Production and Receptions of a Classic

Production et réceptions d’un classique

Producción y recepciones de un clásico

Claire Ducournau and Karim Hammou

Translated by Jasmin Smith and Delaina Haslam

Bibliographical reference

Grignon Claude & Passeron Jean-Claude (2015) [1989]. Le Savant et le Populaire. Misérabilisme et populisme en sociologie et en littérature. Paris, Seuil, “Points” [1re éd. Gallimard/Seuil, “Hautes études”]. In Spanish: Grignon Claude & Passeron Jean-Claude (1991). Lo culto y lo popular: miserabilismo y populismo en sociologia y en literatura, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Nueva Vision. Translated from French to Spanish by María Sonderéguer) ; Grignon Claude & Passeron Jean-Claude (1992). Lo culto y lo popular: miserabilismo y populismo en sociologia y en literatura. Translated from French to Spanish by Fernando Alvarez-Uria y Julia Varela. Madrid, Las Ediciones de La Piqueta.

Translated from:
Production et réceptions d’un classique


Electronic reference

Claire Ducournau and Karim Hammou, « Production and Receptions of a Classic », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 1 | 2017, Online since 15 October 2017, connection on 20 January 2021. URL :

While the sociology of culture has helped fuel more general theoretical debate that has enlivened French social science since the 1960s, this has largely been via the mediation of a handful of texts that are considered to be classics today. Le Savant et le Populaire, Misérablisme et populisme en sociologie et en litterature by Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron is one of these few key volumes, together with The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life (Hoggart 1957) and Distinction (Bourdieu 1984). However, unlike the latter two, this title has not enjoyed wide international distribution. By inviting contributions from various researchers, the roundtable proposed in this first issue of Symbolic Goods1 seeks to illuminate this paradoxical situation, as well as this work’s legacies. From this perspective, the first section of the introduction will retrace the genesis of the book, present some of its strong points, and reference some of its limitations, to better reflect upon the characteristics of its reception in the second section.

Le Savant et le Populaire, 1989 edition

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© Gallimard/Seuil, “Hautes études”.

Le Savant et le Populaire, 2015 edition

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© Éditions du Seuil, “Points”.

From seminar to paperback

Published in 1989 in the prestigious “Hautes études” collection, co-edited by Gallimard and Le Seuil, the text of Le Savant et le Populaire re-transcribes, in a barely modified form, the oral debates that took place over the course of three seminar meetings led by Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) seven years prior. In that year, 1982, the appointment of Pierre Bourdieu as chair of sociology of the Collège de France coincided with the official departure of Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Chamboredon from the Centre de sociologie de l’éducation et de la culture, from which Jean-Claude Passeron had already distanced himself. The exchange that would become Le Savant et le Populaire had first appeared in a more rudimentary form as a mimeographed document by the Groupe inter-universitaire de documentation et d’enquêtes sociologiques (Gides) with the support of the Institut national de la recherche agronomique and the Laboratoire d’études et de recherches sociologiques sur la classe ouvrière (Lersco). Then in 1985 it became the first edition of Enquête, published in Marseille by the Centre d’enquêtes et de recherches sur la culture, la communication, les modes de vie et la socialisation (Cercom). Lucien Malson and Paul Veyne—the latter admitting to having made a mistake by refusing to publish this text in the rather baffling form proposed to him by Jean-Claude Passeron—offered enthusiastic reviews in the national press2. It was then reprinted several times to meet a growing demand, as Philippe Gaboriau attests to in this roundtable.

The three debate sessions, which took place on 17 and 24 February and 10 March 1982, were dedicated to the empirical, theoretical, and political questions posed by research into popular culture. In this context, Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron discussed precise extracts from scientific and literary texts both together and with the participants. This explains the at-times false orality of the text, which evokes a Socratic dialogue, and occasional interventions by researchers that add to those of the two main authors of the work, such as those of Rose-Marie Lagrave, a contributor to this roundtable. The editorial trajectory of this work—which owes its publication to the support of academics—after initial fits and starts was nevertheless that of a long-seller at the pole of restricted production, intended for a specialist readership, until its reissue in 2015 as a paperback in the Points Seuil collection.

This debate indeed belongs in a context of profound redefinition of the relations between French social science and popular culture, and strives to define a new position relative to two bodies of work on the working class developed over the course of several decades. On the one hand is an ethnological vein inspired by folklorism, and on the other, a Marxist vein. Yet, without disregarding class, Le Savant et le Populaire rejects the working-class rehabilitation approach which had underpinned the development of these works since the 1930s (cited in the work through references to Marcel Maget, for example). From the 1970s, the decline of Communism and the political disengagement of an entire generation from the left or the extreme left led to political disillusionment and a “grieving process” (Pudal 1991: 63). Activists converted their interest in the working class into academic research in the vein of Robert Linhart, Jacques Rancière, Claude Fossé-Poliak, and Gérard Mauger, whose account is included in this roundtable. By forming a clear and original discourse on the relationship of intellectuals to the popular, Le Savant et le Populaire provided a successful response to questions which came to a head in the 1970s.

