CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Sociological intervention is a singular method with a paradoxical outcome. It is closely linked with the career and influence of sociologist Alain Touraine, and with CADIS (Centre for Sociological Analysis and Intervention), the research centre that he founded at the beginning of the 1980s within the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences). It is the cornerstone of a large number of works in various fields, some of which could be considered classics of contemporary sociology. Far from being marginal, it is clear that sociological intervention enjoys academic recognition.

2And yet the method remains largely invisible and unknown, and has not spread far. In fact, aside from The Voice and the Eye, [1] in which its procedures and theoretical framework are presented, literature concerning the method is practically non-existent and that which is published is essentially grey in nature. As for methodological works, with a few exceptions, they rarely touch upon it, and briefly at best. The method’s low profile can also be attributed to its ever-decreasing presence in the works published by its practitioners. It takes centre stage in the early books, then steps out of the limelight in later works to increasingly feature in the technical appendices, and eventually receives no more than the occasional surreptitious mention in methodological overviews. As a method, it is no longer discussed. Whereas at the time of the first studies launched at the end of the 1970s, it provoked much debate, [2] the surveys conducted over the past decades have been noted, and some of them regularly cited, but the method seldom commented upon. However, while the discussion has subsided, including within research centres, the method has proven flexible, adapting to new objects and usages. Initially developed to analyse the meaning of collective struggles, sociological intervention has gradually tackled other forms of action and actors, sometimes those furthest from the issue of social movements.

3Thus, thirty years following its formalisation, it seemed pertinent to turn our attention to this method. Our study draws on a survey conducted in 2008 in which some 30 interviews were undertaken with researchers who had (or had not) employed the sociological intervention method and also with some intervention group participants. In addition, our study involves an analysis of all the grey literature concerning the method. Lastly, it draws on our own experience. [3]

4After reviewing the key principles of sociological intervention – which are still relevant today – we will identify the changes that it has undergone throughout its history as it has confronted new objects. After studying collective struggles, researchers turned their attention to analysing social problems and social experiences, partly modifying the method’s usage. Thus we can pinpoint which changes were happening at the transition point, the status of the interlocutors and the role of the researchers. It will then be a question of exploring the singular place that sociological intervention occupies within social sciences. The method possesses certain characteristics which hinder its widespread adoption: in light of its laborious implementation, its problematic transfer and the identity and theoretical marker that it constitutes, sociological intervention remains little-applied outside the tight circle of CADIS researchers. Lastly, we aim to demonstrate that while it differentiates itself, sometimes distinctly, from the group and intervention methods with which it is often associated, a certain number of its principles are becoming standardised. Its now essentially analytical purpose means it more closely resembles certain uses of collective interviews which retain a principle of reciprocity and controlled intervention on the part of the researchers. Its singularity essentially lies, therefore, in the confrontation that it endeavours to organise.

Rules, transformation of objects, and evolutions in the method’s usage

Introduction to sociological intervention

5Before reviewing the method’s evolution, it is necessary to recall its key principles. Touraine set these out in The Voice and The Eye and then presented their implementation in Lutte étudiante. [4] These two works strongly emphasise that sociological intervention inextricably links theory and methodology. Sociological intervention puts the theory of actionalism into practice, a theory that affirms the existence of actors and logics of social action and which looks to establish a link between the two. Actors are seen as having the capacity for action, but also of being able to account for the actions and situations in which they involve themselves. It is for this reason that sociological intervention relies on the reflexive ability of the actors. The method requires actors to engage in a process of reflection, even introspection, in which they analyse how they view and interpret the social world, and question their ability to act and participate in this world. The aim of the method is very much to bring to light and analyse social relations in order to define the different dimensions that structure the action of actors.

6To achieve this, sociological intervention consists in organising meetings of groups of ten to fifteen people in order to discuss a specific issue, which has been formalised and suggested by the sociologists. The groups are not real groups. They bring together individuals who share either the same commitment or experience but who do not know one another. A sociological intervention involves having the same group meet on several occasions in order to analyse the different components of the action. These sessions are sometimes open, sometimes closed. The open sessions involve interlocutors, who embody the social figures that the actors face within the context of their daily life, their commitment or their social experience. They represent the social, political and cultural environment within which the actors develop and, through confronting the group, help reveal the nature of the actors’ social relations. The closed sessions focus on what was said during the previous meetings. They open the way for the process of self-analysis and reflexivity by giving the group the opportunity to go back over their comments, to develop them further and to explain them.

7Any sociological intervention requires a team of researchers, organised and mobilised according to different roles. Each group has three researchers. One of them undertakes the secretarial duties and retranscribes the sessions. Another, called the interpreter, helps the group to establish itself and supports it in the analysis of its action. Positioned alongside the group, the interpreter facilitates the making of statements, brings order to what is said and to the adoption of positions. Assuming the role of chair, organising the floor and deciding who to call on to speak, this researcher pushes the group to reflect and to stand back from its spontaneous comments. As for the third researcher, called the analyst, he or she maintains more of a distance. The analyst’s role is to encourage the group to analyse its self-analysis, leading it towards reviewing its situation and experience, in its entirety, on the basis of the work undertaken during the sessions. In this role, this researcher often needs to shake the group up, at times pointing out its contradictions, its about-faces and what remains unsaid. Above all, the analyst is the one who introduces a sociological point of view into the exchange, a view developed as the research progresses.

8The sociologists therefore stand out because of their stance. In front of the group, they do make their presence felt, they take the floor, they make objections, they point out contradictions in the positions held: in short, they intervene. In so doing, they break with the traditional and academic position of axiological neutrality whereby the sociologists are expected to maintain a certain distance and confine themselves to recording opinions and statements. For the sociologists, it is a question of developing a general sociological reasoning that accounts for an action or situation. To achieve this, they introduce hypotheses as the sessions progress, debating them within the group in order to make sense of the meaning of the action. At the end of the process, the conversion session is the opportunity for them to submit general hypotheses to the actors accounting for their situation. The method, therefore, falls within a comprehensive cognitivist approach.

9Initially, this method was developed in order to determine to what extent collective struggles could be considered the result of social relations and conflicts vying for the social control of cultural models. [5] However, since the end of the 1980s, sociological intervention has been used to analyse other forms of action and actors, sometimes far removed from the issue of social movements. It has taken on a number of collective phenomena, social behaviours and experience, [6] which are mainly characterised by the loss of meaning and by disorganisation. So, how has the method evolved with the change of objects? Three constituent elements of the approach enable this to be assessed, namely the conversion, the role of the sociologists, and the interlocutors. These three components will be presented here, not according to the order in which they appear, but in terms of the changes they introduce in the usage and understanding of the method.

From conversion to restitution

10Initially, conversion refers to a sociological intervention practice aimed at analysing social movements. The method is not limited to the study of collective struggles; it claims to go beyond the causes and effects of mobilisations in order to focus on the sociological and historical significance of the actors’ commitment and to understand how they bring about social transformation. Sociological intervention targets the highest level of action possible and questions the actors involved in order to comprehend their capacity to be a social movement capable of contesting and changing the cultural orientations of society. Conversion is a dual process: analytical and initiatory.

