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1Durkheimian sociology of the family, from which contemporary French sociology has inherited a great deal, established the idea of the weakening place of economic relations in kinship ties: “things” would become less and less the “cement of domestic society” in favour of elective sentimental attachments. Durkheim even went on to predict the end of inheritance: “A day will come when a man will no longer be permitted, even through a will, to leave his fortune to his descendants, just as he is not permitted to leave them his offices and honours.” (Durkheim [1892] 1975: 44). While this prediction has not come to pass, the thesis underpinning it has been taken up, qualified and brought up to date in the work of François de Singly, who makes a connection between the rise in the strength of affective ties in the family sphere to the detriment of economic relations, and the growing importance of cultural capital and meritocracy in the definition and transmission of social positions (Singly 2007: 93). Disinterested affective relations would offer better support for the passing on of cultural capital. Classical sociology of the family thus established a link between changes in the importance of economic inheritance for social stratification and that of relations between parents and children: “With the primacy of educational capital, relations between parents and children are somehow ‘cleansed’; they no longer serve as a support for the direct transmission of capital,” writes Singly (1996: 23-4). He continues: “In contrast to the peasant or bourgeois family, fathers no longer designate their heirs. They can create the social, cultural and economic conditions to provide their children with greatest success at school, but they are no longer the masters of the social validation of their children … It is impossible for a graduate father to disinherit his son or daughter because of their poor behaviour.” (1996: 257). Changes in French society should thus have enabled an improvement of relations between generations, in particular preventing parents from favouring one child over another.

2From the end of the 19th century studied by Durkheim until the 1980s, the development of a salaried work force has effectively substantially reduced the importance in the mechanisms for passing on social statuses of the inheritance of professional assets and of connections in favour of educational qualifications. However, during the twentieth century, along with the decline in the share of inherited productive assets or of connections in French inheritances, another mutation occurred: the growing importance of property for use as housing. The share of households owning their principal residence has risen from a little less than 40% in the 1950s to 56% in 2002. 60% of French households now own a home, whether this is their principal residence, a second home or a rental property: property ownership is thus both more common and still exclusive. [1] There is also marked inequality between generations: older households, increasingly non-indebted property owners contrast with younger households, more commonly tenants in the private sector, devoting a growing proportion of their budgets to housing (Bugeja 2010, 2011). The increase in households inheriting residential property and the growing intergenerational inequality in this respect in part explains the increasing importance of inheritances in the national economy: while they only represented 5% of national income in 1950, they represented 15% in 2010 and will probably rise to 20-25% in 2050, which would be similar to that observed for the 19th century (Piketty 2011). In this new context, the importance of “things” in relations between generations warrants re-examination: the transmission of social status from parents to descendants involves not just cultural capital, but also economic wealth which must be saved to be transferred and is necessarily shared among heirs.

3It therefore seems particularly pertinent to be interested in intergenerational asset transfers within families. Is there evidence in these transfers of parents’ power over the transmissions each of their children will receive? In particular, do parents treat their children in the same way? The material dimension of economic transfers provides a particularly illuminating understanding of the differing treatment of brothers and sisters and of first-born and later-born siblings. By nature, economic wealth is effectively a “rival” good in the sense used by economists, [2] which parents are compelled to share in one way or another between their descendants, in a more or less equal way in value and in kind. This article proposes, therefore, to go beyond an analysis of inequalities between siblings regarding inheritances, to question role of inequalities between brothers and sisters and the first- and later-born in the mechanisms for transmission of social positions from one generation to another.

4To do this, we will begin by outlining the methodology used for analysing social mobility and intergenerational inheritances. Here we propose an approach that mixes ethnology and statistics, with the aim of “broadening” the line along which transmissions are usually observed, where inheritances are passed “from father to son,” each generation represented by a single individual: this means, in particular, proposing a method for understanding inequalities within sibships according to birth order and sex. Thus we will analyse, based on a case study, how economic transfers made by parents to their different children and the respective social destinies of the latter are linked: we will thereby highlight the differentiated positions of brothers and sisters according to birth order in the strategies for reproducing the social status of their lineage. We will show, finally, how the hypotheses stemming from this ethnographic study are supported and clarified by statistical data from the 2003 INSEE “Patrimoine” [“Household Wealth”] survey. We start from the case of the transmission of family businesses, in which the issue of inequality within sibships in obtaining the status of “repreneur” [3] seems to be particularly pertinent (except in the case of the wealthiest amongst them, self-employed parents have difficulty transferring their business to all their children). By expanding the analysis to the children of salaried wage earners, we will show that they too are subject to variable economic transfers and experience different social destinies depending on sex and birth order.

Beyond an analysis of “from father to son”

The study of intergenerational economic transfers, or the one-dimensional lineage

5Sociology seems largely to have abandoned the study of inheritance and its transmission to economists: in the social sciences today, it is economists and econometricians who have a monopoly over their census and analysis for the current period, notably through the national accounts and use of tax data (Piketty 2001) and the establishment of the INSEE “Patrimoine” survey (Lollivier 2004). Thus, it is they who have demonstrated the importance of familial inheritance for the reproduction of inequalities of wealth from one generation to another (Masson 2009). Since the 1990s, they have observed inequality inheritances in between brothers and sisters, but their attempts at modelling have remained limited and have proved somewhat inappropriate: analysing inheritances based on tax data, Luc Arrondel and Anne Laferrère note that they are very poorly explained by the available economic model (the “altruistic” parent model, where the parent uses inheritance to compensate for inequality between himself and his children and between his children, and the “selfish” parent model in contrast, where a parent uses inheritance to gain support from children in their old age) (Arrondel and Laferrère 1992). The models, developed in the United Kingdom and America, are particularly inappropriate for the French legal framework, which does not allow a child to be disinherited, imposes an equal share between descendants and only allows a small part of an estate to be disposed of at a parent’s discretion, the “quotité disponible.” Moreover, in the work on economic transfers between generations, transfers within families are mostly measured in order to make a comparison with state intergenerational redistribution through the state pension system and social assistance. In this perspective, analysis is concentrated on an intergenerational chain linking a sole representative member of each generation (generally a pre-school- or school-age child, a working parent and a retired grandparent), i.e., “from father to son” (Delphy 1974: 48): this means measuring and comparing the transfers made between two or three generations at an aggregate level, both within families and through redistribution systems organized by the state (pension systems, financing education of the youngest and care for the eldest). In his work, Des liens et des transferts entre générations, André Masson thus explicitly assumes: “As with representations adopted in standard intergenerational models, families, only apprehended through a generic affiliation link, shall be treated as a single agent, most often reduced to an archetypal lineage. A strictly longitudinal point of view ignores transversal aspects of family relations: alliances, sibship and sexual differentiation. … This simplification does, however, enable us to analyse a case study that is highly unrealistic but is particularly revealing of the debates relating to the opportunity for family returns.” (Masson 2009: 22). This choice, which is made for reasons of modelling simplicity, thus avoids examining the effect of marital relationships and their uncertainties on the conditions for transmission, such as the necessary division of inheritance between children in each generation, therefore leaving aside the question of inequality of wealth transmission within sibships.

