Immanent Critique: The Role of Researchers and Participants in the Particular Universal Conundrum, Benno Herzog

Critique is back on the agenda of mainstream social science. There was a time when only a minority of social scientists considered critique as the aim of academic work. “Serious sciences”, according to the conviction in large parts of academia, has to describe or analyze but does not itself have to be a critical enterprise … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Herzog, Benno. 2022. “Immanent Critique: The Role of Researchers and Participants in the Particular Universal Conundrum.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 6-12.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Angermuller, Johannes. 2021. “Critique Equals Suffering Plus Society? Towards a New Approach to Critique.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (9): 1–5.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Herzog, Benno 2022. “Can the Excluded Criticize? On the (Im)Possibilities of Formulating and Understanding Critique.” Social Epistemology 36 (1): 9–20.

❦ Herzog, Benno. 2018. “Invisibilization and Silencing as an Ethical and Sociological Challenge.” Social Epistemology 32 (1): 13–23.

Social Solutions and Critique

Today, there are pressing problems that are widely understood as social and therefore require social solutions. There seems to be a consensus that phenomena such as racism, sexism, poverty, exploitation, injustice, etc. are not (only) legal, political or psychological problems but also have deep roots in the social organization itself and consequently should be treated as social problems. Equally, the hegemonic opinion about the climate crisis is that we no longer hope for the technological wonder that solves the problem so that we can maintain our ways of life. Instead, the answer to climate change has to consider various fields of social reproduction, from economics to law, from international justice to gender equality, to the rethinking of development ideals and so on.

Scientists following a critical agenda against racism, sexism or climate change are no longer seen as exceeding the scientific frame but as responsible citizens who contribute with their work to a better future. Scientific grants (not only in social sciences and humanities) often openly refer to certain normative political development ideals such as the UN sustainable development goals or—in the European Union—to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Academics who follow this line would engage in what Johannes Angermuller (2021) called “hot critique”, a critique “which puts science at the service of a political idea or a social movement” (1). In the scientific literature, this kind of critique is usually called external critique (e.g., Herzog 2020; Jaeggi 2014).

What has changed in recent decades is that academic forms of external critique no longer refer to particular, often radical social movements at the margins of society. During most of the 20th century, academic critique was widely associated with Marxism and was even used as a code for Marxist sciences. Today, the external norms scientists use come from broad and influential political institutions. This is of course an important political change. However, from a formal and structural point of view, this critique, based on international legal frameworks, and critique based on the charter of a particular political movement can both be described as external forms of critique. There may be good reasons for using this form of critique, but it is always external to the object they pretend to change through critique.

On the other hand, there is a recently developed sociology or analysis of critique as a social practice (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006) that takes critique as a social fact, similar to what Angermuller called “cold” critique. Critique as social practice is present not only in language but also in diverse activities such as strikes, absenteeism, solidary care work or rolling one’s eyes in response to an unjust situation. Not always can the actors account verbally for the critique inherent in these practices. Moreover, critique is also present in various feelings of disrespect, such as feelings of shame or being ignored. In some of these cases, the critical moment consists of the mere fact that a specific situation “does not feel right”. These kinds of negative feelings could be described as presemantic forms of critique (Adloff and Pfaller, 2017).

Immanent critique now wants to overcome this division between engaging in active critique and analyzing the moments of critique in society. It first looks into the critical moments of social practices or affective reactions to extract the immanent, often unconscious, normative grounds of these practices. In a second step, immanent critique uses these socially embedded grounds to criticize social phenomena. The basic form of immanent critique is the if… then… form. If we accept certain normative claims inherent in our practices or affective reactions, then a social constellation has to be changed accordingly.

The renewed interest in immanent critique (e.g., Herzog 2020; Romero 2014; Stahl 2013) does not simply aim to create a meta-theory, a discursive realm separated from social reality. The need to turn to the possibility of critique itself is the result of a proliferation of approaches, theories, methods and practices that call themselves “critical”. Too often, the critical normative moment in these approaches has been taken for granted. Today, with the rising consciousness of a plurality of well-founded norms, the normative stance contained in critique can no longer be seen as self-evident (in fact, it never was).

Critique as academic practice runs the risk of becoming a reified construction, an ideology, when what calls itself a critical science uncritically assumes certain external normative standpoints, independent of how sympathetic one might be to these positions. Therefore, it is not that the dedication to the normative foundations of critique aims to go against practical critique, elevating critique to the ivory tower of theoretical reflections. On the contrary: only by being aware of the normative grounds and implications of critique can one effectively perform practical critique that helps bring about emancipatory changes.

