to disagreeing others) and, further, constructive as opposed to merely negative or deconstructive. In that spirit, the BSM seeks to examine arguments and their assumptions, to unearth them in opponents’ positions should they be implicit, but not to simply negate them. Instead, it tries to learn from opponents so that it can ground and improve on any existing normative arguments. Other features of the BSM that provide for its character as normative sociology are its bottom-up approach (starting from the claims of particular groups), coupled with the fact that its practitioners seek to engage fellow citizens (see Modood 2022a). In addition to that, the BSM acknowledges that, like liberalism, multiculturalism is also an example of a complex academic/political object that the BSM can have no exclusive definitional control over. The following recapitulation by Modood is instructive, because it emphasises the idea that norms are necessary if social and political problems are to be acknowledged and worked on by the BSM, and because it offers some further elaboration of the relationship between sociology and political theory:

Normative sociology is, then, driven by socio-political problems and thinks of problems and solutions as existing within a common intellectual framework.6 This framework must be normative, for to identify something as a problem, let alone to address it is to appeal to ideals. Going further, normative sociology uses sociological enquiry to engage with ideals and to justify itself normatively. It thus has an active interdisciplinary relationship with rather than a merely dependent relationship upon political theory. It is also a form of sociology that lends itself to – indeed prizes – public intellectual engagement. (Modood 2020, 35, emphasis added)

We will have reason to raise concerns regarding the conception informing the above quotation—for example, as regards discipline-based justification. For now it bears stressing that normative sociology is responsive to public concerns but also clearly interventionist. Intervention takes two forms: informing how a goal can best be achieved and showing whether a goal is desirable or what goal should be pursued. We could dub these forms instrumental and substantive. Doing so would allow a glimpse into their historical depth and with it the depth of the issues that are making a reappearance here. One can perceive in the background, for example, not only Weber’s zweckrationales Handeln and wertrationales Handeln but also Aristotelian reasoning about ends (for example, in book 1 of the Nichomachean Ethics). In such terms, we might say that Modood sees room in sociological and political theoretical work, in a way that Oakeshott does not (and neither did Weber 1949), for establishing the desirability of the telē (ends) of our activities.

Putting the point in this way allows us to connect the BSM as normative sociology to the Aristotle-inspired project of phronetic social science, which organises itself precisely around the idea of intervening in moral debate about the ends of our projects. Bent Flyvbjerg, the chief proponent of the phronetic perspective, articulates its distinctive aspects in terms of four questions—“1) where are we going? 2) who gains, who loses, by which mechanisms of power? 3) Is it desirable? 4) What should be done?”—questions which, as in the case of the BSM, are meant to focus on both instrumental and, especially, value-rational reasoning (2001, 162). There are further important points of convergence7 with the BSM that warrant using phronetic social science as an object of comparison: it too is dialogical, contextual, and orientated towards the public, and—not unimportantly, as we will see—it shares an allied orientation to practical reason in its understanding of skills as concrete abilities tied to cases.

After discussing Modood’s version of normative sociology, in this section I discuss phronetic social science with a view to how they can shed light on each other and to the common challenges they face. Phronetic social science is proposed on the basis of an extensive discussion by Flyvbjerg (2001) of the Aristotelian notion of phronesis—that is, practical wisdom or prudence. The concept is developed for contemporary use by being placed in relation to the notion of power, mostly after a Foucauldian conception. The programme sees itself as an umbrella under which a large number of affiliated studies can be pursued (2001, 162ff.). This pluralist spirit was one of the factors that enabled Flyvbjerg’s book Making Social Science Matter to become a “manifesto” for the so-called Perestroika Movement in political science (Schram 2012, 16).8 Most centrally, phronetic social science is an attempt to answer the question: if social science cannot be positivistic, what else can it be? It is this question that so many have been tempted to answer, effectively, with the epithet “normative.” As in the case of Modood and the BSM, this is Flyvbjerg’s answer too, although it is expressed in slightly different vocabulary, since the Aristotelian categories of episteme, techne, and phronesis are used to structure understanding of the alternatives.9

For Flyvbjerg, if social science cannot mimic the natural sciences because it could not possibly compete with them in providing universal knowledge (episteme) or technical know-how (techne), what remains, if it is to find its own peculiar strength, is to look where the natural sciences are weak—that is, in developing the skills that are necessary in deliberating about the good, about values and how we ought to live, in a word, in both employing and cultivating practical wisdom (phronesis). The phronetic programme aims “to help restore social science to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks, and possibilities we face as humans and societies, and at contributing to social and political praxis” (2001, 4). And so, phronetic social science is a transformed social science that is “done in public for the public” (2001, 166), predominantly concerned with enhancing deliberation on what is desirable (2001, 129,167) by increasing our ability “to think and act in value-rational terms” (2001, 130).

