Flora Tristán: A Peruvian Proto-Sociologist

Blog Post by Pierre Tripier and Víctor Zúñiga

Flora Tristán: A Peruvian Proto-Sociologist

Víctor Zúñiga

Two decades ago, a newly published book—Les fondements de la sociologie by B. Péquignot and P. Tripier (2000. Paris: Nathan)—offered sociologists a different way of thinking about the origin and history of their discipline. The authors developed a narrative that described in a novel fashion how sociology was born and how it has changed since its inception (Zúñiga, 2002). The account offered by the authors differed completely from existing narratives about the forefathers of sociology, which frequently sought to identify whether August Comte, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, or Georg Simmel were the rightful founders and who their legitimate heirs were.

One review (Zúñiga 2002) argues that the narrative offered by Péquignot and Tripier differs from canonical accounts in that it does not understand sociology as having a linear history; the discipline was not born in a particular place or guided by a particular school of thought. When lines of continuity are assumed, the different parts of the story are arranged teleologically after the fact, giving the semblance of a coherent sequence of events. This has produced popular versions of the history of sociology, stating that there has been a structuralist school followed by functionalism, but that before those there was historical materialism, and then symbolic interactionism. These labels are adopted to give the appearance of order in the development of the discipline. The same review further states that the authors of Les fondaments de la sociologie demonstrate that sociology does not have either a genealogy or a defined family tree. Sociology was born in different ways, in multiple places, in overlapping ways that happened simultaneously, through the work of people who had no intention of founding a scientific discipline. Furthermore, sociology was born as the result of answers offered to very different kinds of concerns and problems. Sociology is not the fruit of a revolutionary transformation, a social cataclysm, the result of societal malaise, or the crumbling of pre-capitalist forms of production. Sociology was born, as Edward Shils affirmed irreverently in 1970, as a heterogeneous aggregate of topics that were later rearranged to give the semblance of congruence, to connect them to schools of thought and classical figures. The words Tripier wrote for a new edition of Les fondements say it all: “Sociology is what sociologists do”.

After the book was published, women sociologists quickly pointed out that while innovative, it was shockingly androcentric. The sting of this critique drove us to reduce the book’s androcentrism, a task we started in 2013 and completed in 2020. The task took us seven years because we also addressed two other criticisms: that the book was Eurocentric and professor-centric. This lengthy period of research was accompanied by exhaustive reading and dialogue between ourselves and the two other coauthors, Péquignot and Pfefferkorn.

We found a solution that seemed easy at first, but that became progressively more complex. We left behind standard definitions of sociologist and sociologies and admitted into the pantheon producers of social science who have not been legitimized, canonized, or even acknowledged. We brought them together into a useful category we called proto-sociologies. In an entirely new chapter, entitled “Widening the Pantheon, the Proto-Sociologies Enter the Scene,” we focus on Ibn Khaldûn, Machiavelli, and Bernardino de Sahagún. Khaldûn developed a sophisticated historical sociology to understand nomadism; Machiavelli inaugurated an applied sociology at the service of the makers of the nation state; and finally, Sahagún created the basis for the understanding of non-Christian social worlds, particularly Mesoamerica. We could have included many others, such as Confucius, Sun Tzu or Thucydides, but we had to impose limitations, lest the new edition become too long and uninviting.

