France 1848

The revolutions of 1848 have gotten renewed attention in light of this year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings. (The amazing photo above depicts the barricades in Paris, 1848.) The parallels are obvious — uprisings in a number of countries, similar grievances across countries, and a degree of cross-communication among the movements and leaders. And, of course, widespread optimism among progressives and activists about the prospects for fundamental social and political reform. The outcomes of 1848 were discouraging to progressives — repression and authoritarian governments were usually successful in turning back the progressive tide. So one hopes that the prospects for democracy and equality are better in the MENA uprisings.

Particularly interesting, of course, is the example of France. So it is intriguing to look back at the causes and processes of demonstrations and resistance in May and June, 1848, in Paris and in other parts of the country. Roger Price’s Documents on the French Revolution of 1848 (Documents in History Series) is worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it provides an astute analysis of the economic, social, and political situation of France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the events that unfolded into the revolution of 1848. But second, it is a genuinely interesting book from an historiographical point of view. The analytical text takes up roughly 50 pages of an introductory essay. The remainder of the book consists of short extracts from primary documents of the period. The extracts are selected and ordered according to the author’s conception of the factors and turning points that were historically central to the moment; so they constitute a narrative of an unusual kind. Price presents his analysis and framing of the events entirely through the extracts he provides; the participants tell the story.

Price’s framing essay begins with the point that France was a backward country in the first part of the nineteenth century, compared to Britain. The population was overwhelmingly rural, the economy was primarily agricultural, and the infrastructure of roads and railroads was underdeveloped. Industry was in the most embryonic state of development, and markets were primarily local because of the weakness of the transport system.

The great weakness of the system, however, lay in its transport infrastructure. Communications by water and, particularly, road were slow and costly. Only the first unconnected lines of the future railway network had been constructed before the 1850s. (12)

And, unlike Britain, there were few signs of an emerging proletariat in large factories and industrial cities, along the lines of the Manchester documented decades earlier by Engels:

The typical French worker would be the artisan working in a small workshop rather than the factory worker. This was true in Paris, for example, where the majority found work in industries catering for the material needs of the population — food, clothing, furniture and housing — or in the typically Parisian luxury industries, all traditionally operating on a small scale. (18)

These factors had social consequences. Hunger in the countryside was a recurring possibility. Landlords and gentry had great power over the rural population. Social inequalities in both town and countryside were visible and extreme. And neither peasant nor urban worker had a strong social basis for resistance.

The contrast in the living standards of rich and poor that daily greeted the eyes of the urban populations, especially in the larger towns, was often extreme. For as long as such a contrast was felt to be inevitable, it could be accepted only with resignation, or with a resentment that might burst out in violence. But new ideas and the diffusion of a more critical outlook were bound to erode this attitude. (20)

At the same time as economic inequalities were increasing the power of a small sector of elites was increasing as well.

The grand notables — landowners, financiers, major industrialists, but also politicians and administrators — collaborated in extending their economic power and safeguarding their social and political authority. This was a group given unity not simply by shared material interests, but by an entire style of life. (23)

Of course it is clear that this is one particular framing of the historical episode, and another historian would have highlighted other issues and other turning points. So the book doesn’t serve as a broad repository of documents, potentially relevant to many different interpretations; instead, the documents have been specifically selected to serve as waypoints on a particular path through Price’s interpretation. That said, the documents are fascinating to read, from observations by elite participants, to government announcements, to confessions by activist leaders and followers.

Was this a social revolution? Some of the goals of the activists involved radical social transformation; but these goals were entirely unsuccessful. The balance between the propertied and the property-less did not change in any meaningful way. Was it more successful as a political revolution? Again, not really. Universal suffrage was established before the June repression; but what followed was autocratic rule and eventually the election of yet another dictator, Napoleon III. So it is hard to see that the revolution of 1848 in France had much effect on the conditions of freedom and well-being of the majority of the poor in France.

It would be very interesting to have a similar compilation of documents and framing social descriptions for Egypt, 2011. I’m sure that researchers and observers in Cairo have been collecting interviews, posters, and other kinds of documents that will shed more light on the social and political grievances offered by ordinary Egyptians as they participated in the demonstrations and collective resistance that led to the fall of Mubarak. And, likewise, it will be valuable to document the timeline of reaction by the state during these crucial several weeks, including repression, accommodation, and eventually capitulation by the ruling circles in favor of — the army.

New thinking about taxes in France

The structure of the tax code in France is getting new attention these days. President Sarkozy has made fiscal reform a key issue in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2012. The Nouvel Obs has a very good section this week on a recent book by Camille Landais, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, economists with long expert knowledge of the French fiscal system. The book is Pour une révolution fiscale: Un impôt sur le revenu pour le XXIe siècle, and it offers a stringent critique of the existing system and a set of proposals for a reformed system. The book has a companion website here.

In a word, these experts conclude that the existing tax structure in France is seriously unjust because it is anti-progressive at the very high end of the income distribution — the top 1 percent decline steeply in the percentage of their income that is collected in the form of the several tax vehicles.  Only 20% of the state’ revenues derive from taxes that are truly progressive (Nouvel Obs, 2411, p. 180).


As we can see from the graph, the total tax burden of the top 1 percent of income earners declines sharply from 48% to about 32%. And the reason for this is the portion of the French tax system devoted to funding social services (Cotisations sociales et taxes sur les salaires). This assessment is roughly flat from the 30th percentile to the 99th percentile, and then it declines rapidly. (The other components of taxes represented here include the income tax, a tax on returns on capital, and taxes on consumption including the TVA.)

Here is what the distribution of tax burdens would look like on the basis of their proposals:


So what is their proposal? It is to significantly revamp the income tax and the cotisation. The cotisation needs to be progressive rather than regressive; and the income tax needs to be higher. Their proposal is revenue-neutral in this particular sense: the median tax payer today bears a 47% tax burden, and this remains the same under the reform.

Ce livre plaide pour une revolution fiscale précise et opérationnelle, dont tous les détails sont chiffrés au grand jour. Nous proposons en particulier la création d’un nouvel impôt sur le revenue, remplaçant un grand nombre de taxes existantes, notamment la contribution social généralisée (CSG), l’actuel impôt sur le revenu (qui, sou sa forme actuelle, serait purement et simplement supprimé), le prélèvement libératoire, la prime pour l’emploi et le  bouclier fiscal.  Ce nouvel impôt sur le revenu, payé par tous les Français et socialement adapté a la France du XXIe siecle, sera entièrement individualisé, prélevé directement a la source sur les revenus du travail et du capital. (18)

Also of interest are the summary graphs that the authors provide of the distribution of income and wealth in France:

Two things are particularly striking in this discussion. One is how significantly different the French fiscal system is from the U.S. system. Income tax is less than 10% of income for all income levels. And the cotisation is a substantially larger share of total taxes than the Social Security tax in the U.S.

But the other striking thing is the significantly different perspective that these authors take on taxes, compared to almost all discussions of taxes in the U.S. They are fundamentally concerned about the fairness of the tax burden; they care about progressivity; and they are concerned to prevent the ability of “les tres aisées” to exercise political influence in order to reduce their share. “Fiscal rigor” doesn’t mean severe budget reductions and elimination of the social security net for French citizens; it means creating a tax system that is adequate to the spending commitments of the French state, and that is fair in its distribution of tax obligations across the whole of society.

