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1 This book, [1] based on a collective research project, describes the lifestyles of the ‘stable lower-income’ fractions of the working class in France. At one end are households in the ‘precarious lower’ working class, which consists of (principally women) working in personal services as well as manual labourers without formal qualifications, who have low, unstable incomes and little or no access to homeownership. At the other end are members of the ‘upper’ working class, consisting of administrative employees in the private sector, police officers, and military personnel, who have more advanced educational qualifications, favourable social backgrounds, and greater economic and residential stability. Most working-class households lie in between, but there has been little research on these stable, low-income households. [2]

2 The book’s first chapter is devoted to a ‘sociography of the contemporary working classes’ as defined by their characteristics at the individual and household levels (p. 50). The 21 chapters that follow each centre on the detailed case of a single family. Particular attention is paid to diversity in family configurations, positions in the life cycle, occupational situations, and exposure to the norms of educational and healthcare institutions. Importantly, in focusing not only on the characteristics of the male ‘head of household’ but also those of his partner and the family configuration, the book’s authors refuse to think the condition of the working classes in exclusively masculine terms. [3]

3 The authors review the ‘scissor-like’ evolution of that condition, which has blurred the barrier between ‘them’ and ‘us’, as described in studies on working-class life (Hoggart et al., 1970 [4]; Schwartz, 1990 [5]). Beginning between 1950 and 1970, the development of the wage-based society (Castel, 1995 [6]), followed by the massification of education (Beaud, 2003 [7]), social positions have become more similar, stimulating working-class aspirations to ‘be like everyone else’. In addition, increasing precarity of employment has deepened occupational inequalities between those with and without higher education (Chenu, 2005 [8]; Peugny, 2018 [9]). These changes have produced a constellation of heterogeneous, hierarchically differentiated positions, with varying levels of protection from poverty and proximity to relatively elite working-class positions. The choice not to use the terms pauperized middle class or lower middle class expresses the idea that a certain porosity of habiti does not automatically produce common living conditions or practices. The stable, lower-income fractions of the working classes remain at a social distance from the middle classes, with incomes below the median, educational qualifications below the level of the general baccalauréat (academic secondary diploma), occupations with relatively little social recognition, and modest educational ambitions.

4 The authors analyse the common aspiration ‘to be like everyone else’ that is characteristic of these fractions, and explore the resulting diversity of practices and ‘ethos’, on the basis of detailed studies of individual households. The diversity that they uncover reaffirms the need to differentiate between fractions of the working classes, as is commonly done with the middle and upper classes, including the distinction between economic and cultural domains, for example (van Zanten, 2009 [10]).

5 Chapters 2 to 9 are devoted to pathways of access to social stability in working-class milieux. In them we discover how residential, occupational, and conjugal stability are intertwined, and how they depend on individuals’ position in the life cycle. Conjugal solidarity enables attempts at social ascent through schooling, as well as access to property through the combination of two low individual incomes. This comes at the cost of long working hours, adaptation to low-status occupations, and strict budget management. The conditions facing the different couples featured in these chapters are not all equally favourable for stabilization. Some hold a qualification sought after in the labour market, social capital based on ‘autochthonous’ status, or a small amount of inherited economic capital. However, their situation in the face of events such as the family misfortunes that more often affect members of these social groups remains fragile. In some cases, occupational and/or residential destabilization lays bare the limitations of their strategies for social ascent. Conversely, single parenthood shows how conjugal instability can in turn generate occupational and residential instability.

6 Chapters 10 to 15 examine gender relations in domestic organization. While a gendered division of roles within the family may have been considered characteristic of the working classes in the 1970s, the place of women in these families is now ambivalent. They neither merely ‘accept’ their condition nor do they identify as ‘feminist’ or ‘egalitarian’: the role of mother remains one of the few valued identities available to those in the most precarious groups, as is virility for men. Data from INSEE’s Emploi du temps surveys confirm the persistence of the gendered division of domestic tasks (Cartier et al., 2018 [11]), but women demand that men also contribute, and protest against an excessively unbalanced division of domestic labour. Although being in waged employment offers women a strong basis to make their own voice heard, having a career remains costly for them, given the desire to commit heavily to motherhood. Moreover, shared plans for upward social mobility can contribute to the continuation of an unequal distribution of tasks and the suspension of women’s career plans. Women in these contexts value personal activities and spaces, refuse to devote their lives entirely to the service of the family, and do not wish to repeat the situation of their mothers. This ambivalence between reproduction and transformation of the gendered division of domestic labour yields a variety of conjugal models and types of feminine and masculine identity. Within households, a convergence with the middle classes can coexist with a reproduction of working-class traits, producing ‘hybrid’ lifestyles and femininities.

