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Alain Touraine

(b. 1925)

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Frenchpost-Marxist sociologist with a strong interest in social movements and the possibility of people-led politics. Born in the wealthy seaside resort town of Hermanville-sur-Mer in Basse-Normandie (‘Sword’ beach in the D-Day landings in 1944) to a long line of medical practitioners, Touraine broke the family mould, first by not studying medicine, and second by not immediately pursuing further studies upon graduation from École Normale Supérieure. Instead he took a job in a coalmine. This experience awakened his desire to study and sharpened his focus on sociology. He took a research position with Georges Friedman at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 1950. But then in 1952, again breaking the expected pattern, he went to the US to undertake graduate work with the giants of American sociology Talcott Parsons and Paul Lazarsfeld. He returned to France in 1960 and completed his doctorate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he has remained ever since. True to his coalmining inspiration to do sociology in the first place, Touraine's early works were close empirical studies of workers in factories and the fields. But in contrast to his Marxist colleagues, he did not view this in terms of revolutionary potential. Indeed, in his unselfconsciously prophetic 1969 book translated as The Post-Industrial Society. Tomorrow's Social History: Classes, Conflicts and Culture in the Programmed Society (1971), he would come to think of the 1960s as the start of the so-called post-industrial period (a term generally associated with Daniel Bell, though it was in fact Touraine who coined the phrase) in which the central axis of the economy, in the West at least, shifts from manufacturing to information, leaving union labour behind. He wrote a rapid response to the events of May '68, an experience which seemed to spark his interest in social movements, giving rise to a series of works, including case studies on the anti-nuclear movement in France as well as the Solidarity movement in Poland. The overall trajectory of his work, then, is towards a theory of the subject as a rational actor capable of bringing about change in spite of the weight of history.

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