Alain Touraine and the concept of social movement

Intervention de Michel Wieviorka lors du Congrès ISA World Congress of Sociology à Yokohama en juillet 2014.

AlainTouraineThere is a common place idea that sociology avoids the difficulties of philosophy (presented as being too abstract or theoretical) and those of history (considered too empirical) by combining ideas and fieldwork, or hypotheses and the collection of data.

I should like to add that what I consider to be most important is that sociology articulates at least four intellectual requirements. In the first instance, the best research associates the production of material knowledge, necessarily covering specific problems, and the pursuit of generality, a much broader perspective on social life.

Secondly, this research inevitably raises the question of the relation of the researcher to his or her subject, which may, for example, involve the researcher’s commitment which is not restricted to professional life alone – a discussion restarted a few years ago with the idea of ‘public sociology’.

Thirdly, in my opinion, sociology cannot cut itself off from historical reflexion; it is also a contribution to history in the making and it may even shed light on the past.

And, fourthly, if sociology provides knowledge, it is by implementing methods which must be adapted to the objects studied and to the conceptual orientations of the researcher. Methodology is not a separate subject, a field or a speciality which can be isolated from the rest – quite the contrary.

Thus I would like to say a few words about the contribution of Alain Touraine to our subject.

At the end of World War Two, Touraine had first hand, personal experience of working in the mines in the north of France and this is what decided him to become a sociologist. He then started on research on industrial labour in the Renault car firm and from there he became interested in working-class consciousness and the working-class movement. The concept of social movement which he then elaborated, throughout the 1960s and into the beginning of the 1970s was shaped by its origin in an industrial society. At this point, for Touraine a social movement – you will forgive me for over-simplifying here – was merely one specific meaning of action amongst others. In sociological terms it was the most significant meaning since the social movement is this dimension of the struggle in which a dominated, protesting actor is capable: of defining his or her identity, that is, on whose behalf he or she is mobilising; of recognising the social nature of the adversary, the opponent, who is both dominant and in power; and of claiming to manage or monitor the major orientations of collective life. This is what Touraine calls the historicity of society. The social movement as thus defined by Touraine is a very different concept from those which originate in certain forms of functionalism. These see the social movement as primarily a collective reaction to a situation or a crisis; above all, it has nothing to do with what is referred to as the sociology of the mobilisation of resources. I will not go into this discussion.

For Touraine, the social movement is therefore one dimension, a specific aspect of concrete struggles which always convey numerous meanings in varying combinations. What is essential is the idea that by aiming at the control of historicity, the social movement, through its conflictual action, produces the whole of society, transforms it and structures it. This is therefore not merely one element, one aspect amongst others which are equally essential to an understanding of social life; on the contrary it is a central element which defines above all else the type of society in which we live. For Touraine, an industrial society is a society which is organised on the basis of the conflict which opposes the working-class movement and the masters of labour for the control of development and production. By concentrating on the social movement and, more specifically at the time, in the 1960s, on the working class movement, Touraine therefore proposed a general sociology and not uniquely the study of one specific actor.

The social movement – the key actor in a society – is a figure which is associated with projects of emancipation, liberation, the challenging of forms of domination, the refusal of the actor to be directed, exploited, manipulated, subjected or alienated. The sociologist produces knowledge but he cannot be indifferent to these projects and the subjectivity of the actors. This is always to some extent masked by other elements, by ideologies which conceal, by authorities which speak on their behalf, by avant-gardes who despise the actors while claiming to take their fight to the highest level. Touraine, as an analyst of social movements, does not speak in their name; he does not take their place in the public sphere. He considers that knowledge raises the actors’ capacity for action and that, by producing knowledge about social movements, by contributing for example to weakening the ideologies which they convey, or which use them and by intervening in the public sphere about them by means of his books, articles, lectures, teaching, etc., he serves their purpose without taking their place – which is quite the opposite of an avant-garde or Leninist position.

