Fear of Déclassement

Fear of falling or peur du déclassement – the fear of downward social mobility – has been a topic in several French publications. First, the déclassement concept has been recently developed by sociologist Camille Peugny:

This topic has been also addressed in a couple of articles in Le Monde.

There is a certain irony to Sarkozy’s campaign promise to allow people to “work more to earn more” right before a recession that generates a lack of employment and declining income. Otherwise, it was par for the course of conservative / neo-liberal fetishization of work. In such thinking, the only “good” citizen is the middle-class, law-abiding, hard-working individual and, in Sarkozy’s perspective, equal redistribution through social benefits such as vacations and 35 hour workweek are an impediment to individual accumulation.

But as the article notes, two years after the campaign, the fear of falling is still here, not just because of the recession and the increased rate of unemployment but because the French society seems structurally stuck and that is a major source of social anxiety. This social anxiety is the topic of Eric Maurin‘s latest book. But for Maurin, one must distinguish between the subjective (yet socially-constructed and maintained) fear of falling from thre objective probability of such brutal downward mobility, which affects mostly the already-marginalized categories of the population.

As Maurin notes, the fear of falling is widespread across social classes. What is happening in France is that public policy has long been designed to protect those who already have a job rather than adequately support those who don’t. As a result, there is a widening social gap between status workers (those with indefinite contracts) and those affected by precarization and it is more and more difficult for the latter category to join the former.

These specific statuses are the products of social conflicts that are now strongly embedded in the social structure, just as statuses used to be family inheritance under the Ancien Régime (Sarkozy’s son notwithstanding). This makes the French society more rigid than other developed counterparts and it makes entering the labor market more difficult. In this context, college degree have become more and more crucial, and with it, the fear of failing is omnipresent because so much is at stake. Credentialism then becomes an important factor in the degree of precarization one experiences.

One strategy then adopted by young workers is to look more and more for employment in the public sector and the social protections this type of employment provides. This has resulted in a phenomenon of overqualification as people trade qualification and money for job security. Which, for Maurin, means that no government will be able to reform the public sector since its employees worked so hard to work there, as was already illustrated by the social movement of 1995 (Hey, I was there!). This shift of the middle-class more heavily into public employment is perfectly illustrated by the results of two referenda on the EU: the success of the vote on the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and the rejection of the EU Constitution in 2005. The transition from one type of vote to the other corresponds to the greater presence of educated middle-class in the public sector and the need to protect their statute.

As a result, the middle-class public employees also become the representatives of the privately-employed middle-class in their rejection of neo-liberal policies implemented by the elites. But, for Maurin, the economic recession will push the government to limit its expenses, which will conflict with public sector employees in the defense of their statute.

What are the solutions then? For Maurin, the conundrum is that the possible responses to the déclassement are contradictory to the responses of the fear of déclassement. In order to avoid déclassement, public policies should involve strengthening social protections that already privilege the already-employed (such as bringing back the administrative authorization for lay-offs). And to alleviate the fear of déclassement, public policy should strive to reduce the gap between statutory employees, who are relatively protected, and those who experience greater precarization.

I think Maurin thinks too much in binary “vases communiquants” terms: either take away the protections of the already-employed to provide more to the precarized, or continue the status quo that is detrimental to the non-statutory workers. Ultimately, he wishes for more universal protections but there is no real specifications of what he means: lower levels of protection for all as some sort of balancing act, “rob Peter to pay Paul” kind of thing? He does not say.

In Praise of Strong Social(ist) Policy

Based on very serious OECD data that compares various measures of leisure in its countries,  France rules. (see also Jay Livingston on this) So, why does France stand out? First, the French sleep more:

French Sleep

It is obviously a clear-cut result (must be all that great s-e-x). Contrast that to South Korea and Japan at the other end of the graph. But that is not all, the French also spend more time eating (not eating more):

French Food

Both indicators point to quality of life. We know that not sleeping enough or eating badly quantitatively and qualitatively are central to health. Spending time to sit down and eat is both healthy and a matter of sociability as opposed to a utilitarian conception of eating (such grab-and-go, fast food, vending machine cardboard all eaten while walking or driving back to work).

