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The international circulation of social science knowledge

Relevant factors for acceptance and rejection of travelling texts
La circulation internationale des savoirs en sciences sociales. Facteurs pertinents d’acceptation et de rejet des textes voyageurs
La circulación internacional del saber en ciencias sociales. Factores relevantes de la aceptación y del rechazo de textos viajeros
Wiebke Keim
Cet article est une traduction de :
La circulation internationale des savoirs en sciences sociales [fr]


L’article propose un cadre pour l’étude des aspects théoriques et épistémologiques de la circulation internationale des connaissances en sciences sociales sous la forme particulière de textes de sciences sociales. Il problématise une série de paramètres intrinsèques qui influencent l’acceptation ou le rejet d’un texte circulant au-delà de ses contextes historique, politique, économique et culturel de production. Évidemment, les constellations géopolitique, économique et idéologique, les structures institutionnelles, les systèmes éducatifs, les marchés du livre, les audiences différenciées et stratifiées, les opportunités de financement et les réseaux, domaines classiques de l’histoire et de la sociologie des sciences et des STS, affectent la production et la circulation des connaissances. Ces analyses suggèrent toutefois que les perspectives proposées ne sont pas acceptées ou rejetées à cause de leur contenu mais à cause de leur instrumentalisation politique ou des supports matériels qui facilitent leur imposition ou leur domination. L’intention de cet article est, au contraire, de proposer les grandes lignes d’un programme qui prendrait sérieusement en compte les paramètres intrinsèques aux textes, c’est-à-dire la connaissance elle-même et son efficacité et les manières spécifiques dont la circulation des textes en sciences sociales est affectée.

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  • 1 I am grateful to colleagues and international fellows from the project „Universality and acceptance (...)

And yet, the issue of a starting point, of ‘a set of initial circumstances’ raised by Said, is of special importance for any theoretical project, including the feminist one. In other words, where and how to locate arguments for smuggling a set of ideas equipped with the ‘wrong’ passport? Shall we call for reinforcement of women’s participation in an educational system where there is already a 50:50 portion of female and male students at all levels of higher education, and where the ‘overfeminization’ of schools, in positions of both teachers and students, has been often blamed for the decreasing quality of education as such? Shall we call for women’s access to the working place in a country where almost 90% of working age women are fully employed? Shall we call for censorship of pornography in a country whose entire modern history is built upon an obsessive fight for freedom of expression? Could anyone who at least once opened a fashion journal issued in Prague in the 1970’s filled with sex-less figures wrapped in color-less fabric mobilize seriously against abuse of women’s body in the fashion industry and advertising? Shall we call for radical implementation of equality, gender or otherwise, in a community exhausted by ongoing waves of centrally controlled experimentation with constituting social sameness? Those of us who in the late 1980’s began to deal with issues of gender in the, both politically and theoretically, marginalized part of Europe paradoxically called ‘Central’, were ready to take the risk for smuggling. We were willing to cope with our fellow-intellectuals’ accusations of ‘ruining gender solidarity’ in the historical period of running the ‘more important’ project of de-totalization. At the same time, our intention was not to reproduce already quite powerful channels of hostility and phobia in the ‘post-revolutionary’ community. Neither did we want to provoke or hurt the locally oversensitive ‘structures of feeling’, to use Raymond Williams’ term. To find a starting point for the project, which we even hesitated to call feminist, was rather difficult. For all the above mentioned accusations and hostilities created an umbrella effectively shadowing any serious attempt to uncover the complexity of gender-related humiliation in the context of socialist experimentations. We feared that due to this umbrella we might miss a chance to ask questions about the ‘old regimes’ which would go beyond the realm of discussions about the planned economy and the Communist Party membership. (Smejkalova, 1995, no page number)

1This introductory quote raises a variety of issues that may arise in the course of international circulation of social science knowledge. It is about the fate of feminism in central/eastern Europe, i.e. in places where the theoretical current and related political activities named feminism in the West arrived under difficult political and intellectual conditions (see Wöhrer, 2014). In places that seemed to be “ahead”, i.e. places where certain political demands of western feminism had already been put into practice –but with adverse results. Where, thus, the normative claims of western feminism took on a different meaning, could appear as irrelevant or even misleading, needed to be inverted, abandoned or formulated differently. Where, faced with a different social, economic, political and intellectual context, feminism was not seen, by many, as anything pioneering or emancipatory: Within the intellectually contested fields of central/eastern Europe, against whom and for what was feminism read and practiced? The example also reveals the multiple meanings of the concept of feminism itself, where different historical experiences were attached to it.

  • 2 “Intellectual legitimation is defined as the process by which a theory becomes recognized as a part (...)

2In the following, I intend to develop a framework for the understanding of theoretical and epistemological aspects of international circulation of social science knowledge in the specific form of social science texts: What intrinsic parameters influence the acceptance or rejection of a given circulating text? This is more open and general a question than, for instance, Lamont’s inquiry into legitimation of circulating theories2 or to Davis’ concentration on successfully circulating theories (Davis, 1971, 1986).

3The following experience can be seen as the starting point for the questions to be dealt with in this paper: In 2004, I conducted qualitative, in-depth interviews with representatives of the South African labour studies community. The majority of interviewed sociologists strongly rejected positivism as well as functionalism for their eurocentric characteristics. This observation correlates with a more generalized recent tendency in the social sciences of the post-colonial South to reject internationally dominant theories and approaches from North America and Western Europe as questionable, irrelevant or misleading. However, at the same time, they tended to affirm their own former or lasting commitment to Marxism (definitions of “Marxism” varied considerably, see Keim, 2008: 376 ff.; 2017: 160 ff.), thus excluding Marxism from their critique of the parochialism and euro-centrism of European sociologies. This raises challenging questions around parameters of acceptability of social science approaches, i.e. around their potentials to be accepted beyond their historical, political, economic and cultural contexts of production.

  • 3 “What kind of interpretive interest is invested in the recovery of the conditions of production of (...)

4Obviously, geo-political, economic, political and ideological constellations, institutional structures, educational systems and book markets, differentiated and stratified audiences, funding opportunities and networks, the classic domains of history and sociology of science and of STS, affect knowledge-production and -circulation. Since the lack of acknowledgement of situatedness, historicity, context and power issues has been repeatedly criticized after earlier versions of this paper were circulated, it should be clarified that this attempt is embedded within a broader project on circulation of social science knowledge. For instance, (Keim, 2014) is a conceptual piece in which I develop different types of knowledge circulation, based among others on my earlier works on centre-periphery-relations within international social sciences (Keim, 2009, 2010a, 2010b). Those works speak to the sociological literature and to science and society studies at large with their foci on the social grounding of science, on scientific institutions and communities, and on internationalization of the disciplines. Such arguments, however, suggest that the concerned approaches are not accepted or rejected because of their content but because of their assumed political instrumentalization, or because of the material support that enabled their imposition and domination, etc. While such aspects are crucial for the understanding of particular processes of acceptance or rejection of given approaches, the aim is here to refocus our attention to a different level, taking up Guilhot’s critique that a purely sociological analysis of circulation of knowledge, i.e. taking social science ideas as context-bound products of social production processes, does not allow us to make any differences in terms of intrinsic qualities of given theories and concepts:3 “the risk”, Guilhot rightly observes, “is for ideas to become social epiphenomena” (Guilhot, 2014, p. 67).

5In the following, I outline a framework of intrinsic parameters, relating to the knowledge-dimension and its efficacy, that might be taken into account in analyzing the international circulation of social science texts. For sure, any given empirical example will prove that the realities of circulating texts remain underdetermined by those intrinsic parameters. But despite declarations like Lamont’s –“I contend that the legitimation of interpretive theories does not proceed from their intrinsic value but results from coexisting, highly structured interrelated cultural and institutional systems” (Lamont, 1987, p. 586)– text-intrinsic parameters, such as subject matter or writing style, do play an important role in her own analysis as well. Empirical analyses of given cases, in order to be comprehensive and complete, will need to integrate those intrinsic parameters with the more classical parameters of sociology of science approaches. Ultimately, the interaction and entanglement of what is maybe too easily referred to as internal and external factors should be the focus of our attention.

6The intention of this paper is to provide a programmatic outline for a serious consideration of text-intrinsic parameters and the specific ways in which they affect circulation of social science texts. The following is therefore an essayistic framework, following a strictly categorical structure, and drawing freely on existing empirical studies, diverse theoretical and epistemological debates, as well as, at times, on empirical “raw material” out of my earlier works. The procedure in writing up this framework was to synthesize existing studies I order to systematize and complete the ensemble of intrinsic factors that the various empirical examples covered in the literature point to. The main intention is to argue for the epistemological relevance of the theme of text-intrinsic factors, more than to provide new empirical insights. The selection of literature, given the immensity of the field and the variety of contributions, remains eclectic and probably non-saturated. The text is divided into two sections: 1) Contents, i.e. elements contained in social science texts; and 2) Qualities of (or attributed to) social science texts.


7The content level, including choice of research topics and themes, empirical referents, terminology and corresponding semantic fields, is crucial in order to understand the effects of circulating texts. I consider also as “content” the supposed “core-business” of developing concepts and theories. Mobilization of images, metaphors, parallels and borrowings from everyday-language or from existing scholarly, scientific, religious, philosophical or other fields may strongly affect the reading of a given approach.

Subject matter and empirical referents

8The actual, topical subject matter being dealt with, i.e. the themes that are addressed and the themes that are neglected, plays a role for the acceptability of received approaches. On the one hand, certain topics might be considered as rather irrelevant or, in the extreme case, as non-existent in different socio-cultural contexts, as the introductory quote shows clearly. This also includes categorizations or typologies which might appear to be incomplete or erroneous (p. ex. Sitas’ critique of Habermas’ idealized approach to communicative action, [Sitas, 2004] or Connell’s critique of general theoretical assumptions in Giddens, Coleman and Bourdieu [Connell, 2006]). An extreme example would be the reception of analytical philosophy in France. Jacques Bouveresse, one of the few French analytic philosophers, states, in his essay ‘Why I Am So Very UnFrench’: “I have been told that my own works were practically unreadable by the French philosophical public because they were concerned essentially with ‘logic’ (which meant in addition that they were not in any event worth reading, inasmuch as they contained nothing that was properly philosophical)’” (Bouveresse, 1982). On the other hand, approaches that keep silent on topics which are considered as highly relevant may be discredited by this omission. A given approach can be discredited simply because it fails to mention certain topics critical readers may consider crucial.

