Sociology, Common Sense, and Qualitative Methodology.

The Position of Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine*

Jacques Hamel

Université de Montréal

At the present time, qualitative methods are making headway in French sociology. They are the object of constant interest and their contents are much discussed. Two outstanding figures in French sociology, Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine, have given them pride of place in their recent research.

The aim of this paper is to examine the methods that these authors have recently developed: the sociological intervention and the provoked and accompanied self-analysis. A detailed presentation is made of these methods and their respective strong and weak points are then underlined. The latter are approached in such a way as to open a broad discussion on the problems faced by sociology such, for instance, as the status of common sense in relation to the sociological explanation. The lessons learned from these methods permit, in conclusion, the formulation of propositions for which, however, the author of this paper is alone responsible.

Brief introduction

Touraine's use of qualitative methods is not recent, however, since his first surveys on worker consciousness (Touraine, 1966) were already recommending the semi-directed sociological interview. But it was in his book La voix et le regard that he first proposed employing the sociological intervention method, by which he hoped to renew sociological methodology. This method has had a considerable impact on French-language sociology and has given rise to numerous studies on women, students, environmentalists and the labour movement in France (Touraine, 1978; 1983b; 1987). This group of studies - carried out on the initiative of Touraine himself, with a team joined by well-known French sociologists of the day such as Michel Wieviorka and François Dubet - is referred to as permanent sociology, in other words a sociology constantly at work and directly involved in political and social action. The sociological study of social movements in Québec has also made considerable use of the sociological intervention method (Gagnon, 1982; Maheu, 1988).

In Bourdieu's work, qualitative methods appear in his first studies of an ethnological nature (Bourdieu, 1977). His subsequent sociological studies, such as his studies on education, museum attendance and the French university (Bourdieu, 1969, 1977, 1979, 1990) were essentially designed according to the most advanced quantitative methods. However, in his most recent study, La misère du monde (1993), Bourdieu applies a new qualitative method, "provoked and accompanied self-analysis," thus declaring his liberation from positivism (Bourdieu, 1994). Indeed, this method marks a real turning point for this author in relation to his former positions on representativeness and objectivity in sociology, as well as on the status attributed to common sense and to the epistemological rupture.

Alain Touraine and the sociological intervention method

The first to appear in French sociology, the sociological intervention is described by its author "as an intensive and in-depth process during which sociologists lead the actors from a struggle they must carry on themselves to an analysis of their own action. This process involves a series of stages that constitute the history of the research" (Touraine, Dubet & Wieviorka, 1982: 280). The sociological intervention is thus a self-analysis that requires the active participation of social actors engaged in a collective struggle concerning political and social issues. The struggle of women, students, ecologists, workers, Solidarnosc in Poland are all entitled to claim this title and the goal of the sociologists' intervention in these struggles is to turn them into a social movement. According to Touraine, such a movement is "the effort of a collective actor to take over the "values", cultural orientations of a society by opposing the action of an adversary to whom he is linked by relationships of power" (Touraine, 1995: 239).

Thus, the sociological intervention concerns a militant action and aims to carry out a sociological analysis of that action in cooperation with its principal actors. Emphasis is placed on "the search for issues, the analysis of the contradictions of action and distance between a struggle, a discourse and a movement of opinion" (Touraine, 1978: 66) likely to galvanize a struggle and transform it into a social movement. But the sociological intervention does not merely focus on the analysis of a political discourse and a militant organization: it is also concerned with the struggle represented by the action that has brought these about.

By definition, this method requires the participation of the actors in this struggle, at least its key figures, who are invited to a series of meetings that may take place over a whole year. At these meetings they will be confronted by a team of sometimes as many as seven sociologists. Two of these assume the leading roles of secretary and moderator. The latter is the person who will chair the meetings - he introduces the participants, guides the discussion, gives people the floor, etc. - while the former is responsible for noting the different opinions expressed during the discussions and proposing a sociological interpretation of them. If these roles are beyond their capabilities, other members of the team take over.

During the meetings and discussions, the participants are invited to trace the history of their struggle, the various incidents that have marked their collective action. When mutual trust is established and the actors realize the need for an analysis, they are then confronted with interlocutors who either oppose or support their action. Antinuclear activists, for instance, are confronted by EDF (…lectricité de France) administrators who manage the nuclear power plants. These interlocutors express a viewpoint that is opposed to that of the militants but together, they offer an overall view of the nuclear question in France. Actors such as these are thus brought into the group in order to highlight the militant action, grasp its ins and outs and neutralize the ideological pressures and political gambits that are inevitably involved in, or caused by, a collective struggle of this nature.