Indeed, considering cultural and social differences in relation to food and eating as social practice:

Lucky kids, I remember eating in school in my years as a "pionne" and the food could be awful… but with diversity! Mostly, that was when principles hired industrial food companies to save money. But anyway, the OECD report is full of other interesting data, such as the persistent gender gap in leisure time:

Gender Leisure

This graph measures the leisure gap in minutes per day, with the most extreme gap in Italy and a woman advantage in Norway. Norway, along with Sweden and New Zealand, is indeed close to equality in leisure time but all the other countries have more significant gaps. One could relate that to Arlie Hochschild’s now classical concept of the Second Shift that deprives women of leisure time that men can enjoy (or often feel they are entitled to). But it is also clearly a matter of patriarchal culture.

Leisure is an important measure because it does correlate positively with satisfaction with one’s life:

Leisure Satisfaction

Leisure is also positively correlated with income, but as the report notes, it might be because as income increases, demand for more leisure time might increase as well.

And this graph is even more dramatic… compare the USA with the other OECD countries:


Yup, 0 in both categories (annual paid vacations in grey and paid holidays in blue). I wish Lane Kenworthy would weigh in on this but my simplistic take is that there is no conflict between strong social policy and productivity and income. And indeed, the report itself notes that there are therefore many possibilities open to governments in terms of social and public policy on matters of leisure.

Maurice Druon (1918 – 2009)

This will only mean anything to my French friends and colleagues.

Druon was a member of the French Resistance co-author of the Resistance song Le Chant des Partisans (lyrics here)

He was also the author of the French contemporary classic Les Rois Maudits (which also became a masterpiece of television, both in 1972, and then remade in 2005)

Aux Armes, Citoyens! Economic Disintegration and Social Movements

Strike Today, 190 demonstrations should take place in France, supported by eight different unions to protest the French government’s response to the economic crisis. Sociologist Denis Muzet, of Mediascopie, offers his view, in Le Monde, on this social context in which large-scale protest social movements are likely to emerge. For him, we need a new moral and social contract.

Muzet notes that research has shown that a few weeks ago, French people were shocked by the scale of the crisis but were not panicking about it. Now, there is much more anger based on news such as the fact that banks have published profits while at the same time receiving 20 billion Euros in government help all the while refusing to give up or reduce their bonus. This feeds into a profound sense of injustice that can lead to social unrest even though the French social safety net has mitigated somewhat the worst impact of the crisis.

But what still feeds this sense of injustice is only partially economic and social. It is a moral crisis as well, a crisis of meaning. The complete devotion to profits at the expense of the human element is what is coming crashing down right now. The sheer number attached to financial losses is amazing. A whole social and moral structure is collapsing. Here, Muzet sounds very Durkheimian, talking about something that sounds a lot like anomie. And anomie can lead to chaos accompanied with a loss of social solidarity as people witness the excesses of the privileged class.

At the same time, the media themselves have fed this trend by framing the crisis almost exclusively in terms of social anxiety while politicians (Sarkzy and Obama, I might add) engage in dramaturgy (as Muzet notes) to present themselves as saviors. Again, here , Muzet notes the absence of coherent narrative. Interestingly, you would have to read sociological and economic blogs for that (such as Pual Krugman or Ian Welsh).

So, in this context, bailouts and stimulus bills with big numbers attached to them do not do the trick. What is the point of investing or consuming if one does not know what is going to happen? Discourse of meaning and of crisis exit is lacking. And such a framing discourse, for Muzet, needs to involve a new social and moral contract based on ecology, sustainable growth and social solidarity. Muzet’s studies reveal that the French see the state as the emergency paramedics but don’t think the state will be the main agency to get out of the crisis since so many states have been submerged and overwhelmed by the amplor of the crisis. For them, the role of the state is to not let the social structure collapse completely. At the same time, they do blame the state for letting this happen through liberalization and deregulation. In these studies, the French reveal that they understand that new modes of consumption and social organizations are needed.

Unions also have a strong part to play but their credibility is limited as well. And let’s not talk about the current political opposition. Muzet’s point is that the solutions to the crisis cannot be exclusively economic but have to be social as well. A purely quantitative and economist vision will not do the trick but as long as the media and the political sphere are stuck in (1) panic mode, and (2) economic determinism + consumerism, no solution will emerge and a profound social crisis with strong social movements is a very real possibility.

