Acceptance Speech

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize foundation, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great emotion that I stand in front of you to accept the amazing honour that is the Erasmus Prize. What good fortune led the foundation to choose “Power, Knowledge and Diversity” as the focus of the 2017 award, and its jury to identify me among the many meritorious candidates for this prize! One can hardly think of a more significant reward for the labour of a social scientist, and it is with a great deal of humility that I thank His Majesty the King and the distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize Foundation for the great honour you are bestowing upon me. I want to use the time that is at my disposal to share thoughts about the meaning I attach to this award and about the current political moment, which presents so many challenges for our societies.

I grew up in Québec in the sixties, in the midst of the Quiet Revolution. This was an intense period of social change, a time when this small society of six million mostly French-speaking North Americans modernized at an amazing pace after the Catholic church lost its political and cultural hold on the social fabric. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the revolution in the world of knowledge that accompanied this change: I showed that while philosophy and theology were at the top of the hierarchy of disciplines in the 1960s, economics and legal studies had become hegemonic by the 1980s. These fields provided the intellectual tools needed for the institutionalization of a large social-democratic bureaucratic state that was to become the main economic engine of Québec society, and a tool of collective empowerment.

Born in 1928, my father had emerged from this pre-technocratic world, and was well acquainted with St-Augustin, Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Maritain and other thinkers, from spending almost a decade studying to become a priest. When I read about the life of Erasmus in preparation for today, my fertile imagination led me to see parallels between the distant humanist world of Erasmus and that in which my father studied.

From the age of 12, my father moved to a seminary and lived away from his family, sharing the life of men with whom he learned to discuss in Greek and Latin seemingly medieval questions about free will and God. Such questions seemed obsolete to me when I found myself exploring his library in my teenage years. He was quite steeped in humanistic culture, having written a thesis on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I don’t know why. I was lucky to be exposed to remnants of this world through my own education, also under the guidance of a religious order. This education certainly put more emphasis on history, Latin, culture and literature than it did on instrumental and technocratic knowledge. One of the reasons this award means so much to me is that I see it as a vindication of this multidimensional intellectual world that produced me. Although totally preposterous, the story I tell myself is that Erasmus and I were kindred spirits all along, and that this prize brings us together through the unpredictably meandering paths of life.

Like Erasmus, I left for Paris at a young age to pursue my graduate work, and I studied in the 5th arrondissement, not far from the Collège de Montaigue on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, which our moralist attended. In the post-colonial Québec of the seventies, taking off for Paris was de rigueur for aspiring academics (strangely enough, the United States were at best a distant presence!) This city was simply an extraordinarily exhilarating place to be then, attracting young people from so many intellectual worlds, even if it felt a bit like the end of an era, symbolized perhaps by the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre, which I attended — I was among the thousands that followed his coffin through the wide boulevards of Montparnasse.

When I landed in 1978, Claude Lévi-Straus and Michel Foucault were still giving lectures at the Collège de France. I attended the seminar given by Pierre Bourdieu in 1979, the year that his book Distinctionwas published — one of the great books that defined the social sciences of the last decades of the 20th century. There were so many exciting ideas floating around, so many discussions to follow. Your own Norbert Elias, a world-class social scientist, was already fashionable in sociological circles, thanks to Bourdieu’s influence. Two of his great books, The Civilizing Process and The Established and the Outsiders,left a deep impression on me as I was working on developing my research agenda on group boundaries (who is in and who is out), and on how cultural markers (about, for instance, how to blow one’s nose in public) are used to signal elite group membership. I learned from Elias how such practices contribute to the creation of inequality and the monopolization of resources (what sociologists call closure). Such cultural processes eventually moved to the centre of my intellectual agenda, where they remain today.

In 1983, at the dawn of Silicon Valley and neoliberalism (Ronald Reagan had just come to power), I became a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University, where I learned about American sociology. This unexpected migration broadened my horizon in amazing ways and gave me my dear husband of now thirty years, the sociologist Frank Dobbin, and later, three amazing children, Gabrielle, Pierre and Chloe. This move was a grand écart of sorts, because of the frenetic pace of work, the distance from my intellectual origins, and the linguistic transition it required. To this day, quite paradoxically, I have maintained a view of my vocation that is somewhat at odds with contemporary American academia, and this despite having met most of its requirements. Indeed, I see intellectual work as a complicated, partly unforeseeable and time-consuming craft, which is not entirely compatible with the rootless “publish or perish” mantra to which we submit. Hence another reason why receiving the Erasmus Prize is so meaningful to me: this honour reaffirms the value of seeing scholarship as an unpredictable adventure, an ideal I aspire to that is threatened by the rationalized contemporary conditions of knowledge production and evaluation fostered by our audit systems. This brings me to the absurdities of the current moment and the challenges it presents to us.

