ISA Past Presidents

Georges Friedmann

President 1956-59

1902 | 1977

Nationality French



  • His studies were initially in industrial chemistry, then more literary in character.
  • 1923-6 École normale supérieure; agrégation in philosophy.
  • 1946 Doctorat d’état [Major thesis, Les problèmes humains du machinisme industriel; minor thesis, Leibniz et Spinoza.]

Posts held

  • [1922 military service].
  • 1929-31 Professeur de philosophie, lycée de Bourges.
  • 1932-5 Assistant, Centre de documentation sociale (CDS) [worked on the reaction of industrial workers to rationalisation].
  • 1935-9 Professeur, École Boulle [school of applied arts and crafts], teaching ‘French’ and general culture to technical students.
  • 1939-40 Army officer – health administration.
  • 1940-45 [intellectual work and Resistance activity].
  • 1946-60 Professor of the history of work, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.
  • 1948 Directeur d’études, 6th section [economic and social sciences], École Pratique des Hautes Études.
  • 1949-51 Director, CNRS laboratory, the Centre d’études sociologiques (CES).
  • 1949-62 Professor, Institut d’études politiques.
  • 1959-64 President, Faculté latino-américaine des sciences sociales [FLACSO].[1]

ISA participation, main roles

  • Was active in various roles [participant in discussion, session chair, member of Programme Committee] at each of the first three World Congresses.
  • 1950-56 Member, Research Committee (and its Managing Sub-Committee).
  • 1956-59 President.
  • 1959-62 EC member.

Intellectual and ISA career[2]

He was born into a very prosperous bourgeois Jewish[3] family, with resources such that he could have chosen to be a playboy and never to do serious work; he had to struggle with his father to undertake preparation for entry to the École normale. After pursuing various youthful and utopian enthusiasms, he donated a large amount of capital anonymously to the Fondation Curie and took up his first lycée post (Friedmann 1970: 379-80).[4]  It is not clear what he did during the Occupation apart from active participation in the Resistance.
Before the war Friedmann was close to the Communist Party (PCF), and active in organisations controlled by its militants, although not a member. He saw the USSR as representing an ideal. He learned Russian, and made several visits to Russia to see Soviet achievements; this was part of the impulse to move into sociology. However, he developed a somewhat critical perspective on it, while remaining fundamentally pro-Soviet, which led to attacks on his work from the PCF. During the Occupation, however, ranks closed on the left and he worked with them. Rose (1979: 32-5) concludes that ‘Friedmann’s basic outlook was governed by rational humanism; marxism had not been embraced as a social science but as a humanist philosophy, and subsequently the fundamental humanist commitment reasserted itself.’

While at the CDS, Friedmann had in 1931-2 taken a half-time apprenticeship as a machine-tool worker at the École Diderot, in order to experience the practical realities of manual work. Later, at the CES, he sent his young people out to spend some hours a week of observation in a proletarian work situation; it was a sort of initiation rite (Vannier 2000:142). They included Alain Touraine and Jacques Dofny (working on the Renault factory and shoe manufacture respectively).[5] More than half the CES’s total publications for 1946-1968 were about the working class, whether the topic area was family, religion or politics (Vannier 2000: 139).[6]
Rose sketches in a little more of the ideological background:
‘…Sociology would express its urge for involvement less on a practical plane (unless the activity of research itself were defined as practice) than on the intellectual one – until the creation, that is, of neo-marxist formations, and in particular the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), which offered an updated doctrine, and even discovered, thanks directly to the efforts of certain sociologists, a “new working class” allegedly endowed with the capacity to bring about revolutionary social change… Fieldwork required contact with the proletariat and provided an opportunity to document and publicise the conditions under which it lived. Thus it could be construed as a manner of expressing a radical political sympathy, if not in itself constituting a form of political activity that advanced the cause of the working class.’ (Rose 1979: 24, 30)