Flyvbjerg is adamant that this is social science’s best shot. He emphasises that the project of a social/political theory cannot be pursued as a form of episteme. The following quotation is indicative of that belief and of the materials that are marshalled in his book:

Social scientists do not have a theory (rules and laws) for how the people they study determine what counts as an action, because the determination derives from situationally defined (context-dependent) skills, which the objects of study are proficient and experts in exercising, and because theory – by definition – presupposes context-independence.10 (2001, 42) 

Flyvbjerg offers four arguments about the nature of the social sciences, in ascending order of adequacy: the pre-paradigmatic (Rorty), the hermeneutic-phenomenological (Giddens), that of historical contingency (Foucault), and the “tacit skills” argument (Dreyfus and Bourdieu), which is the final and strongest. It is grounded in the understanding that skills can grow beyond a certain level only when actors move away from decontextualized rule formulations and instead build a repertoire of concrete cases that allow them to operate intuitively in judging new situations by attending to their contextual detail. This is already clear indication that phronetic social science and normative sociology are operating under particularly close conceptions of practical reason.

In more detail, the “tacit skills” argument offered by Flyvbjerg is largely based on Herbert and Stuart Dreyfus’s (1996) account of levels of ability in the acquisition of skills. Importantly, this includes an account of moral expertise, which is no different from the general understanding of how skills are developed in activities such as chess, surgery, management, and many others.11 According to this model, “virtuosos simply do not use rules. They recognize thousands of cases directly, holistically, and intuitively on the basis of their experience” (2001, 20). This premise allows, for example, for a defence of the use of cases in social science that goes against the typical complaints from the point of view of generalisation. But most centrally, it supports12 resort to the notion of phronesis as a virtue crucial to moral deliberation.

Flyvbjerg’s conception is characteristically antirationalist, and it is no accident that there is a detailed critique of a universalist conception of rationality after Habermas (2001, chap.7). Although Oakeshott is not mentioned, we are nevertheless clearly presented with what are, more or less, Oakeshott’s insights on practical reason that Modood invoked: expert practices are a-rational (2001, 22–23), and formulated rules cannot account for the activity they abridge (2001, 85). Much as in the BSM, contextualism is championed (e.g., 2001, 130), coupled with the importance of sensitivity to cases. We are thus able to substantiate the claim that as regards practical reason, there is a common basis between the BSM and phronetic social science. And it will also become apparent that the disciplinary aims of both forms of normative social science stumble on practical reason.

The problem is this: if not only practical-technical but also moral expertise comes indeed in the form of phronesis, how closely and exclusively are the social sciences connected to it? Now, Flyvbjerg concedes that phronetic social science cannot lay a special claim to or pretend to possess perfect moral knowledge, provide superior understanding or direction with regard to the value-rational questions that it sets itself.

[N]o one is experienced enough and wise enough to give complete answers to the four questions, whatever such answers would be. Experience and wisdom of that kind should not be expected from social scientists, who are, on average, no more astute or ethical than anybody else […] [A]ttempts to develop their partial answers […] input to the ongoing social dialogue. (2001, 61) 

This constitutes clear admission that, in the domain we are concerned with, the abilities and views of social scientists are not able to trump those of others.13 But as such an admission, it troubles the initial statement that “in their role as phronesis, the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest” (2001, 61) because if social scientists cannot claim to be more astute or ethical than anybody else (natural scientists included), then these skills are not strongly connected with disciplinary training and thus cannot constitute the particular strength of the social sciences (which is not to deny that they are not the strength of the natural sciences either). Again, here we are necessarily concerned with social science (or its constituent disciplines) rather than with what individually gifted social scientists can do. As a discipline, it must be able not only to demand phronesis of its individual members but also to help produce it in them.14 Now, again like the BSM, Flyvbjerg stresses the importance of dialogue and polyphony (2001, 139) which he understands as necessitating “no one voice, including that of the researcher, claiming final authority.” This point adds a moral demand to the prior observation about a lack of any special ability on behalf of the social scientist—namely, the demand of equality in dialogue, which might itself preclude appeal to any enhanced ability even if that ability were defensibly claimed.

It is evident from the above that phronetic social science has utilised Aristotle (among other thinkers) with a view to what it can make out of his thought. Scholarly considerations15 of fidelity to Aristotle have not been at the forefront of its concerns. As a result, a selective employment of tools and arguments has been possible, as well as the concomitant discarding or at least minimisation of what may not be serviceable. Indeed, not all of Aristotle may be compatible with phronetic social science—for instance, his emphasis in the Nichomachean Ethics on the theoretikos bios (life of contemplation) as the route to eudaimonia (flourishing). And, naturally, his systematic thought and metaphysics might raise various other issues. Whether the potentially troublesome features can be separated from the notion of phronesis I will not address. But I do want to focus on the notion of phronesis itself, which carries some important lessons for our understanding of practical reason. The point is not that a genuinely Aristotelian (phronetic) normative social science would have to take into account such features and deal with every possible incompatibility; after all, this might itself be an incoherent conception. Rather, my aim is to show that there are things that Aristotle got right and that any discipline that sees itself as normatively interventionist would have to come to terms with. In the following section, then, I offer a reminder of Aristotle’s insights on practical reason in order to bring out the lessons for phronetic social science and normative sociology.

