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May 21, 2014
On year ago, on 23 May 2013, French sociologist Michel Crozier died at age 90.
Was he known at all outside France? The fact that he has a short wikipedia entry in English seems to suggest that he was not completely unknown. Rather than an obituary, these lines are just a modest tribute. His death reminded me of just how much I owe my interest for sociology to him. Maybe it’s because when I started to read his books in the early 1990s, I wasn’t even thinking about engaging into an academic career, completing a PhD and doing serious research. I only wanted to better understand my intriguing host country.
His 1995 book on ‘The helplessness of the elites when it comes to reform themselves’, whose main title was ‘La crise de l’intelligence’, opened my eyes on the French higher education system just as much as Pierre Bourdieu did. And at the same time it did not have this dogmatic ideological underpinning that characterised Bourdieu’s writing and contaminated so much of French sociology.
Crozier helped me understand from within quite some idiosyncrasies of French culture, especially the ubiquitous penetration of all spheres of society by ‘the State’. And although I had no grasp whatsoever on methodology at the time, I intuitively liked how he built bridges between sociology, politics and management.
My favourite quote by Michel Crozier? I actually have two of them.
The first one,
“I did not become a sociologist by passing state exams, but by doing sociology.”
sums up nicely what research is about: it’s not about making a career in academia in the first place, but to understand society better. Seing things this way not only makes you less prisoner of the absurdities of academic life, but also allows you to have a lot more fun.
The second one is a reply to critics who accused him of not dealing with emotions, desires and passions in his analysis:
‘Nothing is irrational. The understanding of the context allows us to understand the rationality of behaviour that seemed irrational before.’
I am not even certain I fully agree. The FREE project is a lot about emotions, desires and passions, isn’t it? On the other hand, it’s no doubt the context that may help to understand why certain emotions occur at certain moments.
Funny how sometimes you realise with a delay of twenty years the influence a person’s thoughts may have had on your own ideas. Better late than never.