11Analytical, because the moment of conversion dissects the nature of the action and confronts the group of activists with their commitments and the theoretical hypothesis of the social movement. Conversion positions the group on the side of analysis and invites it to assess the difference that exists between its action and the social movement. This presupposes that the actors are capable of accepting intellectually an analysis of the material that they have produced, work undertaken throughout the research process by the gradual introduction of self-analysis.

12Initiatory, because conversion equally aims to lead the group to reflect on the conditions that can help it become a social movement. Sociological intervention seeks, therefore, to lead the group towards this level of action, shedding light on it and opening the way to it. Conversion therefore includes a predictive element as it aims to raise the actors’ capacity for action; it constitutes a tool used in the action itself.

13Because sociological intervention has gone on to be used in relation to other issues, far removed from that of social movements, conversion has changed in nature. When research focuses on social problems and the subjectivation of actors, it seems more accurate to speak of restitution rather than conversion. [7] The principle remains the same; however the issues are altogether different in nature. The actors’ capacity for action remains at the heart of the research, but it is no longer a question of learning whether they possess in themselves the capacities to effect social changes. The aim is to understand how they escape the determinants of the situation, how they fashion space for themselves, and sometimes room to act, enabling them to construct themselves as subjects. This issue is all the more important as research now focuses principally on actors defined by their weakness and impotence, such as the youth of deprived suburbs, the “white trash” of the working classes, or cancer victims.

14In employing the term restitution, we suggest that sociological intervention is becoming a more analytical method. It consists of submitting general hypotheses to actors which reflect a situation. It positions itself principally as a deliberative space where sociologists can debate their reasoning and hypotheses, where they offer actors the opportunity to discuss and contest them. It is less a question of imagining what could happen, of pointing out the conditions for action, and more a question of presenting an analysis and submitting it to the judgement of actors. Restitution falls under a more comprehensive approach, through offering actors the opportunity to give meaning to their experience on the basis of work undertaken together with sociologists.

15Restitution is not a revelation for the group, as it results from the group’s analytical work. It is a sociological summary in which researchers set out the specific dimensions of the action and the logics of the system. Thus, the photograph is always a little bit larger than the frame strictly speaking formed with the group. It attempts to link a general line of argument to a particular experience. Furthermore, it also integrates individuals and in so doing introduces differentiation into the line of argument as a function of each individual’s position, their particular resources, trajectories, etc. It is always based therefore on a moral contract between researchers and actors, where, at the very least, sociologists commit to do more than gather individuals’ statements. This contract is all the more important when the research focuses on those actors who only very rarely have the opportunity to debate openly and to be taken seriously.


“In the case of a study conducted with some severely disadvantaged actors, let’s say marginalised youths, this relationship is so completely artificial and at odds with the usual links in which they are involved, that it seemingly provokes an attachment to the research. Although socially dominant, via this method researchers in fact find themselves in a position of indebtedness as the actors know that the sociologists need them and their work.” [8]

17This exercise demands clear and understandable rules from the sociologists so that the groups can grasp interpretations and discuss them.

The role of sociologists

18The shift from conversion to restitution marks a change in the method’s ambitions and significantly modifies the role of sociologists in how meetings are moderated. The study of social movements clearly distinguished the researchers’ functions. The interpreter, often behind the setting-up of the groups, was identified as being closer to the actors involved in the research. This researcher prompted and supported them, helping them to make their statements. The interpreter assumed a position alongside the group, not for the purposes of being its spokesperson, but to support and back up the group while it reflected on its action. During research focused on social movements, the interpreter was, at least in the beginning, identified as a researcher close to the movement itself, in the sense that the interpreter was sympathetic towards the movement’s leanings. Without being either a militant or an organic intellectual, the interpreter identified with the actors’ commitment, feeling some sympathy for it.

19The analyst assumed other functions and played a different role. More distant, more in the background, this researcher was not concerned with the subjective viewpoint of the actors but rather the analysis and sociological interpretation of the action. The analyst pulled the group towards a global review of its situation and its experience based on the work provided beforehand during the sessions. As the research progressed and the group met and discussed with interlocutors, the analyst attempted to develop working hypotheses to submit to them for discussion. The analyst, therefore, was constantly shaking up the group by reintroducing the work already produced by the group and asking its members to put it in order and to interpret it. This is why sociological intervention is presented as a method where sociologists are actively involved.


“It is a physical, not intellectual, method, assures a researcher. It is a method where you have to almost physically and indeed emotionally take on a group, where you put things into play… Otherwise it won’t work. You will pay the price if you are unable to impose yourself within a group, if you are frightened, as it will not work. It takes a lot of guts.”

21In expanding to cover social problems and the subjectivation of actors, sociological intervention introduced flexibility to the allocation of roles. Sociologists tend more to take turns performing each other’s role rather than adopt clearly defined roles. Once the research has begun and the group steadied, the dividing line between interpreter and analyst blurs and the two functions tend to converge. Depending on the session, the roles interchange or merge in order to lead the group towards analysis. Above all, it is important that the sociologists agree with each other and jointly manage to lead the group in the same direction, motivated by similar concerns to stimulate the group and drive it to reflect on its action and its situation.

22Perhaps even more so than with the study of social movements, when sociological intervention focuses on the subjectivation and experience of actors, it requires teamwork incorporating a high level of coordination between researchers because the actors with whom they work are often more fragile and less experienced debaters than the activists involved in social struggles. This explains why sociologists tend not to play the pre-allocated roles and do not, as the group work advances, shift from the position of interpreter to that of analyst. Instead, sociologists must manage to combine two positions. One of which, often to the surprise of the neophytes, is where the researchers do not hesitate to shake up the group and contradict it. Sociologists talk of “blowing up groups”, of “raising them up” and then “letting them down”, in short, they talk of a tense relationship between all actors present. As indicated by the following researcher:


“It is emotionally taxing, in that you have to accept, if it works, to let the situation explode. This will inevitably cause some damage. It creates tensions and incidents within groups, even making some individuals cry.”

24The other position assumes that sociologists agree to hand over their reasoning to the group members, to submit their hypotheses and often to see them contested by the group in the name of the work undertaken.

25However, researcher involvement cannot be limited to these aspects. It goes hand in hand with a way of behaving which entails the opposite…involving being in the background, listening to the group and allowing it to follow paths that it determines for itself. If the sociologist intervenes, he or she also stands back.


“You have to be humble, insists this researcher. You have to be able to listen and not want to give demonstrations all the time. You must not think that as soon as someone says something, you have to intervene with a sociological hypothesis.”