Both sides are then inclined to see their struggle as part and parcel of a social movement, the theory of social movements disposing them to recognize its sense in their own action. By interpreting the actors' comments in the light of this theory, an hypothesis emerges that explains their collective action in a sense in which that action can conclusively indicate a social movement. If it is recognized and accepted by both parties, the sense revealed by this self-analysis can then bolster their action and help it attain "the highest level it can reach" (Touraine, 1981b: 213).

This final phase is termed conversion of the group and on it depends the success of the sociological intervention. Indeed, if the sense is endorsed by the actors of the struggle invited to the discussions, this means that the sociological theory which brought it to light is validated as to its pertinence in explaining the action that is the object of the sociological intervention. This verification is therefore done on the spot with the agreement of the actors who, through their participation in the sociological intervention, are able to measure its explanatory value.

The sociological intervention thus proves to be a permanent sociology since the explanation of the social action it helps to reveal is established in the heat of an open discussion with its own actors. The latter may benefit from this to direct their collective action so as to turn it into a social movement. The sociological theory is thus ready to feed its object of study: the social action originally envisaged by the sociological intervention. Alain Touraine's method takes note of the special status of the sociological explanation emphasized by Anthony Giddens whose theoretical approach is in many ways closely related to that of the author of the sociological intervention. "Theories in sociology, said Giddens, have to be some part based upon ideas wich (although not necessarily discursively formulated by them) are alreay held by the agents to whom they refer. Once reincorporated within action, their original quality may be lost; they may have become too familiar" (Giddens, 1984: XXXIV).

Sociology supplies an explanation capable of accounting for the social action while at the same time helping to direct it when its actors reflect the need. The sociological intervention aims to provide the methodological details of this return to the action to which Giddens merely gives his blessing.

Some technical details concerning the sociological intervention

After this rapid overview, we shall now take a brief look at the technical details of this method. The first objective is to gain the active participation of the social actors because, according to Touraine, they have a practical consciousness respecting their action. This consciousness is seen, moreover, as "real knowledge of the social action" (Dubet, 1988: 13). The positive status attributed to practical consciousness stems from a position whereby the "sociologists' actor is an epistemic actor insofar as his remarks fit into a form of knowledge that makes him knowable" (Ibid.: 2), and makes his action knowable, too. In other words, social action is grasped only through this consciousness - practical in form since it stems from the immediate experience that its actors have of the action. Moreover, sociological methodology is obliged to take account of this practical consciousness that emerges from the actors' "remarks" since these are in fact "the only material available" (Ibid.: 13). Indeed, the material at the disposal of sociology for grasping its object always remains the remarks of actors imbued in the final analysis with the practical consciousness of social action.

Although this consciousness remains the intermediary of the action, its highest sense is nonetheless revealed by sociological theory "because the actor has only a limited consciousness of the sense of his action" for "the dimensions of the social system or the conditions of the action (...) escape the consciousness of the social actors" (Ibid.: 17). To remedy this, the sociological intervention, at the methodological level, proposes that the social actors meet as a group thus offering "the image of the social movement, with its many meanings and its more or less stable configurations" (Wieviorka, 1986: 160).

On representativeness

The actors who participate in the sociological intervention are chosen with this in view. Their choice is determined by the desire to reconstitute the collective struggle on a reduced scale, that of the group, "constructed on the basis of as complete and diversified a theoretical representation of the struggle as possible" or again, "of an image that the sociologists make of it" (Idem).

This "image" explores in minutest detail the theory of social movements whereby any collective struggle is bound to change into a social movement. This shift from the industrial to the post-industrial society must conflict with a technocratic power and thus acknowledge the democratic ideal (Touraine, 1994). Participants in the sociological intervention must therefore possess the quality of being actors in a struggle characterized in this way and of which each in his own way represents a different configuration. The group's representativeness depends less on the quantity of participants than on the quality conferred on them by the theory of social movements.

