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Alain Touraine

On the Frontier of Social



I t might be more detrimental than useful to add a new definition of social

movements and a new analysis of both their respective characteristics and
the very diverse interpretations given for their existence. It seems that the
only reason for a fresh examination of this notion today is to introduce
another important element into the debate, and here two possibilities present
themselves. First, we could say that the idea of a social movement is less a
truly analytic category than a category of a historical nature – that is, social
movements are related to a certain type of society (for example, industrial
society) – but the definition may be broader, so that we no longer need to
use the notion of social movements. Some will go so far as to say that we
must set aside this notion as it locks us into a type of society that belongs, in
large part, to the past, even as it gives the impression of providing us with a
general tool for analysis. Second, we could criticize the usage of the notion
of social movement by noting that globalization has shifted the sites of and
issues in conflicts considerably, to the point that the social movements that
merit study are no longer those that set social categories in opposition within
a well-defined political or territorial entity, but rather those that challenge
mechanisms of globalization, which, to a large extent, are not dependent on
decisions of the type that a ‘ruling class’ may make. I indicate at the outset
that both objections seem to me to be well founded, and I therefore try to
justify on both counts the recommendation that the notion of social move-
ments no longer be used except, of course, when it refers to social and
historical realities that have already been studied at length and that it is
completely normal and desirable to subject to new analyses. It is this
position, stated from the start, that is behind the title of this article and that
some may find shocking because it seems brutal or needlessly paradoxical.

Current Sociology, July 2004, Vol. 52(4): 717–725 SAGE Publications

(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
DOI: 10.1177/0011392104043498
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To avoid any confusion that would make an analysis of any sort, critical
or not, less interesting, we must first agree on the definition of the phenom-
ena considered here, which, I attempt to show, are less and less part of our
field of observation and analysis. It seems to me that the notion of social
movement should not be applied to just any collective action, or conflict, or
even political initiative. It is perfectly acceptable to apply, to all forms of
collective action and conflict, analyses arising from what is called resource
mobilization – especially because such collective actions can also be analysed
in terms of research on participation in the political system. There is no diffi-
culty in principle, however, with applying this category of study to all types
of collective action. On the other hand, it would be wise to reserve use of the
category ‘social movements’ to the group of phenomena that have in fact
received this name over the course of a long historical tradition. The essen-
tial thing here is to reserve the idea of social movement for a collective action
that challenges a mode of generalized social domination. I mean by this that
a social relationship of domination cannot provoke an action that deserves
to be called a social movement unless it bears upon all of the main aspects of
social life, thus extending far beyond the conditions of production in one
sector, or of commerce or trade in another, or even of the influence exerted
on information and education systems.
The widespread references to the notion of capitalism, in spite of this
word’s polysemy, give a good indication of the spirit in which the most classic
studies on social movements have been conducted. The idea is to study move-
ments that protest, under particular conditions – that is, in socially defined
domains – a domination that is general in both nature and application. This
statement leads directly to a second statement: there is no social movement
unless the collective action that opposes such domination has a more general
intent than the defence of particular interests in a given sector of social life.
But how can these two statements be combined unless we admit that the
parties concerned enter into conflict within a field that one could call culture
– that is, a certain representation of society and the changes that it under-
goes? Let us look at the most classic example: the labour movement and what
we could call the employer movement have confronted each other, in indus-
trial societies, over the use to be made of the products of collective labour
and advances in productivity, but this confrontation was situated within a
common trust placed in a civilization of labour, of rationalization, of techni-
cal advances that could, at least in principle, lead to social progress, and so
on. This is why, a long time ago, I proposed the following concept: a social
movement is the combination of a conflict between organized social adver-
saries and a common reference by both adversaries to a cultural ‘stake’
without which they would not confront each other. For if they could situate
themselves in completely separate battlefields or areas of discussion, this
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would, by definition, do away with the conflict and confrontation, as well as

with compromise or conflict resolution.

Do Social Movements Still Exist?