27Sociologists therefore find themselves in a position where they have to opt for a constantly fragile balance around the division of roles, needing to be both close and distant. Sociological intervention requires an “immediate intelligence” gained through a “very intersubjective personal involvement”. It produces a particular drama which undoubtedly destabilises the researchers because they are facing the risk of failure. Talking about a study conducted in Romania shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a researcher tells of the difficulty encountered in trying to find the right balance. As a result, a woman within the group was ostracised because the other participants suspected her of having been close to the Ceaucescu regime.


“I don’t know whether it was true or not, it doesn’t matter, however we come back to the issue of managing group dynamics. The situation must be allowed to become volatile if necessary! But only up to a certain point whereat the group is still intact, and this is not always controllable. We say, ‘the group must not explode’. Everyone knows exactly what this means. However, how do you achieve this and how far do you go with the contradiction?”

29This is why it is essential that there be both a balance and a complicity between researchers. Sociological intervention is therefore teamwork built on emotional and intellectual foundations, where sociologists reveal themselves to the groups and also their colleagues. It is not so much the defining of roles that counts as the ability to work together.

The interlocutors

30The place and role of interlocutors have hardly changed as a function of the different studies conducted using sociological intervention. On the other hand, their image and their relationships with the groups do change. Interlocutors embody the figures that the actors face within the context of their practices and commitments. In the case of social movements, interlocutors are introduced either as opponents or partners. They therefore represent either the figures that the activists are fighting against or, on the contrary, are perceived as supports or intermediaries by the activists. In view of this, interlocutors play a dual role. On the one hand they allow activists to clarify the stakes of their commitment by categorically identifying the opponents that they face; studies of social movements have often shown that activists either do not always manage to clearly identify their opponents, or imagine them. [9] On the other hand, interlocutors introduce social relations, preventing the separation of the actor from the system, and, on the contrary, making it possible for them to have a face to face encounter. In doing so, interlocutors provide the opportunity to go beyond ideological or spontaneous debate by forcing the groups to confront what they represent and to answer for it. Not only do the actors’ remarks, especially those of activists, differ when they meet their opponents, or partners, from when they talk about them in their absence, but the very nature of their representations changes as the confrontation forces the actors to argue and sometimes correct their points of view. [10]

31When the focus of the research moves away from social movements, the nature of the relationships with interlocutors changes. Apart from in very exceptional cases, these are no longer seen from an opponent/partner perspective. Interlocutors more simply embody the different figures that the actors have to deal with or confront within the context of their daily lives and their social experience. Pupils will meet with teachers; head teachers with guidance counsellors; patients will discuss with doctors; association officials with health insurance scheme managers; young modern women in Turkey will debate with journalists, male politicians with feminists. The challenge is to try and understand the nature of the social relations structuring the individuals’ lives. Aside from quite unusual situations where social relations appear clearly because they are interpreted spontaneously in terms of actor domination, in many cases the actors find it difficult to perceive and conflictualise them. Whether they are marginalised youths, pupils, individuals from insecure working-class backgrounds, or even youths involved in alternative globalisation movements, actors feel that they are clashing with an impersonal, distant and confused world, that they call the system, rather than with opponents they could confront. Meeting interlocutors therefore results in fewer confrontations: embodying the trials that shape actors’ lives, these interlocutors in particular act in a revelatory capacity, enabling actors to escape the isolation and to deal with the complexity.

32In effect, interlocutors re-engage actors in social issues. The history of actors is certainly always particular to the individual, nevertheless it assumes meaning in relation to the logic that the interlocutors defend or contest. Above all, these meetings force actors to question their own relationship with their environment and to take into account all the ambivalence that they feel towards the world around them. These meetings lead them to abandon a comfortable but simplistic representation of the world based on “them” and “us”. If, within the context of analysing social movements, interlocutors can be seen as either opponents or partners, when analysing social problems they are often both simultaneously. For example, the inhabitants of disadvantaged neighbourhoods view social workers, council officials, teachers, and even the police, as actors that help them to manage in their daily lives, but also as actors that lock them into dependency. Meeting the interlocutors, therefore, represents a change in direction. The challenge is less about provoking a confrontation than it is about finding a way to unravel the complex intricacies linking the actors to their social environment. For example, sometimes in the same phrase, members of the group make completely contradictory remarks, talking to the interlocutors differently depending on whether they are requesting support or deploring the insidious social control that comes with this support. [11]

33This ambivalence and complexity with regard to the representation of social relations probably requires greater vigilance and increased intervention on the part of the sociologists. They must unravel the different ties that bind actors to their environment while at the same time highlighting the potential contradictions that this creates. The risk here is always twofold. Actors either stick to a sort of caricature, overplaying social relations: the youths from the deprived suburbs become pure victims and the police are nothing but a blind and racist force of repression; pupils are just sponges wanting to learn and teachers are cold and brutal machines applying impersonal rules, etc. Or, on the contrary, actors and interlocutors alike, avoid all relations. In order to save face, or not need to manage tensions, they look to avoid antagonistic relationships, in favour of peaceful and civilised relationships. They abide by the “ritual constraints of interaction”. In the first case, dialogue is impossible, and in the second, it is biased. Sociologists must therefore intervene, pointing out the contradictions, highlighting what is said about such and such an interlocutor in his or her absence and what is no longer said when that interlocutor is present. Their role is even more decisive, aiming to reintroduce social relations when both actors and interlocutors look to avoid them. To achieve this, they rely as much on the debates which have taken place previously within the group itself as on the elements gleaned and gathered beforehand, when setting up the study itself, and which constitute an integral part of the research. To intervene, lead and reopen debates, sociologists draw as much from the group’s history as from that of the individuals and of their environment. All of these elements are constantly debated.

34The choice of interlocutor is made in two principal ways. Often, in the beginning, some individuals impose themselves naturally: teachers for pupils; police officers, social workers and local councillors for the young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods; politicians and economists with the new Russian entrepreneurs; [12] an HR director and a career development manager with executives; and also social workers, council representatives and priests with the inhabitants of the Chilean slums. [13] Subsequently, the choice of interlocutor is refined as the research progresses based on what is said and the resulting hypotheses. When executives endlessly claim that they are masters of their own careers, it seems expedient to invite a member of an elected industrial tribunal to come and modulate this claim. In all cases, to guarantee freedom of expression and debate it is essential that the interlocutor has no direct and real connection with the group members, and knows that, in their eyes, he or she embodies a social figure. An interlocutor therefore always speaks in his or her own name and from the point of view of his or her social role. It is on this basis that the interlocutor is sought and invited to appear before the group.

35Lastly, meeting the interlocutors introduces another dimension. Although activists may be experienced debaters, practised in handling controversy, this is rarely the case when the focus of the research turns to actors who are weaker socially and principally defined by relations of domination and exclusion. The interlocutor then plays an expressive role, offering actors the opportunity to enter a forum for discussion where an equal say is guaranteed.


“Being able to speak with a judge, a police commissioner or a member of parliament in a relation that does not straightaway crush or invalidate the person ‘below’, is not a commonplace experience.” [14]

37Socially dominated, sometimes excluded, actors find in sociological intervention a forum for debate governed by a principle of equivalence: their word has as much value as that of the interlocutors they entertain who are quite often in more enviable social positions.

