Neighborhoods and Cultural Differences

From the moment it was published, the most recent book by sociologist Hugues Lagrange stirred a lively polemic. Although the controversy cannot be ignored, the book is a solid piece of work supported by robust data. The initial criticism had little to do with Lagrange’s research findings and general presentation of the issues. What is the book actually about? The author seeks to examine the social problems of poor neighborhoods in the French suburbs by focusing on cultural difference between immigrant groups in an increasingly fragmented society. According to Lagrange, the explanatory and interpretive models that sociologists have proposed have avoided the question of cultural differences, as have the various policies implemented to combat social exclusion. The situation is totally different today, as the tenor of public and political debate attests. It is no longer enough to focus on social and economic conditions. The disruption of the family and breakdown of old forms of solidarity are also important. So is the withdrawal of immigrant families and their children from social commitment. These differences are reductive and contradictory, however. They do not take into account all of the relevant cultural dimensions, including not only differences of values, life style, and socialization but also of migratory flows, family dynamics, and concepts of generational and gender difference. At the same time, complementary structural factors must also be taken into account.

Basically, what the author shows is the way in which a whole range of social phenomena in the French suburbs became geographically and ethnically differentiated in the 1980s. He bases this conclusion on quantitative studies of three locations conducted between 1999 and 2006. The three locations were the Aval-Seine zone between Mantes-en-Yvelines and Mantes-la-Jolie, the 18th Arrondissement of Paris, and Saint-Herblain, a suburb of Nantes. The survey looked at five cohorts of students in public middle schools, who were followed from the sixth to the ninth grade (a total of 4,339 students in all). Unlike other monographic studies, whose shortcomings are well-known, this multi-site survey was supplemented by observation in 150 micro-neighborhoods (groups of 2,000 inhabitants defined by INSEE as Îlots Regroupés pour l’Information Statistique, or IRIS) in Ile-de-France, which allowed for temporal comparison and made it possible to put together a portrait of adolescent misbehavior in a number of cities with major urban developments.

Make no mistake, however: this is not a local study, because the author tries to show how globalization affects our societies by redefining social relations and collective identities. Economic and social inequalities between poor countries and rich countries increase, changing the logic of immigration. Tensions between the native working class in the countries of the North and immigrants from the South increase, and spatial concentration of the latter comes to symbolize the social degradation of the former. Immigrants become scapegoats. This results in pressure to close the borders, exemplified by the rise of the extreme right, xenophobia, and racism as well as by urban riots and electoral abstention. This “political backlash” is central to the first two chapters of the book, which deal with the moral involution that began in the 1990s, after a period of aspiration to liberty in the 1960s. The interest of the book—the author’s wager, if you like—lies in the way in which it uses the French suburbs as a lens through which to view the globalization of our post-national, multicultural societies. Society sends a double message to immigrants and their children, a message of both integration and hostility, and thus helps to produce the divisions that it simultaneously denounces.

Let us begin by summarizing the argument of the book. Immigrant families from the Sahel must contend with a withering of the family roles and norms they bring with them from Africa. The host country imposes new norms of its own, and from this two tensions arise: a first tension in the immigrants themselves, which Lagrange calls “neotraditionalism,” and a second in the native population, which blames the immigrants for all its social ills. Lagrange’s approach, inspired by the neglected work of François Bon, might be characterized as globalized statistical anthropology. Well aware of the dangers of essentialization, Lagrange is wary of the radical constructivist arguments of Fredrik Barth and Benedict Anderson, inspired by work in immigration history, anthropological studies of family dynamics, and urban sociology. What is original about his work is the way in which he combines constructivism with hard data and comparative study of European and North American societies.

Michel Kokoreff

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