6For its part, sociology has not completely ignored economic transfers between generations, even though ultimately it has dealt little with inheritances themselves. The sociology of kinship has proceeded differently from Durkheimian sociology of the family —centred on the nuclear family —; by placing relations between kinship households at the heart of its analysis, it has contributed to qualifying the idea that “things” are no longer the basis of family relations. It has demonstrated the quantitative importance of the circulation of goods and services within kinships (Segalen 1996: 96-101). It has extensively studied the financial support, in service and in kind, between relations and its effects on the social trajectories of individuals, in particular in terms of housing and access to the labour market (Bonvalet, Maison, Le Bras and Charles 1993; Attias-Donfut 1995, 2000; Paugam and Zoyem 1998; Wolff and Attias-Donfut 2005). In doing so, however, it has raised an issue largely inspired by public policy questions: that of intergenerational solidarity (Debordeaux and Strobel 2002). The adoption of this problematic has several effects that have undermined the sociological analysis of inheritance transfers. By requiring aggregation in order to make a comparison with transfers organized by the state, intra-family economic transfers are often elevated to the same level, without taking into consideration the multiple differentiating factors: their kind (monetary transfers, consumer goods, services, financial assets, property or productive assets) and their legal status (hand-to-hand gifts, donations, inheritances), for example. While some work has paid attention to these differences (Wolff and Attias-Donfut 2005: 146), research on family solidarity, since the founding work by Agnès Pitrou, often ignores estate transfers in favour of day-to-day informal solidarity (Pitrou 1978; Paugam and Zoyem 1998). Furthermore, by emphasizing the issue of redistribution between generations, the effect of intra-family economic transfers has been partially ignored. More specifically, several studies have first tested the theory of a compensatory effect from intra-family solidarity on inequality between families: the question asked was whether the strength of solidarity among the working class could partially compensate for a lack of resources (Pitrou 1978). This question was, and remains, largely inspired by public policy concerns, which above all aim to assess the ability of private transfers to compensate for the new shortcomings of the welfare state in its redistributive role between generations and social groups. This sociological work does not relate the asset transfers that individuals benefit from, or which they bestow upon their heirs, to their lineage and the social status this assures. François-Charles Wolff and Claudine Attias-Donfut’s work analysing the impact of intergenerational transfers on housing is a notable exception, since it shows that all these transfers have an effect on the chances of owning housing and on its size and value (Wolff and Attias-Donfut 2005). But sadly they do not relate the means of residential property transmission to intergenerational social mobility. The economic dimensions of the exchanges studied have, therefore, not been combined with an analysis of the social reproduction mechanisms at play in families. Above all, sociological approaches, like economic approaches to asset transfers, have also led to a model of intergenerational economic transfers within families that is blind to the inequalities within the same generation, in particular between brothers and sisters, because they are equally tied to public policy concerns which apprehend generations at an aggregate level (sometimes therefore confusing “genealogical generations” [Galland 1997] with successive cohorts).

Thickening the lineage: Methodological choices

7How do we apprehend the broadness of intergenerational asset transfers, in particular at the level of sibships, and its link to eventual inequalities of fates within each generation, between brothers and sisters and first- and later-born siblings?

8As regards quantitative approaches, several sociologists and demographers have already shown that it is possible to analyse inequalities within sibships, without, however, being directly concerned with economic transfers, enriching more classical studies on social mobility “from father to son” (Thélot 1982). [4] In 1981, Guy Desplanques studied the differing fates of first- and later-born and male and female siblings. He relied on data from the 1975 census, during which a sample of people was asked how many children their mothers had and how many their mothers in turn had. As he points out, after having shown that, all things being equal, first-born daughters were better educated than later-born daughters: “Here the comparison is not between the first-born and later-born girls in the same family but between, on the one hand, the first-born girl in a generation and, on the other, the later-born girls in the same generation.” (Desplanques 1981: 53). Based on this observation, the author proposed a tentative interpretation of his results. In particular, the type of data analysed does not allow the effects of the age of parents to be excluded: at a given age, a first-born child generally has younger parents than a later-born child at the same age; his parents therefore have a greater chance of being better educated because the general level of education is progressing; for children at a given age, parents of first-born children therefore have more significant educational capital to pass on. Desplanques concludes: “In this case, parents do not push their eldest more than their other children, and the results presented here result solely from a parents’ generation effect.” (Desplanques 1981: 56). Bernard Zarca resolved this problem with his analysis of differing social mobility of brothers and sisters. He set out to analyse social mobility based on data for the analysis of kinship networks: the INED “Réseaux familiaux” [“Family Networks”] survey, for its results on the transmission of independence (Zarca 1993), and for his initial analysis of differing social mobility within sibships (Zarca 1995a, 1995b) he used the INED “Proches et parents” [“Parents and Next of Kin”] survey for its updated analysis of this differing mobility (Zarca 1999). It is, therefore, the fates of brothers and sisters that Zarca compares rather than those of the first- and later-borns as a whole. He thereby shows, in a robust way, that a differentiation in fates exists within sibships. This approach was inspired by those developed by historians and Zarca makes explicit reference to the work of Maurizio Garibaldi (1987). Historians’ sources —which are not based on surveys of households or individuals, but on civic state registries, tax archives and land registries —do not blind them to sibships. This historical research, nevertheless, highlights the difficulty of quantitative work on extremely varied configurations of sibships at periods characterized by high fertility and mortality: “A sibship, an apparently simple unit, can produce very demographically varied configurations, depending on its members, sexual composition and age distribution.” (Bourdieu, Postel-Vinay, Rosental and Suwa-Eisenmann 2004: 64). While today’s sibship sizes are less varied, the model family of two children having become widespread (Toulemon 2001), a statistical understanding of the effect of sibship configuration on social fates remains problematic. How can we better understand the differences between only children and the first- and later-born in larger or smaller sibships? The variety of configurations analysed soon raises sample size issues, which limit, for example, the possibilities of using data like those used by Zarca.

9As historians, who were quick to combine monographic studies and statistical uses of national data, highlighted early on, the variation in scales of analysis seems particularly relevant for understanding how personal asset transmission involves both relations between generations and those within the same generation. Therefore, here we propose to rely above all on family monographs, setting aside the individual biographical surveys normally used (Gotman 1988; Terrail 1995; Blöss 1997). The method used is inspired by both Leplaysian techniques (Le Play [1857] 1994) and the monographic approach to kinship, originally experimented with by Rivers in “exotic” fields (Rivers 1910; Stocking 2003) and already put to the test for studying contemporary Western kinship. [5] This means combining in-depth interviews with several family members of different generations, ages, sexes and position in birth order, observing the daily life of kinships (as well as, if possible, more exceptional events, such as birthdays, burials or marriages) and gathering archival material (deeds, photos, letters, etc.), in the context of a more or less long-term involvement with a family. The conclusions presented here are based on the analysis of fifteen or so family monographs, constructed based on three points of contact with the subjects: one introduction through the acquaintanceship of people born at the end of the 1970s, studying in Paris, but whose families lived outside the Paris region; one introduction through associations of families of Alzheimer sufferers and one introduction through a widows association, both in a département close to the Paris region. The latter two introductions enabled us to look at families at the point of widowhood, that is when the issues of estate transfers from one generation to another become apparent. It is through the first point of contact that we met the Renoir family [6] on whom we shall dwell at length. It is through this case that we will concretely show through which processes the fates within a sibship become differentiated and the role unequal asset transfers have in this process. This ethnographic study enables us to provide keys for “making sense of the statistical data” analysed elsewhere (Gollac M. 1997). As Daniel Bertaux and Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame write: “The essential difference between quantitative material and material derived from direct observation is not that the former and the latter are intended to be quantified, but that quantitative material is in some way post-theoretical, whereas ‘qualitative’ observations are pre-theoretical. In the latter case, analysis and theorization are synonymous and take place in a back and forth dialectic between observations and conceptualizations. Whereas in a quantitative paradigm, the aim is to identify covariant statistical relationships between variables defined before data gathering, the objective of qualitative analysis is to discover what this is; to identify relationships, processes and causal links.” (1988: 24).

10Next, we seek to measure to what extent these mechanisms can be apprehended at the scale of national statistics, based on a quantitative analysis. To do this we use data from the 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey. These data will be used cautiously, since they only provide information on the number of brothers and sisters —combined —on individuals’ sex and birth order, [7] but not on the social fates of these siblings. Thus, information on the configuration by sibship is minimal, since we know nothing about the age differences between siblings, nor even their sex: put simply we cannot identify whether a man is the first-born boy in his sibship. Like Desplanques, we only know the fate of an individual, knowing his sex and birth order, and not his fate in relation to those of his brothers and sisters. Relying on qualitative results, we set out, however, to produce statistical results that shed light on inequalities according to sex and birth order that are brought out by an analysis of social mobility and intergenerational personal asset transfers.