It is instructive to begin with Flyvbjerg’s declaration that “Phronesis is […] deliberation about values with reference to praxis” (2001, 57) and to consider whose praxis we can have in mind and what the connection to phronesis can be. The praxis in question here is my praxis, what I am to do as an actor, including what the political community to which I belong is to do. If my phronesis could be connected to the praxis of someone else, then my deliberative work could, after having been carried out, be made use of by someone else who need not possess the virtue of phronesis. But this makes no sense. For Aristotle, it would render practical reason akin to medical expertise and moral aims akin to health, which is achievable without needing oneself to be a doctor; to consult a doctor is enough. But moral action is not conceivable without phronesis. And acting on the deliberations of someone else does not engage my own phronesis; neither does it allow full ownership of what I am doing (a crucial point in relation to the question of impact for normative social science). This point stresses the personal dimension and is tantamount to saying that our phronesis and our actions are internally related. It is noteworthy that Aristotle explicitly eschews thinking of the relation as external—that is, thinking of phronesis as a means to something else, even if that something else is to be thought of as “becoming good.” He reasons as follows:

Practical wisdom is the quality of mind concerned with things just and noble and good for man […] But if we are to say that it is useful not for the sake of this but for the sake of becoming good, practical wisdom will be of no use to those who are good; but again it is of no use to those who are not […] (1143b18–1143b35)

The fact that practical wisdom is not a means to anything else is also reflected in the observation that it enters not into poiein (making) but into prattein (acting); it is a virtue concerned with praxis, not poiesis. Indeed, for Aristotle poiesis is aimed at a goal that is external to itself, the achievement or production of which would constitute a reason to end whatever activity had brought it about. Praxis, on the other hand, has its end within itself, which is nothing but eupraxia (acting well). Aristotle explains that

practical wisdom cannot be knowledge nor art; not knowledge16 because that which can be done is capable of being otherwise, not art because action and making are different kinds of thing […] For while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action itself is its end. (1140a24–1140b19)

Now, the very conception of normative sociology and phronetic social science is of disciplines that matter, or in other words are capable of intervening so as to have impact in the world at large. This disciplinary aim is emphasised by both Modood and Flyvbjerg. But, in effect, it demands a rather restricted notion of phronesis. There must also be a way of being phronetic about the activities and actions that are most peculiar to social scientists and such a thing as acting well within the academic domain. Seeing acting well not as its own criterion, but as consisting in informing or influencing the public or those who are in a position of power, is a distortion of the concept. Moreover, even if we do not draw a sharp line between the academy and the world of public concern (and thus see academics as part of the citizenry), an interventionist conception of social science tends to render its practice not a distinctive form of action but a distinctive form of making (even if within a general form of praxis that all citizens participate in), and hence, according to Aristotle’s thinking, as a form of techne.

Under this conception, then, interventionist social science is really not a form of autonomous praxis but a form of heteronomous poiesis, in the sense that it sees the goal and the criteria of evaluation outside of itself, in the delivered product or impact achieved. But if the goal is the impact it can make in a playing field that, in fair assessment, is largely governed by rules and relevancies that are different from those in academic life, the goal can also be fulfilled independently of the criteria that have to do with academic eupraxia. It can depend on such things as “effective communication” (Flyvbjerg 2001, 166) of social science results, which might consist of various forms of propaganda or even coercion. And its impact can, in the end, be due to a number of contingent features, some of which might be rhetorical or argumentative, others status-related, still others performative, etc. In sum, the uptake of any recommendations offered (2001, 165) and overall public influence of social science do not constitute an adequate criterion of its phronetic character. If taken as such, or as a goal of phronesis, it distorts the latter into technical skill.

Although undesirable, this implication and the contradiction it gives rise to are evidence of an underlying difficulty deriving from the ubiquitous design of higher education as technical training. But for it to make sense to want to get away from this conception, one needs to answer the following questions first: How does training in and practicing social science develop the skills that are claimed as the strengths of phronetic or normative social science? Is the university a necessary site for the development of phronesis? Is it a particularly powerful one? (cf. Schön 1983). Flyvbjerg, for example, has rejected technical skills as what university training in social science can claim for itself and, further, sees the university as secondary to placements, internships, and summer jobs (2001, 72) when it comes to administration and management (both forms of techne), and he also raises a question about whether specialised graduate training is even necessary there (167). But when it comes to practical wisdom, an account is still needed of the kinds of things that are necessary to its development.

Aristotle was anything but silent on this issue: “we ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom not less than to demonstrations; for because experience has given them an eye they see aright” (1143b6–1143b14). This passage carries implications regarding how one becomes phronimos (prudent or practically wise), how this form of wisdom grows. It does not seem to happen through formal technical education. There is instead an important role for a moral education of a kind that cultivates certain inclinations, which are adopted as part of one’s character. Certain hexeis (dispositions) are in fact necessary. Nevertheless, because practical wisdom develops further through experience and age:

while young men [sic] become geometricians and mathematicians and wise in matters like these, it is thought that a young man of practical wisdom cannot be found. The cause is that such wisdom is concerned not only with universals but with particulars, which become familiar from experience, but a young man has no experience. (1142a12–1142a21)

We are thus led back to the conflict between, on the one hand, the frustrated conception of the social sciences as technical training in episteme and, on the other, the inadequate conception of academic life as a special site for phronesis. This is exactly the conception that is also being adhered to in normative sociology, even though Modood does not use the term phronesis. Now, it is evident that social science students who have typically finished with their education by their early twenties have not become phronimoi on account of their training. That may or may not come with age. It is not a given for even senior social scientists. Besides age and experience, personal character and disposition, phronesis depends on a kind of moral education that has little connection with the texture of present-day academic practice and that, if it were indeed to be carried within universities, would completely change how people are trained in and practice social science: different selection and cohort-forming criteria, curricula, forms of assessment, types of research, and modes of writing would need to be put in place, to name only a few of the modifications that would be necessary. Indeed, radically different institutions would be needed if the cultivation of phronesis were to be seriously aimed at.

