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1What can we learn from the works of urban ethnography produced in the great Chicago School tradition, today revived by Elijah Anderson and his disciples? That the use of social sciences is more ethnological and pragmatic in the United States than in France or Germany, where we are less familiar with James, Pierce, Emerson and Dewey than with Hegel, Marx, Adorno and Habermas. In interactionist and phenomenological America, the focus is on statutes, roles, norms and rules, communities and institutions; in Europe, scholars are more oriented towards structures, generations, class and social movements. As Durkheim’s epistemological split from psychology did not take place on the other side of the Atlantic, the individual and his motivations have remained at the heart of social sciences there, whilst in Europe collective action has become the main object of study. For all these reasons, although interethnic interaction long ago became a common object of study on both sides of the Atlantic, it is perceived in a novel way on the East Coast (from Yale to Philadelphia).

2Another reason for the discrepancy between these two scientific traditions is political context. By its very constitution, the New World is multi-communitarian: racial and religious questions are bluntly addressed. European political scientists, on the other hand, are loath to speak about these issues openly – on the Old Continent, researchers prefer to talk about pluralism and secularism rather than multiculturalism and freedom of faith; they prefer to deal with “young people” rather than “people of foreign origin”; they prefer to speak of “citizens” rather than “ordinary people”.

3The third source of difference is the populations studied: the same initial question (what reactions might stigmatization provoke?) generates opposing empirical observations: avoidance of others on the American side, since black people do not want to experience “moments of acute disrespect”, as Elijah Anderson puts it [2]; and confrontation in Europe, where people of Mediterranean or African origin seek to be recognized by others or exclude those who stigmatize them from their circles of recognition.

4Finally, the way memories of humiliating situations are passed on from generation to generation by uprooted people also varies. All this elicits two opposing attitudes: a rejection of politics and the forces behind it; or, conversely, radical involvement way beyond its conventional forms – like voting. Researchers analysing these people in Europe and the United States have different perceptions of the same phenomena. For example, the descendants of Black American slaves very often opt to withdraw into the intimacy of microscopic forms of sociability, whereas previously colonised people now living in Europe tend to question the social order and object to macroscopic political changes. Consequently, long-standing American ethnic parties and protest movements are remote from the recent riots and terrorist attacks in Europe, though the US and Canada have not been spared on this front either.

5How can such differences be explained? The answer will come through examining several recent academically successful American texts on urban ethnography. The articles and works produced in Europe on the same subject do not resemble them either in scale, coherence or notoriety. The theories and methods used differ as well.

6In order to understand these differences, their causes, and the effects they may have on what authors show (anomie in America, activism in Europe) and how they show it (through cultural anthropology, or via political sociology), this paper begins with the ‘moment of acute disrespect’ and its impact on identity; it then compares the way Americans and Europeans talk about it; and ends by analysing ethnic populations on both sides of the Ocean.

The moment of shock

7The ‘nigger moment’ (sic[3]) described by Elijah Anderson, is a moment of shock experienced when Afro-Americans, who have so far had no opportunity to really consider themselves as such, are reminded of their origins in an insulting way for an acculturated person who is sure that fellow citizens owe each other mutual respect. The incident is shrouded in darkness, like their skin, like their gaze as it becomes blind to a world they thought they were familiar with; dark like their mood, as they become unremittingly pessimistic about the world around them [4].


8When it first happens, the ordeal is made worse by the anxiety of having to go through it again, by feverishly expecting an incident, which now seems inevitable when it was previously considered unthinkable. Relationships with others can no longer be taken for granted. And this reminder of their origins shows every non-white person that their social status is provisional: according to Elijah Anderson, a young black American “has something to prove”, CC, p. 171). In Alice Goffman’s words, young people “are on probation”, OtR).

9E. Anderson’s work is teeming with stories, from the least serious (the owner of a beautiful house in a wealthy area rummaging through his suit pockets for the key to his front door, whom the police arrest because they think he is a burglar) to the most serious (a brilliant student at a prestigious university is picked up at his faculty bus stop by the police, arrested for a robbery at the nearby supermarket where he had spent the evening buying groceries before returning home, following a report from a white classmate that the only black person in the area is bound to be the culprit). What E. Anderson retains from these tragic instances is that upward social mobility can be instantaneously cancelled, that the stigma (to echo Erving Goffman) lies there, latently, like a virus. The carriers may completely forget they have it, yet one day or another they will be reminded that it has not gone away. The ‘colour line’ (W.E.B Dubois) persists, intact, in people’s heads. And this myriad of dark moments is the dotted line which forms the invisible barrier between races.

10The European equivalent is a sort of racial profiling during police checks. “Mediterranean type” people are constantly complaining about it, as they are more likely than others to have their identity checked and doubted by the police. Yet, authors who focus their research work on criminology, or the difficulties experienced by the populations of the suburbs (“banlieues”), tend to focus less than their American peers on the causes of the humiliation than on its effects. They work less on the affective and social reactions than on the action that the humiliation leads to: is it politically motivated though illegal? Or is it violent and radical?

11There is a softer, English version of this shock moment, which, though less violent, is equally predictable and ubiquitous. In London, well-integrated Muslims find themselves facing a dilemma arising from their dual ancestry (is it ok to borrow from an ordinary bank to pay off a debt contracted with an Islamic bank? Is it ok to anglicise a Muslim name that English people can’t pronounce? Should a Muslim’s Christian wife be allowed to baptize her children?). These are also unanticipated situations of perplexity, arising when a Muslim encounters a non-Muslim, which had hitherto not posed any identity-related issues (Sartawi & Sammut 2012 [5]).


