Some incomplete thoughts, mostly for myself, but also as part of my campaign to figure out why more Anglophone scholars aren’t using Touraine.

I first stumbled across Alain Touraine, about whom I’d learned nothing despite pretty decent incursions into continental thought (for a U.S. historian at least) when struggling to understand the role of culture in social movements of the 1960s. Unlike many of his contemporaries in France, Touraine directly addressed specific social movements in his writings, which I found refreshing, and while his arguments are often sketchy and provocative, as well as shifting over the course of 5 or 6 decades, I still found in the outlines of his theories many fruitful insights applicable to my ruminations of gender, history and power (1).

Touraine to me feels more like a historian than a sociologist due to his search for the agency of the subject as opposed to a focus on systems, and he was first trained as a historian before switching fields. [Side note, I find it maddening that sociologists do not provide original date of publication as well as date of translation into English. Hello dates matter]

My problem is that while Touraine more than happy to talk about history, he doesn’t address women or gender until 1979 (at least from what I’ve found so far) so I’m reduced to reading through the silences, forcing him to speak to gender in his earlier writing,

It is worth it because The Politics of Women’s Culture ultimately a long debates over history, which I regard as part of what Touraine terms historicity, the capacity of agents to create and control knowledge as a form of production, what Touraine terms the “self-production’ of society.

We are accustomed in the philosophy of history to think of “historicity” as the way history is. For Touraine, historicity is the struggle over who gets to say how history (among other relations of oppression) is

Following Marx, Touraine understood history as relationships of oppression and domination. However, he no longer believed economics defined those relationships, but rather looked to human agency and control of systems of knowledge. Control of that process, historicity, is at stake in social movement, which play out in culture, rather than economics or politics, between classes defined by the their relationships to power rather than economics.

In the early 80s, Touraine became pretty uncomfortable with the direction of social movement, what we’d call identity politics, leading him to draw some fairly negative conclusions about women’s movements. Still he ultimately backed of that assessment, and since he later put women central to his theories, and is so embedded in sociological debates that mirror those underlying the Politics of Women’s Culture, I find him useful.

For example, Touraine is implicated in New Social Movements debate which hinged on a politics v culture divide that is central to my book. Politics here being narrowly construed in these debates as aimed at the state and power relations, while “cultural movements” produce “cultural cocoons of personal lifestyle issues” a critique that sounds all too familiar about women’s culture. While Touraine never defends culture, he places it as the central terrain of social movements, ignoring the state all together. As Buechler notes in overview, it is US critics (largely coming out of the New Left) most anxious about culture (and its concomitant fear of individualism and insistence on capitalism as the target of social movements). Europeans have long tradition of culturally informed political activism.

Additionally Touraine gets caught up in the question of “class” so familiar to my discussion of the origins of women’s culture. The notion that “issue based” movements are somehow oppositional to “class based” movements is transcended by positing a different sort of “collective identity” based on “dialectically interrelated combinations of positions and identities” po mo ID in other words. Hannigan calls this an “emergent group identity and ideological consciousness.” The outcome is “identity plus autonomy” right to define self and greater freedom for that self (Hannigan).

Touraine, beginning in 1976 began studying four different social movements (youth, anti-nuclear, women and solidarity) leading him to publish several case studies, although regrettably not a stand alone one dedicated to the women’s movement. As Hannigan notes, Touraine’s analysis of solidarity reveals it as two movements in one, an idea quite useful for looking at the “women’s movement” of the 1970s. One was “instrumental” concerned with “institutional reforms” what we would call reformist in the language of women’s movements while the other, more “radical” challenged “power and privilege” which then bifurcated into a movement focused on formal power and a grassroots aimed at “liberation of society.”

Touraine has also explicitly addressed “cultural experimentation” within social movements, noting the ways in which it facilitates and constrains community and collectivity, which verges into the same territory as the counterculture v New left debates that move into the triple origins of women’s culture.
Touraine is also implicated in the base v superstructure argument crucial to the origins of the women’s culture wars. Touraine, post may 1968, realized the distinction is no longer valid. Instead Touraine works his way towards the idea that movements are about “collective identity” and “control of their own development” Social movement participants are motivated by “a search for the conditions and meanings of their actions” in other words a way to understand their lives. The stakes are not narrowly defined any more, but rather at “a new vision of the future” injustice is “transformed” into “a wider ideological critique” and “program for action” (Hannigan).

Touraine’s insistence on the central role of the actor in studying social movement as opposed to the academic or the leader resonate with egalitarianism of women’s movement as well as his emphasis on the role of consciousness as it relates to the actors ability to self produce society.

Touraine’s s view that “knowledge is a source of power and can be produced, transmitted and utilized in different ways” by social movements is extremely useful in understanding “cultural” interventions in social movements as opposed to those aimed at “the state.”

In a 1979 speech Touraine began the transformation of his ideas that would ultimate result in women as central to post communist, post modern social movements. He begins by deconstructing the divide between the subject in social movement and the system (society), which he further breaks down to.

feeling/emotion: calculation/reason

“the most far reaching change is the tendency to end the distinction between public and private life, that is between society and nature. This has been hastened by the women’s movement based on modern methods of birth control and of the recent participation by women in the labor force, especially at the higher levels. … the distinction between the system and the actor, between order and nature, was classically manifested in the distinction between male and female” “the women’s movements, by rejecting this separation and subordinate position in which they were imprisioned [during industrialization], have made a crucial contribution towards the elimination of all explanations of social action which resort to the transcendental, metasocial principle. They have contributed to reducing …”society” to a network of social relations between actors who are involved in conflicts about the social and political control of cultural resources” (‘The Voice and the Eye: On the Relationship between Actors and Analysis’ presidential address read at the Second Congress of the International Society of Political Psychology p 6, 1980)

In 1981 writing about French feminists Touraine was dismissive of mere “identity politics” as well as limited goals and narrowly construed adversaries: “no social movement can be solidly formed if its claims are not built upon a wide base to which it accords great autonomy while at the same time endeavoring to rise to a higher level of opposition” (Voice and the Eye 87) and in 1979, in proceedings still yet to be translated, Mouvements sociaux d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui. Acteurs et Analystes, he bashes on social movemetns based on difference (at the colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle, 1979).

His qualms about women’s movements eventually subsided, although I’m not quite sure how or when. It appears to have occurred in the 1980s, related perhaps to his rethinking of social movements after the “end” of socialism and definitely provoked by ongoing debate with French feminist Antoinette Fouque

By 2000 he wrote

Mais à la limite, je ne pense pas que vous puissiez donner une image complète d’une réalité collective, qu’elle soit temporelle ou spatiale, si vous n’y faites pas intervenir la dimension des rapports entre hommes et femmes. Alain Touraine  

But ultimately, I do not think you can give a complete picture of a collective reality, whether temporal or spatial, if you do not involve the dimension of relations between men and women. 

(1) Sociologists have launched some major assaults at Touraine’s theories: his concept of historicity is too fuzzy, his notion of one over arching movement, odd def of what constitutes a real social movement, his participation in movement he studies (sociological intervention) never mind his involvement in the debate over Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in public

J.A. Hannigan, Alain Touraine, Manuel Castells and Social Movement Theory: A Critical. Appraisal, The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 26, no 4, (1985) 435-454.

Steven M. Buechler New Social Movement Theories Sociological Quarterly, 1995
Vol. 36, No. 3 (1995), 441-464