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Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class

Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class

by Michèle Lamont

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Drawing on remarkably frank, in-depth interviews with 160 successful men in the United States and France, Michèle Lamont provides a rare and revealing collective portrait of the upper-middle class—the managers, professionals, entrepreneurs, and experts at the center of power in society. Her book is a subtle, textured description of how these men define the


Drawing on remarkably frank, in-depth interviews with 160 successful men in the United States and France, Michèle Lamont provides a rare and revealing collective portrait of the upper-middle class—the managers, professionals, entrepreneurs, and experts at the center of power in society. Her book is a subtle, textured description of how these men define the values and attitudes they consider essential in separating themselves—and their class—from everyone else.

Money, Morals, and Manners is an ambitious and sophisticated attempt to illuminate the nature of social class in modern society. For all those who downplay the importance of unequal social groups, it will be a revelation.

"A powerful, cogent study that will provide an elevated basis for debates in the sociology of culture for years to come."—David Gartman, American Journal of Sociology

"A major accomplishment! Combining cultural analysis and comparative approach with a splendid literary style, this book significantly broadens the understanding of stratification and inequality. . . . This book will provoke debate, inspire research, and serve as a model for many years to come."—R. Granfield, Choice

"This is an exceptionally fine piece of work, a splendid example of the sociologist's craft."—Lewis Coser, Boston College

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University of Chicago Press
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Morality and Society Series
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Money, Morals, and Manners

The Culture of the French and American Upper-Middle Class

By Michèle Lamont

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92259-1



Sans considération, sans pitié, sans pudeur autour de moi, grands et laids, on a bâti des murs. —C. P. Cavafy

Without consideration, without compassion, shamelessly, around me, tall and ugly, they have built walls.


How do people get access to valued professional resources such as well-paying jobs, interesting assignments, and promotions? Degrees, seniority, and experience are essential, but also important are being supported by a mentor, being included in networks of camaraderie, and receiving informal training. Getting access to these informal resources largely depends on sharing a valued cultural style. Indeed, research shows that managers favor employees who resemble them culturally, and that corporate success partly depends on making other managers "comfortable" by conforming in cultural matters and not "standing out."

The present study explores the cultural categories through which the upper-middle class defines valued cultural styles. This task is a particularly important one because upper-middle-class members tend to control the allocation of many of the resources most valued in advanced industrial societies. Moreover, the mass media and the advertising industry constantly offer upper-middle-class culture as a model to members of other classes, who often come to emulate it or to define their identities against it. Despite the influence of upper-middle-class culture in the United States and elsewhere, and despite the fact that much has been written on resistance to dominant culture, the latter has rarely been submitted to close scrutiny.

What is primarily at issue here is the nature of the criteria that people use to define and discriminate between worthy and less worthy persons, i.e., between "their sort of folks" and "the sort they don't much like." To identify these criteria I scrutinize symbolic boundaries—the types of lines that individuals draw when they categorize people—and high-status signals—the keys to our evaluative distinctions. More specifically, different ways of believing that "we" are better than "them" are compared by analyzing both the standards that underlie status assessments and the characteristics of symbolic boundaries themselves—their degree of rigidity, for instance. This contributes to developing a more adequate and complex view of status, i.e., of the salience of various status dimensions across contexts. It also helps us to understand how societies and social classes differ culturally. By contrasting the cultures of members of the French and American upper-middle classes, we will see that the disapproval that New Yorkers often express toward Midwestern parochialism, the frequent criticisms that the French address to American puritan moralism, the scorn that businessmen voice toward intellectualism, and the charges that social and cultural specialists frequently make against materialism and business interests can be interpreted as specific instances of a pervasive phenomenon (i.e., as boundary work) rather than as incommensurable manifestations of national character, political attitudes, regionalism, etc. Using the framework presented here, it will be possible to view prejudices and stereotypes as the supraindividual byproducts of basic social processes that are shaped by the cultural resources that people have at their disposal and by the structural situations they live in.

The book studies upper-middle-class culture using the comparative method, on the assumption that cultural differences—the shock of otherness—will make valued cultural traits salient. The analysis is based on 160 semidirected interviews conducted with a random stratified sample of male college-graduate professionals, managers, and businessmen living in and around Indianapolis, New York, Paris, and Clermont-Ferrand, the regional metropolis of an agricultural département in the Massif Central that is not unlike Indianapolis (for a comparison see Appendix II). I focus on France and the United States because, being a Quebecer, I am an outsider to both cultures, and yet I know both of them from the inside, having lived in France and the United States for four and five years, respectively, at the time I conducted the interviews. Furthermore, as I will argue below, French and American cultures show somewhat different formal characteristics that illuminate important theoretical issues.

