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sociological intervention

sociological intervention A technique practised by the French sociologist Alain Touraine, which advocates the active intervention of the sociologist in the social movement that forms his or her subject, in order to expose the ‘actual social relations’ that lie behind the ‘mesh of approved and organized practices’.

His analysis of post-industrial society focuses on the extraordinary powers of control inherent in the uses of information technology. These powers give human beings the ability literally to make history (historicity), but citizens in general have little access to them. For this reason, Touraine gives primary political importance to social movements in which groups of citizens organize to challenge the dominant forms of knowledge, and to propose alternatives. The sociologist attempts to create a research situation within which the social movement can represent fully the nature of the struggles in which it is engaged. Touraine therefore advocates four research practices: entering into a relationship with the social movement by organizing its militants as groups; encouraging these groups in their militant roles; explaining the historical context of the movement to its activists; and participating in the self-analysis of the militant group's situation by interpreting what took place during the sociological intervention itself.

With his co-researchers at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Touraine embarked in the 1960s on a series of dramatic ‘sociological interventions’. The researchers joined the French student movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the regional Occitan movement, and the Polish Solidarity movement. Going beyond participant observation, they became actively engaged in the political ideas and actions of those groups as a way of understanding them more fully. Theoretically, this approach has been labelled actionalism. This combination of sociological fieldwork with active Marxism (praxis) and more subjective theories of social action was highly controversial. Probably its most successful product was the study of the French student and worker movement of 1968.

The most complete account of the technique, and its theoretical justification, will be found in Touraine's The Voice and the Eye (1978). Just how far removed this is from the conventional view of the sociologist as neutral or objective observer or recorder of the facts is evident in Touraine's claim that ‘the supreme moment of the intervention devoted to the students’ movement was dominated by a lengthy discussion between the militants and the research leader, who introduced with great vigour into the group the theme of knowledge and its social utilization, which to his mind, represented the only stakes capable of elevating the student struggle to the level of a social movement'.

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