I think most observers of French politics doubt that this kind of progressive and sweeping fiscal reform is in the cards in the coming decade. But it is at least encouraging that the issues are being raised.


Deciphering French society


Louis Maurin recently published a valuable book on contemporary French society, Déchiffrer la société française, which is intended to shed light on the social realities of France in a way that is genuinely accessible to the public.  There are chapters on population, the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, consumption, and social values, among other important topics (link).  The book is intended to capture and encapsulate some of the data that is available through French sources that will make the basic outlines of France more transparent to the public.  (There is a companion website for the book as well.)  Denis Clerc provides the preface for the book — another voice in French society calling for greater transparency about inequalities.

Maurin believes that there is a wide gap between the rhetoric that French elites and journalists use to characterize contemporary French society, and the social realities.  In order for France to successfully address the social problems it faces, it is important for the public to have a better understanding of the background and the current realities.  So the goal of this project is straightforward:

À l’encontre de ce mouvement, ce livre vise à dresser un état de lieux et à expliquer certains mécanismes du fonctionnement de la société française. Il s’agit bien d’abord de «déchiffrer», car l’objectif est, autant que faire se peut, de mesurer et d’analyser des évolutions. Sans fétichisme du chiffre, il devient indispensable de mettre sur la table des données pour sortir de la rhétorique française où chacun se paie de bons mots. Ce qui permet à tout le monde d’avoir raison en même temps, faute de pouvoir être départagé par les faits. Dans la mesure du possible, nous essaierons de présenter des séries sur longue période, pour élargir les perspectives. L’objectif est aussi de « déchiffrer » des phénomènes qui ne sont pas tous immédiatement perceptibles. De dégager des tendances pour mieux comprendre l’évolution de la société dans un monde où l’avenir semble, pour beaucoup, très incertain. Sur la plupart des phénomènes présentés, vécus au quotidien, chacun a sa petite idée, qu’il s’agisse de famille, d’école, d’immigration, de chômage… Toute la difficulté de la démarche et son intérêt consistent à échapper aux expériences personnelles pour analyser le comportement d’un ensemble. (Avant-propos)

[To counter this trend, this book aims to develop a baseline description and to explain some mechanisms of how French society functions.  It is indeed a first effort, because the goal is, as far as possible, to measure and analyze trends.  Without making a fetish of data, it is necessary to provide tables of facts in order to escape the rhetoric to which everyone pays lip service.  Without facts, everyone can claim to be right at the same time.  Wherever possible, we attempt to present a series of data over a long period, to broaden the perspective.  The goal is also to “decipher” phenomena that are not immediately obvious.  We seek to identify trends in order to better understand society in a world where the future for many is very uncertain.  For most of the phenomena presented, each individual has his/her own perspective, whether it concerns the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, …  The challenge is to separate out one’s personal experiences in order to analyze the behavior of the larger group.]

Each topic is a fundamental one — population, nuptiality, family, schooling, immigration, employment, consumption.  And the data that Maurin summarizes are often striking and unexpected.

Here is a striking graph of the absolute number of marriages and divorces since 1960, and a graph of family size changes between 1900 and 1970.  The marriage rate increased sharply in the 1960s into the early 70s; it then went into a steep decline.



Here are several graphs representing economic and social changes in the past thirty years.  The first tracks the percentage of adults in different socio-economic groups: workers, managers, professionals, executives, farmers, and permanently unemployed. The second tracks the fairly steep decline in the number of hours worked annually by a worker, from under 2000 to under 1500.  The third tracks the shifting composition of the workforce, documenting a dramatic decline in industrial labor from 35% to 15%.  And the fourth graph tracks union membership, from a high of 30% in 1949 to a low of 8% in 2005.  This is surprising for Americans who think of the French workforce as being highly unionized.





Here is an indication of how French consumption has evolved over the past sixty years.  Television and washing machines started early; home computers and mobile phones came in the decade of 1990-2000.  (It appears that several labels may be switched on this graph; it’s hard to believe that microwave ovens became common well before refrigerators.  And in fact the 2007 snapshot from INSEE suggests that these two labels have been switched.)

Here is a snapshot from INSEE for household items for 2007:


And what about education?  Maurin draws attention to the progress of the bac over the past 60 years.  The creation of the bac technologique and the bac professionnel in 1968 and 1988 respectively conjoined with growth in the bac general to produce rapid increase from the mid 1980s through 1990s; and the total has remained flat since the 1990s.



Maurin expresses a certain amount of disappointment with the discipline of academic sociology in France for its failure to provide a “public” sociology — an empirical and theoretical research program aimed at shedding light on the most pervasive patterns in French society today. (“Malgré des progrès récents, le monde scientifique — la sociologie, en particulier — ne semble plus vraiment chercher à dresser ce portrait social de la France;” avant-propos.) And here again in the conclusion:

La statistique n’est pas seule en cause : la recherche laisse de côté de très nombreux domaines, pourtant indispensables à la compréhension du monde contemporain, quand bien même les données existent. Les sociologues qui travaillent sur des sujets aussi essentiels que les revenus, la mobilité sociale ou la consommation ne sont qu’une poignée. Dans certains domaines, comme l’exclusion ou l’immigration, ils se comptent par dizaines… Personne ne conteste la nécessité de ces travaux. Il n’en demeure pas moins que, pour partie, la sociologie française s’attache aux «dominés », oubliant que, pour analyser les processus de domination, il faut aussi regarder vers le haut. (Conclusion)

[The data are not the only cause.  Researchers leave to the side many domains that are indispensable to comprehending the contemporary world, even when the data exist. Sociologists who work on such essential subjects as income, social mobility, or consumption are only a handful.  In some domains, such as exclusion or immigration, they are fewer than dozens.  No one can disagree about the necessity of this work.  Instead, the French sociologists prefer to focus on the “dominated”, forgetting that it is necessary to look at the top in order to understand the processes of domination. (Conclusion)]

In short — French society is as complicated as any other, with its own history and current social forces.  And many of the social realities the French currently face are obscure in their causes and their distribution across regions and classes.  So it is particularly important for authors like Maurin to help pull back the curtain from some of these basic social facts.

(Each chapter offers a short list of key internet sources that allow the reader to pursue the data questions of the chapter directly.  A few key resources on population, labor, poverty, family, immigration, and education include —

  • Eurostat (Service statistique de l’Union européenne link)
  • INED (Institut national d’études démographiques link)
  • INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques link)
  • CNAF (Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales link)
  • Ministère de la Justice link
  • Secrétariat d’état à la Famille link
  • Cité nationale de l’immigration link
  • Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés link)
  • Ministère de l’éducation nationale link
  • CEE (Centre d’étude de l’emploi link)
  • Céreq (Centre d’études et de recherches sur les qualifications link)
  • IRES (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales link)
  • Ministère de l’emploi link
  • Observatoire des inégalités link
  • Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l’exclusion sociale link
  • Crédoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie link)
  • Iresco (Institut de recherche sur les sociétés contemporaines link)
  • Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po link)

There is a volume of valuable data available from these sources.)


France as Theodore Zeldin saw it

Histories of France have been written from many points of view.  Emmanuel Todd’s The Making of Modern France: Ideology, Politics and Culture (1988), Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976), and Robert Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968) have all brought a distinctive perspective to their interpretations of France. Each provides an approach that minimizes the goals of traditional narrative and instead focuses on the problematics of identity and culture.