The real interest of the sociological intervention lies in this sole aspect. Indeed, it maintains convincingly that a collective struggle can, from a methodological point of view, be reduced to a group whose participants possess the theoretical qualities necessary for its analysis. Nonetheless, this method poses certain problems in this regard. By focusing on the militant quality of the participants, as figureheads, their representativeness in the sociological intervention tends to be limited to a political level. From a broader perspective, these participants may be considered as representative elements of a social struggle since they seem to be its leaders or because the media, for instance, presents them as such. In our view, the definition of representativeness in this sense presents serious problems that may even discredit the sociological intervention method. Nonetheless, the idea of a method that can reduce a struggle or, more generally, a social fact to the size of a group - whose theoretical representativeness suggests it to be an excellent observation point - must be conserved and studied in greater depth.

The sociological intervention has a further quality in that it recognizes the value of the social actors' practical consciousness, yet the importance attributed to this practical consciousness seems paradoxical. Although it is seen from the outset as "true consciousness," or even "the only real consciousness available," yet it is nonetheless considered as "limited" consciousness because "the dimensions of the social system and the conditions of the action" escape it, the actors thus having only a limited consciousness of them. This latter term is used confusedly and should probably not be accorded so much weight. In our view, it should be understood in a more qualified way.

If the dimensions of the social system escape the actors' consciousness, it is not because that consciousness is limited. On the contrary, it may be argued that the actors' practical consciousness is not only constituted by the "dimensions of the social system" but also by the addition of the whole range of dimensions that characterize the action - historical, psychological, social, etc. All of these constitute the object of this practical consciousness which is therefore by no means limited. It is sociology that, by definition, must try to "limit" or reduce it by highlighting the "dimensions of the social system and the conditions of the action" that must be drawn from the practical consciousness that the social actors possess of their own action, this being the very object of sociology.

For this purpose, the sociological intervention proposes a somewhat daring self-analytical approach. Together with sociologists who guide them in this direction, the social actors are urged to reveal the sense of their collective action and, through this self-analysis, to take account of its social dimensions, going beyond its practical consciousness. The sociological intervention method is somewhat vague on this point, however, and indeed amounts to an interpretative approach of which psychoanalysis is the perfect model. By acting as an interpreter, the secretary of the sociologists' team identifies the social dimensions of the action by interpreting its actors' remarks in the light of social movements theory which disposes the actors to reveal these dimensions and to assume a practical consciousness of them. The secretary proposes them in the form of an hypothesis with which he challenges the group of actors. If this hypothesis achieves their conversion, it serves as a sociological explanation that can possibly provide their action with the coefficient it lacks to become a social movement.

While, contrary to the criticism levelled at it (Amiot, 1982), the social intervention hardly resembles a "psychanalyse sauvage", it must be admitted that this phase of the intervention is lacking in explicit methodological procedures and rules, the focus being placed on conversion. Thus, the sociological intervention, or rather the sociologists' intervention, seems to fade away under cover of this conversion. The consequent interpretation then becomes suspect since its value depends less on the rigour of the rules and procedures employed than on the degree of support given to the resulting hypothesis by the group. The conversion to the hypothesis may well be caused by the friendly feelings inspired in the group by the sociologists or, on the contrary, by the group's desire to put an end to the discussion and to take their leave.

For lack of precise indications in this respect, the interpretation may be, or appear to be, a repetition of the actors' militant discourse expressed in other terms - in this case sociological, the sociological intervention having constituted just another tribune for them. In less drastic terms, it can be the simplified picture of the social action formed by the practical consciousness of its actors for whom this intervention highlights the general dimensions that act as social dimensions since the latter escape their practical consciousness by definition. Conversely, the interpretation may weaken the actors' practical consciousness in favour of social movements theory by means of which the sociological intervention will have caused the conversion. From this viewpoint, the sociological intervention method raises problems that it cannot solve.

Pierre Bourdieu and provoked and accompanied self-analysis

Without this rapprochement suggesting any theoretical relationship, Alain Touraine's sociological intervention can be compared with the "provoked and accompanied self-analysis" recently proposed by Pierre Bourdieu in order to study the different aspects of suffering in the world (Bourdieu et al., 1993). Like the sociological interview whose methodological qualities are recalled and described by Bourdieu, provoked and accompanied self-analysis evokes the direct participation of social actors as does, moreover, the sociological intervention. The sociological interview is termed "provoked" because in all cases it takes place when requested or "provoked" by sociologists in order to pursue the object of their study. It is an "accompanied" interview because, according to Bourdieu, the interviewer must accompany the interviewee, according to the sense conveyed by his remarks.

