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Looking (desperately?) for cultural sociology in France - Daniel Cefai, Institut Marcel Mauss, EHESS-Paris

There is nothing corresponding to cultural sociology in France. Certainly, we treat the idea of culture to some critical reflection, as you do in the United States. But while “cultural anthropology” and “cultural history” became sub-fields of research, nothing similar happened in sociology. Nevertheless, my feeling is that “trading zones”, to take Lyn Spillman’s phrase (2008), can be established between your American cultural sociology and certain specific branches of French sociology I will discuss briefly. An actual proof of that possibility was given by Michèle Lamont and Laurent Thévenot in their book, Comparative Cultural Sociology (2000).

In this talk, I am going to map some topics and questions that confronted researchers in France from the 1980’s on. I will start my account at the end of the 1970s, when the Annales School in history, structuralism in anthropology and Marxism in sociology were left behind. What is important to realize is that many of the intellectual moves we did afterwards were done in reaction to the hegemony of these ways of thinking. It was hard to get rid of them.

What was the situation at the end of the 1970s? To put it briefly, what you call “culture” was already at stake in many of French debates at that time, especially in anthropology and history, with which sociology had, and still has many exchanges.

In anthropology, Claude-Lévi-Strauss had established his empire. Culture meant “symbolic systems”, the method to study them was structural analysis. Of course, a few researchers were raising new issues. Bourdieu, in the Outline of a Theory of Practice (1973. See 1990, too) was injecting temporality and strategies in the model, and analyzing the “social uses” of symbolic systems by the agents. But Lévi-Strauss was still the Great Master, and it would take time before people discussed alternatives, American symbolic or cognitive anthropology, for instance. The opposition to his work was coming from young researchers, starting to criticize the links between anthropology and colonialism and developing a program of economic anthropology.

In history, the situation was much more interesting. The hegemony of the Annales School of economic and social history was breaking up.

a. The history of mentalities was exploring new areas: body techniques, mental equipments, history of the private sphere and of civilities, and everything about ordinary people’s daily life. One can find a survey of these experiments at the mid-1970’s in the landmark book, Faire de l’histoire (1974).Historical anthropology was promoting new methods and new objects, Michel de Certeau was exploring the writing of history and would soon publish The Practice of Everyday Life ([1980] 1984).

b. In parallel, a new political history was taking off. The concepts of political culture, symbolism and imaginary were becoming central. The researchers started to study political languages during the French Revolution, the rhetorical battles at the National Assembly, the social imagineries of feudalism and the collective memory of the Republic (François Furet, Pierre Nora, Maurice Agulhon, and a bit younger, Pierre Rosanvallon, dialoging with Keith Baker, Lynn Hunt, Roger Darnton, William Sewell).

c. In the 1980s, the analysis went even deeper into thick description. Two concepts were brought to the forefront: affectivities and sensibilities. The big names were Georges Vigarello, on history of the body, cleanliness and health, and Alain Corbin on the “cultures of the senses”, on the political meanings of fragrances and bells sounds.

At the mid 1980’s, the legacy of the Annales school was broken and new trends of research were budding among anthropologists. Later in the decade, historians close to Jacques Revel and the journal Annales would initiate a very fruitful dialogue with the Italian micro-history; and an urban historian, Bernard Lepetit, would become a broker between these new emerging practices of history and pragmatist sociology. Africanists, coming back to European fields, would develop studies on the ritual performances of the state (Marc Abélès // David Kertzer), the link between music and political protest (Denis Constant-Martin // Ron Eyerman), and resistances to state domination (Jean-François Bayart applying Foucault and de Certeau // James Scott).

At this time, French cultural analysis was already studying representations, arguments, symbols, imaginations, memory, and emotions.

But what about sociology?

