Religion at Paris-8, Part 2

I see that Mike has already inquired as to the methodology of the report on student religion that I began posting yesterday. Most of his methodological queries are settled by the below section, which was actually the introduction in the original French version, but which I’m posting second because I wanted to start with some of the substantive conclusions.

This report looks into the ways that undergraduates [étudiants de 1er cycle] at Paris-8 relate to religion, and into their opinions and practices about their customs and politics. It is based on a questionnaire and interview study conducted in 2004-5 with a group of undergraduate sociology students at Paris-8 (Vincennes-Saint Denis). The project looks at these students’ undergraduate classmates who were present in class across a selected sample of some ten disciplines. It was initially planned as a form of research training through research practice.

The framework of inquiry

Paris-8 has the greatest fraction of foreign students of any French university. In 2003-4, grouping all levels together, they formed 34.7% of enrollments. At the same time, as a result of its location in Seine Saint-Denis [a working-class suburb just north of Paris], this establishment has a high percentage of immigrants’ children. The high proportion of migrants, and of children of migrants, thus makes the establishment a privileged observatory of the processes of religious, moral and political acculturation.


1,280 students responded to the questionnaire and around thirty interviews were conducted. 65% of respondents were first years, and 67.6% were women, the percentage of women ranging from 85.6% in psychology to 19.4% in computer science [informatique]. 80% of the students were French, 10% came from the countries of North and Central Africa [des pays du Maghreb et d’Afrique noire], 5.6% from Europe, 2.9% from Asia and 2.1% from America or elsewhere. The majority of foreign students at Paris-8, therefore, come from the countries of North and Central Africa, which are largely Islamic.

The proportion of foreigners varies by discipline. It’s highest in French literature (57.9%) and computer science (45.8%), and lowest in history (7.8%), plastic arts (9.9%) and cinema (10.2%). The particular nationalities also vary by discipline: the Europeans are most present in French literature and communication, the North Africans [maghrébins] in computer science and economics, the Central Africans in economics, and the Asians in French literature and computer science. This distribution also generally corresponds with the observable tendencies on the national scale.

We must also add that the notion of a foreign student, beneath its apparent bureaucratic simplicity (being a foreigner means having a foreign nationality), is a complex and ambiguous one. For some have lived for a very long time in France, or were even born here, while others are in positions of mobility; and this varies greatly according to nationality. 37% of North African students have a father who lives in France, against 20.8% for European students and 12.5% for those from Central Africa. These students’ family roots, and hence also their social, economic and cultural roots, thus differ strongly.

To the question about methodology, this was a survey administered in class across the disciplines. I don’t know the exact criteria for which disciplines were chosen. I do know that, in 2005, there were some 10,049 students enrolled in the first two years of the undergrad program (formerly called the DEUG), so it would seem that this survey reached more than 10% of its target population. (I might point out that Soulié, in the first paragraph above, is tacitly emphasizing that this is a survey of the fraction of the student body that actually comes to class. It doesn’t claim to represent the large absentee population.) I’d imagine that most of the students who got a survey would have filled it out, since it was administered collectively in a classroom setting.

On a more substantive level, the interesting thing here is that, again, foreign students from relatively poorer regions of the world (mainly North and Central Africa in this case) seem to tend towards more professionally, vocationally oriented fields. The case of French Literature, however, seems to be an interesting one in terms of this question of professional motivation, since it’s almost 60% foreign students but leads to no obvious professional future. I’m wondering what motivates people to come from abroad to study French literature, especially if we’re talking about undergraduate degrees. It makes more sense for graduate degrees, since France would presumably be the best place to write a dissertation on the national literature. But the professional stakes of a doctorate are quite different from an undergrad degree. All I can really imagine is that students who are becoming fluent in the French language might be drawn toward a field where they can keep immersing themselves in increasingly high-status language registers. (More “orthodox” French students of French literature, by the way, most likely don’t go to Paris-8, but more often to more traditional institutions like the Sorbonne.)

The extreme feminization of psychology and masculinization of computer science is worth noting too, in passing. I can only say it doesn’t seem too shocking.