The social movement as Touraine understands it was initially thought of within an industrial society, post-war France. But the whole world is not industrialised to the point of constituting a terrain propitious to the formation of powerful working-class movements. In some countries in the Soviet bloc, industrialisation – although impressive – was established by authoritarian – if not totalitarian – powers who took over the vocabulary and the categories of the working class movement while at the same time forbidding its expression. This did not prevent the existence of a working class consciousness, charged with a social movement in embryo, prevented from materialising and becoming visible.

When Solidarnosc emerged in Poland in 1980 I suggested to Touraine that we should go and do some field work and study this actor who was defying the Communist authorities. We witnessed an impressive expression of this working class consciousness, combined with a consciousness which was national, Polish and democratic. The social movement was very much there; it had simply been reduced to silence for a very long time, apart from a few well-known episodes in particular in 1970. (Protest movements sparked by sudden increase in prices of food.)

In addition, the May ’68 student movement in France, but also in several other countries, suggested that a new historical era was dawning, a new type of society was emerging which Touraine called the ‘post-industrial’ society (as did Daniel Bell, at the same time but with a different meaning). At this point, the concept of social movement enabled Touraine to reflect on this historical change and to describe the society which was taking shape. At this point, his idea was the following: on one hand, industrial society is coming to an end, at least if we take a country like France, and the working class movement, the figure of protest which was so central, is starting its historical decline. On the other hand, a post-industrial society is beginning to take shape – a society which others called the consumer society, the network society or the communication society, etc., and with it are appearing ‘new social movements’ which will be the equivalent for this society of the working class movement in industrial society.

The first expression of these new social movements was to be found, for example, in the student struggles, in some of the regional movements and in the women’s movements, etc. Thus the concept of social movement enabled a consideration of what was radically new in Western society in the years 1960-1970. Nevertheless it had to be re-worked and in particular the cultural dimensions of action which are increasingly central today had to be taken into consideration. I was talking to Touraine the other day and on this point he was categorical.

In the mid-1970s, Touraine invited me to accompany him in the first application of a method which he was creating – the sociological intervention – and which was aimed specifically at testing this type of historical hypothesis – the end of one type of society and its central actor, the birth of a new type of society and its central figure. This method specifically aimed at revealing the presence of a social movement within an actual struggle, even if weak. I have always been astonished at the lack of resonance or interest in this method which I consider to be the principal methodological innovation of the past fifty years in sociology.

I would simply say here that it is a question of implementing arrangements in which the actors are gradually led to co-produce with the researchers the analysis of their action from the point of view of the hypothesis to be tested, that is, the presence (or not) of a social movement.

This method was therefore in the first instance used to study the new social movements, which enabled the justification of the assumption of a change in type of society; at the same time, it has produced knowledge on the former social movement, the working class movement and what happens to it when it declines historically – this does not mean that there are no more workers, nor working class consciousness, nor trade unions, strikes or working class struggles but that all this has lost its centrality. As I said, it was used to study Solidarnosc. In the 1980s, the image of France was one of a society which, while emerging from the industrial era, and, consequently, witnessing the decline of its working-class movement, also witnessed the weakening or premature institutionalisation of its post-industrial struggles. Whence, what will be my last remark – the idea that the concept of social movement can also serve to shed light on what happens when there is in practice no social movement. In Touraine’s sociology the absence, the disappearance, the weakening of the social movement does enable a better understanding of, for example, delinquency, the revolts of young people, as they were studied at the time by my friend and ‘accomplice’ François Dubet.

These movements can end in what I have called an inversion of the social movement, which becomes an anti-social movement. I myself studied this with terrorism in which the categories take up those of the social movement but change them and reverse them. Thus the concept of social movement, as elaborated by Touraine, enables us to approach forms of action which depart so far from the concept to the point that they become in extreme cases, the contrary.

Citer ce billet
Michel Wieviorka (2014, 9 juillet). Alain Touraine and the concept of social movement. Michel Wieviorka, sociologue | Carnet de recherche. Consulté le 19 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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