To deal with the critique of androcentrism, we decided to include two women proto-sociologists. We did not use a specific criterion to include them; we simply selected them because we were fascinated by their contributions. They are Flora Tristán (1803-1844) and Beatrice Webb (1858-1943). The former does not appear on any online lists of women founders of sociology, whereas the latter is widely recognized.  In the rest of this blog post, we focus exclusively on Flora Tristán, who developed a sociology of oppression and perhaps the first sociology of the subordination to which women are subjected.  She was born in France; her father and mother were Peruvian and French, respectively. Tristán was not a prolific author, and her work is heterogeneous; it includes a two-tome autobiographic essay, combining the style of the personal journal and travel narrative, titled (quite appropriately) Peregrinaciones de una paria (Peregrinations of a Pariah).  She also wrote a political essay in the style of the manifestos of her time (Tour de Francia, estado actual de la clase obrera/A Tour of France, the current state of the working class); a novel which, according to Vargas Llosa, it is not worth opening; two manuscripts of political action, both directed to the French Chamber of Deputies (La necesidad de darle la bienvenida a las mujeres extranjeras/The need to welcome foreign women and Petición por la abolición de la pena de muerte/Petition to abolish the death penalty); and a sociological report, dreadfully titled: Paseos por Londres/London Sojourns.

All of Tristán’s intellectual production occurred between 1835 and 1842. Part Two of her Peregrinaciones/Peregrinations appeared after her death. Before passing, Tristán managed to publish her most representative book, La Unión Obrera/The Worker’s Unity, which contains a chapter on the submission of women. 

Today, many French and Peruvian feminist historians are seeking to elevate Tristán as a global pioneer of feminism. For decades, she was remembered only as Paul Gauguin’s grandmother, and the fact that she was an “extraordinary woman” in her own right was ignored (Vidal and Reck, 2008). A contemporary of the canonical fathers of sociology (Marx, Engels, Comte, Tocqueville, and Saint-Simon), she never attracted their attention, even though the founder of the French Socialist Party, Charles Fourier, frequently expressed admiration for her.

We focus here on three of Tristán’s most extraordinary contributions. The first appeared in the two volumes of Peregrinaciones. Here, Tristán describes her stay in Arequipa and Lima to meet her uncles, cousins, and other relatives on her father’s side of the family.  The purpose of her visit was to claim the inheritance left by her father—something she did not achieve.  During this time, Tristán learned about two forms of submission firsthand: slavery and the oppression of women.  In an important passage, she converses with Carmen, one of her cousins from Arequipa. Both agree that marriage is a form of slavery, “hell,” and “tyranny.” Carmen ignored that Florita had already been married and imagined that her cousin did not know the meaning of the matrimonial yoke. But Flora compares what she had observed in Arequipa with her lived experience in France.  At the end of the conversation with Carmen, Tristán hypothesizes that for oppression to work, it needs an institutional foundation.  In other words, oppression endures because it is built upon a legal, ideological, pragmatic, and axiological basis, turning it into a solidified social fact. Thus, Tristán realizes that it is not oppression per se that needs to be analyzed, but the institutional conditions which lend it durability and legitimacy.   

This first sociological insight was reinforced by the case of another cousin, Dominga, who, in contrast with Carmen, was never married. Her single status did not mean that Dominga could escape the institutional conditions of oppression. Unfortunately, she fell in love at age 16 with a young Spanish adventurer passing through Arequipa. He seduced Dominga, promising to marry her. Time passed and he never returned. Her fate was sealed by the conditions of oppression: she was confined to a convent in Arequipa, where she was in locked up for 11 years. The story of the nun became public knowledge because Dominga went mad.  Tristán hears the story and, while saddened, she is profoundly intrigued. And she starts to act like a sociologist. She asks her cousins to take her to the convent of Santa Rosa and requests the Chief Nun’s authorization to cloister for a few days in Dominga’s own quarters. Today, we would say that Tristán used a methodology called participant observation. 

What did Tristán learn? (a) the process of destruction of the self (in her own words: “hurt self-esteem”); (b) the homogenization and categorization based on attire, following the hierarchical codes of the Viceroyalty of Peru (based on birthright, titles, skin color, and money); (c) the solemn and terrifying role of symbols; (d) the extreme routinization of time, which leaves not a single minute to use according to one’s free will; (d) deprivations that lead to physical and mental illness; (f) the codification of space: bedroom, gardens, prayer room, cemetery; (g) a system of relentless prohibitions; and (h) social life destroyed by rumor, slander, perverse envies, jealousy, and the cruelest malice. If we did not know otherwise, we would have thought that this study of the convent had been conducted by 20th century sociologist Erwin Goffman.  In short, in 1834, Tristán discovered that the institutional conditions of women’s oppression rest upon marriage and the prohibition of divorce, and in an ever-crueler form in total institutions, such as convents, prisons, military garrisons, and psychiatric hospitals.