12And this fateful clash can only be remedied by civility. A person either stigmatizes, or civilizes. When ethnicity continues to weigh on those who cannot shake it off, interethnic tensions can only be erased by a civilizing process “made of modesty, self-restraint, decency and toleration” (Edyvan 2017). E. Anderson’s work pursues these goals. A. Goffman’s work tracks the institutional obstacles on the road to greater civility: according to her, “surveillance, policing, and supervision raise important sociological questions about the role of the state in managing poverty and maintaining racial inequality” (ORWM, 341).

13The “nigger moment” has consequences. It affects the victims’ attitudes. They might throw themselves into the race for integration (which E. Anderson clearly hopes they do), or they try to escape (which A. Goffman attributes to a vicious circle: judicial policy having increased the risks incurred by people of colour [6], they avoid the justice system instead of complying with it).

14A shock moment, racial profiling, the identity dilemma: the same object should be seen in a similar way wherever you are in the world, yet this is not the case. The main differences in American and European approaches to interethnic encounter come from two main sources: diverging approaches to genealogy and differing initial premises. Plus, the target populations vary: compared to the clear simplicity of the relationship between Blacks and Whites, the cultural specificities of people of Arab-Muslim, Turkish-Kurdish and Sahelian origin in Europe and those of their stigmatizers, who themselves have varied backgrounds, complicate this encounter with the Other.

Explanatory differences according to the approach chosen

15In the United States, urban ethnology has a long history. It began at a time when the observation of society was mixed with social work in the field. General ethnology, on the other hand, already claimed to be scientific and produced work on cities, firms and social classes [7]. Then came the Chicago School tradition, whose members combined all these sources into the field of urban ethnosociology. Ethnosociology, by favouring in situ observation, distinguished itself from the theoretical sociology of European heritage, which would be adopted a short time later by T. Parsons or R. Merton, but also from quantitative political sociology, in the manner of Lazarsfeld, who was almost their contemporary (Schemeil 1983).

Agency and structure

16The level of analysis differs too. Americans focus on bottom-up politics in the city; whereas Europeans focus on top-down city policy (Lorrain 2015). And to understand how we got there, knowing the genealogy and the networks in which Elijah Anderson’s and Alice Goffman’s research is situated, is a necessary pre-requisite.

17E. Anderson wrote his thesis (A Place on the Corner) as a response to the major work by W. F. Whyte (Street Corner Society), himself influenced by R. E. Park and the authors of the Chicago School (including Everett Hughes and Herbert Blumler). Once supervised by Howard Becker, Elijah Anderson eventually became the research supervisor of Alice Goffman, Erving’s daughter. What they have in common is the angle of attack: they target informal or ephemeral groups, improbable or inevitable encounters in which the people observed must both build a peaceful relationship with others and keep that relationship superficial enough not to suffer from it. Erving Goffman has dedicated his life to the invisible bubble that protects each of us from the incursions of our neighbours; Elijah Anderson tracks down the caution we exercise when we come across someone different from ourselves; Alice Goffman targets cases where “people known to the police” are wary of all public places where they might be subject to identity checks.

Chart 1. Genealogy of quoted American authors

Chart 1. Genealogy of quoted American authors

Chart 1. Genealogy of quoted American authors

18Simply put, according to E. Goffman people avoid the Other come what may; E. Anderson says people avoid the Other of a different skin colour; A. Goffman’s assumption is that people keep away from anyone in a position of institutional authority (and for Nina Eliasoph, people “avoid” politics in any shape or form).

19Of course, each and every one of us negotiates their relationship to the global social order within their own local situation. In the United States and Canada, many authors have compressed the social sciences of the urban environment into an ethnology of everyday interactions, the sociology of agency. In Europe, ethnology has become a sociology of structure, and its objects moved from decolonized and remote territories to the rural neighbourhood of Western metropolitan areas. This conversion has left the study of cities to general sociology: (Catherine Neveu addresses stigmatizable people’s identity through the lens of citizenship rather than ethnicity (Neveu 1992, 2004). Sebastian Roché studies crime-reduction policies, and not neighbourhood relations (Roché 2003). All this was not a foregone conclusion though: Pierre Bourdieu himself, following in the footsteps of his then master, Claude Lévi-Strauss, became famous for his “studies in Kabyle ethnology”, his last writings as a “happy structuralist” while his colleague and friend Abdel Malek Sayyad worked on immigration.

20A comparison of the required readings for sociologists at the universities of both countries confirms this impression: in the US, Dahl, Whyte, and Wright Mills analyse the urban landscape from an anthropological angle, as did the pointillist Simmel; in Europe, Bourdieu, Boudon, Touraine, Giddens, and Hogarth, focus on the social order, from a sociological angle, following in the footsteps of generalizing authors such as Durkheim and Weber. In short, in America, social science (as Comte would say) involves work on cities and their inhabitants’ integration into the groups that constitute them, while in Europe it focuses on states, organizations and shared governance. This difference has not prevented US scholars from being just as interested in politics as the latter, but they do so on a microscopic level and not by collecting survey data and addressing it in places where it is furthest from the protocols of devolution of legal power and not where the strategy for bringing different groups together is conceived [8].

21On an epistemological level, the two approaches complement each other. After all, American urban ethnologists observe people whose daily routine involves converting a disorderly situation into an orderly form of social life in which the transaction costs are bearable. The focus on ephemeral conjuncture does not completely distance urban sociologists from the work of more structuralist and functionalist sociologists, such as T. Parsons and his writings on race and on the relationship between caregiver and patient (Parsons 1975), or R. Merton on the interactions between immigrants and the militants of the party that “civilizes” them (i.e. that integrates them into the City). But in these two cases, it is the role defined by the social structure that is at the heart of the analysis, whereas for urban ethnologists, this role is negotiated by mutual adjustment, and constantly varies, even if a general typology seems to have emerged over time.

