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Alain Touraine

Alain Touraine

Alain Touraine (born 1925) was a French sociologist. He was best known as the originator of the phrase "post-industrial society" and for his studies and theories of social movements while they were in the process of formation.

Alain Touraine was born in Hermanville, France, on August 3, 1925, the son of a physician, Albert Touraine, and of Odette Cleret. Like most French intellectuals, he was educated at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he took his agrégation in history in 1950 and also studied philosophy. His perspective was further broadened when in 1952 he went to Harvard and learned everything about Parsonian systems sociology and American research methods. This experience is evident in his studies of industry upon his return to France and in his effort to construct a global systems theory that sets out to avoid the pitfalls of both Marxism and functionalism.

By the time he earned his doctorate in 1965, which in France is something beyond the Ph.D. in America, he had been a visiting professor at a number of American universities and had done extensive work in industrial sociology. During that period, France (among other countries) was busily modernizing its industries in order to become independent of American economics, while trying to avoid the alienation and exploitation of workers that tends to accompany this process. Touraine's expertise was helpful in this effort which, at the same time, allowed him to observe the negative aspects of capitalist production.

In the course of his work abroad, Touraine met his future wife, a Chilean, Adriana Arenas Pizarro. They were married in 1957. With their two children they frequently returned to Chile, and in the course of these visits, Touraine kept studying the social and political changes that were taking place. Moreover, he continued to compare and to theorize about the differences among the forms social unrest may take under prevalent conditions in Chile, the United States, and France—societies with very different traditions.

Alain Touraine was a member of the research staff of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique from 1950 to 1957 and the acting director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes from 1958 to 1960. He then taught at home and abroad. In May 1968 he joined American students in their revolt against the establishment. Soon thereafter, in 1970, he founded the Center for the Study of Social Movements, which is attached to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. This center attracted collaborators from many countries, and Touraine became the foremost authority on questions about the formation, the trajectory, and the fate of social movements around the world—all of them perceived in relation to specific conditions and personalities as well as to the traditions of the society in which they arise.

In addition to concrete studies of social movements, such as his analyses of the May Movement: Revolt and Reform (1968; English translation, 1971), of Solidarity: Poland 1980-81 (1983), and of Anti-nuclear Protest: The Opposition to Nuclear Energy in France (1980; English translation, 1983), Touraine was busy evolving a theory of social movements. Foremost among publications in this area were The Self-Production of Society (1973; English translation, 1977) and The Voice of the Eye (1978; English translation, 1981)—the first of five volumes on The Permanent Society.

Touraine defined sociology as "the science of social action." And because, as a result of the division of labor, actors have lost control over their work and thus have become alienated, he maintained, they must regain their former control. Sociologists can help them do so by making them conscious of their actions. He held that individuals can free themselves from centralized power and technocratic domination through refusal of consumption and through taking part in the decision-making process; that they can resist manipulation not singly, but by forging a collective identity by defending themselves as members of a community. He expanded on that position when studying students at American universities and predicted, in 1972, that "the university as a center of production and diffusion of knowledge is increasingly becoming the main locus of the social conflicts of our time."

Touraine's sociological system was constructed to account for all existing social systems and institutions, for their changes over time, and for human elements and feelings— of every actor within this system. Inevitably, such a system must be very abstract and incomprehensible to the non-initiated, especially when, as in The Production of Society, he examines sociology itself as a social production— through its "historicity, " which is said "to transform the activity into a social system in which conduct is governed by a set of orientations, themselves determined by the society's mode of action upon itself."

The general reader is bound to sympathize with the need to find new paradigms in order to comprehend the social mutations that result from the proliferating policies of development, from the rivalries among states, and from the multiple complications arising from technological inventions. But this reader will find Touraine's theoretical works too technical and his charts too obtuse. In his books about Chile, however, Touraine himself emerges from behind his abstractions and mixes personal sentiment with political analysis, theories with experience, and cool commentary with political commitment. He wrote a particularly moving account about the rise and fall of Chile's socialist government under Allende, The Life and Death of Populist Chile (1973).

Touraine's reputation as a sociologist grew during the seventies. In Return of the Actor (translated by Myrna Godzich 1988) he critiques sociology which reintroduces the notion of social activity. During the 1990's Touraine was a regular contributor to the UNESCO Courier with a series of articles on democracy in the twentieth century. Touraine observed that "Democracy is based on the most active possible participation by the greatest possible number of people in the making and application of political decisions."

French government agencies frequently called on Touraine for advice. In France, he received numerous awards and recognition for his contributions to modern French sociological thought. Although Touraine was one of the leading French intellectuals in America his brand of sociology received mixed reception.

Further Reading

Alain Touraine was a frequent commentator on current events as well as a prolific author, but not all of his work is translated. In English, some of his contributions, in addition to those cited in the text, are: Workers' Attitudes and Technological Change (1965), The Post-Industrial Society (1971), The Academic System in American Society (1974), "From Crises to Critique" in the Partisan Review (1976), and "Crisis or Transformation?" in Norman Birnbaum, editor, Beyond the Crisis (1977). Gregory Baum includes comments on the philosophy of Touraine and other postmodern age scholars in The Canadian Forum (May 1990). Clark Kerr critiques and provides interpretations of Touraine's major works in an article (On Alain Touraine) appearing in the May-June 1996 issue of Society. □

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