What Aristotle has brought to our attention, then, is a truth which we could express as follows: there are no moral whiz kids, and no such thing as moral expertise, but rather the possibility of a deepened moral understanding (Gaita 2004, 103, 265, 287). We may dub this moral or practical wisdom. By saying this, we realise that a serious conception of what moral reasoning is like is highly important in understanding the aspirations of phronetic social science and normative sociology and in being able to evaluate these aspirations (and even the need for such programmes) by examining the relation that they can have to our practical abilities. Indeed, what does reasoning authoritatively about normative questions look like? What does it mean to “tell an honest story” (Flyvbjerg 2001, 137)? I wish to argue that it is important that Flyvbjerg speaks in the first person when he is talking about his career, his research interest in the particular city planning project in Aalborg and its significance. And Modood does the same.

To regroup, the path we have taken in this section via Aristotle’s account of phronesis has returned us to the limits Oakeshott has placed on the academic study of politics and with that to the BSM’s normative sociology. This is to be expected since Oakeshott elaborates on many insights that are indeed Aristotelian. But both Oakeshott and Aristotle to a large extent remind us of what we already know, what we otherwise understand and multiply acknowledge, but whose implications may not always be visible or sufficiently drawn out to hold our thinking in check. Flyvbjerg’s heroes seem to be Bourdieu and Foucault, because of their status as public intellectuals. And public intellectual work is of paramount importance for Modood and the BSM too. Such work is indeed integral to the functioning of a democratic society. And we may concede that public intellectuals can also be described as phronimoi, and that Bourdieu and Foucault may have been phronimoi or, alternatively put, moral authorities in certain respects. But it is a mistake to reason from the qualities of these figures to the features that can characterise social science as a discipline and thus to the qualities of phronetic social science or normative sociology. Bourdieu and Foucault, and Modood, are exceptions who cannot straightforwardly attribute their abilities or success to standardised disciplinary training. With this observation, the question arises again about the way the social sciences are thought to cultivate skills in moral reasoning and about how those skills are presupposed by normative projects. The lessons we have learned from our excursus into phronesis will serve us well in articulating a set of alternative positions and illustrating their force by examining how they pose challenges to normative social science.

We have seen that Modood has offered normative sociology as, at least in part, an exercise in self-criticism, a means of rendering explicit and justifying the bases of our normative commitments. Self-criticism is indeed an important value. But its application need not stop there; it could also include a vigilant sensitivity to the problems arising from the very conception of normative social science. In this final section, I would like to set out what I consider to be key challenges to the phronetic and normative sociology programmes. I will present these challenges in the form of statements that set out alternative positions that would need to be taken seriously into account if normative social science programmes are to fulfil their aspirations:

I. The public intellectual achievements of social scientists have strongest implications for what social science disciplines can achieve if they derive from or constitute a standardised disciplinary basis.

Individual abilities and disciplinarily guaranteed skills are different things. We have encountered, for example, the broadly agreed-upon position that sociology cannot but engage with political values. Sociologists might individually need to indeed, but that is not the same as saying that sociology needs to or can engage with political values in a unanimous disciplinary way (Tsilipakos 2022).

Now, it is evident that not all work follows a preset disciplinary framework. Some work is sui generis and innovative and resists classification. For instance, Modood himself characterises his work as “hybridic.” Yet, as emphasised, to see the BSM as a form of normative sociology is to see it as, at least in part, constitutive of and accountable under common disciplinary standards. If “normative sociology” is to be taken as a mildly disciplinary programme and regardless of whether Modood’s work, for example, can be seen to contribute to it in “a pure form” (2020, 34), making a contribution to it is bound by criteria of suitability for standardisation.

An important consideration here in evaluating Modood’s proposals is that a retrospective methodological account is being offered. In his methodological elaborations, Modood (2019, 2022a) is looking back and rendering consistent, compacting, tying up loose ends. Such elaborations constitute part of an honest and thoughtful reflection on his way of proceeding, offered after the fact and in partial justification of a way of inquiring which was not constructed or undertaken explicitly after a pattern. This, of course, is consistent with any work that might be described as trailblazing. If there were an existent pattern to be followed, then that description would not be warranted. Nevertheless, the need remains for standardisation and coherence in relation to any programmatic formulation, which would need to constitute a reproducible disciplinary blueprint for the inquiry of others.17

Some of the reasoning employed by Modood in order to recommend the BSM as normative sociology pivots on the fact that it has achieved a significant measure of influence or impact. Success in normative intervention, as we have seen, may be accounted for in various ways, not all of which may be sourced from or can be fed back into a disciplinary normative sociological framework. One needs to ask: What are the grounds and the tools for achieving impact? Are they teachable, shareable, technical, disciplinary—and to what extent? Are they related to contingent historical conditions or, for instance, social and biographical features of the BSM’s members?

II. A discipline develops its basis in the form of internal criteria. Appeal to external criteria may dissolve that basis.