22In the US today, agents take precedence over structure, which leads open places (railway stations, malls, bars, cafés, squares, crossroads, blocks, streets or long avenues) to replace closed places (such as prisons, barracks, schools, courts, factories or ghettos) as objects of scholarly attention. This goes against the ethnographic habitus that encourages places closed to others to be demarcated (like cells, stairwells, judges’ offices or polling stations). Erving Goffman studied psychiatric hospitals, Howard Becker jazz clubs, William Foote Whyte bowling alleys and youth centres. Yet, more recent works do not assume that these entities are sociologically relevant: they tend to ask how they last, how they cooperate, and how they arbitrate – all processes that have a considerable impact on the interactions taking place within them. For example, the organization of the Philadelphia Police Department as seen by Alice Goffman is, in her view, the cause of the dereliction that reigns in the districts that its police monitor. As soon as a first offence is reported and using information about the suspects’ entourage, patrols arrest more suspects, which further increases the list of charges against them. This infernal mechanism hardly exists in France, where the system for reporting an offense is neither widely used nor user-friendly and where, unlike in the United States, the law enforcement results-driven statistics do not include mere refusals to testify or traffic violations.

23By dichotomizing the relationship between agency and structure, we pit one group of agents against another (judges with offenders): we gain a more general viewpoint but lose sight of the fine complexity and hybridity of these groups. Whereas, in a tiny Chicago bar, Elijah Anderson finds at least three groups of consumers (regulars, wineheads, hoodlums) and two others that they are confronted with when they leave (honkies and crankies), Gilles Kepel considers his Muslim respondents from the two test cities of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil according to a single criterion: their degree of respect for hallal.

24While European research aims to observe and understand what motivates individuals within an institutional framework, American research shows that strategic interaction operates in such a way that agents’ behaviours do not just divide them into only two categories (the goodies and baddies). Take the case of women who try to help young runaways. Mothers, wives or girlfriends may both love them and yet get them sent to prison (to avoid being killed, to avoid having to support them, or just to protect themselves from their violence). They may even threaten to hand them over (out of jealousy, revenge, retaliation, blackmail, or even to force men to acknowledge their paternity: ORWM, pp. 348-9 and note 8: “Some people get others arrested simply to extort money from them, which they request in exchange for not showing up as a witness at the ensuing trial”). The women thus go through various phases of the cycle from “omerta” to denunciation, from prison visit to oblivion. Women might successively or simultaneously be “generous” and “selfish”. By constantly rubbing shoulders with the police and hearing their arguments, A. Goffman herself loses the exact meaning of what is right and what is wrong (OtR, p. 87). This cold realism is not in itself proof of objectivity, but it is missing in European works that are generally more humanistic and give the impression that the authors and readers would like the underdogs not to be responsible for their own misfortunes (Lagrange 2010).

Self-defence or trust in institutions

25There is a second major difference between the continents: in the Georges H. Mead tradition, bolstered by the success of political psychology focused on destabilizing situations, American researchers show us how individuals protect each other in what remains of the Hobbesian world today. Europeans, on the other hand, focus more on how societies protect themselves from those who threaten them from within. In the US, citizens defend themselves from the City; in Europe, the City keep citizens at distance.

26American publications show that social order forces people to conform; European research focuses on transgression of the established order. We see this in political philosophy, with the interesting debates on the external signs of communitarianism in the public sphere (Leca 1996). Stigmatized groups’ urban cultures seem to be less important for European researchers than gang warfare, gang rape, drug trafficking, and terrorism. With few exceptions (Brouard & Tiberj on young French citizens of foreign descent 2005), it is the deviations from ideal-typical behaviour that stimulate research, even when it is simply a matter of not registering to vote; or non take-up of social benefits (Braconnier & Dormagen 2010; Warin 2016); or studying policies to combat ethnic discrimination – a public problem, more than a social one (Mazouz 2012).

27Conversely, E. Anderson has uncovered a “cosmopolitan canopy” effect, which reflects a shared American culture, regardless of one’s neighbourhood or position on the social ladder. This shared culture even spawns derivative cultures elsewhere in the world with its cult of youth, strength, speed and practicality, and all its very “middle class” obsessions (love of pets, music clubs, independent cinema, and un-fancy, environmentally friendly cars, etc.). But this culture also has its limits, because it often includes what E. Anderson calls a “white space”, a neutral venue where all the usually separate groups that make up the society of an American city like Chicago or Philadelphia meet up, which is sometimes even – and the choice of the word is significant – a “carnival-like” place - CC, p. 51). This kind of festive venue temporarily enables the social hierarchy to be turned upside down.

28Under this cosmopolitan canopy, people may cohabit with others without touching the boundaries of their personal intimacy, which avoids the kind of unwanted invasive encounters that could be painful in the absence of this virtual venue. This protection produces the “contagious” feeling that others can be “nice” even when they are different (CC, pp. 53, 60). Without the canopy, society would remain divided into hostile groups and the causes of conflict or simply the escalating unpleasantness would not be defused. Opportunities to be courteous, approachable, and to enjoy mutual recognition (CC, p. 62) even when efforts to be so are asymmetric (because it takes longer for Blacks to convince Whites of their good intentions than the opposite – CC, pp. 99-100) would be rare or non-existent. Simply being able to be “civilly inattentive” to others (CC, p. 60) or just “stealing looks” instead of “looking them directly in the eye” (CC, p. 116) would not exist. The canopy offers a sense of security, a way of meeting others that breaks down social boundaries and makes mixing possible, whether synchronous or asynchronous (when different groups share the same social arena, but at successive moments of “peaceful coexistence” – CC, p. 112).

