The origins of the sociology of work

RB Kitaj, "The cultural value of fear, mistrust and hypochondria", 1966.


Newly Released Book Introduction

Brazil is a great country of sociology, warns a French sociologist in the introduction to his book on the history of the discipline in tropical lands.[I] Here, important interpretations of social reality were produced, which fed intellectual and political discussions, with the country being the field of action and investigation of famous authors of the social sciences, especially the French and the Americans, who, in their passages, collaborated for the institutionalization of the discipline and for the formation of new generations.

It is worth complementing that one of the traditions of Brazilian sociology is the habit of self-interpretation, that is, to carry out a kind of collective analysis of its past, revisiting, countless times, the great clashes over the formation of the nation, in an attempt to understand our complex present with an eye to the future. This continuous cycle of self-reflection about ourselves and our intellectual productions, fueled by a strange sensation that our history repeats itself in farce and tragedy, has created very rich productions in the field of the history of sociology or social thought.

However, even though this obstinacy towards ourselves is a genetic hallmark of Brazilian social sciences, not all periods, schools and authors were studied, debated or criticized with the same vehemence as some canonized themes. In addition, certain groups of intellectuals and certain historical periods ended up being exhaustively interpreted and revisited, often from similar perspectives, failing to explore other possible paths or relationships. In this sense, despite the enormous amount of production and reflection on Brazilian sociology, little has been thought about the creation, development and clashes of the sociology of work in our country. A significant gap in the face of our tradition, mainly due to the fact that we are also a great country in the sociology of work.

In this book, the result of my doctoral thesis, I propose a different path for the interpretation of one of the most important periods of Brazilian sociology. I seek to return to the great reflections and clashes about the formation of Brazil from the perspective of the world of industry and work, understanding that this was one of the central objects of our discipline throughout the 1950s and 1960s. theme, which analyzed it as I suggest, is explained by the degree of specialization and, consequently, of fragmentation that took the social sciences.

In general, labor sociologists are not concerned with issues that are traditionally associated with the field of Brazilian social thought. On the other hand, those who study this field end up favoring other themes, such as, for example, studies of the racial issue or reflections on the disintegration of traditional society, marginalizing those who involved the world of work, seen as secondary objects of intellectuals. of the time. By proposing this parallax, that is, revisiting the same object so often studied – in this case, the so-called “São Paulo school of sociology” –, from a different angle, I believe I can contribute to a new perspective of interpretation of this historical moment of Brazilian sociology , in particular the sociology of work.

However, I do not intend to produce a history of this discipline, as such a task would be too pretentious for the limits of a book or personal investigation. I seek to offer a contribution on the consolidation of a sociological tradition, which began with the studies and works on the world of industry and work produced by the generation of sociologists at the University of São Paulo, during the 1950s and 1960s.

By taking them as an object, I was led to study the paths crossed between Brazilians and French in the course of this endeavor, discovering that there existed, between them, even before their first meetings, in the late 1950s, an elective affinity regarding intellectual instigations. that contributed to consolidate a fruitful exchange of ideas between these countries. Even though the two groups were separated by an ocean and by very different socioeconomic realities, their works expressed the worldview of capitalist modernization.[ii]

The modernization project formulated and pursued in the three decades following the end of the Second World War ended up becoming a utopia that fueled the engagement of an entire generation of politicians and intellectuals. In its most abstract and simple form, modernizing society presupposed taking it to a higher stage than the previous one through economic and social progress, consolidating, if possible, liberal democracy. Its effectiveness depended on the engagement of different subjects, not only in the field of politics, represented by their social movements and by the apparatuses of power, but in the fulfillment of their functions within the complex division of labor.

The support base of this project was, therefore, in the development of the productive forces, that is, in the consolidation and hegemonization of what was understood to be the most effective model of production, Taylorism-Fordism. As a result, the implications of technological and organizational transformations in work and society were the first major theme addressed by the sociology of modernization – the thematic genesis for the creation and development of industrial sociology and, later, the sociology of work.

What was considered to be the reasons for resistance to the modernization of society was also the object of investigation and reflection. Addressing the disintegration of the traditional, as well as the survival of the archaic in the modern, was one of the analytical perspectives of French and Brazilian sociologies in the 1950s and 1960s. In this context, the emergence of Latin America as a new region of accelerated industrialization and urbanization, with its remarkable singularities, posed new challenges for thinking about modernization and the role of political subjects in this process.

In the French sociology of work, I analyzed the group of academics that formed around Georges Friedmann. Dubbed the “father” of the sociology of work, the Frenchman was one of those responsible for reorganizing sociology in the period of reconstruction in France after its liberation from Nazi occupation. In this process, new teaching and research institutions were created, breaking with the traditional and conservative university structures, allowing greater autonomy and flexibility for researchers. The work carried out in the Center d'Études Sociologiques, the creation of VIe Section de l'École Pratique des Hautes Études, which housed the Laboratoire de Sociologie Industrielle, and finally, studies of the Institut des Sciences Sociales du Labor. These and other institutions allowed the development of the careers of young academics who marked the sociology of work, as was the case of Alain Touraine, central character for this book, Jean-Daniel Reynaud and Michel Crozier.