  • 4 Referring to sociological texts considered classic, he details in how far they all refer to the det (...)

9According to Davis’ analyses of “successful” (in the sense of “widely circulating”) or even “classic” sociological texts (Davis, 1971, 1986), it is an advantage for the aim of wide-spread circulation, if texts address topics that the readership “holds dear”. Ideally, the author introduces a fundamental factor that moves modern society and “can convince them that the irresistible force of his fundamental factor is about to destroy their ideally immovable valued object”. In that case, the audience will find it “imperative (…) to understand the fundamental factor in order to control its ramifications”.4

  • 5 To give another, similar example, following M. Davis, K. Davis accepts his premises in arguing for (...)

10It took some time, after the “success” of the classics as apprehended by Davis, for an approach that challenged all of their commonly held assumptions at once to emerge. The success story of postcolonial theory relies on a similar form of fundamental argumentation: As opposed to the whole of the sociological discipline that conceptualized and legitimized modernity, it highlighted the constitutive importance of colonialism in the emergence of modernity and the non-recognition thereof in all classic approaches alike. Instead, a vision of modernity based on exclusively inherent, indigenous European factors had been often favoured. Thus, the success of postcolonialism is based on the critique that colonialism had not been properly addressed in any of the classic or recent sociological theories.5 In a similar vein, T. Brisson assumed that Said’s “Orientalism” gained such international attention because it questioned the “right of existence” of a whole scholarly discipline and highly valued intellectual tradition (while his other texts that remain largely underrated did not address “matters of great concern”) (Brisson, personal communication, 2012).

11Similarly, Lamont argues that Derrida’s success as a philosopher is partly due to his association with “major debates” of his field and with the “philosophical classics”. In particular, “deconstruction gains prestige from its affiliation with Heidegger, Husserl, and Nietzsche”, since these are “among the most prestigious philosophers in what is seen in France as perhaps the most prestigious philosophical tradition - German philosophy”. She adds that “Had he worked on Hume, Locke, or Mill, the story would have been rather different and for reasons relatively unconnected with the actual substance of his analyses” (Lamont, 1987, pp. 592, 593).

  • 6 “The low esteem of a theory’s fundamental factor would be one element of this negative rhetoric. Th (...)

12M. Davis also suggests that it is a disadvantage for “successful” circulation, if a theory addresses topic matter that is “low in status”.6 Neveu explains the low level of reception of British Cultural Studies in France in a similar manner (Neveu, 2008, pp. 321, 327-28): the low degree of legitimacy of, e.g. the everyday life of British workers, as an object of study; the lack of exotism of such topics; ignorance of such social realities; “the trap of the minuscule”; the lack of recognition of “sub-sub-specialities”; or the disqualification of, e.g., studying readers of detective stories as “minor” or even “dirty topic”. Thus, for interpretative theories, association with established authorities in the field appears as crucial, while for empirically-based theories, the empirical referents are important.


13Unless we assume that ideas are abstract, ahistorical and closed entities that have constancy over time and space, at best articulated differently here, there and then, we have to admit that each passing on of a given sociological text entails a partial reconfiguration of its meaning. As the history of concepts translates earlier meanings of concepts that have travelled through history into current understanding, travelling over language or disciplinary borders, geographical space and between differently socialized scientific communities entails a process of “translation” (or, if we prefer to reserve the term “translation” for the precise sense of translations between languages: adaptation). Adaptation happens in any case, whether this is made explicit or implicit.

14That the same word is used in the process of circulation does not mean that it refers to the same empirical state of facts or that it has the same meaning for all involved. In analyzing given cases of circulation, one will have to pay attention to constancy, similarity or divergence in meaning as well as to similarity or sameness of real situations and empirical phenomena to which the concept refers. That one existing concept is applied to a different context, across time, across space or across disciplines, implies a hypothesis that the real world phenomenon to which it is referred is at least similar. This assumption of similarity is not at all naturally given or self-evident but needs to be theoretically established.

  • 7 Our effort at determining whether the concepts of “precariousness”, “social exclusion”, “underclass (...)

15Furthermore, given concepts usually appear within broader complexes of meaning, i.e. within texts and their often complex theoretical constructions. Their meaning depends on their place within this set of interrelated concepts in articulated theoretical complexes. As soon as certain parts out of such a framework are taken up elsewhere, their theoretical context is changed and thus their meaning. Inversely, that different words are used does not necessarily means that the underlying concepts are fundamentally different. If different concepts for identical or similar social phenomena confront each other in the course of scholarly exchange, it can be illuminating to trace how and why the given phenomenon was conceptualized differently.7

16It forms part of standard methodology training (e.g. Chambliss & Schutt, 2006; Schnell, Hill, & Esser, 1989) to insist on the need to provide clear conceptualizations:

So conceptualization - working out what your key terms will mean, in your research is a crucial part of the research process. Definitions need to be explicit. (…). It is especially important to define clearly concepts that are abstract or unfamiliar. (…) The point is not that there can be only one definition of a concept, but that we have to specify clearly what we mean when we use a concept, and we should expect others to do the same. (Chambliss & Schutt, 2006, p. 54)

17To define concepts clearly is necessary for various reasons: it enables adequate communication and intersubjective understanding on the basis of a common language. Clear definitions guarantee that anyone can take them up everywhere and communicate them to anyone else without distorting their meaning. Furthermore, clear definitions fulfil a function of linguistic economy: they provide “shortcuts”, single terms that replace lengthy explanations. Each scientific discipline, school or community relies on highly developed scientific languages that contain many of such clear-cut concepts to replace long formulations. Finally, in empirical research, clear-cut definitions that allow for precise operationalization are required in order to put theoretical constructs to empirical testing (Schnell et al., 1989, p. 41). Such an established take on conceptualization would lead us to the hypothesis that the more clearly and unequivocally defined a concept, the higher its potential to circulate in productive ways. However, the proponents of standard methodology admit that in trying to define one concept, the researcher often has to rely on various other concepts that in turn need to be defined, which can lead to “definition chains” (“Definitionsketten”) which rely, ultimately, on the existence of a language community (Schnell et al., 1989, p. 39). Issues for circulation of concepts arise among others from there.

18According to a realist point of view, in coining concepts, the researcher proceeds towards an empirical and/or theoretical analysis of the phenomenon that ought to be conceptualized, trying to determine its constitutive elements (Goertz, 2006, p. 4). Furthermore, many social science concepts are “multidimensional and multilevel in nature”:

The most important level theoretically is usually the concept as used in theoretical propositions, such as ‘corporatism’, ‘democracy’, or ‘welfare state’. This I refer to as the basic level. (…) The next level down from the basic level is what I call the secondary level. For example, when we say that democracy consists of civil rights, competitive elections, and so forth, we are descending to the secondary level to give the constitutive dimensions of the basic-level democracy concept. It is when we move down to the secondary level that the multidimensional character of concepts appears. (…). The next level down I call the indicator/data level. Alternatively, it could be called the operationalization level. (…). (Goertz, 2006, p. 6)

19However, in spite of methodological training, many authors are not so accurate in defining their concepts and in explicitly distinguishing their different levels. According to ideal methodological procedures, in the case of circulation of such a concept, one would need to test the potential of the concept for conceptual stretching: “Conceptual stretching occurs when concepts are loosened up so that they apply to additional cases. In the philosophical literature this is the contrast between extension and intension” (Goertz, 2006, p. 10), i.e. how a concept relates to its coverage or permissiveness to include new cases.

20A perspective oriented by conceptual history (“Begriffsgeschichte” in the sense of Koselleck), probably more appropriate for the circulation of more theoretical and less empirically oriented texts in the humanities tradition of the social sciences, would assume that in coining general and generalizable social scientific concepts, the theorist draws on empirically existing multiplicities of meaning and „neutralizes“ them into scientific concepts that are formal and general enough in order to apprehend the underlying structures of different cultural, social and historical “individualities” (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, p. 128).

  • 8 Koselleck, on whose “Begriffsgeschichte” we rely here, distinguishes between words, that can be dis (...)

21However, “general” in meaning does not mean unequivocal. While concepts contain an aspiration at generality, they remain also necessarily polysemic (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, pp. 118-119). García states the “impossibility to totalize the meaning of an idea or concept” in terms of taking them for “homogeneous entities of signification”. What he calls “ideas” thus remains always open to historical contingency, not only with regard to historical context but to their being inherently, intrinsically open or polysemic in their meaning. This leads the analyst to search “for meaning in a complex network of relations between their contexts of emergence and reception” (García, 2008/2009). Following Koselleck, “openness” or “polysemy” mean that concepts do not only repose on multiple experiences but also have multiple meanings. A word becomes a concept when the whole richness of a historical, cultural and social context of experiences, of meanings –and beyond Koselleck we may add for the case of social scientific concepts, the richness of a scholarly tradition and its legacy– within which the word is used, are contained and condensed in that word (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, pp. 118-119). Acknowledging this grounding in a scholarly tradition does not mean that we consider each usage of a given concept as continuity of this tradition –the relationship has to be problematized. A given word in a given sentence can have a precise meaning. Concepts help to give particular sentences, in particular circumstances, a precise meaning, but the concepts themselves remain ambiguous or polysemic.8

  • 9 Bal suggests characterizing concepts as “elastic”, which “suggests both an unbreakable stability an (...)