From presuppositions to recommendations

Through its vocabulary, its references (from Blaise Pascal to Max Weber and Karl Marx), its conception of the social space, and its way of examining methodological as well as epistemological problems, the text bears the hallmarks of its authors’ familiarity with a sociological approach now associated with Pierre Bourdieu. As a matter of fact, Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron have largely coproduced this sociological style, as can be seen in the important publications by Jean-Claude Passeron and Pierre Bourdieu in the 1960s and 1970s, or in the collaborative venture Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales in which Claude Grignon was particularly active (Singly (de) 1998). From this point of view, Le Savant et le Populaire constitutes an internal critique of a sociological theory of “cultural legitimacy” which was forged by means of collaborations, before being systemized, notably in Distinction (Bourdieu 1984). The authors’ virtuosity in their use of a theory and vocabulary that come naturally to them is certainly not without its paradoxical effects. It sometimes leads, especially when the discussion includes positions that they discredit, to the end of all discussion without any empirical evidence. We thus see working-class correspondence, presented as “ordinary practice” by Rose-Marie Lagrave through the work of Jacques Rancière, re-characterized as “exceptional practice” by Passeron: “Was it ordinary? Was it not? We could discuss this. On balance, I don’t think it was” (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 139). Le Savant et le Populaire thus offers a sharp but “reformist” critique, as Emmanuel Pedler suggests in this roundtable, of the theory of cultural legitimacy and its sometimes reductive portrait of popular culture. The reproach is pursued in a much more radical fashion in sociology by Patrick Cingolani, for example, or in philosophy by Jacques Rancière (Collectif Révoltes logiques 1984).

In a context in which it is still necessary to establish epistemology of sociology as a discipline—one which has only existed as an autonomous academic discipline for the past two decades—Le Savant et le Populaire promotes a methodological creativity, an interpretive vigilance, and a return to empirical work as the safeguard of a scientific discourse which risks spinning its wheels. Grignon and Passeron show from the opening lines the negative objective of “this debate,” which “does not seek to propose a new theory of popular culture nor to prescribe a preferred methodology” (9). On the contrary, the text warns against possible “derivations” and “regressions”—first those of miserabilism and populism—thus introducing deflationist conceptual ambitions compared with those of Bourdieu. This suspicion of a unified theory may help to explain certain conceptual ambiguities, like those concerning crucial notions such as “symbolic power” and “domination” (Cornu 2008; Hammou 2008). While the text seeks to foreground the practice of research and the construction of the object, or to reveal the sometimes-overlooked affinities on which both these actions can be based, it does not specify the concrete conditions of application of certain of its recommendations (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 64-68).

The epistemology proposed in the work is not solely negative, however, as Grignon highlighted two years later. It is also about “committing oneself as fully as possible to the two readings that are required, according to us, in order to study popular culture” (Grignon et al. 1991: 37). The leading notions are effectively also the more positive ones of “good epistemological control” (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 122), of alternance and ambivalence between the premise of autonomy (“dominomorphism”) and that of heteronomy (“dominocentrism”) of dominated cultures vis-à-vis dominant ones. Alternance, which would be given even greater prominence in the later epistemological works of the two researchers (Passeron 2013 [1991]), has the advantage of encouraging a return to the exercise of empiricism (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 90-91, 94-95), while explicitly highlighting the limits of sociological knowledge’s claim to a totalizing vision. In a general context of diversifying sociological analytical frameworks for facts of culture, these experiences furthermore open the door to new kinds of research, informed by the (re)reading of Richard Hoggart and Max Weber, which flourish notably in the research centre created and directed by Jean-Claude Passeron at EHESS-Marseille, as Dominique Pasquier’s and Philippe Gaboriau’s contributions illustrate here.

In retrospect, and considering the empirical and theoretical programme proposed by Le Savant et le Populaire, certain points can, however, be examined more closely. We will underline two of them.