7 Finally, Chapters 16 to 22 focus on practices of socialization with other social groups. The penetration of ‘mass psychological culture’ (Schwartz, 2011 [12]), contact with educational and health institutions, and the development of a ‘triangular social consciousness’ (Collovald and Schwartz, 2006 [13]) have altered relations with the wider world. Members of these stable lower-income groups work to distinguish themselves from the most dominated groups, but also hold negative views on those in dominant positions within the social order, who they deem to be unjust. They involve themselves in collective organizations and show ‘ordinary’ civic engagement. The portraits also highlight discourses structured around the value of work, featuring an occupational ‘we’ connecting colleagues in similar positions, and a rejection of the recipients of social benefits (‘les assistés’). This rejection is reflected by restrictions on neighbourly relations and judgments on the practices of the most precarious households. These are, however, sometimes combined with an awareness of discrimination or positive attitudes on local mutual aid. Contradictory processes of preferential socialization with similar households and ‘social decompartmentalization’ are also observed. Far from avoiding other social groups, these households, and women in particular, are regularly in contact with them through work, local associations, or involvement in schools. They thereby experience social decompartmentalization. But efforts to acculturate are combined with the development of options for withdrawal into socially separate spaces, away from economic and cultural domination.

8 By opening the black box of the social destinies of the working classes, the authors reveal the heterogeneity and fragility of their pathways to stabilization. It is easy to imagine the many who do not achieve stability because they are unable to fulfill the necessary conditions. The various portraits highlight goodwill, in egalitarian, educational, health, and occupational terms. Rather than ‘cultural goodwill’ (Bourdieu, 1979 [14]), it is a goodwill ‘of necessity’, required in order to ‘be like everyone else’. The stable lower fractions of the working classes are thus characterized by a ‘disposition to play the social game without believing in it’ (p. 420), a strategy whose limited success explains the rejection both of ‘politicians’ and of social welfare recipients. In critically examining the traits generally described in the literature, this book demonstrates the need for a non-static approach to the working classes that recognizes and documents their heterogeneity.


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: the categories referred to in the title of the book, employés and ouvriers, are part of the French statistical office INSEE’s nomenclature of professions and refer respectively to lower-level clerical, sales, and service employees ( and to industrial and blue-collar workers (
  • [2]
    The distinction and characterization of these three groups was based on a multiple correspondence analysis using data from INSEE employment surveys.
  • [3]
    This is all the more important given that conjugal unions between women working in clerical, sales, and service roles (employées) and men in industrial and blue-collar roles (ouvriers) are widespread, leading to an entanglement of the ethe of the two groups.
  • [4]
    Hoggart R., 1970, La culture du pauvre: étude sur le style de vie des classes populaires en Angleterre, Paris, Éditions de Minuit.
  • [5]
    Schwartz O., 1990, Le monde privé des ouvriers: hommes et femmes du Nord, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.
  • [6]
    Castel R., 1995, Les métamorphoses de la question sociale: une chronique du salariat, Paris, Fayard.
  • [7]
    Beaud S., 2003, 80 % au bac… et après ? Les enfants de la démocratisation scolaire, Paris, La Découverte.
  • [8]
    Chenu A., 2005, Sociologie des employés, Paris, La Découverte.
  • [9]
    Peugny C., 2018, L’évolution de la structure sociale dans quinze pays européens (1993-2013): quelle polarisation de l’emploi? Sociologie, 9(4), 399–416.
  • [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]
    Cartier M., Letrait M., Sorin M., 2018, Travail domestique: des classes populaires conservatrices? Travail, genre et sociétés, 39(1), 63–81.
  • [12]
    Schwartz O., 2011, La pénétration de la ‘culture psychologique de masse’ dans un groupe populaire: paroles de conducteurs de bus, Sociologie, 2(4), 345–361.
  • [13]
    Collovald A., Schwartz O., 2006, Haut, bas, fragile: sociologies du populaire, Vacarme, 37(4), 50–55.
  • [14]
    Bourdieu P., 1979, La distinction: critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Éditions de minuit.
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