January 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 1

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International Perspectives

What’s New in French Sociology?

by Daniel Benamouzig and Olivier Borraz, French National Organization for Scientific Research, and Cyril Lemieux, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

In the United States, French sociology has traditionally been encapsulated in the label, "French theory." From France, such a label is often considered as a distorted picture of past French debates through a contemporary American mirror. This reflects neither the actual history of French debates in the late 20th century, nor the more contemporary state of the art in social sciences in France.

According to a number of popular handbooks in France, sociology was organized— between the 1970s and the 1990s— around four schools. Each of these, headed by a leading figure, was distinct both in its methods and conceptual frameworks: Raymond Boudon’s methodological individualism; Alain Touraine’s sociology of social movements; Michel Crozier’s strategic analysis; and Pierre Bourdieu’s marxism-oriented structuralism. Although this canonical presentation may help to capture the main divides in French sociology, it offers an over-simplified view that excludes historically prominent authors such as Edgar Morin, Jean Baudrillard, Henri Mendras, or Jean-Claude Passeron. Moreover, it is too static a picture: the four paradigms were never clearly settled but were continuously reworked by their leaders and subverted by their followers on the basis of internal and external criticisms.

Sociological Innovations

Several elements played an important role in this process of conversion. Some research was inspired by symbolic interaction, the reception of which increased at that time. Starting in the 1980s, the introduction of ethnomethodology, social studies of science, and philosophical pragmatism led a number of French sociologists to develop new notions. These included the multiplicity of the self (Pollak, Dubet, Lahire), the reflexive capacities of individuals (Boltanski), the role played by objects and material equipment in the agency (Latour, Callon), or the importance of a situation’s constraints compared with the overestimated weight of socialization (Friedberg, Quéré, Thévenot). Simultaneously, French sociologists, even when they remained within one of the four original paradigms, became more open to international (mostly American) sociological innovations and to advances in other social sciences.

The opening of the sociological mindscape was amplified by institutional evolutions in the discipline (i.e., the increase in the number of sociologists, their professionalization, the development of international cooperation, the multiplication of interdisciplinary research programs and journals). This encouraged sociologists to engage in new paths, change their concepts and methods, and work with other disciplines. A good example is the fruitful dialogue engaged between political sociology and history: “Socio-history” has renewed the reflection on the genesis of political institutions (Noiriel, Offerlé, Lacroix, Ihl, Déloye). Another example is the interaction between some sociologists and economists in developing critical perspectives on neoclassical economics. Original approaches in economics, inspired by the sociological point of view, have emerged as “regulation theory” (Aglietta, Boyer) and “theory of conventions” (Favereau, Salais, Eymard- Duvernay). Meanwhile, in sociology an “anti-utilitarist” movement, referring to The Gift by Marcel Mauss, has explored empirical data in the third sector economy (Caillé, Laville).

A New Generation

The new generation of French sociologists (to which the authors of this article belong) is thus confronted with a complex landscape. The challenge for this third generation is to build sociological approaches based on a critical discussion, not of Boudon, Touraine, Crozier or Bourdieu, but of their followers and critics (e.g., Latour, Boltanski, Dubet). To achieve this task, and renew theoretical frameworks in French sociology, the new generation is involved in three intellectual orientations:

French sociology is in a state of transformation, yet some traits of the past still remain, particularly a style of research characterized by robust empirical studies. This style uses different methods: Quantitative ones of course (Chauvel, Vallet) but with an overall preference for qualitative methods; conceptualization within a traditional philosophical dialogue; and theory building, either at the intermediate or the general level. Such a combination is a distinctive feature that needs to be promoted in an international context and within the general standards of evaluation (sometimes seen as threatening), particularly the emphasis on quantitative methods and the priority given to the production of empirical data over analytical frameworks. Beyond the often significant differences and mutual analytical incompatibilities between contemporary French sociologists, the empirico-conceptual style of sociological research remains a unifying principle inherited from an author considered the founding father of the French (and beyond) sociological tradition: Emile Durkheim.

Editor's Note: Complete bibliographical references are available on request to the authors; contact Cyril Lemieux at clemieux@msh-paris.fr. small_green

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