However, political ideology was certainly not the only impulse towards working on work:
‘…until the early sixties, several factors (official preoccupations, accelerated industrialisation, technical changes, the uncertain evolution of the labour movement, for example) combined to render sociological enquiries in industry particularly attractive.  Unquestionably sociologie du travail formed the largest specialist branch of sociological inquiry until around 1960… many, if not the majority, of the most important figures in French sociology as a whole in the sixties were, or had been, sociologues du travail… The research effort originated in a seminar organised by the great critic of fragmented labour, Georges Friedmann, just after the war, becoming institutionalised first in the new Centre d’Études Sociologiques (founded 1946) and later… in a semi-official agency, the Institut des Sciences Sociales du Travail (ISST)… Friedmann’s importance … to industrial sociology on a world scale , amounts to more than the fact that several leading investigators owe their original training and professional entry to him … His critique of fragmented labour… has penetrated to a mass audience via his own, or secondary, popularisations.…’(Rose 1979: 25, 28).

Interestingly, though, this major development was to a considerable extent outside the universities. Monjardet (1985: 118) points out the extent to which sociologie du travail in its early stages, represented by the Traité (Friedmann and Naville 1964)[7], was based outside university departments, in specialist research units within the CNRS, government departments etc., and suggests that its work was distinguished from that based in the universities as ‘modern’, empirical, and aimed not at the market of the purely academic community but at professional training organisations and large government departments, both related to the Commissariat du Plan.)  ‘après la seconde guerre, il y avait comme un no man’s land sociologique… C’est au sein du CNRS que devait s’opérer une seconde naissance.’ (Touraine 1973: v) Several writers (e.g. Drouard 1982) emphasise the extent to which sociology, especially the new style of empirical work, was marginal within the academic system. Friedmann in effect chose such a position; he refused prestigious opportunities at the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, the Institut de France, giving up the levers of command in the university world. (Friedmann 1970: 383)

Friedmann was involved in the earliest days of the ISA – see above; a location in Paris, where UNESCO and so much of its activity was based, facilitated that, and the leading French professors (Davy, Gurvitch , Le Bras) also played roles. Others, more junior, who became active in ISA had moved in the same circles as him: Raymond Aron had been at the CDS at the same time, while Touraine and Dofny had belonged to his team at the CES.

His ‘presidential address’ (1961) was somewhat in the genre of address of welcome, but took the opportunity for a more extended discussion of intellectual issues than that often offers. After brief remarks on the growth and success of ISA so far, he addresses how sociology is seen from outside, and suggests that this conference may help to change unfavourable perceptions by proposing social policy for appropriate adjustment to technical change. As society becomes more complex and technical change faster, the need for sociological input increases. However, sociology has had ‘maladies infantiles’ which have been to some extent responsible for the criticisms, ranging from excessively ambitious philosophical systematisation and generalization to vulgar empiricism and naive mathematisation; that is why the conference also deals with issues of method.