In the case of Brazil, I analyzed what I called the USP sociology of work, in which I included all sociologists from the University of São Paulo who focused on studies and research on the world of work and industry throughout the 1950s and 1960. With this broader classification, I was able to bring together, in this new domain, very distinguished academics and from very different chairs, as were the cases of Wagner Vieira da Cunha, Juarez Brandão Lopes, Azis Simão and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among others.

I also analyzed the political and intellectual role of three other characters who were fundamental to institutionalize the sociology of work: Florestan Fernandes, Fernando de Azevedo and Anísio Teixeira. Of this heterogeneous group, those who belonged to the Chair of Sociology I, directed by Fernandes, ended up achieving more projection with their work due to the fact that they had greater control of the means of legitimizing science and for having created the Center for Industrial and Labor Sociology.

However, perhaps the most important and innovative aspect of this book was to demonstrate, based on the discoveries made in the investigations I undertook during my doctorate in archives in France and Brazil, the cross paths of French and Brazilian sociology during the 1950s. and 1960, and how much this encounter created a political, personal and intellectual relationship that gave rise to theoretical dialogues and academic articulations that reinforced an old Franco-Brazilian relationship and, above all, contributed to shaping a tradition of sociology of work.

To reconstitute this network of relationships, the pursuit of a totalizing analysis was essential, which included the development of the new discipline sociology of work as a project spearheaded, supported and financed by numerous international organizations - such as the United Nations, Unesco and the Organization of American States –, national bodies – such as ministries of education or labor productivity commissions – and philanthropic foundations – as was the case with Rockefeller and Ford. In this process of reorganization of the social sciences, an international academic community was formed, led by the International Association of Sociology and its congresses, bulletins and magazines. A new field of circulation of people and ideas emerged in this context, allowing the realization of research and comparative analyzes between countries and regions.

The writing of this book sought to follow two movements: that of the subjects and that of ideas, which walked in parallel, but not always following the same times. The first movement, that of the protagonists, which inspired the order of exposition of the text, prioritized the institutional development of the sociology of work in France and Brazil, highlighting their relationships and dialogues. From this perspective, I tried to follow the paths of important figures in this endeavor, such as Georges Friedmann, Alain Touraine, Florestan Fernandes and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Therefore, I tried to balance the emphasis given to institutions, in their due socioeconomic contexts, but without forgetting that these would not be consolidated without the actions of the subjects. These gained prominence in the reflection of the narrative, not only due to a methodological and analytical option, which prioritizes the structures instead of the subjects, but, above all, because in history the contingency, the chance, the unpredictable, which in countless times reached the lives of these individuals is crucial.

The second movement, that of ideas, sought to understand the theoretical analyzes and categories and concepts produced by the studied authors from their internal movement, but without distancing them from their social foundations and the authors' paths. Ideas, as we understand it, are not automatic developments from a concrete basis. They often acquire, in their reflective movement, an autonomy relative to the author and the world. Ultimately, however, it will always reflect the worldview of a generation or a group of intellectuals. Therefore, analyzing the paths of the protagonists and their ideas, highlighting and confronting the different spaces and times of their creation and development, allowed me a better understanding of the research style and the tradition of sociology of work that emerged in the 1950s and 1960.

This book contains several theoretical and investigative limitations, due to the object approached, but also due to the restrictions of a doctoral research. Among so many, I consider it important to highlight two. The first is the fact that it has not elaborated a critical balance on the issue of gender and women's work in French and Brazilian sociology during the period studied. It can be justified that these were not latent concerns in the investigations and reflections of the groups addressed, since studies on the female issue in the world of work only gained strength from the mid-1960s.

However, this does not justify the fact that the research that gave rise to this book did not, even so, rehearse a reflection on the absence of these themes. The second limitation, as I already pointed out in a footnote, lies in not having developed a more precise definition of the concepts of modernity and modernization. However, I believe that the reflection on them appeared dissolved throughout the entire text, having been addressed from various authors of French sociology and Brazilian sociology and their political and academic projects. Still, I recognize the need to deepen these and other issues in further studies.

The foundations of an ontological analysis

The social foundations of a thought, especially those capable of hegemonizing a certain intellectual domain over a certain historical period, must be found in the social causes of its being-properly-like.[iii] In this sense, in order to understand the reasons why a style of sociology had great influence or even hegemony over the period addressed in this book, a historical analysis of its currents and groups is vital, taking into account both their development institutional and their individual contributions.