My review will be very selective and I will not speak about the legacy of Bourdieu, the original inquiries and epistemological breakthroughs of Jean-Claude Passeron in sociology of culture, or the programs of inquiry that Jean-Louis Fabiani launched on the Festival de Cannes and the Festival d’Avignon. I will actually speak about what I was asked to - a loose network of researchers, who were fighting, from the 1980’s on, against the quasi-monopolization of the sociological field by Boudon, Bourdieu, Crozier and Touraine. You have probably heard the names of some of these researchers who challenged the dominant paradigms: Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Laurent Thévenot, Luc Boltanski - and many others, like Louis Quéré or Isaac Joseph, whose work was not translated into English. We call this shift the “pragmatist turn”.

Let me discuss a few statements of these people in a bit of depth. Some have strong parallels with the cultural sociology of the past 20 years, even though we did not call them “cultural sociology”. Others of these statements ran counter to the American cultural sociology.

For example, while you were discovering Bourdieu, through Lamont, Wuthnow or DiMaggio, Calhoun and Wacquant, and while Jeffrey Alexander was building his concept of “culture structures,” in France, we were learning the rudiments of Erving Goffman, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, pragmatics and ethnography of communication, in order to describe meaning-making activities. We were leaving aside structuralism and Marxism and trying not to start, by any means, our analysis with macro-structures.

To pursue this review of our differences, we were importing the Chicago school of sociology (Grafmeyer & Joseph, 1979) to think about urban cultures while you were starting to read Henri Lefebvre. When the debate around multiculturalism was no longer news in the US, we imported the concept of ethnic cultures. And cultural studies, with their strong debt to Foucault and French literary criticism, remained peripheral to the study of media cultures in France (see Dayan, 2001 – and journals Réseaux and Hermès).

Nevertheless, our “pragmatist sociology” and your “cultural sociology” met at three points, at least:

First point

In the 1980’s, the intellectual interest shifted from symbolic systems to meaning-making activities and their contexts. The problem was no longer to reconstruct systems of symbols, in order to study their structural consistency / or to link them with social structures and criticize their ideological or symbolic power.

The watchword became situational analysis. We stopped looking for the big picture and started to “follow the actors”, as Bruno Latour (2005) says, trying to disclose in situation who they are, what actions they are performing, what they aim to do, how they do, when and where, with whom and against whom, through which categories and accounts, with which consequences. Instead of objectifying systems of symbols, the main task became to understand how meaning emerges in situation, in action and interaction.

Of course, we came to ask questions the people were asking here, too. Where is the border between private and public? How do we behave at home and at work? How does the personal become political? How to connect the interactions, we directly observe, with more general issues of “public interest”? How to combine different “régimes of engagement” (Thévenot, 2006 and 2007) and not to reduce personal life-world commitments to Nimby claims, and have much more attuned tools for describing the intricacy of different rationalities and legitimacies in action?

Take as an example the culture of “civil services”. People used to study in the 1970’s the ideology of the public services, in law and politics, or the Third Republic symbols of administration. What would we do today? (Weller, 1999). We would do fieldwork on the interactions between civil servants and ordinary citizens at agencies’ windows, for example, track the variations of performances on stage and backstage, listen to what people speak about and follow their chains of writing. Then, we would observe, beyond the formal rights the people are granted, their modes of self-presentation, ways of complying and protesting; and compare between different settings to notice variations due to class, gender, age or nationality. Or we could notice emotions and watch when and how the people get angry or grateful, kind or uncaring, aggressive or fatalist, respectful or rude, and what moral feelings they express when confronted with difficult cases…

This pragmatist focus stresses not only narratives, but speech acts; not only representations, but lived emotions; not only discourses, but bodily attitudes and expressions as well. All this is constitutive of what you call “culture”. The same words and deeds have different meanings in different settings. And what the people themselves call the “culture” of “civil services” should not be taken as a sociological explanation, but as a typical public account the people use to organize their experience, to live in a common world and to orient themselves as citizens.

As you see, we are close to what some of you do in the US (Eliasoph and Lichterman, 2003). And of course, we meet the same unresolved problems. How do we grasp “cultural patterns” beyond the contextual description of meaning-making activities? What is the connection between symbols and actions? What is the status of these “cultural patterns”? The debate remains open. Are they “cultural structures”, grammars of public life, vocabularies of motives, language games, repertoires of dramaturgy and rhetoric?