Sociologists are committed to dispel myths and prejudices whatever their origin; there are no real sociologists in racist societies such as recent fascist ones, and the sociologist now plays a new role, the moralist of industrial society. Some of this could have been said by any president of the period, but the stress on the social significance of technical change brings in his personal angle of approach.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Dofny, Jacques (1991) ‘Entrevue avec Jacques Dofny, professeur et batissseur’, Sociologie et Sociétés 23.2: 61-77.
  • Drouard, Alain (1982) ‘Réflexions sur une chronologie: Le développement des sciences sociales en France de 1945 à la fin des années soixante’, Revue française de sociologie 23: 55-85.
  • Franco, Rolando (2007) La FLACSO Clasica (1957-1973): Vicisitudes de las CienciasSociales latinoamericanas.
  • Friedmann, Georges (1934) Problèmes du machinisme en URSS et dans les pays capitalistes Friedmann, Georges (1947)  Les problèmes humains du machinisme industriel [tr. as Industrial Society, 1955.]
  • Friedmann, Georges (1950) Où va le travail humain?
  • Friedmann, Georges (1956) Le travail en miettes [tr. as The Anatomy of Work, 1961.]
  • Friedmann, Georges (1961) ‘Allocution du Président’, Transactions of the Fourth World Congress of Sociology, vol. III: 1-10.
  • Friedmann, Georges (1965) Fin du people juif?  [tr. as The End of the Jewish People?, 1967.]
  • Friedmann, Georges (1972) ‘Préface’, pp. v-viii in Yves Legoux, Du compagnon au technicien: L’École Diderot et l’évolution des qualifications 1973-1972.
  • Friedmann, Georges and Pierre Naville eds. (1964) Traité de sociologie du travail Grémion, Pierre and Françoise Piotet eds. (2004) Georges Friedmann. Un sociologue dans le siècle, 1902-1977.
  • Heilbron, Johan (1985) ‘Les métamorphoses du durkheimisme, 1920-1940’, Revue française de sociologie 26.2: 203-237.
  • Heilbron, Johan (1991) ‘Pionniers par défaut? ‘Les débuts de la recherche au Centre d’études sociologiques (1946-1960)’, Revue française  de sociologie 32.3: 365-379.
  • Masson, Philippe (2008) Faire de la sociologie: les grandes enquêtes françaises depuis 1945.
  • Monjardet, Dominique (1985) ‘Conclusion: the sociological Utopia’, pp. 172-177 in ed. M. Rose, Industrial Sociology: Work in the French Tradition.
  • Pillon, Thierry (2009) Lire Georges Friedmann. Problèmes humains du machinisme industriel. Les débuts de la sociologie du travail.
  • Rose, Michael (1979) Servants of Post-Industrial Power? ‘Sociologie du Travail’ in modern France.
  • Touraine, Alain (1973) ‘Avant-propos’, pp. v-vii in Une nouvelle civilisation? Hommage àGeorges Friedmann.
  • Smith, John (1961) The University Teaching of Social Sciences: Industrial Sociology. [A UNESCO publication, with data on several countries, and including appendices with details of several courses then taught.]

Presidential address: 

‘Allocution du Président’, Transactions of the Fourth World Congress of Sociology, vol. III: 1-10.

[1]  See the entry on Cardoso, whose early publications were largely on aspects of work and its organisation; he had spent a year at Friedmann’s centre and was friends with Touraine, who helped to set up a similar centre. Both Touraine and Friedmann made frequent visits to Latin America.

[2]  Some autobiographical notes can be found in Friedmann 1970 and 1972 (378-88), though much of the latter is a moral discussion with himself about whether he has done enough in his life to give up his bourgeois heritage and take part in revolutionary activity striving towards a better world. Some of the dates given above vary slightly in different sources, but not enough to make a significant difference.

[3] In the preface to Fin du people juif? (1965) he describes how, starting as a completely assimilated Jew who did not recall ever meeting a rabbi, his Jewish origins were roughly drawn to his attention when in 1940 he lost his job under the Nazi occupation.

[4]  ‘Georges Friedmann est un bourgeois en rupture de bourgeoisie, un philosophe insatisfait de la philosophie, un intellectuel qui n’a pu se borner seulement au commerce des idées.’  (Touraine 1973: vi)

[5]  Dofny, of Belgian origin, was attracted to Friedmann’s group by reading his Les problèmes humains du machinisme industriel. He wasexpelled from France for helping a member of the network fighting for Algerian independence, and took a post in Montréal; he remained there, and played a prominent role in Québec sociology. (Dofny 1991)

[6]  Despite its leftist slant, Vannier (2000: 134) found that in that period just over half of the published work of the travail group in the CES was ‘positivist’, with only a sixth ‘dialectical’. We may note that Maximilien Rubel, who collaborated with Tom Bottomore in editing an influential volume of Marx’s then less-known works, was a member of its Marxist group.

[7]  The Traité is, as its Avant-propos says, ‘panoramique et synthétique’. It has contributions from demographers, anthropologists and economists as well as sociologists, and envisages an audience which will include both managers and militant trade unionists; its section topics include the legal framework, work in developing countries, work and war, work and leisure, family budgets, and the working class in the global society. Clearly its aim is to be encyclopaedic rather than to impose a unifying theoretical framework.