References to Merleau-Ponty within sociology cluster around four themes. First, he was a central reference point in attempts during the 1970s to develop a phenomenological approach within sociology (e.g. Luckman 1978; Phillipson 1972; Psathas 1973; Roche 1973; O’Neill 1970, 1972; Spurling 1977). Some sociologists sought to reshape sociology in a phenomenological fashion; some wanted to use phenomenology to advance a longstanding sociological interest in “the actor’s point of view”; others were forging their own path but drew inspiration from phenomenology (e.g. Garfinkel 1967). In all cases, however, Merleau-Ponty was deemed important. Secondly, “embodiment” has become important within sociology over the last twenty years, and Merleau-Ponty has been identified as a key theorist of it (e.g. O’Neill 1989; Crossley 2001a). He offers an analysis of embodied human agency which allows sociologists to “bring the body back in”, challenging a residual dualism which some have identified within the discipline. Furthermore, he offers an alternative conception of “the body” which speaks to the concerns of sociologists much more directly than the mechanistic and objectivist models that otherwise tend to prevail. Thirdly, the resonance between and influence of Merleau-Ponty’s thought upon that of Pierre Bourdieu, a (recently deceased) central figure of contemporary sociology, has regenerated interest in the former. Bourdieu seldom mentions Merleau-Ponty directly but his conceptions of embodiment, habit, the pre-reflective domain and reflexivity each resemble Merleau-Ponty’s, and most commentators recognize a line of influence (Crossley 2001b). Finally,
because both political philosophy and the philosophy of history overlap with social theory, Merleau-Ponty’s interventions in these areas have assumed importance too (O’Neill 1970, 1972; Schmidt 1985; Crossley 1994, 2001b, 2004; Smart 1976). His reflections on Marxism formed part of a wider debate that dominated European social theory for much of the 1970s and his attempt to wed Marxism and phenomenology informed sociological attempts to do the same.