The Renoir brothers and sisters

11We have shown elsewhere that personal asset transfers observed within kinship networks conform to two types of family strategies in particular: [8] household strategies and lineage strategies (Gollac 2005). A household is a group of relatives cooperating together to ensure domestic production, facing a “common cause” on a daily basis, such as taking care of a child or an elderly person (Weber 2002; Gollac 2003). Thus, certain personal asset transfers meet a need to ensure the survival of family members. Others instead result from a desire to share, retain and hand down a family inheritance, since this is tied to the social status of a lineage, which should be maintained or improved on from one generation to another. The strategies implemented to collectively ensure domestic production or the transmission of social status confer very different roles to members of each generation, in particular depending on their sex (Bessière and Gollac 2008). We will show here, based on an analysis of the case of the Renoir family (Figure 1), how the diverse trajectories of brothers and sisters, first-borns and later-borns, and the different inheritances they received from their parents, are linked to the attribution of different roles to members of the same sibship depending on sex and birth order.


The Renoir family, social destinies and personal asset transfers. Differing trajectories


The Renoir family, social destinies and personal asset transfers. Differing trajectories

Differing trajectories

12René Renoir is the third in a sibship of six children of owner farmers in the Maine-et-Loire département. With his wife Jacqueline, the daughter of an agricultural labourer and home distiller, whom he married in 1948, he set up a firm of chartered accountants in Segré, a small town of 5,000 inhabitants. They had three children: Françoise, Jean-Paul and Christine, born in 1951, 1954 and 1957 respectively, all of whom married in 1975. The eldest, after having obtained her English degree, married an engineering graduate from the Ponts et Chaussées she met while studying, who soon became the managing director of a large company. She stayed living with him in Paris, and after a few years working as a teacher and then as a translator, stopped working. She has two children, Benoît and Tristan, born in 1985 and 1995. Jean-Paul, the second-born, has a vocational baccalaureate (bac pro) in car mechanics and married Chantal, a secretary. In 1980 he received his father’s clientele through donation. Not having the qualifications needed to become a chartered accountant, he took his clientele to a firm run by a qualified chartered accountant in Angers where he became a partner. In 2000, he sold his client list to buy an estate agency, also in Angers where he lives. He has three children: Véronique, Jean-François and Julia. In the same year as Françoise and Jean-Paul, Christine married Alain Coulemelle, the schoolteacher in his parents’ village. She was eighteen year old and had just received her general baccalaureate. She and Alain remained in Segré and had five children between 1977 and 1994, which her parents helped raise: Claire, Sylvain (whom I met when he was doing a master’s in sociology and through whose intermediacy I made contact with this family), Jérémie, Samuel and Théo. Christine has no official job but does occasional secretarial work for her parents and later for her brother.

13The trajectories of René and Jacqueline’s three children therefore differ very greatly. The eldest studied for a relatively long time, and through this “married well.” [9] As for the youngest son, with few qualifications, he has had a successful self-employed career by taking up the family business and converting it into an estate agency of which he is the sole boss (Bernard 2011: 74). As for the youngest, she remained in the family fold, she is neither materially independent from her husband or her parents, who have helped her a great deal and whom she helps in turn (René died in 1985, but Jacqueline receives daily help with shopping and housework from her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren). It is Christine who first ensured that there were descendants to the next generation: she had her first child in 1977, while her brother and sister waited until 1980 and 1985 respectively to have theirs (the eldest, Françoise, was therefore 34-years-old, while the youngest was 20 when she first gave birth), and her children were raised under the eyes of their grandparents. René and Jacqueline’s three children therefore perform very different roles in the social reproduction strategies of their lineage.

14While Jean-Paul received (but also sold) the family business, this has not, however, ensured the passing on of all the family’s household wealth. What are the various elements that make up this wealth? Firstly, there is the professional wealth, which Jean-Paul was charged with handing down. Next there is a particular cultural capital, the originality and importance of which Christine emphasizes, pointing out, notably, that her grandmother “was the first girl in the village to receive a certificate of studies” and that her grandfather “put his children through secular education.” The nature of cultural and political capital handed down by René Renoir enables the establishment of a positive affiliation between the Renoirs and Christine and also her husband Alain, as their son Sylvain explained to me (December 2001 interview): “She [Christine] said that the fact that she married a teacher pleased my grandfather enormously.” And, indeed, the grandmother’s certificate of studies was passed on to Alain (by René’s brother who took over the family farm). Christine thus makes her own children the legitimate heirs to the lineage. While Benoît and Tristan, Françoise’s children, were still too young at the time of the survey for us to assess their academic success (though Christine thinks Benoît is “not very bright”) and Jean-Paul’s children were not doing any distinguished studies (“the type of children who are failing at school,” Christine tells me), Christine’s eldest children have demonstrated their abilities: Claire is a graduate at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and a qualified French grammar teacher, and Sylvain graduated from the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (“Sciences Po”). From this point a view, a portion of the lineage’s succession has been secured by Christine. While Françoise, the eldest, more directly bore the family cultural capital’s fruit by obtaining a degree and marrying well with a very well qualified young man during her studies, it is Christine, the youngest, who has produced the next generation’s heirs to this cultural capital (and around whom the household is organized, which ensures her children are looked after and also her mother), while Jean-Paul, the boy, assumes the professional economic assets with more or less success.

Different forms of handing down and converting economic wealth

15These different roles reflect different places in wealth transfers made within a family. Soon after their marriages, the two girls received hand-to-hand gifts with the aim of helping them acquire homes. Françoise used hers to buy her first apartment in Paris with her husband. This contribution was then reinvested in successive purchases by the couple, who moved from Paris to New York and then Dakar, London and Brussels. This initial contribution became progressively negligible in comparison to their accumulated assets thanks to Françoise’s husband Paul’s income. Nevertheless, the couple were willing to use this asset to encourage the social success of members of the lineage from which Françoise is descended: they offered free accommodation in a pied-à-terre they had bought in Meudon, to Claire and Sylvain, Christine’s eldest children, when the former got into ENS and when the latter was at Sciences Po. Sylvain recounts:


That’s to say, about four or five years ago, when I was preparing for the Sciences Po entrance exam I spent a summer revising in Paris. My sister was there at the same time … She was waiting for her ENS results. Basically, I was in Paris for the summer and my uncle and aunt, who’d just bought a great apartment in Meudon, put me up. So for one summer they looked after me a little. Yeah … So, they’d just got a really nice apartment in Meudon in a property that was under construction, and they had a basement converted into a bedroom, and they asked Claire and me whether we wanted to stay there during the building work. So they basically suggested they look after us while we studied.
(Interview with Sylvain, December 2001)

17On Françoise’s side, the inheritance was used to help her obtain an education, for which the growth in the family’s wealth seems to owe a great deal. On Jean-Paul’s side, the inheritance transfers are linked to a different social trajectory: it is the inheritance of his parents’ clients that ensured his professional and economic success while he is blessed with only limited educational capital. Things are different again for Christine. Her parents’ support proved crucial when she and her husband decided to build a home in Segré in 1981, as part of a condominium of three architect-designed houses around a communal garden, along with two couples of friends. This hand-to-hand gift, which Jacqueline saw as the same as that received by Françoise and the clients given to Jean-Paul, was not the only economic transfer Christine benefitted from: with Alain and her having difficulty repaying their loan, Jacqueline gave them several interest free loans and occasionally gave them money. The transfers received by Christine were thus part of day-to-day mutual support, and rather than enabling her to achieve a professional position providing a certain lifestyle, meant instead that she lived beyond her own means. When I met her in 2002, she and Alain had decided to sell their house to pay off their debts (in particular to Jacqueline), and to live in a company apartment. Christine expressed a desire to acquire the seaside holiday home that Jacqueline owned and that she and Alain used most. She thought that the house’s value was equivalent to a third of her mother’s wealth (which also included a large principal home in Segré and resulting liquid assets), and could be her share of the inheritance. But she feared her sister would refuse to let her have it. Claire tells me about this house:


Well, mum wanted to have it, wanted to buy it. Not buy it, but inherit it and get less money if you like. So … But mum said: “I’m sure Françoise and Paul [Françoise’s husband] will put a spoke in the wheels because it’s too much money, it’ll be too big a share … That it wouldn’t be a fair share.” … And mum’d say of course: “Well, that’s not fair because Françoise and Paul have got plenty of money, and they have nothing to do with the house as they never go, I don’t see what it’s got to do with them.” Mum says: “They’ll oppose it just to annoy us. It’s just to make us feel that they’ve got more money, so they’ve got the power, so we can’t do what we want.”
(January 2002 interview)

