CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1In this book, Benoît Coquard presents the results of a multi-year ethnographic survey he conducted in circles of sociability in declining rural areas. He challenges oversimplifying representations of these social spaces—representations which, he argues, oscillate between ‘miserabilism’ or ‘populism’. Coquard argues that the success of these representations is linked to the subordinate status of classes described in discourses produced by dominant others who are socially distant from them. [1] These discourses create identities that these social groups come to assume as their own, [2] although the inhabitants of rural areas are in fact extremely heterogeneous. He emphasizes the need to distinguish these spaces of depopulation and impoverishment from ‘attractive’ rural areas, of wine production and tourism, for example.

2The Yellow Vests movement, which led to considerable media coverage of declining rural areas, expressed the sentiment of an endangered lifestyle based on access to monetary resources, economic success through work, and respectability. Members of the stable working classes mark this respectability by distancing themselves from ‘assistés’ [stigmatized recipients of social welfare payments], a distancing which was progressively reinforced with increasing mobilization of the unemployed, and especially of women, within the movement. Coquard shows how the ‘working-class lifestyle’ is constructed on a nostalgic relationship to the past, and highlights its gendered character. [3] Young men claim a reputational legacy, by virtue of their surname, that is supposed to guarantee them a locally valued position. This is expressed above all by those with deep local ties: individuals who are ‘well regarded’ and integrated in worlds of work and activities that bring together multiple generations. They express a sense of lost status due to deindustrialization, a process that has made career stability more difficult to achieve, and lament the decline of spaces of socialization. Bars and dances (bals) are stigmatized because they are frequented by members of the most precarious groups, who have little social capital and are excluded from work-related socializing. Those in the most stable positions thus tend to favour private domestic spaces.

3The ‘great social and geographic sorting via schooling’ (p. 80) by class and gender homogenizes the population in these spaces and encourages attachment to the working-class lifestyle. An anti-school attitude is shared by young men in various social positions: those from the local bourgeoisie with economic capital, those from the stablest layers of the local population who have successfully made their way into the local labour market, and those who are members of the most precarious groups. This attitude can be explained in part by symbolic violence in schools, but also by the lack of social prestige and protection against unemployment that higher education provides locally. Furthermore, there are few visible counter-models of educational success, as men and (especially) women who leave do not return. [4] On one side of the social space, young people from the local bourgeoisie with cultural capital avoid spaces of working-class sociability and rural collèges (lower secondary schools), which leads very early to a segregated working-class sociability. On the other, Coquard writes of an ‘immigration of the precarious’. Those with the least advantageous social endowments migrate to escape the stigma of unemployment, which extends to the local labour market and its informal economy. Work ‘under the table’, far from being ‘specific to the precarious’, has become very difficult to obtain, as it is heavily dependent on a ‘good reputation’. Cases of migration considered ‘exemplary’ are mainly male, as in the case of men who move to Switzerland, where young men with little formal education are thought to be much better paid. [5] Other positions held outside the local space, such as careers in the armed forces, are valued insofar as they allow individuals to redeploy ways of being or thinking from the rural world while continuing to reside there.

4In a context of economic and demographic decline, Coquard shows that the predominant way individuals protect themselves from precarity and distinguish themselves locally is by investing in selective forms of sociability that are no longer based on territorial logics. The constitution of friendship groups based on affinity raises the question of how autochthony is to be defined. [6] These groups are shaped in large part by intense competition between rural youth with similar educational and work trajectories. They are formed out of a desire to maintain an exclusive sociability while creating a distance from others with the most similar social characteristics, who are competitors on the labour market. These groups are thus often ‘trans-class’ and no longer meet in stigmatized spaces frequented by the most precarious groups, but in the home, a controllable meeting place. For men, these gatherings represent an escape from local social control. They are characterized by alcohol consumption, a masculine privilege that reinforces social bonds and affirms male domination. Women’s apparent ability to exercise control, by ‘shouting’ at their husbands, Coquard argues, should not obscure this male monopolization of attention and space. Moreover, he shows that unlike the social fabric of women in these rural spaces, the logic of men’s social networks is collective and is based on membership in a friendship group. To be a respectable man is above all to have time available to have guests, to be a guest oneself, and to provide skills that help to combat economic insecurity. The logic of these social obligations is one of male domination, whose forms in rural social life Coquard describes in fine detail. It would be interesting to know more about the consequences for women’s trajectories, particularly in cases of separation. [7]