This presentation may seem too restrictive. Indeed, it must not be taken in
too rigid a sense. On the contrary, it is easy to observe that conflicts that are
apparently very limited, bearing for example on working conditions or forms
of remuneration, carry within them confrontations of a general scope. There
is no need for a social conflict or a collective action to be cloaked in a very
elaborate ideology for us to be able to conclude that a social movement exists.
On the contrary, ideologies that summon up fundamental conflicts in a
society are not necessarily manifestations of a social movement or of social
antagonisms. History is as full of ‘small’ conflicts that have general signifi-
cance as it is of general ideologies that have an extremely narrow basis in
historical practice. But no matter how flexible we try to be in identifying the
conditions for existence of social movements through conflicts or initiatives
that are apparently much more limited, we are still left with the definition
that I have given earlier, in particular because it corresponds largely to what
was not sociological thought but social thought for a long time, and in
particular during the central period of industrial society.
Although these definitions are simple, they quite clearly indicate that
social movements are in fact collective behaviours and not crises or forms of
systemic evolution. We can talk of crises, or even the general crisis, in capi-
talism without bringing up the idea of social movement. In fact, as we all
know, for many decades, much thought of Marxist origin or influence has
analysed the crises of capitalism without interposing an analysis of the actors
involved. When we speak of social movements, it explicitly means that we
are looking through the eyes of the actors; that is, the actors are aware both
of what they have in common – the issues at stake in their conflicts – and of
the particular interests that they define in opposition to each other. The
considerable interest in the notion of social movement in the history of soci-
ology is that it has gone from the reflection of a certain objectivism, which
is not imposed when we study behaviours, to a form of study that is clearly
defined by the search for meaning in certain actions – that is, for the meaning
given by certain actors to their action. It is in this sense that we must clearly
say that the idea of social movement has been, throughout its existence,
opposed to an approach that sees collective behaviours as valid only in terms
of the internal structural problems of a certain type of system, generally
defined in economic terms.
The most direct criticism that has been made of the use of the notion of
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social movement is that which has identified a social movement with a very
specific aspect, considered central, of the society under study. Thus, many
have posited that the labour movement peaked at the moment when methods
of work organization, in particular Fordism, had seriously and systematically
threatened the autonomy of labour and, as a consequence, had very directly
affected skilled workers. At the beginning of the 20th century, all countries
involved in early industrialization experienced a series of general conflicts,
many of them introducing the idea of the general strike, which represented
a climax in ‘class’ action. There were strikes in all major industrial countries,
some of which conveyed more clearly than others the general nature of a
conflict formed in the labour sector but with application to more diverse
areas of social life. In two studies conducted 20 years apart, I showed that
the conscience of the working class, and thus the central strength of the
labour movement, was linked, at least in the countries industrialized the
earliest, to the conflict between the defence of professional autonomy and
the ‘scientific’ methods of organization of work. Once this main shock had
passed, other definitions of work became widespread, such as level, status
and function – all expressions that have nothing to do with a conflict of more
general nature. The world of employees, of highly differentiated labour
categories, no longer qualifies as a social movement comparable to that of the
labour movement in the first half of the 20th century, the last manifestations
of which, in Europe, were the ‘hot autumn’ in Italy and, in a more limited
way, the great Lip strike in France immediately after the events of May 1968.
Conversely, as restrictive a vision as we may have of the use of the notion
of social movement in ‘industrial’ societies, we must very deliberately accept
its use in societies other than industrial ones. What characterizes the indus-
trial society is that it has used a ‘social’ representation of social life, but other
societies have used, for example, a ‘political’ representation of social life. In
this case, a general conflict has been able to form around the appropriation
of political power. This type of conflict has had the greatest visibility in
Europe. We have sometimes even spoken of a century (or centuries) of revol-
ution to define the period that began with the Dutch and English revolutions
and finished with the French revolution. We could add the American revol-
ution, which was above all a war of independence; this was also the case for
the Bolivar revolutions, which broke the link of dependence of most Latin
American countries on Spanish colonization.
This application of the notion of social movement to societies that have
thought of and organized themselves in terms that are less social than political
could be similarly applied to societies even more distant from industrial
societies. If a society conceives of itself, analyses and describes its practices
and conflicts, in religious terms, there is no reason not to apply to these
religious movements the notion of social movement. Thus, we have an almost
unlimited field of application of this notion, which not only emphasizes the
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extreme importance of the central social conflicts of industrial societies but

has allowed us to analyse them adequately.