22While those who are socialized into specific usage of concepts may already disagree upon their meaning, the problem of a multiplicity of experiences and traditions that are condensed in given concepts multiplies as soon as this concept is taken up in a different context. While “polysemy” would be the problematic guiding an analysis of circulation of texts containing and using concepts in the sense of “Begriffsgeschichte”, “elasticity”9 would be the problematic of texts based on a more realistic understanding of concepts, often articulated with empirical research. More elasticity means greater potential for conceptual stretching. We may assume, with Bourdieu, that both elasticity and polysemy “are a blessing for annexionist interpretations and strategic usages” (Bourdieu, 2002, transl. wk). Systematic comparative empirical research on a variety of circulating texts would be necessary in order to differentiate degrees of elasticity and polysemy (see also section 2).

  • 10 Bourdieu (2002) claims that certain authors are also particularly “elastic” and therefore circulate (...)

23Literature on circulating texts tends to indicate that, as opposed to the methodological ideal, the more elastic or polysemic a concept, the easier and more productive its circulation.10 For example, “social movement unionism” is presented as a positive example of a truly international concept; at the same time, it is criticized for being a “bad concept” because, according to the conventional sense, underconceptualized, imprecise and ill-defined. Çelik has described how productive the concept was in absorbing a variety of different, geographically disparate experiences and with what different meanings it is used, while at the same time enabling fruitful international dialogue (Çelik, 2013).

24However, within the social sciences, one can observe a determined “counter-move” against the elasticity of concepts that might convey multiplicities of meanings is the coining of theory- or author-specific concepts. The much practiced introduction of non-vernacular, often Greek or Latin-based terms looks promising in this regard, as it emphasizes the epistemological break with ordinary language. If Bourdieu introduces the term “habitus”, Foucault “heterotopia” or Luhmann “autopoiesis”, we may assume that the aim, apart from strengthening the esoteric character of scientific texts, is precisely to facilitate a highly specific coining of the concept, since those terms do not convey ready-made meanings in vernacular language. Such attempts come close to the ideal of “pure concepts”. In circulation, such terms have the potential to be reduced to mere theoretical “labels” that travel as handy shortcuts for properly packaged theoretical contents and complex texts, usually of fashionable or high-prestige classic authors. On the opposite side, the introduction of metaphors –“field”, “organism”, “culture as text”– functions differently, intentionally generating a whole set of connotations (see below).

25Another challenging example is that of ideal typical concepts: “Ideal type concepts are most distinguishable by their extension of zero: normally ‘ideal’ means in practice that empirical examples are extremely rare or nonexistent” (Goertz, 2006, p. 10). They circulate nevertheless, and maybe sometimes better than highly extendable concepts. Their methodological usage is also a different one –instead of best apprehending a given phenomenon, ideal types seek to provide an ideal conceptualization against which any given empirical example can be compared and tested in order to find out differences and deviations from the ideal at different levels. They are thus appropriate tools for comparative analyses.

26In asking for conditions of circulation, we would also need to pay attention to the intellectual productivity of this circulation. The idea is not to trace the “correct” and “precise” usage of given theories and concepts according to their “original” source (Keim, 2014), but to ask whether circulating concepts are meaningfully or productively used, as opposed to mere superficial “labeling”, that is not only imprecise, but has little heuristic potential and hardly generates new analytical insights.

27Beyond the level of analytical insight, some circulating concepts carry with them a more “tangible” potential, namely that of (re-)organizing intellectual fields in which they are taken up. Stengers (1987, p. 15) talks about the “extension and organizing power” of concepts that are propagated across various disciplinary fields: these concepts’ circulation has an effect of (re-)organizing scientific work in a given field. Not only are concepts themselves changed, but similarly the fields in which they travel. This potential to (re-)organize the scientific take on given phenomena in innovative ways is another measure of a concept’s productivity in circulation.

28Furthermore, circulating concepts may deploy programmatic potentials. Koselleck has suggested a historical analysis of future-oriented concepts, where the relationship to the existing real world is different from other concepts:

Concepts are not only used in order to grasp existing states of affairs, they also extend into the future. Increasingly [from the French Revolution onwards, wk], future-concepts were coined, positions that remained to be conquered in the future had to be semantically pre-formulated. The experiential content of many concepts decreased this way, while the aspiration at realization increased proportionally. Experiential content and space of expectations are less and less congruent. Among those concepts are the numerous ‘-isms’ that served, as concepts of collectivities and of movements, to reorder and mobilize the disparate masses (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, p. 113, transl. wk).

29Adopting concepts that were coined in a different context can express the wish to engage in developments that were already achieved elsewhere (the above-mentioned example of “social movement unionism” could be a case in point).

30Final point: studies of circulating concepts should not only look at what is gained –in terms of analytical insights, (re-)organization of the scholarly field, etc.– but also at what is lost. Such loss may correspond to a determined strategy of getting rid of, hiding or downplaying something. It was suggested in one of our recent debates, that “multiculturalism” was introduced in Colombia in order to get rid of concepts related to the country’s colonial past (discussion of García, 27.2.2013; see also Wade, 2011). Wolfgang Eßbach has forwarded a similar argument with regard to the recent success of the concept of “mobility” that was introduced from transport studies, geography and logistics into the social sciences and has, in parts, led to abandoning the critical and highly politicized issues of forced migration, refugees and human rights (discussion of Lipphardt, 17.1.2013).


31In the occidental philosophical tradition, it has been considered the privilege of philosophy to think in “pure concepts” (“reine Begriffe”), i.e. a thinking free of images. Images were considered to be part of the esthetic world of the arts (Guzzoni, 20.1.2010). However, in recent years, studies around visual elements in scholarly thinking have hinted towards the central importance of imagery, especially for the social sciences. Among these more recent approaches are fascinating studies on the role of metaphors in sociological texts. According to Schlechtriemen, sociological theorizing since its inception has been dependent on use of metaphors in order to make its highly abstract object, the “society” itself, apprehendable and intelligible (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 71). Sociology has alternatively imagined its object through central metaphors as organism, machine, network, theater etc., while the central role and functioning of these metaphors has hardly been recognized as such (Schlechtriemen, 2.10.2012). These figurative elements are highly productive for social theorizing and for the perception and apprehension of social reality. Usually, it is assumed that a metaphor is used when, because of a given similarity, a term is borrowed from a domain where it counts as established, and transferred to a different domain. The figurative meaning is clearly distinguishable from what is actually meant. Metaphors in this sense are used as esthetic, at best illustrative embellishments of texts. In opposition, relying on recent metaphor theories, Schlechtriemen sees the metaphorical transfer as an interactive process, emphasizing in particular the productive role of the metaphor in gaining theoretical insights (Schlechtriemen, 2008, pp. 72-73).

32In founding texts for the discipline of sociology, metaphors are often used to refer to this abstract object, “society”, that is so difficult to grasp. They serve to overcome conceptual difficulties and thus, in fact, contribute to constructing the very object of sociology (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 74). Their functioning within the text is different from that of concepts. While concepts convey a more coherent and analytical meaning by argument and attempts at definition, metaphors make sense through associations within a given image. Silber argues that metaphors thus allow for less linear, more complex and non-totalizing forms of theorizing; furthermore, for a shared language across different styles of thought (Silber, 2007).

33Taking the image of society as an “organism” as an example, the reader is placed within the imagery of the organism. Aspects such as the naturalness of organisms, the idea of a unity (the sum and its parts) and of functional differentiation are aspects inherent to the image. The different aspects are not argued for step by step, but they gain evidence as a result of the image that the metaphor evokes (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 83). Metaphors thus do not only illustrate reality, they create it through their appearance in the text. And they do not represent reality in abstract ways, through definition and argument as concepts do, but through their multiplicity of semantic references (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 84). The reader, by association, completes the image that the metaphor evokes and thus draws a particular understanding of “society” as an organism. The metaphor has a constitutive role in the text (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 75).

34Metaphors are also elastic, as concepts. But their elasticity does not rely on multiple empirical experiences and meanings that concepts draw on, but on richness of meanings and their semantic potential contained in the image that the metaphor evokes. The current state of metaphor theory assumes that while certain aspects of the metaphor are adapted during its transfer to a different context, its “core meanings” remain constant (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 82). However, a fully-fledged “theory of reception of metaphors” still remains to be developed (Junge, 2.10.2012, p. 6).

Figuras conceptuales

  • 11 Also called “ceremonial” reference: “The term ceremonial is used in two basic ways. Broadly, it des (...)
  • 12 « La fréquence des citations d’Althusser doit sans doute aussi à ce que son invocation était en élé (...)

35We find still a different figure in sociological texts, related to concepts as well as to metaphors, when they condense in person-names, usually of renowned scholarly authorities in the domain. Particular ways of referencing person names beyond bibliographic indication of “theoretical references” or state of the art remain to be detailed. The ritual, ornamental reference11 to “founding fathers” or “pioneers” is analysed as such in studies of reception, as is the rather fashionable way of referencing certain authors in order to prove theoretical elegance.12

36Yet, there is little acknowledgement of another function of “name-dropping”: what Dotti refers to as “figura conceptual” (conceptual figure):

The first difficulty that I was faced with, was that the reception and (moderate) concretization of Kantian ideas, in Argentina, revealed considerable insufficiencies and incomprehension, if you judged them according to a half-rigorous academic criterion, but that this did not affect negatively the importance of Kant in cultural debate, in general, and in political debate, in particular, until he became the object of philosophical inquiry according to more severe canons (an example of this, in his own way, receptive creativity is Alberdi). I suggested the idea of ‘figura conceptual’, in order to (allow me to quote myself), ‘mention the famous name that they’ –the Argentinian intellectuals of the 19th and first decades of the 20th centuries, ‘use to invoke as source of suggestions and as doctrinarian predecessor who backs their programs, without this attitude being based upon a detailed knowledge of the quoted work or on a rigorous philological exercise. (Dotti 2008/2009: 98, transl. wk).

