Fighting Back Against Spontaneous Sociology

This is one of the very first things that students should learn in a sociology class (and the first paragraph of the first part of The Craft of Sociology):

“The sociologist’s struggle with spontaneous sociology is never finally won, and he must conduct unending polemics against the blinding self-evidences which all too easily provide the illusion of immediate knowledge and its insuperable wealth.” (13)

Case in point, this column by sociologist Fabien Truong in Libération, arguing that there is no such thing as a “jeune de banlieue”, which, in the French context, refers to adolescents from the suburban housing projects, low-class, often of North African background although most of them are French. This category has been a catch-all for all sorts of social deviances, from petty delinquency to quasi-organized criminal networks, to easy recruits for Muslim fundamentalist preachers. That category was especially solidified in the collective mind with the 2005 riots.

Truong strikes back:

“Ainsi, parler du «jeune de banlieue» revient à enfermer une jeunesse plurielle sous un stigmate unique – et donc bien pratique, la réduisant à l’image de la racaille incivile ou à celle de la victime sociale. Condamnable ou excusable. La réalité, c’est que ces images mentales font pschitt lorsque l’on observe les statistiques et que l’on travaille au quotidien avec cette jeunesse stigmatisée. Le jeune de banlieue n’existe pas. Il y a des jeunes en banlieues. Avec leurs trajectoires, leurs aspirations, leurs échecs et leurs succès individuels. En 2005, après la 21e nuit d’émeute, il y a eu 2 921 interpellations sur tout le territoire. A titre de comparaison, il y a, dans la seule Seine-Saint-Denis, 65 919 collégiens et 46 062 lycéens, soit plus de 110 000 jeunes… Tous les jeunes ne brûlent donc pas des voitures en banlieues.

Dans les lycées du 93, les difficultés scolaires sont bien réelles : 77,8 % de réussite au bac général contre 88,8 % en France. Soit un différentiel de 11 points de pourcentage. Mais elles ne sont finalement pas plus fortes qu’ailleurs si on prend la peine de s’interroger sur l’origine sociale de ces élèves : 43,7 % des collégiens du département ont des parents issus de CSP (catégorie socioprofessionnelle) défavorisées contre 33,9 % pour l’ensemble des collégiens de France. Un différentiel de près de 10 points de pourcentage !

Les lycéens du 93 ne réussissent donc pas scolairement moins bien que les autres. Ils réussissent moins bien parce qu’ils sont issus des classes populaires, ce qui est un résultat malheureusement classique de la sociologie depuis les années 60 et qui s’explique par d’autres facteurs que celui du seul lieu d’habitation. Ils ont, au final, un comportement statistiquement normal et, si on ajoute au handicap social les effets pénalisants pour les carrières scolaires de l’immigration, de la stigmatisation et de la relégation urbaine, ils réussiraient même plutôt mieux que ce que leur profil sociologique laisse espérer ! Si on s’en tient au seul système scolaire, les jeunes en banlieues ne sont en aucun cas surdéterminés à devenir des adolescents en situation d’échec.

Ils n’ignorent rien du décalage qui existe entre leurs conditions de vie objectives et leur perception subjective par le reste de la société.


Il est temps d’en finir avec la vision stéréotypée du jeune de banlieue qui ne fait qu’accroître l’incompréhension entre la jeunesse plurielle de ces quartiers et le reste du pays. C’est dans l’usage incontrôlé de la langue que commence la discrimination, le sentiment d’injustice et la confusion des genres.”

Let me provide a rough summary of the argument for my non-French reading readers.

To speak of “jeune de banlieue” (youth from the projects, singular, because it’s one big one-dimensional category) is to create a stigmatized and stigmatizing homogeneous category. It reduces a variety of individuals to stereotypes such as the uncivil riff-raff or the social victim. They are to be condemned or to be excused. Either way, there is a denial of nuance and agency (beyond delinquency). In reality, when one looks at the statistics of this population, these stereotypes are out the window (aren’t they always?). For Truong, there is no such as thing as “youth from the projects” but rather “youths IN the projects”.

Moreover, these adolescents do struggle in school. There is no denying it. Their rate of success at the Baccalaureat (the grueling end-of-secondary education exams) is lower than the national average (77.8% versus 88.8% respectively), so, yes, an 11% gap but this has a lot more to do with their unprivileged background than anything else. For instance, 43.7% of middle-school students are from lower-class in the projects, compared to a national average of 33.9%. A 10-point gap. So, it is not that these adolescents do significantly worse in school, it is that they accumulate disadvantages. Something that sociology has pointed out since, oh, the 1960s. Class and social disadvantages count more than just residency.

