The French School of Sociology

Bernard Valade. Encyclopedia of Sociology. Volume 2. 2nd edition. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

The French School of Sociology was formed during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. The nucleus of the school was created by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), to whose work was joined the crystalizing efforts in the new science that were performed by the team of L’Année sociologique, which was founded in 1898. In recent times, scholars have undertaken the examination of the effects of this major contribution to the field by studying the vicissitudes of Durkheim’s legacy from the period between the two world wars and onward. We have also concentrated on clarifying the methods that permitted the exploitation and application of this legacy. In this regard, from 1979 to 1982, P. Besnard has fully informed us on the establishment and functioning of assistance strategies in the university and publishing fields. As important as the stakes of power may be, they are much less so than the thematic orientations that Durkheim and his disciples assigned to the science that, in 1838, Comte publicly baptized “sociology.” Thus, in this entry, we will first apply ourselves to the task of recalling the path that was forged by the French School of Sociology; we will then examine schematically how it was charted and, finally, discuss the new directions in which sociological research is currently headed.

Principal Branches of the French School of Sociology

Problems of periodization are particularly acute in the field of the history of ideas. They are associated with problems related to affiliations, to influences, to rupture and continuity in thought, and to collaboration. Of what, precisely, does “a group,” “a school,” or “a generation” in a given discipline consists? In his amply documented and unjustly maligned Manuel de sociologie (first published in 1950), A. Cuvillier resolved the question a priori: In the history of sociology there exists a “before” and “after” Comte, a series of national schools as well as an ensemble of disciplinary cross-currents. Today, one would more likely delineate a “before” and “after” Durkheim and to regard differently those who are situated upstream of him. At present, it is more precisely posited that “sociological tradition,” formed in the nineteenth century, begins to have meaning with and after the appearance of four Durkheim masterpieces—De la division du travail social (1993), Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1995), Le Suicide (1997), Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912)—and that this tradition finds its origins in the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau, who are considered to be “the precursors of sociology.” As a rule, innovators tend to undervalue the works of those who preceded them. As the founder of scientific sociology, Durkheim does not escape this rule. He is even considered an obstacle according to a whole current of opinion, the perpetual ignorance of which has even given rise to the belief in a “blank” between Comte and Durkheim in the development of the discipline (cf. Yamashita 1995).

The concept of a scientifically based sociology was thus imposed. This concept affirms the specificity of social context; it pays close attention to the morphological substratum. While accenting collective tendencies, “forces which are just as real as cosmic forces,” it shows that “social life is essentially made up of representations.” From the introduction of the concept of anomie in the dissertation of 1893 to the analysis of the sacred and of beliefs that was developed in the 1912 work, the principal themes of a general sociology and those of specialized sociologies are freed from prejudices and preconceptions by a rigorously codified approach. Almost entirely, the domains in which they were implemented were “covered” with Durkheimians: judicial sociology by, notably, H. Lévy-Bruhl, economic sociology by F. Simiand (1873-1935), moral and political sociology by P. Fauçonnet and especially C. Bouglé (1870-1940), and religious sociology being particularly well by H. Hubert and M. Mauss (1872-1950). Again, the latter does not limit himself to this one sector, any more than M. Halbwachs (1877-1945) does to social morphology, or L. Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) to the writing of a masterpiece, La morale et la science des moeurs, published in 1903. Many other specialists—G. Bourgin, L. Gernet, M. Granet, C. Lalo, and so forth—produced works that, combined with those of their master, had a profound influence abroad. It was thus understood that every new development in the discipline had to rest upon the base that Durkeimism had furnished.

The fact that this vigorously formulated concept of sociology provoked the marginalization of other trends is not at all surprising. Such was the case with the School of Social Reform, founded by F. Le Play (1806-1888), with the dissident school of E. Emolins, and with all the more or less obedient followers of Le Play whose allegiance inspired the family of monographs gathered together in Les Ouvriers européens (1855-1879) and Les Ouvriers des deux mondes (1857-1885): P. Bureau, E. Cheysson, P. Descamps, P. du Maroussem, P. de Rousiers, and the abbot of Tourville, all of whom were forgotten innovators, but all of whom were recently discovered by Kalaora and Savoya (1989). One will simply note that the collections of La Réforme sociale (from 1881 onward), those of La Science sociale, directed by Demolins after 1886, and those of Le Musée social (which became Cahiers du Musée social after 1945) comprise a documentary corpus parallel to that of L’Année sociologique. The same may be said for the Revue internationale de sociologie, published from 1893 onward by René Worms (1867-1926), who was the director of the International Sociological Library from 1896, the author of an important work, Pholosophie des sciences sociales (3 vol., 1903-1907), and, most notably, the founder in 1894 of the International Institute of Sociology and in 1895 of the Society of Sociology of Paris.

