Boltanski is regarded as one of the most influential French sociologists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
He was born on the 4th of January 1940 in Paris as a child of polnish Jews. His brother is the artist Christian Boltanski.
He studied social sciences at La Sorbonne in Paris and published his dissertation in 1969. Then, he worked as professional academic in various organisations like the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, the Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale and the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Enjeux Sociaux, where he currently is a member of. He also teached classes at universities all over Europe and the United States. In 2008, he delivered the Adorno lectures at Frankfurt.
Boltanski is known as the leading figure of the ‘pragmatic’ tradition within contemporary social and political thought, or specifically, he is one of the founders of an approach that he himself calls 'pragmatic sociology of critique'. He challenges formulaic approaches in sociology and takes established, common problems in modern societies in new directions. He seeks to show how social reality harbours contradictions and how this enables social actors to modify situations. His sociology is recognized as theoretically original and methodologically innovative.
His academic mentor was Pierre Bourdieu, but by creating his own research programme, the pragmatic sociology of critique, he dissociated himself from Bourdieus 'critical sociology'.