In Conversation with...Michèle Lamont

Interview by Kristin Caulfield and Megan Margulies

Michèle Lamont, Director-Designate, reflects on teaching and her collaborative research on inequality.

Image of Michèle LamontCome fall 2015, Michèle Lamont will begin a five-year term as Center Director. As Lamont looks ahead to her upcoming directorship, she is hoping to contribute to reshaping the overall landscape of the social sciences at Harvard. Her plans for the Center will appear in a future Centerpiece article when her term begins.

When we sat down with Professor Lamont she was in the midst of preparing the prestigious Adorno lectures to be delivered in June at the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, Germany, under the title “Worlds of Worth: Cultural Processes of Inequality.”

As a young scholar coming up the ranks, she received tenure at Princeton University in 1993 with her first book, Money, Morals and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class, and was later appointed full professor in 2000 with her second book, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class and Immigration. She came to Harvard University in 2003 and was appointed Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies in 2006. Owing to her interest in the transformation of collective identity over the past thirty years, Lamont moved away from her original focus on class to study race and stigmatization and is now focusing on the cultural processes by which classification systems feed into inequality.

A fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Lamont has codirected its research program on Successful Societies since 2002 with Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate, Peter A. Hall. She has served as a consultant to the World Bank and UNESCO, and is currently working on an international group project that focuses on responses to stigmatization and discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel. Lamont acknowledges that her intellectual agenda has benefitted enormously from her involvement in this NSF and Weatherhead Initiative supported interdisciplinary project.

Your current project, Responses to Stigmatization, is a cross-national exploration of how diverse minority groups deal with and respond to stigmatization in the course of their everyday lives. Can you tell us how the case studies and data were analyzed?

We had 150 interviews in each country and systematically asked questions such as: “Have you ever been treated unfairly? Describe the incidents.”; “How did you respond?”; and “What are the ideal tools that people in your group have to respond to discrimination?”

We then systematically compared the salience of various types of incidents across national contexts: confronting, what we called “managing the self” (e.g. avoiding anger, using humor), demonstrating work and competence, and more. We found very different patterns between the groups. For instance, African Americans believed they should confront racism as well as get an education and work hard. Then we considered the cultural repertoires that are likely to sustain such responses. In this case, we argued that confronting is a response enabled by the success of the civil rights movement while neoliberal themes relating to market competitiveness make working hard a more likely response. Self-improvement is a predominant type of ideal response for this group.

But when it came to responses to concrete events, we found different patterns. One teacher explained that when she walks into the teacher’s lounge and no one says hello to her, she considers whether to confront or to ignore the slight, and generally chooses the latter. However, African Americans generally agreed that one has to confront incidences of racism. What we are looking at in our research is a very detailed analysis of what the experience of stigmatization is like, and we provide an explanation for patterned differences.

In another example, we studied three ethnic groups in Israel: Palestinian Israelis, Mizrahim (Jews from the Middle East), and Ethiopian Jews (immigrants). These three groups have different types of collective identities and experience exclusion very differently. The book provides an explanation for how the institutional and cultural contexts in which these individuals live influence not only their experience of stigmatization and discrimination, but also possible responses. Respondents are mostly concerned with stigmatization—the experience of being ignored or overlooked, misunderstood, and isolated. But most of the literature is on discrimination. Our argument is that the texture of these experiences, and the responses, are significantly shaped by the extent to which each ethnic group sees themselves as a group.

In the case of African Americans, they readily have access to strong narratives about their historical experiences and how they’ve been discriminated against. They clearly think of themselves as a group. There are stories immediately available about how one reaches and gains cultural membership in our society and achieves the American dream. In contrast, Mizrahim are unclear about whether they are a group or not. They are a largely assimilated ethnic group, yet many of them will say they are discriminated against and presumed to be low class. The added value of our research is that we have these five groups whose experiences vary enormously—there is clearly a language to talk about discrimination in each group, but it is very different from one group to the next.

This research has been fed by the Successful Societies project with CIFAR. A few months ago, Peter Hall and I published a second book called Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era. We approach neoliberalism as an economic and political phenomenon, but also as a cultural phenomenon that affects the way people frame their worth—the cultural repertoires that we draw on to determine our worth as human beings.

Now that you have dedicated a significant amount of time to these collaborative projects, what would you say are the benefits of interdisciplinary research?