A singular place within social sciences

38Sociology shares a common methodological foundation with the other social science disciplines, where individual and collective interviews, observation and also quantitative techniques constitute the principal means of collecting data. From this point of view, sociological intervention is unique: it is one of the rare methods specific to this discipline, invented from scratch with the aim of grasping a strictly sociological object. This specificity could have earned it an important place in the discipline, however this has not happened – in fact quite the contrary. Its low uptake is due to several factors: it is laborious to implement, difficult to transfer and teach, and is also hindered by the identity marker that it constitutes. The efforts undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s to demarcate and justify methodologies have thus had a lasting impact on sociological intervention, even though, against this background, the crossed influences of different group and intervention methods are identifiable.

Invisibility and identity markers

39If sociological intervention is largely invisible and unknown, it is because it has barely ventured beyond the tight circle of CADIS researchers. The undeniably laborious nature of the method is instinctively put forward as the reason for this low uptake. It is true that the method requires significant means from a logistical point of view; in addition, it is time-consuming. All the different stages and dimensions of the research are long and, some of them indeterminate. Train a team, prepare the work beforehand, form and mobilise multiple groups that are generally geographically widespread, identify and call upon interlocutors – and be responsive to being let down – lead sessions, constantly keep discussions going within the team, etc. It’s a long-term enterprise, during which there will be moments of increased investment. A sociological intervention requires a commitment from a team of researchers, a commitment that has become more difficult to make in an ever more restricted professional context in which multiple methodologies appear to be more profitable as a consequence. Because of the level of investment and self-expression required by each intervention, this method is deemed to be demanding.

40This burdensome nature also contributes to the difficulties experienced in transferring the method. The method does not adapt well to the university teaching format, and applied exercises are difficult to envisage. Indeed, without being subject to it, students do not grasp the issue very well. Above all, the method can only be learned “on the job”, by experiencing it yourself. The principle transfer method is based on shadowing; the art of intervention is transferred and developed in a real-life situation.


“Training in the method, explains a researcher, was more or less similar to what my father experienced in the pre-war proletarian world or my grandfather in the mines: you turn up, you’re given overalls, a hat and a pickaxe, and then you go underground, you’re told where to strike. And after ten years, you strike better and you know where best to strike. But there is no training centre.’

42Initiation to the method is therefore by way of a personal trial: like the psychoanalytical method with which it is regularly compared, you must be able to experience by yourself and for yourself a certain number of operations in order to be a good practitioner. It is through practice that you ensure you have the ability, and indeed the appetite, for the exercise.

43Transfer and uptake prove equally problematic beyond the borders of metropolitan France. Although sociological interventions have been conducted in many countries, [15] national specificities – social, cultural and political as well as strictly scientific – have a bearing on each implementation. Taking into account its assumptions and procedures, sociological intervention is difficult to mobilise where conflict or controversy are unthinkable, such as in undemocratic societies.


“In order to conduct an intervention, explains this researcher, you must assemble a group of people who have opposing, divergent ideas, and you must be able to freely discuss and debate. Now, in undemocratic societies, the problem is very complicated: firstly, you cannot assemble a group of people because of the repression. The people are scared. The debate cannot be sincere and frank. Therefore a large part of the world is not suitable.”

45This said, democratic societies present difficulties of their own, as in the case of Anglo-Saxon countries. The issue here is the small audience receptive to Touraine’s theories. The vocabulary of sociological intervention, its messianic notes, has generally given rise to mistrust, as has the very principle of intervention and self-analysis. The influence of the resource mobilisation approach to analysing collective action has also contributed to the marginalisation of sociological intervention in terms of social movements. [16] The success of an essentially structuralist French theory has done the rest. The method’s adoption in Asia [17] is also difficult since it can be hampered by specific cultural practices in relational behaviour, as in Japan where individuals express themselves within groups in line with social conventions, which make any intervention futile.

46Above all, sociological intervention remains associated with the name of Alain Touraine and constitutes the distinguishing “feature” of a unique group. Still perceived from the outside as an identity marker, in addition surrounded by a fantasy of a hard life, the method cannot be grasped without simultaneously publicly stating one’s affiliation to a “group” or a “school”. A relatively young method, it cannot consequently move beyond the intellectual framework within which it came into being. And yet sociological intervention is not mobilised by every sociologist at CADIS, or by all those who adopt the actionalist approach and its recent developments. It is no small paradox to note that in a laboratory that displays the name of the method on its pediment, its usage does not constitute a condition of membership. A contrary explanation therefore comes from inside the CADIS regarding the low uptake: sociological intervention has not spread because Touraine and his successors have never wanted to establish a school; the freedom – both theoretical and methodological – allowed to the members of the laboratory has contributed to its limited use. It can be noted however that reference to the first interventions on social movements weighs heavily on everyone. The nostalgia of a golden age is perceptible in actors and witnesses, and strangely also among the younger generation, somewhat crushed by the picaresque scale of an epic period, the reproduction of which seems inconceivable. CADIS researchers are also weighed down by a shared representation of an “orthodox” or even “canonical period” that forces everyone to justify the legitimacy of their practice. Even now this reference to the past prevents researchers from fully assuming the method, unless they attribute to it a series of variations – “light version”, “version inspired by…”; or from using “the label”, preferring that of think tanks, discussion groups, or meetings. This embarrassment itself contributes to the poor visibility of the method, like the distinction regularly made between a before and after, now characterised by a form of impoverishment and deterioration.

Splits and demarcation

47Intervention retains a distinctive identity as a result of the publicising and legitimising work undertaken during the 1970s and 1980s. The period was one of affirmation of identity, sometimes defensive in nature, as the struggle for places and positions fuelled disputes about legitimacy. For reasons as much theoretical as political, the method received a very critical reception.

48The practice of sociological intervention and the theory of actionalism are explicitly at odds with two of the mainstream concepts that structure the field of the discipline. Far removed from a functionalist representation of society as a system integrated around values, where the movement reacts to changes in order to maintain an overall balance, the sociology of action points, on the contrary, to class conflict as being central to controlling the direction of society. However, in so doing, it also departs from readings inspired by Marxism which views antagonism as the result of capitalism’s contradictions. Touraine’s critical analysis of the movement of May 1968 [18] and the subsequent struggles led to him distancing himself from those who view the conflict of the time in strict terms of production and domination, of critical thinking and structuralism. His double hypothesis of a decline of the labour movement and the future collapse of industrial society was in fact unacceptable for a political and intellectual world that saw Marxism as an endless horizon. [19] Above all, more than a particular sociological or intellectual trend, it is a deterministic vision which essentially ignores the actor, to which actionalism is opposed. To claim that “men make their own history”, is to consider that the actor cannot only be defined by his or her position, status and condition; that he or she is neither blind to the situation, nor manipulated. Furthermore, by accepting the idea that the individual can make sense of his or her behaviour, the sociology of action moves away from the methodological canon that distances itself from individuals, their emotions and their practical experience in the name of the epistemological rupture.