Theodore Zeldin’s writings on France are equally original and provocative (A History of French Passions 1848-1945: Volume I: Ambition, Love, and PoliticsFrance, 1848-1945: Politics and Anger). Like these other scholars, he is not an historian who focuses on a chronicle of events.  Instead, he wants to capture some threads of emotion, personality, and ordinary social life that begin to add up to something “French”.  Here is how he frames the project in the preface to the first volume, Ambition and Love (the second volume is titled Politics and Anger):

France 1848-1945 may be read in the same way as one would a series of novels, each of which tells the story of a family or a community from a different point of view.  Each chapter and each volume may be read independently. Each has its own surprises, for I aim to show that France was not what it seemed to be; each has its own constellation of heroes or anti-heroes, because I do not see France as dominated by one man, one class or one set of principles. Taken as a whole, however, these portrayals of the many faces of the French are designed to make it possible to judge anew, and less partially, the idiosyncracies, the poses and the torments of a nation that has always irritated its neighbours, even when it has won their admiration and sometimes indeed their affection. (vii)

Since I believe that behaviour is muddled and obscure, and cannot be presented truthfully as simply a search for some ideal, like glory, justice or liberty, and since I do not presume to be able to prove anything when it comes to discussing human motivation, I have not written a general national narrative, held together by a more or less plausible string of causes.  Instead, I have made the individual my starting-point, and have tried to show him beset by a multitude of pressures, internal as well as external.  I have grouped his struggles around six passions: ambition, love, anger, price, taste, and anxiety. (vii)

My method is to hold up a multitude of mirrors around the French, so that they may be seen simultaneously from different angles; and my other volumes pursue these themes into other recesses of their personalities. To adapt to the kaleidoscopic vision I offer, the reader must, of course, be willing to put aside temporarily the expectations that he has of history, in the same way as he must put aside his traditional expectations when looking at the paintings of the Impressionists or the Cubists. I hope the experience will modify his attitude to the French, and to the past, but also that it will tell him something he did not know about himself. (viii)

So it is the ordinary individual rather than the iconic powerful leader; and it is the emotional setting rather than the deliberative process, that most interest Zeldin. But Zeldin also thinks that this study leads to the discovery of important commonalities across the French — “the common beliefs, attitudes and values of Frenchmen, which often cut across ideological and class lines” (2).  So there is an historical point to writing about “the French” which will lead to different findings than “the British” or “the Germans.”  Careful study and interpretation permits the historian to tease out a “style” or “persona” that distinguishes various national groups.

Zeldin clarifies this goal in these words:

I do not mean by this that I am seeking to define the immutable French soul, mind, or character.  But this is something many people talked about and I have tried to investigate why they came to believe that there was such a thing. (3)

This goal runs squarely up against the historiography of difference that Emmanuel Todd advocates in considering the French; Todd’s view is that France was constituted through a very specific and intentional process of identity shaping (post), and that there was great diversity of thought and institution across the territory that became France.  But the two perspectives are not flatly contradictory; instead, Zeldin’s approach can be understood as a kind of historical ethnography, while Todd’s approach emphasizes processes and structures of nation formation.

Is this goal of discovering characteristic ways of thinking and feeling for a national population a credible one? I think it is, once we take a material and institutional view of the formation of personality.  The human being is socially constructed; this means that his/her psychology and mental and emotional frameworks are inflected by specific institutions and experiences.  And it is entirely believable that there might be enduring differences in the traditions and institutions through which English school boys and girls and French children absorb formative ideas about — family, morality, anger, comportment, and nation.

How does Zeldin turn this historiographic goal into a workable program of research?  One key strategy that he pursues is to identify a handful of central categories of actors in French society — doctors, notaries, the rich, bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, peasants, workers — and to trace out the specifics of how these categories functioned in France.  How were doctors educated?  How were they compensated?  How did they compete for clients?  What level of prestige did they enjoy?  Zeldin believes that each of these social categories represents a distinctive matrix of characteristics, relative to the analogous social groups in other countries.  So by taking the measure of these great social groups, Zeldin believes that he is also able to delineate some of the distinctive elements of French attitudes and social relations.

And what about the most numerous group — the peasants?  How were they regarded in the nineteenth century?  Zeldin argues that peasants were essentially invisible to cultivated French society:

The peasants are not studied in Balzac’s universal portrait of French society. Though he called one of his novels Les Paysans and devoted several volumes ostensibly to painting scenes of rural life, Balzac could not describe the peasants, because he was full of contempt for them.  They were savages, like Fenimore Cooper’s Red Indians, and he was concerned with them only as subjects for his schemes to improve them. (131-32)

So contempt is one French attitude towards the peasant; another is the romanticized view that seems to trace back to Rousseau:

The romantics, the Catholic revivalists, the believers in a conservative and hierarchic order, all held him up as a model of a human unspoilt by progress.  George Sand wrote books about him or rather books about how she would have liked him to be, inaugurating a whole genre of rustic novels. … Napoleon III inaugurated his reign with an inquiry into popular poetry forgotten ‘because of a thoughtless contempt by our rather too worldly literature’. Folklore societies were formed. (133)

After surveying these elite attitudes towards peasants, Zeldin turns to an extended effort to decipher some of the social reality of the peasant in the nineteenth century.  And he finds that the stereotypes that French society applied to the peasant, from left to right, were unfounded.

These generalisations about the innate conservatism of the pesant need to be interpreted carefully in the context of French history.  The observance of traditional routines, agricultural and social, should not obscure the fact that conflict was part of those routines, and that the pressures involved in preserving them add up to a situation which is far from being one of stagnation. The peasants were neither satisfied nor contented. They were constantly trying to improve their lot, to enlarge their farms, to raise their status. Their world was torn by deep divisions, and by animosities both of interest and of pride. (135)

The sense of community depended also on the way the land was worked.  The common generalization that the peasants were innately individualistic and independent is another bourgeois myth.  It is important to remember that though individual peasant property had developed before the Revolution, ownership did not imply complete liberty to work the land as one pleased.  When the strips and plots were tiny, it was essential to co-operate in sowing and reaping. No man could reach his plot without going through those of his neighbours. (139)

Much of this material on the professions and the major social groups falls under the heading of “ambition” — competition and striving for one’s betterment.  This first volume ends with an extended discussion of “love” — the family and children.

The family, as organised in France in these years, had an effect on people’s lives as profound as any political regime or any economic force. It was a powerful institution which resisted change with remarkable vitality. (285)

But here again, Zeldin finds that the realities of nineteenth-century France contradicted the common stereotypes of marriage, family, and children.

Zeldin’s writing makes one think of a gifted interpreter of literature or art, more than of a traditional historian.  He is very sensitive to telltale nuances, and very creative in building an interpretation of the French based on a series of such insights.  In this regard it is “humanities-inspired history” rather than “social-science history.”  Zeldin appears to affirm this point in saying that his historical writing does not aspire to the “objectivity” and neutrality of the sciences:

Historical study is a personal experience, and the subjective elements in it deserve to be valued, when so many other branches of knowledge are becoming largely technical. To admit that historians solve their problems of colour and light, that they create their compositions for reasons which are ultimately subjective, because these seem to them to be coherent and true, is not to admit a fault, but to assert that each individual historian can express himself in his work. (7)

So Zeldin’s project is a broad one: to attempt to discern some of the important strands of mental and emotional framework through which historical French men and women thought and experienced their history.  It is a kind of personality psychology for a whole historical population.  And Zeldin affirms, as a literary critic would do as well, that there alternative tellings of this story.