Disaster Sociology

Over at the great Economic Sociology blog, Brooke Harrington has a very interesting post comparing the unfolding of the current economic crisis with the advent of the AIDS epidemic.

More specifically, Doctor Harrington is concerned here with social epidemiology: the social processes and factors that facilitate (or slow down) the spread of an epidemic, be it of a viral or economic nature. In the case she examines, she identifies three processes that turned things from bad to worse:

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of both the AIDS epidemic and the current financial meltdown. Neither happened out of nowhere or overnight. A few people raised the alarm but were ignored for a variety of reasons, which themselves have to do with social processes and dynamics which may include the structure of the power elite – the incestuous relationships between governmental economic elite and Wall Streeters – beliefs about the markets (something Thomas Frank described powerfully in One Market Under God) or group dynamics. In the case of AIDS, the fact that the initial victims belong to deviant and stigmatized categories of the population was a major factor as well.

Indeed, ideology played a major role in the Reagan administration’s "wait and see if it kills all the gays and junkies" attitude regarding AIDS. As for the financial crisis, it has been well established by now that it is partially the product of deregulation in the name of laissez-faire capitalism and the belief that the market can do no wrong. In both cases, the results were devastating.

So, Congress coughs up a big chunk of money for the banks to start lending again, and they keep it instead or buy other stuff with it. Possibly, it was because of the lack of trust that this would solve the problem or that these loans would be repaid at all.

This erosion of social capital contributes to making things worse when it is needed the most. Indeed, the damage done might have a long-lasting impact on the trust in government (helping big financial groups but not homeowners) and financial institutions. Contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such things as society, this reveals how individualism is not enough and that trust and cooperation are essential glues to social arrangements (shall we call that social solidarity? Who should I invoke, Durkheim or Veblen?).

Why French High Schools Should Teach Sociology and Economics Together

This is my rough summary / interpretation of Denis Colombi‘s blog post on the topic. Both my French fellow socbloggers Pierre Maura and Denis Colombi have been on strike and have demonstrated against a proposed reform of high school curriculum that would butcher the SES (Economic and Social Sciences) track. It is also in the context of a report advocating the separation of economics from the other social sciences that Colombi writes his post.

For him, to separate sociology and economics, in the context of general education in high schools, would be a serious mistake. There are sound educational reasons for their joining not only for the sake of social scientific education or general education, but especially for the development of critical thinking skills as necessary component of citizenship.

So why, then, teach sociology and economics together?

  • A similar apprehension of the social world

Sociology and economics are both social sciences… This should be obvious but quite often, in the media and common discourse, only one discipline is treated as a science, guess which one. What economists do is clear, what sociologists do, well, not so clear. At worst, sociology is seen as the discipline of hippies or worse, just seen as a variant of social work. Actually, analysts such as Thomas Frank have aptly demonstrated that orthodox economics can also be seen as a religion with its high priests, rituals and dogma.

However, whether recognized or not, both disciplines strive to objectively analyze social life and human activities in their social context. The social scientist applies the scientific method, which involves some distanciation from its object. This cognitive effort is the necessary preamble to any empirical study but it is actually harder to accomplish in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. This mental discipline is the first prerequisite of the social scientist (as I often tell my students, being a sociologist will make your life miserable).

From this perspective, sociology and economics are complementary: both require such objectivation, but they also have their distinctive approach to their objects of study although there is some overlap, Freakanomics showed that social objects can be studied economically, and we already know that economic sociology is a fertile field. The Durkheimian precept of eschewing commonsense and preconceptions remains valid for both disciplines, treat social facts as things. Leave ideologies behind, except as objects of study.

  • Sociology and Economics Share a Long History

The problem that arises then, for Colombi, is a familiar one for sociologists: economics, history and psychology have easy subject matters to identify and some degree of scientific respectability. What of sociology? Colombi argues that there is actually greater affinity between sociology and economics than with the disciplines listed above.

