Bourdieu and Miss France — Respect for Théorie

July 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that a former Miss America some years later becomes a lawyer and eventually the director of the Miss America pageant. Now imagine that in a magazine interview, she says, “I don’t think Goffman’s concept of moral career is quite adequate to my trajectory.” And then, imagine that the magazine uses that as the pull quote in its article about her.

Multiply those small fractional chances, and you wind up with a probability of less than “ain’t gonna happen.”

But in France. . .

(Click on the image for a larger view, but you still won't be able to read it.)

Sylvie Tellier was chosen as Miss France in 2002. She is now director of that contest. I failed to come up with a good analogy for the US – an American sociologist whose name and key vocabulary terms would be recognized by the readers of a general-interest weekly. I chose Goffman faute-de-mieux.

The image tweeted is from Le Journal du Dimanche. The print is too small to read, and the current issue is not yet available online, but the pull quote circled by the person who tweeted this says, “J’ai décidé que la théorie de Bourdieu sur la reproduction sociale ne tomberait pas sur moi.” (Also note that you can now tweeter “WTF”  en français as well.)

Here in the US, there has been much hand-wringing, especially on the left, over the anti-science stance of those on the other side of the cultural divide and their refusal to acknowledge the facts – facts about climate change or evolution or the effects of tax cuts, and so on. But, at least in the French view, Americans across the political spectrum are also suspicious of theory – philosophy and abstract intellectualism – which the French, by contrast treat with far more respect.

There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played a such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies, and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstraction. [Emile de Montégut, quoted in Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think (2015)]

That was written in 1858. Thirty years earlier, Tocqueville had a contrasting observation about the US.

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

More than a century later, journalist Adam Gopnik was struck by this same contrast when was fact-checking an article. His French sources were highly skeptical of the whole enterprise of fact-checking.*

Dubious look; there is More Here Than Meets the Eye. . . .There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.

I was baffled and exasperated by this until it occurred to me that you would get exactly the same incomprehension and suspicion if you told American intellectuals and politicians, post-interview. . . .

“In a couple of weeks a theory checker will be in touch with you.”

Alarmed, suspicious: “A what?”

“You know, a theory checker. Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

. . . A theory checker? What an absurd waste of time, since it’s apparent (to us Americans) that people don’t speak in theories, that the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation, that the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of theoretical constancy is an absurd denial of what conversation is. (pp. 95-96)

* I used much of this same material in this blog post ten years ago.


Anonymous said...

Pardon my French, but it's "faute de mieux" (not "faut-de-mieux") ;)

Jay Livingston said...

Right. It's now corrected. Thanks.

Elodie Fabre said...

Funny. However I can tell you that France has now embraced fact-checking. The fact-checkers of newspaper Liberation now even collaborate with Arte (Franco-German TV channel) for a weekly fact-checking programme.