The Sociology of Art and Culture in Contemporary Québec: an Historical Overview

by Marcel Fournier, Full Professor, Université de Montréal[1]

Marcel F-2-IEA-Paris-2013

Sociology is at once a witness, a critic, and an actor of/in society. In Québec perhaps more than anywhere else the relationship between the sociology of art and culture on the one hand and Québecois society on the other has been a complex one–too complex to permit more than a superficial overview here. Concerns with art and culture have been central in the history of a minority that was always economically dominated, looked down upon, “born for a bread roll”, dispersed across a vast territory, under-schooled for a long time, and whose language, French, has seemed perpetually threatened with assimilation or marginalization. Language, cultural heritage and the arts have been a crucial part of Québec’s imagined identity.

Let us consider different periods of Québec’s contemporary history, each with its own political challenges and institutions, each with its distinct research priorities and key publications.


  1. From the end of the 19th century to World War II (the Confederation [1867] gives Canada the status of a nation-state, and Québec the status of a province with autonomy in educational matters).

The role of cultural policies was to conserve an admired but divided collective heritage through new museums and national parks. Anthropologists and sociologists focus on two communities, unintentionally contributing to their “folklorisation”: First Nations Aborigines, and French Canadians. Pioneers of this anthropology of Canada were two French Canadians, Léon Gérin and Marius Barbeau. Gérin, a student of disciples of French sociologist F. Le Play, produced monographs of rural French Canadian families. Barbeau, a former student of Marrett’s at Oxford, was a member of the new National Museum of Canada (Ottawa) and studied potlatch on Canada’s West Coast, later turning to the folklore (legends, songs) of Québecois farmers.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a conservative nationalist movement formed in Québec. Its leader was an abbey, Lionel Groulx, its journal was L’Action nationale. The Government of Québec adopted nationalist policies, including the motto Je me souviens, the Fleur-de-Lys flag, and a museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Québec.

These two decades saw the founding of new academic institutions: in 1920 the Department of social, economic and political sciences at the University of Montréal (with Édouard Montpetit, a law professor, as its first Dean in 1926) and the Sociology Department at McGill University, where W. Dawson and Everett C. Hughes taught; and in 1936 the École des sciences sociales of University Laval in Québec (father G.-H. Lévesque, o.p., as its first Dean).

Two American students from the University of Chicago, fascinated by the “archaic” French Canadian community, conducted ethnographic studies of these communities. Horace Miner (1936) observed the life of rural Saint-Denis. Everett C. Hughes (1943) focused on the semi-urban community of Cantonville (Drummondville), studying the “encounter between two worlds”, the modernization process, and the transition from “agrarian” to “urban” society.


  1. From the post-war era through the 1960s

The federal government pursued more active social (Keynesian) and cultural policies, resulting in particular in public funding for the arts and culture (Arts Council of Canada) and a national broadcasting company (Radio Canada). A strong critique of “traditional” Québec appeared in Québec through the work of Marcel Rioux and Pierre-Eliott Trudeau. Rioux, Barbeau’s son in law and a researcher at the National Museum, studied what appeared to be the end of traditional French Canadian society. In his Description de la culture de l’Île Verte he explored “the culture of Québec as an ethnic entity”, stressing from the onset the “archaic nature, the insularity and the structural simplicity of this community of fishermen.”  He focused on techniques (agriculture, fishing, building), customs (kinship, language, leisure), food (coarse but healthy), domestic decor (religious engravings, calendar) and (rather conventional) clothing. Among appendixes features a text on board games; a list and the texts of songs; and the results of a Rorschach test of respondents’ answers allegedly demonstrating introversion, emotional dependence, and other signs of “infantility” (Rioux, 1954). The tradition of Québec monographs and community studies persisted for decades (see e.g. Colette Moreux’ (1982) beautiful study, Douceville en Québec).

The 1960s in Québec were the years of the Quiet Revolution, during which neo-nationalist ideology developed, with “Maître chez nous” (Masters in our own house) as a motto and plans to modernize the (provincial) state, democratize education and culture, and support the cultural industries (TV, cinema, music). Québec was no longer defined as an ethnic community but as a “global society”, a notion developed by the sociologist Fernand Dumont, sociology professor at Laval University. A global society is a society that produces means for its own integration. For sociology this meant more departments and more students and professors, new journals, and new publications.