29Travelling down a long Philadelphia avenue from beginning to end, one gradually moves from an exclusively black area to a predominantly white one, with variations in pigmentation and all the nuances of cross-breeding, as well as businesses and activities (CoS, p. 15). There is nothing like this in Europe: before reaching the coveted cosmopolitan nirvana, public transport will need to take the visitor under ring roads, green zones and “chic neighborhoods” where one feels “out of place”. In between, there is a void, a “no man’s land” that can only be found in America in declining cities such as Detroit, where industrial wastelands and abandoned or even burned down buildings are a blight on the urban landscape.

30This difference stems from an opposing relationship to local authorities, which attract regular custom in Europe, and are often avoided when possible in the United States. As Alice Goffman shows, in the US there is a clear mistrust of anything official, because someone who is “known to the police” or “on the run” risks being arrested when visiting any kind of public institution. And this wariness prevents them from benefiting from universal services such as hospitals, libraries, stadiums, and sometimes even schools.

Methodological issues

31Methodological insight can be gleaned from these ethnographic approaches. William Foote Whyte stated in the foreword to the first edition of his famous book Street Corner Society that he had received a scholarship to not write a doctoral thesis – as he had to feel free to make his observations accessible to an informed but not only academic audience. The remark could also apply to Oscar Lewis’ books on the Culture of poverty, which cannot be read without bearing in mind the scenes from the world-famous musical and film West Side Story. In these works, the style is close to Dickens, Balzac, Hugo or Zola. The writers provide readers with real-life scenes and dialogues in a different shape and form from the usual academic approach, in order to restore their social truth – unlike Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction.

32In describing these dark moments and civil situations, E. Anderson shows great analytical finesse and attention to the words used. He has a true sense of significant detail, whether he is analysing ordinary “small talk”, or a succession of muttered panhandling and mumbled rebuffs (CC, p. 44 ff.). He is very neutral, and only those who know him are aware that his skin colour and personal history [9] could legitimately make him less charitable. He knows what he’s talking about (coming from a poor rural background, he joined the student elite and later the faculty at Chicago, Penn, and Yale). In his papers, although he claims to proceed by “cross section” (CC, p. 51) like an anatomist, his desire to render his observations perceptible, almost physical, and to give readers a clear view of an everyday life scene leads him to adopt a style which resembles literature (and even Baudelaire, from whom he quotes a text on the happiness of going for a stroll and contemplating others – CC, p. 287).

33As a skilled wordsmith, E. Anderson seems to fade into the shadows of his characters, restoring their truth truer than life. In the Erving Goffman style, each episode is a scene; the characters "perform" (CC, p. 39) publicly, turning the performance combined with the improbable encounters into a “human comedy” à la Balzac. Besides, E. Anderson regularly visits the scenes of his observations, checking their validity and eliminating the possible misinterpretations inherent in any ethnological observation. What we are told says more about what is happening than a simple tale of what we might see and hear when we walk or sit among those we are studying. The observation of people in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, provides the reader with an exquisite and Simmelian passage on “eye work”, and a very Goffmanian one on the “elegant, delicate social dance” of those who pass each other without touching (CC 61).

34As with the major literary authors, test cases lead the author to generalisation. So, urban ethnologists such as Erving and Alice Goffman obviously use the ideal-type method on a large scale. Stylised behaviour in ethnological narrative embodies the characteristics of different people in the real world. Yet, critics might be sceptical about writing that is so dependent on circumstances, while Popperian critics will point out the inductive error – it cannot be inferred even from a large number of identical cases that the following ones will also be so. One has to be Simmelian rather than Durkheimian to appreciate these works on their own merit, yet the French sociological tradition is more influenced by Durkheim and Weber than by Troeltsch and Simmel (sometimes quoted by E. Anderson – CC, p. 51). In Europe today, structuralism is still more popular than pointillism.

35Even within the United States, urban ethnology produces conflicting opinions. Sociologists have questioned the method of extracting non-academic excerpts of speech without informing the observees – for example “eavesdropping” on restaurant goers and using “overheard snatches of conversation” – CC, pp. 50, 148). Critics wonder whether the phenomena observed by authors at different times but in only a few large cities (especially Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia) and in only a few places in those cities, are no more than a collection of anecdotes (a word used by E. Anderson himself – CC, p. 60), and whether their explanations could apply in a more general manner elsewhere [10].

36In Europe, scholars wonder how Americans manage to generalize from local observations – a question that no longer arises when work revolves around national urban policies. E. Anderson’s or A. Goffman’s focus is on cafés and supermarkets, not public institutions. E. Anderson opts to target the “regular” patrons of these ordinary places rather than on institutional settings where citizens have to deal with the authorities (they are “denizens” rather than “citizens”). This brings to mind Nina Eliasoph’s doctoral thesis, whose title is a pun on the words political science and political silence (“Producing Apathy: Politeness, Power and Political Silence”), which led to a famous book with another title (Eliasoph 1998). Yet, as Gary A. Fine writes, “sociology requires a robust theory of how local circumstances create social order”; in other words, he advocates in favour of recognizing “the importance of local context in constituting social worlds” (Fine 2010). According to E. Anderson, even the most unstructured places enable conversations to take place which can place the speakers in a social fabric torn at the edges (for instance, in a train station shopping alley, the audience is different, but “small groups proliferate, providing the participants with a form of social capital, or social sustenance”), giving these people what French ethnologists have called a “joking kinship” because “they are familiar enough to be able to tease one another… and have on-going jokes about one another” (CC, pp. 78-80).

