Florestan Fernandes – II

Carlos Zilio, THE WAY, 1971, felt-tip pen on paper, 50x35


The five main sources of critical sociology founded by Florestan Fernandes

Florestan Fernandes' sociology inaugurates a new era in the history of Brazilian sociology. Not only does it open up new horizons for theoretical reflection and the interpretation of social reality, but it also allows a critical re-reading of much of past and recent Brazilian sociology. It allows a critical rereading of some theses by Silvio Romero, Oliveira Vianna, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Gilberto Freire, among others. Simultaneously, he takes up and develops theses outlined by Euclides da Cunha, Manoel Bonfim, Caio Prado Júnior, among others. From this dialogue with both, the Sociology of Florestan Fernandes inaugurates a new interpretation of Brazil, a new style of thinking about the past and the present.

In a very brief formulation, it can be said that the interpretation of Brazil formulated by Florestan Fernandes reveals the formation, developments, struggles and perspectives of the Brazilian people. A people formed by indigenous populations, Portuguese conquerors, Africans brought as slaves, European, Arab and Asian immigrants incorporated as free workers. But this is a story based on barter and slavery, on colonialism and imperialism, on urbanization and industrialization, through which, initially, the formation of caste society takes place, and, later, of class society. A history crossed by social struggles of the greatest importance, from the revolts of indigenous communities against the colonizers to the struggles against the slave labor regime. History that, in the XNUMXth century, develops with the struggles of rural and urban workers for the conquest of social rights or for the transformation of social structures. An important part of this contribution can be found in books such as these: The social organization of the Tupinambá, The integration of blacks into class society, Blacks in the world of whites, Social changes in Brazil The bourgeois revolution in Brazil.

Within the scope of sociological theory, Florestan Fernandes carried out a fundamental work. He dialogued with the main currents of thought of the past and present, from Spencer, Comte, Marx, Durkheim and Weber to Mannheim, Parsons, Merton and Marcuse, among others. In addition to making a critical assessment of the different theoretical contributions of both, he formulated original contributions, opening up new possibilities for reflection. There is a very developed critical sociology in the writings of Florestan Fernandes, among which stand out: Empirical foundations of sociological explanation, General and applied sociology essays The sociological nature.

An important part of Florestan Fernandes' sociology focuses on the research and interpretation of the conditions and possibilities of social transformations. The social revolution is one of his most frequent themes. It is present in most of his writings, sometimes as a theoretical challenge and sometimes as a practical perspective. These are some of his books more directly related to this topic: Sociology in an era of social revolution, The bourgeois revolution in Brazil, From guerrilla warfare to socialism: the Cuban revolution.

There are several and fundamental theoretical and historical problems understood by the work of Florestan Fernandes. There are also problems related to popular education and the responsibilities of the social scientist. Altogether, an extensive and multiple work. It marks the beginning of a new era in the history of Brazilian sociology. It inaugurates a new style of thinking about the configurations and movements of society. It allows knowing the present, rethinking the past and imagining the future.

Florestan Fernandes is the founder of critical sociology in Brazil. All of his intellectual production is impregnated with a style of reflection that questions social reality and thought. His contributions on racial relations between blacks and whites, for example, are permeated by the effort to question the dynamics of social reality, unveil its trends and, at the same time, discuss prevailing interpretations. In the same sense, the two reflections on the problems of induction in sociology evaluate each and every theory, methods and techniques of research and explanation, in the same way that they offer new contributions to the knowledge of the logical and historical conditions of reconstruction of the reality. This perspective is present in monographs and essays on the indigenous problem, slavery and abolition, education and society, folklore and culture, bourgeois revolution, socialist revolution and other themes in Brazilian and Latin American history.

The same can be said of his works on sociological theory. The critical perspective is present in all of his intellectual production, obviously including teaching, lectures, public debate. It questions the real and the thought, both the points of view of the members of the groups and classes included in the research and the interpretations elaborated about them. Thus, it always reaches something new, another level, horizon. It goes beyond what is taken for granted, explained. By submitting the real and the thought to critical reflection, it reveals the diversities, inequalities and antagonisms, picking up the different perspectives of the groups and classes understood by the situation. In this path, it rescues the movement of the real and the thought from the groups and classes that make up the majority of the people. They are Indians, blacks, immigrants, slaves and free, city and country workers who reappear in the movement of history. Sociology's most notable theoretical proposals are evaluated, questioned and recreated, taking into account the understanding of their contributions to understanding the trends of social reality.