One may, however, extend to sociology the relation that R. Aron extended for the field of history expanded into historiography: Every society produces the social science that it needs. Durkheim’s brand of sociology, strongly tinged with morality, was necessary to the Third Republic, which had been badly shaken by successive crises (Panama, boulangisme, the Dreyfus affair). Scholars have often stressed the concerns that are raised in Durkheim’s work about political thought, which is itself centered on social integration and cohesion; these concerns are evidenced by the course he taught in 1902-1903 entitled L’Education Morale. With regard to these concerns, what could be worth provoking objections raised in the name of old-fashioned individualism, and what interest could this “intermental” psychology present—that is, a collective conceptualized by G. Tarde (1843-1904), author of Lois de l’imitation (1890) and of Logique sociale (1894)—against which Durkheim polemicizes so effectively and so unjustly? A number of ruptures were deliberately intentional on Durkheim’s part; it was against psychology that he intended to build sociology, while refusing moreover to consider history to be a science and simultaneously reducing economics to nothing more than an incarnation of metaphysics. He was so effective that, whereas in Germany sociology could be developed at the crossroads of history, economics, and psychology, in France all the conditions were right for it to be defined in opposition to these disciplines.

Perhaps this sociological tradition was ordered at a later date. One has only to refer to the Eléments de sociologie by C. Bougle and J. Raffault (first edition, 1926; second edition, 1930) to measure the reshaping that occurred between the two world wars. The range of this anthology is wide open, from Bonald to Jaurès, and passing by way of Constant, Tocqueville, and Guizot. Texts by Le Play and Tarde figure alongside those of Durkheim and some of the Durkheimians who, of course, carve out the lion’s share. Spencer, Frazer, Jhering, and Mommsen are among the others who are cited, while excerpts of Principes historiques du droit by the Russian, P. Vinogradoff, are presented. Yet, more than because of the authors they assemble, these selected pieces interest us because of whom they exclude: Tönnies, Weber, Simmel, Michels, Mosca, Pareto, and Comte, who is only cited a single time! Shortly thereafter, Aron introduced Sociologie allemande contemporaine (1935) to French researchers, but for a long while he remained closed to the sociology of Pareto. Other perspectives finally emerged on the eve of World War II: a major contribution to this process was made by Stoetzel, who was the founder of the IFOP in 1938 and of the review Sondages in 1939 upon his return from the United States, where he became acquainted with Gallup’s works; he would later devote his doctoral thesis to a Esquisse d’une théorie des opinions (1943). With Stoetzel was born in France an electoral psychosociology during the electoral ecology inaugurated in 1913 by A. Siegfried’s Tableau politique de la France de l’Quest. Other important contributors to the broadening of perspectives were G. Bataille, R. Caillois, and M. Leiris, who were reunited within the College of Sociology between 1938 and 1939; as brief as the existence of this institution was, it was the framework for interdisciplinary contributions on myth, the sacred, the imaginary, and the problems of the age (democracy and totalitarianism) that are still striking today for their modernity.

French Sociologies of Today

Rupture or continuity? For M. Verret, co-author with H. Mendras of a collection of studies entitled Les Champs de la sociologie française Mendras and Verret (1988), there is no doubt about the answer: “French contemporary sociology cannot be understood without taking into consideration the great rupture between the two world wars; 1940 was a terrible critical test for French society … There is nothing surprising about the fact that during this disaster, French sociology was also on the rocks. This includes not only Durkheimian sociology which constituted the latest face of it, but all the tradition from which it proceeded.” The rereading of the fundamental chapters of Traité de sociologie générale (2 vols., 1958-1960), begun by G. Gurvitch (1897-1965) a dozen years after the end of World War II, leads one to nuance this assessment, which links devastation and reconstruction. A number of their authors began their careers before the rupture of 1940: This is the case of the taskmaster himself, whose L’Idée de droit social was published in 1932; of G. Friedman, who, beginning in 1936, inaugurated in France research in industrial sociology; and of J. Stoetzel. Others began during the Occupation: for example, A. Girard, working within the framework of the Alexis Carrel Foundation, which was tranformed upon the Liberation into the National Institute of Demographic Studies. The documentation upon which they rely owes a great deal to Durkheim and his disciples.

May one say that these authors, senior and junior—F. Bourricaud, J. Cazeneuve, H. Mendras, and others—approach the study of social phenomena in a radically new spirit by breaking the connections established in the twentieth century between knowledge and power over society, by abandoning the research of the great consonance targeted by Durkheimism, and by stripping the discipline of its conquering aspects? It would seem not. A degree of optimism characterized the works of sociologists during the two and a half decades that followed the end of World War II. This is indicated by a flourishing of publications, all marked by a certain voluntarism, like the essays gathered together through the initiative of the French Society of Sociology under the title Tendances et volontés de la société française (1966). In a number of areas, people trusted this young science: One expected from its application a decisive improvement in the government of mankind and in the management of things: various adjustments in the highly industrialized societies and in the developing countries such that they might contribute to the realization of the chosen model of growth.

