Making Reality Unacceptable

Luc Boltanski is a central figure of contemporary French sociology. Director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, his major works of scholarship include On Justification (with Laurent Thévenot, 1991), The New Spirit of Capitalism (with Eve Chiapello, 1999), and La condition foetale (2004), a study on abortion and reproduction. As a young researcher he collaborated with Pierre Bourdieu to create the journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Asked to prepare a preface for a French republication of his 1976 collaboration with Bourdieu from that journal, “La Production de l’Idéologie Dominante,” Boltanski’s reflections expanded into a superb memoir and call for a renewal of sociology, published as Rendre la Réalité Inacceptable (2008), from which this essay is drawn.

Birth of a Journal

Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales took off suddenly. In the first half of the 1970s, we weren’t very well known or well received. We didn’t stand out — we were just kids, on the loud side, like many others, very much part of our generation. The institution (that is, the university) thought otherwise. It braced itself, waiting patiently for its revenge (which would come soon enough). The boss,1 who was in his forties, was already well known, with several controversial books under his belt. And he was a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure — not insignificant in a world so attached to titles, which he himself handed out to others so sparingly. Even a Sorbonne or Collège de France professor, even a rector of the academy (all of which he was), could not not keep track. Yet despite it all we had trouble publishing our papers in the official university journals, with peer review committees — for example (and this is just one example) the Revue française de sociologie. To get in, you had to subject yourself to a long and onerous process, listening to the comments (which is to say, the reprimands) of people and colleagues who were not always worthy of your esteem. They were gatekeepers, protectors of obscure norms they considered sacred and which, in the name of science and epistemology, grew out of a morality that was essentially repressive. They put us through inquisitions, nitpicking like priests (“How many questionnaires were administered?” — academic equivalent of “How many times, my child?”). We were sick of it. Thus was born an idea to create our own journal, a space where we could do what we wanted, write as we wanted, develop the areas of study that interested us, and both describe and criticize, all while practicing, well, sociology. The question of the journal’s format was equally important. We wanted to escape from the familiar formats: to be able to publish a one-page note, as well as a contribution the size of a short book. We also wanted to get things out quickly. After researching a topic that we found had an immediate context — defined by the battles on the scientific or the political front — we didn’t want to wait months for the verdict of a committee.

We turned first to Jérôme Lindon and the Éditions de Minuit, where the boss ran a collection, Le sens commun, which particularly through its translations was beginning to alter the landscape of social science in France, notably by crossing the boundaries between sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and linguistics. The collection, founded in 1966, had published Theodor Adorno, Gregory Bateson, Émile Benveniste, Jean Bollack, Ernst Cassirer, Robert Castel, Richard Hoggart, Erving Goffman, Jean-Claude Pariente, Raymonde Moulin, Erwin Panofsky, and Edward Sapir (translated by my brother, the linguist Jean-Élie Boltanksi), as well as the principal texts of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (The InheritorsReproduction, et cetera). The Éditions de Minuit was, at that time, one of the main supporters that our group had outside of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) (which would become the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales [EHESS] at the beginning of the ’70s). Minuit had also published a book on the sociology of photography, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, directed by Bourdieu, to which several of the “youth” of the team had contributed — including myself and Jean-Claude Chamboredon, both still writing our theses (we had researched photography schools). We were very impressed by the sessions at Jérôme Lindon’s office, on the top floor of a little building on the Rue Bernard Palissy, and rather surprised that this mythical place could be so poor, dirty, ascetic, and artisanal (Lindon prepared the manuscripts himself), occupied by four or five people who did everything from accounting to packaging.

In the early 1970s, Lindon was looking to create a new journal that dealt with both literary innovation and the social sciences. The boss and I attended several meetings with him and Tony Duvert, who would be more or less the editor in chief, a young writer whom Lindon seemed to hold in high esteem, but with whom the boss did not, if I recall correctly, have much in common. That became Minuit. With the boss on one side, and me on the other, we each published a paper in the first issues. The papers were rather out of our line: innovative when it came to writing and form, and trivially focused on literature. It was here that we began to experiment with the graphic and stylistic innovations that would reappear in Actes. But it didn’t entirely suit us. The journal was thin, it had a small format, and the papers had to be short. By virtue of its literary orientation, it didn’t reach the readers we wanted, and the pressure exerted on Jérôme Lindon to orient the journal in the direction of the social sciences, notably because of the inclusion of members of our group on the committee, had failed. After this first try, we let it drop, and it was left at that.

  1. A friend, whom I asked to read an excerpt of this text, was surprised to see me refer to Pierre Bourdieu as “the boss.” He found the term a little crass (and “boy-scoutish,” as he put it), a little authoritarian, a little paternalistic, a little outdated. But I kept using this term because it accurately represents the nature of the relationship we established and that mixed, on my part, respect and closeness, and, on his part, authority and affection. Our age difference allowed him to address me as vous without sounding condescending, just as he voused the other young people in the group who were presently or had been his students. I felt it was more fitting than the false familiarity of tu — the term that was common at that time since it was inscribed in our closer positions in the academic hierarchy. But the distance between us, which was recognized by the vous but also somehow deconstructed, was voluntarily maintained by both of us and did not compromise the complicity that forms between people who work together every day. On the contrary, this distance was what made our complicity possible, all the while preserving real dignity and preventing it from turning into dependence. 

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