If anything else, these students are not doing so badly when one adds to their social disadvantages the stigmatization of an immigrant background, of living in the projects, which, in France, means living in the periphery and to be part of what Manuel Castells has called the Fourth World. But being a youth from the project in and of itself does not over-determine one’s trajectory towards failure and delinquency.

So, for Truong, it is time to end this stereotypical construction and perception of these adolescents as these construction and perception only increase a complete lack of understanding of these youths. It is through this uncontrolled use of language that discrimination, feelings of injustice and confusion emerge and muddy the water of social policy. Actually, I would take it one step further than Truong and argue that that is exactly the political point.

In other words, for me, “jeune de banlieue” is as much a moral category (a stigmatized one, to be sure) rather than a social one, but it makes for easy resonance with public opinion. People know exactly who is being talked about under that label that has the merit of glossing over if not totally eliminate the social conditions of production of said label. Once the label has been created, one that associates asocial behavior with place and location, then, the next step is to explain everything by “culture” and contrast such culture of the project with the equally socially construction “mainstream” culture, note the differences and then explain what is social disadvantage in reality, as a product of dysfunctional culture (the culture of poverty argument). Neat trick.

That is why one of Durkheim’s first precept of the sociological method was to reject spontaneous sociology and its illusion of transparency. Hence the centrality of the principle of non-consciousness. Back to The Craft of Sociology:

“Artificialism, the illusory representation of the genesis of social facts according to which the social scientist can understand and explain these facts merely through ‘his own private reflection’ rests, in the last analysis, on the presupposition of innate wisdom which, being rooted in the sense of familiarity, is also the basis of the spontaneous philosophy of knowledge of the social world. Durkheim’s polemic against artificialism, psychologism, or moralism is simply the counterpart of the postulate that social facts ‘have a constant mode of being, a nature that does not depend on individual arbitrariness and from which there derive necessary relationships’ [Durkheim, text no. 7]. Marx was saying the same thing when he posited that ‘in the social production of their life, men enter into determinate relations that are necessary and independent of their will’; and so was Weber, when he refused to reduce the cultural meaning of actions to the subjective intentions of the actors. Durkheim, who insists that the sociologist must enter the social world as one enters an unknown world, give Marx credit for having broken with the illusion of transparency: ‘We think it a fertile idea that social life must be explained, not by the conception of it created by those who participate in it, but by profound causes which escape awareness. [Durkheim, text no.8]” (15)

And that is tough one, as most sociologists know:

“If spontaneous sociology reappears so insistently and in such different guises in would-be scientific sociology, this is probably because  sociologists who seek to reconcile the scientific project with affirmation of the rights of the person – the right to free action and the right to full consciousness of action – or who simply fail to subject their practice to the fundamental principles of the theory of sociological knowledge, inevitably return to the naive philosophy of action and of the subject’s relation to his action which is applied in their spontaneous sociology by subjects concerned to defend the lived truth of their experience of social action. The resistance that sociology arouses when it endeavours to dispossess immediate experience of its gnoseological  privilege is inspired by the same humanistic philosophy of human action as a certain type of sociology, which, by employing, for example, concepts such as ‘motivation’, or preferring to address questions of ‘decision-making’, fulfills, in its own way, the naive wish of every social subject. Seeking to remain the master and possessor of himself and of his own determinations (even if he grants them unconsciousness), the naive humanist who lurks inside every man resents as a ‘sociologistic’ or ‘materialist’ reduction every attempt to establish that the meaning of the most personal and ‘transparent’ action does not belong to the subject who performs them but to the complete system of relations in which and through which it is enacted.” (17)

Emphasis mine. Artificialism, psychologism and moralism all belong to that category that miss the main point of explaining the social by the social and only the social and unveiling the set of relations (structure, history and power) embedded in every action.

I cannot emphasize enough how central the principle of non-consciousness is:

“The principle of non-consciousness requires one to construct the system of objective relations in which individuals are located, which are expressed more adequately in the economy or morphology of groups than in the subjects’ opinions and declared intentions. Far from the description of individual attitudes, opinions, and aspirations being able to provide the explanatory principle of the functioning of an organization, it is an understanding of the objective logic of organization that leads to the principle capable of additionally explaining individual attitudes, opinions and, aspirations.” (18)

And so, to accept the label “jeune de banlieue” at face value, as an objective category is precisely to engage in artificialism and moralism. It is also to contribute to the reproduction of structural violence and power embedded in the label itself. As such, “jeune de banlieue” is not an objective description of a set of social relations but rather a stigmatized label carrying with it political implications. To use this as a starting point to sociological argument would be to make exactly the mistake described above of using prenotions and rejecting the principle of non-consciousness.

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