The Ethical Turn in the Social Sciences

May 11, 2007

Ontological certitude has been embedded in influential pockets of academic disciplines that operate within a persistent and pervasive assumption of realism (Beck, 1992: 4). See Bauman (1994). There is a marked impatient, dismissal and neglect of highly relevant and useful contemporary theory which unsettles the notion that we can access raw chunks of reality as facts. But this is crucial in order to open up forums for debate between differing view points in a highly pluralistic society.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who became increasingly influential in the late 1980s (1973) argued that sociology needed to questions its own troubled self-annihilating historiography and recognise that cultural praxis is the unique domain of humans. Rather than focus on on the production of professional technocrats, sociologists need to come into direct contact with the human praxis. While Bauman (1993) claims that the human subject produced by modern management is stripped of moral purpose, he also argues that humans are uniquely situated and capable of challenging our own reality individually and collectively in order to investigate deeper meanings of justice, ethics, freedom (1973?).

In the period post-1989 has witnessed an ethical turn in the social sciences informed in part by philosophy (Mikhael Bakhtin) and political philosophy as found in the work of Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor, Emmanuel Levinas and the more recent works of Jacques Derrida.

Bauman (2001) discusses the complex dilemma of the stranger, the unfamiliar other in the social landscape as the European Union materialized.

He described political classes diverted the public’s “deepest cause of anxiety, that is the experience of individual insecurity, to the popular concern with (already misplaced) threats to collective identity. ” This resulted in a heightened coldness and even aggression towards the stranger next door. He compared two scenarios: Girard’s scenario for dealing with difference was to join together to create common enemies which Bauman considers to be “not just cruel and inhuman it is also ineffective.” John Rex (1995) presents one of the “public political culture and a political society ased upon the idea of equality of opportunity, but often also on a conception of at least a minimum of social rights for all, i.e. equality of outcome”.

If this is the case, then the choice between Girard’s and Rex’s scenarios is far from being just a matter of an academic interest. It involves the value which our civilisation rightly considered to be the main, perhaps even the only, title to its glory. Its past readiness to recognise sense and dignity in alternative ways of life, to seek and to find grounds for peaceful and solidary coexistence which are not dependent on compliance with one, homogenous and uncontested pattern of life. The choice between scenarios is also a deeply ethical choice; what depends on that choice, is whether the form of life the chosen strategy is meant to preserve is worth defending in the first place. The future of Europe and every part of it depends on our ability and willingness to learn to live with cultural diversity (Bauman 2001).

Slow world interrupted . . . to be continued [. . .]

Edgoose (1997) responded to Derrida in terms of ethical and legal judgment in the care/justice debate:

Derrida (1990) distinguishes between two types of justice: in French, droit and juste. Droit – “right,” “law” – resembles “justice” in the care/justice debate. It is universal and intelligible and can be written down and used to guide future judgment. But droit is not an idealization of the mechanism of law. It is not the case that droit represents the way in which unbiased and universal legal judgments are made – by the application of universal law and rights. Droit is, rather, the self-understanding that accompanies our sense of the law, but it is only a partial understanding.

Juste, on the other hand, has little to do with “justice” in the care/justice debate. But it has everything to do with the empirical openness to the Other which I have identified with Levinas and as the inspiration for the ethics of care. Yet for Derrida, as we shall see, the openness to the Other of care is involved in the process of ethical and legal judgment, and so the connotation of justice is still needed.

Like Levinas, Derrida believes that caring justice juste is born out of attention to many particular Others. It is defined by its very plurality. Derrida writes, for example, that “the condition of all possible caring justice juste” would be, “to address oneself to the Other in the language of the Other” (1990:949). But Derrida declares that in the language of the law, this is impossible, since in the law assumes a universality by which it can be applied to everyone.


Zygmunt Bauman is known throughout the world for works such as Legislators and Interpreters (1987), Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Modernity and Ambivalence (1991) and Postmodern Ethics (1993), Liquid Modernity (2000), The Individualized Society (2001), Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, with Keith Tester (2001), Society Under Siege (2002), and Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003). See a brief biography.

In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of a misguided, strong version of the Enlightenment project ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).'”


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1973. Culture as Praxis, London and Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. Postmodern Ethics.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1994. Alone Again – ethics after certainty. London, Demos.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. Globalization the Human Consequences. Cambridge: Polity Press. See review.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2001. “Europe of Strangers.” Transnational Communities Programme. October.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992.

Critchley, Simon. 1992. The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas . Oxford: Blackwell.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Violence and Metaphysics.” Trans. Alan Bass, in Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago:79-153.

Derrida, Jacques. 1981. Positions. trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1990. “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” Trans. Mary Quaintance, Cardozo Law Review. 11:919-1070.

Edgoose, Julian. “An Ethics of Hesitant Learning: The Caring Justice of Levinas and Derrida“. Philosophy of Education Society.

Honneth, Alex. 1995. “The Other of Justice: Habermas and the Ethical Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Ed. Stephen K. White: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luce Irigaray, Luce. 1993. An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis: Pittsburgh: Duquesne.

Levinas, Emmanuel . 1991. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Morality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rex, John. 1995. “Ethnic Identity and the Nation State.” Social Identities. 1.

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