37This reference to conceptual figures is certainly not properly understood if we simply take it as (ill-informed) instrumental or tactical usage of authoritative thinkers in order to strengthen one’s own intellectual position in lack of proper arguments –this also happens, of course (Dotti, 2008/2009). Rather, what Dotti observes is a nearly metaphorical status of certain names that are associated with certain theories or concepts, famous controversies or specific ways of doing sociology. For example, “Marx” (or “marxism”), who was frequently mentioned in interviews with South African sociologists (see above; see Keim, 2008; 2017), can probably best be understood as such a conceptual figure. These references did not necessarily imply any thorough knowledge of Marx’s texts. Often, he would be mentioned in order to define an intellectual position opposed to “functionalism” (similarly represented by “Parsons”, eventually “Durkheim”, as conceptual figures). Both were accompanied by an expression of sympathy/antipathy beyond any cognitive evaluation. “Marx” was also associated with the uncomfortable position of white left-leaning university-based intellectuals in the face of the emerging Black Consciousness movement. And he had for long been associated with oral debate, while the materiality of Marxist literature outside of university had been dangerous. He had remained a “hidden” figure behind written sociological accounts oriented to a broader public beyond the rather protected academic domain, that had to be watered down due to censorship and repression. Oftentimes, “Marx” was also evoked in order to mark out a particular scholarly practice, namely one oriented not towards purely academic endeavours, but towards social and political action. “Marx” was thus the keyword for understanding the constitution of and changes within a given intellectual field. The person-name, in this case, carries a variety of conceptual and theoretical associations as well as ethical positions and political sympathies and becomes, more than a purely rhetoric device, an argumentative short-cut for taking sides in politico-intellectual and epistemological struggles. Evoking the person names of Fukuyama or Huntington usually produces negative effects, but of a structurally analogous type.

38The complication when it comes to international circulation lies in the often very differential association personal names may carry. For example, South African colleagues mentioned how they had to reconsider the meaning of their favorite conceptual figure when confronted with colleagues from Eastern Europe in the 1990s, after both regions got increasingly involved in diverse forms of international exchange. Similarly, Ruvituso (2015) confirms that Argentinean philosophers tended to ignore the particular association the name of Heidegger raises amongst German scholars today. Finally, considering the example of Derrida’s reception in US-American literary studies (Lamont, 1987), or Luhmann’s reception in Latin America (Rodríguez Medina, 2014a, 2014b), we could ask whether travelling “authors” as “conceptual figures” also have a (re-)structuring effect on the fields in which they circulate, along the line Stengers has suggested for interdisciplinary circulation of scientific concepts.


39If it is easy to agree that sociological texts aim at producing theory or at applying theory to empirical data, it is more difficult to address the question where in sociological texts we find the theory and what exactly it looks like. Apparently, there are few general attempts –general in the sense of cross-cutting established fields of social theory and not arguing from within particular theoretical traditions– to outline what theory is and how it is expressed in sociological writings. Theories formulate statements about correlations or connections between empirical observations and/or logical argumentations.

40The general epistemology of the social sciences would differentiate between hypotheses, i.e. statements about correlations between variables; laws, i.e. hypotheses that have been frequently confirmed by reality; and theories, i.e. systems of propositions including various hypotheses and laws. Theories in this strictly epistemological sense include independent axioms, general hypotheses or laws that connect those axioms, and theorems, i.e. deductions based on laws. However, proponents of such purely epistemological accounts admit themselves that “Irrespective of this relatively precise meaning, the concept of theory is used very extensively in the social sciences” (Schnell et al., 1989, pp. 40-41, transl. wk).

41There seem to be few propositions of “empirical epistemology”, i.e. overviews over existing approaches to “theory” in the literature, as opposed to normative ones, i.e. prescriptions of how to produce valid, objective, etc. sociological theory. Berthelot (1996), in an attempt to exhaustively screen the social sciences theory landscape, distinguishes between six explanatory schemes –causal, functionalist, hermeneutic, dialectic, structuralist, comprehensive– according to how a given social phenomenon is made intelligible in theoretical endeavours. For example, a given phenomenon can be apprehended as an effect to a cause preceding it, or as an element having a function within a holistic totality, or as a hidden sense behind the observable realities to be revealed through hermeneutic methods etc. Ideally, one could reduce the theoretical content of any circulating text to such highly abstract types of argumentation according to the procedures of analytical philosophy and logic.

42As opposed to this analytical distinction, Abend proposes a rare attempt to empirically detect different meanings that sociologists attach to the term “theory” –indeed, an elastic concept. For the purposes of this paper, this non-normative approach is particularly useful, more so since he attempts at exhaustivity. It will actually suffice to summarize his list and exemplify the relevance of different meanings of theory with another text of the same author where he analyses the diverging, actually incompatible meanings of “theory” in two scholarly communities, the Mexican and US-based sociologies. According to Abend (2008, pp. 177 ff.), “theory can mean” the following:

  1. A “general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables” (Abend, 2008, p. 177). Berthelot’s causal, functionalist and structuralist schemes pertain to this first category.

  2. An explanation of a particular social phenomenon, that “should identify a number of ‘factors’ or ‘conditions’, which individually should pass some sort of counterfactual test for causal relevance, and whose interaction effects should be somehow taken into account” (Abend, 2008, p. 178). This is the case of the comprehensive explanatory scheme.

  3. Theories of a third type make sense out of empirical events offering original hermeneutical interpretations or ‘ways of making sense’. This kind of theory asks for the significance of given social phenomena and provides different kinds of interpretations thereof, which it is hard to account for in standardized ways. Theories of this third type may thus appear as “conceptually vague, methodologically problematic, or just unscientific” (Abend, 2008, p. 179). The hermeneutic scheme pertains to this third category.

  4. Theory in the sense of specializing in the writings of renowned theorists: “These ‘studies’ are variously described as ‘interpretations,’ ‘analyses,’ ‘critiques,’ ‘hermeneutical reconstructions,’ or ‘exegeses.’” Contributors to theory in this fourth sense make complex arguments in a “discussion about what exactly the argument [of the theorist in question, wk] is” (Abend, 2008, p. 179). Much of the interpretive and social-philosophical literature pertains to this category.

  5. Theory in the sense of a “Weltanschauung”, i.e. a meta-theoretical “overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world”. Theories in this sense offer an a priori conceptual and linguistic framework: e.g., “the nature of the location from which we look at the social world, the lexicon and syntax by means of which we talk about it, the nature of our conceptual scheme, the categories into which we group things, and the logical relations that there can be between concepts” (Abend, 2008, p. 180). Berthelot’s dialectic scheme is likely to lead to theory of this type.

  6. Some currents that are considered as theory have a “fundamental normative component”: “For example, the contemporary projects of ‘critical theory,’ ‘feminist theory,’ and ‘postcolonial theory’ are explicitly normative ones, which usually reject the fact/value dichotomy, and hence the supposedly value-neutral sociological theory” (Abend, 2008, p. 180). Theories in this sense, as the mentioned examples show, tend to transcend disciplinary boundaries.

  7. Theory is considered to be the study of specific fundamental problems that sociology has dealt with, like “micro-macro problem”, “problem of structure and agency”, “problem of social order”. Interestingly, “even though it is because of its being in the business of empirically investigating society that sociology has encountered these problems, they are not empirical problems themselves (for example, they cannot be resolved by means of empirical methods). They may be described as ‘philosophical’ problems, insofar as they call for reflection upon the nature of knowledge, language, and reality, and some sort of conceptual analysis” (Abend, 2008, p. 181).

43Different understandings of theory on behalf of the author and reader can lead to simple rejection because the text is considered “untheoretical” or even “unscientific” (see below) according to a different standard. But it can also lead to usages different from what the author may have implied. In the case that Abend analyses with more detail, “theory”-conceptions in a series of Mexican and US-American sociological journal articles, we may assume that different meanings of “theory” would rather hinder circulation. According to the author, both national fields “assign a different role to theories, and indeed they have dissimilar understandings of what a theory should consist of” (Abend, 2006, p. 26).

44In most US-American articles in the sample, the place of theory in the text is easily determined. They followed:

a standard format of organization of the argument (…). Theories are employed at a certain point of the text, which suggests and constrains their function in the argument. They are separated from and precede the data. What is thus assumed is, first, the epistemological independence of evidence from theory: whatever the ontological status granted to ‘reality’, the process of cognition does not affect its observable manifestations. Second, most times theories are not a consequence of the empirical investigation, but of the unscientific, arcane, and irrelevant context of discovery. They are either ‘relevant’ theories, formulated by prestigious scholars and drawn from ‘the literature’, or ex nihilo constructions. (Abend, 2006, pp. 6, 8)

45In contrast, the majority of Mexican articles in the sample does not follow the same distinction between theory and evidence: “What U.S. sociologists might understand as the data, Mexican sociologists may see as the theory, as both the data and the theory”. Often, Mexican authors would draw “freely” on theories like those of Habermas, Luhmann, Giddens, Bourdieu, Touraine or Marx, which means that they “borrow concepts and definitions from these theories, or use them to interpret or illuminate particular aspects of their arguments”. In other cases, theories have the meaning of “Weltanschauung” as outlined above, that suggest “how to formulate questions and how to look at the world, and what is and what is not interesting” (Abend, 2006, pp. 6-7), thus providing “foci of interest and jargon” but certainly no theoretical propositions with substantive empirical content. There is no specific location of the “theory” in the Mexican sample, it may feed into the argument whenever needed. Abend thus concludes that the Mexican sample is more idiographic than the US-American sample, in the sense that the Mexican articles

[…] are principally driven by the comprehension of an empirical problem –that is the main thrust of the exercise. While some authors argue about the importance of the case or cases as such, no one justifies its or their selection in theoretical terms. Thus, the purpose of most articles is to make sense of, tell a persuasive story about, give a good account of, or shed light upon that empirical problem. Even though this problem might involve one, a few, or several ‘cases’, it is not through general models that these cases are dealt with, nor is it against the background of a general regular reality that stories about instances are told. According to the Mexican assumptions, abstracting general principles from concrete empirical occurrences may be a misguided strategy, for it is only in those particular contexts that the observed relations are valid (Abend, 2006, p. 10).

