Trailblazer Of ‘Sociology Of Movements’: Alain Touraine Remembered – OpEd


Alain Touraine, a highly revered French sociologist who died on June 9, was widely recognized for his profound insights and scholarly contributions in the realm of Social Sciences. Touraine’s intellectual acumen transcended geographical boundaries, leaving a significant impact on academia throughout Europe, the United States, and Latin America, and even extending to the Afro-Asian world. Throughout his intellectual career, Touraine dedicated himself to understanding and explaining the complex relationship between individuals and society, and its varying forms of representation. His ideas and research went beyond linguistic barriers, resonating with scholars and readers from various cultural backgrounds.  

Born in 1925 in Hermanville-sur-Mer, France, Touraine pursued his studies at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University. The fall of France in 1940 played a major role in shaping Touraine’s personal history and intellectual journey. This transformative experience had a great impact on his vision and worldview. While studying in the United States during the 1950s, Touraine attended a lecture by the renowned sociologist Talcott Parsons. However, instead of being inspired, he was deeply disturbed by Parsons’ depiction of society as a stable and harmonious entity. He recalled: “It made me sick, and in two hours, I understood what I was against! For Parsons, as for many Americans who had won the war, society was a no-brainer; they lived in it like a house with a roof and walls. I, on the other hand, was immediately ill at ease in a society that had misbehaved, collapsed and no longer knew what it wanted.” 

The encounter with Parsons’ ideas marked a turning point in Touraine’s intellectual journey. It not only invigorated his critical outlook but also sparked an unwavering resolve to challenge established notions of society. This drove him to study the intricate social dynamics, where he sought to grapple with the interplay between individuals and the societies they inhabit. By challenging prevailing narratives, Touraine embarked on a relentless pursuit of knowledge, aiming to grasp the multifaceted essence of social existence.

Touraine began his career as a researcher at the French National Council. In 1960, he took up the position of senior researcher at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. It was here that he set up the Center for Analysis and Sociological Intervention (CADIS). Touraine’s intellectual world encompasses a sociology of action, with different periods focusing on practical, historical, and philosophical aspects. During the early phase, he explored the practical dimension of social action. Later, he examined social action in a historical context, considering its development over time. Touraine, then, approached social action from a more philosophical standpoint, engaging with deeper theoretical questions. 

During his career, Touraine made serious efforts to integrate theoretical and analytical approaches, empirical sociological research, and analysis of real historical events.  His commitment to interdisciplinary exploration is evident in his diverse range of writings. For instance, Touraine authored a book on universities and the American student movement, demonstrating his keen interest in understanding educational institutions and social movements. He closely followed the evolution of French-speaking Canada, conducting thorough research on the topic. He conducted extensive studies on the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, delving into their unique socio-political transitions. Also, a significant portion of his scholarly pursuits was dedicated to studying the countries of the Latin American continent. By engaging with diverse subjects and regions, Touraine’s works reflect his dedication to exploring the multifaceted character of societies, employing a variety of research methods and approaches to gain insights into the complexities of human social dynamics.

Initially, Touraine’s studies focused on the sociology of worker consciousness. During this period, Touraine authored his earlier works in Latin America, studying the coal miners and metallurgical workers in Chile. Notably, his book The Postindustrial Society also came out at this time. The second stage of Touraine’s research revolved around significant events such as the May 1968 protests and military coups in Latin America. These experiences drove his deep interest in studying social movements. Collaborating with a group of academics, Touraine developed a method of sociological intervention and undertook a series of studies to understand these movements and their dynamics. In his subsequent studies, Touraine’s primary focus revolved around the concept of the subject, which he considers as the central principle underlying the actions of social movements. He placed a significant emphasis on understanding the agency and motivations of individuals within these movements. This stage marked a shift towards a more philosophical exploration of the subject and its role in shaping societal change. 

