Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Distinguished guests,
Knowledge is power. Or so they say. But what knowledge offers power? Who has access to such knowledge? And who decides? What happens when different groups of people use different sources of knowledge? Will they also be afforded power? Are their unique insights even recognized or valued? Or is knowledge used to include some and exclude others?
These questions have guided the work of Michèle Lamont throughout her career. During the past decades Michèle Lamont has examined the relation between knowledge, power, and diversity. Her personal history and life experiences played an important role in the questions she asked.
As a member of the French-speaking minority in Quebec, she experienced first-hand what it feels like when one’s language and culture are devalued by others. As a Canadian student in Paris, she realized that the development of scientific knowledge is also shaped by the cultural environments that dominate the daily experiences of individual researchers. Which are different for European and North American scholars.
As she advanced in her career at Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, she continued to question standard practices at these top-level knowledge institutions, as an ‘outsider’ who was raised and trained in a different system. These personal experiences not only determined her life-long fascination with knowledge, diversity and power differences in society. They also helped her find answers to these questions. Michèle Lamont conducted much of her scientific research by interviewing minority and majority group members in various countries across the world. This allowed her to specify how the place of people in society shapes the things they find important. However, the different perspectives of majority and minority group members also determine how they define success, and what needs to be done to achieve this.
What happens if we fail to acknowledge such differences? What are the consequences when we go along with the views of the majority – if we define the value of people only in terms of their educational and economic success? Are people less worthy citizens when they are poor but decent? Of course not. Should we raise our children to pursue individual achievement without caring about how they relate to others? No again. Yet this is the message that is implicitly conveyed when we fail to value diversity.
A narrow focus on what valued knowledge is, gives rise to the expectation that everyone should pursue the same outcomes. But this only results in a competition with few winners and many losers. If we find ways to acknowledge the worth of a broader range of insights, achievements and contributions people have to offer, this results in a more stable society, where different people can be successful in different ways.
These issues form the core of Michèle Lamont’s scientific work over the years. But she makes this very practical. She examines, for instance, what can be learned from innovative high tech companies. Here people with different types of expertise realize they need each to make their own unique contributions. She also analyses what can be learned from evaluation systems that have been developed in the arts. These can also be used in other sectors to evaluate highly diverging products with no direct monetary value.
Michèle Lamont has also extended her work to examine her own professional environment within the university system. In her book ‘How professors think’ she identifies the criteria that are used to define scientific value. How do we evaluate the research that is done in different scientific disciplines? How do we value the contributions made by different groups of scientists, such as women, or ethnic minority members? How do knowledge, diversity and power impact on the production of science?
In her scholarly work, Michèle Lamont has put her own insights into practice. She mostly combines different types of research approaches, instead of focusing on methodologies that resemble the hard sciences – as so many social scientists do. In an interview, she was asked to comment on this. The interviewer challenged her approach and suggested that methodological rigor, big data, and statistics are seen as the hallmarks of quality in contemporary scholarship. Michèle Lamont responded as follows: “There are good and bad questions, and good and bad theories …. but there are no good and bad methods. The method is as good as what we do with it.”
She also commented on how scientific disciplines differ from each other. She indicated that: “Disciplines such as chemistry require enormous resources and lab space. These resources help create consensus around which knowledge producers matter and which types of knowledge are fireproof.” She expressed concern that social scientists sometimes suffer from the lack of such clarity and consensus. As a result, they easily feel their work is valued less than the contributions of the hard sciences, which are dominated by men. However, Michèle Lamont declared: “I am not one of these sociologists who suffer from Physics Envy.”
Instead, she has argued for the unique strengths of the social sciences, which address different levels with different methodological tools. The micro level of individual concerns, motives, and efforts. And the macro level of broader developments and shifts in societal structures. Michèle Lamont roots for the social sciences as being ideally equipped to connect these levels by examining institutions, neighborhoods, organizations, networks, and cultural repertoires. Michèle Lamont not only emphasizes this as one of the unique strengths of the social sciences. She also reminds social scientists of their political responsibility to use the knowledge they develop in this way, for the benefit of society.
Knowledge, power and diversity. The work of Michèle Lamont on these themes has had a huge impact. Through her many books and scientific publications. Through all the young scholars across the world whom she has trained and inspired. And through her contributions to public debates. On the future of science, on cultural differences and stigmatization. On boundary drawing and divisions in society – and how to overcome these. In her own life and in her scholarly pursuits she has demonstrated the power of diversity. By connecting different bodies of knowledge and by emphasizing the importance of pluralism and inclusion.
(By Naomi Ellemers, on behalf of the Board)