Bourdieu considers that this sense may be grasped by the interviewer, in this case the sociologist, if the latter manages to objectivize the dispositions and social positions that this sense expresses concerning the objective relationships between the various sorts of capital by which social fields are formed. It is in this way that the participant objectivization that Bourdieu talks about can be understood. The provoked and accompanied self-analysis constitutes its ideal method since it "enables us to really construct the space of objective relationships (structure) of which the directly observed communicational exchanges (interaction) are the manifestation" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 227). Indeed, if the interviewee's dispositions and social positions are reflected in those of the interviewer, the latter can easily recognize them. As a sociologist familiar with the theory explaining the configuration of capital and social space, he succeeds in objectivizing them under ideal conditions. The sociological interview, henceforth seen as provoked and accompanied self-analysis, fits this purpose perfectly.

On epistemological rupture

In Bourdieu's work, this "method" stems from a new trend announced in his Réponses to LoÔc Wacquant, namely "to go into the street and question the first-comer" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 176). This method is in direct contrast with the quantitative orientation of his previous studies in which it is argued that "the first comer" can in no way be considered as a perfect sample for revealing the configuration of capital and social space on which the sociological explanation must necessarily focus. This configuration of capital and social space could not be drawn from the "first comer's" remarks without causing an epistemological rupture formerly held as "the sovereign principle of a unequivocal distinction between the false and the true" (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 29) introduced by the theory in situating these remarks at the level of objective relationships. The epistemological rupture was thus marked by an opposition to the actors' practical consciousness which is conveyed by common sense, seen by Bourdieu as false consciousness.

The author's recent positions on the subject recall that sociology certainly demands an epistemological rupture as regards common sense whose definition, however, is nuanced. "Rigorous knowledge," states Bourdieu, "almost always assumes a more or less resounding rupture with the evidence of common sense, commonly identified with good sense. It is only at the cost of an active denunciation of the tacit presumptions of common sense that the effects of all the representations of social reality to which investigators and their subjects are continually exposed can be countered." And he goes on, "Social agents do not have "innate knowledge" of what they are and what they do; more precisely, they do not necessarily have access to the reason for their discontent or their distress and the most spontaneous declarations can, with no intention of dissimulation, express something quite different from what they are apparently saying" (Ibid.: 918-191).

Common sense is "denounced," not because it shows itself to be false by definition, but because it stems from a "spontaneous" consciousness of the social actors, directly related to their action and therefore unable to give access to the "principle" that can explain their suffering. Thus, the social actors do not have "innate knowledge" of their action, in the sense that they cannot explain it by this principle expressly sought by sociological theory, so that the practical consciousness of social actors conceals "no intention of dissimulation."

Based on his interviews with the social actors invited to talk about suffering, Bourdieu notes that, on the contrary "the interviewees, especially among the most destitute, seem to grasp this situation (the sociological interview) as an exceptional opportunity offered to them to testify ... to explain themselves, in the fullest sense of the term, namely to construct their viewpoint on themselves and on the world and to identify the point, within this world, from which they see themselves and see the world, and become comprehensible, justified, and primarily for themselves" (Ibid.: 915). If sociological theory must oppose this, it is because this practical consciousness is marked by "routines of the ordinary thought of the social world which is more attached to substantial "realities," individuals, groups, etc., than to objective relationships that cannot be shown or touched and that must be conquered, constructed and validated by scientific work" (Ibid.: 918-919), namely by sociological theory.

Without referring to it directly, Bourdieu's position echoes that of Anthony Giddens for whom "any social agent has a high degree of knowledge which he invokes in the production and reproduction of daily social practices, but the greater part of this knowledge is practical rather than theoretical" (Giddens, 1984: 22). Social agents thus demonstrate a knowledge that they exploit to explain their practice to themselves without it developing into a theory such as sociological theory. This knowledge is practical, "[it] is all that the agents know tacitly, all that they know how to do in social life without necessarily being able to express it directly in a discursive manner"(Ibid. : XXIII). In this line of thought, Giddens goes so far as to state that this knowledge is practical because the agents are unable to express it verbally.

In comparison, Bourdieu's position is, in our view, far more fruitful and subtle. He holds that this knowledge is routine since it is directly related to practice. It is the practical knowledge of the practice because this knowledge bears the stamp of routine as long as the practice is shown conclusively to be the doings of "individuals, groups, substantial realities." In this line of thought, differences appear as to the definition that Bourdieu gives to the epistemological rupture. Indeed, the sense commonly conveyed by the social actors' remarks is henceforth no longer considered as false consciousness but as routines of knowledge that tend to translate social action as the doings of individuals or groups rather than to situate it at the level of "objective relationships" constituting the very object of sociological theory. Only research initiated by this theory allows the "conquering" or "constructing" of the social action at the level of objective relationships since that is its goal.