Sociology deals with social relationships, processes and structures. A particularly important theme of sociological reflection is social interaction, a primordial moment in the genesis and reiteration of the social. Every social fact is characterized by being a nexus of social relations. It is the relationships, unfolding in processes and structures, that engender the specificity of the social. Man constitutes himself as a social being in the same process through which sociability is constituted. “Social interaction constitutes the basic phenomenon of sociological investigation”. It turns out that “existing socially always means, in one way or another, sharing conditions and situations, developing activities and reactions, practicing actions and relationships that are interdependent and influence each other reciprocally. In this sense, social interaction is essentially a dynamic reality”. It comprises “different dynamic probabilities of interdependence, of individuals among themselves, of their activities, reactions, actions and social relations, or of the categories and groupings to which they belong”. Thus, the parts and the whole are reciprocally constituted, they are modified in the same process in which they are formed. “Just as society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him” (Marx). That is, “society and individuals do not denote separable phenomena, but are simply the collective and distributive aspects of the same thing” (Cooley). The same web of social relations constitutes the conditions for the persistence and transformation of social reality (1).

In the work of Florestan Fernandes there is a basic contribution to sociological theory: it draws and develops the critical content of classical and modern sociology. It was the social conditions themselves, in which the social sciences emerged, that led them to face diversities, inequalities and antagonisms. Sociology “was confronted with the contradictions of expanding class society”. In order to be able to “capture such contradictions in their conditions, causes and effects, he needed to adapt his techniques of observation, analysis and explanation to a standard of objectivity that incorporated negation” (2) of the social order. The possibilities for critical reflection opened up by Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Sombart, Tönnies, Mannheim, Merton and others – sometimes moderate possibilities – are carried forward in the theoretical and historical writings of Florestan Fernandes. The perspective offered by a society like the Brazilian one, with accentuated social, economic, political and cultural inequalities, allows us to question much of classical and modern sociology and rescue its critical contents. This is how themes and concepts that seemed past are recreated. The notions of interaction, organization, system and change, among others, are possibilities for researching and explaining the anatomy of relationships, processes and structures of political domination and economic appropriation that articulate social, economic, political and social inequalities and antagonisms. cultural.

This perspective becomes even more effective from the suggestions of Marxism. Dialectical thinking can also be seen in an original way, from the challenges opened by the present and the past of Brazilian and Latin American society. But its essentially critical content resonates much closer, congruent, consistent. While sociology is taken to a critical point of view, albeit moderately, due to the strength of the social question, Marxism is placed, from the beginning, on the horizon of this question. The disparities, inequalities and contradictions are, from the beginning, the core moments of the relationships, processes and structures of political domination and economic appropriation that produce and reproduce bourgeois sociability. “The contestation is implanted at the level of the structures, functioning and transformation of this class society, born of industrial capitalism”. Sociological imagination, enriched by dialectics, can “link the mode of existence, movement and life through contradictions”, seeking “the latter through variable concrete conditions of sociability, association and interaction”. The dialectic makes it possible to “capture the unity in the diverse”, that is, “the totality as an expression of particular and general determinations”. In essence, the real and the thought are reciprocally constituted, in such a way that “praxis becomes the experimental criterion for verifying objective truth” (3). Thus, the historicity of the social is rescued, which appears in a particularly developed way in the revolution.

There is a rich and complex architecture in Florestan Fernandes' sociology. It understands the fundamental steps, in logical terms, of explanation theory and research methodology. It ranges from the forms of explanation, characterized as descriptive and interpretive, to research techniques. Naturally, this broad problem always involves a dialogue with classics and moderns, including Marxist thought.

Florestan Fernandes' reflection on the logical and historical foundations of sociological explanation is inspired by this critical perspective; build with it. Therein lies the careful analysis of the three classic matrices of sociological thought: the functionalist, or objective, method, systematized by Durkheim; the comprehensive, formulated by Weber; and the dialectic, created by Marx. They synthesize much of what had been researched and thought up until then and established the paradigms or styles of thinking about social reality, which exerted a marked influence on all sociological thinking in the XNUMXth century. “The method of understanding, taking care of problems pertaining to socialization and the sociogenetic bases of social interaction, allows abstracting the operative variables of an ahistorical field; the objective (or genetic-comparative) method, focusing on the ontogenetic and phylogenetic problems posed by the classification of social structures, makes it possible to abstract the operative variables, combined in mutable nuclear constellations, from a suprahistorical field; and the dialectical method, dealing with the existing relations between socially organized activities and the alteration of the standards of the social order, which fall within the sphere of social conscience, allows abstracting the operative variables of a historical field”. Each method deals with social reality in a peculiar way regarding the relationship between the real and the thought and vice versa. These peculiarities are symbolized in the ideal type weberian, no average type durkheimian and not extreme type Marxist. Each one “represents a logical or mental construction, produced according to the intentions or cognitive purposes of the investigator” (4). In many ways, the meticulous and fundamental analysis of these paradigms allows the recovery of the critical content of classical thought. Rescue that increasingly stimulated by dialectical reflection.

