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1Scientific study of discrimination in France has developed considerably in the last twenty years, and most of this literature is either theoretical-conceptual or quantitative. Quantitative analyses are based on data from public statistics surveys (the Étude de l’histoire familiale [Family history], Générations, formation et qualification professionnelle [Training and job qualification], Emploi [Employment] surveys) and ad hoc discrimination testing or broad sample surveys (the most recent survey in this category is Trajectoires et Origines). In addition, a considerable number of personal accounts have been published in the French press. However, there are still few academic studies of the experience of discrimination as reported by those who undergo it. [1]

2The first strength of this work, therefore, is its general overview of the everyday experience of discrimination as reported by women and members of sexual and ethnic minorities. This “return on experience,” as it were, helps sharpen our understanding of the mechanisms and issues involved in discrimination. The book is concerned with how people experience and respond to discrimination, how they decode it, and the strategies they use to cope with it; also how those experiences are integrated into their trajectories, and what social spheres produce discrimination. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of this multi-faceted experience.

3The first chapter, deliberately set off from the main focus of the book, presents an experience of “total discrimination” of the sort that may crush individuality and lead to intense anger and withdrawal, invading a person’s entire existence and becoming “a premise for understanding the world.” The example is Nordine, a young man from the ghetto for whom much of life comes down to his experience of racism and discrimination and the all-consuming anger it provokes in him. For Nordine, everything that happens is due to racist discrimination; his is “an organized vision of history, society and his own identity” that allows of no change or progress. Nordine has been totally crushed, annihilated by a series of humiliations and stigmatizations. The discourse here is composed entirely of suffering and exclusion. And the young man’s response is withdrawal – radical internal exile in an attempt to hide and, if possible, escape or deny the stigma. His experience is total in that it demands permanent self-control: the stigmatized person who accepts society’s norms is crushed by shame and denial of identity.

4The second chapter theorizes four types of experience that involve a distinction between discrimination and stigmatization. That distinction is presented as new in that it differs from theories of domination holding that discrimination proceeds out of stigmatization in a world whose social norms create relations of domination. The range of possible relations between the two phenomena is logically presented by means of a double-entry table that generates four cases: strong stigmatization and strong discrimination; strong stigmatization and weak discrimination; weak stigmatization and strong discrimination; weak stigmatization and weak discrimination. While the first combination (strong stigmatization and strong discrimination), corresponds to many situations and is predictable, the second (stigmatization without discrimination) is less convincing. Most of the examples cited for it are stigmatized persons with low qualifications; the authors claim that these persons’ difficulties on the job market are explained more fully by their low educational attainment than their skin colour or origin – despite the fact that they are subjected to racism and denigration. That claim is debatable, because respondents clearly report experiences of ostracism, either verbal or situational, and in some cases insults manifesting a disparaging view of their person and abilities. It seems fairly likely that all this will also trigger negative hiring decisions. And yet the authors are of the opinion that low positions or, conversely, relatively high social capital protect individuals from discriminatory treatment. This is a matter of interpretation, and we may reasonably disagree. The third situation (discrimination without stigmatization) is primarily found for women. Here the authors explain that the penalties for women on the job market do not necessarily imply stigmatization. But once again, the frequency with which women respondents report experiences of sexist prejudice and behaviours suffices to call that interpretation into doubt.

5The next three chapters discuss the individual dimension of the experience of discrimination and the effects such experience has on those subjected to it. Different possible responses to discrimination are described, as well as the impact of personal trajectory on experience; that is, whether the respondent is an immigrant or belongs to the second generation; whether or not he or she has experienced upward mobility; whether or not he or she lives in an ethno-racial community, etc. The authors stress how difficult it is to speak about the experience of discrimination, how destabilizing it is. Nonetheless, victims of discrimination are not passive; they have several strategies for resisting and dodging.

6Chapters 6 and 7 analyse the experience of discrimination at work, in school, and in hospital. The authors establish an opposition between the last two institutions: the hospital is understood to be relatively discrimination free because patients are treated as singular individuals whereas school elicits strong feelings of injustice related to the institution’s tendency to rank students and reproduce social inequalities.

7The last two chapters raise the question of discrimination in the more specific spheres of cultural industries and politics, officially neutral to differences though, according to the authors, they fail to take sufficient account of diversity. Whereas in cultural industries some diversity is observed in the roles represented, the political sphere remains impenetrable, leaving little room to newcomers, though running minority group candidates and getting them elected is now a political strategy. The last chapter reveals respondents’ poor opinion of anti-discrimination associations and the principle of positive discrimination.

8The work is an excellent introduction to the experience of discrimination and offers a wide-ranging, transversal perspective on a subject that to a large extent is still to be explored in the social sciences. It has the merits of being extremely clear, readily accessible, and of granting considerable space to actors’ personal accounts. The issue of discrimination is handled quite fully. Still, there are weaknesses inherent in those strengths. Given the extremely broad perspective on the experience of discrimination, there can be no detailed study in terms of specific contexts and social groups. Because the book studies such a wide range of groups, it does not sufficiently stress potential differences in discrimination experiences by membership group. While the experiences of women, ethno-racial minorities and sexual minorities are surely similar to some extent, those groups occupy quite different positions in social space. The categories they represent are perceived differently, and they do not all have the same institutional or organizational leverage. The book also seems to move too quickly from one subject to another, not taking the time needed to fully grasp the circumstances leading to a particular experience of discrimination. And it is regrettable that the authors are not more attentive to the theoretical section; the ideas in it might have been used more fully to structure discussion. The effect is to reify the logic of interactions between discrimination and stigmatization when in fact both should be thought of as processes produced by the social contexts they are a part of. This being said, the work raises several important issues and constitutes an incentive to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the experience of discrimination through new research.


  • [1]
    See the “Discriminations ressenties et inégalités sociales” research programme (Agora no. 57, 2011); also several Trajectoires et Origines post-surveys on experienced discrimination; for example, Mireille Eberhard and Marguerite Cognet, 2013, “Composer avec le racisme: postures stratégiques de jeunes adultes descendants de migrants,” Migrations Société 25, no. 147-148, pp. 221-234, and Maud Lesné, 2013, “La transition verse l’âge adulte: une période critique d’exposition aux discriminations,” Migrations Société 25, no. 147-148, pp. 205-219.
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