19In fact, while Alain and Christine have provided the lineage with heirs who have born the fruit of its cultural capital, they have not been able to pass on their share of the family’s economic assets: they had to sell the house they owned as a result of family help. Françoise, who is in possession of both an economic inheritance and cultural capital, challenges her sister’s position in the lineage and contests her right to inherit a family property. The conflicts between Christine and Françoise about inheritance transfers correspond to competing visions of the course of the lineage, which manifests itself in Françoise’s attempts to “adopt” Sylvain and Claire, the next generation’s legitimate heirs to the lineage. When interviewed, the latter bluntly question whether Françoise and Paul really have the right to “profit” from their success. Claire explains it thus:


When she’s with people, you know, who are high society types, my aunt would readily say … Like, when they were in Brussels, their neighbour was a well known Libération journalist, and all that, they would readily say: “Oh yes, so we …” to show off, to puff themselves up, they might readily say: “Oh yeah, my niece is at the École Normale Supérieure and my nephew’s going to Sciences Po.” You see, because it’s good for them, precisely because, for example, the bloke from Libération would’ve been to Sciences Po, so that means … It benefits them to say “Oh yeah, we know Sciences Po because …” Because what’ve these people got to be proud of? They’re proud of who they are and also of their children. And their children … Well, Tristan’s too little, and Benoît’s too young too: Benoît’s taking his bac next year, so … Well, that’s what my brother means when he says they’re using us, he means that they’re puffing themselves up saying they’ve got a brilliant nephew and niece while my brother Sylvain says: “They don’t deserve it, they’ve done nothing to …” In the end, I mean, it wasn’t them who brought us up … The good genes don’t really come from them, it’s not a matter of … So that’s what I mean when I said: “They use us.” It’s not really using us materially, but basking in the glory of what we can do even though we’re not their children.
(January 2002 interview)

21Claire and Sylvain tell me how Françoise and Paul attempted to “adopt” them (the term Claire used) in various ways, talking about them as if they were their children, suggesting they live with them during the year or on holiday, but also in the more formal sense of patronage:


When I say that we should’ve been Françoise and Paul’s children, it’s not really just an expression, in fact for the last few years … We’ve not been baptised, and a few years ago after a death in their family my parents decided to [find republican godparents for their children]. So these godparents were couples. Claire’s godparents were going to be Françoise and Paul. In fact it didn’t happen, we don’t know much about what the reasons were, but among others she’d just turned eighteen, so it seemed less necessary. And perhaps there was a little crisis, which meant that my parents changed their minds. François and Paul, who’d spent a lot of time and energy on its success, took it very badly.
(Interview with Sylvain, December 2001)

23Wealth transfers are thus caught up in power relations associated with the different roles brothers and sisters occupy in their lineages. These roles are both the result of power relations (the respective roles of Françoise, Jean-Paul and Christine are fought over with the help of unequal weapons), but they are also played very early on (Christine, Jean-Paul and Françoise’s weapons were given to them as a result of the different ways their parents raised and supported them).

“It’s like Salic law, it’s unbelievable!”

24On the ground, the precocity of differing investments children in the same sibship receive is especially noticeable in the particular position reserved for boys. In the Renoir family, after having talked about the transfer of her maternal grandparents’ clientele to her uncle, Claire also tells me this:


Well, if there’s something else that should be added here, it’s that in mum’s family the boys are always preferred to the girls. So we all agree that Jean-Paul’s my grandmother’s favourite son. In the same way, Sylvain’s been mum’s favourite son for a long time. Well, it’s old-fashioned … It’s like Salic law, it’s unbelievable.
(January 2002 interview)

26This affective “preference” for the son, the only son in the first case and the first-born boy in the next generation, reinforces and reproduces the special positions these two men have within the kinship group. Jean-Paul effectively inherited the family business. Sylvain in turn seems to be the most legitimate heir to the lineage. “In the third generation, I’m the heir,” he tells me (December 2001 interview), indicating to me that when Jean-Paul became an estate agent, he introduced his clientele’s buyer to his mother at a dinner at Jacqueline’s, and that Jacqueline asked him to come. The Renoir’s case clearly shows how it is the male “representatives” of the lineage who are designated, albeit through very different means (taking over the family business by the only son and academic success of the eldest grandson). In most of the families I did my fieldwork with, one or two children are thus perceived as the prime representatives of the kinship group. Their social status, or the one that it is hoped they will attain, is presented as evidence of the social status of the lineage as a whole. The interviewees do not always specifically identify members of the group who are effectively the bearers of the status and reputation of the family, by using the term “heir” for example. But, more often, relatives highlight a particular “success,” the fact of having “achieved” something, or having “turned out” particularly well. Often, as with the Renoirs, a child or a grandchild is identified as the “favourite,” which sometimes equates to an interpersonal affective relationship, sometimes to a particular position within the group (each reinforcing the other, insofar as a “preference” is made by a member of an older generation, whose position within the kinship group is therefore relatively dominant).

27In a case where there is a family business, as with the Renoirs, it is the verb “reprendre” in French (“take over”) that is most commonly used in interviews to mean the reproduction of the status of boss of this business. The role of “repreneur” generally equates to the emblematic figure in the lineage: a large part of the social status of the group is dependent on the success of whoever is charged with taking over the family business. Yet, in many families of the self-employed, the handing down of businesses to boys is seen as being self-evident. Ethnographic studies show that boys are the subjects of special socialization, and from a young age, to instil a taste for a profession and for self-employment (Bessière 2010: 53).

28Thus, in the case of a family of bakers, the Pilons, we can observe how all the estate transfers are based around the handing down of the bakery to Pierre, the only son in a sibship of four children, his mother and three sisters unanimously agreeing to this aim: an inter vivos bestowal ensured the transfer of the family business to the son, while the girls shared the household property and only a portion of the business not accounted for in the succession (Gollac 2005). The son’s special position in the wealth transfers is closely linked to being assigned the role of repreneur at an early age, against which the interested party rebels, ultimately becoming a confectioner rather than a baker and thereby transforming the family bakers into a bakery-cake shop (March 2002 interview). One of their nephews explains the differentiated roles that were defined early on within this sibship clearly, recalling the way in which his mother remembered being introduced to his grandmother’s acquaintances:


She would introduce the four of them, so Monique [the eldest] was the intelligent daughter who was studying, Pierre who since he was born, I think knew he was going to take over the bakery … and Rosaline [the youngest] the little young coquettish girl, and my mother, always presented last, the lame duck, poor student and all.
(June 2001 interview)

30Beyond of the families of the self-employed, boys have long had a special place within lineages for legal reasons. In France, until the January 2005 implementation of the 4th March 2002 law, only men could hand down their family name. Ever since, children can bear the name of either of their parents, or both in whichever order they desire (but all children with the same parents much bare the same family name). In the case of disagreement, nevertheless, it was the father’s name that prevailed until recently. [10] At the time of this study, the effects of this law were still not being felt and all the children bore the names of their fathers. Men have long been attributed a special place within a lineage by the possibility of handing down the family name, providing a patrilineal inflection to the French kinship system.