46Mexican theory is thus closer to the “facts”: “the theories are the facts; the theories are the facts as they are told” (Abend, 2006, p. 13).

47As a result, the

chief contrast lies in that while in the United States most theories have substantive content, Mexican sociologists tend to think and make use of theories as grammars. The guidance provided by these theories is completely different from the one Merton’s theories of the middle range provide. Grammars are conventional tools and therefore lack truth-value. Grammars are ‘ways of worldtelling’. There are numerous grammars, and they can be seen simply as different equally acceptable instruments with which the world is talked about. Mexican sociologists ‘tell’; U.S. sociologists ‘show’ (…). (Abend, 2006, p. 14)

48While it could be criticized that a specific corpus of empirical material is analysed according to a national divide alone, the more interesting exercise building on Abend would be to search for connections between these two bodies of literature that he describes as so fundamentally different, and to find out how they circulate and eventually interact.


49This second part deals with qualities of texts that, according to available literature, are likely to affect their circulation. The following is an attempt to systematize and synthesize corresponding analyses of empirical cases. However, much more rigorous, systematic comparative work would be needed in order to determine possible criteria that allow to distinguish between degrees of translatability, complexity, obscurity, etc.


50Language is not a detail –those who have participated in international scholarly exchange would agree, and the same is true for circulating texts. Claims of “non-translatability” are often used as a means of increasing the intellectual value attributed to a given text. Boltanski calls this an “effet de faire-valoir linguistique”, which he finds in the French philosophical community with regard to German language:

Cet effet, très puissant, joue sur le prestige de la langue allemande dans le champ philosophique et sur la diffusion relativement faible des études germaniques en France (comparée par exemple à l’anglais, la plus ‘vulgaire’ des langues vivantes). Il suppose l’existence dans le vocabulaire allemand d’un excédent de sens et d’un surcroît de valeur linguistique et philosophique, que la traduction serait particulièrement impuissante, dans ce cas, à reproduire. (Boltanski, 1975, pp. 197-199)

51The claim of non-translatability can go as far as abolishing the idea of translation in the “mystical refusal” to translate. As a result, the very possibility of translatability is put into question –translation becomes cultural transfer or transformation (Dick & Schwerter, 2012). But König wrote that a scientific statement that cannot be translated into another modern language is dubious and should be regarded with skepticism (König, 1971, p. 210).

52A still stronger standpoint would argue that “translatability might even be a criterion of languagehood: an untranslatable utterance would not be speech behavior but random noises” (Davidson 1984; Putnam 1981, quoted in: Abend, 2006, p. 28). It seems, however, that there is a confusion about translatability and intelligibility in this statement. If a given sociological idea is not directly translatable into a different language, that does not mean that it has to remain unintelligible, i.e. that it cannot be understood in any other language. For instance, comparison between US and Mexican sociologies is possible, since “one can plot them on a common coordinate system and render one of them in the language of the other”, i.e. “a certain language can be understood, interpreted, and communicated in such a way that it becomes intelligible to the members of a different linguistic community” (Abend, 2006, p. 28). In those observations, translatability refers to translation between two vernacular languages, but also between different disciplinary or theoretical languages. Translatability should be differentiated from commensurability: Translation means “something done by a person who knows two languages” and “in such a way as to produce an equivalent text in the other language”. Translation thus rests on two premises: that the “language into which the translation is cast existed before the translation was begun”; and that the “translation consists exclusively of words and phrases that replace (not necessarily one-for-one) words and phrases in the original” (Kuhn, 1982, p. 672). This is different form the case where two theories exist in mutually untranslatable theoretical languages, i.e. an issue of commensurability arises (see below).

53It seems worthwhile to take into account contributions in general science theory and epistemology to address the topic of translation. The literature provides diverging views. From a radical stance, the empirically existing diversity of languages that constitute “different names for the same things” (Lapidot, 2012) could be seen as a pathology of communication for scientific activity. Instead of engaging in translation, the radical solution for science would be to create a single universally valid language (Lapidot, 2012). However, while some highly formalized disciplines such as chemistry, mathematics or analytical philosophy may approach this ideal of a universally valid language, this seems utopian for much of the social sciences, where eloquence and rhetorical style enjoy high prestige and where it seems to be more difficult to recover the multiplicity of meanings inherent in certain concepts or metaphors (see above) without reliance on their expression in given vernacular languages. Hauchecorne’s analysis of translation, in the field of analytical ethics, from ordinary language and political debate into logical language through disindexicalisation, systematization etc. is a highly interesting and rare example in this regard (Hauchecorne, 2011). Guilhot’s observation that the transnational emergence of International Relations theory was related to the creation and usage of a theoretical, transnationally communicational, non-vernacular language (in this case anchored in Christian realism) points into the direction suggested by Lapidot (Guilhot, 2014), and Gingras actually confirmed that the more formalized social science disciplines showed higher levels of international collaboration than the more idiographic ones (Gingras, 2002), an empirical statement that could partly be explained by the role and utilization of language and translatability. Indeed, it seems that co-constructive endeavours in transnational scholarly exchange (Keim, 2014) favour the production and circulation of knowledge on the basis of a common, collectively developed language.

54The debate hints towards the specificity of translation in the social sciences and humanities, where at least “three registers of distance” need to be overcome by translation: the “strangeness” of the foreign language, the “odour of the times”, i.e. historical gap between the source text and the public for which it is translated, as well as the “intercultural” distance between source and target civilisation (Ladmiral, 2012, p. 20). Translation is thus not only about the immediate sense of the text at hand, but also involves providing the “social markers”, such as implicit references or stylistic characteristics that help the audience to situate the author and the text within the intellectual field.

55To conclude this section, translatability is not a characteristic inherent in the text independently of its specific forms of circulation and of its confrontations with specific audiences, communicating in given languages. Translatability is thus always contingent on the specific situations in which it becomes problematic. While the issues at stake in discussing translatability are crucial, it is therefore still more difficult than in the other sections of this paper to achieve any generalized conclusion.


56The issue is further complicated by the fact that issues of translatability do not only arise regarding communication across different vernacular languages, but as well between different theoretical languages. It may not even make sense to speak of one language, since all languages are multiple (Caws, 2012). In that space of multilayered linguistic diversity, theoretical languages might be imagined as a cross-dimension, related to but surpassing existing vernacular languages, at least in the social sciences.

57The distinction between linguistic translatability and theoretical commensurability is appropriately differentiated by Kuhn (1982). The issue of commensurability arises when scientific concepts have different meanings in different theories, which makes it impossible to define all concepts of one theory in the conceptual vocabulary of the other –they have no common language, i.e. they are incommensurable.

58Theoreticians may command one theoretical language and be faced with a text that consists “in whole or in part of unintelligible noises or inscriptions” (Kuhn, 1982, p. 672). The task here, in Kuhn’s terminology, is not one of translation but one of interpretation. This involves in the first step apprenticeship of the new language and the meanings attached to single terms in that language in order to render the text intelligible, i.e. socialization into a different theoretical language. Readers may come across unknown terms, for which they are nonetheless able to provide an adequate description and explication in their own language –no problem of incommensurability arises. Eventually, the term in question is introduced into the theoretician’s own language, thus enriching or transforming it. For instance, Ibn Khaldun’s concept of “asabiya” appears in Arabic in most translations and comments on his œuvre –a footnote at first usage providing the rather lengthy description of what is meant. Taking up Quine’s well-known example of the ‘gavagai’, Kuhn argues that incommensurability arises only where

[…] no English description [is] coreferential with the native term ‘gavagai’. In learning to recognize gavagais, the interpreter may have learned to recognize distinguishing features unknown to English speakers and for which English supplies no descriptive terminology. (…) Under those circumstances, ‘gavagai’ remains an irreducibly native term, not translatable into English. Though English speakers may learn to use the term, they speak the native language when they do so. Those are the circumstances for which I would reserve the term ‘incommensurability’ (Kuhn, 1982, p. 673)

59We may assume that degrees of incommensurability vary between circulating texts and readers’ theoretical backgrounds and that this affects the way they are accepted or rejected. While we stated above that degrees of translatability are highly contingent on particular cases of circulation between two given vernacular languages, we can say something more specific about commensurability between circulating texts: Issues of incommensurability and thus increased effort in appropriating the meaning intended by the author are certainly more important in the rather “closed” theoretical systems of general sociological theorists with complex writing style (see below), a huge amount of specifically defined and interrelated concepts (see above), high degrees of theoretical abstraction (see below), eventually combined with rather low degrees of empirical referencing.


60Berthelot (1996) distinguishes between three concurring models of scientificity in the social sciences: the positivist, the comprehensive (verstehend) and the critical model. Incommensurable bodies of theory have thus always coexisted within the European theoretical tradition to which Berthelot refers here. Out of adherence to either of the three models, texts relating to the other models can easily be discredited as unscientific. The increasingly problematic articulation between the generally accepted body of social science disciplines and their local or regional instantiations (Berthelot, 1998) such as Latinoamericanization, indigenization, Islamisation as well as critiques of pure and objective scientificity as expressed in the post-modern, post-structuralist, feminist, post-colonial debates has led to a state of affairs where critiques of scientificity or of presumptions of scientificity account for major movements of rejection and acceptance within the international academic “battlefield”.

61Proponents of the “Islamization of knowledge”-debate, for instance, offer an alternative conceptualization of scientificity, according to an Islamic understanding of science and knowledge as “divine revelation” as a basis for the construction of an alternative social science model. We have to critically ask if at all, or eventually, in how far, this can be regarded as “scientific” from the conventional (European) standpoint (Keim, 2015). The question concerning particular processes of international circulation of social science knowledge would be in how far adherence to such meta-theoretical concepts of scientificity affects the transfer of given approaches.


