Andrew Abbott: Varieties of Normative Inquiry in Social Science

Building on his life-long engagement in the sociology of knowledge, Andrew Abbott will explore the relationship between research and policy in his talk at Eilert Sundts Hus, UIO.

Andrew Abbott
Andrew Abbott. Photo: University of Chicago

Professor Andrew Abbott will address the long-term prospects for a social science that can move away from the engineering model (social sciences tell policy-makers how things "are" and policy-makers then "use" this knowledge in making policy) towards a model in which the social sciences themselves combine rigorous research and equally rigorous normative reasoning.

Sociology as a case study

Abbott will consider the proper organization for normative inquiry in social science, taking sociology as a case study. He considers the two major existing positions.

First is the dualist position, according to which sociologists are scientists whose expert knowledge of social life provides input to a separate normative/political system. Second is the monist position, which rejects this isolation of scholarship from political or normative action, believing rather that normative action informs and possibly deepens our sociological work.

He then turns to two hypothetical alternatives. First, he discusses the possibility of a sub-discipline like political theory in political science. Such a sub-discipline would inquire systematically into the political and normative questions on which sociology bears, probably basing this inquiry on a set of canonical moral texts. In a second, “legalist” alternative, such a normative subdiscipline would not organize itself around a set of canonical texts, but rather around the detailed normative examination of bodies of sociological research.

Andrew Abbott evaluates these four alternatives against four separate criteria: practicality, intellectual coherence, potential trajectory, and ability to handle cultural differences.


Andrew Abbott is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Chicago. Abbott's major research interests lie in the sociology of occupations, professions, and work, the sociology of culture and knowledge, and social theory. Abbott also has longstanding interests in methods, heuristics, and the philosophy and practice of sociology. In his 1988 book, The System of Professions, Abbott synthesized the professions literature, showing that the professions constitute an ecology of expert groups competing over work. The forthcoming Varieties of the Social Imagination (‘co-authored’ with Barbara Celarent, who he refers to as “a courtesy name for an aspect of universality that sometimes took particular form in the period 2009-2015”), is a collection of reviews of classical works of social theory from a variety of traditions.


Cathrine Holst is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography and Research Professor at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo. She is also connected to Centre for Research on Gender Equality (CORE), Institute for Social Research. Her main fields of academic interest are political sociology and democracy research, social and political theory, the role of knowledge and expertise in policy and politics, EU, European integration and the Nordic model, gender policy, feminist theory and gender studies. She has written widely on epistemology, and on the role of expertise in public debate and decision-making, including ‘Accountability of experts’ (with Anders Molander, in Social Epistemology) and ‘Cynical or Deliberative? An Analysis of the European Commission’s Public Communication on Its Use of Expertise in Policy-Making’ (with John Robert Moodie). A forthcoming volume, Expertisation and Democracy in Europe (co-edited with Magdalene Góra and Marta Warat), will be released in September 2017.

Published Mar. 21, 2017 10:40 AM - Last modified Dec. 11, 2019 11:15 AM