A term generally associated with the name of French sociologist Alain Touraine, and not to be confused with the ‘action frame of reference’ (see action theory) proposed by Talcott Parsons. Beginning in the 1960s, Touraine developed a radical new theoretical framework, most fully described in The Self-Production of Society (1973). In his own words, Touraine aimed to ‘replace a sociology of society with a sociology of actors’. His purpose has been to overcome what he sees as a false division in sociology between objective and subjective, or system and action approaches. Actionalism places the social actor at the centre of theoretical attention, including theories of structural and historical phenomena. Actors are not simply the components of social systems, but the agents of those systems.
Touraine's analysis does not exclude groups and collectivities such as social classes. However, these are treated not as categories, but as dynamic sets of relationships between social actors. This perspective involves an explicit critique of structuralism and post-structuralism (in which the individual subject is ‘dead’), and of essentialism (which leaves history equally bereft of social actors).
The dynamic aspect of actionalism is what Touraine calls historicity (a term adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre); that is, the ability of society to act on itself, and the quality of history as a human activity. The sociologist is an agent of historicity—not a neutral observer—and has a stake in the conflicts of his or her society. This led Touraine to the method of ‘sociological interventionism’, in which sociologists study social change movements by participating in them directly. This actionalist sociology, Touraine believes, will be diverse and full of conflicts, but more legitimate because of its active engagement in social change processes.
In concrete terms, the actionalist approach attempts to explain how social values are shaped, and thus how social change is accomplished, by identifying the ‘historical subject’ (collective actor) in each historical epoch which carries the capacity for accomplishing revolutionary change by organizing itself into a social movement. In his earlier studies, Touraine argued that historical subjects attain the necessary self-awareness through the experience of work, so that the social movement expressing the historical subject of capitalism becomes organized labour. However, in later studies, he broadened his conception of ‘production’ and extended the theory to other social movements, including those organized by women, students, nuclear protesters, and nationalists. Touraine's analysis of social movements can be found in his The Voice and the Eye (1978).