Luc Boltanski

Last updated, 22 Aug 2014

Overview on Luc Boltanski and CMS

by Stephen Dunne


This overview is from Dunne (forthcoming), a book review on Luc Boltanski’s (2011) ‘On Critique:  A Sociology of Emancipation’, which will be published in Organization. Please see the book review for citation.

In ‘On Critique’ Boltanski distinguishes between two structures of domination: simple and complex. Under conditions of simple domination oppression rules the roost. Here, reality does not readily enter into critical contestation, rather, everything conspires to confirm the incontestable reality of things as they are already understood. Simple domination therefore functions through the refusal of change, often times through the application of arbitrary power. Complex domination, on the other hand, is characteristic of democratic-capitalist societies and is defined by its advocacy of change. This is the world of benchmarking, evidence based-policy initiatives, audit and rankings – the world where everything is up for grabs and can be put to use. This, for Boltanski, is the world of management – the world where the dream of emancipatory change seems ever so quaint and dated. What, after all, is the point of emancipatory critique when everybody is always in pursuit of new realities anyway? What would a renewed call for emancipation even mean in a context when we have given up on everything other than the certainty of change and uncertainty? A contemporary sociology of emancipation must develop a critique of complex domination. Boltanski writes:

For the idea of domination to make sense, it must be possible to show that there exists a factor of convergence between actors dispersed in space, performing different activities, occupying very different positions as regards the institutional authorities, equipped with unequal power when assessed in terms of property and capital, but who nevertheless contribute through their action to the pursuit of domination (p. 143)

In other words, contemporary critical social theory must resuscitate the dominant social class construct in light of the prevalence of the mechanics of complex domination. The question of the dominant social class, on Boltanski’s analysis, can no longer be reduced to questions surrounding the ownership of the means of production, as orthodox Marxism would have it, nor even to a question of habitus and cultural re-production, as Bourdieu’s critical sociology had more recently said. Today’s dominant class, for Boltanski, is the class of people who can pass out rules and transcend them. Under conditions of complex domination, the dominant class is the class which entitles itself to a double-relationship towards rules which it prohibits to the majority. On the one hand, rules are there to be obeyed – they are necessary. On the other hand, rules must be occasionally disobeyed, but only by a certain few – this too is necessary. The people that make these very calls, the people who rule over the rule-ness of the rules, the people for whom rules are both binding and unbound; these are the dominant class under conditions of complex domination. And for Boltanski, it is leaders and managers who are the bearers of this very privilege – they are the ones for whom the maintenance of structures of complex domination contains all the hallmarks of a vested interest. 

And so management, the heroic innovator of the ‘New Spirit of Capitalism’, becomes the demonic villain of ‘On Critique’. CMS features in neither book, but there can be little doubt of the pragmatic sociology of critique’s relevance to the ongoing critical study of management and organisation. Here we find a normative base for CMS, which has had no need to refer to CMS, as well as the demarcation of an empirical realm of CMS, similarly without any overt credence paid. Boltanski encourages social scientists to harness critique against contemporary structures of complex domination – CMS should continue to do so, only now, thanks to this book and the programme that it re-introduces, it can do so better armed.



Boltanski, L. (2011) On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation. Polity Press: London

Boltanski, L. and E. Chiapello (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. Verso: London