Chart 2. Opposites which explain how attitudes and behaviour develop in E. Anderson’s and A. Goffman’s works

Chart 2. Opposites which explain how attitudes and behaviour develop in E. Anderson’s and A. Goffman’s works

Chart 2. Opposites which explain how attitudes and behaviour develop in E. Anderson’s and A. Goffman’s works

37The inclusive civility that E. Anderson sees in Philadelphia, a model inner city with a “hood”, contrasts with “Bois-Joli”, a suburb of a medium-sized French city, which gives off an impression of exclusion. It seems to be a “self-referential” universe withdrawn from the outside world, whose inhabitants live like “decolonized subjects” who must constantly keep the city’s neo-colonials away from their territory (Lapeyronnie 2008). No doubt “sociological intervention”, a protocol designed by Alain Touraine, is a factor in this differing perception. The methodological choices he made have had practical and theoretical consequences, like bringing together small groups of volunteers belonging to one social type (young, old, women) instead of finding them simply by wandering through the city, even if it means selecting from among them people to be interviewed. As for Pierre Bourdieu, he suggests selecting respondents according to their proximity with the what seems to best represent the situation of all the other people surveyed, with whom other interviews will be conducted immediately afterwards. However, this prevents researcher, for instance, from studying young women and men at the same time (Bourdieu 2000: 37).

38In America, since R. E. Park and then W. F. Whyte, the focus has been less on the marginality for which the right “representatives” should be found than on the margins that provide unexpectedly surprising encounters. In Europe, due to the focus on significance, the respondents who are sought out, although they do not “represent” the population statistically, are “examples” of many cases similar to their own. On both continents, the authors strive not to distort the comments collected, the thoughts expressed and the behaviours observed, as they are so afraid of introducing their own interpretations into what they have seen and heard. But the French Touch tends to brush over the small differences, eliminating randomness, anticipating deviations from the mean, while the Chicago School enriches quantitative analysis with the unpredictable phenomena arising from statistically unlikely encounters.

39Objectivist criticism of the seemingly more subjective American research focuses on American scholars’ selection of cases, as it is true that in urban ethnology, observers are not only dependent on their informants but also at random. They sometimes choose their participants, but not always, because they may be a mechanic called to fix a lost tire in an emergency, or a homeless person they meet in a park (CC, p. 170). Even when the choice is not the result of circumstances but a deliberate decision, the author’s own reasons for observing or interviewing a stranger are not always explicit. It may be that the choice is made by a third party, in charge of organizing the interviews (CC, pp. 181-182) or by a cascade of introductions from person to person, followed by exchanges with the people present on the premises at the time of the observer’s visit (OtR, p. xiv: “with whichever of the 6th street boys were home”).

40It is easy to understand why authors obsessed with epistemological correctness regret the absence of a more regulated survey protocol, with previously defined priority observees to test a hypothesis a priori.

41However, such criticism of American researchers might be questioned after rereading The Weight of the World, for which Parisian researchers adopted the same technique as the “Chicago School” ethnographers. Here is how Pierre Bourdieu justifies the choice of subjects interviewed: “we left investigators free to choose their respondents from among or around people they knew or people to whom they could be introduced by people they knew. For social proximity and familiarity provide two of the conditions of ‘nonviolent’ communication” [11]. There is no better way of saying that there is always a trade-off between subjective acceptability and objective impeccability (Bourdieu 1993: 1395 / 2000: 610).

42Finally, field studies are not always as “objective” as P. Bourdieu might have wanted, as they require morally difficult choices. Observing a community the researchers are unfamiliar with requires them to constantly maintain the interpersonal bonds that justify the research. They must therefore keep asking themselves what should be done in unforeseen circumstances. This reminds us of the tragicomic passages in Street Corner Society in which Bill expresses his scruples about voting several times, transporting boxes of illegal alcohol, and wonders what to do about not denouncing people about to break the law before his very eyes. It was the same problem for A. Goffman, caring in her own home for wounded people who refused to go to hospital; trying never to betray their confidence when she was taken to the police station following her arrest for interrogation; or going to prison to visit people she first met while they were still free (ORWM, p. 342). Finally, she had to remain neutral during the hostile and sometimes shockingly aggressive police proceedings [12] (as they often are elsewhere in the world). This classic case of conducting research in a difficult environment led to the truthfulness of her book coming under public scrutiny in the United States, as if there had to be absolute conformity between scholarly observation, witness testimony in court or newspaper article.

43There is also the fact that interethnic relations as they are mainly studied in North America (a point of view implying the absence of a third party arbitrating between distinct groups) are studied as transcultural relations in Europe (a vision that ignores skin colour and introduces states as actors in their own right). In the US, populations are dichotomized according to objective and natural criteria. The European vision sees differences as antagonistic rather than syncretic, and uses “transcultural capital” which advantageously combines the strength of diasporic ties with the richness of cosmopolitanism. Besides, unlike most African Americans, these populations in Europe tend to be bi-national, which can lead to the politicization of migrants there. The “transculturalist” school of thought asserts that “The context in which migrants move very often includes kinship and ethnic networks which cannot be disregarded as if assuming that individuals are free-floating agents in a global world”, Triandafyllidou 2009: 101). When the country of origin or the country of destination is considered to track differences in behaviours, there is an almost imperceptible shift from differences in methods to differences in objects.

Explanatory divergence due to cultural diversity

44The behaviour of people (Blacks, “Latinos”, Asians, Arabs, Turks and Kurds) whose lifestyle tends to differ from that of the descendants of the founding majority of a country (“Caucasians” or “native citizens”, i.e. “citoyens de souche”) might be similar from one continent to another; but their cultural differences do partly explain the gap between American and European approaches.


45At first glance, the ethnic composition of populations in America and Europe varies little: walking through the Philadelphia Intermodal Terminal, E. Anderson describes “The visual, impressionistic makeup of the place is that it is mostly white and middle class with a mixture of people of colour," one third black, one fifth Asian, and the rest white” (CC, p. 32). The same picture would come to mind during a tour of the Halles district in Paris (whose new canopy only reinforces the likeness). The author rightly targets stations and their shopping malls where different kinds of people intermingle, so his explanations make sense (monocoloured neighbourhoods by definition have no interethnic relations). This allows him to study real-life encounters without filters.