In previous years, I was trying to ground critique in social suffering (Herzog 2018a, 2018b, 2020). The idea is not new. There is a long history in the social sciences and humanities of understanding and using the critical potential contained in social suffering (e.g., Bourdieu 2000; Engels 1975; Horkheimer 1988a; Renout 2017). Suffering is called social when it is (willingly or not) produced or maintained by human beings or could be abolished or alleviated by human action. Only then does suffering become a form of disrespect, the negative normative starting point for critique. Social suffering then turns into a normative claim against society. Suffering should not exist, and society should be committed to ending this kind of unnecessary suffering.

Trying to overcome social suffering puts the subjects in the center of emancipation. It is their experience, their suffering, and not the analyst’s point of view, or the declared position of an institution, that is used to push forward social change. Regarding theories of democratic deliberation, theories of social suffering usually dig slightly deeper by acknowledging that the field of communicative action is already prestructured. It includes positions of varying power, people with more or less cultural capital, taboos, prescribed and proscribed forms of speaking and so on (see Foucault 1981). Relying on suffering is more inclusive. Everybody, independent of cultural capital, democratic experiences, etc. is able to feel disrespected. Everybody is able to suffer. This is the democratic advantage of approaches to social suffering.

False Suffering

Taking social suffering as a starting point of critique has advantages but also brings new problems and challenges, as Angermuller (2021) rightly claims.

The concerns raised against theories of social suffering can be understood with the particular universal dialectics of social suffering. How can very particular, individual forms of suffering be used to ground something supraindividual like social critique? Angermuller asks, “isn’t Herzog opening the doors to a moral anything goes by turning to the actors’ perspectives?” This concern is related to the fact that there are very different forms of feeling disrespected. There are, for example, ethnic minorities feeling disrespected by open and latent racism in Western societies, and there are White supremacists who suffer from having to share public transport with ethnic minorities. Should both types of suffering have the same epistemological status and value? Can they be both used—in the same way—to ground and justify critique?

Immanent critique does not aim to substitute the particular perspective of the social scientist with the particular feelings of participants. From the very beginning, there is a claim of universality related to immanent critique. In his answer to my article, Angermuller criticizes that to be able to decide whose suffering can be used in which way for critique, one has to presuppose a “society as a rather stable framework and transparent space”. From this unrealistic bird’s-eye view of society, one could then distinguish between correct and false forms of suffering.

I will make my point out of this particular-universal conundrum in the following three steps.

Step one, by vindicating a (weak) universal moment in social suffering. It is universal to human beings that they can suffer from the contradiction between normative claims, i.e., expectations and social reality. This universality of social suffering is reclaimed even by scholars who are usually very critical about claims of universality, such as postcolonial thinkers (see, e.g., Appiah 1991). It was always a way of justifying the suffering of the (colonial) other by maintaining that the other does not suffer in the same way as “we” do. Recognizing the universality of the capacity of social suffering is recognizing the equality of all humans.

Step two, although all human beings are able to suffer, suffering is not “original” or “authentic” data detached from distortions of power mechanisms. Suffering might be a presemantic form of critique, but it is not a presocial form. The reasons one experiences social suffering are closely linked to the expectations one has of other human beings or of society as a whole. These expectations are always socially created. There are no human beings that do not bear the mark of society in them. Here, I fully agree with Bourdieu (1992) when he says that “the most personal is the most impersonal, that many of the most intimate dramas, the deepest malaises, the most singular suffering that women and men can experience find their roots in the objective contradictions, constraints and double binds inscribed in the structures” of different forms of social organization (201).

The social nature of suffering, however, does not mean that there is one coherent block called “society” that inscribes the same norms and values, i.e., the same normative expectations. and the same reasons for suffering to all individuals. A person from an ethnic minority and a White supremacist may be both part of the same broader society. Their suffering is in both cases social. However, the mix of social influences can be very different in both cases, leading one to suffer from racism and the other to suffer from having to share public space with people from ethnic minorities.

But how can we then distinguish these forms of suffering?

Step three, social suffering can be seen as the (universal and socially prestructured) engine of critique, but in itself, it cannot point toward the direction of abolishing suffering. All social suffering always has to be taken seriously, as it could point toward underlying social pathologies. As in the case of medical practitioners, individuals are the experts in their suffering, but they are not experts in the underlying reasons. I called “ideological” those suffering whose direct and unmediated overcoming in the sense of those who suffer would only lead to more suffering (see Herzog 2020).

The very same pathology, e.g., a racist society, could lead to very different symptoms, such as suffering from racial inequality and suffering from fear of others. Immanent critique, as a social critique, must always analyze at the same time the social context, the underlying reasons and the possibilities of overcoming suffering.

Furthermore, especially when used as social critique, i.e., as critique of fundamental social structures, immanent critique at the same time points to underlying structural resistances. Immanent critique shows not only what certain suffering should be but also that in this society, with this material and symbolic organization, certain contradictions necessarily arise. Therefore, racism is not social because there are multiple individuals with racist attitudes. Racism is deeply rooted in the organization of the social with its nation states, citizenships and border regimes, with its racist history and colonial past and present, as well as with its symbolic orders, racist stereotypes and imagery and latent discrimination.

