Q&A with Michèle Lamont, ASA President-Elect

Alexandra Kowalski (Princeton & Central European University)

Michèle Lamont was born in Toronto and raised in Québec, trained as a student in Ottawa and Paris, and as a scholar at Stanford and Princeton. She has been teaching at Harvard University since 2002, where she is currently the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies, and Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Michèle Lamont is one of the most distinguished contemporary sociologists of culture, and her recent designation as President-Elect of the American Sociological Association is a sure sign of a very special two upcoming years for the Culture Section. We asked her questions about the program she is putting together for the 2017 meeting, as well as about the connections between this program and her intellectual biography. We thank Michèle warmly for her time and generosity responding to our queries.

 

(Cambridge, MA - Sep. 19, 2006) - Michele Lamont and Peter Hall at the library in William James Hall, Harvard University. Jon Chase/Harvard University News OfficeHow does it feel to be the next president of ASA, Michèle? 

First, warm thanks to you, Alexandra, for proposing this interview. This is a great opportunity to reflect on our 2017 ASA program and on where we hope to be going.

It is an immense honor to be nominated and elected, of course. The most exciting and attractive part is certainly the opportunity to set an intellectual agenda for the discipline. Having the responsibility to choose the theme for the 2017 meeting felt like a wondrous gift. I see this as an occasion to make our discipline more aware of the questions that cultural sociologists have been asking, our analytical tools, and our research. Conversely, we can use this opportunity to make our subfield less inward-looking. I have been arguing for a while that cultural sociologists need to set their sights on influencing the social sciences as a whole, including public health, political science, demography, and criminology (some of the fields where 1960s-style views of culture remain influential, with baggage that includes pernicious arguments about the culture of poverty, culturalism, and more). As you can see if you look at the description of the thematic program, “Culture, Inequalities and Social Inclusion across the World,” the program committee drew inspiration from the literature many of us work with. The structural study of inequality has been a gigantic enterprise for the social sciences, but our understanding of cultural processes is still at a relatively early stage.  We approach the program as an occasion to foster theoretical developments along these lines. Fortunately, the ASA staff runs a welloiled machine so we can focus on the intellectual part and it is just really fun! I encourage section members to look at our list of questions for more information on what kinds of sessions we have in mind and to send in proposals (deadlines are November 13 and February 5!).  Of course, we are open to all kinds of other ideas beyond our list.  Let’s talk a bit about the call and each of its terms, especially “culture” and “inequalities”.   Of course. The practice has been for the president to connect the theme to their own research agenda. So I proposed the theme and refined it with considerable input from a diverse and creative program committee. After culture (a polymorphic term par excellence) comes “inequalities” in the plural, so it’s not only about class or income inequalities, but about all forms of inequalities. The next term, “social inclusion,” suggests that we’re looking at inequality through both the politics of distribution and the politics of stigmatization/ recognition (to borrow Nancy Fraser’s formulation). I drew inspiration from a co-authored book due out by the 2016 ASA meeting, where my collaborators and I analyze how ordinary people who belong to stigmatized groups make sense of how they go about responding to experiences of ethno-racial exclusion. (1) This book is about the politics of recognition and its impact on inequality, and on ongoing social change processes. The 2017 ASA program call challenges the discipline to think about these two dimensions of distribution and recognition together. Another idea is to elicit new or more systematic reflection on causality and social processes.
Where else do the key ideas for this program come from?

In a 2014 paper in the Socioeconomic Review titled “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and the Making of Inequality,” my coauthors Stefan Beljean, Matthew Clair and I endeavored to think about cultural aspects of phenomena such as racialization, stigmatization, commensuration, and standardization as unfolding processes that open or close paths of action and inequality. This paper is part of a broader agenda, a response to Charles Tilly’s book Durable Inequality where the monopolization of resources is central (as much as Tilly wanted to become more identity-centric). We are interested in the other side of the coin, togetherness and connectedness, which also feed into inequality. We need to broaden the agenda for a more multidimensional approach to inequality along these li nes, and my hope is that the Montreal meeting will be an opportunity to do that.
The next notion in the program title is “around the world” which invokes ideas of international, transnational or global approaches. Is it an implicit call for US sociologists to open up to the world? In relation to your work, does that also represent a global turn of sorts? Is it perhaps also a nod to the rising “global” and “transnational” foci in sociology? 

