Director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and director of research at CNRS, Head of Research Team on Social Inequalities (ERIS), Serge Paugam is the guest star of the 2nd Symposium on Poverty in Lausanne on October 12, 2012. Interview.
Switzerland is more known for its richness than through its poor. What is your vision of this country from France?
I studied the case of Switzerland in my book "The Elementary Forms of Poverty." Poverty in your country has often been hidden, as if, in principle, there could be no poor. For a long time, doubt remained in the minds. Today, more regular studies help to define this concept, to understand it statistically and discuss it both in universities and other spheres of society. However, I assume that, for many Swiss, the phenomenon of poverty remains marginal. However, in reality, Switzerland, like other European countries, is affected by the crisis. Its poverty rate is not negligible (about 17% if one refers to the conventional monetary definition which is 60% of median income).
Your conference regards "The break of social ties, biographical trajectories and social determinants." Can you disclose the contents in a few words?
My intervention will build on the work that I have led for several years, related to the analysis of the social disqualification process and the different phases that characterize it. More recently, I have referred specifically to the theory of social ties. I'll try to take some methodological issues posed by the analysis of biographical trajectories of people in poverty or insecurity and respond with concrete examples. It will also verify the thesis on the cumulative disruption of social ties from the typology I developed (filiation, elective participation link, organic participation link, bond of citizenship).
Can you give examples of cumulative disruption?
In the story of people who experience social devaluation, it is possible to identify, according to the phase in which they find themselves, ruptures that occurred at some point in their lives and that have led to other disruptions, and ruptures that we can say they are likely to transform quickly into a vicious circle of new difficulties. In our society, it is often the breakdown of the organic participation link, including long-term unemployment, which is causing other disruptions. Unemployment often affects family relationships and sometimes makes solidarity difficult, but it can also affect the couple's life, the elective sociability, notably associational life. It also results in a loss of confidence in public institutions and a decline in citizen participation at elections, for example. My work also showed that this combination of fractures could occur as soon as the individual, although employed, is affected by job insecurity.
You say that strengthening social cohesion pass through actions strengthening each of the four types of social ties and organizing their relation...
Yes, because the four types of links, from the moment they intersect, form the basis from which social integration is possible. Each type of link is defined specifically in each society as it is based on a set of shared norms, but each society also organizes in a normative way the intersection of these four types of links. Thus we can speak of a system of specific attachment to the society in which we live. The research I’m currently conducting consists of a comparative study of these different schemes. I am well aware that the solutions recommended by a system may not be appropriate in another one. In continental Europe, the attachment system is historically based on the principle of multi-intervention solidarity, that is to say based on the strength of the four types of social ties and the search for a balance between them. However, the fragility of each regime nowadays weakens the attachment itself. It is for this reason that I wrote in "Rethinking solidarity" that we must act for each link intersecting with each other and thus allow solidarity inclusion of all members of society.
What trail can the political and social actors then follow?
A system of attachment is not the exclusive work of the State, at least as long as it refers to a democratic conception of the exercise of power, and that one gives to the State a priority role of facilitating and searching consensus between the different forces, often contradictory, which represent the social body. In every society, representations and social norms are constantly changing. It is therefore possible to upgrade and strengthen the consciousness of solidarity as the basis of all social life. The political and social actors contribute sometimes unknowingly, but very often in developing policies that are directly inspired by solidarity with reference to different types of social ties.
You have shown that the foundations of social ties are protection AND recognition. Noting the current stigmatization of people on social assistance, considered as lazy, incompetent and abusing the system, what sense of usefulness is it possible to give to the most deprived in order the collective solidarity not to collapse?
Each of these links in its precarious expression corresponds to an ordeal: filiation bonds refer to the potential deprivation of parental rights - think of parents whose children are withdrawn, they are considered as bad parents, unable to take care of their children, so they are in an inferior position; elective participation link (couple, friendship networks) refers to the event of divorce or separation, but also the hardship of rejection by groups, abandonment, breaking the bond of friendship; in the organic participation link, the key ordeal is unemployment; and finally in the bond of citizenship, there are events in terms of exile, loss of rights related to being a citizen in a given nation.
Strengthening collective solidarity towards the poor is fighting back as much the protective deficit as the denial of recognition they experience daily. Any action that is based on this dual requirement and seeks practical translation in all dimensions of collective intervention is likely to lead to good results. Unfortunately, the action is often thought of in bureaucratic terms and defined by quantitative and categorical objectives.
You also found that there are forms of collective resistance to poverty in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and said we must listen to the poor. What messages would you like to convey?
The motor of inequality today is not only between social groups and integrated rivals in the struggle for profit sharing, but failed in the process of social integration itself, contributing to polarize the population between two extremes: on the one hand, the cumulative force of the four types of social ties that predisposes to a stabilized social integration; on the other hand, the cumulative weakness of these links, or even breaking some of them, which translates into a lack of protection and denial of recognition. In this cluster of weak cumulative links, there are modes of resistance to social disqualification. When faced with the exhaustion of the organic participation link and citizenship link, compensation is often sought in potential resources of elective participation link, the one that can still be mobilized through community networks often organized on the basis of the district of residence. Conflict grows on collapsing traditional community backgrounds, and is based on more spontaneous and more violent forms of expression, as we saw in France at the time of urban riots in 2005. In front of such expressions of social unrest in the suburbs, it is essential to try to understand and interpret what the poor are saying and translate these claims - which are often unformulated - in political terms.