This brings us to the second point.

“Pragmatist sociologists” became reluctant to think only in terms of cultural or social structures, hidden behind or below the veil of social appearances. Experience and meaning became central concepts. Against the topics of false consciousness, we started to read seriously phenomenology, hermeneutics, analytic philosophy and moral philosophy. Paul Ricœur’s works, on metaphor (1977) and narrative (1984-88), became our bed side readings. A series of theoretical inquiries, especially around Louis Quéré (Pharo & Quéré, 1990; Quéré et al., 1993), chief editor of the series Raisons pratiques (1989-) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, on what is a “disposition”, a “habit”, a “routine”, a “motive”, an “intention”… and on the connection between action, meaning, and situation (de Fornel & Quéré, 1999).

We came to investigate forms of experience in themselves, and not as distorted reflections of objective realities, nor as mere resources in strategic interactions. Instead of a sociology of culture, I would rather speak of a sociology of moral and political experience (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2000).

From an empirical point of view, the most interesting situations where to study these moral and political forms of experience are problematic situations (Dewey), that disrupt taken for granted meanings. In problematic situations, the black box of the day to day activities re-opens.

It becomes possible:

* to know the competences the actors are equipped with – this concept of “competences” became important, we started to talk about the competences of the ordinary citizens, the TV watchers or the gendered Selves, the industry workers (Boltanski & Thévenot, 1989) or the urban-dwellers (Joseph, 2007)…

* to know through which routine and reflective practices they are engaged in the definition and the mastering of their daily environments, and analyze the categorizations devices they use in their practical and discursive activities (Fradin & al., 1995).

* to know the way they deal, here and now, with long term historical and macro-sociological narratives. The big picture is theirs, not ours. The actors build up their own accounts and explanations. Culture is perceived from the perspective of the actors.

These test situations are most of the time situations of conflict that generate new arenas of activities. What does that mean in connection with “culture”? It means that instead of reconstructing systems of representations, we observe joint activities of testimony, measure, inquiry, experiment, contention, critique, deliberation, negotiation, and so on – and grasp the meanings involved in these activities, being cautious not to extrapolate too quickly from the situation to general explanations.

Example: In fieldwork we are doing with two Ph.D. students on the culture of homeless service organizations in Paris, I document, on the one hand, the activities that take place in specific settings: sociological controversies, media polemics, electoral contests, court trials, legislative battles, social movements… and above all, the street-level social work. The forms of experience are obviously different on these different stages, and their backstage. On the other hand, I try to have a sense of the short-term historical processes that lead to the perception of the homeless and of their rights as a public problem, / to the emergence of new professions, techniques and moralities, / to the functioning of caring public and private organizations, and so on. The definition of the public problem of homelessness travels through these different institutional sites. So we study culture, in this case, public culture, by looking how it is distributed in activities and their contexts.

This brings us to the third and last point.

Pragmatist sociology breaks with a Durkheimian or Marxian vision of collective interests and representations. To conceive what “collective entities” are, we can draw insights from three branches of pragmatist sociology. Let me mention them briefly.

Science studies. “Collective entities” bring together people and things, ideas and machines, buildings and brains, categories, emotions, money and laws. Science studies taught us that what we commonly call culture is embodied in objects, artifacts and devices. Latour (1996) introduced the concept of “inter-objectivity” in the midst of analysis, as a strategy to go beyond an inter-subjective, dialogic or communicative conception of culture – what he did in the exhibition “Dingpolitik” (Latour and Weibel, 2005) – or what Callon develops in his current studies on market devices (Callon et al., 2007). This is a very important point, on which cultural sociology in the US did not insist enough (but see Mukerji): the importance of built environments in the making of collective entities, which brings Latour (2006) and Callon’s actor-network theory to reject the notion of culture – as does Descola’s deconstruction of the nature/culture opposition in anthropology (2005).

