We may inhabit a globalised world, but sometimes the Channel can appear a yawning chasm. With Invisible Codes , Mohamed Cherkaoui has produced an impressive statement of the distinctiveness of French sociology today. It contrasts markedly with much found within British sociology, and it is all the better for that. The book is presented as something of a manifesto, and thereby a challenge, from GEMAS (Groupe d'Etude des Méthodes de l'Analyse Sociologique), of which Cherkaoui is director.
A core argument of this book is that while the gathering of systematic empirical evidence is crucial to sociological analysis, this of itself cannot provide satisfactory explanations of behaviour. Enthusiasts might dream of providing definitive statements by multivariate analysis that identifies causality, but it cannot fully account for social action. The reason is that, according to Cherkaoui, social behaviour cannot be reduced to statistics. Cherkaoui's key term is "generative mechanisms" - explanations that are formally deduced rather than accounted for by probabilistic methods. Statistical analysis can demonstrate a close affiliation between a religious faith and economic endeavour, may even establish a causal connection, but this cannot explain the phenomenon because, Cherkaoui reasons, this must be established by rigorous argument.
Cherkaoui's starting point is decidedly within the tradition of French sociology that was pioneered a century ago by Emile Durkheim and more recently succoured by Raymond Boudon. This has not been fashionable in Britain for some time, so Cherkaoui might help in its resurgence. It insists that society is something more than individuals agglomerated.
Adam Smith attested that this was so in his assertion that private avarice led to general benefits courtesy of market mechanisms. But the notion that between the actions and beliefs of individuals are located other phenomena has not been widely accepted over here. It was famously rejected by Margaret Thatcher's sneering "there is no such thing as society", as it has been by a raft of sociologists who stressed that the concern of their discipline must be with the sense individuals made of their circumstances.
This latter tradition, while it brought people back into the picture when they seemed in danger of being squeezed out, vitalised the interpretative tradition and predominated in micro-analysis. In the UK, this finds expression in textured studies that recreate the lived experiences of subjects as diverse as young people, mothers and Afro-Caribbeans.
Cherkaoui refuses to concede ground to this school. He seeks to establish an approach to sociology that marries micro- and macro-perspectives without jettisoning his own prioritisation of collective action. He insists throughout on the validity of seeing sociology as more than the sum of separate parts. People might feel intensely that their own efforts to attain educational distinction are what matters most, but Cherkaoui responds by observing that unintended consequences of such views - perhaps in stimulating mobility or encouraging the emergence of talent - are of vital concern to sociology.
This elegant, complex and intricately argued book merits the close attention of British sociologists. It is critical of both those who would promote qualitative techniques and those who proclaim the primacy of qualitative analysis. Out of a discussion of the legacy of de Tocqueville, a re-evaluation of Durkheim's work and a critique of James Coleman's rational-choice theory, Cherkaoui constructs a bold argument for a reinvigorated sociology. This would be a discipline with a distinct subject matter (collective action) and rigorous empirical methods but one still capable of explaining the "invisible codes" that can account for action.
Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University, London.
Invisible Codes: Essays on Generative Mechanisms
Author - Mohamed Cherkaoui
Publisher - Bardwell Press, Oxford
Pages - 196
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 9548683 2 3