5Coquard then links material living conditions to political stances summarized by the expression ‘déjà nous’ (us already/first). The ‘us’ of this phrase is very different from the ‘us’ described by Richard Hoggart. [8] Far from reflecting a ‘class for itself’ that is mobilized and aware of the interests of proletarians at the national scale, [9] this ‘us’ emerges within friendship groups whose members see their selective nature as a necessary condition for pursuing shared strategies. This increases inequalities, as the most precarious are excluded from these networks even as they are the most affected by the withdrawal of the state. The combination of a focus on distinction with increasing inequalities, Coquard argues, is narrowing the scope for alliances within the working classes. He links these clan logics and conflicts in daily life to the division of the world promoted by the far right, with ‘true French’ and ‘true friends’ pitted against ‘them’ and ‘the Arabs’. Public support for far-right discourse is a mark of respectability, through which individuals define themselves in opposition to those who ‘take advantage’ [(profitent) of others and the social welfare system]. It also represents continuity with the political positioning of the members of older generations with the most stable positions.

6This book offers a fine-grained analysis of contemporary political struggles structured around oppositions of class and gender. It offers further confirmation that processes of distinction, often studied in the context of the middle and upper classes, [10] also occur in the working classes and are central in the struggles of individuals to protect themselves from precarity. In contrast to the middle and upper classes, here these processes are not based on educational institutions, but take place within competing local social networks. [11] Coquard explores the question of the relevant geographical scales in a context where commuting is increasingly prevalent. He chooses a scale that makes sense for the studied population: mutual acquaintance groups, which can extend across multiple cantons. In doing so, he demonstrates the advantages of ‘localizing’ ethnography in characterizing the studied territory. One can only regret that the book does not delve more into the material dimensions of local solidarity. For example, what proportion of the budget of young households does the practice of the daily apéro (gathering for drinks and food at the end of the day) represent, and what can that tell us about men’s appropriation of household resources to maintain their own sociability?


  • [1]
    Grignon C., Passeron J.-C., 1989, Le savant et le populaire: misérabilisme et populisme en sociologie et en littérature, Paris, Seuil.
  • [2]
    Bourdieu P., 1977, Une classe objet, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 17–18, 2–5.
  • [3]
    Young unmarried women express more regret about the loss of conditions of adolescence, featuring mixed social groups and more valued female roles.
  • [4]
    For women particularly, return implies a lack of opportunity to make use of educational qualifications on an unfavourable local labour market.
  • [5]
    Coquard emphasizes that these cases of migration are neither the most successful nor the most common.
  • [6]
    Capital d’autochtonie (social capital linked to being autochthonous to a place) is defined by its territorial character: ‘All of the resources provided by belonging to localized relationship networks … which derive from a reputation acquired and maintained in a specific territory.’ Renahy N., 2010, Classes populaires et capital d’autochtonie, Regards sociologiques, 40, 9–26.
  • [7]
    Separations are less favourable to women in all social spaces. See Le Collectif Onze, 2013, Au tribunal des couples: enquête sur des affaires familiales, Paris, Odile Jacob.
  • [8]
    Hoggart R., 1957, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life, London Chatto and Windus.
  • [9]
    Marx K., 1852, Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon, Die Revolution, New York City.
  • [10]
    Van Zanten A., 2009, Le travail éducatif parental dans les classes moyennes et supérieures: deux modes contrastés d’encadrement des pratiques et des choix des enfants, Informations sociales, 154(4), 80–87.
  • [11]
    Wagner A., 2007, Les classes sociales dans la mondialisation, Paris, La Découverte. Wagner speaks of an ‘international capital’ upon which new dominant positions are built, with social reproduction in the upper classes based on the transmission of this capital.
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