It is clear that the theoretical contributions of the classics had diverse, sometimes notable, developments. In addition, other and new theoretical proposals have emerged: phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, structural-functionalism, dialectical hyperempiricism, middle-range theories, systemic theories and so on. But perhaps it is possible to state that all the most notable theoretical contributions subsequent to the classics keep some, or much, commitment to them. Sociology is a form of appropriation and constitution of the social world generated by the dissolution of the community, the emergence of bourgeois society, the dynamics of a society based on social, economic, political and cultural inequalities.

This, in brief, is the level, the status, on which critical sociology launches itself. It synthesizes and develops a dialogue of broad proportions. In this sense, it can be said that Florestan Fernandes' sociology synthesizes the contributions of five sources. Some of the main characteristics of his intellectual production express a dialogue with these sources. Naturally they reveal themselves differently, less here, more there. They are not equally and homogeneously visible in each monograph, essay, book, article, class, conference, debate. But they show themselves to be complete as a whole, when we examine the set of Florestan Fernandes' intellectual production. Let's look at these sources.

First, it is worth highlighting classical and modern sociology. Continuous, open and critical dialogue develops with leading sociologists, or social scientists, who make some contribution to research and interpretation of social reality. There are notable representatives of the French, German, English and North American schools, such as, for example: Comte, Durkheim, Le Play, Simiand, Mauss, Gurvitch and Bastide; Weber, Sombart, Pareto, Simmel, Tönnies, Wiese, Freyer and Mannheim; Spencer, Hobhouse, Maliniwski, Radcliffe-Brown and Ginsberg; Cooley, Giddings, Park, Burgess, Parsons, Merton and Wright Mills. These are some of the classics and modern works that can be found in Florestan Fernandes' intellectual horizon, due to the suggestions, challenges, themes, theories and controversies they present and provoke. Of all, Mannheim stands out.

Second, Marxist thought stands out. The dialogue with the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, among others, is continuous and growing. This dialogue is revealed from the translation of Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, of Marx, and the “Introduction” written for that book published in 1946. It continues, in an increasingly broad way, in writings, courses, conferences, debates. It is present in reflections on the problems of induction in sociology. An important moment of the debate with Merton, in 1953, on functionalism, is inspired by Marx's second thesis on Feuerbach: "The question of whether objective truth belongs to human thought is not a question of theory, but a practical question" (5). The progressive incorporation of dialectical thinking is shown both in the choice of themes and in the treatment given to them. The critical perspective is deepened and broadened. Sociological reflection acquires its full historical scope, opening horizons and creating challenges for Brazilian thought. Challenges are created even for social movements and political parties committed to the struggles of popular groups and classes. The movements and parties are led to basic questions, in view of the analyzes developed by Florestan Fernandes regarding the form of the bourgeois revolution and the continuity of the bourgeois counter-revolution. “It is about converting theory into a cultural and political force (or a real force), making it operate from within and through concrete actions of groups, social classes or class conglomerates” (6).

Third, the more critical current of Brazilian thought is important. At different times, there is an explicit or implicit dialogue with Euclides da Cunha, Lima Barreto, Manuel Bonfim, Astrojildo Pereira, Graciliano Ramos, Caio Prado Júnior and other social scientists and writers, including those from the XNUMXth century. In different writings, suggestions, challenges or themes raised by the work of these authors are found. They make up a kind of fundamental and very characteristic intellectual family in Brazilian thought. They take into account the struggles of the most diverse popular sectors that enter the past and present of Brazilian society. They help to recover some basic dimensions of the conditions of existence, life and work, of the Indian, the caboclo, the slave, the settler, the rubber tapper, the farmhand, the comrade, the farmer, the worker and others, past and present.

Fourth, the significance of the challenges of the time is basic, starting in the 40s. The ongoing transformations in society, in terms of urbanization, industrialization, internal migrations, emergence of social movements and political parties, governments and regimes, without forgetting the influences external, create and recreate practical and theoretical challenges for many. Both the university and the party, the Press and the Church, the government and imperialism, all are led to think and rethink the play of social forces, the movements of society, the march of revolution and counter-revolution. The agrarian country becomes industrial, without losing its agricultural face. Everything is urbanized, gradually or abruptly, without losing its rural character. There are frequent irruptions of the people on the historical scene, with frequent solutions of compromise, conciliation or social peace, woven by parties, formulated by intellectuals, imposed by dominant groups and classes, with the collaboration of the high military and ecclesiastical hierarchy, all in the shadow of the imperialism. A time of many challenges. It can be said that “the 40s were a decade of consolidation for the intellectual, especially when one thinks in terms of the university; the 50s is a decade of flourishing, of self-assertion and that engenders the era of irremediable conflict”. Social and political movements and events, as well as economic, cultural and others, lead the intellectual to rethink his relationship with society, to demystify much of what history tells. “It was even possible to take the unmasking further and verify that the 30s revolution was an elitist revolution, with popular resonance, that the so-called 'populism' was rather a demagogic manipulation of bourgeois power than an authentic opening to ' bottom-up pressures”’ (7).

