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1Published just a few months after an article by sociologist Christian Topalov that “retrospectively assessed” several decades of urban sociology in France, [1] this work gives the floor to young urban researchers, offering them an opportunity to call into question some of the observations made by their elder in that article. Topalov, a representative of the sociological approach that developed in the wake of the 1960s, used to say that urban sociology had acquired a “new youth” in France, moved to this by the thinking of certain political scientists. This collective work–a compilation of papers from a conference held in Lyon in 2010 under the egis of the International association of French-speaking sociologists–sketches out some of the contours of that new youth, confirming the overall “instability” of the discipline” [2] and providing the reader with a glimpse of the new fields under exploration. No need to reproduce the highly informative overview presented by the three editors in their afterword; here I wish merely to highlight some of the epistemological and methodological biases of the authors and a few salient features of their contributions. From an Istanbul business centre to “enclosed condominiums” in Buenos Aires by way of “lofts” in lower Montreuil or two-storey houses in a new district of Sétif, the reader is invited to take a sociological journey conducive to comparativist reasoning and the inventorying of different approaches developed in response to urban change.

2Also at the centre of this collection of conference papers is a combined analysis of residential mobility and modes of inhabiting. Observing modes of inhabiting proves an effective way of analysing an entire set of differentiated symbolic relations. Those modes include not just the different sequences that make up “the career of vacationers settling in” at a seaside resort on the Atlantic (Aurélien Gentil) but also the differentiated attitudes to their origins experienced by immigrants’ descendants during vacations in Algeria (Jennifer Bidet). Dubbed “being together with friends,” “second home” or “place of memory,” these modes of inhabiting are apprehended in their symbolic dimension by way of material indications of inhabitants’ appropriation of place; also by respondents’ social characteristics. In turn, modes of inhabiting can be made intelligible through study of mobility practices. In his doctoral dissertation, Nicolas Oppenchaim worked to analyse the socializing effects of daily mobility on adolescents living in ZUSes (officially designated “sensitive urban zones” or tough neighbourhoods) in Ile-de-France. These practices, particularly important to individual socialization, turn out to be determined by a set of acquired dispositions to mobility and the socioeconomic or territorial constraints here brought to light. The work also confirms that the working class in its various forms is once again a central intellectual preoccupation of French sociologists. Working in the wake of Olivier Schwartz and Michel Pialoux, these French sociologists offer a detailed description of the heterogeneity of this class in France and its processes of internal differentiation. Holidaymakers, young vacationers “back” in their immigrant parents’ villages in North Africa, girls living in ZUSes and skilled manual workers living in urban outskirts are also actors whose practices in physical and symbolic space need to be methodically dissected. Violaine Girard’s contribution probes the way the working class has been recomposed, offering an interpretation of the French “dream of living in a free-standing house” [3] and an “analysis of social stratification at the local level.” Her text reminds us that it is impossible to grasp the “space” of urban outskirts as a “unified category”, and thereby considerably disqualifies preponderant media and intellectual representations of that space.

3The processes of residential categorization and social differentiation of space, be they legal, symbolic or architectural, are clearly at the core of French sociologists’ current thinking on urban life and practices. In his paper, Clément Rivière focuses on parental guidance of children’s urban practices, working to grasp the strategic dimensions involved. This approach “from below”–that is, by looking directly at actors’ practices–is also found in the work of Anaïs Collet and Colin Giraud, [4] who describe the mechanisms involved in producing spaces identified with particular populations. Both bring to light the role played by gentrifiers in transforming working-class spaces, together with the “simple social and symbolic dimension of the labour of gentrification” (p. 120). Collet’s gentrifiers are private family real estate converters in lower Montreuil, a city on the outskirts of Paris whose social morphology considerably changed in the 2000s. Threatened with residential declassing but endowed with considerable socioeconomic resources, including a number of occupational dispositions, these young households, with support from the various city governments, were able to mutate gradually into “producers of desirable real estate properties,” “activators” of the local real estate market, but also “agents for administrative change” (p. 131), all in the aim of consolidating an endangered social position (i.e., the aim of “remaining bourgeois”). The uncertainty of these households’ real estate strategies seems a response to their need to be certain of having a stable social trajectory. Collet’s sociological portrait of these “adventurers of daily life” (the expression is Bidou-Zachariasen’s), sketched in intaglio as it were, and her description of the daily labour of gentrification they carry out, call for further ethnographic study to get a clearer understanding of the practices of this social group popularly labelled “Bohemian bourgeois” but whose identity is a matter for sociological debate.