The Nature of Changing Societal Formations

This short overview of very diverse past societies as being fields of appli-
cation for the notion of social movement leads directly to one of the two
major questions that I mentioned at the beginning. Can we still speak of a
social movement in societies that we might once have called post-industrial
and that many observers have agreed to call information or communications
societies? The answer to this question in fact controls the use that sociolo-
gists should or should not make of the notion of social movement in today’s
world, and particularly in the most economically modern sectors. At first
glance, there is no strong reason not to apply to this new societal type the
kind of analysis that we have used in other societal types. It is not difficult
to see conflicts over the appropriation of information or of knowledge in
many countries and in very different types of societies. Many studies
conducted on hospitals, schools and the mass media have shown the exist-
ence of fundamental conflicts concerning the social use of information. There
is no basic necessity to eliminate the concept of social movement by refusing
to use it in types of societies that have more and more clearly separated them-
selves from the industrial societies that reached their most classic form, in
many countries, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, it is impossible not to see a fundamental change in the situ-
ation. In all societies that have been briefly evoked here, the stake in social
conflict is the use of resources created by the society, whether material goods
or symbolic goods, to the point that the victory or defeat of a social
movement – whether it is a movement of the dominant or of the dominated
– is conveyed by transformations in social organization and, in particular but
not uniquely, production. In contrast, in the information society, it is not
possible to find forms of organization or production that directly convey
social domination. In other words, the spectacular triumph of information
and communications technologies flows from the extreme flexibility of these
technologies, which are no longer instruments at the service of a social power,
while, as I have noted, methods of labour organization are not technical
instruments but organizational forms of domination by one class over
another – by the employer over the workers. This is most obvious in the great
political struggles that preceded the current social movements, given that the
administrative organization, the law and the political institutions manifested
very directly relations of domination or else an action undertaken to serve
clearly identified interests and ideologies.
On the other hand, in information and communications societies, neither
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side can refer any longer to concrete forms of organization and production.
Each easily recognizes itself when corporate champions speak of the need to
make the labour market more flexible or of the importance of technological
innovation. The dominant forces define themselves no longer by content or
by forms of social life, but by an unlimited capacity for change or adaptation
to an environment that is in constant modification and often unpredictable.
In this environment, it is difficult to find an equivalent for the expression
used earlier in this article: the defence of the autonomy of labour or of a trade.
The question no longer has to do with defining an autonomous space or time,
but, rather, with recognizing the priority that must be given to the creation
– much more than to the defence – of an autonomy that is less professional
or economic than moral – that is, the autonomy of the individual, considered
as an actor, or, more precisely, as a subject. In other words, the movements
and adversaries concerned cannot be described in terms defined and under-
stood in social terms; the confrontation sets pure change – that evoked by
the notion of the market – in opposition to demands for human autonomy,
freedom and responsibility. On both sides, the social order seems to have
been subsumed. This observation is essential in coming to an understanding
of the current transformations in social movements.

Cultural Movements

This is why it is preferable to replace the expression ‘social movements’ with

that of ‘cultural movements’, which not only indicates the displacement of
conflicts towards the symbolic level but, even more important, defines what
must be defended or contested in terms that are no longer social per se. It
seems that we now find ourselves face to face with uncontrolled forces, such
as movements of the market and also, even more profoundly, mechanisms
leading to catastrophes – and, of course, wars that always overwhelm the
intentions of those who believe that they can start or avoid them. On the
other hand, faced with these impersonal forces, it is not social transform-
ations or organized social forces that take centre stage, but moral or, as we
say more commonly today, ethical demands. Nevertheless, it is moral
demands that are in play to the extent that, in legal or other ways, we are
actually talking about human rights and the concept of universality of these
rights. Is there room for misunderstanding here? A language dominated by
interest or strategy has been succeeded by a language dominated by morals,
the fear of catastrophe, the often disoriented appeal to something that can
resist all violence and cruelty. This is, I think, the essence of the nature of
social movements in our society. Should we still talk of social movements?
Yes, because we are still talking about conquering or reconquering a social
space and because we should not minimize their capacity to change social
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life. Those who want to increase the power of impersonal forces are trying
also to lower social barriers, to let market-driven regulation be exerted as
easily as possible.
On the other hand, even those who appeal in the most religious, or even
eschatological, terms to what once might have been called soul or humanity
are careful to create, by legal or other means, guarantees and barriers that
oppose the destruction of the human subject. Similarly, as it is essential to
recognize that political language on social life arises from sociology just as
‘social’ language, which had been characteristic of industrial society, does on
social life, sociology must not confine itself to the study of social language –
that is, its own language. It is up to sociology to understand political and
religious languages, but also moral languages and even languages of tragedy.
As we know well, the worst catastrophes, exterminations and unimaginable
acts of cruelty are all part pathological, or marginal cases. The more we
advance towards societies that are less information and communications
societies than societies open to every wind – that is, in which non-social
forces are unleashed – the more important it is to maintain the unity of a
sociological approach, an approach based both on the idea of conflict and on
what the adversaries have in common. In the societies in which many of us
grew up, what there is in common is the will to create or preserve a social
space. This must be why the theme of the reconstruction of social links has
been taken up so vigorously in different countries and at different times.
In all types of societies, it is necessary to distinguish as completely as
possible between social movements as such, as described earlier – structural
conflicts within a societal type that oppose the holders of economic and social
power against those subjected to that power – and movements of all other
natures, which I have termed, for lack of a better term, historical movements,
and which can be clearly defined as conflicts that arise around management
of historical change. In particular, I have discussed the labour movement as
a central social movement of industrial society, and historical or political
movements such as capitalism, socialism, communism and many others as
having the objective of directing the process of industrialization. Thus, we
have on the one hand a conflict internal to industrial society, and on the other
hand a conflict bearing on the process of modernization. Understandably,
social movements and historical movements have often sought to unite and
even to merge. But in reality, the most frequent situation is that in which
movements aiming for control of a process of modernization seize move-
ments that are properly social that appear – often in error analytically – to
be limited to the interior of a certain type of society. In many European coun-
tries, particularly in southern Europe, political parties, whether they be
socialist, communist, or anarchist, have constantly sought to impose their
will on unions that represent social movements properly speaking.
Conversely, northern Europe has been dominated by social-democratic
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parties, whose primary definition was to be submitted to union power; this