49Touraine’s intellectual and political positioning also explains why he took the time to specify “the boundaries and territory of intervention” (“Frontières et territoire de l’intervention”, chapter 5 of Touraine’s La voix et le regard). [20] At the time he was developing his method, other researchers in the fields of human and social sciences were thinking about their practice in terms of groups and/or intervention. This was the case in France where a number of heterogeneous approaches could be grouped together under the broad label of “institutional intervention”. [21] A psychosociological current can be found among these approaches (Jacques Ardoino, Jean Dubost, André Levy), along with supporters of institutional analysis (Félix Guattari, Georges Lapassade, René Lourau, Rémi Hess), and socio-psychoanalysis (Gérard Mendel, the Groupe Desgenettes). These intervention practices appeared in the immediate post-war period in Marxist-oriented psychiatry, in the urban field, or in ongoing training and social work. Other practices fall under the sociology of organisations and administrations (Herbert Simon, James March, Erhard Friedberg, Michel Crozier). [22] Between the 1950s and 1970s, these approaches would develop and consolidate by importing and discussing the theoretical contributions and practical experience of North American social psychology of small groups (Elton Mayo, Kurt Lewin). They also borrowed from European work that considered group dynamics from a viewpoint some distance from functionalism. [23] In spite of their diversity, these approaches are all in some way influenced by the tutelary figures of Freud and Marx, either identifying with them or establishing a critical relationship with them.

50This double reference to Freud and Marx was very much in the mind of Touraine. However, he sought to differentiate his method from intervention practices which considered that change and liberation must come about through the destruction of an institutional order necessarily perceived as being dominant and repressive. For Touraine, sociological intervention must firstly allow conflict to be revealed and analysed. Furthermore, although the sociological intervention method may bear the hallmarks of interdisciplinary dialogue and crossreadings, it is clearly closer to the reflections and practices developed by Saul Alinsky [24] and Paolo Freire. [25]

Specificities and convergences

51Sometimes seen as part of the big family of group and intervention methods, sometimes critically distanced from it, sociological intervention perplexes and appears at first glance impossible to classify. Participatory observation for some, “action research” [26] for others, in its early days and even now sociological intervention generally resists attempts to pin it down; all the more so when, by looking “underneath”, commentators try to make it admit that it is not really what it claims to be. “Revolutionary” in many ways in 1978, its principles and usages are now “standardising”. It is a question, therefore, of assessing to what extent sociological intervention still differentiates itself from other group methods.

52As a way in to the discussion, we can take the dual approach to defining collective interviews proposed by Sophie Duchesne and Florence Haegel as a starting-point. [27] The first approach consists of distinguishing the methods that position the group as the object of the analysis from those methods that use the group as a technique to collect data produced within a collective context (statements, opinions, representations, analyses, etc.) in order to analyse it. The second approach relates to group methods organised within a structure comprising three distinct and conflicting activities: observation, experimentation and intervention. Experimentation is thus opposed to observation: the logic of the first accepts the artificial nature of the research mechanism; the second relies on the “search for naturalness” through retaining real group situations. Experimentation is also opposed to intervention: the logic of the first is associated with the specialisation and political impartiality of all work generating scientific knowledge; the second looks to generate knowledge by claiming an ambition to transform social and/or individual reality. Armed with this model, the authors place sociological intervention in this latter category as, in their eyes, it falls under “action research” alongside clinical sociology, the use of groups by strategic analysis, or the leadership and teaching tools inspired by Paolo Freire. [28] Although pertinent on many levels, this framework can however be debated if one considers that this latter grouping is inadmissible on some counts. For not all intervention sociologies are the same, particularly when you take account of the evolution in sociological intervention’s ambitions.

An analytical purpose

53Does sociological intervention aim to change social and/or individual reality? The response given in The Voice and the Eye is clear. Touraine wagers that if participants contribute to and take ownership of the analysis of their self-analysis, the resulting knowledge can raise the project level of the movement – and therefore of the collective actor, in the broadest sense, and not only of the members of the group. For Touraine, this aim is achievable with the correct method.


“Can one remain an activist when one turns analyst? The answer is not only that one can; but this positive response should also confirm that activist self-analysis strengthens participation in the movement itself, beyond the difficulties of the struggle.” [29]

55However, the analytical stake is also very strongly affirmed. Criticising institutional analysis which according to him generates too little knowledge, Touraine wrote the following:


“I defend in the strongest of terms the need for an analysis, therefore for the need for distance between the analyst and his or her object of knowledge; distance which is not a cover for indifference but the tool of sociology and history.” [30]

57Subsequently, with the social movement issue’s loss of centrality, for historical as much as sociological reasons, the method abandoned the aim of increasing the capacity for action in favour of an essentially analytical purpose. If sociological intervention offers anything to the actors that it mobilises, it is intelligibility first of all: it provides them with the means to increase their understanding of the situations they are experiencing by resituating them within social relations. Basically, with what the method “does to the actors” proving too uncertain, the aim of transformation became secondary. If certain participants have been able to change politically, professionally and personally, the first experiments revealed elsewhere that an increase in reflexivity and knowledge in no way guaranteed enhanced capacity for action. Sociological intervention has thus been perceived by some activists as presenting “serious political shortcomings”, proving to be “demotivating” and ultimately “objectively conservative”. The aim of permanent sociology is therefore becoming more traditional, with researchers envisaging their contribution to social and political transformation more through participation in public debate. [31]

58Moreover, sociological intervention never set itself up as a means for resolving collective, individual or organisational problems. The principle of using groups that are not real clearly indicates that the group is not the object of the investigation. Sociological intervention differs in this respect from other methods that aim to support individuals and groups faced with change. It differs also from those methods – such as in clinical psychology [32] – that promise to throw light on individual subjects by way of biographical introspection conducted in a collective context. If the researcher’s relationship with the group is at the heart of the sociological intervention approach, what’s at stake in this relationship remains specific: focused on historical and/or sociological hypotheses, the researcher positions him or herself in the middle ground between the group and its action; the researcher’s role therefore is entirely oriented towards organising the group’s self-analysis. This bias explains why group dynamics or pragmatic discourse are not objects of analysis: without being overlooked, these are at most taken into account during the intervention proper for the purpose of controlling exchanges.