 In 1966, driven by a strong dislike for the established academic system, Touraine joined the newly created University of Nanterre near Paris. Little did he know that he would find himself at the epicentre of the student movement in Europe, which was rapidly becoming a significant cultural and political force. Among the many books written about this movement, Touraine believed that his own book was the most supportive, recognizing it as an important example of the emerging ‘cultural’ movements that were different from traditional ‘social’ movements. However, he also pointed out the conflicts between this cultural movement and the prevailing Marxist, Trotskyist, and Maoist ideologies that tried to understand it purely in political terms. Touraine compared this clash to putting new wine into old bottles, highlighting the need for new ways of thinking to understand the changing dynamics of the time. As a result, Touraine found himself in disagreement with both conservative professors and leftist political groups.

Based on his encounter with many movements, Touraine challenged the idea that collective behavior can be defined solely based on conformity to laws, customs, and dominant values. He undertook initiatives to study collective behavior: first, by immersing themselves in various social and political movements such as the student movement, anti-nuclear movement, nationalist movement, unionized workers in different sectors, Polish Solidarność movement, Chilean coal mines, and steel industry, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. His approach opposed functionalist studies that view actors and systems as interconnected. He argued that the logic of social systems and social actors, particularly those who strive for innovation and critical intervention, are fundamentally at odds with each other. Systems seek integration and adaptation, while actors seek greater freedom, autonomy, dignity, and responsibility.   

In 1969, Touraine voiced his critique of the concept of a postindustrial society, particularly as it was conceived by Daniel Bell, who portrayed it as a hyperindustrial society. Over the next fifteen years, enthusiasm for the notion of a postindustrial revolution waned, with few observers, especially in business circles, willing to embrace it. Instead, a more fitting expression emerged—a new industrial revolution or a significant advancement in industrial productivity. Touraine argued that the definition of postindustrial society must now be approached in a broader and more radical manner. It should be viewed as a new culture that gives rise to fresh social conflicts and movements. A broad occupational definition of an information society is misleading and fails to justify the idea that a distinct society is emerging. Instead, postindustrial society should be more narrowly defined by the technological production of symbolic goods that shape or transform our understanding of human nature and the world around us.

Accordingly, Touraine identified four primary components of postindustrial society: research and development, information processing, biomedical science and techniques, and mass media. In contrast, bureaucratic activities and the production of electrical and electronic equipment were viewed as growing sectors within an industrial society that was primarily defined by the production of goods, rather than by new communication channels and the creation of artificial languages.  

Touraine’s research on social movements was quite impressive. According to him, in contemporary sociology, the concept of social movement had crucial significance. This importance arises not only from the need to distinguish sociology from outdated definitions that focused on the study of society itself, which should be replaced by the study of social action, but also due to the urgent requirement to construct a fresh understanding of social life. This construction necessitates the inclusion of the concept of social movement as a vital link between the observation of new technologies and the conception of novel forms of political engagement. Unlike in previous forms of social thought, the concept of social movement can now occupy a central role in sociological analysis. It has the potential to become the cornerstone that enables comprehensive examination and understanding of contemporary societal dynamics. By recognizing the transformative power of social movements and their interplay with emerging technologies, sociology can embrace a more comprehensive and relevant approach to studying the complexities of social life in the present era.

Touraine wrote: Social movements are not positive or negative agents of history, of modernization, or of the liberation of mankind. They act in a given  type of social production and organization. This is the reason why we emphasize the priority of social, structural conflicts over historical movements.” He said that “New social movements are less sociopolitical and more sociocultural. The distance between civil society and State is increasing while the separation between private and public life is fading away. The continuity from social movement to political party is disappearing; political life tends to be a depressed area between a stronger State in a changing international environment and, on the other side, sociocultural movements.” He further wrote: “The main risk is no longer to see social movements absorbed by political parties, as in Communist regimes, but a complete separation between social movements and State. In such a situation, social movements can easily become segmented, transform themselves into  defense of minorities or search for identity, while public life becomes  dominated by pro-or anti- State movements.”

