The term "actionalism" refers to the idea that the sociology of actors should take the place of the sociology of society. Touraine wants to eliminate what he perceives as a false distinction between system and action approaches and objective and subjective methods in sociology.
Actionalism Sociology Definition


The term “actionalism” refers to the idea that the sociology of actors should take the place of the sociology of society. Touraine wants to eliminate what he perceives as a false distinction between system and action approaches and objective and subjective methods in sociology. Actionalism puts theories of structural and historical processes aside and centers them on the social actor. Actors are the agents of social systems, not just their constituent parts.

History of Actionalism

The idea of actionalism was explained in depth by French sociologist Alain Touraine. In “Towards actionalist sociology,” which he published in 1969. Touraine continued to construct this revolutionary new theoretical framework in the 1960s, best summarized in The Self-Production of Society (1973).

Social actors and actionalism

Social classes are not excluded from Touraine’s concept of groupings and collectivities. However, these are not seen as categories but as dynamic network connections between social players. This viewpoint includes an explicit criticism of essentialism, which similarly deprives history of social actors, and structuralism and post-structuralism, both of which assume that the individual subject is “dead.”

Historicity and Actionalism

The dynamic feature of actionalism is what Touraine refers to as historicity; that is, the capacity of society to act upon itself and the nature of history as a human endeavor.

Sociologists have a stake in the social problems in their society since they are not impartial observers but agents of history. Due to this, Touraine developed the sociological interventionist technique, in which they investigate social change movements by actively participating in them.

Touraine thinks that despite its diversity and inherent contradictions, an actionalist sociology will be more respectable due to its active participation in social development processes.

By identifying the “historical subject” (collective actor) in each historical epoch who possesses the capacity to accomplish radical transformation by organizing itself into a “social movement,” the actionalist approach seeks to explain how social values are molded and, consequently, how social “change is achieved.

Early studies vs. Later studies of Touraine

In his past studies, Touraine made the case that historical subjects develop critical self-awareness via labor experience, leading to the emergence of organized labor as the social movement embodying the historical issue of capitalism. 

But in subsequent research, he widened his definition of “production” and applied the idea to other social movements, including those led by nationalists, women, students, and those against nuclear power.

Actionalist analysis, Functionalist analysis, and Structuralist analysis

The actionalist approach invariably leads to analyzing the subject’s position and never the features of a social system. In more specific words, social movements play the same role in actionalist analysis that the idea of the social system does in functionalist analysis.

The goal of actionalist sociology is to comprehend the subject’s participation in action. It is not a sociology of values but instead of action insofar as it makes up the domain of social connections.

The study of social systems and social behavior is hence its logical counterpart. The subjectivity of action must be turned into institutionalized standards and societal ideals to which people and groups must be molded. It is impossible to characterize this shift from actionalist to functionalist analysis in broad terms since it might take numerous forms depending on the issue and level one is thinking about.

In a broader sense, the two components of functionalist analysis—the study of social systems and the research of decision-making—are equivalent to the two components of actionalist analysis, which examine social movements and actualized initiatives.

Functionalist and actionalist analyses of social stratification and class ties are intertwined in a class society, that is, a pre- or proto-industrial civilization.

On the other hand, in an industrial society, functionalist analysis detaches more and more from an actionalist analysis of power, leading to growing independence of the sociology of institutions, of the processes of arbitration between the inequitable system that goes along with the presence of power and the merely hierarchical differentiations required by the operation of industrial production.

The functionalist analysis’s separation of meaning and form is still in its early stages. The mathematical study of communication networks and decision-making domains is more directly connected to the sociological analysis of the social system than econometric analysis is to the assessment of the historical subject.

One could even argue that the actionalist is wedded to the ideas of Kulturwissenschaft and Wertbeziehung, whereas the structuralist believes that the social sciences are the natural sciences of man; one examines the sign, the other it’s meaning. However, these disagreements shouldn’t result in a total breakup because that would sentence structuralists to a strict formalism and actionalists to crude semantics.

The social sciences and social mathematics are closely related to one another without really merging, and structuralist analysis is located at this intersection. The tension between econometric formalization and sociological research, which dominates economic analysis, and the idea of the economic subject, Homo oeconomicus, only appears as an indirect reference to the subject. The closer one approaches actionalist analysis, the more significant the gap between the insistence on the subjectal import of action and the formalization of operational methods.

The ultimate unifying principle of sociology is still the interdependence of the three fundamental sociological analysis approaches, actionalist, functionalist, and structuralist, as well as the three modes of totalization, the dialectic of the subject, coherence of the system of social relations, and logic of sign systems. However, this principle will only be successful if each approach is given a significant amount of autonomy and any general theory that claims to bring them together in a single framework is questioned.

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