46Both American and European studies deal with initiation rites, single-parent families and the latent conflict with the police – phenomena linked to an urban context that an eminent member of the Chicago School, Louis Wirth, had wrongly described as a ghetto (Wirth 1928) – actually an “ethnic cluster” if not a “slum” in which an identity is nonetheless given to the inhabitants (Wacquant 2012: 21). This example shows that the convergence between the research carried out on either side of the Atlantic draws its inspiration from a common source, 1930s scholarship. Researchers use the metaphorical “ghetto” whose inhabitants live “withdrawn” into themselves – in an area that is “dissociated” and “isolated” from other urban areas.

47Moreover, both US and EU research focuses on people’s dignity, whose preservation is the priority objective for the families who live there and fight as best they can against being sidled with an unjustified “bad reputation”, or worse, being looked down upon in an insulting manner. As a French sociologist writes, “social groups... retract, examine each other, defend their interests, erect barriers for potential trespassers” (Lapeyronnie 2008: 14). Finally, the geometry of relations between reference groups and representatives of institutions deemed hostile is almost identical. Primary (extended family) or secondary (gangs, sects) solidarities in fact prevail over the loyalty owed in principle to the State and those who serve it. In these neighbourhoods the distinction between friend, close stranger and enemy is at its peak. It is so strong that a sociological lesson could be drawned from it: social (and sometimes physical) survival depends on rallying to a local leader powerful enough to protect you. This is important for the person who constitutes the group and the people who join it. By committing an illegal act to become members of the gang, the latter must show they are no longer loyal to the national community; the former must maintain the group in every sense of the word (keep it busy, distract it, feed it and, of course, defend it).

48W. F. Whyte’s major work, Street Corner Society, written in the early 1930s, shows such similarities with the situation in Europe today that one wonders why it did not serve as a warning to the designers of urban policy in France or Great Britain, for example. Thanks to Whyte, we should have known that the diversification of elites would be hindered by “street corner” leaders’ sense of duty towards those who depended on them. Instead of climbing the ladder of consideration and income at the speed allowed by their talent, we see them entangled in this humanist mission, falling behind in their professional careers, sometimes excluded from social ascension. At the interface between the legal, institutional world and the shady underworld of streets and stairwells, those Italian-American urban elites could hardly escape their origins. This was also true in Naples, rebuilt after the war, where social housing districts at the periphery replaced the derelict downtown streets razed to the ground, giving the Camorra a real boost. When people of the establishment failed to rally the other elites to their way of life, the spirit of the ghetto (E. Anderson’s “iconic ghetto”) prevailed, despite clear signs that should have been perceived sooner.

49And the most striking resemblance occurs at the particular moment when a suspect is arrested by police, with the techniques used to get them to confess (OtR, pp. 62-69), and the urban unrest triggered by some forceful, even lethal, arrests. The scenes filmed by surveillance cameras and smartphones are indistinguishably appalling: without commentary or distinctive indications, it is impossible to know where the images were shot – didn’t A. Goffman bear witness to twenty-four police raids on private homes? The repetition of these similar moments leads to a universal sense of failure. Failure of the mutual avoidance tactic, failure of the political avoidance strategy, failure to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, between the “clean” or “snitch” – those who have nothing to hide from the police. While “riders” know how to resist police pressure to snitch – OtR, p. 5, 73-86) the “dirty” just betray.


50The flawed relationship between an institutional system and its powerless pillars located at the crossroads of two worlds incapable of integrating “non-whites” (Black Americans, Italians from the South or Boston, North Africans, Sahelians), constantly made to choose between their community of origin and their community of destiny, is thus a common research object on both sides of the Atlantic (Crettiez & Muchielli 2010; Wacquant 2012: 22-3; Klein et al. Eurogang Survey 2006: 421). When analyses diverge across the Atlantic, it stems from a gap between duplication of national public institutions in Europe, where it indicates administrative proliferation, as opposed to a deficit of public services in North America, which underlines the absence of the Federal State).

51However, there is a greater diversity of people who are at loggerheads with the police in Europe than in the United States [13] – which leaves more room for empathy, as readers and authors always find examples of deserving people whose philosophy of life and behaviour can be understood, which is rarely the case in Philadelphia. Goffman’s texts are especially disturbing for her readers because she herself was subject to very unjust verbal attacks, either from the police or from the “suspects” she studied, all of whom accused her of not understanding what she was observing, so her mere presence just made things more messy (OtR, p. 85).

52However, although there is also considerable American diversity, there are always greater clashes between Blacks and Whites than between Whites and Mexicans, other Latinos, Koreans, etc. The divide between former colonists and former slaves is clearly at the crux of the matter in the US, and does not exist in Europe. There might be issues with Catholic Amerindians in Spain (in the suburbs of Madrid in 2007, where inter-ethnic riots have frequently been taking place since 2000), North Africans in France (who are highly distinguishable in terms of language, the different Arabic or Berber dialects; skin colour, darker in the south of Morocco and Mauritania than on the Algerian coast; religion, different Sunni schools, or Mozabite; and the way of life, urban or rural). Actually, inter-ethnic incidents in Germany (where Turks, Kurds, Middle Easterners, etc. are mixed) are often determined by right-wing or left-wing political radicalism rather than country of origin.