31Éric Le Vennec is a very good example of this. The second son and sixth child in a sibship of seven, he fulfilled his father’s (a salaried construction worker who became a foreman) dream by starting a construction business: having started work in the sector as an employee, he climbed the ladder to become in turn a foreman, then setting up on his own, employing around twenty employees at the beginning of 2000s. He is the only one to hand down the family name: his brother Marc, who preceded him in the birth order and who is the only other boy, has no children (moreover, he is schizophrenic, which prevents him from holding down a steady job). Éric now features in family accounts as the obvious successor to his father, charged by his partner and brothers and sisters with receiving and handing down the family’s wealth and the group’s social status. Thus his sisters themselves describe him as the “patriarchal relay.” Patricia, the fourth in the sibship explains it to me thus:


The patriarchal relay though, nowadays that’s Éric.
Why Éric?
Well, because he’s a boy. And, although there are two boys, it’s him who’s got a good head on his shoulders these days. He’s also produced Le Vennec children: he’s got two boys. They’re the only ones who use the name, who’ll pass on the name.
(December 1998 interview)

33Because they are the potential repreneurs of family businesses and because, until a recently, they were the only ones capable of passing on a family name, men, in each generation, have an especially prominent place within their lineages. This difference between boys and girls is a form, among others, of differentiation of roles of siblings in the task of reproducing or improving family social statuses. However, it should be noted that while male members of kinship groups are often the most iconic characters, there is nothing systematic about this: the male role of “repreneur” or “heir” is a matter of gender rather than biological sex, even though sex contributes greatly to the definition of gender. For example, when a sibship is made up solely of girls or the only child is a girl, this masculine role can be held by a woman. [11] Moreover, the role’s attributes are not indicative of the real power of their holders over the future of a lineage. In the Renoirs’ case, while Jean-Paul did indeed receive the family business and handed down the family name, it is not his children who are the lineage’s legitimate heirs. The efforts the girls put into their educations and their marital choices enabled them to receive, accumulate and pass on cultural capital whose value has considerably increased: in the next generation, it is their children, particularly the boys, who are likely to best represent the lineage. The various roles of brothers and sisters in family social reproduction strategies are revealed and negotiated through specific positions in the system of household wealth transfers between generations, which thus become relatively pertinent indicators.

Inequalities within sibships

34Can statistical evidence be found for the different roles of brothers and sisters at an aggregate level through, in particular, their reflection in terms of intergenerational transfers? Can we reveal the inequalities between siblings with respect to their social destinies and the inheritances they receive and how to interpret these? This is what we shall now attempt to show based on a statistical analysis of the data from the 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey (Box 1).

Box 1. The 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey

The survey on household wealth carried out by INSEE between October 2003 and January 2004 aimed to assess the possession of different types of household assets and liabilities and their value, to describe the professional assets of the self-employed and to retrace the history of household wealth, as well as conjugal and occupational histories of households (e.g., inheritance, couple formation and occupational activity cycles). The survey aims to measure the level of household wealth as well as its composition. In order to favour the study of the household wealth of wealthy households, the self-employed, managers and the retired, along with households living in wealthy neighbourhoods are over-represented. The sample consisted of 13,154 households. 9,692 (73.6%) responded to the survey.

The case of the self-employed: Differentiated socialization at an early age and unequal inheritances

35In the case of the self-employed, it has already been shown that sons have a greater chance of inheriting their parents’ status than daughters, whether that is taking up their parents’ profession or by taking up a new profession. The data from the INSEE “Patrimoine” survey shows that taking over a family business (“la reprise”) is stricto senso even more exclusively a masculine preserve, since being a boy significantly increases the probability of taking over a family business in comparison to setting up on their own in a new sector (Gollac 2009). In the case of families of the self-employed, sex is thus clearly a discriminating criterion for the attribution of the role of “repreneur.” Only daughters with no male competitors are, moreover, the women most likely to be attributed this masculine role despite their sex: 19% of only daughters of the self-employed take over their parents’ business, which is as many as sons of the self-employed as a whole (Table 1).

Table 1

Status of children of the self-employed according to sex and birth order (%)

Table 1
Sex and birth order Proportion self-employed Proportion who are self-employed in the same business sector as their parents Proportion of the self-employed in the same business sector as their parents who are caregivers Men 28.8 19.6 1 Only sons 37.1 24.5 0 First-born sons 29.5 21.2 1.3 Later-born sons 27.3 18.2 1 Women 18.1 12 32.5 Only daughters 27.8 19 28.9 First-born daughters 17.6 11.4 28.9 Later-born daughters 16.8 11.2 35.3

Status of children of the self-employed according to sex and birth order (%)

Field: Household reference people and their partners in French households, where at least one parent is self-employed and owns his tools of the trade.
How to read: 28.8% of men with a self-employed father and/or mother have become self-employed. 19.6% became self-employed in the same sector as their self-employed parent(s). 1% of the latter have become so as a caregiver.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.

36However, it could be hypothesized that it is the self-employment labour market itself that is discriminatory, and that the determination that a repreneur should be male occurs in this market more than it does within families. [12] A minima, the distinct family socialization that boys are subjected to at a young age is linked to the state of the self-employed labour market. Parents undoubtedly more readily socialize their child in their professions when it seems probable to them that this child will take up their profession, which is more often the case when it comes to boys. This is reflected in what the baker’s eldest daughter suggests about Pierre: “There was only him who could take over the bakery.” Zarca talks about the “projective value” (1993: 284) of a child for their parents. She notes: “Thus the strength of a legacy is increased for the benefit of men when their father alone or both parents jointly are self-employed. On the other hand, women are favoured when just a mother, or above all when both parents are in different self-employed professions.” (1993: 290). But, whereas there is inequality in terms of access to self-employment within and outside of families, another type of inequality encourages us to consider the importance of family socialization in determining the status of “repreneur”: the inequality between being first- or later-born. Being first-born has a significantly positive effect on the probability of taking up a parent’s self-employed activity in comparison to being a salaried employee or in comparison to setting up on one’s own in a new sector (Zarca 1993, 1995b; Gollac 2009). An eldest son is thus twice as likely to take up a self-employed parent’s activity than a later-born daughter (Table 1).

37The observed primogeniture effect is all the more remarkable since an absolute primogeniture effect cannot be detected here: a son who has an older sister but is the first-born boy will not appear in our data as the eldest son while, according to ethnographic studies, he is the prospective repreneur (Bourdieu 1980). Moreover, since the 1950s, the self-employed who have reached retirement have been disposed to pass on their businesses to children who have reached a sufficient age to take on a business at the time when their father officially ceases to work, and these children are not necessarily the eldest sons. [13] It is, therefore, remarkable that the effect of primogeniture on family business take-overs is statistically perceptible, whereas male primogeniture is only partially captured and this effect is undoubtedly less evident today than it was before.

38For the self-employed, the early choice of a “repreneur,” most often the eldest son, leads to a specific position in estate transfers: the “repreneur” is the person who receives the productive assets, the remainder of the estate is arranged around this requirement (Gollac 2005; Bessière 2010). For the self-employed who come from sibships, the estate transfers received by the first-born son, therefore more often include professional assets, while those received by girls and younger siblings more often consist of money (Table 2).

Table 2

Type of estate transfers received according to the sex and birth order of the inheritor (%)

Table 2
A proportion of transfers consist of… Housing Land Professional assets Money Transfers received by… Self-employed parents Employed parents Self-employed parents Employed parents Self-employed parents Self-employed parents Employed parents An only son 70.0 63.9 36.6 23.4 22.5 17.2 30.7 An only daughter 73.4 58.3 36.0 13.4 15.1 23.9 40.0 A first-born son 51.3 48.4 43.5 14.3 17.4 29.3 44.0 A first-born daughter 44.0 42.4 30.2 13.9 5.9 37.2 52.1 A later-born son 43.4 35.0 38.3 16.8 10.3 33.9 57.7 A later-born daughter 41.0 37.4 34.7 13.0 4.7 41.2 53.4

Type of estate transfers received according to the sex and birth order of the inheritor (%)

Field: All estate transfers from ancestors received by French households.
How to read: 70% of transfers from ancestors received by only sons of self-employed parents consist in particular of housing.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.

39It might be suggested that, for the self-employed, this differential treatment of children, consisting of preferentially socializing a single child to take over a family business, the prospective heir to the family’s productive assets, is closely tied to the necessity of preserving the integrity of this inheritance and the unity of a family business. This integrity is always endangered by the legal requirement for parents to pass on equal shares to each of their children. Only children are thus significantly more likely to be self-employed, an only child not having to share his/her parents’ inheritance. Moreover, a single son focuses his parents’ efforts to pass on their economic and other assets, and any decision by parents to have only one child may be linked to a desire to perpetuate their business and not to risk dispersing the family inheritance. [14] In a number of families of the self-employed, it is the limitation of the number of offspring so as not to disperse the inheritance that outweighs the expectation of having a male child repreneur. [15] In both cases, the transmission of self-employment is subject to the handing down of productive assets to a single descendant (with the exception of large family businesses, where shares and management roles can be distributed among several descendants).

