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Inaugural Lectures

Difference, Competition and Disproportion

Pierre-Michel Menger
p. 10
Cet article est une traduction de :
La différence, la concurrence et la disproportion

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Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 9 January 2014
Source: La lettre, no. 38, June 2014

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1This Chair is devoted to the sociology of creative work. Its disciplinary identity places it in the illustrious footsteps not only of sociologists who have taught here, but also of two of them who should have done so. I have in mind Emile Durkheim, whose failure to be elected at the Collège de France negatively marked those times, and Maurice Halbwachs who, shortly after being elected, was arrested and deported in 1944, never to return.

2My teaching will approach work through its creative dimension. Here creative does not only refer to a common theme – the study of creative work, especially in the arts and the sciences –, it also evokes the complements that allow us to define work as socially creative: value, identity, collective protection, status, etc. These complements, along with others, can easily be spread across a continuum between two contrasting ordinary functional definitions of work: its instrumental and its expressive values. According to the former, work is the engagement of individual energy in more or less difficult conditions of physical effort and mental strain. The latter defines work as self-realization through the act of production. The distinction between these two values was shaped by a long philosophical tradition and was taken up by the social critique of the mutilation of work through its specialization and commodification. It only became analytically operational with the multidimensional characterization of all types of work.

3The critical effectiveness of the argument according to which complex work is but a multiple of simple labour is well known. Based on this premise, Marx somewhat ambiguously proposed that work be homogenized, and that the economy of value, the remuneration of work and the situation of exploitation in work relationships be made to correspond with one another. As Jon Elster has shown, this correspondence wavers when the full heterogeneity of work is acknowledged. The sociology that I wish to develop here consists of a multidimensional exploration of work.

4The research agenda on work has evolved with the transformations of our societies and their economies. The sociology of industrial labour was central to the earliest sociology of work. The employee category, which later became prominent, raised another issue: that of the wide range of occupations and employment conditions in an economy that had come to be dominated by services. From the 1970s onwards, rising levels of qualification in the workforce and increasing numbers of senior positions generated growing interest not only in the work of managers and the intellectual professions, but also in professions with high levels of expertise, a legal monopoly of practice and market positions that were often at the interface between the private and public spheres – primarily doctors, lawyers and architects.

5Professions and employment systems in the arts, to which
I have devoted many studies, have been part of the sociological research agenda for about thirty years. In the 1950s, the INSEE (National Institute of Economic Studies) had grouped artists, the clergy, the army, the police and sports professions into a single category, along with a few other unclassifiable professions like mediums and radiesthesists. In the new nomenclature of socio-professional categories, revised under the influence of the most advanced sociological theories and implemented in 1982, the INSEE grouped artists with managers and higher intellectual professions, alongside researchers and teachers. However the first census using this taxonomy revealed singular traits among artists: their economic position was similar to that of intermediary professionals, and they presented widely disparate incomes with a high rate of underemployment and pluriactivity, unparalleled in the higher professional category.

6The particularities of these professional worlds can raise the question as to whether creative work is the right side of work, the flipside, or a possible ideal thereof. Answers vary depending on the criteria. Creative and research jobs are highly appealing: they score very well on scales of professional prestige. But they present an equally high risk of failure, underemployment or hybrid practice, in combination with less interesting side jobs. Does the choice of such jobs represent an exceptional case of preference for risk?

• A video of the Lecture can be found at, on the professor’s page.

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Pierre-Michel Menger, « Difference, Competition and Disproportion », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Pierre-Michel Menger

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