French economic inequalities

France is one of the more affluent countries in the OECD, but it continues to contain significant poverty and meaningful inequalities of income, wealth, and life outcomes. The past several years of rising unemployment have worsened these circumstances. A lot of this variation occurs across the lines of ethnicity and national origins; immigrant communities in France tend to have significantly higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and health disparities, often concentrated in the banlieue surrounding major cities. So how should concerned French citizens get a better understanding of these fundamental features of French society?

A research center and website that attempts to track these inequalities is the Observatoire des inegalites, directed by Louis Maurin. The website is found at, and it is worthy of regular visits. The goal of the Observatoire project is to make sense of the social statistics of France and to communicate this information to the public in an understandable way. Right now the organization is focusing on recently released statistics on the rate of poverty on France. It would be very useful if there were similar sites in other countries, including the United States. (Here is a valuable source of information on poverty data provided by the United States Census Bureau; link.)

Two issues are particularly central when it comes to measuring poverty: first, how to define the poverty line (and how to interpret the poverty budget that this corresponds to); and second, how many people are poor in France by this criterion, and how this has been changing in the past several years.

On the first question, the official standard in France is pegged to a budget defined as half of the median income. This raises the first significant debate, because the EU pegs the poverty rate to the 60th percentile of income rather than the 50th percentile (median). Naturally, more people are classified as poor by the second criterion than the first. (In the U.S. the poverty line is calculated on the basis of an estimate of the income needed to purchase a specified “poverty budget” wage basket.)

Two features of the French definition of poverty are noteworthy. First, it is a relative rather than absolute definition of poverty; the index rises as economic growth occurs and median family rises. Rather than conceiving of poverty as absolute deprivation, it conceives of poverty in relation to the income levels of the rest of society. The poverty line will be different in Sweden and France. And the U.S. definition is more similar to an absolute definition: unless the contents of the poverty wage basket changes, people who are at the poverty line in 1970 will have the same purchasing power as people at the poverty line in 2000.

Second, this is a purely income-based criterion of poverty, rather than an all-round assessment of living standards. As Amartya Sen argues, poverty is not solely determined by low income. The poverty wage basket approach comes a bit closer to Sen’s idea that it is the overall ability of the poor family’s ability to satisfy its basic needs that determines its status as poor or not-poor. (The main component that Sen emphasizes in his overview of quality of life as being overlooked by a pure income criterion of poverty is the provisioning of social services by the state; and France sets a fairly high standard with respect to this factor.)

So how does France measure up when it comes to poverty? Basically, the data suggest that the poverty rate is significant in France (7.1% in 2008, representing 4.3 million people), and, even more pressingly, it seems to have stabilized at that level. In 1970 the rate was 13.5%, falling to 7.2% in 1998. But during the next decade there was no significant change; there were 4.3 million poor people in France in 1998 and in 2008. (The poverty rate in the U.S. is estimated at a whopping 14.3% for 2009 — a striking increase over the previous decade (link), and an appalling counterpoint to the extreme increases that have taken place in the United States in the concentration of income at the top of the distribution.)

Measuring poverty is a very important step for any decent society. More difficult and more important is deciphering the economic mechanisms giving rise to poverty and creating the observed changes in the rate over time. Unemployment is one obvious factor, and France is experiencing high rates of unemployment along with much of the rest of Europe. But what about other mechanisms? What about discrimination in housing and employment, for example (as suggested in Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto Urbain).  And what about the terms of the grand social compact — the division of income and wealth among classes and educational levels? This is essentially what the conflict is about in France today, between unions and business, and between the Sarkozy government and large segments of society.  And these are the mechanisms that generate inequalities of income and wealth, and they contribute to the macro-facts about poverty as well.

Another point established by data on the Observatoire is the fact that the mechanisms generating jobs and joblessness are very differently distributed across the map of France. The unemployment rate in France as a whole was 9.5% in 2009. But this rate encompasses a range of rates across regions of France, from 5.0% in Lozere to 13.5% and 13.6% in Herault and Aisne (link).

Also interesting on the site at present is an analysis of inequalities across social groups in terms of access to the baccalaureate degree; data provided here demonstrates sharp inequalities by group in terms of access to this valuable source of personal development and earning potential (link). Since education — especially higher education — is crucial to entry in higher-earning professions and occupations, the differential social processes at work here are also relevant to the distribution of income in the coming generation.

The Observatoire does a very good job of approximating the ideal of a transparent, understandable representation of the social data of a whole population. As such it is a very important experiment in “understanding society.”

French philosophy?

Is there such a thing as “French philosophy”? Or is philosophy a purely universal discipline, raising the same abstract questions no matter whether the philosopher is Chinese, English, French, or Brazilian? One way to address this question is to consider the collective intellectual practice of “philosophy” from the point of view of sociology — that is to say, historically and empirically.

Jean-Louis Fabiani’s book Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français? (which was released in France this week) addresses this question from the point of view of sociology, and it provides a fascinating and innovative approach to the history of philosophy. (Here is a link to Fabiani’s academic bio.) Fabiani was a student of Bourdieu, and he approaches philosophy in something like the way that other sociologists have approached the study of science: as a socially situated intellectual activity which is amenable to sociological analysis and explication. The fact that it is intellectual implies that there is an internal logic to the development of the discourse; organized thinking moves it forward. And the fact it is situated implies that philosophy is conditioned and motivated by social circumstances external to the philosophical community.

Fabiani attempts to steer a highly original course between the idea that social context determines the content of a specific philosophical tradition, and the idea that philosophy develops wholly and solely according to its own internal intellectual logic. Crude sociology of knowledge falls in the first camp, and traditional history of philosophy often appears to fall in the second camp. Fabiani takes an approach that allows both for social influence on philosophy as well as critical, rigorous logical analysis and thought wielding its influence.

Here is a description that Fabiani provides of philosophy as an object of sociological study. (The passages quoted here are drawn from a pre-publication translation Fabiani provided in a visit this month to the University of Michigan.)

Philosophy is never limited to a collection of texts, knitted together by the threads of tradition. It also includes material objects, spaces and social practices. It includes all types of reception, including the less orthodox. As with any other type of work, philosophical texts imply different types of appropriation in space and time, and exist only through the successive pacts of reception that constitute them as valued objects in a particular culture. 

He asks the questions, what is a sociology of philosophy and why is it needed? And here are some of his answers:

I wish to analyze philosophy just as what we now call science studies have analyzed processes and controversies in the various scientific disciplines. Science studies have questioned the great epistemological divide which reserved the study of contextual elements for sociologists (institutions, organizations, strategies, etc.) and removed the assertions, demonstrations and the quest for evidence from their purview (except if they are crudely determinist and seek to explain concepts entirely by contexts, to put it simply). 

What could be interesting about a socio-historical analysis of philosophy? First, we have to suspend our belief — at least for a while, because it is the habitual battleground of the activity — in the existence of an abstract and universal frame for the philosophical debates, this the result of a venerable scholarly tradition. The « relocalization » of philosophical interactions is necessary in order to see that philosophical texts are also performances, not only embodiments and products of lifestyles but also their sources.

