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Michele Lamont

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Title: Michele Lamont  
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Subject: List of sociologists, Sociology of culture, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Symbolic boundaries
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Michele Lamont

Michèle Lamont (born in Toronto, Canada in 1957[1]) is a sociologist and is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and a Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Harvard University.


Having completed a BA and MA in political science at Ottawa University in 1979, Michèle Lamont received her PhD in Sociology from the Université de Paris in 1983. A post-doctoral Fellow at Stanford University from 1983–1985, Lamont later served as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas-Austin (1985–1987), and Princeton University (1987–1993). In 1993 she was awarded tenure at Princeton, and was made full professor in 2000. During this time, Lamont was also a visiting professor at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques (Science Po), Université de Paris 8, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and Tel Aviv University, among other places. She has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Studies at Stanford, the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and a fellow of the Russell Sage Foundation. She chairs the Council for European Studies and Harvard’s European Network on Inequality. She is the recipient of numerous scholarly awards and distinctions for her work on race, class, and academic culture.

Contributions to sociology

Lamont’s major works compare how people's shared concepts of worth influence and sustain a variety of social hierarchies and inequality.

Lamont’s early writing formulated influential criticisms of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, a leading sociologist with whom she studied in Paris. Her first book, Money, Morals, Manners, showed that Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital and habitus ignore moral status signals and national repertoires that explain differences in American and French class attitudes and behavior. This criticism set the stage for a large American literature that was critical of, but built upon, the work of Bourdieu. This movement coincided with the birth of cultural sociology in American Sociology. With fellow sociologists Ann Swidler, Michael Schudson, and Paul DiMaggio, Lamont contributed to setting the agenda for the scholarly study of “meaning-making” In sociology. The research of Lamont and colleagues demonstrated the importance of considering various aspects of culture as explanans and explanandum in the social sciences. —as something more than a “residual category.”

Lamont’s distinction between “symbolic” and “social” boundaries provides a framework within which to analyze the independent causal role of individual’s worldviews in explaining structural phenomena such as inequality. Symbolic boundaries are “conceptual distinctions made by social actors…that separate people into groups and generate feelings of similarity and group membership.” Conversely, “social boundaries are objectified forms of social differences manifested in unequal access to an unequal distribution of resources… and social opportunities.”[2] In making this distinction, Lamont acknowledges that symbolic boundaries are a “necessary but insufficient” condition for social change. “Only when symbolic boundaries are widely agreed upon can they take on a constraining character… and become social boundaries.”[3]

Lamont’s more recent work has applied the “boundary-work” framework to the case of American and French race relations. In her award-winning Dignity of Working Men, Lamont shows how white and African-American conceptions of class are grounded in vastly different conceptions of self-worth. In a new collaborative project that grew out of this research, Lamont is comparing the anti-racist strategies of marginalized groups in the United States, Brazil, and Israel. In another collaborative project with Peter Hall, Lamont is leading a group of influential scholars who study “Successful Societies,” and more specifically, how the interpenetration of institutions and cultural repertoires (including recognition) affect the health and well-being of communities.

Her forthcoming book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, builds upon another research agenda on the sociology of knowledge to explain how academic funding panels reach consensus on what is academically worthy – on what constitutes good research.

Selected bibliography

  • Money, Morals and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Morality and Society series, ed. by Alan Wolfe). (2nd edition: 1999).*
  • The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press and New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Paperback 2002. ISBN 0-674-00992-4
  • How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2009.


External links

  • Michèle Lamont’s home-page at Harvard University
  • The Successful Societies Program (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research).
  • Culture of poverty and Social Resilience : An interview with Michele Lamont (Books & Ideas, 20/05/2011)

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