American Sociological Association

Michèle Lamont

Michèle Lamont
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Michèle Lamont

Michèle Lamont, Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, is a powerhouse of intellect, spirit, and moral commitment. I want to introduce the 2017 ASA President with a sentence from her 2012 Annual Review of Sociology paper, “Toward a Comparative Sociology of Valuation and Evaluation.” She begins boldly with, “What can be done to ensure that a larger proportion of the members of our society can be defined as valuable?” Substitute for “our society” “all societies” and you have the driving issue that animates Michèle Lamont’s remarkable fusion of action, passion, and scholarly brilliance.

Michèle’s energy is legendary, but even those who know her very well might be astounded at the variety of tasks she has undertaken, all while maintaining a powerful focus on her own scholarship. In addition to serving as the incoming ASA President, Michèle is also Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, Co-Director of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and she sits on a number of advisory boards. All this activity and her many honors might lead one to imagine that perhaps she shirks her other responsibilities or roles as teacher, mentor, parent, spouse, and friend. This could not be further from the truth.

From the Students

The testimony of her students is remarkable. Stefan Beljean, who has worked with Michèle for five years, expresses the overwhelming consensus: “What stands out about Michèle as an advisor is her exceptional intellectual and emotional investment in her students. Because she is this way with virtually all of her advisees and because there are so many of us, she has become somewhat of a legend in our department, not just among her own advisees. Legendary are also the parties that she and Frank throw at least once a year for their grad students.” Warm and supportive, Michèle is nonetheless admired (and loved) for her toughness. Chris Bail, a Harvard advisee, now Assistant Professor at Duke, notes that: “In retrospect what I appreciate most about her as an advisor was that she was always tougher on me than anyone else, but delivered this—sometimes devastating—criticism with the kind of remarkable patience and good cheer that made me feel wholly confident that I could continuously improve. Though I saw her receive many accolades during my time in graduate school, I think none was more precious to her than the mentoring and advising award she won from the graduate school at Harvard.”

Lauren Rivera, now at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, affirms Michèle’s personal, professional, and intellectual inspiration: “Michèle truly taught me how to navigate the discipline: everything from how to frame an argument or tackle a manuscript revision to how to cultivate a strong academic network within (and outside) the field. She encourages her students to be intellectually curious and engaged with the discipline and each other, as sources of inspiration, support, and friendship.” Caitlin Daniel, one of Michèle’s current students, describes a generous and committed mentor: “Michèle’s ability to write books and articles on a diverse range of topics, give talks on multiple continents in the same month, teach, provide stunningly prompt feedback on students’ work, and somehow reply to emails within just hours highlights her never-flagging dual commitment to scholarship and to guiding the next generation of scholars.”

Brilliant and Effective

Michèle is a committed, brilliant, and incredibly effective person. I can testify personally to some of what she achieves in her extraordinary array of scholarly institution-building. With Peter Hall (of Harvard’s Government Department), she is the founding co-director of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), of which I was a member. I saw Michèle beguile the program administrators (most with PhDs in the natural sciences) by introducing them to the power of sociological understandings of inequality, organize thrice-yearly meetings, drawing in a remarkable range of interdisciplinary scholars for each meeting, and give many talks illustrating the intellectual payoff of the broad interdisciplinary groups CIFAR creates. Under Lamont and Hall’s leadership, the Successful Societies Program produced two widely influential volumes, Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era (2013) and Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Matter for Health (2009), with a third volume in the works. In all these endeavors, Michèle also retains a sense of humor.

Michèle has shown similar energy in running Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International affairs, one of the two largest social science research centers at Harvard and the largest center for international scholarship. There, in addition to strengthening the center’s dynamic presence at Harvard, she is organizing a research program on comparative inequality, which aims to analyze recognition and distribution as two complementary dimensions of inequality. Michèle’s Harvard colleague Jason Beckfield adds to this picture of a gifted institution builder: “With all that she takes on, it is astounding that Michèle somehow finds time and energy to be a generous friend, supportive colleague, and a star departmental citizen. One of her most impressive accomplishments was to guide the development of a new system of faculty mentoring as Harvard transitioned to a tenure-track system. She contributes so much heart and soul by marking important occasions in the lives of colleagues, and celebrating colleagues’ successes.”

As Lamont has encouraged her students to reach across the discipline, she herself has a vibrant collegial network. Wendy Espeland at Northwestern says, “Talking to Michèle makes my head buzz with ideas. Her comments inevitably make a paper better, and if she tells me to read something, I do, because I know it will be spot-on for whatever I am thinking about.” Karin Knorr Cetina, University of Chicago, describes Michèle as “an impossible dream come true—a distinguished scholar with a knack for paradigm-changing research—a fantastic colleague, and a responsive friend with a wonderful family. I have always wondered: Who wouldn’t want to be like Michèle? Her enthusiasm for sociology’s vital role in explaining and interpreting 21st-century societies and her skill in critically examining our world are unparalleled.”

Mario Small of Harvard, who was at Chicago when he, Michèle, and David Harding co-edited the important volume, Reconsidering Culture and Poverty, said “In public and in private, Michèle is a force of nature. Pursuing multiple research agendas—on symbolic boundaries, on criteria of evaluation, on culture and behavior, on successful societies, and more—with an extraordinary level of intellectual commitment, Michèle has become a role model for many. Her first major paper was an imaginative study of Jacques Derrida, titled ‘How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher.’ Today, several generations of researchers would be inspired by what would surely be a fascinating sequel: ‘How to Become Michèle Lamont.’”