La misère du monde presents this work in action and, without any intention of being so, it can be seen as a daring experiment in qualitative methodology in sociology. Indeed, each chapter comprises an interview that testifies to a specific aspect of suffering. Each of them includes: a) detailed notes on the context and conduct of the interview, b) its transcription in full and c) the sociological interpretation resulting from each testimony. The latter should not be considered as a sociological explanation, notes Bourdieu, who hastens to emphasize that "the testimonies given us by men and women concerning their lives and their existential difficulties have been organized so as to obtain ... as comprehensive a view as the requirements of the scientific method impose on us, and permit us to accord them" (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 7). In other words, by their testimony, the social actors' contribution to the definition of sociological theory must not overlook the exacting demands of sociological research.

Bourdieu's study is daring insofar as the work is presented in such a way that anyone can understand it. Each interview is organized according to its transcription and notes on its conduct which shed light on the resulting sociological interpretation. The "organization" of the interviews in this form is designed to show the transformation of the actors' viewpoint into an explanation or theory that demonstrates the sociological viewpoint: showing social action at the level of objective relationships. In Bourdieu's particularly inspired words, it gives rise to a "democratization of the hermeneutic posture" (Bourdieu et al., 1993: 923), in that the sociological work - in this case the interpretation - can be grasped immediately.

On representativeness

Each testimony is seen as the ideal "case" of a specific apect of suffering and their representativeness emerges in their order of presentation. This is structured so as to ensure the representativeness of each of the aspects of suffering studied. "Thus, the order in which the cases are arranged is intended to bring together, during the time of reading, people with different - and possibly conflicting - viewpoints; it also reveals the representativeness of the case directly analyzed ... by grouping cases around it that can be considered variants of it" (Ibid.: 8). The cases are thus arranged in order to reconstitute the mosaic of suffering according to an order that is nothing more nor less than the sociologist's own "image" of suffering, to repeat the term used to define the representativeness of the group of social actors invited to participate in the sociological intervention. The representativeness of each of the interviews is based on an image or "theory" designed to attain the goal Bourdieu attributes to sociology, namely that of considering suffering at the level of objective relationships. The order of presentation of each interview and, consequently of each testimony of a particular aspect of suffering, constitutes the demonstration of this "theory." These cases are representative insofar as they each form an ideal observation point for understanding a specific aspect of suffering, this ideal character being reinforced by the place occupied in the overall order of presentation.

As regards this "image" or "theory", each of the social actors chosen in the context of the study represents, in Bourdieu's view, a particular aspect of suffering. This representativeness is not based on the statistical data to which it is often reduced in sociology but is a representativeness that may be termed theoretical or sociological. It is a representativeness based on the qualities of the testimonies of individuals considered by Bourdieu as agents of dispositions and social positions by which suffering can be studied from a sociological point of view.

The social actors who take part in the sociological study will, according to their degree of representativeness, give access to the "principle" that, in Bourdieu's view, can explain suffering. For this purpose, their individual characteristics are set aside in favour of the characteristics that permit the establishment of this explanation which Bourdieu sees as their dispositions and positions in a social space. This goal may even be attained by means of a single person possessing the necessary qualities. Bourdieu himself notes on this point that "contrary to what a naively personalized view of the singularity of social persons might suggest, it is the identifying of the structures underlying the conjunctural remarks made in a specific interaction that can alone enable us to grasp the essentials of what constitutes the idiosyncrasy of each (of the social actors) and all the singular complexity of their actions and reactions" (Ibid.: 916).

Pursuing this line of thought, Bourdieu will allow himself a comparison between the qualitative methodology that he proposes in sociology with the "provoked and accompanied self-analysis" and the experimental method in the exact sciences. In his dialogue with Loïc Wacquant, he aptly points out that "Galileo did not need to repeat his inclined plane experiment indefinitely in order to construct the model for the law of falling bodies. A single, well-constructed case ceases to be particular" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 57). It now remains to be seen how his method succeeds in "well constructing" a case so that it may lead to a sociological explanation.