Studying philosophy by means of sociological methods would appear to be one of the most important challenges for the social sciences today. « The queen of disciplines,» as it is called in France (or the crown–or crowning as I once described it years ago) has long resisted any attempt at objectivation.

Although the most general objection to the ascription of social determinants in the shaping of social thought are now superannuated, the explanatory power of theories applied to the field of intellectual production still remains quite limited. The modes of categorization applied to products and to individual intellectual strategies are too crude and their use too poorly controlled; we no longer take for granted that society as such can be read (at least in a cryptic language) through symbolic production.

So what is in play when we ask whether philosophy (or any other intellectual discipline) is conditioned by its historical and social context?  We might say that a national tradition of philosophy could be characterized according to several different criteria: topics, styles of thought, modes of validation, and lineage of predecessors. For example, British philosophy defined itself in terms of several core ideas — the role of the senses in the acquisition and validation of knowledge, for example; and Hume, Locke, and Berkeley deployed recognizable forms of argument and styles of reasoning as well.  Hume’s treatises look and feel quite a bit different from Descartes’ meditations.  Here is a way of conceptualizing the situation of philosophical research and discovery:

The diagram is intended to be a way of visualizing a philosophy research tradition at a moment in time. The unit of production, the philosophy research group, is steeped in a conventional specification of the important topics; it is skilled in a specific set of modes of argument; it holds out a set of exemplary philosophical works from the history of the discipline as currently understood; it operates in a space that may include other research groups pursuing different topics and methods; and it functions within a set of institutions — graduate programs, journals, tenure processes, associations, prizes — that train, valorize, and rank various individuals and their products.  Each aspect of these “internal” features is amenable to concrete historical and sociological investigation; we can seek to trace out the institutions, discover the order and rationale of the topics, etc.

External to these factors are circumstances in history and current social life (World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement), and intellectual currents from outside the discipline (Freudianism, for example), that exercise influence on the development of philosophical positions and frameworks. The social context draws attention to (or away from) certain topics; context also sometimes provides institutional constraints that favor or disfavor some positions.  (For example, McCarthyism and the Cold War created constraints and incentives that greatly deformed the course of research in the humanities and the social sciences.)  The intellectual activities of the current research groups lead to a degree of development of the ideas, positions, and schools of philosophy at a given moment in time. So the received setting, external environment, and application of modes of invention and argument drive forward new philosophical content, and the institutions of the profession attach credibility/lack of credibility and prestige/scorn to the results.

The diagram indicates as well several ways in which a philosophical tradition might possess a distinctive, national character. The list of valued topics may differ across national traditions; likewise the styles of reasoning and modes of argument; and different traditions may valorize very different bodies of predecessors as well. So it is fairly evident that Fabiani’s question warrants a “yes” — there are distinguishing characteristics or signatures across traditions of philosophy. And even when the topics and questions appear similar — the focus on the conditions of knowledge in common between British and French philosophy in the 17th century, for example– the styles of thinking, modes of reasoning, and examples of good solutions still differ widely.

Should we think of these differences as defining distinct paradigms of philosophy? I’m inclined to use a different term — perhaps “research tradition” — to suggest a high degree of variation within a national tradition of philosophy. Like other areas of humanities production, it seems to me that the standards and exemplars that hold together “analytic philosophy” or “hermeneutic philosophy” are much looser and less prescriptive than their counterparts in the natural sciences. So the term “paradigm” does not fit the framing of philosophy in context very well.

Fabiani’s work rewards study and bears an interesting relation to other efforts to discover distinctive features of French intellectual life (the distinctiveness of French sociology (link), the development of French anthropology (link)).  Johan Heilbron’s work is relevant to these topics as well (The Rise Of The Social Sciences And The Formation Of Modernity). Here is the table of contents of Fabiani’s current book:

Première partie
L’institution d’une discipline
Chapitre premier – La philosophie en classe
Chapitre 2 – Carrières et concepts
Chapitre 3 – Les moments et les crises
Deuxième partie
Une philosophie nationale?
Chapitre 4 – Le rempart de la raison
Chapitre 5 – Le spiritualisme français
Chapitre 6 – Transferts conceptuels
Troisième partie
Art, religion, science et philosophie
Chapitre 7 – La religion ddans les limites de la simple raison?
Chapitre 8 – Aux frontiers de la science
Chapitre 9 – Le philosophe artiste et la tentation prophétique
(The photo above is of Alexandre Kojève.  It is relevant to the current topic because of Kojève’s complex philosophical heritage — Russia, Germany, and eventually the leading explicateur of Hegel in post-war France.)

Did Rousseau have a sociology?

Political philosophers ask a small number of core questions: for example, what constitutes the moral basis of political authority?  How should the values of individual liberty and community wellbeing be balanced?  And we might imagine that the most insightful political philosophers work on the basis of an astute understanding of the social world.  Political philosophy, we might say, ought to be grounded in a good empirical understanding of how society works.  As Rousseau himself puts a similar point in the opening pages of “Considerations on the Government of Poland”:

Unless you are thoroughly familiar with the nation for which you are working, the labour done on its behalf, however excellent in theory, is bound to prove faulty in practice; especially when the nation in question is one which is already well-established, and whose tastes, customs, prejudices and vices are too deeply rooted to be readily crowded out by new plantings.

Rousseau had a distinctive political philosophy — but did he also have a sociology? What did he understand about how a society works? And why should we expect that a political philosopher might have something like a sociological theory of the society in which he/she lives? For that matter, what were some of the main characteristics of French and Swiss society in 1750?

Rousseau’s political philosophy is well known (link).  Rousseau’s conception of society in The Social Contract is grounded in a conception of the moral psychology of the individual and the constitutive relationship that exists between community and the individual.  Rousseau distinguished between the natural individual (motivated by direct natural emotions and desires, along the lines of Hobbes’s conception of the individual); and the moral individual (constituted by an understanding of his relation to other moral beings).  The former is outside of society; whereas the latter is integrally integrated within a set of social relationships.  Rousseau is a theorist of freedom.  But freedom has these same two aspects: natural freedom and moral freedom.  And his conception of social relationships is simple: there is sovereignty (the relations of the polity) and there is property (the relations of the economy).

What this philosophy does not provide is anything like an empirical understanding of real, concrete social life in Rousseau’s contemporary France or Switzerland: for example, the nature of the occupational segments of eighteenth-century French society, the ways in which the state exercises its power, the social practices of farming villages, or the ways in which wealth and power are accumulated by elites.  There is very little concrete empirical social detail in Rousseau’s writings.

The central models of social life that Rousseau possessed fall in a couple of categories:

  • stylized examples of social behavior — cooperation, for example
  • stylized examples of a legislative process (the constitution of Poland)
  • the romanticized example of the Greek polis
  • popular elite conceptions of the French court
  • stylized conception of the relation between the governed and the ruler; forms of government

So there is a political theory — a theory of different forms of the state — but not much of a theory of how social life works.  There is very little social description in Rousseau’s work.  The only institution he describes in any detail is the process of legislation.  And there are only infrequent instances of hypotheses about social processes — how social organizations work, for example.  So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rousseau did not have much of a sociological imagination or curiosity.  Unlike Tocqueville a century later, he was not a sociologist in the making.