In 1964, the journal Recherches sociographiques published a special issue on French-Canadian literature and society. It featured an article by Jean-Charles Falardeau, one of Hughes’ former students and the first Chair of the Sociology Department at Laval University, on “Les milieux sociaux dans le roman canadien-français contemporain” (“Social class in contemporary French-Canadian novels”–ndlr), and a theoretical essay by Dumont. A few years later, Falardeau converted his paper into a major book, Notre Roman et sa société (“Our Fiction and its Society”) and Dumont’s theoretical piece became a brilliant essay entitled Le lieu de l’homme. La Culture comme distance et mémoire. (“The Place of the Human. Culture as distance and as memory”)

Two sociologists were particularly involved in the democratization of education and culture: Guy Rocher and Marcel Rioux, both professors at Université de Montréal. As a member of the Commission Royale d’enquête sur l’enseignement dans la province de Québec (known as Rapport Parent, 1963-1964, 4 Vol.) Rocher proposed important reforms: the creation of a Ministry of Education, of Cegeps (general and vocational colleges), and universal access to the university. With Rioux as president, the Commission on the Teaching of Art in Quebec (1967-1968) proposed to convert the humanities-based definition of culture into an open one, giving to art a critical and innovative function. For Rioux, who endorsed a critical, Frankfurt-style position inspired by Marcuse, artistic creativity was the source of all creativity. Therefore, he felt, the real objective of cultural policies should not only be to democratize access to culture, but also to build a cultural democracy. As a public intellectual, Rioux denounced the cultural industries and warned against the Americanization of Québecois culture. He edited two special issues of the review Sociologie et Sociétés, one titled « Critique sociale et création culturelle » (“Social critique and cultural création,” 1979); the other « Sociologie critique et création artistique » (“Critical sociology and artistic creation,” 1985).

During the 1970s, French sociologists influential in the field of arts and culture taught at the University of Montréal: Lucien Goldmann, Joffre Dumazedier, and Edgar Morin. A former student of Goldmann’s and a professor and Chair of the Department of sociology, Pierre Brûlé, published one of the first sociological analysis of the Quebec cinéma: Pierre Perrault ou: Un cinéma national (1974). Also inspired by Goldmann’s perspective, Gilbert Tarrab, a professor in social work interested in new artistic forms (happenings) and in the new relationship between artists and their publics wrote “Essai de sociologie du théâtre: La Cantatrice chauve et Les Chaises de Ionesco” (“Essay in the Sociology of Theater: Ionesco’s Bold Soprano and The Chairs,” 1967) and a sociological essay, “Théâtre du nouveau langage” (“Theater of the new language,” 1974).


  1. In 1976, the Québecois Party came to power under the lead of René Lévesque. Language, education and culture became political priorities.

The Charte de la langue française (“Charter on French Language” or Law 101) made French the official langage of Québec. A large Ministry for Cultural Development was created with a new policy, La politique québécoise du développement culturel (1978), involving regular surveys about Québecois’ cultural practices. The Québecois Institute for Research on Culture and its journal Questions de Culture launched a vast research program on popular culture, identities, cultural industries, cultural policy, urban and rural cultures, literature, visual arts, artistic professions, regional histories, etc. Fernand Dumont was the founder and first president of the Institute.

A former student of Marcel Rioux’ (M.Sc., University of Montréal) and of Pierre Bourdieu’s (Ph.D. in sociology, École Pratique des Hautes Études-Sorbonne), I was personally involved in the movement as an associate reseacher at IQRC, starting in 1982 with a research project on art education and artistic milieu. (Fournier, with Bernier and Perrault, 1986 ; Fournier 1986a) I published L’entrée dans la Modernité, a book on art, science and culture in Québec (1986b) with a chapter on the painter Paul-Émile Borduas, leader of the Automatist mouvement in art with its manifesto Refus global (1948).

As a professor in the department of sociology I trained a new generation of sociologists of art and culture, introducing several of them to the work of Pierre Bourdieu: Guy Bellavance, Jane Marontate, Veronique Rodriguez, Anne Robineau, Anne Julien, Mirian Misdrahi, San Antonat. Bourdieu visited Québec twice and published two articles in Sociologie et Société, one on the scientific field, and one on Marcel Mauss.

