International Sociological Association (ISA) World Forum: Day 2: Alain Touraine, Manuel Castells, Craig Calhoun

The main feature of the second day at the ISA conference was a debate between Alain Touraine, Manuel Castells, and Craig Calhoun on the first’s recent book “Penser Autrement” (Think Differently). Touraine argued that there were major changes in the past 50 years in contemporary society: the rise of technological communication and networks, the fall of the Berlin wall, the conflict between the USA and Muslims, the continuous conflict between Israel and Palestine, the growth of the Chinese economy, and the emergence of AIDS. Globalization would be the most important change. As a result, the traditional concept of national society that is based on national institutions would have disappeared or lost importance. Society and the social would no longer be important categories for describing our experiences. Marxist analysis would have been mainly interested in industrial society that would no longer exist today. Marketization would have resulted in the end of the welfare state and increasing social inequality. The central conflict of contemporary society would be one between markets and the lack of self-determination of human lives. The conflict between workers and capitalist would no longer be a central objective and subjective category. Marxist sociology would be too radical in arguing that all existing institutions and actors are shaped by ideologies that reproduce all that exists and create false consciousness. Touraine stresses potentials for resistance against global capitalism. For doing so, a new sociology of actors would be needed that stresses new actors such as new social movements. The sociology of actors would have to supersede systems theory, functionalism, Marxism, and postmodernism. The most important political goal would be to demand universal rights for all individuals. In this context, the category of personal subjects should become the central category of sociology. A stress on universal rights would be needed. For Touraine, the central question that sociology should ask is: Does society realize the right of all to participate in public affairs? Touraine furthermore argued that sociology should open itself up for religion that should no longer be considered as useless and irrational.

Touraine is 83 years old and an impressive figure that has made important contributions for sociology, especially in the area of new social movement research. Unfortunately his English is very bad and he speaks very oddly, which makes it hard to follow him. I have three points of criticism of Touraine’s presentation: A. I did not see what is new about his new book. He keeps repeating the same message since several decades: that a new sociology of action is needed. So for example he already published a book with the title “The Return of the Actor” in 1988. B. He falls behind social theory approaches that have tried to overcome the gap between action theory and structuralism by focusing strongly on the primacy of actors (e.g. Roy Bhaskar, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, Margaret Archer). Touraine deepens the gap between these two approaches and rather neglects how existing institutions condition, enable, and constrain actors’ practices. The insight of a dialectic of structures and actors that the aforementioned authors have elaborated, is ignored and not discussed. C. I cannot share Touraine’s implication that Marxism is outdated. Contrary, I think that referring to Marx is the most important task for sociology today because: 1. Marx described globalization as an immanent feature of capitalism and therefore anticipated contemporary discourses. 2. The importance of technology, knowledge, and media in contemporary society was anticipated by the Marxian focus on machinery, means of communication, and the general intellect. 3. The immizerization and precariousness caused by neoliberal capitalism suggests a renewed interest in the Marxian category of class. 4. The global war against terror after 9/11 and its violent and repressive results like human casualties and intensified surveillance suggest a renewed interest in Marxian theories of imperialism (theories of empire and new imperialism). 5. The ecological crisis reactualizes a theme that runs through many Marxian works: that there is an antagonism between modern industrialism and nature that results in ecological destruction. 6. Marx is not a structuralist, but can also be read as an action theorist (e.g. Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, Theses on Feuerbach, German Ideology), or as a structure-action-dialectician.

Castells and Calhoun honoured Touraine’s works and made some critical remarks on his latest book. Castells stressed that he is not a theorist, but a researcher who makes use of those theories that he can apply in empirical research. He would discard and find useless other theories. He would have dropped, but not renounced Marxism, 25 years ago because it no longer made practical-empirical sense for him to refer to it and it did no longer inform the questions that he was interested in. Theories would be tools that would have to make sense for research. Touraine’s social theory other than the Marxian one would have been continuously important for him, Castells argued. For example in the Project Internet Catalonia, in which 50 000 interviews on Internet usage in Catalonia were conducted, the central goal was to identify projects of autonomy. The major finding was that people who have projects of personal, professional, entrepreneurial, socio-political, corporeal, or communicative autonomy, make more use of the Internet than others, which in turn would reinforce autonomy, etc. Here Touraine’s notions of subjectivity and autonomy would have been important influences. One criticism by Castells was that Touraine would spent too much time in his book for deconstructing dying trees like functionalism, Marxism, or postmodernism that less and less people are interested in today. Students would for example no longer read Parsons. Castells remarked that he found postmodernism never useful because it was not understandable for him. Marxism would have killed functionalism. Postmodernism would have killed Marxism. By referring to Touraine, one could maybe kill postmodernism. Castells said that Touraine is mainly focusing on France and French theorists, but France would be the most boring society and would be an old world that does not follow up with new developments. Castells argued that Marxism continues to be important for some parties, unions, and intellectuals in France, Latin America, and Korea, but not in other countries. I disagree with Castells’ assessment of Marxism that very much resembles the one voiced by Touraine due to the reasons already mentioned. I find it troublesome that a figure like Castells, who is considered as one of the most important contemporary sociologists by quite some scholars, neglects to build social theories himself. He seems to consider theories as rather unimportant. Therefore it is no wonder that his trilogy on the information age lacks social-theoretical foundations. In my opinion the reason why Castells finds Marxism no longer useful is not that Marxism has lost touch with contemporary reality, but because Castells has lost critical impetus. This becomes very clear in Castells’ neglect of ethical and policy conclusions. He separates academic from politics, as if academia were not always influenced by political values and choices. To claim that one negates political conclusions is itself a political statement and shaped by political values and interests. Immanuel Wallerstein in my opinion is in this context right in arguing that all sociologists permanently perform three functions: an intellectual, a moral, and a political one. It would be honest to actively admit this partisanship, and ideological to deny it. Castells has been criticized by Jan Van Dijk has criticized Castells’ approach as a form of structuralism, in which structural networks substitute actors and human actors are rather neglected. Therefore it can seem odd to some that Castells argues that Touraine’s action theory and focus on subjectivity has been an important influence on his works.

I found Craig Calhoun’s intervention the best of the three contributions because he expressed concern about Touraine’s and Castells’ discarding of Marxian theory. This would result in the opinion that political economy is not important for sociology, that sociologist can learn nothing from economists, and that they should focus on the effects of economic structures, but not on the economy itself. The economy would not be external to sociology. Marxism would not be useless because it could grasp large-scale structures of power. Therefore a renewal of Marxism would be important. Calhoun also expressed the concern that Touraine only focused on progressive actors and not on repressive ones like fascists. He asked: Are actors and movements always good? Can a fascist be an autonomous subject? Sociologists like Touraine would disregard nasty actors because they would find it more pleasurable to analyze people they like and sympathize with.

Touraine as a conclusion pointed out that new categories and new institutions would be needed due to the changes of society; that the time has come, where a new generation would have to reconstruct society and its analysis; and that social facts are founded on non-social facts like biology and religion. I cannot understand Touraine’s new focus on religion and he also did not explain the personal and intellectual reasons for this move.

Touraine published his first paper in 1948. The evening showed that he has produced a vivid and influential oeuvre that is critically discussed.

Overall, I must say that I enjoyed many of the sessions that I participated in yesterday and today (The Internet: From Utopia to Nightmare; New realities, new definitions: revisiting theories of communication; new media, social movements, and democracy; From the workspace to cyberspace: situating alienation in the 21st century) more than listening to the old guys because I there felt no oddity, more enthusiasm to create new theories and approaches, to transform society, and to renew critical thinking and radical sociology.

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