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1In political sociology, identifying the social spaces, interpersonal networks, and specific temporalities of political socialization is a challenge. Certainly, some of the groundwork is laid by the diachronic distinction between primary and secondary socialization, via the role of interpersonal networks and institutions of reference: family, school, peers, couple, friends.  [2] However, the place given to work in this perspective has remained insufficient: for a long time, the study of work was subsumed by the analysis of socioprofessional categories and class voting,  [3] and work itself was consequently relegated to the background, probably owing to a renewed interest in primary socialization and commitments outside work. Furthermore, it is methodologically difficult to find stable quantitative correlations explaining the relations between work and politics. As a result, levels of educational attainment, employment status, and autonomy at work have been taken as less significant variables than the “values” and “skills” attached to a professional activity.  [4]

2This contribution therefore proposes to consider the professional sphere as an “elementary framework,” continuing from work that analyzes the role of “the everyday and the instituted”  [5] in individuals’ ordinary relations to politics.  [6] It aims to understand the processes by which individuals who are members of the same professional group—in this case, engineers—“subscribe to this or that vision of politics, the authorities, the state,”  [7] and to show that they adopt relatively similar  [8] “interpretive schemas of political realities.”  [9] These interpretive schemas vary according to the type of career of the engineers in question, which crystallizes various potential modes of integration into the community of work and of mobility within the profession. Highlighting this correlation is all the more original as it has barely been addressed by the sociology of professions,  [10] since it concerns professions at the top of the social structure, and since the dynamic aspect of political socialization at work has received little attention until now.  [11]

Pathways of political socialization

3This contribution aims to demonstrate: 1) that the relations to politics of the engineers interviewed depend on a common socialization at work  [12]; 2) that they vary according to the modalities of professional careers; 3) that they differ according to the type of link between professional and marital trajectories, which is an important dimension to take into account given the strong self-declared involvement of engineers in their marital and family life.  [13] Indeed, political homogamy or heterogamy within couples is a function of the investment in work made by each spouse and, at the same time, of the joint or separate development of their social circles, particularly those with friends. From this perspective, we shall see that the engineers interviewed are not necessarily more politicized than their wives, which complicates the model of the opinion leader within couples.  [14] The discussion is structured on the basis of a tree diagram, acting as a hypothesis, which is a synthesis of several typical pathways of politicization among engineers.  [15]

tableau im1

4The structure of the article is derived from this diagram. The engineers that we met tended to interpret politics through what we call a technoscientific interpretive schema, which is rather loose and generalist in nature, but which influences their political perspective (part 1). However, this schema is rearranged according to their career paths, within the framework of work organization. Following a division similar to that between professionals and managers (see below), we shall therefore distinguish between, on the one hand, typical career paths, marked by membership of the professional engineering community and oriented toward political relations that emphasize the collective and solidarity, and, on the other hand, more individualized careers oriented toward management (part 2). Unlike the first type, career paths focused on managerial ascension lead to an affirmation of individual merit and an avoidance of social relations at work (part 3).

5Within each of these types, the opposition between being a couple and not being a couple, or alternatively, having a relationship with a limited influence, introduces a subsequent division into two subtypes: on the one hand, there are engineers focused on the community of work, and those whose egalitarian form of married life leads them to make commitments locally outside of work; on the other hand, there are highly individualized careers (with the couple, like the collective, playing a rather secondary role), accompanied by a politicization on the right, which are either strengthened through international career paths or tempered by the maintenance of a strong local attachment, which is synonymous with an attachment to traditional circles of friends.

Methodology: Combining biographical interviews and ego-centered target diagrams

6This analysis of a group of engineers was part of a larger survey  [16] that studied ordinary relations to politics among engineers, human resource managers (HRMs), and farmers, all working in Switzerland.  [17] This research used a qualitative methodology and was based on biographical interviews and “ego-centered target diagrams,” a tool of network sociology  [18] that is rarely used in political sociology, even though it makes it possible to reconstitute and graphically represent the whole network of connected people who participate in the political socialization of an individual.  [19]

7Interviews lasting from two to four hours made it possible to reconstruct: 1) the interviewees’ background, their career stages, and their relations to their professional activity; 2) the interviewees’ political relations, ranging from the least to the most politically engaged, with questions covering practices and commitments outside of work (civic, religious, sporting, and professional associations) and political opinions and preferences, which may be more or less formalized by voting practices or party membership, and including, if relevant, the family backgrounds of both members of a couple; 3) the individuals or groups of people that each interviewee mentioned at the end of the interview as being important—that is, those that matter to him or her. These networks of interpersonal relations are distributed, on the one hand, according to three concentric circles indicating the degree of emotional closeness to the “ego” (from the very close to the least close), and on the other hand, between four “quarters,” each representing a domain of activity that brings together the interviewee and his or her peers: family, friends/leisure, work, and civic and political commitments (see below for a graphic representation of the ego-centered target diagrams).

8This triptych of “relations to work, relations to politics, and interpersonal networks” makes it possible to identify the positive or negative values  [20] that the interviewees attribute to hierarchical organization, consensus, or conflict as principles that can structure both the social order and work relationships, and generate processes of argumentation. From a diachronic perspective, we examine how these relations to politics result from “generalizations”  [21] based either on situations experienced at work or on more durable interpretive schemas. Indeed, these schemas can be transposed from one sphere of one’s social world to another,  [22] and can be strengthened or weakened according to the recomposition of personal networks, events, or ruptures that punctuate one’s individual trajectory.