First, this book shows only one type of domination. The social space remains, at best, two-dimensional. Yet, several illustrations used for the purposes of demonstration suggest the limits of an analysis that is resistant to consideration of gender relations, for example (38, 142). This is also the case for the issue of racism, which appears only fleetingly (36-37). Le Savant et le Populaire thus takes into account the “forms of domination that exist within a given society” (18), without including colonialism, nor considering social relationships of race and ethnicity, as pointed out by both Claude Grignon and Philippe Gaboriau in this roundtable. Thanks to such critiques, there is acknowledment of an increase in the dimensions of the social space of domination, and they also raise the issue of “methodological nationalism” (Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2002; Sapiro 2013b), which is also sometimes reinforced by public statistics in France. The pertinent area for analysing social phenomena, and power relations in particular, is indeed not always limited to the borders of nation states. These statements actually open the way to a new form of research, which may appear enormous, but fits perfectly in the wake of the “expansion of inquiry” (Veyne 1971) and the emphasis on the empirical which Le Savant et le Populaire proposes as the main escape route from the aporias of intellectual reasoning.

These remarks are echoed in another line of inquiry. Le Savant et le Populaire perhaps endorses the sociology of culture’s capacity to “get rid of what is considered to be “important” rather too quickly with the help of “competitive revindication of cultural legitimacy” (23-24). This analysis, which emphasizes symbolic struggles between elements of dominant groups, is based on the premise that dominant cultures have greater autonomy than popular cultures. But what of the opposite notion? The book thereby tends to play down the study of popular culture’s potential to question the way dominant cultures themselves are studied. The interdependence of dominant and dominated cultures is not only tied to the asymetric interaction with the opposite group, with which Le Savant et le Populaire is principally concerned. It is also tied to the constitutive social relationship which distinguishes and defines each culture as such (dominant or dominated). This issue is summarized in the Marxian phrase “dominators dominated by their domination,” often cited by Bourdieu without being explored as such (Bourdieu 1993; 1996; 1998: 76). It is also evident in Passeron’s reading of Marx’s The German Ideology (28-29). But this path remains only a horizon, viewed as clearly by Grignon as by Passeron, who were then spurred on by Grumbach (125-126), but without being investigated further in its epistemological implications. The problem perhaps comes back to the rejection of relativism, recalled in this roundtable by Grignon himself. He thereby justifies a form of loyalty to a tempered positivism on which key aspects of contemporary French sociology have been based.

Since it does not fully carry out the methodological operation to both relativize and legitimize the space of scholarly discourse, sociology of culture runs the risk, for cultural forms that are considered dominant, of crushing a cultural reading beneath an ideological one. By taking for granted the indigenous belief in the autonomy of high culture, it struggles to question theoretically places and moments in which the popular haunts the intellectual. Yet the study of topics such as the media, certain sections of which “widely promote lifestyles and products of popular culture” (Pasquier 2005: 65-66), attests to the actual existence of circulations from the bottom to the top of the social ladder. Alongside the work of distinguishing between groups closest to one another in the social space—even between fractions of the dominant group itself—there are also characteristics that the dominant culture owes to its own predominant condition, in other words to its relationship to dominated groups situated furthest away from it in the social space. This has been shown by means of specific empirical cases, in particular by feminist works on “androcentric syndrome” (Mathieu 1991: 83), or by the revelation of the discursive constraints that racist ideology imposes on journalistic writing (Guillaumin 1972), to say nothing of the most recent research on masculinities (Connell 1995), or whiteness (Morrison 1990; Roediger 1991).

Transnational non-circulation and heterogenous appropriations of a polyphonic work

Unlike the two other classic works in social science with which it dialogues—Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu and The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life by Richard Hoggart (Coulangeon & Duval 2013: 14-15; Pasquali & Schwarz 2016)—Le Savant et le Populaire has not crossed many borders. The number of citations of the book in Poetics—the English-speaking social science review published in the Netherlands on culture, the media and the arts—attests to this fact: there are only two citations for this title, compared with fifty for Distinction3. Translated twice into Spanish, in Spain and in Argentina, shortly after its publication, it has never been translated into English, which has become the lingua franca of international scientific exchange.

Why would a book which remains such a key part of French social science have such limited international exposure? The work is nevertheless characterized by the significance of certain foreign references, which are pushed to the forefront more so than in Distinction, to continue with the comparison: the works of linguists such as William Labov and Basil Bernstein, whose texts Claude Grignon helped to translate into French, and above all those of Richard Hoggart, which the two authors of Le Savant et le Populaire introduced to France. One factor that may explain this lack of exposure is the puzzling form and ambition of the work. The usual tendency regarding the international circulation of academic works is indeed for only some concepts or abstract ideas to be retained—concepts or ideas which are “often disconnected from the empirical material that gives them meaning” (Neveu 2008: 320). The reception of the works of Pierre Bourdieu in the English language, made possible by translators such as Richard Nice, has likewise taken place via certain concepts such as that of capital (Sapiro 2013a: 55; Lamont 2013: 65). Yet while empirical illustrations, which concern, for example, eating habits and language, only play a secondary role in Le Savant et le Populaire, the work encourages the “breaking of the monolith represented by the concept of a dominated culture” (140), warning against “bulldozing-concepts” (49), and the excesses of theory (83), which always risk becoming frozen in “doctrine” (12). This lack of circulation highlights in turn the importation of Pierre Bourdieu’s texts into the Anglo-American world, where they have been diffused without many of their major internal critiques. Conceived as it was outside the French context, Richard Peterson’s critique of the theory of cultural legitimacy with the concept of cultural “omnivorousness,” however, flourished on the other side of the Atlantic (Lamont 2013).