During the 1980s, the sociology of art became an important subfield within sociology, an interdisciplinary one with links to history of art and literature especially. A former student of French sociologist Raymonde Moulin, Francine Couture, wrote her PhD dissertation on the market of chromolithographs (Le marché des chromos à Montréal et dans la région métropolitaine, 1981) and began researching the contemprary history of the arts in Québec (Les arts visuels au Québec dans les années 1960 [Couture 1993, 1997]). In 1983, sociologists André Belleau, Manon Brunet and Greg Neilsen edited a special issue of the journal Études littéraires on the theme “the sociology of literature”.

At a theoretical level, Pierre Bourdieu’s influence remained strong throughout the period, not only in sociology but also in art history and literature (see, for example, accounts by Marie-Andrée Beaudet [1991] and  Saint-Jacques and Viala [1994]). Also notable is the impact of the Marxist perspective which has generally been central in sociology departments, especially at the Université du Québec at Montréal (UQAM) where it inspired a large body of research on the cultural industries (Lacroix, 1986; Tremblay, 1990).


  1. Since the mid-1980s, the culture field has been changing.

The Party Québecois lost its first referendum in 1981. The more conservative Liberal Party of Quebec came back to power, moving away from the project of political independance and defending instead a kind of cultural sovereignty within the Canadian confederation. The PQ won elections again later on but lost a second referendum in 1995.

As exemplified by the success of Cirque du Soleil, culture and the arts in Québec have become more intensively commodified, even as they sometimes remain unique and creative. The arts are now taught and researched in marketing departments and schools of management. The select business school HEC, for example, recently created an Arts Management Chair, currently held by François Colbert, author of The Marketing of Art and Culture (2000).

As elsewhere, public museums are becoming quasi-corporate entities. Public-private partnerships embed corporations and the state ever more closely together in cultural production. Information technologies and online platforms have created a new reality and a new concept : “digital culture,” or culture numérique. This has brought together culture and communication in academic departments and research programs. At UQAM, Jean-Francois Côté studies the metropolis as a cultural, postmodern product; at the University of Montréal, Claude Martin and Line Grenier study new cultural practices and the music industry; at McGill University, Will Straw explores the new social forms and types of sociability in cities. A professor at UQAM and editor of the journal Sociétés, Michel Freitag introduced a postmodern perspective and published extensively on “the paradoxical condition of art in postmodern society.” (see e.g. Freitag 1996) Meanwhile, the influence of Marxism has declined, especially in English-language and comparative literature departments, and left in its place an interdisciplinary field of “cultural studies” as illustrated at the University of Concordia by the work of John Jackson on radio broadcasting, or of Greg Nielsen, a specialist of Bakthine.

During the 1990s, two events at the institutional level deserve mentioning: 1) the integration of IQRC into INRS (National Institute of Scientifique Research) in 1994, and the creation of L/ASS/T around Guy Bellavance (1991, 2000); and 2) the creation of the Observatory of Culture and Communication in 2000 as part of the Institute of Statistiques of Québec—a gouvernmental research center that brings together a core research group focusing on statistical and demographic issues. I am myself associated with both institutions.

Meanwhile the IQRC keeps focusing on regional cultures, both from a history and a cultural sociology perspective. (Harvey and Fortin, 1995; Fortin, 2000) The Institute published a large and ambitious collective book: Traité de la Culture (Lemieux, 2002). Unfortunately, this essay can’t exhaustively list current works. I will only mention, since I know them well, that an increasing number of partnerships between universities and cultural institutions, especially museums, result in valuable publications and catalogues related to exhibitions. I have personally collaborated on several of them, including with the Museum of Civilization in Québec City, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montréal, and the Canadian Center for Architecture.



Québecois sociologists have produced a large body of empirical research and published numerous books on Québecois identity, an identity that they have shown to be both local and global, with influence from Europe and the US. But research in Québec has also dealt with all major aspects of the sociology of art and culture, especially:  1) professions and careers of artists, writers, and other professionals (Bellavance); professional organizations and the work place (Rodriguez); 2) cultural and artistic institutions, for example publishing (Michon); 3) the democratization and the publics of art and culture  (Baillargeon, Ollivier); 4) the market and the cultural industries (Couture, Lacroix, Tremblay); and 5) cultural policy in the diverse fields of literature, cinema, theater, arts, danse, music (Saint-Pierre, Misdrahi, Laberge, Poirier).