9The engineers interviewed (twenty interviews in total, of which sixteen are used here, because four of the interviews were exploratory), representing a range of different ages, levels of seniority, backgrounds, and roles, were selected from a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) of about three hundred employees (called Nanochem) following a snowball effect, without knowing in advance whether they had an interest in politics or social commitments. This company is typical of firms trying to integrate nanotechnology in order to remain competitive in a traditional sector of activity. It is international, but with a strong local presence, and has been affected by restructuring and changes of ownership, which is characteristic of engineering companies in Switzerland. It is connected to two (private) companies and a (semi-public) research center, between which the career trajectories of the personnel move freely.

The assertion of a “scientific” relation to politics

10Is there a relation to politics that is specific to engineers? On a supranational level, some studies identify a singularity that can also be found in our sample: their interest in politics does not seem to coincide with their level of education. In France, their interest in politics is 20% lower than that of other higher education graduates (holders of a bachelor’s degree or graduates of a business school), varying significantly according to their impression of having a high or low level of “autonomy at work” (61% versus 48%) and the sector of their professional activity (50% on the left in the public sector, 40% in information and communication technologies as an “innovative sector,” and 25% in the private sector).  [23] In addition, their perceptions of policy are differentiated according to general social properties such as gender or place of residence.

11In Switzerland, the available electoral data indicate that engineers profess opinions that are far removed from a logic of political party alignment, and especially from the far-right of the political spectrum,  [24] within the statistical category of “technical professionals” (which also includes architects and IT professionals). In a political space that tends to be polarized (despite the historical legacy of inter-party negotiations and a political culture of consensus), they display these traits more markedly than other socioprofessional categories (“sociocultural professionals, service workers, production workers, managers, office clerks, liberal professionals and large employers, small business owners, and farmers”).  [25] Indeed, they vote a little more frequently both for the left (+5% for the Greens, +4% for the Parti Socialiste) and for the liberal right (+9% for the radical-liberals), and less frequently for the nationalist right, the Union démocratique du centre (UDC) (known in English as Democratic Union of the Centre, Centre Democratic Union, or Swiss People’s Party) (-13%).  [26]

12Are we dealing here with a logic of a flexibility of opinions specific to a graduate professional group? The desire to avoid a stable partisan positioning and set of preferences, thereby justifying a flexibility of political opinions and attitudes—as observed in many national spaces and described as a tendency toward individualization and bricolage—is obviously not limited to this professional category. However, political ambivalence and the refusal to position oneself in tripartite political spaces (left, center-right, far-right) would also be a specificity of professionals whose activity is guided by a technical work logic, distinct from a logic of interpersonal services, organization, or independent work.  [27] Questioning the relation to politics of engineers therefore relates to recurrent debates on the opposition within the service class (or the category of cadres) between professionals and managers,  [28] whose antagonisms are expressed both in their lifestyles and in their political views.  [29] Our approach re-examines these oppositions by taking into consideration “the temporal developments, reworking, and readjustments that are at work in the process of the formation and expression of identities such as political choices.”  [30] The tension between professionals and managers then becomes more mobile and runs throughout the engineering profession. The shared interpretive schemas, which the members of this professional group mobilize to give meaning to their political positioning, develop as their career becomes oriented toward either technical expertise or management.

Distancing from primary socialization

13When asked if they are interested in politics or if they feel close to a political family or party, the engineers interviewed initially profess and explain a “distant relation to institutional politics.”  [31] Only two of them have a specific political commitment, at a local level and in “unlabeled” groupings, which they are quick to characterize as being “without party interests.” Associative or civic commitments are systematically presented as being apolitical.  [32]

14However, this attitude is not the simple reproduction of an apolitical stance drawn from a family background; on the contrary, it takes on a marked professional color and is expressed through distancing oneself from inherited opinions. Whether they come from the lower or upper middle classes, our interviewees distance themselves from a familial political heritage, most often rooted in the right (see Table 1), within the framework of generally upwardly mobile socioprofessional trajectories.  [33]

Table 1. Interviewees’ social and political heritage

Age: between 27 and 59 years
Sex: 17 men and 3 women (I6, I10, I11)
From a lower-middle-class background: I1, I2, I3, I5, I9, I14, I15
From an upper-middle-class background: I4, I6, I7, I8, I10, I11, I12, I13, I16
From a rural background: I2, I3, I7, I8, I10, I15, I16
From an urban background: I1, I5, I6, 12, I9, I11, I13, I14
Left and center-left family background: I8, I16
Centrist family background (Parti démocrate-chrétien, PDC): I5
Undefined political family background: I3, I13
Neoliberal right-wing family background: I2, I4, I6, I9, I10, I11, I12, I14, I15
Nationalist right-wing family background: I1, I7
Self-positioning in support of the PS (Parti socialiste) or the Greens: I1, I7, I9, I14
Self-positioning in support of the PLR (Parti libéral-radical) or the PDC: I16, I13, I15, I5

Table 1. Interviewees’ social and political heritage

15Among the seven respondents from the lower middle classes,  [34] four (I1, I2, I9, I14) distance themselves from a right-wing political heritage (center-right or far-right) and position themselves either on the left or in the center, both in elections for representatives and in votes on issues. Three (I3, I5, and I15) remain closer to their primary political socialization, but stray from it somewhat by evoking experiences related to their professional or marital socialization, according to factors that will be specified in part 2. The same process of aggiornamento pertains among respondents from the upper middle and upper classes. Six of them are critical of their inherited family preferences, which tend to be on the right, even though their position and professional activities are similar to those of their fathers.  [35] As for the three respondents (I8, I13, I16) from families of secondary school teachers,  [36] they diverge from their Christian-social political socialization, particularly its religious component, and adopt more liberal ideas in terms of customs and/or economics.