Fifth, finally, the presence of groups and social classes that comprise the majority of the people is fundamental, revealing a broader social and historical panorama than that which appears in the thought produced according to the perspectives of the dominant groups and classes. It is the black, slave and free, that is, the manual worker, in farming and in industry, who opens up an unexpected, broad horizon. Alongside the Indian, the immigrant, the settler, the comrade, the farmhand and others, the presence of black people in Brazilian social history reveals fundamental perspectives for the construction of a critical point of view in sociology, social sciences and other spheres of Brazilian thought. “The things that were most important in my work as an investigator relate to research carried out in the 40s (such as research into São Paulo folklore, research into historical reconstruction of the Tupinambá and various other, smaller ones) or research into on race relations in São Paulo done in 1951-52, in collaboration with Roger Bastide (and supplemented by me in 1954). This purely intellectual work shaped my way of practicing the sociologist’s craft.” At the same time, social and political movements and events resound in intellectual life. Participation in the public school defense campaign opens up new possibilities and responsibilities for the intellectual. “Which was no longer a theoretical rupture, but a practical one.” A movement that reveals many corners of society and history. “It was an avenue that put us in touch with the human problems of Brazilian society.” The challenges posed by the movements and events of the time can be productive for the intellectual. “He can discover things about society that are ignored when he protects himself behind the shield of 'neutrality' and 'profession', isolating himself mentally.” When he is connected to the machine of the world, “he takes advantage of the collective collaboration of the audiences, which makes the movement of ideas much richer, open and fruitful” (8).

Altogether, albeit briefly, these are the five main sources of critical sociology founded by Florestan Fernandes. Of course, other inspirations could be added, such as: political militancy, reflection on the sociologist's ethical and political responsibility, living with Latin American thought, highlighting figures such as José Martí, José Carlos Mariátegui, Ernesto Che Guevara and so on. But those sources, taken together, synthesize the matrices of sociology inaugurated by Florestan Fernandes in Brazil. Critical sociology, which is characterized as a style of thinking about social reality from the root.

In summary, Brazilian sociology is largely influenced by the work of Florestan Fernandes, in such a way that he is present in the formation of this sociology in two particularly notable ways.

First, it enters decisively into the construction of sociology as a system of thinking about social reality. His commitment to the logical and theoretical demands of scientific reflection represents a basic contribution towards the maturation of sociology. The very controversies that this intellectual standard raises reveal that Brazilian sociology goes beyond a phase of methodological and theoretical timidity, entering a stage in which all the theoretical and historical implications of this system of thinking about social reality are assumed in the daily teaching and research. Much of what had been rehearsed episodicly, here and there, acquires greater systematics, another impetus. Simultaneously, the research carried out and encouraged by Florestan Fernandes, as well as by his influence, open new horizons for reflection on society and history.

Second, it creates a new style of thinking in Brazilian sociology. Critical sociology, comprising theory and history, synthesizes a style of thinking about social reality. By rescuing the critical point of view of classical and modern sociology, based on the teachings of Marxism, and recovering the critical point of view offered by the living and working conditions of the oppressed in the city and countryside, the work of Florestan Fernandes creates and establishes a new style of thinking. Thus, Brazilian sociology acquires another dimension, reaches another horizon. It is from this horizon that it becomes possible to go back to past, present roots; unravel the future.

*Octávio Ianni (1926-2004) was a professor in the Department of Sociology at Unicamp and assistant to Florestan Fernandes in the Chair of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of Sociology and society in Brazil (Alpha Omega).

Originally published in the magazine Advanced Studies, IEA-USP, no.o. 26, Jan/April 1996.


1 Elements of theoretical sociology. São Paulo, Nacional, 1970, p.75 and 78-79.

2 The sociological nature of sociology. São Paulo, Attica, 1980, p.112.

3 Id., ibid.,p. 114-123.

4 Empirical foundations of sociological explanation. São Paulo, Nacional, 1967, p. 38.

5 Id., ibid.,p. 308.

6 The sociological nature of... cit., p. 126.

7 The status of sociologist. São Paulo, Hucitec, 1978, p. 49-51.

8 Id., ibid., P. 50, 60-61, 64-65 and 68-69.




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