Norm Circles and Social Fields

By Tom Mills

In a recent article for the British Journal of Sociology I offered a critical, and for the most part sympathetic, engagement with Actor Network Theory (ANT) in which I focused particularly on Bruno Latour’s provocative critique of sociology. The thrust of Latour’s argument is that what he calls ‘the sociology of the social’ fallaciously ascribes agency to a non-existent entity called ‘society’ or to a non-existent substance: ‘the social’. But society, Latour convincingly argues in his occasionally insightful and occasionally irritating polemics, does not exist, and neither does ‘the social’ (Latour 2005). Sociologists, therefore, should abandon their antiquated conceptual vocabulary (society, power, classes, capitalism etc) and focus instead on researching complex, hybrid networks of humans, concepts, objects, machines and molluscs.

I won’t go into much further detail, but my argument in that article is that whilst Latour identifies a real weakness in much sociological theory, the analytical payoffs promised by Latourian metaphysics can best be found in a sociological realism rooted in the philosophy of critical realism.

One impressively lucid alternative has been offered by Dave Elder-Vass, who has himself engaged critically with Actor Network Theory (ElderVass 2008) and who kindly offered some feedback on a draft of my article. Elder-Vass rejects the reification of society and ‘the social’ for similar reasons to Latour, but argues nevertheless that the intellectual resources of sociology can be effectively utilised if we attribute causal powers not to society as such, but to a myriad of social institutions he calls norm circles (Elder-Vass 2010, 115-143). This, he argues, allows us to speak of a social structure above and beyond the beliefs and actions of individuals; something which sociologist have always done, but without sufficient precision or clarity.

In Elder-Vass’s theory, norm circles are understood as overlapping social collectives that encourage, endorse and enforce particular practices. In doing so, these ‘circles’ are more than the sum of their parts and give rise to a tendency for particular outcomes via each member’s understanding of their own normative environment. There are said to be different types of norm circles that relate to different types of norms, and understood within norm circle theory any identifiable social groups will likely be associated with numerous overlapping norm circles (described in terms of ‘clustered’ circles). There are, for example, epistemological and epistemic circles. Epistemological circles are collectives that validate beliefs as knowledge by upholding and enforcing particular epistemological standards, whilst epistemic circles are groups which uphold and enforce particular knowledge claims (Elder-Vass 2012).  

What I think is particularly useful in the idea of norm circles – and the thing that makes it distinct from many other contemporary sociological models – is that it is fundamentally concerned with people and practices, rather than ideas or discourses. In this respect, a potentially interesting point of comparison is Bourdieu’s concept of the social field, which is another significant attempt to conceive of an objective social structure above and beyond individual human agents – and one which is similarly more concerned with practices than ideas and discourses. In An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Bourdieu who was certainly gifted, but not with concision, defined a social field as

a network, or a configuration, of objective relation between positions. These positions are objectively defined, in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon their occupants, agents or institutions, by their present and potential situation (situs) in the structure of the distribution of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field, as well as by their objective relation to other positions (domination, subordination, homology, etc.). (Bourdieu 1993, 97)

Social fields, Bourdieu goes on to say, are a ‘structured social space, a field of forces, a force field’ (Ibid.) Part of the difficulty here is that the concept of ‘field’ is tied up with Bourdieu’s other sociological concepts. But in more conventional terms we can understand social fields as ‘relatively autonomous social microcosms’ that emerge historically and are characterised by unique forms of competitive and strategic relations between the agents and institutions that populate them. Bourdieu’s fields are hierarchically structured, and their agents possess differential resources with which they pursue distinct strategies in ‘struggle[s] for the transformation or preservation of the field’ (Bourdieu 1998, 40). As Thomson emphasises (2008, 72), the concept of a social field, like all of Bourdieu’s concepts, should be seen as ‘an epistemological and methodological heuristic’ to be put to use in empirical research. Doing so, according to Bourdieu, should involve (1) establishing where a field stands in relation to what he calls the ‘field of power’ (meaning the field of the ruling class, the elite, or the dominant classes in society) (Wacquant 1993); (2) mapping out the relations between the positions within the field occupied by agents and institutions; and (3) examining the internalised dispositions (habitus) of its agents. (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 104-5)  Bourdieu himself used the concept to research education, culture, academia, housing, television journalism and the state.

How might a Bourdieusian social fields relate to norm circles? Are they compatible epistemological and methodological heuristics? In broad terms, I think they are. Were we to overlay a social field with norm circles, I think we might consider it as comprising of overlapping ‘circles’ that together produce and reproduce its particular dynamics. In a given field there will likely be a set of norms that undergird the terms of competition within it (described by Bourdieu in terms of a field’s illusio and doxa), as well as norm circles associated with particular locations within the field and the distinct norms that predominate there.  

In the academic field, for example, there are more or less universal norms relating to certain pedagogical and scholastic practices (relating for example to lecturing, plagiarism and peer review) as well as distinct norms associated with particular disciplines and competing subfields, each with their own epistemologies, political commitments (tacit or explicit) and scholastic practices. In the case of sociology, for example, we could point to Burawoy’s influential typology of professional, policy, critical and public approaches (Burawoy 2005), or Williams, Sloan and Brookfield’s (2017) more recent description of analytical and critical approaches in UK sociology. In Bourdieu’s somewhat idiosyncratic schema, the sorts of strategies and dispositions associated with these different sociological practices would be regarded as forms of the position taking, illusio and doxa that characterise social fields, but they can at the same time be understood as practices undergirded by clusters of overlapping norm circles – clusters which together give rise to the social field’s relational dynamics and emergent properties.

Tom Mills is Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University. He is the author of ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’ (Verso, 2016) and the co-editor of ‘What is Islamophobia?’ (Pluto, 2017). His monograph, ‘The Politics of Terrorism Expertise’, co-authored with David Miller, will be published in 2018.

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature, Columbia University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). On Television. New York, The New Press

Bourdieu, P. and L. J. Wacquant (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology, University of Chicago press.

Burawoy, M. (2005). “2004 American Sociological Association presidential address: for public sociology.” The British Journal of Sociology 56(2): 259-294.

Elder-Vass, D. (2010). The causal power of social structures: Emergence, structure and agency, Cambridge University Press.

Elder-Vass, D. (2012). The reality of social construction, Cambridge University Press.

ElderVass, D. (2008). “Searching for realism, structure and agency in Actor Network Theory.” The British Journal of Sociology 59(3): 455-473.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social : an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

Mills, T. (2017). “What has become of critique? Reassembling sociology after Latour.” British Journal of Sociology Advance online publication, DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12306.

Thomson, P. (2008). Field. Pierre Bourdieu: key concepts. M. J. Grendell. Oxon: Abingdon, Routledge: 65-82.

Wacquant, L. J. (1993). “From ruling class to field of power: An interview with Pierre Bourdieu on La Noblesse d’Etat.” Theory, Culture & Society 10(3): 19-44.

Williams, M., et al. (2017). “A Tale of Two Sociologies: Analyzing Versus Critique in UK Sociology.” Sociological Research Online 22(4): 132-151.


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