16Why, in all cases, do these engineers take the same path, distancing themselves from their familial political heritage? Logically, we postulate that a central reason lies in their shared professional socialization: it appears that our interviewees share a professional culture that influences their relation to politics.

A technoscientific interpretive schema for understanding politics

17An examination of the reasoning used by our interviewees to explain their positions with regard to politics in general shows that they value positions that they believe are supported by “knowledge of the facts,” as opposed to party-based arguments, which are considered to be necessarily unfounded. In their view, party membership presupposes a dogmatic rigidity, synonymous with an a priori relegation of expertise, which is hardly compatible with what they experience in their work processes: “I would then be instructed how to think” (I12, 59 years old). Ignoring scientific controversies, they attribute a positivist importance to “figures” and “sources of information” when dealing with any political or societal issue. It is therefore understandable that they delegitimize any transcendental position, even if it is one from their family background, and that they legitimize the flexibility of opinions, which depends on a detailed knowledge of the issues: “I can’t say I’m more left-wing or right-wing, it always depends on the decisions” (I2, 28 years old).

18They recommend developing a well-founded “general view” before making a decision, arguing that their professional role requires them to anticipate the entire production or research process in order to assess constraints and solutions. This schema, which we have termed “technoscientific,” therefore has a practical purpose, as well as a technical component, whatever the specialization (product engineers, development, research, service management). It refers both to a privileged relationship with generalist scientific knowledge and to a technical and instrumental component.  [37] It finds little value in the possession of more literary knowledge or skills: none of the interviewees declared any attraction, either inherited or acquired, toward literature, history, or geography, even those from families of teachers.  [38]

19This technoscientific interpretative schema, which involves a strong attachment to the title of engineer that is acquired in the first part of their training,  [39] makes no distinction between degree courses and educational institutions. This is the case for engineers from the “écoles polytechniques fédérales” (EPF) (federal institutes of technology) of Zurich and Lausanne, and for those from foreign universities and schools (I4, I9, I11). It is also found among those who became engineers through vocational education and training, such as chemical laboratory technicians, automation engineers, or industrial equipment manufacturers, who first underwent dual vocational education and training and then continued at an “haute école spécialisée” (HES) (university of applied sciences) in engineering (I2, I3, I7, and I15). This lack of differentiation between holders of different diplomas is undoubtedly accentuated in Switzerland, where the hierarchy between schools and the pathways in engineering training is not as marked as in France.  [40] Although the “generalist” EPF/university pathway favors professional careers that are more upwardly mobile in the long term and generally more oriented toward management roles, the triptych of initial training, on-the-job training, and promotion to positions of seniority still forms a traditional schema of social success, across all sectors. In this context, the level of qualifications or educational capital seems less important to engineers than the actual position of the engineer. Therefore, among our interviewees, those holding a PhD do not show a greater interest in politics; on the contrary, their scientific specialization reinforces their “scientific” distancing.

20This technoscientific schema is, however, quite specific to engineers. In the course of our interprofessional research (see above), we found that the human resource managers interviewed, who constituted a second group with the same sociocultural level as the engineers, were also reluctant to make a strong political commitment. However, they do not mention either “scientific seriousness” or even “pragmatism” to account for their reluctance to get involved in politics.  [41] To justify the flexibility of their opinions, especially on the left-right political spectrum, they refer to a completely different domain of meanings, composing another specific interpretive schema. They evoke “eclecticism” and “creativity” as values and skills that generate “innovation,” both in politics and at work. In their professional practice, they make use of heterogeneous, and even unconventional knowledge, both academic (mainly law, management, psychology, and communication) and alternative (such as horse therapy, futurology, or religion), which is characteristic of their hybrid training and work trajectories. In other words, their positioning evokes an “artist community” rather than an “industrial community,”  [42] in a logical framework that similarly refers to the particularities of the work environment in question.  [43]

21On the basis of this distancing from primary socialization and this shared reference to a technoscientific schema, two typical pathways of political socialization can then be distinguished, according to the two-stage division set out above (see Figure 1).

Professional solidarity and criticism of management

22The engineers whose ordinary relations to politics we are examining here were selected from the nanotechnology sector. This sector offers a good reflection of recent developments and tensions in engineering. The group of graduate engineers is in constant growth and is marked by sectoral changes: the place of traditional industry is receding relative to that of advanced technology, services, or the roles of governance, management, testing, or sales.  [44] In the Swiss context, nanotechnologies rely on advances in microscopy to manipulate matter. In addition to miniaturization processes (electronics, superconductors), nanotechnology also includes chemical processes that enable SMEs in the chemical, mechanical, and machine-tool engineering sectors (the dominant sectors in the region where our interviewees work) to overhaul traditional industrial processes. This emerging field involves collaborations between specialisms (chemistry, physical chemistry, material sciences), between roles (production, development, and research engineers), between professions (technicians, sales, finance, etc.), as well as between management and university research departments.