The issue of impact may be contrasted to the justification demanded at the disciplinary level. As a matter of principle, in Modood’s (admittedly only brief recent) texts (2022a, 2022b), we seem to be given, apart from the successful record of the BSM, only an indication that more and more academics are doing it because university authorities and funding bodies demand it. But this does nothing to establish how it constitutes a disciplinary achievement.

The same issues arise concerning advocacy in social science, which introduces external criteria of success which, as an understanding of the difference between poiesis and praxis shows, may in turn bypass internal disciplinary criteria.

Finally, it is worth remembering that “real-world problems” or questions that come from the public realm are not the same as social scientific problems, nor are they necessarily amenable to social scientific solutions. Not having a clear sense of the difference can be a problem, as Weber warned us long ago (1949). This, of course, is a matter of how one conceives social science disciplines (e.g., sociology), and there are alternatives to be considered, also regarding how one thinks of which questions are of sociological rather than social importance—which leads to the following issue.

III. The question of the appropriateness of a disciplinary normative agenda should not be begged, but needs to be explicitly addressed.

Ought a normative agenda be pursued at the disciplinary level? Is it possible to justify it in the way imagined? Affirmative answers to these questions are taken for granted by speaking of “phronetic social science” and “normative sociology” (but cf. Modood 2019, 225). Modood (2022a) is addressing sociologies that already have an emancipatory, critical agenda but are not explicit about its justification.18 His point (2020, 44) is that without being explicit, it is not possible to distinguish, for example, reasonable criticism of Muslims from Islamophobia. But whether it is possible for sociology on a disciplinary basis to say in particular cases that something is fair criticism or a case of Islamophobia is not a question that is being raised or considered.

IV. Empirical social science may depend on theory, but the latter cannot be conceived as particularly good at providing justifications of normative positions.

As we have seen, Abbott and Sass place political theory in the position of justifying the normative presuppositions of sociology.19 Modood in earlier work sees this relation as more dialectical than foundationalist. But the idea of outing one’s normative commitments and justifying them by virtue of appeal to political theory remains.

The assumption here seems to be that political theory is particularly good at justifying norms. This is why, in Abbott’s version, normative sociology factors in possible retraining for sociologists that might take place in a new sociological curriculum. It is also why in Modood’s version, normative sociology straddles political theory and sociology. Now, the fact that political theorists and philosophers are usually trained in logic and analysis of argument is true, but it is a red herring. If, by citing their training, it is meant that they have familiarity with arguments and the ability to construct and evaluate them in relation to particular formal criteria, then that is indeed the case. But if by that is meant that somehow their argument carries added moral weight when compared to anyone else’s, then that is a different matter. One need only remind oneself that political theory is far from redeemed from the danger of superficiality in argument and that it cannot authoritatively settle moral matters either, as shown in the profound disagreements between political philosophers.

V. Social science theories are demonstrative. A rhetorical conception of moral reasoning is closely tied to the personal dimension.

To see moral reasoning as a disciplinary matter (e.g., for sociology, political theory, or any combination thereof) is to see it as mostly demonstrative or geometrical, and vice versa. A rhetorical understanding, by contrast, although disciplinarily shaped or augmented, is much more contextual, factual, and individual. By the mere fact of being invoked, political theory stands as a body of justification that is available to political theorists and by extension, it is proposed, to sociologists or anyone else who may master it. The arguments and justificatory possibilities of that body of work are seen as largely independent from the arguer or the audience. The notion of theory implies that if an argument justifies my stance towards a particular audience, then the same argument should justify anyone’s stance in front of any audience. This is the picture that normative sociology’s invocation of political theory is operating with. But this is not the picture that is put in place by Aristotle’s insights on phronesis, or by the sober assessment of our practices of moral reasoning. An argument parroted by a toddler or uttered by someone whose character is not formed by the right hexeis or who is conceited, deceitful, or otherwise deficient does not carry justificatory weight.

The idea that normative social science may produce justifications could be deflated into the idea that some normative sociologists, political theorists, or phronetic social scientists might produce them. But in virtue of what might those justifications stick? Not in large part by virtue of a common stock of technique, but certainly by virtue of individual character and rectitude.

It is important to highlight once again the personal dimension. In Modood’s own writings, there is reference not only to his social location (Modood 2019, 227) and possible group membership (cf. Levey 2019, 213) but also to personal biography, as the ground from which normative commitments have sprung. The demands made on Modood by the way the Satanic Verses affair was received, how he was shaped by his father’s decision not to exempt him from Christian worship at secondary school (2019, 157), or how he may have been bullied or made the object of racism (22) are all very important. These are not resources that derive from political theory, but they are the kind of things that we can understand as possibly leading to the virtue of phronesis and as having a crucial role in rendering his voice and argument compelling. Consider also, in this regard, the use Modood makes of the personal interview format (Modood 2019, 2022b). If these are the elements that carry moral force, and are co-constitutive of Modood speaking in a wise voice, as he so often does, then one has to seriously consider how these elements may be cultivated and exercised.

VI. A normative social science that actually cultivated phronesis would be hardly recognizable.

As intimated at various points in the argument, the conception of normative social science needs to be evaluated with reference to criteria that determine what social science disciplines can become (Abbott, for instance, offers such criteria for sociology).20 This is necessary if cultivating phronesis can have anything to do with what we understand a research programme or a curriculum in sociology, philosophy, or political science to be. There is no denying that a discipline that would foster practical wisdom would look very different in terms of all of its activities (cf. Shdaimah and Stahl 2006, 112).