was pushed to the extreme in Great Britain, whose socialist party was called
Labour and was placed in direct dependence on the unions. These phenom-
ena of domination or confluence are of great historical importance, but at no
cost should they lead to an intermingling of what must be kept separate.
Well-known examples of research on the French revolution, for example,
insisted on the need to separate the peasant or ‘subsistence’ movements from
the more urban-inspired bourgeois movements that aimed to overthrow the
king and the aristocracy. We know as well that in European-type medieval
societies, the seigniorial system – a system of social relations – and the feudal
system – a system of dependence by vassals on suzerains – always functioned
independently of each other, even if the lords’ relations with the serfs could
not be separated from the relations between the lords.

Movements and Global Forces

We can now ask whether, in information and communications societies, and

more generally in post-industrial societies, there exists the same separation
between movements that are situated within a structure and those that act
within the framework of a process of modernization. Although such a
general question can lead to a wide variety of responses depending on place
and circumstance, we can advance the general idea, prefigured earlier, that the
distance between social and historical movements – that is, the contestation
by the elite that directs change – is much greater in information and
communication societies than in industrial societies. In fact, the most visible
historical movement at the dawn of the 21st century, the anti-globalization
movement, seems to have fairly remote relations with social movements per
se, those that question mainly the use of knowledge in education, health and
other areas of social life. It is here that the opposition is most meaningful
between, on the one hand, social movements that tend to become cultural
and, on the other hand, moral and historical movements, which, led by
modernization itself, overflow the political context to challenge a system of
organization, and in particular communications networks, which cannot be
imagined to be simple national super-enterprises. This explains the great
difficulty that alter-globalists encounter when they try to establish liaisons –
which they are constantly trying to do – with movements that are social per
se but that resist giving central importance to globalization, due to their local,
social, or professional roots.
The general image inspired by analyses of these two complementary
aspects of social and historical movements is the splitting of the ensembles,
within which integrated and coherent forms of collective action, which char-
acterize a type of society and its processes of modernization, are situated.
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While we are constantly tempted to merge unionism and socialism or

communism, for example, and above all to bring them all together under the
general title of the labour movement, the distance between alter-globalism
and movements dealing with relations of the ill with medical knowledge and
organization seems so great that we are tempted to deny the existence of any
relationship between these two subgroups. This reaction is quite preferable
to the contrary reaction, but it carries the risk in turn of masking movements
that question social domination and those that attack a mode of management
of the process of modernization itself.
This leads to a radical question: under what conditions is it still useful to
speak of social movements? I have already mentioned how these movements,
of one or the other type, are less and less situated and defined by a social
space; but I have also said that it is impossible not to call them social move-
ments, to the extent that the adversaries involved seek to base their interests
and objectives on social mechanisms – on institutions that serve as instru-
ments for reconstruction of the social space.
It would probably be more fertile to start from the hypothesis that social
movements, as such, have disappeared and been replaced, on the one hand,
by pure historical movements and, on the other, by cultural and social move-
ments. Nevertheless, it seems essential to me to reject this dangerous
conclusion and to maintain all intermediary mechanisms, even if they are
weakened, that impede a complete separation between social movements as
such and movements born of the management of the process of historical
But we have arrived at the frontier of the territory from which the notion
of social movement can be used. Many will say, with reason, that this notion
appeared more obvious and more central in studies on industrial society;
conversely, however, one can recall the need to discover constantly the links
that unite these two types of collective movement. This argument leads me
to conclude that there is a need to maintain the reference to the notion of
social movement in the study of contemporary societies, of whatever type,
even if they seem at first glance not to require the use of such notions. The
continuity of sociological analysis is more important than is the observation
of the profound differences that exist from one societal type to another.