In 2014, he wrote: “Today, our main task is to understand social situations and social actors that are deeply different from those of industrial societies. On the one hand there is the rise of authoritarian regimes and, on the other hand, in the West industrial capitalism has been replaced first in 1929 and then again in 2007-8 by a financial capitalism which has no economic function but only to make profit by any means possible. Actors can only resist powerful speculative capital and the pursuit of pure profit by defending ethical universal values. While the notion of human rights did not capture the imagination during the long post-war period, we see now that Human Rights and Democracy are the only values which appear to be able to mobilize enough social and political forces to oppose anti-democratic authoritarian regimes and speculative capitalism.”

A few years ago, Alain noted: In the 20th century, proponents from wealthier nations propagated the belief that economic growth, political democracy, and personal happiness are intertwined. However, the harsh realities of history have shattered this overly optimistic view, he stated. He argued that democracy and development do not always progress together; in fact, they can even move in completely opposing directions. Democracy is only feasible when a country’s population forms an actively engaged political entity. It weakens or disappears when political decisions are driven by non-social factors such as loyalty to nationalistic sentiments, community integration, the will of a ruler, or even the pursuit of modernization itself. 

Touraine became a critic of the neoliberal policies that gained prominence since the 1990s. During the late 20th century, he boldly brought the question of the subject and democracy to the forefront of intellectual discourse through his influential works, particularly Critique of Modernity and What is Democracy. These groundbreaking texts challenged the conventional understanding of democracy as a mere collection of institutional safeguards or a passive exercise in negative freedom. Instead, Touraine offered a profound conception of democracy.

According to Touraine, democracy entails an ongoing struggle undertaken by individuals rooted in their unique cultures and aspirations for freedom, against the dominant logic imposed by existing systems. Within this framework, Touraine put across a vision of democracy that went beyond traditional boundaries and embraced the active agency of individuals in shaping their own destinies. His ideas provided a fresh perspective on democracy, emphasizing the transformative power of individuals engaged in the pursuit of freedom within their respective cultural contexts.

Touraine’s method of investigation also drew criticism from some angles. In his earlier writings, he viewed his ‘actionalist’ approach as a corollary to structuralist and functionalist theories, acknowledging their contributions to sociological understanding. However, as his work progressed, he gradually distanced himself from these rival concepts without engaging in detailed discussions or debates. With a somewhat contentious disposition, Touraine polemically rejected not only structuralist and functionalist notions but also symbolic interactionism, empiricism, evolutionary theories of society, and social philosophy as well. 

According to Dieter Rucht, Touraine’s central theoretical principle suggests that contemporary society is not merely a system of reproduction but a dynamic entity that constantly creates itself through conflictual processes. He views society as a hierarchized collection of action systems, where actors with conflicting interests share common cultural orientations within the same social sphere. Touraine argues against the notion that society is solely based on the economy or ideas or that it is composed of subsystems or hierarchical levels. Instead, he identifies historicity and class relations as the fundamental components of society, emphasizing the generation of models and the transformation of orientations into social practices within the context of social domination. 

Touraine’s perspective challenged the idea of society as a mechanical or rigid organization and instead emphasizes action and social relations. This perspective stands in opposition to functionalism and structuralism, highlighting the dynamic nature of social interactions and the agency of individuals in a given social context.  In the 1970s, Touraine expanded his ideas and developed a method called “sociological intervention” to analyse social movements. This method, along with his ‘actionalist’ approach, aimed to identify and understand the emergence of significant social movements that would play a central role in a programmed society. In the past, the workers’ movement held this central position in industrial society, while the civil liberties movement occupied it in the preceding market society. Touraine sought to uncover and comprehend the social movement that would assume a comparable influential role in the evolving dynamics of a programmed society.

As Rucht noted, opinions may differ regarding Touraine’s status as a prominent figure in contemporary sociology, but his contributions to the study of social movements are undeniably significant. His extensive body of work, characterized by an ambitious yet debatable approach, firmly established him as one of the foremost scholars in this field. In contrast to many of his peers, Touraine sought to bridge the divide between grand theoretical frameworks and detailed empirical analysis at the micro-sociological level. His unwavering intellectual conviction and clear stance set him apart, as he fearlessly challenged alternative approaches without apparent concern for potential criticism or backlash. 

The author, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

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