Interview with Michèle Lamont

(Harvard University)

July 05, 2014

Michele Lamont is a cultural sociologist studying group boundaries and inequality. She is Robert I Goldman Professor of European Studies and Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is President-elect of the American Sociological Association, director of the Weatherhead Center for International Studies at Harvard University, and co-director of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

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…What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

My current work has focused on analyzing the experiences of stigmatized groups and how the environments in which they live are feeding their responses to the ethnoracial exclusion they encounter. So the place of diversity in my work would be to consider how cultural repertoires that sustain diversity – whether multiculturalist repertoires or republican repertoires – enable some responses more than others. And I’m interested in power relationships and status differences between groups. Perhaps I would focus less on diversity than on unequal positions or closure, which I would approach through the Blumerian concept of “sense of group positioning”. Because I am primarily a sociologist of inequality, my own interests would be to look at how various experiences of inequality are found in culturally differentiated populations. The questions I would be asking would concern not only perceived relative status, but also how people understand similarities and differences between groups with the focus on, for instance, symbolic and moral boundaries.

To what extent do you think your personal biography might influence your research interests? Because you were saying in your lecture [Flyer] that you come from Quebec and this is a stigmatized group in Canada.

Yes, it is very important. I grew up in Quebec, in the region next to Ottawa, which is francophone but highly bilingual. On one side of the river the majority of the population is Francophone and on the other side the majority is Anglophone. And one side is Quebec and the other side is Ontario. So I grew up in a pluralist environment, but also one where the unequal standing of the two societies was obvious. As I mentioned during the talk, I started college the year that the Parti Québécois came to power for the first time, so this experience of transformation of group identity has very much been part of my own history. I work with a lot of African American students, and I became interested in thinking about parallels in the experiences of the two groups – about how African Americans and Francophone Quebecois went about contesting stigmatizations. This led me to focus on responses to stigmatization, which is the topic of the book I talked about in my lecture, “Getting Respect: Dealing with Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Quebec, and Brazil,” which will be coming out at Princeton University Press in the fall of 2016 (coauthored with Graziella Moraes Silva, Joshua Guetzkow, Jessica Welburn, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis). This book examines how  members of stigmatized groups in each of these three countries experience ethnoracial exclusion and respond to it.

Your personal experience is important to this project but also in general to your interest in boundaries?

Yes, of course. Very much so.

Do you think the concept of ‘diversity’ is or might be called a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (as in 'integration and diversity policy'), a corporate tool (as in 'diversity management), or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

Well, it is certainly a buzzword. The word multiculturalism has been given a very different valence across contexts. I remember when Angela Merkel and other  European leaders – such as David Cameron – simultaneously denounced multicultural policies as failures in the summer of 2011. The term was very salient across contexts then, but was given a very different meaning in Berlin and in London. In Canada, many Québécois opposed it because it is perceived as a way to dispossess their group from its status as one of two founding nations of Canada, which gives them distinct rights and legitimized many of their demands in the federal context, as compared to other more recent immigrant groups. But multiculturalism became the founding principle of Canadian identity, as we contrast the Canadian vertical mosaic with the American melting pot, which promotes assimilation as compared to Canadian multiculturalism or Quebecois interculturalism. These general principles on which policies are founded can also be contrasted with other national ideologies such as Israeli Zionism and French republicanism. These notions all belong to the same family of concepts.

One can also think of diversity as a buzzword for equalizing chances within organizations. In American higher education it is often conceptualized as in tension with excellence. The discourse of meritocracy has often developed in opposition to diversity so we need to make students and citizens aware of their own assumptions concerning how diversity may bring about a decline in standards. We know that there is a lot of skepticism about diversity training in the corporate sector. The research of my husband and colleague Frank Dobbin shows that if you want to increase diversity among managers, diversity training is not effective. It is better to promote mentoring and reward managers for their past record in promoting a diverse workforce. So in the American context, there are lots of debates around the question of diversity.

From your perspective (expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition), what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing 'diversity', migration, or boundary making related research?

There has been a challenge when it comes to theoretical accumulation. We do not succeed that well at integrating and building on what others have found. There should be much more of an explicit focus on the need for scholars to debate and come to conclusions about what is the best way forward in the social sciences. Unlike high energy physicists who need a lot of resources to do their research, sociologists and political scientists have a lot more autonomy (mostly because our needs are limited). This independence doesn’t favor knowledge integration. There are probably a lot of disadvantages to knowledge integration, but I think we would gain traction faster if we aim to have more systematic discussions about what is gained and what is lost by using one framework rather than another.

So, you wish for a broader comparative framework and greater cumulativity.

Yes, but not because of a blind faith in positivism, as I am a contructivist when it comes to epistemiology. My position is motivated by a desire to promote greater respect for other people’s work. If your work is close to that of other people, you should discuss, and position yourself in relation to it, not simply pretend it’s not there. This is an ethical question for me.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Damian Omar Martinez

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