Social theory

Finished and planned work in the field of social theory
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Already from the very start of my studies, I have been fascinated by social theory. This is why I put a special focus on theory both in my Bachelor’s and Master’s studies. My main points of reference regarding theory are Pierre Bourdieu and Norbert Elias. This combination has two implications. First, I read Bourdieu as a theorist of change and his notion of habitus, with Elias, as a processual concept. The second implication is that my theory work is characterized by a strong interdependence with empirical research. Theory always has to be assessed in terms of what it allows to see empirically—and, even more importantly, what it obscures. Vice versa, I think that empirical work always has implications for theory.

Bourdieu as a theorist of change

As already mentioned, with a nod to Elias I conceive Bourdieu’s praxeology as a theory of change rather than reproduction. I come to this conclusion by following Heinrich Schäfer’s reading of the habitus, according to which the dispositions that compose the habitus are understood as the result of human experience. This reading bears several consequences. First, it opens the concept for a temporal interpretation: the operation of dispositions can be understood as reacting to a present situation on the grounds of past experiences in order to reach future goals. Following Norbert Elias, this means that human beings can be understood as a process. Second, if dispositions are formed and challenged by experiences, they change continuously—a completely static habitus would require an actor to stop making experiences. Third, intergenerational reproduction of dispositions requires educational labour. But since there are certain modifying elements, even educational labour can never achieve a perfect reproduction of habitus. Fourth, actors not only experience, but also act upon the social world. This is where the field concept comes into play, which I conceive as a series of events. All in all, I read Bourdieu as a change theorist that empirically discovered reproduction.

For more details, see my paper “It’s Time for a Change: A Bourdieusian Approach on Social Change”.

Secularisation as struggle

In my master’s thesis, I created a praxeological approach to secularisation. According to my approach, secularisation is a possible result of struggles for the religious field’s nomos, that is, the principle of legitimate religious praxis. Seen from this perspective, secularisation is what happens if actors specialised in other, non-religious fields (e.g., politicians, scientists, businessmen) manage to impose their idea of legitimate religious praxis on religious professionals. Based on José Casanova’s distinction between three meanings of the term secularisation, I distinguish three dimensions of religious praxis as relevant for secularisation: Differentiation, Privatisation, and religious decline. I further distinguish two aspects for each of these dimensions. For differentiation, I identify autonomy of religious actors and expansivity of religious sociodicies as aspects. For privatisation, I distinguish between individualisation and the public/private-dichotomy. Finally, I distinguish between social change and competition by non-religious actors as possible factors causing religious decline.

For more details, see my book Säkularisierung als Kampf and my paper “Secularization as historical struggle”.

Further plans

For further theory work, I have mainly two plans. First, I plan to operationalise my reading of habitus as a process for empirical research. In my dissertation I could already do first steps in this direction by analysing temporal discourse sequences. Specifically, I plan to work on this in the course of my planned research on the development of the political dialogue with Islam in Germany. Second, I would like to expand on the little known Bourdieusian concept of sociodicy that I already used in my approach on secularisation. By sociodicy, I mean ideas that legitimise a certain way of inequal distribution of resources and power. This will be part of my planned project on the perception of social inequality by left-wing actors.

Schlerka, Sebastian Matthias. 2019. “It’s Time for a Change: A Bourdieusian Approach on Social Change.” Time & Society 28 (3): 1013–38.

Schlerka, Sebastian Matthias. 2018. “Secularization as Historical Struggle.” InterDisciplines 9 (2): 163–91.

Schlerka, Sebastian Matthias. 2016. Säkularisierung als Kampf. Entwurf eines feldtheoretischen Zugangs zu Säkularisierungsphänomenen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.