62Another important parameter is the issue of values and ethical or political orientations implicitly or explicitly attached to or implied by a given approach. We need not reproduce the debate around the value-neutrality of science, often raised in connection with debates around scientificity and thus also re-instated in the course of critiques of Eurocentrism in order to understand that each circulating theory can raise suspicions, sympathies or rejection regarding the distinctive values it may carry. For instance, some approaches are considered to represent more conservative as opposed to more progressive social thought. Similar attributes are traditionalist versus modernist, conflictive versus harmonious, or bourgeois, nationalist, emancipatory, radical, etc. What may appear to be a radical epistemological project in social science can as well be a conservative-reactionary response to social change –a critique Connell raises against Akiwowo’s indigenization project (Akiwowo, 1990, 1999; Connell, 2007). Hountondji’s Critique of Ethnophilosophy (Hountondji, 1976) has led to a series of the most diverse accusations against him: “Hountondji was accused by the left of being a petit-bourgeois individualist, and by the right of betraying African people and culture. Ethnophilosophers saw him as committed to a Eurocentric view of philosophy. He was charged with being a neocolonialist, an elitist, an idealist, a writing-fetishist, a snob and an intellectual fraud” (Connell, 2007, p. 103). Abend finds that “US sociologists tend to regard highly and Mexican sociologists to eagerly disregard the principle of ethical neutrality” (Abend, 2006). We may assume that such differences strongly affect the circulation of texts.

63The difficulty is in detecting the place of values in given sociological texts. By which elements does the author express her ethical commitments? Where in the text do readers find grounds for (often diverse) evaluation of the (supposed) normative standpoint of the author? Sometimes the task is straightforward, as some theoretical compounds are actually proud of their “value-proneness”: “Of course, the notion of ‘good theory’ is itself highly contested. It might be argued that feminist theory is –or should be– less concerned with considerations of clarity and comprehensiveness than with how a theory can be deployed for specific normative or political purposes” (Davis, 2008, p. 78). Favouring certain explanatory factors over others has often led to scholarly controversies where adherence to contradicting values backed presumably theoretical reasoning or critique of empirical data. The more interesting ones, when it comes to studying circulation, are those values that are implied, hidden in given formulations and terminology (Abend, 2006, p. 22).

64An illustrative example of a social scientific concept that is hardly ever used without strong association of values is “neoliberalism”. Abend analysed a series of articles from Mexican sociological journals and comes to the following conclusion:

Yet, the bête noire is undoubtedly ‘neoliberalism’ (Pucciarelli, 1999, pp. 129, 130; Tamayo, 1999, p. 510; Barrera, 1998, passim; Massolo, 1996, pp. 134, 136). One might refer to the ‘neoliberal depredation’ (Dilla Alfonso and Oxhorn, 1999, p. 132); to ‘neoliberal economic policies’ (Zermeno, 1999, passim; Ziccardi, 1999, p. 110); to ‘the importance that current neoliberal politics attribute to big firms to the detriment of small ones’ (Mingo, 1996, p. 91); to the ‘subtle imposition of neoliberal values [normativa]’ (Barrios Suvelza, 2000, p. 176); or to a situation that has been ‘considerably aggravated by the neoliberal policies of governments and multinational financial organisms’ (Stavenhagen, 1998, p. 13). In the present context, ‘neoliberalism’ is obviously a value laden word. It does not mean an economic doctrine based on the ‘laissez faire, laissez passer’ dictum. It means an economic doctrine based on the ‘laissez faire, laissez passer’ dictum that is conceptually incorrect and morally deplorable. (Abend, 2006, p. 24)

65While in the case of “neoliberalism”, detecting the value-ladenness of the term seems to be quite straightforward, it can be more difficult to unravel the specific values each reader detects in the circulating text.


66The before-mentioned points refer to values inherent in social texts that relate to the social world at large. There are value-issues of a more particular kind, namely conformity with those “commandments” that scholarly communities impose on their members –meta- or pre-theoretical premises that are to be followed without further questioning. One such commandment-style premise prevalent in vast domains of social theorizing after postmodernism is that “you should not essentialize”. It has become a fundamentally discrediting critique in very broad academic circles to accuse anyone of essentializing approaches or concepts or of methodologies that carry a potential danger of essentialization. Another such premise was formulated in a recent encounter: Presentations of Çelik (4.12.2013) on South-North issues in international sociology and of Keim (4.12.2013) on centres and peripheries in international sociology at the 13th Turkish National Social Sciences Congress provoked heated discussion where it was repeatedly argued that “you have to avoid dichotomies”. Apparently, as a result of postmodern and postcolonial deconstructions, in particular but obviously not only in the field of gender studies, using dichotomic analytical distinctions has become questionable from the outset.

67A similar example is the implicit rule, apparently increasingly observed in US academia, that “you should not write about a context that is not your context” (Wöhrer, personal communication). Apparently, this follows the trend to question matters of standpoint, representation, and legitimacy to “speak for”. It is also in line with developments in the US-American academic landscape. Professional niches have been carved for social theory and research according to lines defined by labels of cultural difference or identity, such as Black feminism, border studies, chicano studies, Muslim or Islamized social science, postcolonial studies, etc. Each of them “constitutes as an autonomous object each observable identity combinatorics” (Neveu, 2008, pp. 327-328), mainly practiced by individuals who claim, not without pathos, to be speaking out of a particular experience. The “majority” being excluded or distant from this particular social experience, it is neither epistemically competent, nor politically legitimized to speak about it.

68Such fundamental prerequisites do not stand for a particular theoretical approach, are not related to specific thematic fields, regional orientations, languages, conceptual figures etc., but cross-cut social scientific debate in the same way as values and lead to similarly read-made acceptance or rejection.


69One would assume that the more clearly and the more definitely a sociological text expresses its argumentation, the higher its intersubjective potential, since its interpretation by different readers is likely to be most similar. A conventional take on the issue of circulating social science texts would thus assume that the clearer the text is written down or communicated, the better its circulation should function.

70However, sophisticated style –obscurity, ambiguity, dialectical forms of exposition and openness to interpretation– enjoys prestige and recognition in wide fields of the social sciences. Related analyses often mobilize comparisons with the fashion industry. For instance, “like the products of Parisian dress design, structuralism seemed to epitomize the dangerously seductive qualities of style; as intellectual fashions go, it was flashy, different, ingenious and slightly exotic” (Ruegg, 1979, p. 189). “Sophisticated and somewhat obscure style” or “rhetorical virtuosity” count as trademarks of Derrida’s success (Lamont, 1987, pp. 591, 592).

71We may assume that there is a necessary relationship between sophistication and complexity (see below) i.e. the complexity of realities that social science texts refer to and presentation of complex ideas in dense style. “Obscurity”, however, can mean different things. It can mean ambiguity or lack of precision at the level of conceptualization or argumentation:

Social theories whose concepts are only ‘loosely coupled’ are subject to alternative organizations. (Note that this lack of structural integrity is a property of the theory itself, and not produced by our ignorance of it. A social theory may be not merely complex, but inherently ambiguous.)(…) Ambiguity in social science is not the embarrassment Kuhn finds in natural science (1962) –rather it is crucial to the social theorist’s appeal. An ambiguous theory can appeal to different –even hostile– divisions of its audience, allowing each subgroup to interpret the theory in congenial, if mutually incompatible, ways. (Davis, 1986, pp. 295-297)

72Ambiguous or unclear argumentation can enhance circulation in as far as it potentially generates debates around what was really meant, how arguments are to be articulated in order to make sense, how they are to be synthesized.

73Obscurity in conceptualization or at the level of argumentation also leads to openness to interpretation and thus to possibilities to adapt the text to varying contexts. This is what distinguishes the classics in the humanities:

the books we call classics possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions. (Kermode, 1975, p. 138)


[…] a plurality of significances from which (…) every reader misses some and (…) prefers one” (Kermode, 1975, pp. 44, 133). Furthermore, “it is this pluralism that, on the long view, denies the authoritative or authoritarian reading that insists on its identity with the intention of the author, or on its agreement with the readings of his contemporaries. (…) The survival of the classic must therefore depend upon its possession of a surplus of signifier; (…) this may expose them to the charge of confusion, for they must always signify more than is needed by any one interpreter or any one generation of interpreters. (Kermode, 1975, p. 140)

75This corresponds to the multiple meanings inherent in sociological concepts (see above).

76In any event, in the case of obscure texts, the burden of understanding the text is placed on the reader. Since the meaning is not clear from the outset, this opens up possibilities for varying interpretations and usages of such texts. The same argument outlined above with regard to ambiguity, elasticity and multiple meanings of concepts applies here as well: obscurity and therefore openness to interpretation, rather than an obstacle, can be an advantage for productive circulation.


77While obscure or sophisticated style is often associated with complexity of texts, the term complexity is used here to speak about the structuring of texts in multiple layers of language and meaning. These multiple layers affect the circulation process differently and are differently affected by it. Scientific texts are often characterized by their increased level of technicity as opposed to ordinary language. For the social sciences, differently from mathematics or chemistry e.g., this distinction applies only partly. The difference of technical language is that it seems to allow for precision in meaning and for abstraction from particular experiences towards more general validity, as well as for easier translatability, all characteristics that would allow, according to conventional views, their international circulation and adoption in a variety of contexts (Gingras, 2002). But is closeness to ordinary language really a disadvantage for international circulation?