The first-born son: The favoured heir of salaried parents

40Whilst inheritance transfers bear the mark here of differentiated forms of asset transmission to children, only a single one person being socialized to the “reprise,” it was because of the specific characteristics of self-employed families. However, among salaried employees too, not all children benefit from the same types of inheritances: those destined for the eldest son are often a home, those destined for daughters and later-born siblings are more commonly limited to money (Table 2). The difference between a first-born and later-born child can mask differences between children in small sibships and children in large families, later-born children having a greater chance of belonging to a large sibship: [16] in these large sibships it is frequently necessary to liquidate the inheritance to share it in equal parts. It is, therefore, difficult to establish whether the observed differences between first-born and later-born children are linked to birth order or to the number of siblings. This bias can be avoided by introducing sibship size to the explanatory variables of a logistic regression on the nature of inheritances received. We then see that the inheritances received by first-born sons have a significantly greater chance of consisting of a home, while they are statistically less likely to consist of money (Table 3). Anne Gotman also noted the particular role of first-born children in the sharing of inheritance: “Thus, it is not uncommon for a family to spontaneously reserve, if not a real advantage, at least first choice, for their first-born. On the other hand the first-born himself feels invested with a special role of transmitter. They are the ones who immediately follow a parent of the same sex, they are in some way their representatives ahead of their younger siblings, their successors.” (1988: 175). [17]

Table 3

Regressions on the types of inheritances received according to sex and birth order of the inheritor

Table 3
Characteristics of inheritance Housing Land Asset for professional use Money Self employed parents Employed parents Self employed parents Employed parents Self employed parents Employed parents Self-employed parents Employed parents Constant 0.32*** -0.35*** -0.31** -1.56*** -1.65*** – -1.19*** 0.11 Sibship size -0.19*** -0.09*** -0.05** -0.01 -0.18*** – 0.16*** 0.07*** Inheritor’s sex and birth order in the sibship First-born son 0.12 0.45*** 0.16*** -0.21 0.44** – -0.03 -0.47*** First-born daughter -0.20 0.21 -0.43 -0.24 -0.79*** – 0.36** -0.15 Later-born daughter -0.10 0.09 -0.16 -0.30** -0.85*** – 0.33*** 0.16 Later-born son ref. ref. ref. ref. ref. – ref. ref.

Regressions on the types of inheritances received according to sex and birth order of the inheritor

Field: All estate transfers from ascendants received by individuals having one or more sibling.
How to read: A binary logit model is used. A transfer having a given characteristic would be more or less likely to consist of housing than a transfer having the reference characteristic if the coefficient associated with this characteristic is positive or negative.
*** significant at the 1% threshold; ** significant at the 5% threshold; * significant at the 10% threshold.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.

41However, in the absence of a family business, it seems difficult to define a place within a sibship or a group of descendants that would be equivalent to that of a “repreneur” in families of the self-employed. What would enable us to characterize the child who bears the social status of the lineage? Gaining a high-level salaried position thanks to substantial educational capital could be the counterpart to taking over a family business, as the case of the Renoir family suggests, in which we saw a conversion of investment in the handing down of the family business to that of educational capital (Bourdieu 1978). The bearer of the kinship group’s social status thus becomes he or she whose education their parents invest most in. Several studies demonstrate precisely this; that parents invest to different degrees in their children’s educations.

42In a survey of 300 Swiss families with a 13-year-old child living with both parents, Jean Kellerhals and Cléopâtre Montandon were interested, in particular, in the educational ambitions parents had for their children. Levels of aspiration did not seem to vary much according to a child’s sex, even when the chosen sectors were different: when aspirations are not very great, parents aspire for more tertiary education in lower reaches of the occupational hierarchy for girls (for instance as secretaries) and more for manual jobs for boys; managerial parents envisage more engineering training for boys and more literary curricula, such as a “law degree,” for girls (Kellerhals and Montandon 1991: 68-74). A more recent study by Marie Gouyon and Sophie Guérin based on the “Éducation et Famille” (“Education and family”) component of the INSEE “Enquête Permanente sur les Conditions de Vie des Ménages” (“Longitudinal survey on household living conditions”) (2003) shows that parents have many different educational ambitions for boys and girls: boys are thus more likely to intend taking a scientific baccalaureate. Moreover, parents give more schoolwork autonomy to girls and are more involved in guiding boys (Gouyon and Guérin 2006). These differing ambitions and investments result in different educational and social achievements. The observations of greater success among girls at school, has not prevented, until recently, fewer girls than boys from having a degree that is higher than a bac + 2 years university. The figures from the 2007 INSEE “Emploi” (“Employment”) survey show that it was only among the under-45s that there were more women than men with this type of qualification. [18] We know that women always lean towards less profitable subjects (Rosenwald 2006), those more literary and less scientific. These inclinations, which we have seen are less controlled by parents than those of boys, lead to less elevated personal occupational trajectories. As with the transmission of self-employed status, these data are difficult to interpret in terms of position within a kinship group: we know that the different educational trajectories of girls and boys also play a large role at school, just as occupational discrimination of women is, in large part, the result of a process that takes shape in the labour market.

43Things are a little different when it comes to birth order. In 1981, Desplanques established a relationship between sibship seniority and level of qualification achieved, for girls and boys. Kellerhals and Montandon (1991) highlight in turn the influence of birth order on parents’ educational ambitions. For boys, only and first-born children are more often destined for a university career than later-born siblings: 56% of only children, 55% of first-borns and 26% of later-borns. For girls, there are substantial expectations of only children: 70% go on to university against 39% on average for first- and later-born siblings, with no clear difference depending on birth order. Our analysis of the “Patrimoine” survey shows that the effect of birth order on educational success is still appreciable, whether in terms of a university degree in general or a second degree, postgraduate degree or a Grande École degree: where age, sex, sibship size, mother and father’s occupation and parents’ personal assets are equal, being an only child or an eldest child significantly increases, at the 1% threshold, the chance of having this type of qualification for children of salaried employees (Gollac 2011: 285). This is not the case for children of the self-employed. Among children of salaried employees, a graduate child would be the structural homologue of the “repreneur” among the children of self-employed parents. Without pushing the comparison too far, it seems clear that sex and birth order have an influence on investment in the educations of children in employee families, just as they have an influence on early socialization at work and on setting up on their own in self-employed families. Zarca’s work on “inheritance and social mobility in sibships” shows, as Desplanques did, that mostly first-borns succeed better than later-borns (Zarca 1995a, 1995b). The updating of these results by the same author based on data from the last fifteen years, shows that inequality has declined a little, but that, above all, correspond less to the reproduction of a father’s occupation by the first-born boy or the mother’s by the first-born girl. The smaller —though still significant —impact of the legacy of parents’ social status on the respective statuses of brothers and sisters is largely due to the acceleration in changes to the structure of male and female employment (Zarca 1999). It seems, thus, that the child who bears a lineage’s social status among employees is not so much he or she who reproduces the same status as their father as he or she who succeeds in education. But the latter is more often the eldest son, as evidenced by the gross difference in level of qualifications and socio-occupational category between first-born sons and daughters and later-born sons: 14.7% of first-born sons have a better than bac + 2 qualification as opposed to 9.8% of later-born sons; 20.6% of the former are managers against 15.0% of the latter (Tables 4 and 5).

