Pierre Rosanvallon was born on January 1, 1948 in Blois (France). Throughout his life, he has resisted simple categorization: before embarking on an academic career in the early 1980s, he spent his first working years as an activist. After graduating from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC, a prestigious French business school) in 1969, he became economic advisor to the CFDT (1969-1972), then political advisor to its leader Edmond Maire and editor of the trade union's journal, CFDT-Aujourd'hui (1973-1977). He grew close to Michel Rocard and became a primary theorist of the "second left", publishing l'Âge de l'autogestion (1976), followed by Pour une nouvelle culture politique (1977).
Ultimately deciding not to pursue the political career he was destined for, he turned to more academic work. In 1978, he joined the University of Paris-Dauphine, where he took charge of the sociology section at the Travail et Société (Work and Society) research centre founded there by Jacques Delors. While a Research Director at the university from 1978 to 1982, he became intellectually close to Cornelius Castoriadis, François Furet and Claude Lefort. He worked with the latter on his thesis in history (published in 1979 under the title Le Capitalisme utopique. Histoire de l'idée de marché), then on a PhD in arts and humanities (Le Moment Guizot, 1985). This work gave him access to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, or School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), where he was made a lecturer in 1983, then Director of Studies in 1989, a position he still holds. He also headed the school's Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron (Raymond Aron Centrer for Political Research) from 1992 to 2005.
At that time, Pierre Rosanvallon's work started to focus on three key topics. First, the history of the French political model, with a series of works on the history of liberalism in the first half of the 19th century - a continuation of his Moment Guizot, then two more "programmatic" works - L'État en France, de 1789 à nos jours (1990) and le Modèle politique français ; la société civile contre le jacobinisme (2004). He has also sought to offer an interpretation of changes in solidarity institutions and theories of justice in La Crise de l'État-providence (1981) and La Nouvelle question sociale, repenser l'État-providence (1995). From the early 1990s, most of his work started to focus on a broad-sweeping project aiming to document the intellectual history of democracy in France. Three volumes, published in Gallimard's "Bibliothèque des histoires" collection, have presented the conclusions of his research: Le Sacre du citoyen ; Histoire du suffrage universel en France (1992), Le Peuple introuvable. Histoire de la représentation démocratique en France (1998) and La Démocratie inachevée. Histoire de la souveraineté du peuple en France (2000).
In 2001, Pierre Rosanvallon was elected Professor at the Collège de France, where he holds the chair in Modern and Contemporary History of Politics. He completed his research on the history of the French political model there, and subsequently embarked on the historical and theoretical study of changes in contemporary democracy. La Contre-démocratie : la politique à l'âge de la défiance (2006) and La Légitimité démocratique : impartialité, réflexivité, proximité (2008) are the first two results of this new endeavor. A third volume is currently under preparation for publication in 2011. In these works, he has broadened his vision beyond the French situation and adopted a systematically comparative approach. This more comparative perspective is outlined in his paper Les Universalismes démocratiques : histoire et problèmes (Esprit, January 2008).
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, he expounded the originality of his approach, which is to consider the history of democracy as the exploration of a problematic experience. Democracy, he posited, establishes politics as a field that constitutively resists closure by virtue of the tensions and uncertainties that underpin it. "As it forms the basis for an experience of freedom, the history of democracy, he noted, is therefore not simply a history of frustrations or betrayed utopias: it has become a deeply intertwined history of disenchantment and indeterminacy." This approach of politics has led Pierre Rosanvallon to consider the historical factor as an essential condition to fully grasp it. His ambition has been to envision democracy by following the thread of its history. He further states that it is not enough merely to say that democracy has a history, but that one must take the more radical step of recognizing that it is a history. History is an active laboratory of our present and not simply its background. He outlined the principles of this approach in Pour une histoire conceptuelle du politique (2003).
This approach to considering history as the substance of a political theory helps to understand how Pierre Rosanvallon connects his academic work with constant attention to the urgent issues of today. Beyond his work as a writer, he has never ceased to increase his involvement in the life of the polis in a bid to shed light on current affairs through input from the social sciences. From 1982 to 1999, he chaired the Saint-Simon Foundation, a reformist think-tank whose many publications left their mark. In 2002, he launched La République des Idées, an eponymous collection published by Editions du Seuil, and regularly organizes large-scale forums for the general public. He has also launched a website - laviedesidees.fr - which is more directly connected to his chair at the Collège de France, and is a journal of news and analysis dedicated to ideas and intellectual production in France and abroad.
Pierre Rosanvallon's work has been translated into 22 languages and published in 26 countries. Alongside his teaching commitments in France, he also gives lectures and conferences in academic institutions all over the world (see his yearly activity reports for more).