53Cultural differences between majority and minority groups certainly weigh more than differences in religion or skin colour; but probably less than social marginality which is never limited to a particular demographic category. There is some truth in Hugues Lagrange’s research comparing Sahelian Africans to North Africans (many of whom are both Muslim and coloured, black or “Mediterranean type”) as Sahelians’ culture reduces their prospects of integration, but not North Africans’. Culture is expressed through signs of identity such as verbal, corporal or musical language. A person’s way of speaking either demonstrates their assimilation, or betrays their origins. For example, having as good a level of French as someone who has been educated in the French school system designates a person as fully French, regardless of surname and origins. In France, local provinces where dialects were overwhelmed by French a long time ago, which probably explains this major difference with the United States where it is the colour of skin that distinguishes people, because the federal state is recent and many Americans continue to speak their mother tongue. Since Napoleon, the highly structured French educational system, which insists on the republican language and its egalitarian virtues, has been the condition for upward social mobility. As a result, the Republican ideal with its terms such as equality, fraternity, secularism and human rights has been absorbed by students for generations since this post-revolutionary era.

54Conversely, ethnically diverse groups living in large French “quartiers sensibles” (the local equivalents of the famous “hoods”) have developed their own language that carries a specific identity and a means of understanding each other without necessarily being understood by those who do not speak it. This stems from the inter-war period when police couldn’t understand gang slang, the modern version of which is “verlan” i.e. speaking “backwards”: “Arab” becomes “beur” when its syllables are inversed (beu-ar); and a further rotation produces “rebeu”. The success of rap music has made this verlan fashionable, and teenagers in chic neighbourhoods no longer say “lourd” (which means heavy) but “relou”. This all means that a distinction once based on spoken language no longer opposes identity groups as much.

55In Europe, there is a growing tendency to separate the licit from the illicit (the haram, meaning forbidden). Yet the spectacular development of the hallal food industry has enabled Muslims (whether very religious or not) to maintain a sense of togetherness, while, in the US, “Black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence” (WS, p. 10). Unlike non-Muslim people of colour, who tend to be rather empathetic and helpful and therefore well integrated into the host society, Muslims might question the intentions of those who are observing them (“ta kesta?, i.e. “Why are you looking at me?” or “What is the matter with you?” (like the famous “are you talking to me?” which made De Niro’s impersonation of a cab driver famous). Whereas many Black Americans entering a “white” or “cosmopolitan” area seek serenity, European Muslims seek respect. On average, therefore, Black Americans tend to avoid any opportunity for misunderstanding, while European Muslims tend to provoke the people met in the Streets in order to test their degree of tolerance towards them.

56Another solution is to attack people outside one’s own country who are deemed responsible for one’s own woes. Some young Muslims thus believe that they will avoid being marginalized and living with no self-esteem or the prospect of integration through work by leaving their neighbourhood to fight in the Levant. This is what Rik Coolsaet says about Belgium, the country with the most pessimists in 2014 with one of the highest suicide rates among young people. The solution of the exit seems the most logical here, at least associated with other less subjective characteristics (such as poverty, because the 15-29 year olds in the Molenbeek district of Brussels are among the most deprived in Europe [14]).

57In short, for some “non-white” people living in Europe, once you are convinced that there is no future in your own neighbourhood, you move abroad, not to the city centre and its cosmopolitan canopy as you do in North America. You no longer seek to negotiate your place from the inside, within the “white space”; you simply strive to contain it, or to destroy it from the outside. This radical difference alone explains much of the gap between American ethnology and European sociology today.


59The similarities and differences between American and European research on the difficult encounters between “white” and “non-white” populations also link in with political philosophy, since at that level the works discussed in this article are diametrically opposed. In America, they focus on banal everyday life interactions between ordinary individuals, they are often reflexive rather than considerate. In Europe, they come from the vantage point of a fair and informed public decision-maker in search of universal norms applicable everywhere.

60Because there is no real “urban policy” as such in the United States and Canada (except Quebec), the impact of scientific work on public policy-making is not the primary motivation for current research. In the United States, the interaction is interindividual, whereas in Europe it takes place between confronting groups (Bonnet 2014). No wonder E. Anderson and A. Goffman are studying avoidance (or near miss, Losier 2017), while European researchers are investigating extreme forms of engagement such as riots and intentional confrontation to test police tolerance (Chapoulie 1999: 147).

61The price Europeans pay for placing the bar so high is that it neglects the stigma and ephemeral behaviours – that are such important elements in the disorder of the American-observed Streets – for analysing the ideas and principles that are at the roots of a well-ordered society. For Americans, it is a question of individual freedom, and the right to use one’s body as one wishes. For Europeans, social justice, solidarity, and fraternity are the target. Whereas E. Anderson and A. Goffman are careful to avoid the slightest moral judgment (which would weaken their reasoning), European intellectuals feel strongly about the treatment reserved for all those who might be singled out, even if they are not actually stigmatized, or if they don’t realize they are – by virtue of a process of “double bind” and “divided self” that W. Anderson and A. Goffman have been using for years. W.E.B. Du Bois had described it as “a peculiar sensation (called) double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” [15]

62It is important to note that the notion of “poverty” has been built differently on the two continents: in Europe, poverty is assumed to be exceptional and its manifestations, as well as its increase, must be reduced at the very moment when observation tracks down suffering, as if observers were obliged to apologize in advance for being “privileged” [16]. This concern is disguised in epistemological terms by the obsession not to betray the statements entrusted to ethnologists by the people they observe. Otherwise, while simply trying to make life in poor areas intelligible to intellectuals, “we would not be faithfully representing a world that, like the world at large, has the distinction of producing innumerable representations of itself” (Bourdieu 1993: 16 / 2000: 4-5; Kepel 2011: 12).

63Finally, epistemological postulates are important too: breaking with psychology (except social psychology and psychoanalysis) has led European observers to objectify emotional phenomena, as if the intimate and humorous analysis of people’s ordinary lives could not produce “good” social science. In an article defending this perception from the bottom-up, Cate Watson reminds us that Veblen’s work on the “leisure class” and Erving Goffman’s work on ordinary interactions were criticized at their time for being somewhat trivial and comical, as if relating humorous accounts undermined the seriousness of sociological conclusions (Watson 2015).