Cultural scholarship in Québec has been consistent, regular, and incredibly rich. It has been fed through solid literacy in work produced abroad, open to the big contemporary theoretical debates, and informed by critical perspectives. There is no better place to discuss these questions than Montréal, the large, Francophone, cultural metropolis, with its “hundred bell towers” of churches, synagogues, and mosques, its numerous cultural and ethnic communities, its new entertainment district, and its many festivals. This summer in particular several festivals and excellent exhibitions will be held, which I especially recommend to visiting fellow sociologists: “Révolution” (on the 1960s); commemorations of Expo 67 at Museum of Fine Arts and at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Olafur Eliason at the Museum of Contemporary Art ; as well as “Besides History” and “Educating Architects” at the Centre Canadien d’architecture.





Beaudet, Anne-Marie.  1991. Langue et littérature au Québec. Québec, Presses de l’Université Laval.

Bélanger, Annouk,and Jean-François Côté (Eds). 2005. Le spectacle des villes. Special issue of Sociologie et Sociétés (Vol. 37.1.)

Bélanger, Annouk, Greg Neilsen and W. Straw (Eds). 2009. « Dialogues théoriques sur la culture »  de Cahiers de recherche sociologique.

Brulé, Michel. 1974. Pierre Perrault et le cinéma national. Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 152 p.

Couture, Francine. 1993. Les Arts visuels au Québec (Vol. 1. La reconnaissance de la modernité.) Montréal, VLB éditeur.

Couture, Francine.1997. Les Arts visuels au Québec (Vol. 2. L’éclatement du modernisme). Montréal, VLB éditeur.

Dumont, Fernand. 1968. Le lieu de l’homme. Montréal, Éditions HMH.

Fortin, Andrée. 2000. Nouveaux territoires de l’art. Régions, réseaux, place publique. Québec, Nota Bene.

Fournier, Marcel (Ed). 1985, La pratique de l’art – L. Bernier et I. Perreault, L’Art ou le courage d’en vivre. Postface de M. Fournier “Le discours d’artiste”, Québec, I.Q.R.C., 518p.

Fournier, Marcel, 1986, a. Les générations d’artistes, I.Q.R.C., Québec, 202 p.

Fournier, Marcel, 1986 b,  L’entrée dans la Modernité, Science, Culture et Société au Québec, Albert Saint-Martin, Montréal, 239 p.

Fournier         , Marcel, 1990, “La construction de l’édifice de l’Université de Montréal sur la Montagne”, in E. Cormier et l’Université de Montréal. Montréal, Centre canadien de l’architecture, pp. 43-63.

Fournier, Marcel et Michèle Lamont (Eds). 1989       . La culture comme capital. Montréal, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, 220 p.

Fournier, Marcel et Michèle Lamont (Eds). 1992. Cultivating Differences, Symbolic Boundaries and the making of Inequalities. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 346 p.

Freitag, Michel, 1996. « La condition paradoxale de l’art dans la société postmoderne », Société, n° 15-16, p. 59-156

Harvey, Fernand and  Andrée  Fortin (Eds). 1995. La nouvelle culture régionale. Québec, Institut Québécois de Recherche sur la Culture.

Lacroix, J-G.  1986. “Pour une théorie des industries culturelles” Cahiers de recherche sociologique, 4:2, p. 5-18.

Gaétan Tremblay, Gaétan (Ed). 1990. Les industries de la culture et des communications au Québec et au Canada. Montréal, Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Lemieux, Denise. 2000. Traité de la Culture. Québec, IQRC.

Saint-Jacques, Denis and Alain Viala.1994. “À propos du champ littéraire”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences sociales. 

Moreux, Colette. 1982. Douceville en Québec. Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

Rioux, Marcel. 1954. Description de la culture de l’Île Verte. Ottawa, Musée National du Canada.

Tarrab, Gilbert. 1967. « Essai de sociologie de la littérature: les chaises de Inonesco », L’Homme et la Société, vol.6, no1, p. 161-170.

Tarrab, Gilbert. 1973. Le théâtre du nouveau langage, essai sur le drame de la parole,  Montréal and Paris, Le Cercle du livre de France.

[1] Essay published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue (29:1-2) of Section Culture, newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. A version of this essay was previously presented as a keynote lecture in French to the international conference Champ, monde, sphère & réseau, Montréal, 2015.