Yes, the 2017 ASA program will give a little push for American sociology to open up. We function in a huge discipline in a huge country, so it’s easy for people to not be aware of how “American” their research questions can be (and like fish in water, to not have an awareness of their distinctive habitat). ASA is not the International Sociological Association of course, but given that the 2017 meeting will take place abroad, in Montreal, it is an interesting opportunity to “decenter” a bit.

I want to add that, in my view, the transnational/global and the national cannot be thought about without one another and one does not erase the other. I am now the director of the Weatherhead Center for International Studies, one of the two largest social science centers at Harvard. My role is strictly one of intellectual leadership and it is an opportunity to help shape the social sciences on our campus. We mobilize our resources to foster international, comparative, global, and transnational research and, in most cases, graduate students and faculty anchor their work in deep knowledge of national cases.

 

What about Canada? Is there a plan to do something with Canadian sociologists? 

The Canadian Sociological Association reached out to us and asked if we’d be interested in having them take the lead on some sessions.  We are very eager for their involvement. Cultural imperialism, multiculturalism, and interculturalism, may be topics to be featured (with star philosophers like Will Kymlicka and popular writers such as Naomi Klein). More generally, cosmopolitanism, diversity, and belonging are important in the context of Quebec and Canada.  But nothing is decided yet. The program committee will meet in mid-December and in February and everyone will be contributing ideas.

I also hope the meeting will consider how sociology is covered by the media in other countries. France for instance has stellar journalists such as Sylvain Bourmeau, the host of an amazing radio program on France Culture that covers sociology in a very sophisticated way. The question of how to bring sociology to American audiences, how to make it more central to our civic sphere (which is so dominated by economics and cognitive psychology) should be crucial to us. More generally, we need to think about the shape and place of sociology across national contexts and how we can contribute to social change.

 

Going back to the question of inequality and its place in your work: how would you say your approach changed over the years, if at all? I am thinking in particular about the most recent and upcoming volumes, Getting Respect and Worlds of Worth

With each book I have moved to a new intellectual terrain. That’s the only way I know how to remain engaged. But yes, the relationship between culture and inequality has remained the red thread or fil conducteur, with a focus on symbolic distinctions and the construction of worth.

If you think of my books, Money, Morals, Manners, or The Dignity of Working Men, or How Professors Think—they are all books about morality, scripts of excellence, evaluation, group hierarchies, and how boundaries operate. Money, Morals and Manners (1992) and The Dignity of Working Men (2000), my first two books, set an agenda for the comparative study of racial and class differences and cultural repertoires (see also the collective book I coedited with Laurent Thévenot, Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology (2000)). Since How Professors Think (2009) I have focused on a range of other issues having to do with evaluation, neoliberalism, and destigmatization.  I studied with Bourdieu in Paris in the late seventies and early eighties; so it was relatively easy for me to develop a critical agenda when his work gained visibility here in the eighties, in part because I understood its blind spots and was in close conversation with those interested in developing a post-Bourdieusian agenda in the French context (Boltanski and Thévenot, and some of the French pragmatists who are only now gaining some attention in the US, but also Latour and others).

Recent books such as Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era (2013) and Successful Societies (2009), which came out of the interdisciplinary program I have codirected with Peter A. Hall for thirteen stimulating years, are different because they are deeply interdisciplinary and concerned with how collective capacities are fostered by cultural and institutional dynamics. After Getting Respect (on which we are now putting the very last touches), I am working on a book for a broader audience, Worlds of Worth, which is based on the Adorno lectures I gave in Frankfurt in June 2014 and at the College de France in May 2015. Piketty has given economic inequality center stage and heightened popular awareness of this massive problem. Is it possible to also tell a story about the cultural mechanisms that contribute to growing inequality, a story that can be appealing to a larger public (and that is certainly different from the story economists tell)? I want to revisit questions that were central to my first two comparative books. In a way I still think of myself as an immigrant, as I tend to look at US society as an outsider (I never thought I’d end up in the United States until I landed here at 25!).