59In fact, sociological intervention falls more squarely, but also more modestly, under the heading of experimentation, given that it invites actors into a research process in the gamble that the collective dimension of the discussion and the confrontations organised will, more than any other technique, lead to the revelation and analysis of the nature of the social relations. The artificial dimension is accepted: far removed from those techniques for observing “reality”, the method puts actors “in an analysis situation which does not correspond with daily experience; it places them opposite interlocutors who more often than not are beyond their reach, it forces them to reflect in conditions which minimise the pressure both of the decisions to be made and the circumstances”. [33] Like the “hard” science experimental procedures which recreate natural phenomena in the laboratory in order to determine laws, it is a question of recreating social phenomena in a research environment – devised and controlled by the researchers – in order to analyse them. As the approach is based on speaking, a parallel can perhaps be drawn with the workings of the psychoanalytic method. The “talking cure” devised by Freud forms the basis of psychoanalytic theory and is inextricably linked to him. [34] Above all, it is an investigative tool for identifying and working with the different processes of psychic activity, inaccessible and incomprehensible without the self-analysis model outlined. The challenge of every sociological intervention is to create un-ordinary conditions for dialogue, governed by principles and rules, which allow both participants and researchers to access something which does not lend itself to being seen clearly and intelligibly in ordinary social relations. In addition, this is to be done by way of a dual confrontation: that of the group with the interlocutors and the group with the researchers.

Intervention and confrontation

60If sociological intervention is similar to other group and/or intervention methods, this is less in terms of an immediately transformative objective than in relation to the role and position of the sociologists. In fact, although their involvement can be said to be decisive, the forms that involvement takes have gradually become standardised. We thus find in the majority of collective interview techniques a basic notion of intervention: researchers are not confined to collecting statements, opinions and discourse; they intervene in the exchanges in order to encourage group members to speak, to clarify and link the topics. A second notion proves to be particularly constitutive of sociological intervention: researchers intervene by regularly submitting hypotheses to the group which they construct in the course of the exchanges, involving the actors in the development of the analysis, going so far as to jointly test the credibility of the general interpretive framework at the end of the process. Placing interviewees in a context that favours reflective work shared with the researchers means a double test: confrontation between the meaning proposed by the actors themselves and that constructed by the researchers. This epistemological choice can however be found in other ues of group methods, such as in the case of the democratic research approach tested by Elizabeth Frazer, clinical sociology, institutional analysis and also sociological mediation. [35] It is equally the case of the method used by organisational sociologists: as Erhard Friedberg specifies, the challenge of restitution is both to directly test the relevance of the analyses, and to ensure that the knowledge becomes public knowledge where everyone knows what everybody knows: the key factor in making change possible within an organisation. [36] Lastly we should note that, more widely, intervention to create space for reflection has gradually gained ground in individual interview techniques [37].

61To put sociological intervention into perspective with other group and intervention methods, it appears that the only element that cannot be found anywhere else is the principle of the interlocutors. It is the use of these figures – mobilised in a fashion similar to the “substances” in the chemist’s test tubes, in order to “precipitate” social relations, the meaning of which is to be interpreted – which constitutes a distinctive feature. Sociologists practising sociological intervention are committed to the principle of creating a confrontation that reveals social relations. Every practitioner interviewed insists on this added value: by organising the meeting between groups and interlocutors, with this method it is possible to check to what extent these individuals, who do not know each other, recognise each other as social actors. The face-to-face meeting between the group and the sociologists is not enough on its own. The epistemological status of interlocutors has certainly become problematic, as we have seen. However, whether social life gives rise to collective actions such as “performance”, without the need for discourse and ideologies; [38] or whether every kind of institution appears to dissolve in “liquid modernity”; [39] or relationships of power and domination seem less tangible, notably in a globalised world, there are plenty of good reasons to maintain the principle of interlocutors: in their revelatory effects, these confrontations always allow the way in which society produces itself through conflict to be explored, just as they remain effective for understanding the relationships between individual and group, and the logics of subjectivation. For example, confrontations have been key in understanding that the experience of cancer patients comprises both radically non-social dimensions – coming faceto-face with death – and social relations which govern the relationship of the patient with society, medical science and the hospital. [40] Similarly, this principle of confrontation allows us to understand that inhabitants of the ghetto produce a collective mode of operation from which they individually try to escape. [41]

62When researchers abandon this principle, they allow the added value of sociological intervention to become less apparent, and the method finds itself competing with less stringent methodological approaches, notably implemented over shorter periods. It also more resembles collective interview techniques.

Collective interviews and the reflexive method

63Sociological intervention retains part of its distinctive nature. However, the evolution of the practice as well as the generalisation of some of its principles has led to a convergence with many collective interview usages. If there any differences to be found, they are above all associated with the division between reflexive methods and positive methods, such as that proposed by Michael Burawoy or Pauwel Kuczynski. [42] Positive science mobilises methods that follow an industrial logic, since its regulatory principles form the basis of a procedural objectivity wherein “the process guarantees the product”: [43] conception and execution are separated from each other, in the same way as research theory and research practice. As for reflexive science, it relies on an objectivity embedded in theory, with, this time, a craft mode of knowledge production where “the product governs the process”. This position is all the better accepted since the aim of the research is not to establish a definitive “truth” about the outside world but to continuously improve existing theory.

64Depending on which of these positions are adopted, group interview methods give rise to different usages. Sociological intervention thus differentiates itself particularly from a certain usage of focus groups, sometimes employed by the social sciences but especially widely adopted within marketing. Therefore, an initial distinction can be drawn where the collective interview technique is mobilised in line with a principle of non-reciprocity. The idea behind this application therefore is that the less the participants know about the reason for their being called upon, the more the results will be relevant. This is one of the principles of experimental methods, which make the asymmetry of the research environment a condition for their success. Like marketers, researchers believe they have to hide, even misrepresent their intentions so as to neither disrupt nor bias the exercise. Conversely, the reflexive collective interview methods are based on a definition of the environment which is commonly understood by all. Granted, the researchers select participants and define the nature of the issue. However, the actors know what they are involved in and why; they accept the object, purpose and procedures of the research. This agreement is all the more essential in the case of sociological intervention where they have to make a long-term commitment.

65Furthermore, with it being necessary to facilitate the reproducibility of the exercise and a division of tasks which will allow researchers and research officers to play interchangeable roles, the industrial logic calls for the standardisation, or at least ritualisation of focus groups; hence the very specific way in which researchers are involved. In these terms, they remain facilitators and make sure that procedures are followed. To do this, they follow a guide and ensure that the scripts drawn up beforehand are respected. In this guise, the collective interview technique consequently closely resembles the administering of questionnaires and is far removed from the comprehensive methods centred on the reflexive capabilities of actors. However, many researchers today use collective interviews which attribute a positive status to actors’ consciousness. As in the case of sociological intervention, this does not exclude researchers’ involvement from being underpinned by theoretical hypotheses. However, what is said and played out within the group is decisive. Researchers are therefore required to be resourceful and great importance is attached to improvisation. Reflexive science’s craft logic therefore allows flexibility and creativity. This is particularly the case for sociological intervention, the added value of which lies in its ability to provoke the unexpected thanks to the interlocutors. Furthermore, the intervention stops when the researchers and the group are convinced that the discussions are no longer producing surprises and are exhausted, such that the study will have nothing to gain from prolonging the confrontations.