We might expect sociological description in his A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind.  But this isn’t the case.  He refers to the creation of property and the consequent emergence of inequalities of wealth; but he doesn’t ask at all what the social processes are that preserve property.  And there is nothing historically specific about his descriptions of property, wealth, and inequality; they remain apriori and general.

What might we want from a sociology from an observer like Rousseau?  We would want a couple of fundamentals: an understanding of how power works in the contemporary society; an idea of how economic institutions work; an understanding of the major classes that exist in society — and the forms of life and forms of social relations that exist within these.  There is a descriptive aspect of this picture — what are the main social groups and processes?  And there is a theoretical part — how do these institutions work?  What are some of the causal processes that can be identified within society?

Moreover, we might say that a political philosophy is seriously hampered if it is not grounded in a fairly good understanding of how society works — how individuals behave in institutional settings, how organizations work, how public opinion and shared social values influence individuals.  Significantly, these are the sorts of concrete observations with which Tocqueville’s work is filled (link).

We also find much more of a sociological eye in the writings of novelists.  We get more of a descriptive sociology from many of the French novelists of the nineteenth century than is to be found anywhere in Rousseau.  Balzac, Zola, and Stendhal all devote extensive attention to the lives and ways of the various segments of French society — bourgeois, aristocrat, peasant, merchant, thief.

Robert Darnton describes a bit of sociological description in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History in a fascinating chapter called “A Bourgeois Puts his World in Order: The City as a Text.”  The object of the chapter is a highly detailed description of Montpellier written during Rousseau’s lifetime.  Here is the opening paragraph of Darnton’s essay:

If the grim folklore of peasants and the violent rituals of artisans belong to a world that seems unthinkable today, we might expect to be able to think ourselves into the skin of an eighteenth-century bourgeois.  The opportunity arises thanks to another document, as extraordinary in its way as Contat’s account of the cat massacre: it is a description of Montpellier written in 1768 by an anonymous but solidly middle-class citizen of the city.  To be sure, the casual nonfiction of the eighteenth century was full of “descriptions,” guidebooks, almanacs, and amateur accounts of local monuments and celebrities.  What set our bourgeois apart from others who dealt in the genre was his obsession with completeness.

Anthropology as a discipline

Several posts have focused recently on the meandering pathways through which the social science disciplines have developed in the past century or so — within and across nations (link, link).  Anthropology is a particularly interesting example because of its proximity to power and empire. And Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar’s recent World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations in Systems of Power (Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series) (2006) is a good place to start.

Ribeiro and Escobar are primarily interested in the question of “internationalizing” anthropology. The volume came out of an important conference on the topic sponsored by the the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2003. The question of internationalization is relevant to anthropology in two separate ways: in terms of content (local or exotic), and in terms of organizational structure (a few core centers in the metropole, versus a large and diffuse research community across the globe). Ribeiro and Escobar are interested in incorporating the anthropological research traditions that have developed in the developing world into a more comprehensive and adequate world anthropology for the future. They are certainly right that there is much to be learned by looking in detail at some of the ways that social observers in Africa, Asia, or Latin America have sought to describe and theorize distinctive communities. And their premise of the non-linearity of the development of anthropology is exactly right as well. There is no “best” ethnography, methodology, or anthropological theory within which to organize observation and explanation of the social world.

Several chapters in the volume are particularly interesting; and none more so than Eduardo Archetti’s detailed and nuanced telling of the story of anthropology and ethnography in France since roughly 1900. The inclusion of France in this volume’s discussion of core and periphery in scientific anthropology is of course initially surprising; but it makes sense in context. Part of the story of France falls squarely in the core of the discipline; but another part falls in the periphery of the science. Archetti links his discussion to several important recent histories of anthropology that are interesting in their own right: Thomas Eriksen and Finn Nielsen (A History of Anthropology), Alan Barnard (History and Theory in Anthropology), and Robert Layton (An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology).

What Archetti finds is that there is a standard way of telling the story of French anthropology. It begins with Durkheim and Mauss and culminates in Levi-Strauss and Godelier; it is long on theory, and it interweaves periodically with the interests of the French colonial state.  The standard account emphasizes the important role played by French thinkers in constructing theoretical frameworks for comprehending cultures. And the standard history links French anthropology to the international concerns represented by France’s colonial possessions. Archetti quotes Lévy-Bruhl’s arguments to this effect on the occasion of the establishment of the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Paris in 1925 (117):

The first and most central of the natural resources is the indigenous population, because the other resources are dependent on it, above all in tropical regions. Does not there exist a capital interest in studying it, in a methodical way, in order to get an exact and deep knowledge of its languages, religions, and social organization, which it is not prudent to destroy irresponsibly? (Lévy-Bruhl 1925: 1)

But Archetti argues that this story of French anthropology is too simple by half. What it leaves out is crucial: the development of several traditions of regional and ethnic studies within France that were slighted with the label “folkloric.” And it turns out that a number of figures within that group of traditions should be given much more attention in the history of anthropology than they have received to date. The presumption is that anthropology is concerned with the external and the exotic; and that the study of indigenous French traditions and communities is pedestrian and uninteresting. It is ethnology rather than ethnography. But this assumption is false.

Archetti singles out several figures for particular attention. Arnold van Gennep is one figure largely overlooked in the standard narrative, particularly when it comes to recognizing and extending his studies of French rural communities (114). Other figures who are marginalized are Louis Dumont, Michel Leiris, and Marcele Griaule. The latter two figures come in for more extensive treatment because of their “de-centered” treatment of anthropology (119). Griaule and Leiris were students of Mauss but did not define their efforts in terms of the formulation or elaboration of theoretical ideas. Leiris presented his African ethnographic work, L’Afrique fantôme in a literary form influenced by surrealism; it jarred against the ideal of dispassionate description. And Griaule’s ethnography also had a deep thread of the subjective and the anti-general. Archetti quotes James Clifford’s assessment of Griaule with approval: “One hears, as it were, two full chords of a Dogon symphony: a mythic explanation of the cosmos and a native theory of language and expressivity” (119). This implies that there is as much of Griaule as the Dogon in the treatment. But, Archetti suggests, both these French ethnographers captured themes of interpretation and styles of presentation that were to become important in later ethnography. “L’Afrique fantome is a powerful book precisely because it is centered on the explicit recognition of the subjectivity of the ethnographer” (121).

Dumont is important in Archetti’s account, not for his studies of South Asia, but for his detailed studies of some specific French settings.

La Tarasque is a complex and unorthodox monograph consisting of ethnographic findings based on observations of the ritual of the feast of the dragon in the village of Tarascon, a detailed oral history of its legends, the results of exhaustive historical archival work, and a detailed iconographic presentation. (124)

Here is Archetti’s explanation of Dumont’s significance:

My main aim with this brief examination of La Tarasque is to contextualize the question of centers and peripheries with a focus on the anthropology of France and its internationalization. It is clear that the rich tradition of studies of France by ethnologists, ethnographers, and folklorists initiated before World War II remained “local” and was not integrated into the creation of an international discipline in which the “more exotic and extreme non-European others” were privileged. (124)

Several points of interest come out of Archetti’s discussion and the volume more generally. First has to do with the history of attempts to define the subject matter of anthropology through the focus on “exotic” non-western cultures. In hindsight, this is a distinction that makes no sense at all. The cultures, norms, religions, practices, and local preoccupations of an Alsatian village or a Detroit neighborhood are no more transparent than their counterparts in the Andaman Islands or the high Andes. And detailed observation and ethnographic investigation will reveal much of great interest in any of these locations. What is “exotic” is obviously a question of the familiar and one’s initial perspective. So it is not in the least bit surprising that anthropology in the west has turned its attention to topics like “household practices in Soviet cities” or “nuclear weapons designers as a norm-driven community.” Dissolving the notion of the exotic is a natural step.