Immanent critique does not mean that by formulating critique, society will change in the blink of an eye. Social scientists do not have a recipe for an emancipated society free from all social pathologies. Immanent critique wants to contribute to a process of transformation in which society, individuals and the critics themselves gain new insights into reality. To stick with our example, one step to overcoming racism would be making the public aware of the suffering that is caused by racism. Another would create awareness about structural racism embedded in our material and symbolic reproduction. Part of this process would also be the change of attitude of our White supremacists so that they no longer suffer from xenophobia.

To sum up the argument, we could say that as social scientists, we can understand the suffering not only of the members of an ethnic minority in a racialized society but also of a White supremacist in this society. As social scientists, we can understand that supremacists have not been born supremacists but have become so, influenced by different social factors including peer group, community and broader society as well as by the material and symbolic organization of their life worlds. We can further understand how this specific organization of society (re)produces racist attitudes. We can even understand how it must be painful for supremacists to suffer when their socially created claims of superiority clash with social reality.

In this example, even the suffering of a racist can be understood as a driving engine of the following critique: a critique that aims at the opposite of what the racist had in mind but that ultimately aims to “cure” the racist also from the underlying pathology or racism.

The Invisibility of Suffering

Apart from this particular-universal conundrum, grounding critique in the presemantic form of suffering also includes a second important problem: visibility of suffering. Earlier, I said that there is a democratic advantage of critique based on suffering regarding discursively articulated critique by social agents, as not everybody is able to participate in democratic deliberation in the same way, but everybody is able to suffer. However, not everybody’s suffering enters the public space in the same way. Millions of Europeans can be moved to tears by the relatively banal suffering of the European aristocracy yet remain broadly untouched by the existential suffering of millions of Indian farmers. There is a clear economy of attention to suffering that follows the same lines of race, class, gender, etc., that can produce suffering in the first place.

It would be naïve to think that social scientists are unaffected by such distortions. Therefore, while the first problem was related to the possibility of the individuals having flawed, partial or ideological perceptions about the nature and the grounds of their suffering, the critique now points to the practical question of how to overcome the researcher’s bias, which is also the bias of the public hegemonic space in which suffering can appear.

The dedication to the underlying problem of this critique has a long history in social sciences and humanities. It is ultimately the question of how to turn something nonlinguistic (here: multiple sufferings in society) into language without missing important elements. Without pretending to offer a complete answer, here I want only to point out a variety of tentative strategies to overcome the invisibilization of certain suffering (for more details see Herzog 2016, 2020).

One would be to turn to empathic communication. Empathy can overcome some invisibilities, especially those related to silence. We can empathically understand even those who are not talking about their suffering. However, empathy also often has its own bias and therefore, in the words of Paul Bloom (2016), can be used as a tool but not as a master (see also Breithaupt 2017).

Another possibility used especially in the tradition of critical theory is to turn to aesthetic expressions, such as art forms (e.g., Kracauer 2004) or artworks (e.g., Herzog and Hernàndez 2013). Art often contains elements of truth, and artists are often very sensitive to hidden social injuries. However, of course, neither artists nor the perception of artistic works is free from social biases.

A third approach to overcome silence and invisibility would be to turn directly to the analysis of invisibility (and processes of invisibilization). As social scientists, we can hear silence and see invisibility. We can hear the absence of migrants in radio shows, and we can see the absence of women in a meeting of CEOs and the suffering produced through these everyday forms of racism and sexism. That is, we can perceive meaningful absence by comparing reality to ideal expectancies or other situations (see also Schröter and Taylor 2018).

Finally, I want to argue for being reflexive about the impossibility of complete visibilization. We can never fully grasp with words all aspects of any phenomenon. Therefore, critical social sciences must be aware of being only able to shade light on different aspects while leaving others necessarily in the dark.


Immanent critique is a critique aware of its normative ground. However, this stance is no innocent taking of the actors’ perspective. At the same time, it does avoid taking an external, superior position, being that the position of the researcher, that of a (funding) institution or that of an alleged homogeneous “society”.

The proposal I make here takes suffering as the starting point of critique, well aware that suffering can be ideological, distorted or hidden. Therefore, although the lived experiences of the agents have to be considered, immanent critique grants epistemological priority to objectivist rupture through the analysis of suffering in its social contexts over these subjectivist positions of the agents. As social critique, it understands suffering not as arbitrary or casual but as a symptom of deeper social pathologies. Although individuals are experts in their suffering, they are no experts in social pathologies. Here, critical social science can help with the self-understanding of individuals and the understanding of society as a whole to recognize the social grounds of individual and individualizing suffering.

Author Information:

Benno Herzog,, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Valencia, Spain.


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