I have chosen to interview white male members of the upper-middle class because these individuals still hold most of the powerful positions in the workplace and are likely to have influence as gatekeepers. With the goal of exploring gender differences in boundary work, however, I also conducted fifteen interviews with female professionals, managers, and businesswomen residing in the New York suburbs. Gender differences will be briefly discussed toward the end of the book, even though more interviews are needed before firm conclusions can be reached. Future research should also consider differences in the boundary work of whites and the growing number of minority upper-middle-class members.

Experts have suggested that the display of "cultivated dispositions," i.e., of cultural capital, is one of the most highly prized cultural traits among the upper-middle class. Most important, in his pioneering work on French culture, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that members of the "dominant class" share distinctive tastes and lifestyles that act as status markers and facilitate integration into this group. These tastes are defined largely by cultivated dispositions and the ability to display an adequate command of high culture. According to Bourdieu, outsiders who have not been socialized into these aesthetic dispositions at an early stage in life cannot easily become integrated into high status groups as they are often excluded due to their cultural style.

In the United States, sociologists interested in the cultural reproduction of elites have also emphasized how educational and occupational attainment is related to the display of cultivated dispositions and to familiarity with high culture (i.e., cultural capital). This focus on refinement and high culture can be explained in part by the availability of survey data on the topic. While this research has contributed considerably to our knowledge of the effect of culture on inequality, however, it has defined a priori what status signals are most valued by adopting the analytical categories built into the survey questionnaires. In contrast, by using open-ended questions, it is possible to allow people themselves to define what high status signals are most important to them. As the vignettes presented earlier suggest, these signals vary greatly across individuals as they range, for instance, from honesty and sincerity to competitiveness and material success.

So far no one has attempted to estimate the relative salience of various types of high status signals in the upper-middle-class culture despite recent calls for more research on this topic. The present study fills this gap by analyzing the criteria of purity that interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people they perceive as "better" or "worse" than themselves, or to characterize individuals they don't want to associate with—as Kai Erikson has argued, boundaries exist only if they are repeatedly defended by members of inner groups. I thereby chart the cultural categories through which upper-middle-class members perceive and value others, stressing what differences are at the center of their maps of perception and what differences are ignored. Hence, my project is to illuminate the structures of thought through which upper-middle-class people organize (i.e., select and hierarchize) the "raw data" they receive on others.

At the outset of this project I intended to study differences in the ways in which French and American upper-middle-class members draw cultural boundaries. However, I rapidly discovered while conducting interviews that the signals used by individuals to assess high status often pertained to moral and socioeconomic standing as well as to cultural attainment. Furthermore, it appeared that the large majority of these signals pertained to at least one of these standards; some signals, such as self-actualization, were taken to be simultaneously a proof of high moral character, strong success orientation, and cultural sophistication. Consequently, my study focuses on these three standards or types of symbolic boundaries:

Moral boundaries are drawn on the basis of moral character; they are centered around such qualities as honesty, work ethic, personal integrity, and consideration for others. Paul Anderson drew moral boundaries when he explained that he feels superior to people who have low moral standards and when he criticized some of his coworkers for not caring about people first. So did Michel Dupuis when he described his distaste for social climbers and for those who lack personal integrity.

Socioeconomic boundaries are drawn on the basis of judgments concerning people's social position as indicated by their wealth, power, or professional success. Craig Neil drew such boundaries when he explained that money is the yardstick he uses to evaluate his success against that of others and that he feels superior to people who are not high achievers. Similarly, Charles Dutour drew socioeconomic boundaries when he stressed that his friends are all very influential members of the local elite.

Cultural boundaries are drawn on the basis of education, intelligence, manners, tastes, and command of high culture. Someone who describes all of his friends as refined is drawing cultural boundaries. Didier Aucour and John Bloom both drew such boundaries when they talked about their feeling of superiority toward people who are less intelligent and less culturally sophisticated than themselves.

