Sociological Theorists: Alfred Schutz

By | January 5, 2015

Alfred Schutz might be more philosopher than theorist but I recall my excitement on reading his Phenomenology of the Social World (first published in 1932) and my sense of its strikingly acute relevance for the conduct of sociological research. Schutz was inspired by Husserl without altogether buying into his radicalization of Descartes ‘Cartesian’ project. The return on Husserl for Schutz was rather the radicalization of the Weberian project! Weber had left the job half done.

For Schutz the primary goal of the social sciences is to reach an understanding of the constitution and maintenance of ‘social reality’. His definition of social reality is important:

the sum of objects and occurrences within the social cultural world as experienced by the commonsense thinking of men (sic) living their daily lives … It is the world of cultural objects and social institutions into which we are all born, within which we have to find our bearings, and with which we have to come to terms. From the outset we, the actors on the social scene, experience the world we live in as a world both of nature and of culture, not as a private but an intersubjective one, that is, as a world common to all of us, either actually given or potentially accessible to everyone; and this involves intercommunication and language.

Weber had left it unclear, Schutz felt, just how sociologists might study the lifeworld.

He maintained that social reality is intersubjective and that we utilize common schemes of meaning. The interpretations we make day-to-day are rooted in a ‘stock of knowledge’ that we all share. Okay, there is a personal and even idiosyncratic element to this, but it is also inherited rather than invented anew by each generation. Furthermore, our engagement in the flow of interaction and use of the stock of knowledge is – in the ‘natural attitude’ – ‘directed towards practical ends’. An individual’s stock of knowledge consists of ‘typifications’ that are taken-for-granted unless/until revealed as such by phenomenological reductions of the kind prescribed by Husserl. These typifications are organized according to a dynamic/system of ‘relevances’ determined by an individual’s (ever-changing) interests.

The lifeworld has a number of different social dimensions, each with its own spatio-temporal structures. First among these is that of ‘face-to-face relations and interactions’, or the ‘pure’ We-relation. In this dimension individuals ‘participate’ in each other’s conscious life and there is a ‘synchronization of two interior streams of consciousness’. The dimension of ‘contemporaries’ has different properties. It embraces those (a) ‘known’ but only encountered in passing; (b) not encountered yet but likely to be so in the near future; (c) ‘unknown’, but nevertheless reference points for future activity (e.g. post-office workers; plus (d) ‘collective social realities’ that may affect lives in the absence of direct contact (e.g. government agencies). Whereas face-to-face interaction is constituted mainly by a “thou-orientation’, a relation in the non-concrete social dimension of contemporaries is constituted mainly by a ‘They-orientation’. Both, however, share a time zone in which others are either directly or indirectly encountered. This is not true of two other social dimensions about which Schutz has less to say, those of ‘predecessors’ and ‘successors’.

Overlapping with Schutz’ concept of social dimensions is his notion of multiple realities. These denote clearly demarcated forms of social life (e.g. the mundane lifeworld, but also fiction, science, medicine and so on). Each comprises a ‘finite province of meaning’ within which the system of relevances invoked and the stock of knowledge available bestow the character of ‘factuality’ in different ways. There is more than a hint here of the later Wittgenstein’s concepts of forms of life and language-games; but there are differences too.

Social scientists, Schutz maintained, have been tardy in recognizing that the subjectivity found in the lifeworld needs to be accessed under the ‘theoretical attitude’. Sociologists are not, or should not be, concerned with the experiences and meanings/interpretations of actual individuals, but rather with ‘typical actors’ with ‘typical motives’ who pursue ‘typical goals’ via ‘typical courses of action’. They are concerned, in other words, with ‘second-order typifications’, or typifications of typifications. The influence of Weber is obvious.

Schutz advances three postulates for a credible social science. It must, first, be logically consistent. Second, it must address subjective interpretation/meaning: action must be understood as meaningful for social actors. And third, it must satisfy the criterion of explanatory adequacy: sociologists cannot attribute to ‘actors in the theory’ anything other than theories anchored in the ‘common-sense’ of their life- or alternate expert worlds.

I have only hinted at Schutz’ subtlety here. He does not in my view faithfully apply the philosophical phenomenology of Brentano or Husserl (far from it), but nor should he. Rather, he takes their theses as points of departure to refine and revise Weber’s classic exegesis. Gadamer writes of a ‘fusion of horizons’, suggesting that any relationship, conversation, book, article or experience that comes our way changes us a tad (sometimes more than a tad of course), whether we are aware of it or not. So do read Schutz’ wonderful Phenomenology of the Social World in the hope that some of it will rub off on you as you engage in the vital and imaginative enterprise of professional sociological research.




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