Tiny sketch of French sociology

Here in France I’m always trying to get a sense of what goes on in the social sciences. Outside the research on universities and intellectuals that I have a professional interest in, it seems that there is, unsurprisingly, a rather wide range of stuff. Here I just want to give a list of recent Ph.D. theses in sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, which is one of the most prestigious social sciences institutions here (not a university; it’s an autonomous, research-oriented school that grants the Ph.D.). Needless to say, a one-year sample of thesis topics, running in this case from September 2007-September 2008, is hardly a comprehensive look at a discipline. But there’s enough variation here to be interesting:

  • Strangers in line: construction of a social category and experience of waiting in line at administrative offices in Spain
  • The choice of the image: sociology of television producers
  • Politics and practices of care in the age of aids. Taking charge of the sick in the Free State (South Africa)
  • Editors, books and passions in Alsace and Brittany. Imaginaries, subjectivities, social creativity
  • Political mobilizations, co-governmentality and ethnic construction. Sociology of Turkish nationalism in the case of the Turks of Western Thrace (Greece, Germany, Turkey)
  • In carne veritas? Biologism as an editorial phenomenon in France, 1970-2000
  • Sociology of contemporary religious temporality. The becoming of chan buddhism in modernity
  • What is religion for the French? That which teaches us conversion
  • Industrial temp work and day workers’ movements in Chicago
  • The “Hard Cores of Padanie.” Ethnography of militant nationalism in the League of the North (Italy), 1999-2002
  • National migrations or regional migrations? Piedmont families and Sicilian families in Provence from 1945 to the present
  • Appropriating one’s work at the base of the salariat. Home aides for the elderly
  • La “débrouille”: Andean migrants in France and access to rights
  • Military and civilians. Modernization and professionalization of the Colombian Army, 1907-1958
  • Between the reparation of mutilated bodies and the correction of physical imperfections: a surgery in search of legitimacy. Sociohistorical analysis of the construction of plastic surgery in France
  • The new mode of French psychiatry. The psychiatrists, the State, and the reform of psychiatric hospitals from 1945 to the 1970s
  • The construction of the value of maisons d’architectes of the 20th century: from patrimonialization to the emergence of a market
  • The careers of spectators. Towards a sociology of forms of theatrical prescriptions
  • Oenophile discursive practices between normativity and appropriation. Contribution to a sociology of food cultures
  • Immigrant children in France and Germany: contrasting destinies. Participation in the work market, forms of dependence and modes of creating social distance
  • School segregation in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Between the polarization of the middle classes and atomized regulation
  • On psychopower. A sociology of mental manipulation in the framework of the fight against “cults” in France in the 2000s.
  • The street world of Bogota: Resourcefulness as the multitude’s way of getting by
  • Appropriation of mechanisms of local, participatory water management. Composing with a plurality of values, objectives and attachments
  • The regard and the rule. Disappointments and successes of urban civility.
  • The masters of the hour. Eschatological moments in mediterranean Islam (1847-1908)
  • From invisibility to visibility. Integration politics and identity strategies of the Gypsies of Hungary in a (post-)industrial city
  • Altermondialist creativity. Discourse, organization, direct action.
  • Power at the Margins. The Fulaabe and the Mauritian state.
  • The Kurdish cause from Turkey towards Europe. Contribution to a sociology of the transnationalization of mobilizations
  • The metamorphoses of American power at the dawn of the 21st century: the transformations of the strategic system of american intervention and their diffusion within British and allied systems through new relations between states, armed forces and private actors.
  • A study of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan in light of the theory of cognitive dissonance
  • The injunction to autonomy. The lived experience of policies of job placement [insertion]
  • Traversing the mirror. Process of subjectivation of Moroccan women
  • The social production of health in old age: Analysis of the evolution of mortality beyond the age of 60 in post-war France

One could make a map of the geographical distribution of these topics: I’ve counted, and of 34 total, ten are set in France, seven in Europe (one of which overlaps with France), three in Africa, four in the Americas, and only one in Central Asia (Pakistan), with nothing elsewhere in Asia or the Pacific. There’s also a treatment of the world system (the study on American power) and an ambitious study of “modernity” at large. After all these are accounted for, there are still eight that don’t specify their geographic focus. I think we can assume that most of these are set in France, since there’s something of a default national horizon for sociological research. At the same time, I did check out one of these unmarked titles, the one on wine culture (“oenophilia”), and it turned out to be set in Luxembourg, so we shouldn’t overgeneralize this point.