Some problems with the provoked and accompanied self-analysis method

The first problem with the method arises from the qualities attributed to it. The latter are essentially theoretical - conferred by virtue of the "theory" whereby the individual is marked by a methodological value to explain suffering. This is not sufficiently explained by Bourdieu. In his work, these qualities come from a "familiarity" felt upon contact with the interviewees - the social actors who are the privileged witnesses to the various aspects of suffering. This familiarity is linked to the fact that these individuals were immediately seen as "people of knowledge or people to whom (the sociologists) could be introduced by people of knowledge" (Ibid.: 908). If this familiarity can turn the interview into an ideal communication situation, on which Bourdieu rightly insists, it is nonetheless suggested that it was established "with the first-comer."

It is also connected to the dispositions and social positions that interact, at different levels, between interviewee and interviewer. Indeed, since the latter can immediately recognize them in the former, he can therefore bring them to light in order to explain the suffering that the interviewee is experiencing as regards the configuration of capital and social space. Familiarity, from this second point of view, is thus "based on prior knowledge of the realities that the research may reveal" (Ibid.: 916). However, this prior knowledge, like Touraine's image of a struggle, may well place the interviewees' value at a political level since both interviewee and interviewer share the same dispositions and social positions.

In our view, it would be better if this familiarity were related to the theoretical representation of suffering held by the interviewer the particular aspect of which will be revealed by the case study at the level of dispositions and social positions. This representation must obey the constraints involved in the work of "well constructing" a case, as Bourdieu so aptly puts it. In other words, it must explore the methodological imagination by which the case in question may be seen as an ideal observation point for explaining suffering, by highlighting, for instance, the objective relationships through which, according to Bourdieu, the object of sociology may be recognized.

The problem, in Bourdieu's work, is that this methodological familiarity is not clearly established in the form of methodological rules and principles. It can be summarized as the "democratization of the hermeneutic posture" expressed by the "organization" of each testimony of suffering. While this democratization allows the realization of the hermeneutic posture, no explicit methodological indications are given. Consequently, the value of the sociological interpretation depends less on the rigour of the process than on the 'attraction' of this interpretation aroused by its rapprochement with the transcript of the interview, and which may well elicit adherence or even conversion, to echo the sociological intervention method. Under these conditions, it is far from certain that this interpretation is a "well-constructed" sociological explanation: only a detailed statement of the rules and procedures that make it possible might prove this. Bourdieu has a word to say on this point, however, in his methodological note at the end of La misère du monde.

Indeed, the author suggests that "despite the old diltheyan distinction, it must be stated that understanding and explaining are but one and the same thing" (Ibid.: 910). The explanation is therefore related to the interpretation of the practical knowledge that the social actors have of their own action. In the same line of thought, Bourdieu rightly recalls that the sociological explanation is a point of view and that "the sociologist cannot ignore the fact that the basis of his point of view is to be a point of view on a point of view" (Ibid.: 925), that of the social actors, or, in other words, "knowledge of knowledge" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 103).

This viewpoint of the social actors must therefore be considered as the positive status of knowledge of which the object is their action in all its dimensions - individual, psychological, historical, etc. The sociologists' point of view, however, is another sort of knowledge that tries to deduce from the actors' knowledge the "objective relationships" by which Bourdieu represents the social dimension of their action. It is therefore presented as knowledge enabling this dimension of the action to be abstracted from the social actors' knowledge which is its practical form and to transform it into an abstract form better suited to theory.

If the sociological point of view is "a point of view on a point of view," as Bourdieu puts it, then the shift or transformation of the social actors' point of view to the sociological point of view must be explained. In brief, this shift constitutes the sociologists' ideal intervention as regards their work on the social actors' knowledge in order to achieve sociological knowledge or explanation. More precisely, the interpretation may be compared here to the course followed in order to reveal the object of sociology: the "objective relationships" or "dimensions of the social system" based on the social actors' knowledge whose object is the action in all its dimensions.

With Bourdieu, the sociological interpretation is based on an understanding of this knowledge of common sense that he terms generic and genetic. It obeys the first term insofar as, by its function, the dispositions and positions to which all individuals testify at their own level are placed in the light of the "objective relationships" by which, on a broader scale, they are generated independently of their knowledge. On the other hand, it is by exploring them that sociological knowledge is formed. In other words, it is through the understanding of this knowledge that the theory expressed by revelation of the objective relationships is formulated. In this sense, this understanding can be described as genetic.