Economy of conventions. But if one decides not to revoke cultural analysis, the collectives are built, perceived, reflected, enacted through performances, accounts, categories, arguments and narratives that make them “collective”. “Culture” is no longer a stock of taken for granted shared representations and beliefs that make possible the coordination. Coordination is a practical problem to solve (Eymard-Duvernay, 2002; Id. et al., 2003). The actors are involved in an ongoing process of coordination - sometimes through tacit adjustments, sometimes through explicit agreements (see Affichard & Lyon-Caen, 2004) - in order to act together and coordinate themselves. This non standard economy questions the rational action theory and its individualistic and utilitarian assumptions (Orléan, 2004). But it does not endorse a conception of “culture” as pre-given to the actors. If there is something like “culture”, it corresponds to the (more or less shared) “perceptions”, “definitions” and “valuations” of the situations that come out of this process of coordination.

Sociology of justification. Last, and that will be my last remark, the fact that “collective entities” are in the making does not mean that the agents re-invent meaning, each time, on the spot and from the scratch. Boltanski and Thévenot’s On Justification ([1991] 2006) recently translated into English, was an attempt to describe how actors follow grammatical rules and see through typical formats of experience and action. For sure, the actors – be they, depending on the context, parents, neighbors, consumers, workers, citizens, and so on… - are able to invent new schemes of understanding and acting, together and reflectively, depending on the conditions they meet. But their activities have to respect “orders of worth”, to which are linked rules of the game, repertoires of arguments, vocabularies of motives and panoplies of issues. (Thévenot, 2006 and 2007).

I would have enjoyed telling more about the re-discovery of American pragmatism, Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey, their importance in the development of new conceptions of the public sphere: public arenas (Cefaï, 2002, Cefaï & Pasquier, 2003; or Dodier, 2004), hybrid fora (Callon & Rabeharisoa, 1999; Callon et al., [2001] 2009), Parliaments of things (Latour, 2004), or their link with new ways to map controversies (around Latour / Callon or around Quéré / Widmer) or catch the genesis of public problems (Chateauraynaud & Torny, 1999; Trom & Zimmermann, 2001)… And I feel sorry not to be more accurate, concerning the great diversity of modes of inquiry, description and analysis that hide behind the pragmatist, pragmatic or praxeological labels. I hope, at least, that I convinced you of the many analogies – and many differences – one can find between French pragmatist sociologies and US cultural sociologies.


Affichard, Joëlle & Antoine Lyon-Caen (2004) “From Legal Norms to Statistical Norms: Employment Policies Put to the Test of Coordination”, in S. Deakin, O. de Schutter (eds) Social Rights and Market Forces: Is the Open Method of Coordination of Employment and Social Policies the Future of Social Europe?. Brussels: Bruylant

Boltanski, Luc & Laurent Thévenot (eds)(1989). Justesse et justice dans le travail (Cahiers Du Centre d'études de l'emploi 33). Paris: PUF

Boltanski, Luc (1999). Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Boltanski, Luc, & Laurent Thévenot (2000) “The Reality of Moral Expectations: A Sociology of Situated Judgment”, Philosophical Explorations, III(3): 208–231.

Boltanski, Luc, & Laurent Thévenot (2006 [1991]). On Justification: The Economies of Worth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre ([1973] 1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre ([1981] 1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Callon, Michel & Vololona Rabeharisoa (1999). Le pouvoir des malades: L’Association française contre la myopathie et la recherche. Paris: Editions de l’Ecole des Mines

Callon, Michel (1986) “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay”, in J. Law (ed.) Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, p. 196–229. Keele: Keele Sociological Review Monograph.

Callon, Michel, Millo, Yuval & Fabian Muniesa (eds)(2007). Market Devices. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Pub./The Sociological Review

Callon, Michel, Lascoumes, Pierre & Yannick Barthe (forthcoming 2009). Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press

Cefaï, Daniel & Dominique Pasquier (eds) (2003). Les Sens du public: Publics politiques, publics médiatiques. Paris: PUF

Cefaï, Daniel & Isaac Joseph (eds) (2002). L’Héritage du pragmatisme: Conflits d’urbanité et épreuves de civisme. La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube.

