The red flags of the stubborn

“We shall wish our minister an execrable new year on Sunday, January 11th,” they announced sardonically on their blog beforehand.

This is the scene. The group is La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, which I wrote about a little bit last summer. Now it is winter. They have been meeting again every week to make the rounds. Two hours. Six to eight. At night. On mondays, right in front of the Minister of Higher Education. It has a regularity to it. A rhythm. If you’re going to walk in circles for hours on end, you better have a high tolerance for repetition.

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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

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Disciplinary evolution in French universities

If you want to get a sense of the overall institutional situation of French universities, it helps to look at how many French students are studying what. In this post I just want to present a basic, broad overview of the situation.

There’s a lot to see here. You can see what sociologists call the “second massification” of the universities, a period of major growth from something like 1985-1995. Almost every discipline is rising. The largest disciplines are not, actually, the ones with the most growth. That dubious honor goes to the field called STAPS, which stands for Sciences et Techniques des Activités Physiques et Sportives, which we could translate loosely as Athletic Sciences. STAPS grew from 10,947 enrolled students in 1979 to 41553 in 2005 — a 3.8-fold increase! The similarly tiny fields of dentistry (odontologie) and pharmacy, on the other hand, actually shrunk, though you can barely see them because they get lost in the bottom of the graph.

Let’s look more closely at the major disciplines. Letters and human sciences here are labeled lettres; they’d probably be called humanities and social sciences in the U.S. Anyway, it’s striking that they constitute the largest sector of French higher education, with around half a million enrollees. They have almost doubled in size since the 1980s, though they have also been in a steady, slow absolute decline since the mid-nineties. The sciences are smaller, but show a similar trend. The business-oriented disciplines of Eco (here short for Sciences Economiques) and Admin (Administration économique et sociale) have grown somewhat more, by a factor of 2.7, and seem to have on the whole one of the most consistent, steady rises of any field. Law (droit), which presumably leads to both private and public-sector careers but at any rate to a secure professional identity, has grown somewhat and leveled off, while its cousin medicine has on the whole slightly declined. (Law and medicine are the two most traditional professional fields in the traditional French university.)

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French university towns and decentralization

As it turns out, there’s no need for me to cobble together my own maps of French higher education. A beautiful official atlas is already made available by the Higher Education Ministry, with far more detail than I would care to track down by myself. Let me reproduce a couple of their figures:

As you can see, Paris is still by far the biggest university town. If we look at the accompanying figures for 2007-8, it turns out that Paris proper has 156,743 university students, with 320,942 total in the Paris region (Ile-de-France). After that, we have Lyon (73,262), Lille (58,788), Toulouse (57,907), Aix/Marseille (56,590), Bordeaux (53,335), Montpellier (43,355), Strasbourg (37,299), Rennes (37,008), Grenoble (32,978), Nancy (28,078), Nantes (26,329), Nice (21,664), and from there on down… As in the last post on centralization, here too, mapping by student population size, we can see that the Parisian region remains by far the largest university site — its 320,942 of 1,225,643 total public university students comes out to 26% of the nation’s university population. (Note that universities only constitute about half–56%–of the French higher ed population, but we’ll talk about the rest of them some other time.)

But our thinking about centralization has to shift when we find out that, over time, provincial universities have grown and thus diminished Paris’s relative standing. In other words, it seems that historically, Paris used to be even more the center of the academic universe than it is now. To better understand this process let’s look at a thumbnail sketch of French university massification by a sociologist I know here, Charles Soulié:

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Chicago, Paris-8, and the magnitude of university wealth

I was a little bit stunned to realize yesterday that my working conditions — as a lowly graduate student at the University of Chicago — are in a sense markedly better than those of a typical French public university professor. You see, the University of Chicago owns a building in Paris where they give us, the visiting grad students, office space. But if you are a Maître de Conférences (somewhat like an associate professor) at, say, the University of Paris-8 (Saint-Denis), you get no work space whatsoever, aside from a cramped class preparation lounge where you can leave your coat while you teach your class. University professors in Saint-Denis, unless they are also administrators, must either find office space elsewhere or work at home.

Now I could tell you all sorts of other things about how my home university, a very rich private American university, is different from the French public universities I’ve encountered. But I’ve looked up some figures and, frankly, the sheer quantitative difference between Paris-8 and UChicago is so enormous that it almost speaks for itself. Behold:

Paris-8 UChicago Ratio
Students 21,487 15,149 1.4 : 1
Faculty 1,075 2,211 1 : 2.1
Staff 601 ~12,000 1 : 20
# Buildings 11 more than 190 1 : 17
Annual Budget €119.3 million $2.8 billion 1 : 16.8
Endowment None $4-5 billion

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Geographic centralization of French universities

It is a famous, even infamous fact about French universities that the system is deeply centralized, and centered on Paris. But over the years the university system has diversified and there are now 83 French public universities (of which 5 are in Corsica and the overseas territories). However, as every French academic would surely attest, the system remains deeply Paris-centric. For the foreign reader, I thought it would be helpful to present a little map of the density of universities by region (based on this original):

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Schematic of a French political system

I’ve been working on a grant application for next year and thinking about how to simplify my field situation for the sake of the grant reviewers. I started drawing some diagrams in the process, and while procrastinating from actually writing the text of my grant request, thought I would figure out how to make computer-generated flowcharts of these diagrams. So here’s a diagram – one of many such possible diagrams, of course – of the structure of French university practice and politics:

(Diagram generated with lovely charts. Click through for a larger image.)

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