 

Can you tell us a bit about the other end of the arc — your formative years as a junior culture sociologist and faculty member at Princeton?

When I was recruited as an assistant professor at Princeton in 1987, the place was not the rich collection of culture scholars that it became in the 1990s. Bob Wuthnow was there and, shortly after, Paul DiMaggio and Viviana Zelizer were recruited. My growth as a sociologist, before I got tenure in 1993, was determined by that: Those were the major scholars for whom I was writing in my head — though there were a few others such as Ann Swidler, Bill Sewell, and Wendy Griswold — and I saw the bar as very high.  With the distance, I have become more aware of how much my interests were in conversation with each of their research agendas.  We are still editing together the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series at Princeton University Press, which will soon celebrate its twentieth anniversary. It’s been a lot of fun and very rewarding: When we meet we can see how much we still share intellectually. Since leaving for Harvard in 2002, the cultural sociology dimension of my work has remained salient (the Culture and Social Analysis workshop has been going strong since 2004 and attracts 20 to 30 members at its bi-weekly meetings) while the comparative inequality dimension has gained in prominence, given Harvard’s amazing strengths in both the study of inequality and in international/comparative research. I have been extremely fortunate to have a string of amazing partners/coauthors/graduate students along the way who now have leading reputations in our subfield, ranging from Abigail Saguy and Virág Molnár at Princeton to Christopher Bail and and Lauren Rivera at Harvard. Of course, the list is much longer and I’d love to name everyone here, but I can’t.

 

Let’s talk about women since we are talking about inequality. Why aren’t women more present in your work? 

When I started Money, Morals and Manners, the idea was to study gatekeepers, the uppermiddle class, in the spirit of Kanter’s Men and Women and the Corporation. That group is mostly composed of men and that’s why I started with them. With The Dignity of Working Men, I wanted to study the working class and ethnoracial boundaries, and stayed with men to facilitate the comparison.  While my original plan was to produce a parallel book about women, I ran out of steam and turned my interest to higher education and the sociology of knowledge (my first love, since the publication of my first important piece in English, “How to Become a Dominant Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida” (AJS 1987). However, I’m very much a feminist in my life. I’ve worked closely with a lot of women graduate students and collaborators over the years. I was senior advisor on faculty development and diversity at Harvard for two years. I was helping the Dean of the Faculty of Art and Science to think about how to diversify faculty and support tenure-track professors (a gendered topic if there is one). In that context I read tons on mentoring, so I am very much attuned to these issues. It may be that the research designs of my books didn’t let me make women as central as they should have been. But in my personal and scholarly life, I feel very connected as I find my friendships with women to often be enormously sustaining and reciprocal.

 

Will gender be a focus during your presidential term? 

Yes. The program committee includes several sexuality and gender experts so I have no doubt it will be featured. I am thinking in particular of Kristin Shilt, Kathleen Gerson, and Mary Romero. Shilt is recently tenured and very much in touch with the most recent trends in the study of gender and sexuality.  I, personally, am a fan of the concept of gender pleasure, an essential complement to our traditional focus on exclusion and opportunity. I am as interested in boundary bridging as I am in boundary work. I believe that cross-pollination between areas central to the study of inequalities is crucial and generative.

 

What about the future of the field? How do you see it?  

Cultural sociology has a lot to bring and I am generally very optimistic. The field has stayed clear of some of the internal scandals that are tarnishing related subfields. I think it’s important that people keep writing big books and work on papers of intellectual significance. As long as we do that, I think we’ll be in good shape. The real battle is on the side of public discourse — in particular, with economists. This is partly why I am collaborating with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as they are launching their new culture of health initiative. We are coediting an issue of Social Science and Medicine and a number of cultural sociologists, communications, and social movements scholars are involved. Working with Mabel Berezin, we have made the foundation aware of the existence of a cultural sociology literature, which they find very useful in developing their new program. This follows directly from the Successful Societies program. Of course one does not frame one’s work the same way when speaking to sociologists of culture or to epidemiologists. But the point again is that we have to get out of the entre nous if we want to have an impact on how questions are framed in the social sciences as a whole.

