Reflexive Sociology (Gouldner): The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology

TOWARDS A REFLEXIVE SOCIOLOGY- Sociological theory and personal reality in the coming crisis of western sociology

There is a difference between the work of Gouldner as a sociologist, there is a convergence of his earlier work and the work which he has done later, for example, his thesis on modern sociology which was on functionalism and Marxism which is very different from the what he has been trying to do as a sociologist. The work of Gouldner and other sociologists is to understand social theories and theorists which further understands the work of men in a collective conscience, to understand the community and to arrive at self-awareness. It is very difficult to understand how social theory is actually made. We start with the basic assumption that social theories are made by the praxis (practice) of men, the lives they lead and then these theories are set into concrete empirical contexts, now the question arises that what generates social theory and what theorists are trying to do. Social theorists take into account ‘facts’ because facts yield from personal experience, theorists see these experiences and arrive at theories such as the French revolution, the rise of socialism etc.


According to theorists, there are two kinds of social worlds, one is permitted which is normal and the other is unpermitted that is abnormal. Theorists begin with unpermitted world generalise it and then transform these unpermitted worlds into permitted ones. Theorists first communicate the importance of permitted world and second by denying and ignoring what he takes to the unpermitted world. Theorists assign meaning to social objects in terms of goodness. Unpermitted world are those where 1) good objects are seen to weak and 2) bad objects are seen to be strong. It is very painful for a man to believe that what is powerful in society is extremely bad for example it is very difficult for a religious believer to feel that god is evil. A value free conception of social science is a way in which sociologists live in an unpermitted world and believe that this is not the task of sociologists to balance between power and goodness.


Reflexive sociology is concerned where what sociologists want to do and what they actually do in the world. The historical mission of reflexive sociology is to create and transform sociologists to understand them deeply regarding their work and life and to raise sociologists self-awareness. In other words reflective sociology is also radical sociology. Reflexive sociology proposes that in order to understand the world sociologists must understand themselves first. We should regard our professional colleagues as akin. Reflexive sociology requires an empirical dimension which includes a large diversity of researchers, sociologists, their occupation roles, their careers etc. It can also be considered moral sociology.

In the 19th century when the distinction was made between the natural sciences and the cultural and human sciences, imparting knowledge was the main agenda. Those philosophers who believed that social sciences are natural sciences similar to biology and physical science etc hold the positivistic view, which meant that they should be taught in the same way as natural sciences.  The conception of physical sciences had an ideology that humanity might unite with a common effort which would promote technology and transform the universe as a usable mankind resource as a whole. The humanistic study of sciences faced many problems when the study was focused on mankind various national and class differences emerged and people tend to use social sciences to control other men. The social world is known not only as the discovery of external facts but also as opening up inwards (self-awareness). One should view social reality based on our awareness and our knowledge of the social world. Awareness is an important attribute of a person though it is influenced by many factors such as culture, society etc they can only assist in awareness but cannot become aware. Awareness is considered as a relationship between persons and their information. Similarly, a scholar must be self-aware and should have immense knowledge about himself. To understand Reflective sociology it is necessary to discern that 1) the conduct of the researcher is necessary but not sufficient criteria, what is needed is a new praxis that transforms a person into a sociologist. 2) The ultimate goal of reflexive sociology is to deepen sociologists’ own awareness. 3) Reflexive sociology not only requires a proper methodology, technical skills etc but also a proper commitment to the value of awareness which expresses the work.

Conventional positivism proposes that when the self remains intact with the information system, the primary effect is to distort it, there is also an assumption that the self affects the information system. Reflective sociology seeks the praxis of the individual to the world. It is characterised by the relationship it establishes by a sociologist being his personal self and between a man performing different roles. Reflexive sociology propounds a critique of conventional conception.

Methodological dualism focuses on differences between social scientists and the people he tends to observe. It has a differentiation and separation of the object and the subject. It encourages the sociologists to detach from the world they are studying. Methodological dualism is against rapport building. It is based on the ear of sociologists’ own self, own perspective etc. It is based on the myth that social worlds are mirrored in sociologists’ work rather than saying that these are sociologists’ own interests and their reflections on the world. Methodological dualism poses a danger to objectivity (in a manner those who are being studied).

Reflexive sociology can grasp hostile information these are considered as external dangers. It should have historical sensitivity that in the past theories which have helped us might not be useful in present. Hostile information requires a relation between the information system and purpose of men.


In the post world war II, there were several spaces and opportunities open for sociologists and their career, which gave rise to liberal technologues which served information and theories to diversity of people. Liberal technologues became an important tool for sociology and it helped with the welfare estate. This happened post World War II in America, and this technologue was a source of enlightenment awareness.


Reflexive sociology requires a radical character, but it doesn’t mean that it is being as critical sociology. It should be concerned with positive formulations of new societies, a utopia in which men might live together peacefully. Radical sociology is not simply or merely a critical view but is also focuses on the everyday life of a sociologist, his daily responses, response to his surroundings etc. Reflexive sociology fosters those parts which are closest to the sociologists such as his own university, his own profession, his professional role, his students even himself rather than to the remote parts of his social surrounding. It refuses to distinguish between the private and the public in the everyday life. It is a bundle of technical skills which gives us a clear conception of how to live with total praxis.


In accordance with the work ethic, reflexive sociology focuses on the creative potential of the scholar which opposes the conformity demanded by the established institutions or by professional organizations. It opposes the standardized role of the scholar or professionals. It prefers individuals who are risk-takers, have high level of commitment, and high level of courage to compromise their careers on behalf of their creative ideas. Reflexive sociology is concerned more with the creativity of intellectual performance.


Reflexive sociology is historically sensitive sociology as it deepens the awareness of sociologists. It sees individuals profoundly shaped and evolved by a particular culture and social system. It believes that there is a slippage between man and the society where he lives in. There is also a slippage between man and history and this slippage is derived from the biological creature as an evolving animal species. Man’s overall capacity, creativity, solidarity, aggression etc are embedded in his animal patterns. Men not only seek to satisfy wants but also try to fulfil it. According to reflexive sociology men live in a society but not all alone, they emanate from history together and not alone. On the other hand, death is also considered as an ultimate truth, it can remove us totally from our commitments and our passion for society.


Reflexive sociology outlines the domain of assumptions in social theory. The several new trends in sociology imply growing detachment from sociology because there were rising new awareness and there was a growing detachment of the sociologist from the larger society in which they work and live. A crisis is emerging in sociology today because the mere changes in society are leading to the transformation of sociologists’ home territory, their area of work, university base etc. Corruption is one such thing which is out there in the world and which hinders the capacity and intellectual passion of the sociologist.


Gouldner, Alvin. 1970, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, New York: Basic Books,
Chapter 13 Pp. 481‐511

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