The technical problem, as in Touraine's work, arises from the absence of precise indications concerning the rules that govern the hermeneutics by which the "objective relationships" between the dispositions and social positions emerge from the sociological interview seen, however, as a "provoked and accompanied self-analysis." It is up to the reader to imagine them by examining the "evidence" - the context of the interview, its complete transcript and the resulting sociological interpretation. In other words, these rules are revealed through this democratization of the hermeneutic posture.

On sociological writing

Criticisms, on this point, have been severe. The latest to date notes that "deprived of the 'immense knowledge' of Pierre Bourdieu and his team, this sociology of suffering may well merely reflect the suffering of sociology" (Mayer, 1995: 369).

But Bourdieu has, to a certain extent, forestalled this criticism by emphasizing that the hermeneutic posture that he proposes is immediately revealed by the writing of the interpretation. Indeed, the writing testifies to this hermeneutics, more broadly to the rules by which the testimonies collected are objectivized by being transposed to the level of the theory which is then expressed in its own specific vocabulary. The writing is its mainspring; it is the means to reach the objectivizing viewpoint which abstracts from the practical viewpoint of the social agents the dispositions and social positions revealed by the research that produces the sociological knowledge by which suffering is explained theoretically, in this case, the configuration of types of social capital and fields. He states very pertinently that:

(the sociologist) can only hope to make his most inevitable interventions acceptable at the cost of the writing work that is essential to conciliate doubly contradictory objectives: to reveal all the elements necessary for the objective analysis of the position of the person questioned and for the understanding of his attitudes, without establishing with him the objectivizing distance that would reduce him to the state of entomological curiosity; to adopt a viewpoint as close as possible to his without, however, projecting oneself unduly into this alter ego who always remains, whether one likes it or not, an object, in order to make oneself abusively the subject of the latter's world view. (Bourdieu, 1993: 8)

The enterprise of participant objectivization, in the way Bourdieu intends it, is thus expressed in the writing which distinguishes between the "analysis" elicited from the interviewee and that of the sociologist, in this case Bourdieu, obliged to elucidate the dispositions and social positions linked by objective relationships that escape the former's practical knowledge. It is through the writing that sociological knowledge can be revealed, even differentiated, from practical knowledge. The writing is thus marked by the epistemological chiasmus which makes sociological knowledge possible. Its task is to testify to the hermeneutics by which sociological knowledge is constituted in Bourdieu's work.

Yet, strangely, Bourdieu hastens to add that the sociologist "will never have succeeded so well in his participant objectivization enterprise unless he manages to give the appearances of the obvious and the natural, even naive submission to the data, to constructions completely inhabited by his critical reflection" (Idem.). In other words, although having to subscribe to the participant objectivization that characterizes his task, the sociologist, states Bourdieu, must nonetheless strive to erase, through his writing, any trace liable to indicate the factors that govern the hermeneutics underlying sociological knowledge.

Thereafter, he cannot prevent himself from insisting on the fact that to prove its explanatory value, the writing of the sociological knowledge must be based on the content of the testimonies that constitute the interviews. This context permits "the delivery of a more accessible equivalent of complex and abstract conceptual analyses ... Capable of touching and moving, of appealing to sensibility, without pandering to sensationalism, it can bring about conversions of thought and view that are often the prior condition to understanding" (Ibid.: 922). In stating this, Bourdieu seems curiously to subscribe to the impostures that he denounces in the thick description of Clifford Geertz (1973, 1988) and, thereafter, in the post modernist theses in anthropology whereby the latter is no more than a text whose rhetorical qualities reflect the explanatory value of the anthropological theories. Indeed, he suggests that the ability to move, "to speak to the sensibility" produced by the transcription of the interviews gives body to the rules that establish the hermeneutic posture arising from the writing. In our view, their absence constitutes a problem that the writing alone cannot solve in spite of its ability to "speak to the sensibility" aroused by the qualities it possesses. Due to a lack of explicitly formulated rules, the hermeneutic posture vaunted by Bourdieu only amounts to "the writing talent that Clifford Geertz gives as a model to young American researchers, through the praise of what he calls "thick description" and the exaltation of particularity and "local knowledge" (Bourdieu, 1988: 11).


The advances of qualitative methodology in five points

In spite of their limits, the methods of Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine enable various lessons to be drawn, thus marking advances in the development of qualitative methods. These must be emphasized as the conclusion of this article.

First, sociology has always dealt with social actors endowed with practical consciousness. Following Bourdieu's and Touraine's propositions and in spite of their vague formulation, this practical consciousness can be seen as a type of knowledge. This knowledge assumes a practical form, in the sense that it is immediately connected to the action and reflects all its dimensions - political, historical, psychological, etc. - as well as the "dimensions of the social system." Consequently, it represents the essential vector for bringing them to light.