Second, the notion that anthropology needs a few grand theories around which to organize its work is likewise bogus. The grand theories — structural-functionalism, Freudianism, Marxism, rational choice theory — simply can’t be used as a formula in terms of which to understand a society or a culture as a whole. This isn’t to say that theories are irrelevant to the investigation of communities; but they must be brought to bear in partial ways, not as general comprehensive schemes of interpretation.

Third, I suppose we might be just as skeptical about the availability of universal “ethnographic” methods. Once again, this isn’t meant to doubt the need for intellectual rigor in observation and interpretation — only to doubt that there is or should be a single best way of studying a human social groups. Objectivity qnd intellectual rigor cannot be defined simply as “adherence to the XYZ method of ethnographic observation.” Ethnographic investigation can afford to be eclectic and multi-methodological; in fact, it can’t afford anything else.

And finally, I think that Archetti’s retelling of the story of French anthropology probably sheds light on the multiple nature of the development of scientific traditions everywhere. Many false starts, many promising avenues that were simply abandoned, and a real plurality of insightful approaches that don’t cumulate to a simple, linear story.

(There is an interesting connection between this narrative of anthropology in France and the early relation of the Annales school to local histories of regions in France; link.)

Public intellectuals in France and the US

What is the role of the intellectual in France in 2010?  And has that role declined in the past several decades?  Have the media and the internet profoundly eroded or devalued the voice of the intellectual in public space?  The Nouvel Observateur takes up these questions in a recent issue devoted to “Le pouvoir intellectuel” (link).

The line of thought is a complicated one.  Jacques Julliard frames the question by proposing that the public imagination of the intellectual involves a narrative of precipitous decline since the active engagements of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus.  There was a conception of the engaged intellectual who brought his/her ideas and convictions into opposition when state and society were going wrong — Algeria, Vietnam, capitalism.  And, Julliard suggests, the common view is that the current generation of intellectuals have not succeeded — perhaps have not even attempted — at bringing theory, critique, and value into the public sphere.  Jean Daniel captures the idea in his editorial: “Faut-il rire des ‘intellos’?

But — here is the complexity — Julliard refutes this idea.  The tradition of the public intellectual is not attenuated or corrupted in France; rather, the current generation of intellectuals are in fact engaged and involved.  It is nostalgia for a golden age — the age of Liberation, Communism, and Existentialism — that foreshortens the reputation of the intellectual today.  But the golden age is a myth.

Tout cela est faux, archifaux, et prouve seulement que Saint-Sulpice n’est séparé de Saint-Germain que par quelques enjambées et par la piété du souvenir. Et revenons aux faits. [All this is false, badly false, and only proves that Saint-Sulpice is only separated from Saint-Germain by a few steps and the piety of memory.  Let us return to the facts.]

Julliard points out five salient facts. First, we sometimes confuse the intellectual and the literary artist.  The artist is valued for the aesthetic quality of his/her works, whereas the intellectual is valued for the significance of the impact of his/her ideas.  Second, the impact of Sartre and Camus on France’s wars in Algeria or Vietnam was minimal, and later generations of French intellectuals have actually exercised greater influence.  In fact, Julliard argues that Lévy, Glucksmann, and Finkielkraut were more effective in their own interventions about policy in Bosnia than Sartre or Camus on the colonial wars.  Third, Julliard argues that modern media, including the blogosphere, have provided the contemporary intellectual with a much more powerful platform for disseminating ideas and values than was available to Zola, Sartre, or Camus.  He cites debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, immigration, European governance, and even philosophy and literature, as locations of debate where modern media have amplified the voices of intellectuals.  Fourth, there is the question of designation: who decides who the “intellectuals” are?  The media select their talking heads; what confidence can the public have that these are the best voices available?  Julliard even suggests that there has been an inversion of quality; the telegenic pundit acquires reputation as a savant, rather than the savant being sought out as a pundit.  And fifth, there was a tendency of the “engaged” philosophers of the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, to be engaged in service to a cause — Communism, most commonly.  So the positions offered by these intellectuals were often enough not “intellectual” at all; they did not follow from the principles, ideas, and methods of the thinker, but rather derived from the position of a party or camp.  Today’s intellectuals, Julliard suggests, are interested in ideas rather than ideologies.  And with this commitment they have returned to the real vocation of the intellectual:

En rompant avec l’idéologie abstraite au profit de l’universel concret, les intellectuels, du moins les plus novateurs d’entre eux, sont revenus à leur fonction essentielle : la critique sociale, et d’abord la critique de leur propre pratique. [Dispensing with abstract ideology, today’s intellectuals have returned to their essential function: social criticism, and especially criticism of their own practice.]

So Julliard’s telling of the story expresses several key points: France needs public intellectuals; there are several overlapping generations of thinkers who are filling this role (and more to come); and in fact, the decline of ideology and the rise of media and the Internet makes the voices of intellectuals more effective rather than less.  In his editorial in this issue Jean Daniel reaches a similar conclusion: “En un mot: depuis que nous n’avons plus confinace dans des idéologies, nous avons un frénétique besoin des idées. C’est-a-dire des intellectuels.” [In a word: since we no longer have confidence in ideologies, we have urgent need of ideas; which is to say, intellectuals.]

In continuing the theme, Nouvel Obs returns to the debate of 1980 by talking again with several of the young intellectuals it consulted in that year.  Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and Gilles Lipovetsky offer their perspectives on the role of ideas and intellectuals in French society from the vantage point of 2010 (link).  And there is a challenging interview-discussion with Alain Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut on communism (link).  So Nouvel Obs is doing its part — it is helping to bring to the fore debates and thinkers who can help France navigate into the twenty-first century.

There is one form of practical proof of the importance of intellectuals in contemporary France that is not so visible from the United States: the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television.  For a taste of the breadth and depth of the voices of intellectuals in French society today, consult the list of podcasts made available from radio programming at France Culture (link).  Particularly rich are Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance (link) and Repliques (link). These programs exemplify serious voices, serious debates, and nuanced and extensive discussions.

In the United States it seems that the whole issue of the public intellectual plays out differently than in France.  To begin — the great majority of the “public” have virtually no interest in or respect for academic discussions of issues.  Fox News, talk radio, and blistering political blogs fill that space.

Second, however, there is a subset of the American public that does have an appetite for more detailed and nuanced treatment of the issues that face us. has between 5 and 8 million unique readers a month; the Huffington Post logged about 10 million visitors in December, 2009; and logs about 4.5 million readers a month.  The Facebook page for “Give me some serious discussion and debate about crucial issues!” could be huge.