I not only engage in interdisciplinary research on racism and stigmatization but was also asked by CIFAR to study nine different research groups to improve our understanding of the markers of successful interdisciplinary collaborations, and the factors that improve them. Together with my collaborators, we compared three research networks from CIFAR, three from the Santa Fe Institute, and three from the McArthur Foundation. Individually, we don’t have the analytical tools of every discipline, so when we put our heads together, we can see things that we couldn’t otherwise see. A good collaboration is cognitive, but what we found in our research is that a lot of it is emotional and interactional as well. Scholars talk a lot about what we call “collective effervescence,” that moment when as a team you think, “We’ve got it!”

When you’ve been a scholar for thirty years, there is a lot of interaction with graduate students and colleagues, but there is something very nice about being involved in a twelve-year collaboration with a group of scholars. It’s a little bit like being married for a long time—much is shared and produced collectively and you work through your conflicts. What you gain from surviving these conflicts is a level of trust.

How does your research influence not just other scholarship, but public policy and the work of NGOs?

I was in Hangzhou, China, last May at a large conference that UNESCO organized around culture and sustainability. One of the goals of the conference was to consider how to integrate “culture” and “inclusion” in the human development index. This led me to participate in conversations about using a less individualistic approach to defining societal well-being. Last fall, I presented this work to the Human Development Reports office at the United Nations.

I also served on the board of the scholarship program of the Open Society Institute. We oversee a large program that provides scholarships to help in creating stronger middle classes in countries with low state capacity. For example, social work and criminology are occupations that are essential for the exercise of state capacity. If this layer of professional occupations is missing, you can’t have a functioning society. As I have written a book on peer review, How Professors Think, I mobilize my understanding of evaluation to contribute to the production of social change in a very concrete fashion. This service is my own form of philanthropy.

Additionally, I’m in conversation with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore what they call the “cultures of health” which is a new program they are now launching. The foundation’s mission has been influenced by our book, Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era. Their vice president for research asked a colleague and me to organize a meeting in the next few weeks that will put them in conversation with a number of cultural sociologists. This is like gold—to be able to influence such an important foundation just as they are redefining their future mission. We are given the opportunity to make a case, which is just wonderful. It’s meaningful to go beyond academic influence and have an impact on the thinking of foundations and nonprofits that are involved with creating social change.

In 2010, the Harvard Graduate Students Council awarded you the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award. What advice do you have for students embarking on an academic and research-based path in the social sciences?

Deciding to be a scholar is a difficult choice to make because it is a path with a high level of uncertainty. I did my graduate work in France where “mentoring” didn’t exist as a word—it was a sink or swim system. I have a lot of sympathy for the gambles students and researchers are making.

I teach the required qualitative methods course for first-year sociology graduate students. I spend the semester telling them that the bar is higher than they had expected it to be and that this is what being in graduate school is about—learning where the bar is. Of course, it is also about intellectual curiosity and urgent questions, but many people have this and are not scholars. Understanding the relationship between theory and data, and what makes a project significant is important.

For over ten years, I have run the Culture and Social Analysis Workshop in my department, a popular forum where graduate students, postdocs, and visitors present their work for feedback. And because I have a large number of graduate advisees, I have created a small informal group called “Inside the Sausage Factory,” where students discuss projects that are at an early stage. We call this our “safe space.” My advice to students is to create a mentoring network: turn to different people to get advice on different aspects of your scholarship and your life. This network can serve as a scaffold and a buffer. It is crucial. Also, don’t jump though hoops. Be serious about your intellectual vocation. Don’t just follow the market. Follow what is of true interest to you. I feel that this is what I have done and it has served me very well— even if at times I felt I lacked a safety net.

How do you like to spend your time outside of the office?

With my family of course: three kids, a partner, a dog—the works. They are the linchpin of my life (my dog less so). But also, Danny Kahneman, a psychologist who studies happiness, has two findings that I really like: people are most happy when they exercise and when they hang out with their friends. I commute by bike most days from Brookline Village to campus, and it really does make me happy. Even though his approach is too individualistic, an ideal life would be one that takes Kahneman’s theories into consideration, but also has a multidimensional idea of what a good society is about, what kind of commitments we should be expecting from one another. I could say, in small ways, the social sciences should help to move our understanding of collective well-being toward this ideal.

Michèle Lamont, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies, will assume the directorship of the Center on July 1, 2015. Jeffry Frieden, the Stanfield Professor of International Peace, will serve as Acting Center Director during the 2014–2015 academic year, while Michèle is the director-designate during her sabbatical leave.