64One should therefore avoid mixing ordinary and trivial, and believing that analysing banal things is superficial. Nor should we believe that the more complex analysis is, the better it explains reality.


  • [1]
    About E. Anderson and A. Goffman’s works: Elijah Anderson, A Place on the Corner, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, Second ed., 2003 (PoC); Code of the Street. Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life, of the Inner City, New York, W.W. Norton, 1999 (CoS); The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Race and Civility in Everyday Life, New York, W.W. Norton, 2011 (CC); “The White Space”, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1 (1), 2015, p. 10-21 (WS); Alice Goffman, On the Run. Fugitive Life in an American City, New York, Picador, 2014 (OtR); “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto”, American Sociological Review, 74, 2009, p. 339-357 (ORWM). This is a slightly revised version of the French original text.
  • [2]
    E. Anderson has expressed his views in a video: <>.
  • [3]
    See the Nigger moment in CC. For those who may feel harmed by the use of the word in N…, this anecdote is worth mentioning : answering to “a high school student in (his) Sophomore year”, Roland Barton, who asks Du Bois in 1928 to ban the world “Negro” from the columns of The Crisis, Du Bois writes: “Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name. If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called ‘colored’ or ‘Afro-Americans’… Get this then, Roland, and get it straight even if it pierces your soul: a Negro by any other name would be just as black and just as white; just as ashamed of himself and just as shamed by others, as today. It is not the name— it’s the Thing that counts” in: W. E. B. Du Bois, « The Name Negro », The Crisis, no 34, mars 1928, reprinted in Eric Sundquist (ed.), The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois Reader, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 70-72, citation p. 72. Quoted by Dufoix, Stéphane. “W. E. B. Du Bois: ‘race’ et ‘diaspora noire/africaine’ ”, Raisons politiques, vol. no 21, no 1, 2006, p. 115.
  • [4]
    For Marian Anderson, an American contralto, “it’s like a breeze that blows across your face. You can’t see it and you can’t touch it, but you know it’s there”, quoted by Gail Lewis Kennedy-Macfoy, 2014, p. 3-8.). In W. E.B Du Bois’ work, the « veil » can be understood as dark skin. Du Bois remembers when he first realized the veil’s existence when a young white girl refused his greeting card in elementary school: “It dawned upon me with certain suddenness that I was different from the others… shut out from their world by a vast veil.” (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903; on the political philosophy of Du Bois, see A Political Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois, edited by Nick Bromell. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2018, 376 pp.).
  • [5]
    However, even those with more loose identifications with Islam at certain moments experienced a compulsion to return to Islam… There are always moments when the tensions between the Muslim and the non-Muslim (what is perceived as British) become problematic” (p. 572-573).
  • [6]
    “People were issued bench warrants for missing court or for unpaid court fees, or arrest warrants for failure to turn themselves in for a crime” (ORWM, p. 341).
  • [7]
    Robert S. Lynd, Helen M. Lynd, Middletown. A Study in Contemporary American Culture, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Cie, 1929; Middletown in Transition. A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York, Harcourt, Brace & Cie, 1937.
  • [8]
    To name but a few: Hastings on Northern France; Briquet on Corsica; Avanza on Northern Italy; Traïni on Southern France and Italy.
  • [9]
    These remarks stem from three interviews of E. Anderson, the last being on June 27, 2017 in Paris. To better understand Anderson’s vocation for sociology, see this video: lKLk&feature=youtu.beOnline
  • [10]
    For a review of critics see Nicolas Duvoux, “Exploiting the Urban Poor: Eviction and Imprisonment of Afro-American Inner-City Dwellers”, Books &, 8 janvier 2013; Isaac William Martin, “L’université aux abois”, Books &, 25 November 2016.
  • [11]
    “On a ainsi pris le parti de laisser aux enquêteurs la liberté de choisir les enquêtés parmi les gens de connaissance ou des gens auxquels ils pouvaient être introduits par des gens de connaissance. La proximité et la familiarité assurent en effet deux des conditions principales d’une communication ‘non violente’.”
  • [12]
    She “watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names to see if any warrants came up, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest at least once a day, with five exceptions. I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase suspects through houses 52 times. Police helicopters circled overhead and beamed search lights onto local streets nine times. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence or “secured a crime scene” 17 times. I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with night sticks 14 times during this first year and a half” (OtR, p. x & 68-71).
  • [13]
    According to Klein et al., 2006 the explanatory variable is not the causal link between the gang membership and varieties of violence, but what connects it to the intensity of violence – everywhere superior to individual violence, albeit less acute in Europe than in the Americas where gang members are older.
  • [14]
    Sebastian Roché and Sandrine Astor, EnquêtePOLIS-autorité’. Premiers résultats. Rapport à l’attention de l’Éducation nationale, Grenoble, PACTE, 2013; cf., p. 110-113: feeling discriminated against at school and at work is conducive to radicalization and hostility to both institutions. Online
  • [15]
    Du Bois, Du Bois, W. E. B. ([1903] 1965 ed.), The Souls of Black Folk. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Quoted by José Itzigsohn and Karida Brown, “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Phenomenology of Racialized Subjectivity”, in Du Bois Review, 12:2 (2015) 231–248. p. 235. See also: “Book review by Elvira Basevich of: A Political Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois, ed. by Nick Bromell. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2018, 376 pp.” in: Political Theory 47(5).
  • [16]
    On the fight against poverty in Europe and the US see Bonnet & Venkatesh 2016.


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Yves Schemeil
Sciences Po Grenoble
Translated by
Andy Brinded
Translated by
Anna Jeanneson
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 15/04/2021
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