Theoretically, it seems to be a pretty diverse group of studies. There’s work on the changing social body (on old age, on social integration of immigrants, on migration); there’s work on state power and institutions, like the intriguing study of “standing in line”; there’s sociology of social movements (the Kurds, Chicago day laborers, the global Altermondialist movement, Islamic fundamentalists etc); there are diverse studies of the culture industries, ranging from TV and theatre to books and wine; there’s a certain amount of historical sociology (and yes, I’m assuming that the titles that don’t give dates are more or less set in the present); there are studies of state power and subjectivation. A few seem harder to classify: the studies of “urban civility” and “contemporary religious temporality” don’t fit into any handy category that I can think of.

If there’s a dominant theoretical school here, it’s not obvious what it is; it would seem that a considerable theoretical pluralism is at work. (I’ve often asked people about the further reception of Bourdieu’s sociology, only to hear that, while Bourdieu’s intellectual influence continues, not much directly Bourdieuian research is currently being done. It remains particularly important in my own research areas, though.) I note the conspicuous absence of several topics present in the Chicago sociology department, and I guess in American sociology more generally though I’m no expert on that. We don’t see mathematical sociology or statistical methodology (the tilt is towards ethnography and history, if anything). We don’t see social network research per se. We don’t see dissertations that are pure theory or history of sociological theory. And most interestingly, we don’t really see race as a sociological issue. Yes, there’s a project here on ethnic construction in Turkey, but it’s nothing like the preoccupation with race that marks American sociology. In good French fashion, a lot of the questions about class and social integration that might be seen as racial in the U.S. are viewed in France as questions about immigrants.

It would take a real research project to map this intellectual field. In the meantime, I can only suggest that curious American readers would do well to look at this presentation by Daniel Cefai on cultural sociology in France. He claims that there’s an ongoing pragmatist, anti-structuralist, anti-Bourdieuian turn in French sociology — which does seem to be an ongoing theoretical trend here. Ironically, though, I’m not sure that this pragmatist sociology is the best way to understand French sociology itself as a social institution: when it comes to that, I’m not sure I would be so ready to give up on Bourdieuian structural analysis myself.

(See also various interesting articles on French sociology, its relation to U.S. sociology, and its politics. Alas, I don’t have time to read this stuff now. But I am beginning to realize that a really important, interesting function for a blog like this is to present summaries of existing research literatures — for this research is so little read and so poorly known that it demands some kind of public re-presentation.)

7 thoughts on “Tiny sketch of French sociology

  1. Interesting—I do not think I can contradict your sketch on any aspect. I can only stress something you acknowledge only implicitly: French soc is very centralized. Outside of Parisian labs (ENS, more prestigious by the way, EHESS, CSE-Bourdieu…), I can identify only two or three units that produce something of critical mass in the French soc academe (LEST, applied soc of profs/orgs in Marseille; CLERSE, with some mathsoc and socnets).

  2. Thanks for your comment, pseudonymous visitor! I edited the post per your remark so that it now describes the EHESS as “one of the most important” social science institutions. I hadn’t thought much about social science at the ENS, though now that I look at their faculty, I do see some people I recognize. And the CSE (Center for European Sociology) is itself part of the EHESS, is it not? Anyway, I’m not really surprised that the research world is geographically centered in Paris. The map of doctoral enrollments that I posted the other day suggested that the vast majority of new doctorates come from the Parisian center, and it’s predictable that research and phd production would fit together quite closely.

  3. Let me just note one additional small difference from American academic custom. In the list of dissertation titles I translated above, I notice the frequent use of a period “.” to separate the two phrases in a title, whereas in American use two phrases would inevitably be separated by a colon “:”. This title for instance:

    Oenophile discursive practices between normativity and appropriation. Contribution to a sociology of food cultures

    … would certainly have a colon in an American context. This just strikes me as an intriguing minor difference in textual norms.

  4. In fact, CSE has recently merged with a Paris-1 unit to form a new CNRS research unit, which we call “UMR”. The website has the details:

    Le CSE et le CRPS ont le plaisir de vous annoncer la création du Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique de la Sorbonne (CESSP-Paris). Née de la fusion de nos deux centres, cette nouvelle unité est l’UMR 8209 de l’Université Paris-Panthéon-Sorbonne et du CNRS, avec l’EHESS comme établissement partenaire.

  5. You can learn something about uchicago sociology from the student interests and MA titles here:

    This list emphasizes some of the more prestigious alumni publications in recent years.

    Faculty research interests can be found here:

    Naturally there are limits on what we can learn from titles and keywords.

    My impression is that the faculty (and the upper echelon of the discipline generally) is somewhat more quantitative than the students, but there is still quite a bit of qualitative research going on at uchicago and in American sociology.

Comments are closed.