Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Touraine's method of "sociological intervention" applied to contentious politics

Alain Touraine has been one of the most prolific sociologists in France for at least six decades. Of particular interest to me is his study of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in 1980-1981. In research reported in Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-81 Touraine (along with Fran├žois Dubet, Michel Wieviorka, and Jan Strzelecki) undertook to understand the occurrence, rise, and consolidation of the Solidarity Movement at that moment in Polish history. (An earlier post provides some discussion of this work; link.) This research is a contribution to the sociology of contentious politics, and it is especially noteworthy for the methodology that the research teams pursued.

The Solidarity Movement was a remarkable instance of broad popular mobilization within a Communist dictatorship. As students of contention are common to point out, grievances and discontent are to be found almost everywhere; but organized protest, struggle, and resistance are rare. Successful concerted collective resistance is the exception rather than the rule. So the key scientific problem is to try to discover how this successful mass mobilization came about, and that means conducting investigations to -- 

  • identify the diverse motivations and grievances that individual workers experienced in the late 1970s;
  • identify the social mechanisms that allowed groups of workers to articulate their grievances and goals together; 
  • identify the processes of aggregation through which diverse "insurgent" groups in many locations came together into national and sub-national groups; and 
  • observe the processes through which various groups and leaders arrived at collective strategic and tactical plans through which to attempt to achieve their goals in the face of the armed power of the authoritarian state that Poland possessed at that time. 

Or in short, how, why, and through what mechanisms did mobilization and protest emerge?

The approach that Touraine's group took in attempting to discover answers to these questions was a deliberately granular approach. Rather than focusing on high-level statements of grievances, exhortations, and proposed plans of actions by nationally recognized leaders, the Touraine group recognized that this movement took shape through activist participants at the factory and local levels, and that the ideas, grievances, and mental frameworks about possible reforms that would ultimately become the "Solidarity Manifesto" took shape through conversations and debates at the local levels. Accordingly, the research teams gave significant weight to the processes of thought-change that were underway in six industrial centers: Gdansk, Katowice, Warsaw, Szezecin, Wroclaw, and Lodz. 

Solidarity was not simply a social and political force which modified the course of Polish history. It was, and is, a movement, a collective will, and its significance goes far beyond the results it has obtained. When the dominated protest and seek liberation, their hopes are never entirely realised: the shadows cast by history remain. But great upsurges like Solidarity bring with them at least the certainty that the behaviour of the dominated is never totally determined by the dominant forces. (5)

The research also paid attention, of course, to the leadership conversations and debates that were occurring within the national movement. But the heart of their analysis derives from the "sociological interventions" at the level of the regional groups of activist workers. Touraine writes, 

Because a social movement challenges a situation, it is always the bearer of normative values and orientations. Rather than enclosing the group in a reflexion upon itself, the technique involves opening it up so that it can experiences, in conditions which one might describe as experimental, the practices of the social group or movement to which it sees itself as belonging. (7)

This method resembles the use of focus groups to sort out attitudes, beliefs, and values within a target population; but it is more than that. It is critical and constructive, in the sense that it seeks to elicit from participants the more articulated versions of their beliefs, goals, and grievances. And Touraine suggests that this method is especially relevant for treatment of a social movement, because the ideas and values of participants in a social movement are themselves in a process of change and articulation. The method involves several "discussion leaders" who work to elicit ideas from the group; articulate those ideas in writing; and come back for further discussion and debate in a subsequent meeting. Here is how Marcin Frybes describes the method of "sociological intervention" (link).

The sociological intervention consists in organizing meetings of groups (composed of eight to fifteen people) in order to discuss a specific issue (which had been proposed and formalized by the sociologists). The group of intervention is not a real group of militants. It brings together individuals who share either the same commitment or the same kind of experience, but who, if it is possible, do not know other members of the group. The Sociological Intervention involves having the same group meet in a neutral area on several (ten or more) occasions in order for them to be able to propose some analytical schemas representing the historical dynamics and the different components of the action (the logic of the action and the levels of the action). During every sociological intervention, the sessions (which take 2 or 3 hours) could be open or closed. (72)

There are two noteworthy aspects of this method. 

First is the localism that it supports. It is entirely possible that the articulations of grievance, goal, and values that emerge from Gdansk will be different from those that emerge from Warsaw. And this is a sociologically important fact; a social movement is not homogeneous across regions and workplaces. 

The second is the interactiveness that the method implies between researcher and "subject". Touraine's view appears to be that the results of these "interventions" come closer to a truthful reflection of the political perceptions and values of the participants than would a survey instrument or a traditional focus group. It is analogous to an in-depth conversation with a group of men and women on the subject of gender equality -- superficial views may be expressed to start, and then more considered and reflective views emerge. But the critic might argue that the investigators have injected their own frameworks into the conversation in ways that lead to a less authentic representation of the political consciousness of the workers of Gdansk or Warsaw. (Frybes refers to subsequent criticisms along these lines; 77.) But Touraine justifies the validity of this method in these terms:

This work of self-analysis does, however, have its limits. Every actor is an ideologist, in the sense that he produces a representation of the situation in which he finds himself, and that that representation corresponds to his own interests. No actor can become a disinterested analyst. The researcher must therefore intervene more directly. But at this point a double difficulty arises. On the one hand, if he adopts the attitude of a remote and objective observer, he cannot reach the very thing which he seeks to understanding: the coldness of objectivity will hold him back from the heat of the social movement. Conversely, if he identifies with the actors' struggle, he ceases to be an analyst and becomes nothing more than a doctrinaire ideologist; in this case, his role becomes entirely negative. The method's response to this difficulty is to say that the researcher must identify not with the actors' struggle in itself, but with the highest possible meaning of that struggle, which is nothing other than the social movement. (7)

The method is defended, that is, because it helps to elucidate the process of the formation of the collective will that eventually characterized the movement. And this implies that Touraine believes the active and critical nature of the research -- the open-ended discussions with the various groups, and the effort to formulate these ideas in writing -- illuminates the processes through which the agency of workers and other participants in a social movement find their ground in the processes of contention in which they are involved.

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