66* * *

67Although the commitment to the principle of interlocutors remains a distinctive feature, sociological intervention now shares some boundaries and territories with collective interviews when they are mobilised in line with the precepts of reflexive science. Clearly serving an analytical purpose, sociological intervention is positioned midway between experimental methods and intervention sociologies. As a result of its experimental basis, it retains its artificial nature and control procedures specific to any research aimed at producing scientific knowledge. However, the status that it confers on the interviewees, interlocutors and the unique involvement of the researchers collectively provides the method with its reflexive dimension.

68This proximity to other collective interviews usages not only (re)opens dialogue on and around the method but could also lead to its wider adoption. This is particularly so given that, as its objects of study have evolved and its practices taken new directions, sociological intervention has been able to develop its initial theoretical framework into a sociology of experience or a sociology of the subject. As the method broke free from the initial theoretical focus on social movements it revealed different usages that favoured a certain standardisation: not only, in its practical aspects, is sociological intervention losing its exceptional character, but it has also tackled subjects which are not specific to it and which, moreover, require each intervention to be approached in conjunction with other investigative techniques. Henceforth, it can now be included in the sociologist’s methodological toolkit, which is always built on borrowings, appropriations and adaptations. This evolution is not to be deplored as it is also the path to greater adoption. It is easy to accept, since the specificity of the practice stems more from the way in which the sociological object is constructed, according to theoretical bases which shape perspectives on the world. It is therefore a function of the singular gaze, and, even more so, of the singular language that sociologists endeavour to invent.

Methodological annex

69Drawing on a study of both published and grey literature, the survey conducted in the course of 2008 also comprised 30 individual interviews principally with researchers and teacherresearchers who had used the method. In the main, these are sociologists, members or research associates of CADIS, both past and present. The others undertake work in psychology, political sociology and education sciences. Their level of competency and involvement in sociological intervention is therefore variable: some have been practising for a long time, and regularly, while others have been associated with it or have employed it on an ad hoc basis. These interviews were the opportunity to tackle several aspects relating to the origin of the method and to its development; to the different implementation challenges and procedures depending on the nature of the objects worked on; to the practical difficulties encountered by researchers, to the advantages and disadvantages of sociological intervention compared with other techniques and methods; and also to the changes that have been necessary in order to address new challenges. Issues relating to its transfer and learning and its relative adoption were also tackled. Everyone enthusiastically took this opportunity to take stock of the method and its usage. Moreover, some interviews were conducted with researchers who were not users of sociological intervention but who, due to their membership or close affiliation with CADIS, could provide an informed critical view. Lastly, two interviews were conducted with individuals who, while involved in student movements twenty years apart, had participated in the sociological interventions which respectively resulted in La lutte étudiante (1978) and Campus Blues (1992). With these individuals, the exchange focused on their experience of the method and in particular on the link between knowledge and action.