Indeed, the founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Pareto, or Simmel positioned their work with respect to economics and they certainly did not eschewed economic topics: division of labor, sociological explanations of economic behaviors and socio-economic changes, money. Colombi argues that sociology was born as reaction to economics. Since then, the relationships between the disciplines have not stopped, for better and for worse. Neither discipline can ignore the other as Colombi mentions the work of sociologists James Coleman or Jon Elster (the rational choice approach) as integration of economics into sociological analysis through their conceptualizations of social capital, for instance. And then, again, there is the entire field of economic sociology (but no sociological economics that I know of… the directionality is revealing… I would argue that sociologists are less reluctant to borrow insights from other social sciences in general and economics in particular, than the other way around even though economists borrow easily from psychology or history).

Now, from a strict institutional point of view, considering the disciplinary organization of academia both in terms of teaching and research, it makes sense to have separate departments even though there are constant academic discussions of interdisciplinarity and academic structures. But, for Colombi, at the high school level, we are talking about introductory courses where it makes sense to present both disciplines together to impart a minimum corpus of social scientific knowledge, outlining similarities and differences.

  • A Partially Common Epistemological Project

Both disciplines look for "laws" of society that govern behavior. This may seem like an old-fashioned and positivist way of putting it and early sociologists clearly saw the problems with putting things that way when it comes to human societies. Nevertheless, both disciplines look for predictive properties of social conditions and contexts (historical, social and economic). Now, no doubt here that economics tends to be more formal (in the sense of producing formal models) whereas sociology might be a more "historical" science (heck, just dig up Mill’s Sociological Imagination). These differences constitute a great learning oppotunity for students.

  • Points of Convergences and Dialogues

Why deprive students of the lively debates between the two disciplines through their proximity on certain topics rather than just present it to them as a cold canon "This is what sociology does, this is what economics does… it will be on the test, see you all next week."? For Colombi, it is such debates, doubts and uncertainties that make the social sciences come to life as interesting disciplines (I particularly love the way Denis describes these points of convergence: "heuristically fruitful… pedagogically useful"… I could never write like that!). For instance, Colombi uses examples from the study of collective action or the market as illustrations of topics where both disciplines contribute to illuminating different aspects of a given phenomenon.

  • Complementary Approaches to Understand Current Events

The point of the French system of secondary education is to produce citizens (and not just to cram for the bac!… no… really?), that is, to given students the critical thinking tools to understand the world in which they live. In this context, the pairing of sociology and economics makes sense as they help make sense of current events as they occur. Two tool boxes are better than one. It should be obvious to anyone, for instance, that understanding the current economic crisis requires the tools of both social sciences (but not limited to them). And how can we not discuss unemployment without discussing the socializing and integrating role of work and its importance in the development of networks (and the marginalization that results from the lack of such networks, as powerfully illustrated by Lapeyronnie’s study of the urban ghetto).

Students are constantly faced with media discourse that uses social scientific concepts and knowledge (not as much as I would like though). To understand and to be critical of such discourse requires knowing "the language" and the approaches. A one-sided education (limited to economics, for instance) would truncate students’ capacities to fully grasp and critically examine such discourse.

Finally, for Colombi, social-scientific education is one of the great education successes of the past fifty years. Why break it if it works?

Social Benefits Reduce Inequalities More Than Taxes

Via Le Monde, this is what comes out of a study by the French National Institute Statistics and Economic Studies (link to the English site of INSEE). This study shows that redistribution occurs mostly through social benefits rather than fiscal policy. According to INSEE, the richest categories have most benefited from the 2005 fiscal reform (yeah, I know, big surprise coming from a conservative government). This supposed simplification of the tax code should have resulted in lower tax rates. Overall, income tax contributes 26% of the decline in inequalities, that is 2% less than before the reform.

On the other hand, social benefits have a greater equalizing impact. The standard of living of the poorest 20% families is improved by 47% through the various benefits added to their income. At the other end of the social ladder, the system of wealth-based benefits decreases by 19% the standard of living of the richest 20%. In a separate study, INSEE reports that the richest 10% received 73% of the fiscal benefits. The effect seems to be neutral on the middle classes.

This has important implications for public policy. Although the current government prioritized the reduction of government spending, INSEE studies show that access to public services, especially education, health care and social housing, contributes twice as much to reducing inequalities than monetary transfers.

