Review: Michèle Lamont’s Money, morals and manners

 Money, morals and manners: The culture of the French and the American upper-middle class, Michèle Lamont

To be remembered from her study:

Published in 1992, Money, morals and manners: The culture of the French and the American upper-middle class is a sociological study led by Michèle Lamont, which intends to show how cultural boundaries are set differently between and within countries. Michèle Lamont is a Canadian woman, who has lived several years in France and in the United States. She was a sociologist professor at Harvard University, where she mainly focused on cultural sociology. 

In the extract given of the book, Michèle Lamont is first laying the basis on which she will conduct her study. Her work is a contribution and a critique of Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in which she questions his definition of “symbolic boundaries”. This is made possible as she conducted herself 160 semidirected interviewsof “upper-middle-class white males” from “cultural centers” (New York, Paris) and “cultural peripheries” (Indianapolis, Clermont-Ferrand). 

Even though the number of interviews seems legitimate at first –mostly since Lamont did all the interviews on her own – many criticized that 160 respondents can’t account for a sufficient sample of both the French and the American society, especially on two levels. Moreover, four cities aren’t representative enough of two countries. Then, we could say it is Michèle Lamont’s will for precision– by refusing help of assistants to be sure of having the same interviewing process – that has avoided her to achieve a broader representation in her sample. However, the three symbolic boundaries defined by Michèle Lamont in her “boundary work” are the following (p.4):

  • Moral boundaries:based on honesty, work ethic, personal integrity, consideration
  • Socioeconomic boundaries:based on people’s social position indicated by their wealth, power and professional success
  • Cultural boundaries:based on education, intelligence, manners, tastes, command of high culture

By “boundaries”, she means “structures through which upper-middle-class people select and hierarchize the raw data they receive on others” (p.4). Despite some shortcomings, her study is still discussed 27 years later in the field of cultural sociology – and especially in the struggle between class and culture– since her analysis contains qualitative data with the interviews, combined with loads of literature, surveys and theories from other sociologists. Her goal here is to show that three status signals are working as symbolic boundaries, and that each of them don’t have the same valuefor upper-middle-class white males, depending on whether they are coming from the United States or France, and if they are living in big cities or not.

She thus reaches two main findings: first, moral boundariesare of tremendous importance in both countries, even though they are interpreted differently. Second, American upper-middle-class men rather rely – according to her – on socioeconomic criteriasuch as power, success or wealth when it comes to draw “symbolic boundaries”, whereas French men of that same class tends to privilege cultural boundariesmore than socioeconomic characteristics (p.6-7). In the 6thchapter of Money, morals and manners: The culture of the French and the American upper-middle class, she demonstrates that those variations, both on the national level and across States are to be understood because the United States for instance are tied up with Protestantism, populism and pragmatism while France is rather following values of Catholicism, rationalism and has an aristocratic tradition (p.150-172). 

Her results appear as convincing in showing how American and French upper-middle-class men are structuring their symbolic boundaries according to cultural, moral and socioeconomic standards. However, Michèle Lamont realized it herself, her study could have been even more interesting if she would also have interviewed people from different genders and ethnicities and not only white males, which is why she dedicated herself at the end of the interviewing stage to include some women for instance (p.3). 

Another issue with her findings is that she hasn’t compared the upper-middle-class men she interviewed with people from other social classes as the working-class or the upper-class men for instance, meaning she doesn’t have any cross-class analysis, which gives the impression that the class she focused on is representative of how the United States and France interpret culture. It then seems at some point inaccurate. She also didn’t focus that much on alternative traditions present in both countries she studied, emphasizing the fact that her study only considers the cultural devices of one dominant (and stereotypical) group of the French and American society. 

Last but not least, Lamont showed that symbolic boundaries aren’t – instead of what Bourdieu claimed – sufficient to explain the hierarchical organization of classes and the domination of the upper-middle-class men on other social groups. Besides, for Michèle Lamont, moral signals are also accounting in the creation of the “symbolic boundaries” defining social classes, whereas Pierre Bourdieu underestimated their importance by believing people were only “self-actualizers”, willing to gain a better social position. 

Michèle Lamont’s depiction of the upper-middle-class – even though it sometimes misses some elements– still is in my opinion a fresh and groundbreaking sociological analysis of culture, in the sense that it questions theories well-established and widely accepted by other sociologists in the past. 

Bibliography:

  • Fouche Nicole. Michèle Lamont. — Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. In: Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines, N°58, novembre 1993. Le drapeau américain. p. 432
  • Maaria Linko and Markku Lonkila. Michèle Lamont — Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class, Helsinki University, July 1 1994.

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