Alexis de Tocqueville Essay

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Born into a French aristocratic family in 1805, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French political theorist, sociologist, and cultural and historical commentator whose contributions are equally claimed by the disciplines of sociology, political science, American studies, and American history. In 1831, together with his colleague Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville embarked on a tour of the nascent American democracy in an effort to understand the inner workings of the democratic spirit in the everyday lives and social institutions of the American people. On returning to France he wrote his famous two-volume investigation, Democracy in America (1835).  Tocqueville uncovered within

American society a tension between democracy’s conflicting imperatives: the egalitarian character of democratic societies, while successfully eliminating forms of despotism identified with feudalism, did not provide sufficient integration of the individual into the social fabric. Hence, democratization, if extended unchecked and in irresponsible ways, could produce excessive individualism (a term Tocqueville coined for this purpose), and ultimately new forms of despotism. In a comparison of the American and French experiences with democracy, Tocqueville pointed to the dangers posed by the French case, in which a sudden leveling of social hierarchies following the French Revolution eliminated the intermediary institutions that maintained the integration of individuals within the larger social fabric, leading to revolutionary despotism, a theme developed more completely in his other major work, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).

The American case, on the other hand, fostered voluntary democratic institutions which ensured local involvement and instructed in the methods and techniques of self-rule. The American case, however, was possessed of the equally ominous threat of the ”tyranny of the majority,” or leveling and homogenizing of public opinion by the belief in the ultimate sovereignty of the views held by the greatest number.

Tocqueville’s legacy is still very much in dispute, particularly in debates around the welfare state, civic engagement, and democratic citizenship. On the political right, Tocqueville is cited as a critic of the tyranny of the welfare state and of public assistance as a means of redressing inequality. On the left he is taken up as an advocate of an active role for the state in offsetting the atomization of society through policies that enable associative engagement of individuals in democratic and community participation. Tocqueville’s imprint is also visible in contemporary sociological concerns with declining social capital and the erosion of civic engagement in urban, mediated, and postmodern societies.


  1. Goldberg, C. A. (2001) Social citizenship and a reconstructed    American Sociological Review 66 (2): 289-315.
  2. Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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