A historical example can be offered that draws on the fact that phronesis has had as complex a history as Aristotelianism. Within that development, it has blended with Roman and Christian notions, such as equity or discernment, discretion, temperance, or even mercy. And it has found expression in religious training too. For example, an education aimed at the teaching of practical wisdom was that of the Jesuits, as described by Jonsen and Toulmin in their account of the history of casuistry (1988). Naturally, this programme was connected to pastoral and confessional duties. But it clearly separated scholars and academicians from those destined for the pastoral ministry, who studied so-called “cases of conscience” (Jonsen and Toulmin 1988, 149). I am not, of course, recommending returning to that curriculum either in its details or in its general outline. But what the example shows is that within the institution of the church, the programme of humanities and rhetoric is well matched to its phronetic goal in a way that forms of disciplinary training in the social sciences are not. It might be that for this to happen, disciplinary training needs to become more church-like, or other avenues could be explored. It is clear, nevertheless, that the required changes are of such a kind as to possibly alter the character of social sciences beyond recognition.

VII. We might not actually want a normative social science that would be given an official say in public matters.

Historically, as Jonsen and Toulmin also report (1988, chap.2), there have been cases, such as in ancient Greece, where moral authority has been distributed on an egalitarian basis. But there have also been cases where institutional bodies, such as a Roman College of Pontiffs, or in Judaism a group forming an assembly or schul, have held powers of authority and arbitration in moral matters. In contemporary Western societies, it is not unheard of that sociologists, political scientists, or philosophers be given specific extra-academic institutional positions to occupy in bodies concerned with public matters. Indeed, to take the example of the BSM, its members have participated in the Commission for Racial Equality, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (Levey 2019, 202), the National Equality Panel, and the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (Modood 2019, 249). Unlike the appointment of the wise to a special committee with special moral powers, the participation of social scientists in committees that feed into policymaking, or their general engagement with civil society actors, is not based in the first instance on an exalted phronetic ability but on some measure of status and disciplinary ability. Apart from the concerning lack of connection between the latter and phronesis, a social science that would be granted powers of moral arbitration and would be able to bestow them on its members too would be part of a society very different from our own and would, naturally, raise various concerns about the moral inegalitarianism promoted.

VIII. Normative social science needs to be connected to shared moral activity and possess a realistic account of what other resources and compelling practices are available.

I have argued that Michael Oakeshott worked from a conception of political activity towards a conception of what its study can achieve, which the BSM has overstepped—and that although similar considerations of skills in practical discourse were offered by Flyvbjerg, they were not consistently followed up in shaping a coherent conception of phronetic social science. As Modood noted, to enter the realm of political discourse and moral reasoning about public issues requires a shared intellectual horizon and, we might say with Walzer (1987), a shared morality too. And although different materials may be invoked, the criteria governing their use are public and shared. This implies that public intellectual work is different from and largely incompatible with normative social science, especially if a measure of relinquishing (the need to appeal to) disciplinary training is required for one to participate in the public sphere as an equal citizen. Normative social science programmes can make sense only if they take these facts about our practical abilities seriously and pay heed to how the latter are ubiquitously employed in various forms: commentating, editorials, political speeches, biographies, novels, and public protests. Normative social science would need to be positioned more comprehensively in relation to the other practical resources available, as well as the practical constraints that make up the texture of political reason.

Finally, the normativity aimed at must be understood not as categorical but as under the aegis of conditionality, as advocated by Weber, who argued with Rickert against valuations or judgements on the desirability of (ultimate) ends. Normative social science can be explicit about its commitments, and it can seek to justify them. But such justification is not theoretical and , besides, must always be premised on the condition that those commitments are shared or are seen to matter by those it seeks to address. Justification by political philosophy cannot bypass that requirement. In other words, normative social science must be conceived as, to coin an ugly phrase, “hypothetico-imperative.”

In this article, I have sought to deepen our understanding of social science programmes that aim at normative intervention in public life. I have examined Modood’s version of normative sociology together with Flyvbjerg’s phronetic social science, a comparison motivated by their commonalities, most importantly their allied expressed understandings of practical reason. I have tried to show that, by taking those expressed commitments seriously and highlighting Oakeshott’s and Aristotle’s insights, the resulting appreciation of the character of practical reason leads us to pose important challenges to the disciplinary aims of these programmes. If indeed normative social science is to fulfil its aims by relying on disciplinary resources rather than individual features of social scientists, then it is not clear that it can deliver on those virtuous skills that have been identified by Aristotle as phronesis, practical wisdom or prudence, and that have also appeared under the guises of equity, discernment, or the possession of political judgement (Berlin 1996).

The fact that the social sciences might not be good at episteme, as many social scientists have come to accept after the demise of positivism, does not by itself vindicate the point of phronetic social science that they must therefore be good at phronesis, even if Aristotelian categories were in fact exhausting the available options. The social sciences certainly cannot claim privileged access to matters which are also (mainly) accessible via other avenues (art and literature, film, journalism and commentary, and public debate, among many others) and which may not be suitable to be directly aimed at or cultivated by a disciplinary activity within current academic institutions (cf. Schatzki 2006).