Table 4

Educational qualification according to sex and birth order (%)

Table 4
Highest educational qualification Sex and birth order Noqualification CAP DFEO CAP BEP BEPC Technical Bac General Bac Undergraduate degree, DOT, BTS Postgraduate, Grande École Only son 11.2 15.7 21.7 7.5 4.5 10.8 10.6 18.0 Only daughter 11.6 18.0 16.3 10.9 4.3 13.0 14.1 11.8 First-born son 14.1 13.6 29.1 4.4 6.3 8.3 9.5 14.7 First-born daughter 14.0 14.9 20.3 7.0 5.9 11.5 13.9 12.6 Later-born son 19.9 15.5 31.7 4.6 5.3 6.2 7.0 9.8 Later-born daughter 21.0 19.1 21.4 8.0 3.9 8.5 9.3 8.9

Educational qualification according to sex and birth order (%)

Field: All French household reference people and their partners.
How to read: 11.2% of only sons have no qualifications.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.
Table 5

Socio-occupational category according to sex and birth order (%)

Table 5
Socio-occupational category Sex and birth order No occupation Agricultural worker Craftsman, shopkeeper, Company director Manager Intermediate occupation Employee Manual labourer Only son 1.1 6.4 10.1 25.9 22.5 12.4 21.6 Only daughter 6.2 5.4 7.0 12.5 21.7 38.1 9.1 First-born son 1.5 5.2 9.1 20.6 23.2 11.4 29.0 First-born daughter 6.6 3.4 5.3 9.1 21.6 40.8 13.1 Later-born son 0.9 4.4 10.2 15.0 20.0 10.9 38.7 Later-born daughter 6.5 3.7 5.1 7.1 16.6 46.0 15.0

Socio-occupational category according to sex and birth order (%)

Field: All French household reference people and their partners.
How to read: 1.1% of only sons have no occupation.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.

44While these differences that are visible to the naked eye should be read with caution, in particular because of potential for later-born siblings to belong to larger sibships and to less favoured social environments, [19] they clearly show that the transmissions required to reproduce or improve social status, including cultural capital, are “rival” goods in the sense used by economists: undoubtedly because they are not self-creating but require time and money—which are not indefinitely available, their effectiveness diminishing with the number of children, and they can be concentrated on an individual to ensure a family’s success though the individual’s personal success.

The “good fortune of being the first-born”?

45The consequences of differentiated inheritances are, however, ambiguous. Ethnographic studies on the role of the family in educational success show the complex effects of sibship size and sex as well as birth order on the forms and intensity of investments of time and money by parents, brothers and sisters and other family members in the educational success of a child: whereas a boy or a first-born might be bearer of his parents’ aspirations, a younger sibling can also benefit from help from his elders, a girl can transform the social control that restricts her from going out and her leisure activities into an educational asset (Lahire 1995; Lignier 2012). The effect of economic transfers on the differences between elder and younger siblings is even more difficult to define when the transfers are shared equally, since elder siblings receive them at an older age. Parents’ wealth increases with age. At the point when they acquire the means to support their children, later-born siblings are younger and therefore in a better position to fully profit from this support. This is especially the case with estate transfers: inheritances received by eldest siblings are handed down to them when they are on average 48-years-old, against 43-years-old for younger siblings, and they receive personal donations at respectively 38- and 35-years-old. If the difference is smaller for personal donations, this is because they favour some eldest siblings. Thus, only children and eldest sons are over-represented among the recipients of personal donations (14.5% of the recipients of personal donations provided by parents against 11.3% of the recipients of parental inheritances, according to the data from the “Patrimoine” survey). Moreover, we know that the identification of children as embodying the hopes for social success of their lineage has long-term effects on the inequality of economic transfers, favouring the eldest: Jean-Hugues Déchaux and Nicolas Herpin (2004) thus show that upwardly mobile children receive more support from their parents.

46But, ultimately, in terms of accumulation of residential property, there does not seem to be much strong discrimination between first-born and later-born siblings: while 64.2% of eldest sons receive some residential property against 63.2% of younger siblings, the difference is the opposite for daughters, 57.3% of the eldest being homeowners against 58.9% of younger siblings (Table 6). These differences, which are statistically significant [20] at the 5% threshold, are even more limited if we limit ourselves to ownership of the principal residence. However, as we have seen, estate transfers consisting of a home go to the eldest son as a priority (Table 3). The benefits drawn from these privileged transfers are partially compensated for by their lateness. In contrast to those received on average at a younger age by younger siblings, estate transfers received by eldest sons do not assist with the early acquisition of a principal residence. The figures appear more clearly in their favour when it comes to ownership of other housing (a second home or an investment property): 18.1% of them receive these against 16.2% of younger male siblings and 14.1% of younger female siblings. These homes are perhaps acquired through transfers that are too late to help with homeownership, but are nevertheless valued as the acquisition or conservation of a distinctive good, a “family home.”

Table 6

Housing inheritance according to sex and birth order

Table 6
Percentage of individuals who are owners of… Sex and birth order residential property their principal residence another residential property Only son 69.2 63.4 23.9 Only daughter 67.0 61.3 23.0 First-born son 64.2 58.7 18.1 First-born daughter 57.3 52.9 15.9 Later-born son 63.2 58.8 16.2 Later-born daughter 58.9 54.5 14.1

Housing inheritance according to sex and birth order

Field: All French household reference people and their partners.
How to read: 69.2% of only sons own some residential property, whatever its use. 63.4% are owners of their principal residence and 23.9% own another residential property.
Source: 2003-04 INSEE “Patrimoine” survey.

47* * *

48The study of asset transfers between generations thus reveals the preferential attribution of certain elements of a family’s household wealth, namely professional assets in the case of self-employed families and residential property in families of salaried employees who have managed to accumulate these. These particular transfers correspond to specific social destinies, indicators of the differentiated roles of girls and boys and of first- and later-born siblings in family reproduction strategies. Thus, within families, not all benefit from the same type of investments and transfers, not all experience the same educational and occupational success. Younger siblings are the favoured recipients of early financial transfers, while the oldest siblings are charged with plans for upward social mobility, which increases their income expectations and predestines them to receive, albeit belatedly, the family property. Only children receive both these different resources. This does not mean that we should interpret the result of the statistical or ethnographic studies as evidence of the existence of an immutable rule of primogeniture governing the passing on of family businesses or, more broadly, family reproduction and social mobility strategies. The effect of being the first-born on taking over a family business or on educational and occupational achievement, like the distinctive fates of only children, does not so much mean we can demonstrate the existence of a structural rule of primacy of the first-born as it means we can show that a “structured system of positions,” to use Bernard Vernier’s (1991) expression, exists within families.

49Studying this system of positions reveals that intergenerational transmissions are based on inequalities within each generation. In particular, studying asset transfers brings to light the differing treatment of children in the same sibship, including, above all, when it comes to the passing on of cultural capital: in addition to the historic transformation of the foundations of social stratification, what is available to hand down to reproduce or improve social status remains a “rival” good to be shared between brothers and sisters.

50The statistical evidence for inequality depending on sex and birth order is only made sense of in light of the ethnographic material. The latter guides analysis of the quantitative data that are necessarily incomplete (family configurations are known to greater or lesser extent, and, in any case, taking their diversity into account always leads to reaching limits of representativeness). In particular, it gives meaning to the figures by revealing what the differing treatment of children by parents means in terms of relations between brothers and sisters. It also recreates a system of relations in which more than two generations are involved: in response to long-term historical changes (in particular the changes in the respective importance of economic and cultural capital for defining social status), the differing trajectories of brothers and sisters in comparison to their parents are revealed and play a significant role in the fates of their own children, even in their relations with nephews and nieces. Conversely, the statistical study of national data sheds new light on the ethnographic study. It enables us, for example, to measure the disruption to economic transfer mechanisms that stems from coming from a self-employed background: among children of self-employed parents, the bearer of the family lineage’s social status is the favoured recipient of professional assets, while among children of salaried parents it is the residential property they receive more often than others. Thus, we can shed light on the significance of interviewees’ replies. For example, the daughter of chartered accountants, married to a schoolteacher and whose children are brilliant students, focussing today on her parents’ second home rather than the future of their client list taken on by her brother. Here the statistical analysis attests to the socially and historically situated character of these responses, which correspond well with a conversion of the lineage’s capital over three generations, reflective of her family’s self-employed background. The statistical study, moreover, reveals determinants that are less obvious in the case studies, but which frequently prove fundamental, such as sibship size. The combination of statistical and ethnographic studies, through the give-and-take between the different methods (Weber 1995), therefore provides greater breadth and depth to the study of intergenerational transmissions.