78As opposed to others who argue that wide-spread circulation is due to fashionable, sophisticated or obscure intellectual style; due to easily graspable theoretical “labels”; due to the levels of abstraction of theoretical constructions (see below); or due to the break with ordinary language towards non-vernacular, theory-specific, technical or ideally universally valid languages, Gouldner argues, in his inquiry about the apparent “context-freeness” and ready acceptance of Marxism in a variety of geographical, cultural, and historic settings, that Marx’s texts circulated so widely and were adapted and found relevant at such different times and places because at an underlying level, they showed closeness to an ordinary language that he takes for nearly universal:

This discussion is about how an historically sensitive theory, focused on the distinctive character of capitalist societies and its industrial proletariat, could be refocused to encompass societies that were not capitalist and hardly had any proletariat at all. Basically, my answer will be that Marxism exists as an archaeologically stratified symbolic system, in which its historicist political economy is only the more recent layer, a ‘technical’ or extraordinary language, an EL, that does not exhaust Marxism. Underneath this there is an older, more elemental layer of language, an ordinary language or OL, nucleated with ‘paleosymbolic’ elements on which there is continuing if unnoticed reliance but to which recourse is had specially when difficulties are encountered in using the EL. (Gouldner, 1985, p. 222)

79Gouldner thus recognizes the underlying symbolic structure in Marxism as the source of its potential “metaphorical switching”, that makes it more readily meaningful within settings different from its actual context of emergence. One such example of symbolism is the semantics of “enslavement” prevalent in Marxism, which has metaphorical meaning, if we may follow Gouldner, of almost universal extent. This was confirmed, among others, in an interview with Blade Nzimande, labour psychologist and later on leader of the South African Communist Party. In the following passage, he describes his discovery of Marxism through an autonomous reading group, getting quite close to Gouldner’s idea:

It (Marxism, W.K.) really enriched me. I must say that it was the most liberating experience ever to come across Marxism. A few things struck me, by the way, about Marxism, you know, it was like Marx was writing about my own conditions at that time: the township highly depressed, poor, where I come from, the conditions of the working class that I was growing up within. I was amazed at this, you know? That this thing was written in the previous century but it was talking about […] like describing my own experience. So I got intensely attracted. (Nzimande/Keim, 6.4.2004)

80In the face of those highly diverging views in the literature, whether plain or complex texts are more inclined to circulate, or which layers of texts enhance circulation remains again open to empirical investigation and debate.

81The conclusion to be drawn is maybe that multiple layers of meaning are a major parameter regarding the potential for differential use by generalists and specialists. One is tempted to follow Davis’ claims that neither plain nor obscure texts are most successful in circulation, but multilayered texts: They contain easily graspable, famous and fashionable key aspects for a broad public as well as the necessary complexity that allows for specialization. Davis finds that particularity in the texts that are today considered as “classic”:

  • 13 Furthermore: “Each classical social theory ’looks different’ to those who specialize in them and th (...)

Their theory was multi-layered enough to appeal to those at different levels of sophistication: its simple surface of easily remembered famous concepts gave generalists the feeling of being at least acquainted with the theory, its subtle core of complex relations gave specialists the challenge of puzzling them out. (Davis, 1986, p. 298).13

82K. Davis agrees that “intersectionality” has precisely this advantage of multi-layered theories (Davis, 2008, p. 75).


83According to standard methodological training, the ideal of exhaustivity or completion should direct researchers in their craft and in their writing exercises. Regarding circulation, however, the literature again points to a counter-intuitive assumption: If an argumentation is not thought through in all its logical effects, if empirical grounding for an interesting approach is missing, if important aspects related to a theory have not been taken into account, this can be a major point of critique by peers –for instance at the critical moment of peer-review. However, Davis teaches us that non-exhaustivity can also enhance circulation, in as far as it can motivate others to take the text as a basis for completing or complementing the task that the text has just set out to undertake (Davis, 1986, pp. 295-297). K. Davis takes this argument seriously in analyzing the reasons for the success of “intersectionality” in current gender studies:

In short, intersectionality, by virtue of its vagueness and inherent open-endedness, initiates a process of discovery which not only is potentially interminable, but promises to yield new and more comprehensive and reflexively critical insights. (Davis, 2008, p. 77)


84It is uncertain whether authors of social science texts themselves are able to declare the degrees of abstraction and generality of their theoretical endeavours, or whether this is something to be assessed post-hoc by their “circulation effects”: With Said,

[…] what we also need over and above theory, however, is the critical recognition that there is no theory capable of covering, closing off, predicting all the situations in which it might be useful”. Furthermore, the critical consciousness is awareness of the difference between situations, awareness too of the fact that no system or theory exhausts the situation out of which it emerges or to which it is transported. And, above all, critical consciousness is awareness of the resistances to theory, reactions to it elicited by those concrete experiences or interpretations with which it is in conflict. (Said, 1983, pp. 241-242)

85It is therefore possible that a concept coined with regard to a particular, singular phenomenon, has potentials to be used in different contexts and thus to be generalized. The much decried “idiosyncrasy” suspected in much of European social theory that pretentiously makes universalist claims, is not self-evident or naturally given. If a universalist claim requires a good argument, the opposite move of reducing meaning to particular conditions requires theoretical argumentation and empirical evidence as well. We might assume that the labeling as “generally valid”, just as the labeling as “particularistic”, “provincial”, “local” or “idiosyncratic” are most of the time rhetoric devices to either overemphasize or to minimize the significance of a given sociological approach. Whether these claims hold can at best be gradually and successively assessed by in-depth case-by-case trial and error.

86Historical concepts, even if they initially served to conceptually grasp complex experiences in their singularity have the inherent potential to be “generalized, to create typologies, or to enable comparison”. For instance, “dealing with a particular party, state or army” happens at a language level that simultaneously implies the more abstract concept of parties, states and armies (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, p. 126). But if that generalizing potential is pretended in uncritical ways and due to lack of self-reflexivity, this is likely to provoke rejection in form of a “reducing-in-scope”-argument. For example, Connell (2006), points to the culture-boundedness of, in this case, three contemporary general theorists (Coleman, Giddens and Bourdieu). Apart from the topics addressed, and despite their ambition to achieve highly generalized, abstract accounts of society, the particular conditions of their theoretical production heavily impact onto their conceptualisations. Connell shows that, among others, by highlighting the concept of the social actor in Coleman’s approach:

So what kind of creature does Coleman maintain? When we examine what the ‘natural persons’ do in his text, it becomes clear that they are creatures of a very specific kind. They pursue their own interests, they make calculations about costs and benefits, they bargain with others, they give up rights or receive rights, they engage in purposive actions towards a goal. In short, they behave like entrepreneurs in a market –all the time. (…) In this respect, his sociology is strikingly contemporary. It is a grand generalization of the vision of people and social relations characteristic of modern neo-liberalism. (Connell, 2006, p. 240)

87She summarizes:

Coleman’s general theory builds a picture of the person and social relations that is drawn from recent European and especially North American social experience, reflecting the hypertrophy of the market. (…) Thus, market society and the bargaining individual become the standards by which we understand all social process. (Connell, 2006, p. 244)

88At a more general level, Gingras (2002) differentiates between strongly “modelized” disciplines such as economics from more idiographic disciplines such as sociology or ethnology. He argues that the former are much more internationalized than the latter. What is the functioning of “modelizing” theories? Models attempt at gaining insights through reduction. A model is established on the basis of the original, the highly complex world, isolating and abstracting certain, supposedly relevant characteristics. The model is a reduced reproduction of the empirical world, where only those characteristics are reproduced that are seen as relevant (Schlechtriemen, 2008, p. 81, transl. wk). These few characteristics can thus be controlled by the scholar, they can be used in order to test reality through the model and thus achieve generally valid results. This reduction is seen as a gain of analytical understanding of the real world.

89The procedures that Abend observed, in the above paragraph, within US-American scholarly texts, follows a similar logic of controlling empirical data and focusing only on what is considered to be relevant, usually limited to middle-range theories. Underlying this procedure is the assumption that the social world behaves in regular ways (Abend, 2006, p. 12); furthermore, that the sociologist can apprehend this “regularity in the form of lawlike propositions”. What these scholars usually do is to reduce a complex matter to a question concerning causal relationships in general terms, irrespective of time and space or any other confounding factor, i.e. “ceteris paribus”. Assuming that society behaves according to a general regularity, it is possible to at least determine “conditions under which” things happen in the way that was empirically observed, and thus to build a theory that is valid beyond the particular data on which it builds.

90However, social sciences have also claimed to formulate highly abstract accounts with an aspiration at general validity from within the idiographic pole. For instance, out of an empirically existing richness of particular meanings and local experiences, Weber’s concept of “legitimacy” was intended to be formal and abstract enough to allow for the description of forms of constitution in the long term, and to elaborate on their general underlying structures beyond historically observable, particular forms of constitution (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, p. 128).

  • 14 “The point here is a quite banal but ultimately crucial one, to the effect, crudely, that higher le (...)
  • 15 « Symétriquement, la réception tardive et partielle de Bourdieu, le peu d’impact des précurseurs fr (...)

91A possible hypothesis, following Gingras, would be that the more abstract a theory, the easier its transfer from one social, cultural, and historical context to another. This corresponds to the “Rule of Morley”, claiming that out of circulating texts, it is the abstract level of “theory” that travels best, often disconnected from empirical referents.14 For instance, one of the reasons given for the partial circulation of Bourdieu is that his theorizations are strongly rooted in the French “fields” that he investigated, and are thus reluctant to “this academic variant of refinement that filters conceptual essences out of works that emerged out of surveys and archives”.15 According to a similar argument, Derrida’s deconstruction circulated so well because it proposes an intellectual technique of a highly abstract level, thus applicable to a huge variety of working materials, literary products and ultimately, to texts of all genres, and with the potential of “extending across literature departments and bridging the gap between specialists in different periods and national literatures” (Lamont, 1987, p. 610).

92But there is a critical tension. While Gingras empirically observes stronger internationalization of abstract, modelized theories in the field of economics, Buhlungu severely criticized precisely economic theories, pointing to the fact that these theories often build on the generalized assumption of “ceteris paribus”, while in his understanding, “ceteris is never paribus” (Buhlungu, personal communication, 2012). Much of recent critiques of circulating European theories have been around their presumptuous generalist aspiration as opposed to their de facto particularism. While this critique has become generalized, in-depth, precise studies that alone could reveal whether the generalist aspiration holds or is indeed misleading are often missing.