The direction I personally will follow is in line with the Socioeconomic Review article, “What is Missing?” where we invite colleagues to focus on all the processes we study (including exploitation, segregation, domination, and racialization) in cultural and social terms. I have come to think this is the core of what sociology is about. It’s not a traditional topic of cultural sociology, necessarily, but to the extent that meaning-making is at the center of developing theorization of inequality, it has the potential to be really significant. Of course, there are many other important and generative trends, which I love to cover when I teach graduate seminars, as I will this spring. As you know, I am all for “let one hundred thousand flowers bloom” and for methodological pluralism. This is how cultural sociology will remain influential and it is more fun than single-mindedly pushing one agenda. People vote with their feet, i.e. by what they read and engage with. I feel that I have been truly fortunate in this respect and all I can hope is that others will want to continue to engage with my work moving forward.

 

As you say there’s tons of fascinating work out there — as reflected in our section — and many new directions and topics are emerging — value, matter, nature. Yet one wonders sometimes — when one thinks about the big texts and debates of the 1980s and 1990s on culture, structure, agency, etc. — if the big battles are not behind us. Are there still major stakes in the culture agenda today? 

I don’t know what the battles ahead might be and I would rather not predict our future developments (this would require an hour at least). But I can say that during the last thirty years or so, as I have been maturing as a scholar, I have seen the field of cultural sociology grow into this large, diverse, and inclusive tent.  Many people became involved in the section, in part, because there was a sort of implicit agreement for everyone to do quality work without engaging in unnecessary territorial fights. The networks, which I expanded when I chaired the section, also provided space for younger scholars to create their own worlds. The section quickly grew from a few hundred members to become the largest section of theASA. Prior to the foundation of the section in 1986, culture had been marginalized as a small field. I believe we had a feeling that we were institutionalizing something that could redefine US sociology from the inside too. This has happened, to the extent that all of the top departments had hired sociologists of culture by the late 1990s. It was a huge change and, frankly, in my view a huge success. Electronic forums for gaining network centrality were not available. At the risk of seeming like a nostalgic old-timer (but note that I am an enthusiastic if irregular twitter user!), I’d hypothesize that peer review was more central to reputation building back then, and I do believe in the value of peer review for quality control. In fact, it is a sacred value to me, as anyone who reads How Professor Think will quickly understand. I view it as the keystone on which our professional autonomy rests.

Relatedly, I want to warn us about the gendered dimension of ongoing changes in our subfield: Let’s not be blind to that.  We know that men are likely to use one another as points of reference and interlocutors on blogs, Twitter and other media, as many have noted. We have seen some of this on the main sociology blogs, and my friend Julia Adams has been conducting an ingenious study of gendered editing on Wikipedia and elsewhere: her and her RAs are finding a lot of “mansplaining” and guys who love to edit women’s postings. Of course, cultural sociology has always had a strong share of women stars, which is one reason why I found the field inspiring when I moved to the US in 1983.  But I worry that the wind is changing, especially when one considers the premium increasingly attached to technical and quantitative skills, which we know men are developing more than women. We have to be reflexive and vigilant and call out how the Matthew Effects repeatedly operate illegitimately in gendered ways. For my money, Herbert Blumer’s classical writings on “sense of group positioning” remain unsurpassed as a tool to help us understand what happens when women move beyond what some believe is their legitimate (lower) station in the academic world..   Would you conclude with a word of advice for junior cultural sociologists?   I would encourage them to stay focused on writing important books and substantial papers, develop an ambitious intellectual agenda and stay focused to carry it through. You will gain a lot of satisfaction from this creative (if, at times, painful) endeavor and it will keep you going for the long-term, over what may be a forty- or fifty-year career of intellectual stimulation (many academics stop writing after tenure). Think about what is meaningful to you, intellectually and personally. There is no faking it in this business. Keep it real!

*****

 

(1) Lamont, Michele, Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog and Elisa Reis, forthcoming. Getting Respect: Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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