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“Le populaire”. Social and cultural recompositions of contemporary working classes – CLASPOP

« Le populaire ». Social and cultural recompositions of contemporary working classes

The working classes in French society: Between continuity and breakdown

A research program aiming to study the working classes in France today

At the outset of research, three observations: <br />1. Western societies, or at least French society, remain working-class societies. Neither the expansion of the middle classes, nor mass consumption, nor tertiarization, nor the prolongation of education have put an end to the existence of large groups of the population sharing three traits: low professional status, very limited economic resources, and weak cultural capital <br />2. The lifestyles of members of these working classes bear traces of the major social transformations of the last half-century, in the domains of work and professional relations, family and school, and, more generally, in the social structure overall: the rising numbers of secure white-collar management and mid-level employee jobs, the reduction in unskilled workers, growth in service workers. <br />3. The state of sociological knowledge at the time was inadequate for characterizing what “the working classes” are today, or in other words, describing laborers and low-level employees’ ways of being, thinking, acting, and reacting within their diverse living and working conditions. <br />These three observations led to the following questions: What remains of “the working classes” in French society today? Does a relatively distinctive working-class lifestyle (or lifestyles) still exist, or are they merely imitations of middle-class lifestyles, impotent and lagging behind?

Research was designed on the basis of three theoretical and methodological choices.
1. To consider the lifestyles of the working classes today by confronting them with the classic characteristics identified with them in sociological literature from the 1960s-1980s: strict gender division, a hedonistic approach to life, and high regard for being among people like themselves.
2. To be interested in all representations and practices through which a social condition or lifestyle are defined. The research program is based on conducting monographic household studies. They were planned to collect widely diverse data on the lifestyles of laborers and low-level employees concerning material, familial, political, and professional aspects.
3. To focus research on a segment of the working classes that is between the better off and the most insecure fractions. We called this group “the middle of the working classes.”

Three types of result emerged from this research:
1. Quantitative data updating empirical knowledge of laborers and low-level employees (their numbers, professional mobility, budgets, time use, geographical distribution, conjugal and separation patterns), leading to new analyses of the stratification of working-class social categories.
2. A total of 26 detailed studies of laborer and low-level employee households (50-80 pages each)
3. In-depth analysis of reconfigurations of the contemporary working classes, from the perspectives of family and conjugal functioning, ordinary relations with other social groups, and social position (analysis of stratification within the working cla

The research program “The Working Class Today” is a fundamental research program, directed by Olivier Masclet. It assembles a number of tenured and untenured researchers: Thomas Amossé, Anne-Marie Arborio, Adèle Barraud, Stéphane Beaud, Lise Bernard, Anya Bouamama, Marie Cartier, Clément Degout, Sarah Delcroix, Claire-Lise Dubost, Henri Eckert, Christophe Giraud, Violaine Girard, Paul Hobeika, Marie-Hélène Lechien, Romain Lemaire, Muriel Letrait, Francis Marchan, Olivier Masclet, Gérard Mauger, Julian Mischi, Séverine Misset, Gilles Moreau, Tristan Poullaouec, Marie-Pierre Pouly, Audrey Richard, Jean-Noël Retiere, Cyril Rougier, Matthias Rosenzweig, Thomas Sigaud, Rémi Sinthon, Olivier Schwartz, Yasmine Siblot, Matéo Sorin, Vanessa Stettinger, Marjorie Tilleul, Lucas Tranchant, Maulde Urbain Mathis, Antoine Younsi. It allies four research centers: the Centre de Recherches sur les Liens Sociaux (Center for Research on Social Ties), the Centre Nantais de Sociologie (The Nantes Sociology Center), the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (Maurice Halbwachs Center), and the Groupe de Recherches Sociologiques sur les Sociétés Contemporaines (Sociological Research Group on Contemporary Societies). The program began in February 2014, and lasted 48 months. The ANR funded the program with a grant of 250,000 euros.