93Matters are further complicated when we consider from where and about where sociological accounts are written. For instance,

very often, the acceptance of classical Western thinkers outside the West has been linked to two different sets of factors: 1- the fruitfulness of the concepts they have elaborated on their own societies (i.e. European or American); 2- what they have written on other (i.e. non-Western) societies and cultures. In this respect, I think that one could interestingly contrast various readings and receptions of Marx, for instance: his concept of social classes, first elaborated on 19th century Europe, gained international recognition, as your interview with Blade Nzimande shows; on the contrary, his understanding of non-Western worlds (see his idea of Oriental despotism, his writings on India and so on) triggered harsh criticisms. The same could be said of Weber: his analysis of the birth of capitalism in Europe was internationally acclaimed whereas his understanding of Confucianism, Hinduism or Islam prompted rather skeptical comments from non-Western scholars. To sum up this point, then, I would suggest that we should pay more attention to the various thematizations of Western/non-Western worlds by Western scholars as a key element of their reception by their non-Western colleagues. (Brisson, personal communication, 2012)


94Building on a review of existing studies on circulation of social science texts, I have tried to systematize a series of elements contained in texts as well as a series of qualities that are supposed to affect their circulation. The next step would involve systematic confrontation of the proposed list of intrinsic factors for acceptance and rejection with empirical examples; eventually establishing meaningful connections between different types of textual content elements with different qualities; as well as thinking of criteria that would allow for a grading of given texts on a scale characterizing each of the outlined qualities.

  • 16 The fact that Derrida’s reception in the US came along with a shift in audience, from general philo (...)

95The circuits or audiences play a crucial role regarding adverse effects of given contents and qualities. This has best been shown with regard to textual complexity in the process of circulation. How complexity in style affects circulation actually depends on the usage and on the circuits or audiences in which the given text is passed on. For example, in many universities’ undergraduate teaching, clearly written texts are preferred for teaching. By contrast, highly complex texts yield the opportunity to specialize, since “the mastery of a code inaccessible to the layperson legitimizes professional niches” (Abend, 2006, p. 17). According to Lamont, Derrida had a comparative advantage in the French cultural market because “rhetorical virtuosity contributes to the definition of status boundaries and maintenance of stratification among French philosophers” (Lamont, 1987, pp. 591, 592).16 Analysis of the reception of Luhmann in Latin America suggests such an interpretation around the specializing potential of luhmannian theory (Rodríguez Medina, 2014a, 2014b). To take this task further, systematic declination of the enumerated aspects with regard to their effects on different types of audiences would be needed.

96Another interesting aspect of this endeavor is that several of its sections could be organized around an interesting tension arising out of the literature consulted so far. On the one hand, we find established, idealized versions of how science should function and what an ideal scientific text looks like. On the other hand, empirical studies on circulation of social science knowledge seem to confirm that those texts that do not conform to the ideal actually circulate “more” and/or “better” (while what this exactly means also needs to be specified). Tracing the “successful” circulation of a given sociological approach by measuring its quantitative impact or the fashionable and labeling effects it has within the scholarly community is certainly a revealing task in itself. However, we should also try and critically assess in how far the circulation leads to unthought-of, productive, heuristic, particularly insightful sociological practice.

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1 I am grateful to colleagues and international fellows from the project „Universality and acceptance potential of social science knowledge“ at the University of Freiburg and to the participants of the first (2012) and second (2013) Journées d’Etudes on this topic for reiterated discussion of this draft paper. The project and its activities were funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). I would like to thank José Jimenez/Tomás Elgorriaga Kunze for his support in bibliographic research for this piece.

2 “Intellectual legitimation is defined as the process by which a theory becomes recognized as a part of a field –as something that cannot be ignored by those who define themselves, and are defined, as legitimate participants in the construction of a cognitive field” (Lamont, 1987, p. 586).

3 “What kind of interpretive interest is invested in the recovery of the conditions of production of a text? Who is interested in the earthy roots of spiritual objects? What kind of displacement takes place when ideas, texts, doctrines, etc. are made sense of on the basis of their social location? Here, suffice it to say that this approach [Bourdieu’s approach to international circulation of ideas, wk] establishes as the only true deciphering of knowledge and ideas their reduction to sociological facts, thus leaving out their doctrinal dimension and its efficacy, or at any rate denying it the scientific status of the sociological knowledge that alone can spell out its social ‘truth’.” (Guilhot, Oct. 2011, pp. 6, FN 5).

4 Referring to sociological texts considered classic, he details in how far they all refer to the deterioration of modern society through one fundamental factor –for Marx: capitalism, for Durkheim: social division of labour; for Weber: bureaucratization, etc. (Davis, 1986, pp. 288-290).

5 To give another, similar example, following M. Davis, K. Davis accepts his premises in arguing for the success of “intersectionality” within gender studies internationally. “‘Intersectionality’ addresses the most central theoretical and normative concern within feminist scholarship: namely, the acknowledgement of differences among women. The very fact of differences among women has become the leading subject of feminist theories in recent years. This is because it touches on the most pressing problem facing contemporary feminism –the long and painful legacy of its exclusions (Zack, 2007, p. 197)” (Davis, 2008, p. 70).

6 “The low esteem of a theory’s fundamental factor would be one element of this negative rhetoric. Theories that explain society based on low status (‘cynical’) fundamental factors (money, sex, TV) antagonize more of their audience than those based on neutral or high status ones (the division of labour, supra-individual entities, rationality)” (Davis, 1986, pp. 299-300).

7 Our effort at determining whether the concepts of “precariousness”, “social exclusion”, “underclass” and “marginality” that are used in the European, US-American and Latin American scholarly discourses point to the existence of a structurally similar population group within different social inequality orders was such an endeavour Keim, Amacker, Budowski, and Tillmann (2010).

8 Koselleck, on whose “Begriffsgeschichte” we rely here, distinguishes between words, that can be distinguished from the signified, and that can eventually have different meanings, and concepts, that condense and concentrate a variety and richness of different meanings. The meaning and the signified cannot be separated in the case of concepts, because the signified does not exist independently of the word that contains the historical and social reality, experience and theoretical relations that obtain their meaning through this word (Koselleck, [1979] 1995, pp. 119-120).

9 Bal suggests characterizing concepts as “elastic”, which “suggests both an unbreakable stability and a near-unlimited extendibility” (Bal, 2002, p. 14).

10 Bourdieu (2002) claims that certain authors are also particularly “elastic” and therefore circulate well.

11 Also called “ceremonial” reference: “The term ceremonial is used in two basic ways. Broadly, it designates the prescribed mode of procedure governing investigation and the formal communication of research within a discipline. The term ceremonial also specifically refers to those references in which Weber’s status or authority is invoked rather than the substantive content of his ideas. The very impact of such references is contingent upon recognition of the theorist cited and acknowledgment of the importance of his contribution of the theorist within a scientific community. This type of ceremonial reference is common not only in articles which cite Weber in a peripheral fashion, but frequently appears in research substantively incorporating his ideas” (Adatto and Cole, 1981, p. 146).

12 « La fréquence des citations d’Althusser doit sans doute aussi à ce que son invocation était en élégances théoriques l’équivalent de la haute-couture française en matière vestimentaire » (Neveu, 2008, p. 319).

13 Furthermore: “Each classical social theory ’looks different’ to those who specialize in them and those who don’t. Specialists view the theory as an increasingly clear, highly articulated organization of many concepts and their complex relations (as well as a collection of definite problems with some of these concepts and relations). Generalists, on the other hand, have only an indistinct ’general impression’ of the theory, which they experience as a loose organization of a few famous concepts, the ‘clichés’ of the theory. (…)” (Davis, 1986, pp. 294-295).

14 “The point here is a quite banal but ultimately crucial one, to the effect, crudely, that higher levels of abstraction (‘theory’) can be sold in a more extensive (and not nationally specific) market, and thus tend towards both higher levels of profitability for the publisher, and a wider reputation for the theorist. In short, ‘theory’ travels best” (Morley, 1992, p. 3).

15 « Symétriquement, la réception tardive et partielle de Bourdieu, le peu d’impact des précurseurs français de l’histoire culturelle doivent aussi à ce que leurs théorisations sont enracinées dans des terrains français, se prêtent malaisément à cette variante académique du raffinage qui filtre des essences conceptuelles à partir de travaux nés de l’enquête et de l’archive » (Neveu, 2008, p. 321).

16 The fact that Derrida’s reception in the US came along with a shift in audience, from general philosophers to specialists in literary studies, complicates matters.

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Wiebke Keim, « The international circulation of social science knowledge »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 10-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2016, consulté le 02 avril 2020. URL :

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Wiebke Keim

Completed a PhD in Sociology at the Universities of Freiburg/Germany and Paris IV-Sorbonne/France, she led the research project Universality and Acceptance Potential of Social Science Knowledge - On the Circulation of Knowledge between Europe and the Global South (2010-2014) at University of Freiburg/Germany and has been employed as a CNRS researcher at SAGE (Sociétés, Acteurs, Gouvernement en Europe), Strasbourg University, since 2013. Publications include Vermessene Disziplin. Zum konterhegemonialen Potential afrikanischer und lateinamerikanischer Soziologien (transcript: 2008); Global knowledge production in the social sciences. Made in circulation (with Ercüment Çelik, Christian Ersche, Veronika Wöhrer; Ashgate: 2014); Gauging and engaging deviance, 1600-2000 (with Ari Sitas, Sumangala Damodaran, Nicos Trimikliniotis, Faisal Garba; Tulika Press 2014); Universally comprehensible, arrogantly local. South African labour studies from the Apartheid era into the new millennium (Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, 2017). Her focus areas are history and epistemology of the social sciences, sociological traditions of the global South, sociology of science and knowledge, fascisms.

Address: SAGE (Sociétés, Acteurs, Gouvernement en Europe), Université de Strasbourg, MISHA (Maison Interuniversitaire des Sciences de l’Homme - Alsace), 5 allée du Général Rouvillois, CS 50008, FR-67083 Strasbourg Cedex (France).
E-mail: wiebke.keim[at]

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