Certeau, Michel de ([1980] 1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chateauraynaud, Francis & Didier Torny (1999). Les sombres précurseurs: Une sociologie pragmatique de l’alerte et du risque, Paris: Editions de l’EHESS

Dayan, Daniel (2001). “The Peculiar Public of Television”. Media, Culture & Society. 23, p. 743-776.

De Fornel, Michel & Louis Quéré (eds)(1999). La logique des situations: Nouveaux regards sur l'écologie des activités sociales (Raisons pratiques 10). Paris: Editions de l’EHESS

Descola, Philippe (2005). Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard

Desrosières, Alain ([1993] 1998) The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, Eng. trans. Camille Naish. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Dodier, Nicolas (1993). “Action as a Combination of Common Worlds”, The Sociological Review. 4, 3, p. 556-571

Dodier, Nicolas (2003). Leçons politiques de l'épidémie de sida. Paris: Editions de l’EHESS

Eymard-Duvernay, François (2002) “Conventionalist Approaches to Enterprise”, in O. Favereau, E. Lazega (eds) Conventions and Structures in Economic Organization: Markets, Networks and Hierarchies. Pp. 60–78. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Eymard-Duvernay, François, Favereau, Olivier, Orléan, André, Salais, Robert & Laurent Thévenot, “Values, Coordination, and Rationality: The Economy of Conventions or the Time of Reunification in the Economic, Social, and Political Sciences”, Conférence “Conventions et Institutions” (manuscript 2003)

Fradin, Bernard, Quéré, Louis & Jean Widmer (eds)(1995). L'enquête sur les catégories: De Durkheim à Sacks (Raisons pratiques 5). Paris: Editions de l’EHESS

Grafmeyer, Yves & Isaac Joseph (1979). L’École de Chicago: Naissance de l’écologie urbaine. Grenoble: Champ urbain

Joseph, Isaac (2007). L’Athlète moral et l’enquêteur modeste. Paris: Economica

Lamont, Michèle, & Laurent Thévenot (eds)(2000). Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology: Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, Bruno & Peter Weibel (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press ; [Karlsruhe, Germany]: ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe

Latour, Bruno (1996) “On Inter-Objectivity”, Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal.

Latour, Bruno (2004). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Latour, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Le Goff J., Nora P. (eds) (1974). Faire de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Lepetit, Bernard (1995). Les formes de l’expérience. Paris: Albin Michel

Orléan, André (ed.)(2004). Analyse économique des conventions. Paris: PUF

Pharo, Patrick & Louis Quéré (eds)(1990). Les formes de l’action (Raisons pratiques 1). Paris: Editions de l’EHESS

Quéré, Louis, Ladrière, Paul & Patrick Pharo (eds)(1993). La théorie de l'action: Le sujet pratique en débat. Paris: CNRS

Ricoeur, Paul (1977). The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Ricoeur, Paul (1984-88). Time and Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Spillman, Lyn (2008). “Message from the Chair: Thick Description in Causal Claims”. ASA Culture Section Newletter, July.

Thévenot, Laurent (2006). L’Action au pluriel: Sociologie des régimes d’engagement. Paris: La Découverte

Thévenot, Laurent (2007). “The Plurality of Cognitive Formats and Engagements: Moving Between the Familiar and the Public”. European Journal of Social Theory. 8 (10): 409-423

Trom, Danny & Bénédicte Zimmermann (2001). “L’institution des problèmes publics: les cas du chômage et du paysage”, in D. Cefaï, D. Trom (eds), Les formes de l’action collective: Mobilisations dans des arènes publiques (Raisons pratiques 12), Pp. 281-315. Paris: Editions de l’EHESS.

Weller, Jean-Marc (1999). L’Etat au guichet. Sociologie cognitive du travail et modernisation administrative des services publics. Paris: Economica.


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