UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Foucault shift in sociological theory : from epistemological to ontological critique Soleiman-Panah, Sayyed Mohammad


Sociology has always been forced to establish its "scientific" legitimacy, but this need has never been more strongly felt than today. Constant theoretical shifts and disciplinary fragmentation are viewed as symptoms of some fundamental problems. Assuming the precariousness of the present condition of sociology, this dissertation seeks to understand and explain the driving force behind theoretical shifts in sociology, for they are blamed for many of the problems in the discipline. Through a close reading of Michel Foucault's works, I argue that sociology, like many other forms of knowledge, has attempted to shape the modern person as an ethical subject. Pursuant to this objective, early sociologists attempted to establish a balance between two different kinds of orientation within the discipline, one of which was epistemological and scientific while the other was ontological and discursive. This position was in line with the critical attitude of the time and the emancipatory promises of the Enlightenment, which were nurtured by the early sociologists. In other words, the dual characteristic of sociology was due to a critical interest in changing and shaping the modern social subject. However, this duality gave rise to a tension within the discipline that was extremely difficult to manage, if not impossible. This dissertation examines the tension between the two orientations that has shaped the history of sociology. I read classical sociologists such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber to show that even these positivistic sociologists' theories can best be understood as a form of critique. In particular, I explain how they sought to manage the tension between the epistemological and the ontological aspects of their theories. I also examine Karl Popper's critical philosophy as a more recent attempt to keep science politically relevant. However, I will show that the dilemmas created in sociology are mainly due to a strong epistemological orientation beyond which most contemporary sociologists are not able to move. Sociology may avoid some of its present dilemmas by shifting its critical interest to an ontological path. To show the possibility and merits o f the ontological approach to politics, I read Karl Marx as a classical sociologist whose theory exhibits a strong ontological tendency. I above all discuss Michel Foucault's work extensively in order to both explain the nature of sociological theories and to explore the possibility and the prospects of the separation of the epistemological and the ontological sociologies more systematically. My aim is to show that while scientific sociology tries to advance without becoming intrinsically political, an explicitly discursive or ontological approach to contemporary political questions can be adopted by interested political actors and sociologists alike.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.