Luc Boltanski

Kai Eriksson

Posted on April 29 2018

  • One of the leading social theorists in France today
  • Central figure of the pragmatic school (la sociologie pragmatique) in French sociology



1940 Born in Paris, January 4th
1965 Gets his first major position at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales as chef du travaux. Has been based at EHESS throughout his career
1981 Receives his PhD (doctorat d’état) for the thesis Les Cadres: La formation d`un groupe sociale (The Making of a Class: Cadres in French Society).
1982 Appointed director of studies at EHESS. Holds the position to this day.
1985 Co-founds the Groupe de Sociologique de Politique et Morale with Laurent Thévenot and becomes the group’s first director. Breaks from Pierre Bourdieu’s influence because he feels the research is becoming dogmatic and has stagnated.
1990 L`amour et la justice comme compètences: Trois essais de l´action (Love and justice as competences: Three essays on the sociology of action, 2012) is published. The book is intended to correct the misinterpretations of his theory of justification as a general sociological theory.
1991 De la justification: Les économies de la grandeur (On justification: The economies of worth, 2006), written with Laurent Thévenot, is published.
2004 La condition fœtal: Une sociologie de l’engendrement et de l’avortement (The foetal condition: A sociology of engendering and abortion, 2013), a book about reproduction and abortion, is published in French. Gives the book to some of his colleagues and realizes that men have a hard time coping with the contingency of reproduction (i.e., the possibility of abortion), whereas women find it easier. As a consequence, the book was not widely read among men.
2008 Holds the Adorno Lecture series in Frankfurt (published in 2011 as On critique: A sociology of emancipation). The book has been called ‘the elephant’s last journey to the place he was born’, i.e., back to Bourdieu, which Boltanski denies.
2010 and onward Continues publishing books and articles on various topics, for example, detective novels and the legitimation of inequalities in Western nation states.





Boltanski has strived to reconcile macro- and micro-level analyses, build a bridge between empirical and theoretical sociology, and re-unite sociology with political philosophy.
    His work is also a shift from the idea of underlying structures people are unaware of toward ones that are historically formed and can be modified by social action.
      Boltanski started his career with Bourdieu-inspired work on social classes, but became critical of Bourdieu’s tendency to emphasize hierarchical differences between social classes, to ignore the cognitive capacity needed to justify one’s arguments, and to depict people as mere puppets for all-encompassing social structures.
        The term ‘critical capacity’ was created to tackle these shortcomings. It does not assume asymmetrical capability of justification between groups nor rigid structures that dictate people’s actions. In line with the pragmatist tradition, Boltanski shifted his gaze towards the act of justifying.

          When justification is needed, one has to invoke some form of common good. According to the model developed by Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, there are six different forms of common good.


          On Justification


            These forms provide a shared rationale of drawing boundaries between what is relevant and what is not.

              With this model, Boltanski compares justification schemes between different groups. He analyses the differences between them without resorting to essentialist descriptions.
                Actors criticize each other according to these rationales, but also form compromises between different justifications. An argument is rarely based on only one world but usually combines elements from different worlds.



                  Form of common good

                  Worthy person


                  Creativity, originality

                  Artist, preacher


                  Esteem, tradition

                  Head of a family


                  Renown, popularity

                  Opinion leader, celebrity


                  Common interest, equality



                  Profit, competition



                  Efficiency, productivity






                  • Business guides
                  • Medieval philosophy
                  • Political philosophy
                  • Detective novels
                  • News
                  • Managerial literature





                  Boltanski’s model of justification was criticized for ignoring power relations and focusing only on micro-level interactions.
                    To counter these arguments, Boltanski employed his model for studying the historical changes of capitalism.
                      He argued that capitalism needed a specific mode of justification. With this in mind, Boltanski and Ève Chiapello divided the evolution of capitalism into three phases.
                        • Family capitalism, ranging from the 19thcentury to the 1930s, was characterised by justifications from the domestic world, with an ideal image of a strong bourgeoisie entrepreneur whose success enabled him to care for the people he employed.
                        • Dissatisfaction with the arbitrariness related to a person-centred model prompted the formation of a new mode of capitalism. Industrial capitalism, spanning from the 1930s to the 1970s, was based on big corporations, led by an alliance of rational planning and the bureaucratic organization model.
                        • In the 1960s, a critique against large, hierarchical corporations and the limited freedom they offered helped to create a new, more flexible order. Network capitalism, originating in the 1970s, values flexibility, expert knowledge, mobility and small organizations focused on core activities and short-term projects.

                              According to Boltanski, periodic criticism is the reason for capitalism’s durability: it can incorporate its critique into its own justification.


                              Luc Boltanski



                                THE PROJECT MODEL


                                In network capitalism, there is no generally recognized common good to be found. This is because a network is too disjointed and changeable to be able to create a common order.
                                  There cannot be a single legitimate representation of a network because all its representations are inevitably local, unique, and circumstance-dependent.
                                    A project is the model that organizes and maintains local islands of order in the constantly changing sea of networks.

                                      Order is based on the capacity of projects to demarcate between what is inside and outside as projects constantly regulate their own structure.






                                        Boltanski’s main concern is that a networked social order seems to lack principles of justice that go beyond transient individual representations.  For Boltanski, networks consist of different phenomena and their changing power relations without any stable norms controlling these phenomena.
                                          His main target here is Gilles Deleuze (read our Diiplook on Deleuze), but he also criticizes the actor network theory for the concept that a network is ultimately flat, that is, there is no constitutive principle external to the network itself.
                                            If only power relations exist, there is no room for lasting truths. The concept of the project was aimed to break away from this situation by bringing standards to the network.
                                              However, contrary to what Boltanski claims, networks do not exclude the possibility for moral judgment and comparison.
                                                Michel Foucault (our Diiplook on Foucault) showed that norms are not genuinely external structures that bring another level to a network. Instead they are derived from productive processes within the network itself.
                                                  Both Deleuze and Foucault share the view that structures do not exist if detached from the relations in which they occur: there is no object prior to these relations.
                                                    Like networks, projects are unsteady and changeable structures. Thus, it seems that a social theory of network capitalism would require analysis which does not rely on the project model alone.



                                                      DIIPLE RECOMMENDS


                                                      • L'Amour et la justice comme compétences: Trois essais de sociologie de l'action, 1990 (Love and Justice as Competences: Three Essays on the Sociology of Action, 2012)
                                                      • De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur, with L. Thévenot,1991 (On Justification: Economies of Worth, 2006)
                                                      • Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, with È. Chiapello,1999 (The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2007)
                                                      • The sociology of critical capacity, with L. Thévenot. European Journal of Social Theory, 2:3, 1999. 
                                                      • De la critique: Précis de sociologie de l'émancipation, 2009 (On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, 2011)


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