23“Management by project,” as a method of management and work organization, has become more widespread,  [45] involving in particular closer relations between research, engineering, and production activities, in order to apply new techniques and products.  [46] Although the closer collaboration of different roles is generally well received by our interviewees—it contributes to enriching the profession—this is less the case of the injunction to collaborate more closely with the actors of management, marketing, and finance, who act as spokespeople of the commercial demands of “the client,”  [47] and are therefore also associated with the restructuring of companies that affects their career trajectories. In the companies where they have worked, and particularly at Nanochem, they consider that the marketing departments impose targeted budgets and deadlines that tend to prevent the deployment of in-depth technical expertise: successive projects must be completed in a very short time, or are abandoned, while the number of research engineer teams is reduced.

24In order to alleviate the organizational and managerial constraints on their activity, engineers of the first type described, especially younger ones, defend their professionalism by emphasizing collegiality rather than competition between roles or between sectors/departments. They seek to create a sense of belonging to a solid professional collective, which is seen as a condition for the development of technical expertise. Therefore, they value non-hierarchical working relationships not only among peers but also with production employees lower down in the hierarchy. They promote a “culture of discussion” at work based on the exchange of views, transparency, honesty, and, consequently, consensus decision-making.  [48] The technoscientific schema then becomes oriented toward taking collective interests into account and valuing non-hierarchical relationships, and becomes generalized based on a critical stance toward purely managerial logic. The result is a shift in political inclinations  [49] toward the center or the left of the political spectrum. Markus and François embody this type of engineer who takes into consideration the professional collective at every step of his or her trajectory.

Trajectories oriented toward the collective and movement toward the left

25After an apprenticeship as a laboratory technician and studies at an HES, Markus (I7, 38 years old) worked for nine years as a chemical engineer in a public food and environmental analysis laboratory. He enjoyed this position due to the “flexibility” of the working environment, as well as the opportunities for internal mobility and the interactions between colleagues, who were generally young. However, following the arrival in his team of a subordinate who “created problems” for him and maintained an obsequious relationship with his boss (with a consequent lack of loyalty toward Markus), he reluctantly left this job and took up a position as a test engineer at Nanochem.

26Although he describes the work organization at Nanochem as more rigid, in this second stage of his career he appreciates his supportive work team, marked by a trusting relationship with his boss and a good rapport with his colleagues: “We help each other to get what we need. Everyone here has this kind of general view.” Despite the company’s economic struggles, which have prompted a number of his colleagues to look for work elsewhere, Markus wants to stay at Nanochem because he says he makes identification with the company his highest priority, even though he doubts that this is the best springboard for his own career: “Of course, it’s not always the best situation for everyone, that’s obvious. For me it’s also more important that we have solutions that benefit the company.” Looking for the same atmosphere that he enjoyed in his first job, Markus prefers a work environment that, while not very stable, brings out his skills within a team of peers.

27In parallel to his professional career, he continues to distance himself from his familial socialization, even though his father was an engineer for a large Swiss company. His father had a “traditional” conception of engineering work (the management of workers, a Swiss company as a national flagship) and the parental couple professed affinities with the far-right, the UDC, as this party progressed. Working in a more internationalized context, Markus considers this nationalist stance to be dated, and he is more inclined to express himself in a language of openness to the world and other cultures: “Now things are changing, we have a lot of connections all over the world.” He also attaches importance to a social vision of sharing and helping each other: “We are in a society and we have to succeed together and act together, so we have to look out for everyone.”

28François (I4, 40 years old), a French doctor of chemistry who graduated from a major engineering school, had a more fragmented and bifurcating career path than Markus, but similarly developed a relation to work oriented toward the collective and solidarity between peers. He speaks out against the “rigid thinking” and “extreme individualistic elitism” instilled by his father, a university technology teacher (“My parents wanted to make me the best of the best!”).

29For François, the first time he distanced himself from this heritage was before he entered the world of work, more precisely during his military service, which he completed “like any other guy.” There he experienced the removal of markers of social inequality (“We’re all the same, we’re all dressed the same, we’re all shaved the same”) and solidarity during difficult exercises, which led him to revise his previous attitude: “Maybe, out of all the people I’ve met, perhaps I didn’t even see that they were calling for help, and that completely changed my view of communication and listening.”

30The development of his professional career encouraged this initial distancing from the values of his upbringing. After his doctorate, he found a position as a research and development (R&D) engineer in a French multinational company, where he quickly became head of a technical development team. He sought to create a collegial working atmosphere and distanced himself from some colleagues who had an “arrogant” attitude toward colleagues doing more “technical” work: “You’re just the subordinate who is at my service if I need you.”

31This stance was reinforced when the company was restructured. He describes a social conflict with the management (“There was also a lot of disappointment [with the management]. We all learned a good lesson”), which led to legal action, as the redundancy plan was “flouted by a logic of appropriation.” He made use of contacts to help the members of his team to retrain: as he himself was laid off, he found a job as a project manager in Switzerland, in a part-public part-private research center (a partner of Nanochem). He particularly appreciates the “healthy” and “supportive” working environment there, and the “collaboration between individuals as a strength of the company.” He sees this as the basis of professionalism: “I had experienced so many negative aspects [.. . ] that I wondered if there was something being kept hidden [.. . ] when I found people who were so open and professional.”