The kinds of societies that are being moulded in front of our very eyes bear little resemblance to the world in which I would like to live, or in which I would like our children to live. Every day, in the country where I reside, President Donald Trump, the great divider, finds new ways to strengthen group boundaries and target the most vulnerable members of our society. This is happening when inequality is at its highest point since the 1929 recession, and when many white working-class men experience downward mobility, feel economically vulnerable, and are looking for ways to reassert what they believe to be their rightful, superior place in society. Immigrants are easy prey. In the United States, this group was far less salient in shared definitions of “us” and “them” in the early nineties, when I conducted interviews with American workers for my book The Dignity of Working Men. Today, Trump, together with his populist counterparts in a number of European countries, throws oil on the fire, and feeds anger and resentment the best he can, at a time when unions have lost their influence on workers and are not there any more to tell them about their class interest. These and other factors (most importantly, the powerful political lobbying of the economic elites) make our societies less inclusive and less generous. We know that such changes are antithetical to collective well-being: mean societies don’t benefit anyone. We all suffer from greater inequality and less solidarity, as they feed anomie, violence, deviance, mental illness, oppositional radicalism, and a general deterioration of the social fabric.

The path forward is unclear as it is becoming more difficult to reach out to those who don’t think like us. Our media are increasingly structured around echo chambers, at least in the United States. We have to consider how to build the cultural bridges needed to get out of our current predicament. It behoves knowledge producers who feed the public sphere to offer new narratives that connect members of our societies together, alternatives to the ideology of meritocratic individualism that isolates us from one another and relies too exclusively on the ascendency of social success. This will require gaining a better understanding of what makes various groups “tick” morally.

While the progressive middle and upper middle classes often embrace solidarity with the downtrodden as a form of morality, their conservative counterparts and some working-class people maintain their dignity through the promotion of a morality of self-reliance and hard work. At times this lead the latter group to condemn the poor and immigrants who presumably “sponge off” the system. Instead of simply embracing and feeding such different conceptions of morality, making them explicit and discussing them will be crucial in moving forward. The same holds when it comes to defining who belongs in the nation, and the place of skin colour and religion in this equation, in the Netherlands as much as in the United States.

This is where social scientists have a special role to play. We need to address the growing recognition gap many experience head on, by making visible for everyone how the white working class suffers from the same lack of respect as do members of minority groups and immigrants. Publicizing these similarities in the quest for dignity may help us see a way forward, because this yearning is a widely share among human beings. We have to articulate and make salient in the public sphere various forms of universalism that may bring us together and help repair a social contract that appears to be more under threat every day in this renewed age of populism.

One of the books that had the strongest impact on my thinking was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a book that urges us to “be all that we can be”, to eschew having our self-concepts and desires overdetermined by the pressures of the profit motive, productivism and consumption. Marcuse was one of the thinkers who had a powerful impact on the May ’68 student movement in France and elsewhere. His book offered a defence of human existence in its many dimensions, a call-to-arms urging us to avoid a flattening of social life to its most elementary economic dimensions. Inspired by Marcuse, as I am nearing sixty today, the aspects of my work that speak most to me have to do with the need to maintain a multidimensional understanding of what defines worthy people and a worthy life. I have been consumed by the need to consider how to promote a plurality of conceptions of success, or how to foster societies where various types of excellence can coexist, as represented by scientists, artists, scholars, spiritual and community leaders, manual workers, businesswomen, dreamers, and much more. This runs counter to predominant conceptions of success that emphasize only money and competition as standards of worth and that turn someone like Trump into a hero.

At this time in history, we have to realize that adopting economic success as the unique criterion of worth for all simply does not work. Not everyone can be upper-middle class or in the top 20 percent of the population — by definition. Embracing this fantasy condemns the majority of the population to thinking of themselves, and to being thought of, as losers by others. Thus, one of the missions of social scientists today is to figure out how to re-engineer our collective imaginaries to empower a wider range of possible futures for all. My hope is that this Erasmus Prize will give me the wings I need to take on this challenge, with a lot of help from my friends, and that together we will influence in a significant way the paths that our societies can take at the present moment. The task is urgent, and too much is at stake for the future generation, and for ourselves, to not rise to the challenge.