The most important contribution of this study is to enrich our grasp of mental maps and boundary work. It is also to provide a more complex understanding of cultural differences between nations and classes by analyzing these via symbolic boundaries, i.e., via the criteria that are used to evaluate status. The major empirical findings of this study, however, pertain to the relative salience of the three types of boundaries in both countries as revealed by the interviews, a survey of available research, and a quantitative comparison of the boundary work produced by all the respondents. First, I show that whereas in both France and the United States sociological studies of high status signals have focused almost exclusively on cultural boundaries, and more specifically on a small subset of the cultural signals that are used to draw cultural boundaries, again evidence suggests that members of the French upper-middle class draw boundaries on the basis of moral and socioeconomic standing almost as frequently as they do on the basis of cultural standing. Second, as suggested above, whereas sociologists also have often argued that cultural capital is a major basis of exclusion in the United States, the data I collected indicates that American upper-middle-class members stress socioeconomic and moral boundaries more than they do cultural boundaries; this is not the case in France where moral and cultural boundaries are slightly more important than socioeconomic boundaries; these differences are becoming less accentuated: data suggest that socioeconomic boundaries are gaining in importance in both countries while cultural boundaries appear to be losing in importance in the United States and possibly in France.

The implications of these findings for the metatheoretical assumptions of Marxist, structuralist, and rational choice theorists are discussed. In particular, my findings shed doubt on the ontological models of human nature central to these approaches, as the latter assumes that human beings give analytical primacy to socioeconomic resources (and boundaries or status) over other types of resources. The implications of my findings for the influential contribution of Pierre Bourdieu are also analyzed; the work of this French sociologist now represents one of the most influential trends in the sociology of culture and in cultural anthropology. My data suggest that Bourdieu greatly underestimates the importance of moral boundaries while he exaggerates the importance of cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. In addition, assumptions that are central to his concepts of power field are contradicted by my data. Some of these criticisms will be briefly introduced in the first chapters of this volume, but they will be brought together at the end of the book.

This study pursues three additional goals. First, it attempts to clarify the relationship between symbolic boundaries and inequality by specifying whether and under what conditions the boundaries drawn by the interviewees could lead to class reproduction. Second, it provides a multicausal explanation for differences in boundary work across groups. Finally, it documents variations in boundary work within the French and the American upper-middle class in the process of explaining intergroup differences in boundary work.

To study the potential impact of symbolic boundaries on inequality, I discuss their formal features or structure, i.e., the degree to which they are rigidly defined and widely shared by a population. Comparing the French and the American cases, I will show that cultural boundaries, i.e., boundaries drawn on the basis of education, intelligence, refinement, and cosmopolitanism, are much more loosely defined in the United States than they are in France. This directly influences the ways in which culture shapes inequality in each country as it affects whether boundaries create hierarchalization and exclusion rather than simply differentiation. Intead of assuming that symbolic boundaries directly lead to exclusion, we need to view them as a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of inequality, and exclusion itself, as the frequent unintended effect of the process of defining self-identity.

In this context it should be noted that this study could potentially complement the neo-Durkheimian, and mostly American, literature on symbolic boundaries. This literature has tended to focus on social control and to predefine all symbolic boundaries as moral boundaries, thereby neglecting to analyze differences between various types of boundaries. This research tradition has also looked at symbolic boundaries to analyze cultural codes. With a few exceptions, it has paid little attention to the potential role played by symbolic boundaries in group formation and in the production of inequality. It has also neglected to study how groups draw boundaries in the process of defining their own identity, ideology, and status against that of other groups. This study brings together the neo-Durkheimian literature that focuses on cultural codes, with the French literature concerning class cultures and inequality.

Using comparative data, it is argued that the content of symbolic boundaries that people draw, and particularly the relative salience of moral, socioeconomic, and cultural boundaries, varies with the cultural resources that individuals have access to and with the structural conditions in which they are placed. These resources include those made available by national historical traditions (e.g., the core values of "Americanism": egalitarianism, individualism, and achievement) and by various sectors of cultural production and diffusion (the educational system, the mass media), while proximate and remote structural conditions include the market position of upper-middle-class members as well as the general structural features of the society in which they live. While a number of social scientists account for the features of cultural systems that individuals uphold by their interests, the volume and composition of their resources (or capital), or the structure of their group, these factors need to be supplemented by looking at the "cultural supply side," i.e., at the cultural resources that are made available to individuals for boundary work. As pointed out by neo-institutional theorists and others, individuals do not exclusively draw boundaries out of their own experience: they borrow from the general cultural repertoires supplied to them by the society in which they live, relying on general definitions of valued traits that take on a rule-like status.


Excerpted from Money, Morals, and Manners by Michèle Lamont. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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