32When it comes to opinions, François, like Markus, distances himself from his family, who vote right-wing and who are attached to values based on individual merit. He defines himself as being close to an ecological orientation and “a relatively social vision of sharing, but which still rewards effort.” This vision is manifested in a critique of “corruption linked to parasitic or personal interests that take precedence over the collective interest.” Sometimes, he develops a general criticism of the current political system, particularly of the language of politicians containing “no concrete decisions showing the impact that one wants to have and what one wants to improve,” which he contrasts with the pragmatic decisions that engineers have to take on a daily basis. At other times, he disapproves of certain objects, such as “the tax cap in France,” which “could bring in more money” but which, in his view, has not been calculated precisely enough.

33However, the political interpretive schemas of these engineers concerned with maintaining the professional community differ according to their marital trajectory and the transformations in their interpersonal networks.

Supporting the schema through the centrality of sociability at work

34François represents a perfect example of his case because the technoscientific schema is maintained and barely altered over the course of his professional career, as the influence of his professional socialization was not in competition with other socializing agents or effects. In fact, François is single and, following his move to Switzerland, he had little contact with his oldest friends (rugby friends, see Figure 2). He therefore rebuilt his social network through his professional activity.

35François also remains attached to his previous “professional network” (the alumni association of his engineering school) because he sees these organizations as a way for engineers to “make their voice heard, to make the right decisions, and also to avoid the manipulation of opinion.” Although contacts with this network are infrequent, they allow him to “learn and sometimes to share [his] experience, so there’s a mutual exchange.”

Model 2. Ego-centered target diagram for François

tableau im3

Model 2. Ego-centered target diagram for François

36The convergence of his professional experiences and his circles of relations reinforces the technoscientific schema and fosters its transposition into the political field. In other words, François’s relation to politics almost exclusively involves professional reflections and issues. Moreover, it is a subject that he discusses mainly with colleagues at work, since the boundary between scientific discussion and the discussion of political issues is very porous: “With those colleagues with whom there are differences of opinion [during political discussions], I was quite critical of their sources. Saying, ultimately, in order to evaluate, to decide, to judge, it’s good to take the time to check one’s sources.”

37In his view, as in that of other engineers of the same type, generally younger ones (I2, I3, I10), political topics must be debated not only in a “scientific” and informed way, but in a collegial way, which means in an open and consensual way, as an extension of the desired functioning of the work community.

The effect of marital status on professional dynamics

38In contrast, homogamy and parenthood may encourage greater involvement in local life and outside work, as well as a gradual politicization—as is clearly the case with Markus and two other interviewees (I14, I16).

Model 3. Ego-centered target diagram for Markus

tableau im4

Model 3. Ego-centered target diagram for Markus

39During the first part of his career, Markus experienced significant social and geographical mobility: he distanced himself from his youthful relationships and invested heavily in his work. His relationship with his future wife was based on a path of shared social mobility: his partner came from a working-class background, and first worked as a saleswoman before becoming a chemical laboratory assistant, which was the first step in Markus’ professional career. It was therefore within this conjugal dynamic that they distanced themselves from their primary socialization circles, which were oriented toward right-wing opinions.

40With the arrival of his first child, Markus became less engaged in his work and more so in the family and leisure sphere, which gradually changed his relation to politics. Not long after the family moved to a new location and he started working at Nanochem, Markus became involved in the social life of associations in the neighborhood, a common trend amongst the engineer community.  [50] The desire to reconcile the careers of both spouses (Markus reduced his working hours to 80%) led them to change their network of relations. They joined an association of childminders and a climbing club. Markus took on responsibilities, expressing a desire to put his professional skills to use for others. The professional schemas (caution, a culture of discussion) were compatible with this local commitment, through which Markus does not think of himself as being involved in politics at all in the institutional sense.

41But his distancing from professional schemas took a new turn when Markus agreed to join a local political group, through the relations established in his associative networks (see the arrow “municipal councillor” in his ego-centered target diagram). Although this group is independent of national parties and focused on “practical problem solving,” Markus gradually adopted a more conflictual view of social reality: “Now I often have an opinion [chuckles] and I can’t understand at all if someone thinks something else. Ah, sometimes it’s hard [chuckles].” Working through a possible dissonance between the professional interpretive schema of politics and this new, more strictly political perception, he even envisages a professional reorientation, which is still vague: “I would also like to do things in the social arena, I’m becoming more and more social.”

42In this type of pathway, the dynamic of the couple is a vector for local civic and political engagement, through the support of a friendship-based sociability that is shared with the spouse, whom the subject will often have met during his or her studies. The spouses share a professional dynamic and domestic and civic commitments that lead to a relativization of the sphere of work and, therefore, of the technoscientific schema as far as the engineer husband is concerned. When the couple is homogamous in terms of social origin, level of higher education, or professional activities, the political preferences of both spouses may evolve in the same direction, starting from a rather similar and unpoliticized familial political socialization, most frequently dominated by the male member of the couple. In the case of an equivalent or greater cultural contribution by the female member of the couple (as in the case of I16, whose spouse is a psychologist, and that of I14, whose spouse is a lawyer), the male technoscientific schema is relativized by the reciprocity of their contributions and by their contact with more diversified circles of friendship-based sociability, some of which may be common to both members of the couple (for example, the couple including the psychologist has been in contact with an “environmentalist evangelist” since their youth).