However, many changes took place behind this permanence that had found its incarnation in a Durkheimian orthodoxy. G. Davy (1883-1973), whose Eléments de sociologie (1932) was republished in 1950, beginning in 1931, gathered together “sociologists of yesterday and sociologists of today” who were in the pursuit of the same goals. Those which are easiest to identify are of an institutional nature: the creation, under the auspices of the National Center of Scientific Research, of the Center for Sociological Studies, organizer of important “sociological weeks” that treated various issues such as Industrialisme et technocratie (1948), Villes et campagnes (1951), and La Famille contemporaine (1954); the constitution of numerous research groups (such as the Social Ethnology group run by P.-H. Chombart de Lauwe) and of associations like the one for the Development of the Sociology of Work; and the launching of new reviews, for example, the Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, founded in 1946 by G. Gurvitch, then, ten years later, the Archives de Sociologie des Religions, an organ of the sociology of religions group over which G. Le Bras presided, and two more in 1960. La Revue Française de Sociologie by J. Stoetzel, and Sociologie du travail by G. Friedman. On the academic front, sociology integrated with the study of philosophy became an entirely separate discipline with the creation of a B.A. in Sociology in 1958; this was the beginning of full academic recognition, which would lead to the institution of an aggrégation in Social Science in 1976.

To these organizational transformations are added conflicts of paradigms. They are linked to the affirmation of, to use the expression of D. Lerner (1959), the “American concept,” that is, to the diffusion of a concept and a practice of sociology that had come from the far side of the Atlantic. Without oversimplifying, one can, in fact, say that during the period under consideration, the study of social facts was pursued on the one hand within the framework of functionalism, and on the other, on the bases of historical and dialectical materialism. It occurred on a basis of debate, called upon in the 1960s to take a polemical and ideological turn, when one wrongly and sterilely opposed the descriptive and the explicative, the qualitative and the quantitative, empirical research and theoretical speculation, the exploitation of investigation and of social criticism.

Against the sociological scientism with which one assimilated the new American referent (whether it concern the sociometry of J.-L Moreno or the functionalism of T. Parsons, the works of R. K. Merton or those of P. Lazarsfeld), the tenets of the dialectic hark back to C. W. Mills, who denounced the invasion of bureaucratic techniques into the social sciences (in The Sociological Imagination, 1957), and to P. Sorokin, vigorous critic of the compulsion to enumerate which then reigned, notably in electoral sociology. Imported into France, the German quarrel in the social sciences which, in the beginning of the 1960s, pitted T. Adorno, one of the principal representatives of the Frankfurt School, against K. Popper, the great epistemologist of Vienna, underlined the rift between the protagonists of both camps. Caught up in the turbulence of the late 1960s, sociology then entered a period of crisis (cf. R. Boudon 1971). The gulf widened between the functionalist sociologists, who adhered to systemic analysis, which could be denounced (and not without reason) for its schematism, its optimism, and its conservatism, and their adversaries who countered with a critical rhetoric that often sounded hollow, unsubstantiated as it was by precise data concerning controversial problems such as social change.

The major event of this period would remain, for French sociology, the coming of structuralism, with, in the background, the antagonistic conceptual orientations of G. Gurvitch, who was a proponent of the study of global societies, and of R. Aron, who shared the open perspective of Tocqueville. With the replacement of the Marxist explicative schema by the theorized structural analysis of C. Lévi-Strauss, a mutation of knowledge occurred: A paradigm centered on the idea of conflict was replaced by another that was formed of the stable elements of structure; new modes of conceptualization appeared and with them, new intellectual modes. The history of ideas shows how, in the succession of such modes, a model that has been dominant is shaken, and how it loses or even exhausts the merit that has been attributed to it. The reemergence of structuralism, which one must take care not to confuse with structural analysis, and whose range and limits have been stressed, permitted the subsistence of four theoretical orientations that P. Ansart (1990) has clearly identified. These have certain affinities with the four schools distinguished by A. Touraine (1988): genetic structuralism, dynamic sociology, the functionalist and strategic approach, and, finally, methodological individualism.