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    Alain Touraine, The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). (English translation of Alain Touraine, La voix et le regard (Paris: Seuil, 1978)).
  • [2]
    See in particular Michel Amiot, “L’intervention sociologique, la science et la prophétie”, Sociologie du travail, 4, 1980, 415-24; Guy Minguet, “Les mouvements sociaux, la sociologie de l’action et l’intervention sociologique”, Revue française de sociologie, 21(1), 1980, 121-33; and Rémi Hess, La sociologie d’intervention (Paris: PUF, 1981).Online
  • [3]
    Olivier Cousin, Sandrine Rui, L’intervention sociologique. Histoire(s) et actualitéés d’une méthode (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010).
  • [4]
    Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, Lutte étudiante (Paris: Seuil, 1978).
  • [5]
    Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, Lutte étudiante; Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, Le pays contre l’État. Luttes occitanes (Paris: Seuil, 1981); Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, Anti-nuclear Protest: The Opposition to Nuclear Energy in France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) (English translation of Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, La prophétie antinucléaire (Paris: Seuil, 1980)).
  • [6]
    Including Philippe Bataille, Un cancer et la vie (Paris: Balland, 2003); Olivier Cousin, Les cadres: grandeur et incertitude (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004); François Dubet, La galère. Jeunes en survie (Paris: Fayard, 1987); François Dubet, Danilo Martuccelli, À l’école. Sociologie de l’expérience scolaire (Paris: Seuil, 1996); Bernard Francq, La ville incertaine. Politique urbaine et sujet personnel (Louvain-la-Neuve: Académia-Bruylant, 2003); Nilüfer Göle, Musulmanes et modernes (Paris: La Découverte, 1993); Francis Jauréguiberry, Les branchés du portable. Sociologie des usages (Paris: PUF, 2003); Danièle Joly, “Ethnicité et violence chez les jeunes Antillais: Une intervention sociologique à Birmingham”, Cahiers internationaux de sociologie, 105, 1998, 383-413; Didier Lapeyronnie, Ghetto urbain. Ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2008); Danilo Martuccelli, Maristella Svampa, La plaza vacia: las transformaciones del peronismo (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1997); Michel Wieviorka, The Making of Terrorism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) (English translation of Michel Wieviorka, Sociétés et terrorisme (Paris: Fayard, 1988)); Michel Wieviorka et al., La France raciste (Paris: Seuil, 1992).
  • [7]
    The term “restitution” is not used by the researchers themselves; however it should be noted nonetheless that they no longer talk of “conversion”. In reality, this phase is no longer named, contributing to the method’s invisibility.
  • [8]
    François Dubet, “Acteurs sociaux et sociologues. Le cas de l’intervention sociologique”, paper presented at the CADIS seminar, Paris: 5-9 December 1988 (excerpt translated by M O’Mahony).
  • [9]
    The two studies conducted with student movements fifteen years apart provide a good illustration: Alain Touraine, François Dubet, Zsuzsa Hegedus, Michel Wieviorka, Lutte étudiante…; Didier Lapeyronnie, Jean-Louis Marie, Campus Blues (Paris: Seuil, 1992). In the students’ discourse, employers, as representatives of capitalism, embody the indisputable opponent. In fact, when the meeting takes place, the ideas become blurred and employers more often appear as indifferent to the university.
  • [10]
    Still regarding research conducted on the student movement, the meeting between students and trade union officials forced the former to review their position. The students claimed to speak in the name of the proletariat, the trade union officials expressed doubts and above all saw them as children of the bourgeoisie and future managers.
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    This same ambivalence is to be found in the research conducted in the suburbs, François Dubet, La galère. Jeunes en survie; Didier Lapeyronnie, Ghetto urbain. Ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui, but also in the research conducted in former Soviet Bloc countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall: Sylvaine Trinh, Olivier Cousin, Tchèques et Slovaques: une vie à soi (Paris: CADIS/EHESS/CNRS, 1993).
  • [12]
    Alexis Berelowitch, Michel Wieviorka, Les Russes d’en bas (Paris: Seuil, 1996).
  • [13]
    François Dubet, Eugenio Tironi, Vicente Espinoza, Eduardo Valenzuela, Pobladores. Luttes sociales et démocratie au Chili (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1989).
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    François Dubet, “Acteurs sociaux et sociologues. Le cas de l’intervention sociologique”.
  • [15]
    Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey.
  • [16]
    Anthony Oberschall, Social Conflict and Social Movements (Englewoods Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1973).Online
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    Note, however, an application in China: Shen Yuan, “Strong and weak intervention: two pathways for sociological intervention”, Current Sociology, 56, 2008, 399-404; and also: Lina Hu, “Doing public sociology in the field. A strong sociological intervention project in China”, The American Sociologist, 38(3), 2007, 262-87.
  • [18]
    Alain Touraine, The May Movement: Revolt and Reform (New York: Random House, 1971) (English translation of Alain Touraine, Le mouvement de mai ou le communisme utopique (Paris: Seuil, 1968)).
  • [19]
    See the accounts by François Dubet, L’expérience sociologique (Paris: Seuil, 2007), and Michel Wieviorka (interviews with Julien Tenedos), Sociologue sous tension (Paris: Aux lieux d’être, 2006); and also Hervé Hamon, Patrick Rotman, Génération, Tôme 1: Les années de rêve (Paris: Seuil, 1987).
  • [20]
    Chapter 5 has not been translated into English and does not feature in the English language edition: Alain Touraine, The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). The title of chapter 5 has been translated by M O’Mahony.
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    It is the title of a collective work on the initiative of Gérard Mendel, which was originally to have been entitled “L’intervention avec des collectifs sociaux”: Jacques Ardoino et al., L’intervention institutionnelle (Paris: Payot, 1980).
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    For a complete overview of intervention sociologies, refer to Guy Minguet, “Taxinomie de modèles sociologiques d’intervention”, in Didier Vrancken, Olgierd Kuty (eds), La sociologie et l’intervention (Brussels: De Boeck University, 2001), 19-67.
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    Robert F. Bales, Small Groups. Studies in Social Interaction (New York: Knopf, 1965); Wilfred R. Bion, Experiences in Groups and other papers (London: Tavistock, 1961); Elliott Jaques, The Changing Culture of Factory (London: Tavistock, 1951); Didier Anzieu et al., Le travail psychanalytique des groupes (Paris: Dunod, 1976); Serge Moscovici, Psychologie des minorités actives (Paris: PUF, 1979).
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    Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Random House, 1969) (1st edn 1946).
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    Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970) (English language translation of the Portuguese language original: Paolo Freire, Pedagogia do oprimido (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1968)).
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    Madeleine Grawitz, Méthodes des sciences sociales (Paris: Dalloz, 11th edn, 2001), 839. Jean Dubost also includes sociological intervention in the field of “French action research” (Jean Dubost, “Une analyse comparative des pratiques dites de recherche-action”, Connexions, 43, 1984, 9-28).
  • [27]
    Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, L’enquête et ses méthodes. L’entretien collectif (Paris: Nathan, 2004).
  • [28]
    Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
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    Alain Touraine, The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements (1981), 154.
  • [30]
    Alain Touraine, La voix et le regard (Paris: Seuil, 1978), 282. (Translation by M O’Mahony of this excerpt taken from chapter 5 of the original French language edition, which was not translated and does not feature in the official English language edition).
  • [31]
    Michel Wieviorka, Sociologue sous tension.Online
  • [32]
    Vincent de Gauléjac, L’histoire en héritage: roman familial et trajectoire sociale (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1999). See also Vincent de Gauléjac, Fabienne Hanique, Pierre Roche (eds), La sociologie clinique (Toulouse: Érès, 2007).
  • [33]
    Alain Touraine, “Réponse à Michel Amiot”, Sociologie du travail, 4, 1980, 425-30 (427)
  • [34]
    Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1943).
  • [35]
    Elizabeth Frazer, “Teenage girls talking about class”, Sociology, 22(3), 1988, 343-58; Jacques Ardoino et al., L’intervention institutionnelle; Gilles Herreros, “Sociologie d’intervention: sociologie plastique. Métis et métissage”, Gérer et comprendre, 75, March 2004, 81-92; Éric Debarbieux, Alix Dupuch, Yves Montoya “Pour en finir avec le ‘handicap socio-violent’: une approche comparative de la violence en milieu scolaire”, in Bernard Charlot, Jean-Claude Emin (eds), Violences à l’école. États des savoirs (Paris: Armand Colin, 1997), 17-40.
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    Erhard Friedberg, “L’analyse sociologique des organisations”, Pour, 28, 1972.Online
  • [37]
    Including among the most ardent defenders of the epistemological rupture: cf. Pierre Bourdieu, The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999) (English translation of Pierre Bourdieu, La misère du monde (Paris: Seuil, 1993)).
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    John Law, After Method. Mess in Social Science Research (London: Routledge, 2004).
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    Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
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    Philippe Bataille, Un cancer et la vie.
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    Didier Lapeyronnie, Ghetto urbain. Ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.
  • [42]
    Michael Burawoy, “The extended case method”, Sociological Theory, 16(1), 4-33 (28). A similar discussion was put forward by Pauwel Kuczynski, “L’intervention sociologique en tant que situation de communication”, paper presented at the CADIS seminar, Paris, 5-9 December 1988.
  • [43]
    Michael Burawoy, “The extended case method”, 28.


Sociological intervention, first elaborated and implemented by Alain Touraine, has been used as the basis of a number of important surveys and publications in sociology. However, as a methodology it has remained somewhat in the shade and is presently used by a limited circle of researchers. This article links two of its aspects. It first details the main principles of the method and describes its evolutions as it moved from analysing the problematics of social movements to the understanding of social problems. Secondly, it questions the singularity of the method compared to other modes of collective interviews. It thus appears that, though original and demanding, the sociological intervention remains in some ways close to other reflexive group methods.

Oliver Cousin
Olivier Cousin is Professor of Sociology at the Université Bordeaux 2-Victor Segalen, researcher at the Émile Durkheim Centre, and research associate at CADIS (EHESS-Paris). Notably, he has authored (with Sandrine Rui) L’intervention sociologique. Histoire(s) et actualité d’une méthode (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010); Les cadres à l’épreuve du travail (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008); Les cadres. Grandeurs et incertitudes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). His research focuses on the sociology of education and the sociology of work (Université Bordeaux 2-Victor Segalen, 3 ter place de la Victoire, F-33076 Bordeaux cedex
Sandrine Rui
Sandrine Rui is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Université Bordeaux 2-Victor Segalen, researcher at the Émile Durkheim Centre, and research associate at CADIS (EHESS-Paris). She has authored (with Olivier Cousin) L’intervention sociologique. Histoire(s) et actualité d’une méthode (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010); La démocratie en débat. Les citoyens face à l’action publique (Paris: Armand Colin, 2004). Her research focuses on political sociology (participative processes and systems) and the sociology of public action (Université Bordeaux 2-Victor Segalen, 3 ter place de la Victoire, F-33076 Bordeaux cedex
Translated from French by 
Michael O’Mahony
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