51Consequently, this study invites us to look at two problems, which are currently neglected or rarely looked at by sociologists, including those working on relations between generations. The first is the study of fertility strategies and their vagaries in terms of social class, a study that is indispensable for understanding the differing treatment of descendants by ascendants according to sex, birth order and sibship size. The second is the effect of upheavals in conjugal relations, in particular a progressive weakening of them, on the modes of transmission of economic assets as well as educational and social capital. The work carried out on this second objective would also contribute to “thickening” a lineage by taking into account the strength of the parental couple doing the transmission.


  • [*]
    The author would like to thank the readers from the Revue Française de Sociologie and the editors of this issue for their patient rereads and their comments on the different versions of this article, which have greatly contributed to its improvement. She would also like to thank Nicolas Jounin for his criticisms and suggestions. She is, of course, solely responsible for any errors and omissions that remain in the text.
  • [1]
    This exclusive nature is particularly clear in France: over 96% of the wealthiest half of households own property, while only 0.5% of households among the poorest quarter of the French population own property (Gollac 2011:105-6). In France, in effect, the majority own property, but it is not as common as in other Western countries. At the beginning of the 2000s, around 56% of French households owned their homes, which placed France a long way behind Spain (82.2%) and to a lesser extent Italy (71.4%), the United Kingdom (71.0%) and the United States (65.4%), but ahead of Germany (42.0%) and at roughly the same level as Japan (54%).
  • [2]
    In economics, a “rival” good is a good the consumption of which by an individual prevents its consumption by another. In contrast, “non-rival” goods, such as street lighting, are those the consumption of which does not prevent consumption by others.
  • [3]
    As regards the families of the self-employed, I use the terminology suggested by Céline Bessière (2003), calling someone who becomes head of a family business and who thus becomes the privileged representative of the lineage’s social status, a “repreneur.” This term is preferred to the term “inheritor” (Bourdieu 1972) or “successor” (Augustins 1989), in order to avoid any confusion with he or she who receives an estate transfer.
  • [4]
    For an overview of the pros and cons of these analyses of social mobility through correlations between the occupations of fathers (rather than mothers) and sons (rather than daughters) see Merlin and Prévot (1997).
  • [5]
    For an example of the successful use of family monographs to analyse contemporary kinship relations see Weber, Gojard and Gramain (2003). This approach was inspired by early English ethnographic surveys of Western kinship (Firth 1956; Willmott and Young [1957] 1986). For a discussion of the relationship between survey methods (family monographs or individual interviews) and theoretical issues, see Gollac (2006).
  • [6]
    In order to respect the anonymity of respondents the names of people and places have been changed. However, we chose, on the one hand, names whose frequency among the general population born in the same year was equal to actual names (Coulmont 2011) and, on the other, place names whose distances between them are approximately equal to the real distances.
  • [7]
    The number of siblings and birth order are declarative: they can only take into account whether or not a respondent is a half-brother or -sister or a step-brother or -sister depending on the status that the individual respondent declares.
  • [8]
    Here we mean strategy in François Héran’s sense: “A strategy exists from the moment when a participant, rather than taking a decision at every turn, anticipates future moves (consistently over time), divides them up according to a rule (consistently in space) and consequently follows a line of behaviour. It matters not whether he does this consciously or otherwise: the key is consistency. A strategy is therefore what is assumed to be behind practices once they are directed towards the same end.” (1990: 76).
  • [9]
    On the question of the role of studies in meeting a partner and the effects of extending studies on the choice of partner, see Bozon and Héran (1988), Mignot (2010), Bozon and Rault (2012).
  • [10]
    The “bill extending marriage to same sex couples,” adopted by the National Assembly on 23rd April 2013 and opening adoption to homosexual couples, has challenged this unequal rule. It provides that, in the case of disagreement, the names of both parents will be joined in alphabetic order. On the issues surrounding the onomastic system and its evolution see Fine and Ouellette (2005).
  • [11]
    I have shown elsewhere, based on the case of the Le Vennec family, how sons and daughters can hold feminine and masculine roles respectively (Gollac 2011: 364-74). For an analysis of the case of female “repreneuses” of winegrowing businesses in the Cognac region, see Bessière (2003). Work on female graduates from Écoles Normales in science (Ferrand, Imbert and Marry 1999) and engineering (Marry 2004) also highlights the particularity of family structures from which these women who are involved in masculine sectors come, and whose academic careers have been heavily invested in by parents.
  • [12]
    For a measurement and analysis of the discrimination encountered by women in the self-employed labour market see Fouquet (2005).
  • [13]
    Dominique Jacques-Jouvenot has demonstrated this in the case of livestock farmers (1997: 85-9) and Céline Bessière in the case of winegrowers in the Cognac region (2006: 318-23).
  • [14]
    In his work on peasants from Béarn in the 1950s Bourdieu has shown how fertility strategies could contribute to resolving issues regarding the handing down of professional assets: “Parents can influence the deal by limiting the number of cards once they are happy with the cards they are dealt: from the size of the capital to the order the cards appear, that is to say the biological chance that the first-born is a boy or a girl … in the first case the number of children can be limited to one and not in the other case.” ([1972] 2002: 191). This sequential hypothesis linked to the first-born’s sex has not, however, been proven by statistical studies. Moreover, few studies can be found on fertility practices according to socio-occupational category in contemporary France, even fewer studies examine the size of sibships according to the sex of siblings and their birth order, despite a few studies on the sex ratio of births (see, for example, Brian and Jaisson 2007). In an article specifically dedicated to the reproductive behaviour of the self-employed, Laurent Toulemon notes, however, that farmers had greater fertility rates than the population as a whole, while craftsmen, shopkeepers, company directors and liberal professionals had lower fertility rates. The number of children they have is, however, greater than those in intermediate occupations and managerial employees (Toulemon 1998: 37).
  • [15]
    We should, however, be careful when a posteriori interpreting the composition of sibships in terms of deliberate fertility strategies of parents. Not only, in its construction, do strategy failures disappear from the analysis, but only children are also interpreted as the fruit of offspring limitation strategies, whereas they could be the result, as with large families, of the vagaries of biological reproduction (thus here we encounter, among the families interviewed, cases of only children whose parents would have liked to have provided brothers and sisters to, as well as many “rhythm method” children).
  • [16]
    The reasoning is simple. Take, for example, a group made up of a sibship of two children and another of four children. If you pick a first-born child at random, he has a one in two chance of belonging to the large sibship while if you pick a later-born child at random they have four in five chance of belonging to this larger sibship.
  • [17]
    She also demonstrated the gendered nature of the distribution of objects: jewels go to girls first and foremost as well as linens, crockery, cleaning items, silverware and sewing tools; weapons, hunting rifles and knives, military decorations, tools and collectors’ books go first and foremost to boys (Gotman 1988: 162-8).
  • [18]
  • [19]
    The few studies on fertility depending on social environment show that manual labourers and agricultural workers have, on average, more children than other social categories (Toulemon 1998: 37).
  • [20]
    According to a classic Chi2 test.

Based on statistical and ethnographic data, this article examines intergenerational transmission inequalities according to sex and sibship birth order, beginning with an analysis of asset transfers from one generation to another. Later-born siblings prove to be the favoured recipients of early financial transfers, while plans for social mobility are invested in first-born sons, which increases their income expectations and predestines them to receive the family property, albeit belatedly. Only children, whether male or female, receive both these different resources. Effectively, inequality in terms of inheritance reflects specific positions in social reproduction strategies, as revealed by the unequal educational and work achievements of boys and girls, and first-born and later-born siblings. An analysis of asset transfers from generation to generation thus reveals the differentiated treatment of children in the same sibship, above all when it comes to passing on cultural capital. Despite changes in the role of inheritance in social stratification, that which can be passed on to reproduce or improve social status remains a “rival” good that is shared between brothers and sisters in a more or less equal fashion.


  • inequality
  • birth order
  • gender
  • inheritance
  • social mobility


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Sibylle Gollac
Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l’Économie (IDHE)
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre-La Défense–CNRS
200, avenue de la République
92001 Nanterre cedex
Translated by
Toby Matthews
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