Second, sociology thus reveals itself as "knowledge of knowledge", as Bourdieu puts it. It is obliged to draw on practical knowledge in order to explain the factors that define the object of its study: the "dimensions of the social system," according to Touraine, or the objective relationships between dispositions and social positions, according to Bourdieu.

Third, sociological knowledge requires work that Bourdieu terms participant objectivization while Touraine describes it as an intervention in the perspective of a permanent sociology, sociology in continuous action. For both authors, this work requires the participation of social actors in order to explain a social struggle or a phenomenon such as suffering. In both cases a sample must be constituted, in Touraine, by the group of social actors in a struggle brought together by the sociological intervention, or by an individual whose "familiarity" prompts Bourdieu to think that he represents a specific aspect of suffering.

This representativeness is based on an "image" or "theoretical representation" (Touraine), or "prior knowledge" so that the "research can reveal" the "objective relationships" that explain suffering (Bourdieu). It is therefore linked to the qualities attributed to the group or to the individual so as to make possible the work that sociological knowledge requires. These qualities should espouse neither a "personalist vision" of the individual, as Bourdieu points out, nor political aspects, as both he and Touraine are reproached for doing. They must tend to "construct a case well" so that this "ceases to be particular" by enabling sociology to establish its task of explaining through "objective relationships" or through "dimensions of the social system." These qualities are consequently of a methodological nature and transform the case in question - group or individual - into a theoretical representation in the sense that it responds theoretically to the constraints of sociological knowledge as being a "well-constructed" work.

Fourth, it is in this perspective that we may speak of a theoretical or sociological representativeness as compared to statistical representativeness without any opposition arising between the two. This representativeness is not grounded, as is usual in sociology, in the laws of probability, but through the intermediary of a "theory" of which the methodological qualities conferred on the case show clearly that it is indeed "well constructed." A comparison may be made with the experimental method to define it clearly. Like the latter, this "theory" holds until proof to the contrary as long as it is set out in sufficient detail to be open to validation. This "theory" is prior to the explanation to which the sociological knowledge leads.

For, fifth, the explanation depends on the understanding of the practical knowledge of the social actors, interpretation and explanation being one and the same, according to Bourdieu. In other words, to be "well constructed," the explanation must transpire from this practical knowledge that the sociologist will have correctly interpreted by giving proof of it through the writing of the sociological knowledge. While the latter is the mainspring by which understanding is formulated by means of the theory into an explanation, it could not take precise account of all this work. The rules and procedures that constitute it are lacking. In actual fact, both exist but they are not explicitly formulated. If Galileo, in his day, was able to explain his inclined plane experiment by rules and procedures, why could sociology, to lend more weight to the qualitative method, not do likewise? And all the more so since Bourdieu and Touraine provide the first elements of this, as shown in this article.


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This article exposes the developments of qualitative methodology in French sociology with respect to methods proposed by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine: "provoked and accompanied" self-analysis and the sociological intervention. In addition to the presentation of these two methods, the propose of this article is to describe and discuss the position of these two authors on certain problems such as representativeness, objectivity, status of data, epistemological rupture and lastly on the question of the which sociological knowledge is formed from common sense knowledge contained in the data. This brings to a broader discussion on these questions. The strengths and weaknesses of these two methods are finally examine.


Cet article aborde les développements de la méthodologie qualitative au sein de la sociologie française. Il met l'accent sur les méthodes récemment proposées par Pierre Bourdieu et Alain Touraine: l'auto-analyse provoquée et accompagnée et l'intervention sociologique. L'article traite plus largement des positions de ces deux auteurs à propos de la représentativité et de l'objectivité en sociologie, de mÍme que du statut attribué au sens commun et à la rupture épistémologique. Sur cette lancée, l'écriture sociologique est aussi considérée. Les forces et les limites de ces deux méthodes sont examinées au regard de ces différents points.


Jacques Hamel is a full professor in the Sociology Department of the Université de Montréal. His present research focuses on qualitative methodology, the epistemology of sociology and interdisciplinarity. He has published numerous articles on these subjects in journals such as the International Social Sciences Journal, Social Science Information, as well as UNESCO's prestigious journal Diogenus. He is also carrying out field studies on baby boomers and baby busters, as well as on the economy of French-speakers in Québec.

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