Adherence and adaptation to the managerial transformations of the profession

43All the engineers interviewed are confronted with a “flattening” of the career model, where vertical mobility is less frequent, slower, and interspersed by phases of horizontal mobility, or even downward mobility.  [51] The simultaneous professionalization of managers imposes a new benchmark for promotion within the company and reinforces competition in terms of positions and knowledge.  [52] The possibilities of vertical mobility do not disappear as such, but are transformed into individualized pathways of promotion, outside the technical field.

44These pathways are observed when engineering groups are unable to hold their ground against sales and financial staff. Respondents confronted with such professional experiences seek to move into sales or management positions. They acquire the managerial skills that they lack, for example, by taking an MBA or pursuing on-the-job training in project management. The accession to these managerial positions presupposes a high degree of intercompany mobility.  [53] While this type of career fosters a gradual detachment from the political socialization of family and friends, it also shifts political attitudes toward the right and a more individualistic ideology. This inflection is less pronounced in Paul than in Luc, owing to a marital dynamic that links the latter to older, more local networks.

Careers of managerial ascension and movement toward the right

45Paul (I8, 39 years old) grew up in a family of teachers (secondary level), with Catholic-social views, whose opinions oscillated between the PDC—a center-right Catholic party, historically in the majority in Paul’s home region—and the PS, which was an uncommon and relatively atypical combination. Paul studied chemistry, and then completed a PhD in material science in Switzerland, followed by postdoctoral research on physics in the United States.

46Eager to work in industry, he returned to Nanochem, a company in his home region, where he stayed for six years. There, he was promoted to be the head of a new research group aimed at developing innovative products, but this group was discontinued during restructuring, when the production of established products became a priority for the management. Paul continued his career in an innovation center in the region, where he became deputy director. The development of his career therefore led him from basic research (in contact with researchers) to the management of applied research (in contact with engineers and salespeople), in a path of social advancement marked by the transition from a cultured and regionally based environment of teachers to an environment of international research.

47Remaining attached to his first experiences at Nanochem (“I’ve always been interested in applied research because it’s interesting to see how something is produced afterward”), he continues to be interested in applied research now that he is deputy director of the research center. He works at the boundary between engineering and management, and has promoted economic development through the transfer of technologies by founding a cluster of regional companies and researchers; he values “innovation management” for applied research, while distancing himself from an undifferentiated managerial logic that “governs [research] projects in the same way as a product project.”

48This path has led Paul to distance himself from the opinions he held during his youth: “At first I was very idealistic, and then I was very leftist.” While these opinions present a form of continuity with his Catholic-social family heritage, they were formed during his involvement in an organization similar to the Scout movement, and of Catholic inspiration, FOMA  [54]: “It was social, we worked with children, and capital and business were bad.” In hindsight, he feels closer to another influential figure of his youth, his athletics coach, with whom he had lively debates: “At that time, he was on the other side of the spectrum [the right]. Now I understand him a little better.” Although he does not reject all the opinions of his youth, at the time of the interview he occupies a position between the PS and the Parti libéral-radical (PLR): “I’m pretty left-wing, with a social side like that. But on other subjects [...] you have to be realistic, someone has to create value,” he explains, referring to his interest in industrial research associated with regional development.

49Luc (I15, 27 years old) was born into a peasant family and has experienced a high degree of social mobility. After an apprenticeship as a manufacturer of industrial equipment and a training course in mechanics at an HES, he joined Milling SA as a project manager, then became responsible for a “nano” project, which fulfilled his desire to progress in his work: “I’d been working on these machines for two years and I wanted to see something different.”

50But Luc’s desire for promotion would not be fully satisfied at this company, where the management and leadership roles are more outsourced than at Nanochem. A major reorganization of work took place, supervised by a consulting firm, with a view to implementing a more “competitive” project management system.  [55] Luc’s first experiences therefore occurred within the context of a poorly self-organized group of engineers where technical activities were undermined by heterogeneous logics. In his view, the salespeople did not sufficiently take the engineers’ opinions into account: “I have to meet my targets, so I do so, and then after that they pass the hot potato to someone else.” The “nano” project that he was working on never got off the ground, having been blocked by a patent dispute. He was assigned “a lot of odd jobs that other people didn’t want to do, so they weren’t necessarily very interesting. The situation dragged on.”

51These mixed experiences encouraged him to move away from the core work of engineering and into managerial activities that were more attractive to him. He moved to German-speaking Switzerland, to take up a position involving “more theory and documentation, validation, auditing.” This was a first step toward a career outside the technical field: “There are ways to develop, not necessarily by becoming a project manager again, but by taking on other positions.”

52As he continues his family affiliation to the PLR, Luc is positioned more clearly on the right than Paul is. However, professional schemas lead him to distance himself from the localist or xenophobic opinions of his background. He shows a preference for national and international politics and distances himself from his father’s strong involvement in local politics: “He should have left [name of the town]. Sometimes, I find that he comes out with these stupid old-fashioned theories.” Similarly, he stigmatizes the “fascist” views of a childhood friend, and then says that a closure of Switzerland from an economic point of view would “startle” him and would be the only cause that would lead him to take to the streets.

53It emerges from these two pathways that the less engineers are collectively able to depend on working conditions that enable them to apply their technical expertise, the more they develop an attraction, as individuals, for managerial skills and the prospect of changing companies. This individualized relation to one’s career creates an inclination toward the right of the political spectrum, just as it favors the perpetuation of a right-wing heritage, with certain adjustments, or the suspension of left-wing opinions. These adjustments are also the result of careers with international experience (moving abroad, contact with foreign colleagues) or mobility toward cities, in comparison with one’s parents’ generation.