T. Amossé, « Portrait statistique des classes populaires contemporaines », Savoir/Agir, 2015/4, n°34, p.13-20.
T. Amossé, M. Cartier, « Introduction. Les classes populaires sur la scène domestique », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 25-40.
M. Cartier, M. Letrait, M. Sorin, « Travail domestique : des classes populaires conservatrices ? », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 63-81.
L. Bernard, C. Giraud, « Avec qui les ouvrières et les employées vivent-elles en couple ? », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 41-61.
O. Masclet, « “C’est mon moment”. Le temps pour soi des ouvrières et des employées », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 101-119.
O. Schwartz, « Les femmes dans les classes populaires, entre permanence et rupture », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 121-138.
V. Stettinger, « Mère “je fais tout”. Des pratiques éducatives populaires en tension », Travail, Genre et Sociétés, 2018, 1 (39), p. 83-99.
M.H. Lechien, O. Masclet, G. Mauger (coord.), Le « je », l’« entre soi » et le « nous » dans les classes populaires d’aujourd’hui, Editions du Croquant, à paraître en 2019.
O. Masclet, T. Amossé, L. Bernard, M. Cartier, M.H. Lechien, O. Schwartz, Y. Siblot (coord.), Les classes populaires dans la société française contemporaine : entre permanence et rupture, Raison d’agir, collection Cours et travaux, à paraître en 2019.

The themes of the “disappearance” of “the Working Class”, the generalization of a middle class and “the end of social class” in European and North-American societies were widely diffused during the 1980’s and 1990’s. But we have witnessed since a “return of social class”. Notably, we see a regained interest in “le populaire”, that is in the working class condition and experience. This recent attention arises from the visible destitution of populations at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but also from renewed discourses on “the people” as a major political question. The socio-economic data available reveals presently rising social inequality between working class categories and middle and upper class categories. Still, these statistics shed no light on the concrete living conditions and experiences, nor the social and cultural recompositions of the working classes. In fact, we do not always know how to name these groups whose way of life, cultural practices, and representations have profoundly evolved. Our project intends to respond to the challenging tasks of grasping “le populaire”. We believe that the working class condition cannot be apprehended solely by looking at its margins or by fragmenting it in a variety of objects of study (politics, family, culture, work, education, etc.). Our approach proves hence to be original in a twofold manner. First, it focuses on a segment of the working classes that has been understudied in France, Europe and the United States. We designate this segment as “the working classes of the middle.” Certainly a loose term, but purposefully chosen for this reason: the research will eventually render it more precise. Frequently, only the “lower” and “upper” segments are distinguished by the scholarship on the working classes: the “lower” being composed of groups lacking economic resources, access to social protections and cultural capital; and the “upper” designating those who by their employment stability, general well being and participation in selective social practices, are often close to the middle class. While this distinction highlights established hierarchies within this social group, it also conceals an essential “middle” where a crossroads for internal mobility actively operates. By focusing on “the working classes of the middle” we take on as object of study particular working class groups, which have paradoxically been left aside by sociology and, moreover, have been analyzed in political science largely as a “repressive” group on the verge of turning to the extreme right. The originality of this project lies also in its methodological approach. It emphasizes a procedure that articulates fieldwork and ethnography with rigorous statistical work throughout the research process. While our fieldwork will focus on cultural recompositions of working class worlds (leisure activities, norms dictating the formation of couples or the education of children, of relationships to local space, to migrations, etc.) and will collectively produce 50 household monographs, we will also revise and reprocess censuses and surveys (on employment, cultural practices, among others) from the INSEE (the National Institute for Statistics of France). Further, the project will stress the necessary combination of national and regional data in order to take into account important territorial disparities. This research program - which gathers 26 researchers specializing on the working class and coming from a variety of research traditions, perspectives and generations - will therefore go beyond the usual monographic approach so often used to study underprivileged groups by analyzing “the working classes of the middle” in a comprehensive manner: be they urban or rural, “feminine” or “masculine”, at the workplace and outside, or in their struggle to make a respectable place for themselves in the present world of precarious employment.

Project coordinator

Monsieur Olivier MASCLET (Centre de recherche sur les liens sociaux) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CMH (CNRS DR PARIS B) Centre Maurice Halbwachs
GRESCO Groupe de Recherches et d’Etudes Sociologiques du Centre Ouest
CMH Centre Maurice Halbwachs
CENS Centre nantais de sociologie
CERLIS Centre de recherche sur les liens sociaux

Help of the ANR 249,916 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2014 - 36 Months

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