4Colin Giraud’s ambition is the same as Collet’s, and his work renews sociological approaches to gentrification in its quest for “a finer understanding of the specific forms and actors involved in these types of urban mutations” (p. 137). Drawing on approaches developed in the 1980s by English-speaking sociologists, Giraud chose to investigate several gentrified neighbourhoods in Paris and Montreal in order to discover the role played by gay male couples in France. He found that their sociological profile “resembles that of gentrifiers in general” (p. 142).

5These authors and others probe the role of “agents of urban change” (p. 133) and of local actor configurations in producing urban space. Whether they are property sellers, property-converting inhabitants, local officials facilitating the work of those agents, or architects’ collectives, these actors produce “explicit or implicit rules and constraints of a legal, technical or socioeconomic nature” (p. 155) and each in his or her way plays a role in dividing up urban space, performing a genuine “material, social and symbolic labour” (p. 133), not to say, in some contexts “a labour of enclosure” (p. 205).

6In addition to revealing the diversity of research objects and theoretical approaches, this set of texts enables the reader to appreciate the tonicity and endurance of the ethnographic approach. Participant observation, sequenced observation, ethnographic interviews–the entire panoply of ethnographic study tools has been used here. Moreover, attention to social, occupational and residential trajectories, together with a tightly focused local approach, attest to a shared intention to “connect the spatial and the social” (p. 223) by means of the longitudinal prism. Most of these studies of processes of working-class recomposition in urban outskirts or constructing residential relations in the city centre involve a longitudinal approach or reasoning.

7The authors’ methodological pragmatism, added to the combined quantitative and qualitative data they use, often proves quite fruitful. One example among others is the renewed use of INSEE’s “occupations and socio-occupational categories” (PCS) nomenclature (a system in decline for a time). Whether that nomenclature is used for detailed, local analysis of social stratification in urban outskirts (Violaine Girard) or to refine selection of future parent respondents (Clément Rivière), its extremely wide-ranging heuristic potential has clearly been rediscovered. Nor do these sociologists hesitate to use a wide of range of empirical material (specialized press articles, deeds registries, public registries of condominium managers, address and business directories, and others) or to try out innovative means of circumventing “methodological obstacles” or quantifying “statistically invisible” populations. Colin Giraud, for example, developed an original means of quantitative study by drawing on a sample of male residents of Paris with a subscription to a gay magazine.

8Lastly, while the work partially confirms Christian Topalov’s observation that “the socioeconomic approach to urban production” and analysis of “state urban policy” have virtually disappeared from urban sociology in France, it keeps us abreast of current production by sociologists ever concerned to validate their hypotheses empirically. Nonetheless, one of the questions the editors raise has yet to be answered: Will this movement lead in the coming years to “important, widespread renewal”? Confirmation of the new trend will depend first and foremost on the ability of French housing, urban planning and development administrations to engage with sociologists in “cognitive pacts” (Topalov’s expression) without giving in to certain “intellectual fashions.” It will also depend on researchers’ ability to successfully combat their atomization.


  • [1]
    Christian Topalov, “Trente ans de sociologie urbaine. Un point de vue français” [Thirty years of urban sociology: a French perspective], Métropolitiques, Oct. 16, 2013.
  • [2]
  • [3]
    On this question see also Anne Lambert, Tous propriétaires ! L’envers du décor pavillonnaire [Everyone a homeowner! The underside of the free-standing house], Paris, Seuil, 2015.
  • [4]
    Anaïs Collet, Rester bourgeois. Les quartiers populaires, nouveaux chantiers de la distinction [Working-class neighbourhoods: new sites for developing ‘distinction’], Paris, La Découverte, 2015, 288 p.; Colin Giraud, Quartiers gays [Gay neighbourhoods], Presses Universitaires de France, Le lien social, 2014, 432 p.
Pierre-Antoine Chauvin
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Uploaded on on 27/04/2016
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