Normative sociology travels a similar route. From the idea that value commitments of social scientists should not be left to operate unacknowledged and unjustified, it concludes that sociology or political theory may categorically and demonstratively justify value commitments as their primary business. As intimated in the course of this article, one schematic way of understanding the options in justification is to distinguish between geometry and rhetoric. Aristotle and Oakeshott may indeed be seen to emphasise the rhetorical conception of justification. But social science programmes that are premised on disciplinary abilities require something closer to demonstration. Thus, phronetic social science and normative sociology are constructions that, by fusing rhetoric with a geometrical disciplinary understanding, produce a measure of incoherence or at least tension calling for thoughtful resolution. To set coherent aims, normative social science programmes would need to squarely face the challenges that have been identified in this article.

Social science must strike a balance between, on the one hand, autonomously setting itself a disciplinary agenda and cultivating unique disciplinary skills and, on the other, retaining the sensitivity to our shared public life in a way that can ensure moral and intellectual relevance to society. This, of course, is easier said than done, and, indeed, in conceiving and executing this task, something like phronesis is very much called for.

I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on an earlier draft.


Naturally, there are other broadly allied programmes which I will not be considering (see, e.g., Chernilo and Raza 2022), including “Social Science as Public Philosophy” (SSPP), a revival of which has been advocated by Watts (2022). Careful scrutiny of the details of SSPP would not be possible within the confines of the present article, even though one might reasonably expect that some of the arguments forwarded here would apply to SSPP too.


For present purposes, I will treat his work as representative of the BSM but cannot address the complex question of to what extent other members of the BSM share his views. It is natural to suppose that to some extent, they will not.


For our purposes, the differences between them may be considered minor: Sass focuses on testing or establishing the “empirical assumptions” made by political theory—for example, Rawls’s—whereas Abbott entertains the creation of a subdiscipline of sociology that may draw from either political theory or legal reasoning. Abbott’s thought is sensitive to the perennial nature of the debates he is addressing. He is careful not to occupy any of the positions that have been hardened with time, appreciating that their supporters talk past each other and that the point is not to dig one’s heels in but instead to move the conversation forward. He is also sensitive to the difficulties involved in calls to reorientate disciplinary practices, the costs that they might imply, and how the proposed reorientation might work together with other contemporary demands that are made on the discipline. Yet, in my view, Abbott makes a number of highly problematic assumptions about the range of available options and the relation of moral argument to disciplinary resources. Sass is more circumspect about the creation of a new disciplinary branch, a process that would be both “institutionally demanding” and “professionally risky,” besides prone to portray sociologists as “novice philosophers” (2018, 454). Instead, he proposes that sociologists draw on their “expertise” and thus pursue a strategy of “joint ventures” with political theory.


The gap between political theory and sociology is a possible issue within the BSM, in the sense that Modood’s work, for example, might be owned more by political theorists than by sociologists. Despite careful reference to the relevant national or other contexts and/or the deliberate absence of grand theory, many sociologists might still not be able to relate to it. What they might need to see are recognizable sociological ways of working—e.g., invoking specific traditions or genres of writing. Finally, some of the moves that are offered as sociological might also be easily subsumed under the political theoretical position of contextualism.


I would like to thank an anonymous referee for this point.


This common framework could indeed be understood via Oakeshott’s idea of political philosophy as helping us make use of the full extent of our political tradition’s resources, rather than removing ourselves from it. Yet Oakeshott would also emphasise the difference between the conduct of politics and the academic study of such conduct.


There are, of course, also points of divergence between the BSM and phronetic social science, which are not unrelated το how value-rational reasoning is taken up. Phronetic social science seems not to insist as much on theoretical justification, but rather on the practical impact of an intervention, and to that extent seems to be more consequentialist (which, however, clashes with its avowed Aristotelian origins). Moreover, it expresses a (somewhat self-contradictory) regard for the nonexpert view that is perhaps partly precluded by the BSM’s attachment to normative theory. Nevertheless, phronetic social science and normative sociology share significant common ground. Note that Watts (2022) discusses Abbott’s normative sociology together with Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, a book that Flyvbjerg sees as a key source for phronetic social science.


This is, in the first instance, exemplified in Making Social Science Matter with reference to past studies that can be seen as phronetic avant la lettre and Flyvbjerg’s own research dealing with how a process of planning for Aalborg city centre was carried out in such a way that the overlap of interests and/or rationality among police, press, and Chamber of Industry and Commerce trumped the rationality exhibited by the planners that would have been more sensitive to environmental, traffic, and accident rate concerns.


According to Flyvbjerg (2006, 68–70), “Phronesis concerns values and goes beyond analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know-how (techne), and it involves judgments and decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social actor. Phronesis is so commonly involved in political and administrative practices that any attempts to reduce political science to episteme or techne or to comprehend them in those terms are misguided […] The person who possesses practical wisdom (phronimos) has knowledge of how to manage in each particular circumstance that cannot be equated with or reduced to knowledge of general truths about managing. Phronesis is a sense or a tacit skill for doing the ethically practical, rather than a kind of science.”


Thus, if, as Flyvbjerg contends, researcher skills are also unformalizable, this is in no small part because these skills are in many ways participant skills.