Her Quebecoise Origins

Lamont’s deepest intellectual commitments—to the sociology of culture as meaning making and to understanding how culture shapes inequality—surely originate in her Quebecoise origins, in an era when French Canadians, fiercely proud of their culture and history, were a stigmatized group within the dominant Canadian narrative. Coming of age during the peak of the Quebec independence movement (she started college the year the Parti Quebecois was elected for the first time), she recounted in a recent Sociology interview, “I was marked by this experience of mobilization for collective affirmation.” Educated in French, the only one of four siblings who did not join the family business, Lamont was first drawn to Marxist social theory. At 20, precocious and intrepid, she headed to Paris arriving the same year Bourdieu’s Distinction was published in French. At Bourdieu’s seminar she befriended a rising generation of scholars, among them the (now) neo-pragmatists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, who were starting to ask new questions about how social actors coordinate their action and make sense of their environment. Questions of how individuals and institutions make distinctions, how they evaluate people, academic fields (the subject of her dissertation), or groups as more or less worthy—and the question of how standards of evaluation can become more pluralistic and boundaries more permeable—have shaped Lamont’s career.

There is also another element necessary for understanding Lamont’s intellectual trajectory. Having completed a dissertation in 1983 at age 25 on the growth of the social sciences and the decline of the humanities in Quebec, Lamont went from Bourdieu’s Paris to Stanford as a post-doctoral fellow. I was at Stanford then, and I remember her well: her striking European style (those red shoes!), her intellectual ambition, but especially the complex encounter between French social theory and mainstream American sociology. Rather than being crushed by the Stanford conviction that there was one legitimate way to do sociology, Lamont blossomed. She adopted a powerful element of the reigning model—a commitment to systematic empirical research—but stayed true to her own questions, to the central role of culture and social theory, and to the use of rich qualitative methods in important social research. (The years at Stanford were formative in another sense: there Michèle met the brilliant Frank Dobbin, to whom she has been married for 29 years.)

Her Empirical Projects

While Lamont has published scores of influential articles and edited collections, the heart of her scholarship are four ambitious, original empirical projects, each of which produced a major book.

Each book focuses on shared concepts of worth and excellence and their impact on social hierarchies. Each book goes more deeply than the last into the processes by which such hierarchies are created and can be altered. The first, Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (1992), was revolutionary in multiple ways. First, while it was based on qualitative interviews with upper middle-class men in France and the U.S., its method was rigorously comparative. Second, Lamont asked questions of those she interviewed that hadn’t been asked before—what we could consider Bourdieusian questions. She asked men what they looked for in a friend, what kinds of people they admired, whom they felt superior to and why, whom they felt inferior to and why. Money, Morals, and Manners revealed the deep cultural logics underlying the different ways French and American upper-middle classes drew distinctions, and it introduced the sociological concept of “symbolic boundaries,” contrasting the ways those boundaries were drawn.

Money, Morals, and Manners was revolutionary in another sense. While the initial questions were certainly inspired by Bourdieu’s work, its findings demonstrated that the sort of “distinction” that mattered in France—the devotion to high culture, for example—mattered much less in the U.S. where elites distinguished themselves by the wealth they had achieved and, especially, by what they took to be their superior “morality.” She stretched Bourdieu in new directions, raising questions about the ways categories and boundaries are differently constructed across societies.

The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (2000) explores inequality, both cross-nationally and across class and race, delving deeply into the sources of and alternatives to the pernicious understandings of superiority and inferiority within and across groups. Her research compares the hierarchies of inequality across race, class, and national contexts, comparing Blacks and Whites in the U.S. with native French and North Africans in France. The Dignity of Working Men’s most important theoretical breakthrough is that it reveals not only how inequality and difference are understood across societies, but also how those who are stigmatized in various ways have a powerful sense of dignity and develop anti-racist discourses.

This insight became the core of Lamont’s enormously ambitious third project on culture and inequality (leaving aside her book on peer review, How Professors Think), Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel, with Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis (2016). Lamont led a collective effort over 10 years, in collaboration with American, Brazilian, and Israeli colleagues. Getting Respect develops an original perspective on the comparative study of stigmatization and discrimination, exploring the ways disadvantaged groups respond to unfair treatment. It looks systematically at differences in perceptions of incidents of ethno-racial exclusion and individual and collective responses to incidents across five groups: African Americans, Black Brazilians, and three groups in Israel: Palestinians, Ethiopian Jews, and Mizrahim. In so doing, it sheds new light on how blackness is experienced across national contexts.

Yes, Michèle Lamont is indeed a powerhouse, but she also knows how to live life to the fullest. She and Frank have three children, a 19-year-old daughter now at UCLA and 15-year-old twins—a boy and a girl. From years of friendship and collaboration with Michèle, I know that at any given moment, even while producing research, she is likely to be off skiing with her children in Canada, travelling with her family in China, or just having fun with those she loves.

Given Michele’s academic and professional achievements, we are fortunate to have her as the 2017 American Sociological Association President and as the Chair of the ASA Annual Meeting in Montreal. How fitting! For more information on the theme she has chosen, “Culture, Inequalities, and Social Includion Across the Globe,” see www.asanet.org/annual-meeting-2017.  

 

Ann Swidler, University of California-Berkeley

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