The thesis of the legitimate institutional conditions (of oppression) found a complement thanks to Tristán’s stay in Lima.  In that city, she discovered, to her own surprise, that if such conditions change, women can enjoy autonomy: “The women of Lima govern men because they are superior in intelligence and moral strength to men… After I finished writing about the customs and habits of the women from Lima, I realized that they must belong to another social order, different from that of European women, who from their infancy are slaves of the law, customs, prejudices, fashion, of everything, while the limeñas, under their skirt, are free and enjoy independence.” This finding (that there is another social order) is strongly reinforced by a chance meeting with Francisca Zubiaga y Bernales, wife of the president of Peru. Flora is captivated by her and discovers that if the legitimizing institutional conditions are contested, they change, and as they are inverted, the lot of women can change. 

Tristán left Peru in 1834 and in 1839, five years before her death, conducted fieldwork in London, demonstrating her further development as a researcher.  This study contains the second contribution we would like to highlight. Susan Grogan (1998) characterizes the methodological feature of Tristán’s London study with precision: Tristán’s sociological work rests on her capacity to “observe directly” (“rely on seeing in person”), to listen to what subjects have to say, examine the living conditions of social actors, the structures that mold their lives and how this process happens. Tristán observes the factories, talks to workers, and argues with foremen in   Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield, and Staffordshire and visits the poorest neighborhoods in London (where Irish workers lived and died). She manages to get into Parliament (dressed as a man); she also takes note of the differentiated education that high society women received and conducts observations in the elegant casinos and houses of prostitution of the nascent and capricious English bourgeoisie, while conducting tours of the neighborhoods where prostitutes offered services to workers. All these observations lead Tristán to conclude that the oppression experienced by industrial workers is worse than that of slaves. English authors criticized her, stating that her goal was to discredit British society.  She responded with a footnote in the third edition of her Paseos por Londres, explaining that everything she had affirmed was the result of detailed observation and that, when in doubt, she checked original sources to assess different interpretations.  In short, Tristán responded: I followed a methodology that allowed me to discipline observation.

A year later, Tristán started writing her Unión Obrera, in which she outlines the fundamentals of her sociology of oppression, in general and of women in particular. This is the third contribution we would like to include here.  Her main argument is that women’s oppression is based on a false social theory. However, she observes that the ideologies which bring women down are not sufficient to perpetuate subjugation. False social theories are effective only if they are embodied in everyday structures, such as the household, the pub, the church, the street, and the school. Women will be able to emancipate themselves only by breaking with these mundane ties and, according to Tristán, also help working men break free from their own chains.


The new edition of the 2000 book is under review at Éditions de L’Université de Bruxelles.  This blog post was originally published in Spanish in https://academicxsmty43.blog/.  The English translation is published here with the permission of the authors and moderators of the blog.  
Pierre Tripier, Professor Emeritus, Université de Versailles.
Víctor Zúñiga, Professor of Graduate Studies, School of Law and Criminology, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León.

Grogan, S. (1998). Flora Tristan, life stories, New York: Routledge.
Péquignot, B. and Tripier, P. (2000). Les fondements de la sociologie, Paris: Nathan.
Vidal, M. and Reck, A. (2008). Luchadoras. Historias de mujeres que hicieron historia. Available at: http://claseygenero.blogspot.mx/2008/08/flora-tristn.html
Zúñiga, V. (2002). Review of Les fondements de la sociologie, in Estudios Sociológicos, El Colegio de México, 2002, XX (59) pp. 481-483.


Translated from Spanish by Rubén Hernández-León and Bryan Pitts.

The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute. 


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