The authors (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1996, 118) acknowledge that their argument depends on accepting the analogy between moral and other forms of expertise. Moreover, against the picture that emerges from Habermas’s appropriation of Lawrence Kohlberg’s account of moral development after Piaget, Dreyfus and Dreyfus argue that moral expertise in Kohlberg’s studies looks like the ethics of care and involvement at least as much as it looks like the ethics of principles. They conclude in particularly Oakeshottian fashion that “if, like Habermas, one thinks of morality exclusively in terms of judgments which are generated by principles, the ability to stand back from personal involvement in the situation so as to insure reciprocity and universality becomes a sign of maturity. But if being good means being able to learn from experience and use what one has learned so as to respond more appropriately to the demands of others in the concrete situation, the highest form of ethical comportment consists in being able to stay involved and to refine one’s intuitions” (129–30).


How strong is that support? Flyvbjerg concedes the possibility of criticising the model advocated by the Dreyfuses but argues that his claims depend “only on a single property of the model […] convincingly established in its original form; namely the qualitative jump from the model’s first three stages to the last two stages, that is, from rule-based, context-independent to experience-based, situational behaviour” (2001, 22).


And there is another layer of complexity having to do with the nature of deliberating around what are the questions to be deliberated about. Social scientists do not seem to be in a position of privileged ability there either: “we cannot find ultimate answers to these questions or even a single version of what the questions are” (Flyvbjerg 2001, 140).


Frank, who highlights the maturity of Nikolay Rostov in War and Peace as consisting in rejecting agricultural theories and learning from peasants, points out: “For social science phronesis has to be more than a topic; it is what social scientific study requires from researchers […] what social science seeks to enhance in those whom I will call readers” (2012, 48, emphasis added). This is in many ways a tall order.


Flyvbjerg draws on thinkers who may be particularly well studied and original by perhaps turning them somewhat bland and unspecific. For example, he speaks of “Wittgensteinian narratology” (2001, 85, 145) and considers careful archival work as Nietzschean or Foucauldian (146). Moreover, he mistakes Garfinkel’s points on the lack of stability of meanings for Foucauldian observations on the instability of subject/object configuration and fails to consider the arguments that, for Garfinkel, go together with the presence of the so-called “double hermeneutic” (2001, 33). The standards for dubbing a thinker or an existing piece of research an instance of “phronetic social science” are relatively lax. The methodological guidelines that are offered for future studies are not stricter either.


Although belonging to the rational part of the soul (specifically, its logistikon or calculative component), phronesis, unlike episteme, does not concern demonstration, things that are invariable, necessary relations or universals: “That practical wisdom is not knowledge is evident; for it is, as has been said, concerned with the ultimate particular fact, since the thing to be done is of this nature. It is opposed, then, to comprehension [nous]; for comprehension is of the definitions, for which no reason can be given, while practical wisdom is concerned with the ultimate particular, which is the object not of knowledge but of perception—not the perception of qualities peculiar to one sense but a perception akin to that by which we perceive that the particular figure before us is a triangle; for in that direction too there will be a limit” (1142a23–1142a30).


Specifically regarding the methodological reflection in Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism, we might ask: How does it relate to the rest of the book? And how does Modood’s explicit self-conception actually relate to what he is doing? Regarding the first question, we might note that this kind of methodological consideration does not reappear as part of any of the chapters where specific topics are pursued without being seen as depending on these questions and, rightly, without any kind of apology. Regarding the second question, I think that Modood is right to emphasise that his concept formation is closer to that in a contextualist political theory. And although one may justify his appeal to Weber in terms of its value in giving sociologists something they can understand while also accounting for turning the history of state features and policies on religion or immigration into (ideal) types—e.g., “British multiculturalism” or “French state policy”—it is important to note that this use of ideal types is not directly coupled to an explanatory aim and thus moves away from Weber, as Modood notes. Moreover, the fact that the selection of certain elements in order to constitute the type is guided by a normative stance/advocacy raises the question of the relationship between cases cited and the type. Has a requisite range of empirical observations gone into the formation of the type, or is the selection a case of finding illustrative instances or those most likely to forcefully highlight the points made? Could the story have been told differently with further or different data, and how?


Modood rightly observes that “[most] sociology has a normative character. This is especially evident in sociology centred on class, say for instance on the social and human cost of market-generated inequalities, or of migration policies. It is highly conspicuous of the sociology inspired by the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, for example around gender and sexuality” (2020, 34).


Modood exhibits some ambivalence on his commitment to political theory. One might wonder whether there is a difference between, on the one hand, a contextualist theoretical approach (Modood and Thompson 2018) sensitive to national contexts, multiple kinds of group-forming identities, and multiplex ways of privileging activities by the state and, on the other hand, a nontheoretical approach? Might not a set of general “concepts” that are specified in context be really a set of general forms of words that mean something different and thus amount to no general theory? Might not the notion of “theory” be a misnomer? If one of Modood’s aims is to get political theorists to be less abstract and to pay attention to context, why retain the project of political theory?


Different positions are evaluated against four criteria: the feasibility of a proposal, its degree of coherence, how it fits into the trajectory of the discipline, and the resulting open-mindedness. Abbott clearly factors into his four evaluative criteria a clear concern with further training in moral and political argument, as well as other more legalistic forms.

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