54As with the first type, these engineers’ schemas are subsequently differentiated into two subtypes, according to the respective importance of social networks at work and of marital networks.

Elitist and international professional networks

55Like François’s career in the first type (see above), Luc’s professional career is not dependent on a couple dynamic: “I’m single, so I said to myself, ‘Okay, it’s time to question myself and find another challenge.’” He was therefore able to give priority to professional mobility over job security, rejecting a salary increase at Milling SA to find a new, more management-oriented position.

56Although it was only a recent change, his geographical and professional mobility has led to a repositioning with regard to his network of relations. While his home environment (family, childhood friends, local societies) still plays an important role, he is distancing himself from it on several political issues (see above). In this field, work colleagues are gradually becoming more important interlocutors and, consequently, the professional world is becoming the dominant prism through which he thinks about politics. He therefore considers that he has responsibilities derived from his position as an engineer, on the economic level (work ethic, growth) but also on the environmental level, without describing himself as “green” as such: “One of the responsibilities we have is more in relation to the environment. It’s a responsibility to keep this aspect in mind when we design a machine. When you send parts to the other side of the world, avoid making fifteen round trips by plane.” In the same way, his professional interests can lead him to qualify his distance from the localism of his home environment: “More national or international politics, but a bit of cantonal politics, because that’s more related to my work. There, they really have an impact on training, on support for young companies and research.”

57For this type of engineer, the significance of the professional world in shaping the relation to politics is therefore all the greater as the networks of relations are constructed independently of the couple and of a local anchorage. The trajectories of two foreign female engineers (I6, I11), whose couple conforms to a dual career model, illustrate this well. Their networks are above all professional, dominated by the stages of spatial mobility characteristic of their careers. Their professional schemas emphasize the idea of individual and economic success. Thus, the attraction for business development is reflected in a vision of politics dominated by economic performance: “Politics, for me, is the way a country [...] builds rules and objectives that are favorable to its citizens. Favorable to being able to meet the budget every year, to live well, to be competitive” (I11). Conversely, the lower social categories and workers’ unions are viewed with a certain condescension: “It’s good because they already have a fairly low salary. They need someone who can say, ‘Well, now we don’t accept that.’ Engineers, on the other hand, are quite capable of arguing for themselves” (I6).

Careerism tempered by marital and local sociability

58Finally, the last type, which includes the case of Paul (I3), the deputy director of the research center, involves a couple with strong local roots (as for another interviewee, I10). Formed early, the couple is directly involved in local family socialization—geographical and familial proximity and shared circles of friends. They are unequal couples (one spouse occupies an inferior professional position), immersed in their original rural life. While these engineers experience upward social mobility in relation to their original environment, they show a high degree of social and cognitive permanence. The periods of geographical mobility, much like periods of study in higher education, retain an exceptional status and supply their network with few new relations that are close from an emotional point of view. Their relational circles change very little; they are characterized by their stability and strong local anchoring, maintaining a strong proximity to family and friends from their youth.

59Accordingly, Paul’s career has been upwardly mobile, but the couple dynamic moderates his inclination toward the political right. As mentioned earlier, it was at FOMA, a village social circle of left-leaning youth, that he met his wife, a primary school teacher with whom he has three children. Because of the couple dynamic, the emotional center of Paul’s relationship network remains centered on “Friends of over ten years from FOMA” (including “A.B.,” the initials of his closest friend).

Model 4. Ego-centered target diagram for Paul

tableau im5

Model 4. Ego-centered target diagram for Paul

60Couple dynamics crystallize this sociability and make it persist over time. In fact, Paul is a little nostalgic for this political period, which is atypical of the regional political space. But he remains 100 percent committed to his career, leaving his wife (who works part-time as a primary school teacher in the place where they live) in charge of the domestic sphere and the children.

61Caught between two contradictory political socializations, Paul reinforces his schema of scientific neutrality. Thus, in the public debate on nanotechnology in which he is involved, he takes the step of addressing the media and the authorities to “try to keep the discussion on the most rational level possible,” and advocates a “fair consideration of the benefits and dangers,” without “emotion.” He therefore avoids political discussions with his childhood friends who have retained their “youthful idealism”: “With some people, it’s not worth discussing it because they don’t have the same culture of discussion. They have very strong opinions.”  [56] He justifies this avoidance of discussion with his old friends through the technoscientific schema (primacy of rational argument). On the other hand, he appreciates the relations in his new sports club, less close emotionally and less strongly inclined to the left, as a context for raising political themes. The values of individual success or economic performance are therefore tempered because they would create too much dissonance within the couple and the part of the friendship network linked to it.


62A diachronic examination of the professional logic behind the production of ordinary relations to politics provides explanations for engineers’ “relative lack of interest” in politics, which is not captured by the thesis of the individualization or flexibility of opinions, the public/private distinction, employment status, or the general characteristics of socioprofessional categories. What is held as a lack of interest is in fact a particular form of interest in, and ordinary relation to, politics, which are forged over the course of professional career stages and characterized as a technoscientific interpretive schema.

63A key explanatory element here is that professional socialization makes it possible both to take into account a dynamic of inclinations/opinions (on an individual and qualitative level, in contrast to quantitative panel surveys) and to put into perspective the articulation between primary and secondary socialization. In the case of the engineers we met, professional socialization introduces a certain distancing from family socialization, such as the weakening of conservative ideas and the adoption of more internationally oriented values.