Looking at the question from another angle — the academic world in the United States is itself a meaningful segment of the workforce.  There are about 1.5 million post-secondary teachers (professors and lecturers) in the United States, and the majority of these have doctoral degrees.  Of these, a smaller number fall into traditional “intellectual” disciplines: English literature (74,800), Foreign literature (32,100), History (26,000), Philosophy and Religion (25,100), and Sociology (20,300), for a total of 178,300.  In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences there are another 262,600 post-secondary teachers.  (These data come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics snapshot for 2008 (link).)  So a small but meaningful proportion of the US population have advanced degrees and intellectual credentials.  They are a core segment of the audience for public intellectuals. And, of course, you don’t have to be an academic to be an intellectual.

Further, there are a host of specialists and experts on specific crises — environment, finance, globalization, war — who are called upon to comment on specific issues, and there are specialized “think tanks” that promote and disseminate research on critical public issues.  Moreover, voices like that of Bill Moyers have offered critical and nuanced perspectives on public television (link) (regrettably, now off the air).  And the United States has a number of prominent academics who speak to a broad public — Henry Louis Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Walzer, and James Gustave Speth, to name a few.  So there is a domain of intellectual discourse that succeeds in escaping the confines of the academic world and the limiting echo-chamber of cable television; this domain helps to create and feed an intellectual public.

Overall, it seems fair to say that public intellectuals have little influence on public opinion and public policy in the US today.  Perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) still has a lot of validity.  But maybe, just maybe, it is also possible that the Internet is beginning to offer a bigger footprint for serious analysis and criticism for the American public and American policy makers.  Perhaps there is a broadening opportunity for intellectuals to help define the future for the United States and its role in the world.  And perhaps we can be more like France in this important dimension.

Marc Bloch and the French social sciences

Marc Bloch was one of the twentieth century’s most important and pathbreaking historians.  Several features of his work are particularly important: his attention to the specifics of medieval economic institutions, his interest in historically specific customs and practices, and his interest in uncovering the social and technical characteristics of medieval agriculture.  He helped to define contemporary social history and economic history.  (See an earlier post on Bloch’s historical writings.)  Somehow Bloch developed a way of thinking about the history of France that deeply incorporated some of the mental frameworks of the emerging social sciences — geography and sociology, for example — at a time when mainstream French history was still very much driven by the chronicling of events and personages. As a discipline, history in France was very specifically defined in terms of its definition of subject matter and historical method, and Bloch’s historiography challenged some very important pillars of this framework.  Along with Lucien Febvre he created the intellectual impetus that led to several generations of deeply innovative historical research within the Annales school.  So it is an interesting question for the sociology of knowledge to trace out some of the influences that were present in the 1890s and 1900s in French intellectual life that propelled Bloch’s development.  (The topic has some parallels to an earlier posting on “The history of sociology as sociology.”)

Susan Friedman’s Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing Disciplines provides an excellent and detailed study of the intellectual and academic context in which Bloch’s development occurred. (The book is also available in a much more affordable Kindle edition, and here is a link to the Google Books version.)  Friedman documents a major methodological debate, extended over roughly the decade surrounding 1903, concerning the relevance of geography and sociology to academic history.  The debate was in part intellectual — how should the new ideas emerging from these social-science disciplines be incorporated into history?  But it was also institutional: how should the new disciplines of geography and sociology be represented within the university and the qualification system?  The École Normale Supérieure (ENS), the Collège de France, and the Sorbonne and their students and faculty played crucial roles throughout the debates.  The key figures in these debates were Durkheim and his followers, including especially François Simiand; Vidal and the young scholars who wanted to extend Vidal’s ideas of human geography; and the defenders of traditional French historiography, centered around Charles Seignobos.  (Interestingly enough, Marc Bloch’s father, Gustave Bloch, was an important voice on the side of history in this debate.)

Friedman sets up the institutional context of the French university (and the process of reform that was underway) at roughly the turn of the twentieth century, and she skillfully and knowledgeably traces through the intellectual debates and networks that provided the context to Bloch’s development.  The book is of great value for any reader wanting to come to a better knowledge of the intellectual and institutional currents that shaped French intellectual life in the early twentieth century — and particularly valuable if we are interested in learning more about the micro-development of Durkheimian sociology.  The book offers a detailed account of the development of the Durkheimian school of sociology and the approach to “human geography” championed by Paul Vidal de la Blache, and the controversies that arose between both schools and mainstream history.  (Here is a summary description of Vidal’s theories of human geography and parallel thinking by Friedrich Ratzel.)

The central divides in these debates have a strikingly contemporary sound to them.  Main themes included:

  • Can history be a “scientific” discipline?  What does this require?
  • Is sociology subsumed under history or is history subsumed under sociology?
  • Can social facts be explained by anything other than social facts (Durkheim)?  (This cuts against both the historians, who want to explain social outcomes in terms of individual motives; and the geographers, who want to explain social outcomes in terms of physiographic features such as mountains, soil fertility, or river systems.)
  • Should history study “events” or “processes, customs, and institutions”?
  • What is a social or historical cause?  Is there a distinction between causes and conditions?
  • Should history focus its attention on the particulars of a given historical event or period; or should it use methods of comparison to arrive at generalizations and laws?

In reading Friedman’s account of these debates, it is tempting to consider which positions were the most productive in the long term.  The Durkheimians’ insistence on the autonomy of social facts, their inflexible holism, and their insistence on discovering general social laws all seem like mis-steps from the contemporary point of view.  They leave little room for social contingency and variation across social circumstances; and they leave no room whatsoever for an “agent-centered” approach to social and historical explanation.  Given these shortcomings, it is perhaps a good thing that the Durkheimians never fully dominated the history profession.  The Vidalians — the human geographers — seem like an improvement in each of these respects.  Their approach emphasizes regional variation; they are eclectic in their openness to a variety of types of historical causes; and they emphasize the crucial importance of paying attention in detail to the particulars of a case.  Their weakness, however, is a relative lack of attention to the specifics of social institutions.  But best of all is the historian who learns something from each perspective but then constructs his own intellectual framework for the historical setting of interest to him.

And in fact, this latter position seems to be the one that Bloch took.  Friedman argues that Bloch’s historical sensibilities and methods were deeply influenced by these debates among the historians, sociologists, and geographers; but that ultimately his thinking remains “historical.”

Even in his later years when he came closest to Durkheimian sociology, Marc Bloch remained essentially an historian.  He was an historian in the sense that his primary interests lay in change and differences rather than laws and theory and that the problems which he chose to address were human ones rather than those of the physical environment. (chapter 10)

It is interesting to observe that the writings of Marx and the ideas of historical materialism do not come into this story at any point.  These currents do not appear to have played a significant role in the academic debates over the future of French history in 1900.  Friedman observes that Bloch was impressed by Marx.  She notes that he wrote to Febvre “that he was considering using Marx to bring some ‘fresh air into the Sorbonne’ and that though he suspected that Marx was a ‘poor philosopher’ and probably also an ‘unbearable man,’ Marx was without a doubt a great historian” (Kindle loc 223-35).  But there is no indication in this book about what role Marx’s writings played in his development. And even the statement about being a “great historian” is somewhat mysterious, since the bulk of Marx’s work was plainly theoretical and immersed in political economy rather than historical research and narrative.  (See an earlier posting on primitive accumulation and a posting on Marx’s strengths and weaknesses as an historian.)

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