According to Goldmann, “thought is only a partial aspect of an abstract reality: the living and whole man; and this, in turn, is only one element of the social group as a whole. An idea, a work receives its true meaning only when it is integrated into the whole of a life and behavior. Furthermore, it often happens that the behavior that allows us to understand the work is not that of the author, but rather that of a social group (to which he may not belong) and, especially, when it comes to important works, of a social class”.[iv],[v]

In the complexity and multiplicity of human relationships, to which individuals are linked, a rupture is often created between their everyday life, their conceptual thinking and their creative imagination. It is for this reason that, on a simpler level, a work is practically unintelligible if we seek to understand and analyze it solely through the personality of its author. The intention and subjective meaning that an individual may have about his work is not always the same as its objective meaning. On another level, when we are dealing with the history of ideas, the way in which they are reproduced does not always correspond to the intentions and objectives of those who created them, precisely because, when they become concepts, they are subject to the process of autonomization and reproduction, including as an ideology.

Lucien Goldmann, when analyzing different philosophical and literary works, produced in a given period, discovered that for the most part the essential elements that make up the schematic structure of these writings were analogous, despite their differences, which made him conclude that there is a reality that is not purely individual and that is expressed through works. In order to capture this reality, the author formed a conceptual working instrument that he considered indispensable for understanding the immediate expressions of individuals' thoughts, the notion of worldview.[vi] It is this notion that allows me to work with sociology authors who had similar research objects, but not always the same conclusions, from two different countries, Brazil and France. Even though they had different theoretical perspectives, there were essential questions that permeated all of their works.

A worldview is precisely the set of aspirations, feelings and ideals capable of uniting the members of a certain group or social class and placing them in opposition to other groups. The elements that unify them are not necessarily the same as those that make them a class in themselves, but they may be the ones that make them a class in themselves. In this collectivity, exceptional individuals are often those who best express the collective conscience, that is, the worldview of that group. For this reason, every great literary or artistic work is the expression of a vision of the world, a phenomenon of the collective conscience that reaches its maximum conceptual or sensitive clarity on the conscience of the thinker or poet.

The French and Brazilian sociologies of work, developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, were the expression of a perspective in which the modernization of capitalist society was the tangible end. That is why the authors themselves saw themselves and their discipline as part of a political project for the development of society – in the words of Alain Touraine, a social-democratic sociology.

Evidently, we cannot restrict ourselves to studying only “worldviews”, but also, and above all, their concrete expressions, that is, their material bases. It is common in studies of the history of science or philosophy to analyze the exegesis of works or, when dealing with a group, the comparative analysis of categories and concepts.

The method I used in this study was that of genetic research, that is, understanding relationships in their initial phenomenal forms and verifying, based on them, how they can become increasingly complex and mediated. To understand phenomena in their genetic sense is to approach them from an ontological point of view, investigating the being concerned with understanding your to be and find the different degrees and the different connections within it. The complex must be studied as a complex, so that later we can arrive at its elements and elementary processes. Therefore, it is not enough to isolate certain elements of concrete reality and build sociological explanations based on them, since all partial complexes are only understandable as parts of a totality.

In this sense, I tried to undertake an ontological analysis of the main authors of the French and Brazilian sociologies of work, which means a confrontation between their theories (and categories) and the social reality itself. According to György Lukács, “the social foundations of the respective thought of each era, including the problem of privileged forms of objectivity, prevailing methods, etc., were only exceptionally investigated critically, especially in times of acute crises, during which the main task seemed to be the effective refutation of the adversary, in general the power of thought of the past, insufficient in the new reality, but not the discovery of the social causes of its being-properly-so”.[vii]

Therefore, I sought the social foundations of these intellectuals or groups of intellectuals through the unveiling of the social causes of their being-properly-so. From this perspective, historical events, whether of universal magnitude or local impact, will inevitably have consequences for social thought. The comparative analysis of the intellectual productions and social realities of Brazil and France, inserted under the same global societal order, the capitalist mode of production, allowed me a better dissection of the listed problems and the construction of an explanation about the style of sociology of the work produced during this period.

*Ricardo Festi Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Brasilia (UnB).


Ricardo Festi. The origins of the sociology of work: crossed paths between Brazil and France. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2023, 352 pages (


[I] Christophe Brochier, La naissance de la sociologie au Brésil (Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016).

[ii] It will not be possible to develop and problematize, as I would like, the concept of modernization. Polysemic, broad and controversial, it often served to characterize any and all processes of social and economic development, without distinction between its objectives, contents and prevailing forms of social relations. It would be worth risking defining, by way of illustration, three different types of modernization process present in the 1950s and 1960s. The first was what we will address throughout this book, modernization in a capitalist society, that is, managed by the logic of value and capital accumulation. In the period specifically studied, this modernization

[iii] G. Lukács, For an ontology of social being, t. 1 (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2012), p. 29.

[iv] Lucien Goldmann, Le Dieu cache: étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pansies by Pascal et dans le theater by Racine (Paris, Gallimard, 1997), p. 16-7.

[v] Due to the large number of citations taken from works in French and the excessive number of footnotes throughout this book, I chose not to reproduce the excerpts in the original language, keeping only the translations made by me, aware of the methodological problems that this decision entails. . In this way, I saved the reader from situations in which the notes would take up more space than the body of the text.

[vi] Lucien Goldmann, Le Dieu cache, cit.

[vii] G. Lukács, For an ontology of social being, t. 1, cit., p. 29.

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