64We then showed that the relation with the profession over the course of a career made it possible to distinguish between two types—which do not coincide with the expected public/private opposition, since most of our interviewees have crossed this boundary several times. The first, oriented toward preserving professional autonomy and technical expertise through integration into a work collective, contrasts with the second, which leads to a hierarchical development toward management roles. Here, the sociology of professional groups sheds light, from a diachronic perspective, on important issues in electoral sociology, such as “autonomy at work” and “relations to authority and hierarchy.” These two types of engineers confirm the professional dynamics at the heart of contemporary technical professions, torn between developments toward either professionals or managers, rather than divided into two static blocks. These tensions generate political divisions within the group, depending on familial, professional, marital, and national configurations.

65From this perspective, professional and non-work-related trajectories, particularly the pathways of marital relations and mobility, appear neither disjointed nor homogeneous. Marital life may reinforce, mitigate, or amend perspectives that arise from a professional career, as well as political interpretive schemas. Broadly speaking, an egalitarian married life, combined with a reduced investment in professional life, can reactivate a sense of belonging to the technical community of engineers, as well as values associated with solidarity or civic commitment. Conversely, a single life or an asymmetrical couple can encourage individual promotion and careers more oriented toward managerial roles, which may reactivate right-wing primary socialization.

66Beyond the investigated group, a set of mediations that are useful for the analysis of the political socialization of individuals at work emerges from our research: on the one hand, training, career, and reforms of work organization; on the other hand, the family of origin, the couple, and, in concentric circles, leisure and civic commitments. As significant events unfold (such as restructuring, a high degree of geographical mobility, a managerial promotion, maternity), key relationships emerge (with the family of origin and spouse on the one hand; colleagues and hierarchy on the other), while others appear to play a lesser role (professional or scientific associations, elected officials or party members, union representatives or activists, residential relationships).

67Ultimately, it seems unhelpful to distinguish primary political socialization from political socialization at work. Indeed, is the growth of a tree’s branches the expression of a continuity from its roots or is it, by contrast, the expression of a discontinuity?


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    The name has been changed.
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This paper examines how work has impacted the political opinions of a small group of nanotechnology engineers. It analyses how political worldviews are developed by members of the upper-middle classes, in this case technological professionals, and focuses on the linkages established at key moments of their process of political socialization. While the engineers interviewed expressed first being socialized to politics in their families (which were mostly right-wing leaning), they then distanced themselves from this heritage by acquiring a “technoscientific” worldview during their professional training which gradually influenced their understanding of politics. The careers of technological professionals can then take either a collective or individualistic turn, whether they orient themselves towards greater technical professionalism or aim for more managerial goals. These two career paths may subsequently nudge the political leanings of engineers to the left or to the right. Such orientations may be further confirmed or on the contrary challenged by the configuration and evolution of interpersonal networks, particularly on account of their professional or extra-professional components. Thus family life and friends can counterbalance or reinforce the political socialization that takes place at work.


  • engineers
  • work
  • career path
  • political socialization
  • political homogamy
  • interpersonal social networks
Ivan Sainsaulieu [1]
Ivan Sainsaulieu is a professor of sociology and a member of the Centre lillois d’études et de recherches sociologiques et économiques (Clersé, UMR 8019) (Lille Center of Sociological and Economic Studies and Research). He is the author of a political science dissertation on trade unionism in the SUD federation (“La Fédération solidaires unitaires démocratiques des PTT (SUD-PTT): Creuset d’une contestation pragmatique,” Revue française de science politique 48, no. 1 [1998]: 121-41), and he has conducted separate or joint research on labor relations, politicization at work, and social justice. He has notably co-edited, alongside Muriel Surdez, Sens politiques du travail (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012) (Université de Lille, IUT-GEA, avenue Paul-Langevin – Cité scientifique – BP 90179, 59653 Villeneuve-d’Ascq cedex).
  • [1]
    Fabrice Plomb contributed to earlier versions of this article.
Muriel Surdez
Muriel Surdez is a professor of sociology at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). Her work focuses on the relations between professional groups and politics. Recently, she has examined the relations between veterinarians and the state in the context of the reforms of the food safety sector: she has published, with Jérôme Debons and Lorène Piquerez, “‘De la fourche à la fourchette’: Une recomposition des territoires d’activité chez les professionnels suisses du contrôle sanitaire des aliments?,” SociologieS (November 15, 2018), (University of Fribourg, Department of Social Science, Boulevard de Pérolles 90, 1700 Fribourg, Switzerland).
Éric Zufferey
Éric Zufferey, PhD in sociology, completed a doctorate jointly supervised at the universities of Fribourg and Lille entitled “Changer le travail ou changer la société? Les hackers entre conformation à l’ordre social et volonté d’innover.” It demonstrates that hacking, as a form of self-education, is more conformist than subversive with regard to social relations of class. Hackers seek above all to innovate in their work, and their relation to this work largely explains their investments in leisure activities, either in associations or activism. In particular, Zufferey has published “Le hacking: Entre support à la professionnalisation et substitut au travail,” Les mondes du travail 16­17 (2016): 125­37 (School of Management and Engineering Vaud, Route de Cheseaux 1, 1400 Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland).
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 18/12/2020
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