These theoretical models reflect different visions of the world. Thus, P. Bourdieu’s analyses lead to a highlighting of the division of society into classes; studies of the frequenting of museums or of the grandes écoles reveal practices that differ widely according to origin and to class. Associated with the study of determining structures, which is the goal of genetic structuralism, are the analyses of the author of La Distinction (1979) and those of the research team he conducts, who publish their works in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. The epistemology they display can be qualified as “poststructuralist” because of the introduction of the concept of habitus and because of the importance of the developments that support this conceptual proposition. Associated with the study of social dynamism are the names G. Balandier and A. Touraine. The former, beginning with African societies, conceptualized economic and social change; the latter, working from a base of the sociology of work, theorized collective action and social movement. Individual behavior and the problems posed by their aggregation occupies a central place in the work of R. Boudon, notably in Effets pervers et ordre social (1977), in La Logique du social (1979), and in La Place du désordre (1984).

One will note the cleavage that separates the latter two theoretical constructions (M. Crozier, R. Boudon) from the preceding ones. These latter constructions reveal the same structural social model of social determinations: The former prioritize the strategy of the participant and value the individual; nevertheless, their openness to social psychology remains distinct. Thus, M. Crozier reproaches several interactionist models for treating interaction as a generalizable element, as though interaction revealed the totality of the regulations of a system of action. One is aware, on the other hand, of the close relationship between individualism and social interactionism.

It is not only the radical position that exists between the principles applied by genetic structuralism and those which prevail in methodological individualism that must here be noted, the “epistemological distance” being perfectly measured by the debate on the inequality of chance. A nodal point of divergence appears, constituted by the conception of this subject. What is, in fact, the subject in generic structuralism and in a strategic conception of individual actions? Whether it be a question of the analysis of conflicts and of the representation of social relationships that it implies, a question of symbolic systems which contemporary sociologists are working to rethink, or finally a question of the place, the role and the function of the sociologist in the city, it clearly appears, as P. Ansart (1990) notes, that “the works of R. Boudin mark a critical position with regard to other sociological paradigms … , and, like every explicitly critical position, this position clearly marks the divergences, the points of disagreement which can be taken to be, on the epistemological level, insurmountable” (p. 285).

To conclude, these four theoretical orientations prolong and renew tendencies that were charted in the nineteenth century. In a certain manner, P. Bourdieu carries on the ambition of the first sociologists of the nineteenth century, which was picked up by Durkheim: that of constituting a science of social phenomena, with the certitude that social reality is indeed a reality and that it is ponderable by means of strictly codified rules. One can also say that dynamic sociology retains a vision of the world that has its origins in the works of Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, and Spencer, insofar as these thinkers posed the problem of social change and proposed explicative models for it. One also recognizes without difficulty that in the background of methodological individualism may be distinguished the influence of Tocqueville, Weber, the Austrian marginalist school, and the debates of the Vienna Circle. As for the functionalist and strategic approach, one may consider it to be the inheritor of an administrative science that, with M. Vivien and M. Block, was put into place in the second half of the nineteenth century.


What, all in all, is sociology in France at the end of the twentieth century? The statement made at the beginning of the 1990s by J.-M. Berthelot in La Construction de la sociologie (1991) is still valid. The programmatical crossovers that have been identified and the new uncertainties that have been discerned have been both confirmed and emphasized. To these, one adds a transformation of the very objective of sociology by reason of a notable subjectivization of social material. Often denounced as a fetishistic idea, society tends to be thought of as an ensemble of forms and networks of sociability, in the same way that individual, a simple statistical element passively submitted to diverse sorting operations, tends to be substituted by a complex individuality, more or less free of contradictions, the subject of a statement that claims to be “personal” and, in all cases rebellious to classification, recalcitrant toward enumeration and cut off from the “masses”. To weigh the new relationships maintained by the individual and society, one has recourse to sociologies that, unlike those of Durkheim and his followers, remained engaged in the psychological givens: Such is indeed the direction of interest aroused by the recent translations of G. Simmel’s works, in which, in the analysis of phenomena under study, the content is less important than the form and the part more significant than the whole.

One sees to what degree, in this perspective, the rereading of “sociological tradition” is imposed, as well as the reintegration into the discipline’s history of contributions that had more or less been excluded from it, and of reflections on the epistemology of the social sciences. Concurrently being pursued is a conceptual clarification, including the admirable Dictionnaire critique de la sociologie, continually reedited since its appearance in 1982 by R. Boudon and F. Bourricaud, which is its point of departure and canonical example. At the same time, also being pursued is the analysis of social problems related to the evolution of mores (the family, the young, the relations between generations, etc.) and to economic transformations (unemployment, exclusion, social justice, etc.). Finally, parallel to these pursuits is the research being conducted on the improvement of descriptive and explicative models of the changes that society is witnessing today. One points out in this regard the exemplary character of the investigation being conducted by Louis Dirn (anagram for lundi soir), that is, the group of sociologists who meet at the beginning of each week in the company of H. Mendras and M. Forsé. Thus, for the most part freed from past dogmatisms, French sociology today asserts its vitality by better adjusting its procedures for examining social objects and phenomena to which it is working to give a sense.