In other words, a government dedicated to the reduction of inequalities should focus more on the delivery of social benefits and access to quality public services, rather than tax cuts which tend to benefit the wealthy.

The Best and The Worst in Gender Equality

The World Economic Forum has just released its 2008 Gender Gap Index Report. According to Der Spiegel,

“The glass ceiling is alive and well, despite women across the world having increased access to health care and education. A new report published on Wednesday by the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that the gender gap persists in both the industrial and developing world. The 2008 Global Gender Gap Report predictably ranks the Nordic countries as having the greatest equality between the sexes, with Norway now replacing Sweden at the top of the list. Saudi Arabia, Chad and Yemen were the lowest ranked in the survey of 130 countries.”

Gender Gap

Unsurprisingly, we find the following countries at the bottom:

  • 126, Benin
  • 127, Pakistan
  • 128, Saudi Arabia
  • 129, Chad
  • 130, Yemen

The report found that on average women and men have reached near parity in access to education, health and survival. However, economically and politically the gap is still large. “The world’s women are nearly as educated and as healthy as men, but are nowhere to be found in terms of decision-making,” Saadia Zahidi, one of the authors of the report, told Reuters. “Given that women have almost closed the gap with men on health and education, it is a waste of their talents if they are not catching up in economics and politics.”

The report, which was drawn up by researchers at Harvard University, the University of California and the WEF, uses data from the United Nations and other sources to measure the gender gap in four areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.

Outside the Nordic region, which usually scores well in measures of gender equality, New Zealand, the Philippines, Ireland, the Netherlands and Latvia were in the Top Ten. Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain all fell back slightly but stayed in the top 20, while France made the biggest leap, from 51st in 2007 to 15th in 2008.”

France? What happened? Actually, a lot more women in government at different levels while overall levels of wage inequality have decreased. France now ranks number 4 when it comes to women in ministerial positions.

On the other hand the United States ranks 27th, a small junp from 31st thanks to more women in political office.


“The survey looks at the how well countries are dividing the resources and opportunities they have at their disposal between men and women, which explains why relatively poor countries like Lesotho or Sri Lanka were ranked in the top 20. “The index does not penalize those countries that have low levels of education overall, for example, but rather those where the distribution of education is uneven between women and men,” co-author Richard Hausmann of Harvard University, told Reuters ahead of the report’s publication.”

The criteria used to rank the countries are

  1. Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
  2. Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher-level education
  3. Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
  4. Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio

The report emphasizes that in times of economic crisis, women might be even more needed in politics and the economy.

Why is This Not on DVD Yet?

>As I was sick all last week, I really felt like watching this 1983 masterpiece but there’s no US DVD available… why not?? Every damn stupid TV show ever made is already on DVD but not this?? Damn!

Why do I love this movie?

  1. It’s fun.

  2. The basic premise is smart.

  3. It’s VERY French (even though the director is the great Italian master Ettore Scola)… anyone who’s not French might miss all the little cultural details that make this movie so great.

  4. It is VERY sociological… note the gender stuff in the first two clips and social class dynamics in this other clip with the 1936 flashback in the third one.

Welcome to The Corporate Financial State

So, Lehman Brothers go belly up, Bank of America buys Merrill Lynch… let’s say when there is only one financial company left standing and controlling credit cards, consumer credits, banking and saving, we nationalize it and make it a non-profit utility… Hey, that’s no more stupid than the current system.

And by the way, if US and European Banks decide to create an anti-bankruptcy fund (whatever happened to letting the market work its magic?? *She asks innocently*), it might be because they know things ain’t going to improve and they want to be the ones left standing. The careful 10?

  • Bank of America,
  • Citibank,
  • Goldman Sachs,
  • JPMorgan Chase,
  • Merrill Lynch,
  • Morgan Stanley,
  • Barclays,
  • Deutsche Bank
  • Crédit Suisse
  • UBS

Hey, Nicolas Sarkozy, !@#$ You!

You’d think the French Left would be all over this and would rip Sarko a new one. Especially regarding this monumental and yet oft-repeated piece of BS:

"Religion had an "irreplaceable role in the formation of the human conscience" and ethics."