Le Savant et le Populaire, furthermore, fits into the international scientific debate in an oblique manner. The book bears the mark of the debates that shook up French social science in the 1970s: with, on the one hand, the history of popular culture, beginning with Robert Mandrou’s work on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1964); and the theoretical and institutional renewal which followed May 1968 on the other. The debate between historians on how to explore popular culture was in fact particularly heated (Kalifa 2005), and persisted in international discussion (Boutier 2008) from the mid-1970s (Ginzburg 1976; Burke 1978; Schilling 1981). Yet there is little dialogue in Le Savant et le Populaire with these works which led to the development of “new cultural history” at the beginning of the 1990s. Simultaneously, another encounter between sociology, literature, and history was taking place in Birmingham, in a British context of intellectual and institutional renewal not unlike the interdisciplinary experiments which took place at the University of Vincennes, as Derek Robbins explains. However, Le Savant et le Populaire only references Richard Hoggart’s—major—work (Ducournau 2017) from the field of Cultural Studies that emerged since the 1960s. Thus this dialogue of the book with history on one hand and Cultural Studies on the other remains selective, and risks confining its scope to one discipline, or even to one “intellectual circle” within this discipline (Boutier 2008).

It is necessary to acknowledge that it finally took a long time for the book to find an editorial outlet, even in France. Even though it was developed three years after Distinction, Le Savant et le Populaire had to wait another ten years to be published in book form. Therefore, being full of theoretical references and research dating back to the 1960s and 1970s (again, like Distinction), Grignon and Passeron’s work did not leave much room for appropriation in the Anglo-American scientific context of the 1990s. In that context, due to the extension of Cultural Studies, questions of multiple domination, of sex or race for example, were addressed and room made for the notion of resistance (Hall & Jefferson 1976; Scott 1992)—while Grignon and Passeron, careful to avoid populism, insist more on moments in which domination could be forgotten or suspended (Pasquier 2005). Cultural Studies was also fed by a critical discussion with Marxism, which has long contributed to these approaches and is renewed through increasing reference to the Gramscian concept of hegemony. This conceptual refinement is not, however, matched by methodological or epistemological equivalents in Cultural Studies (Neveu 2008: 322, 327-329), whereas methodology and epistemology remain precisely the most important paths opened by Le Savant et le Populaire.

As shown through the contributions to this roundtable, there are different ways of interpreting this polyphonic text. Gérard Mauger reads the book in accordance with Bourdieu, while Dominique Pasquier reads it “against” Bourdieu. Unlike Emmanuel Pedler, Philippe Gaboriau raises the title to the rank of an essential book in his ideal library. He even discovers affinities with the approaches of Veyne and Foucault in the text; while Déborah Cohen, who sees a posteriori the notion of ambivalence as its true result, has read the book “against” Foucault, and so on. Although such a heterogeneity is a common result of empirical studies of reception, it can be explained here by the freedom that we have given to the solicited researchers. More generally, it seems that the reception of the book never stabilized beyond the injunction to defend against the double hurdle of class ethnocentrism represented by miserabilism and populism. This result can also testify to both the scientific richness of the text, as shown by Christine Détrez, and its blindspots. It can be read as a homogenous discourse or as a multifaceted debate whose protagonists do not agree amongst themselves, and leave certain questions unanswered. The two sociologists’ references are not the same—while the reading of Pascal (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 31) and psychoanalytic notions (120) are presented through Passeron, Michel de Certeau (imported successfully into Cultural Studies across the Channel) is, on the other hand, rejected by Grignon for being guilty of a populist “poetization” (164). Their relation to interdisciplinarity is equally distinct. Grignon being a firm believer in sociology as a science with its own rules (Grignon & Passeron 2015: 67), tends to reject literary writing, which is then mostly reduced to a romantic illusion of reality. Passeron, on the other hand, is more favourable to interdisciplinarity, praises Hoggart’s indiscipline (65), and goes on to defend history and sociology’s common epistemological condition (1991: 8).

Considering this pluralist legacy, the book remains extremely relevant today for its insistence in particular on empirical proof and also on the precise descriptions of concrete tasks that such proof implies when it involves connecting power relations with relations of meaning.

1 This project has been coordinated with the collaboration of Isabelle Gouarné and Romain Pudal.

2 Lucien Malson, “Culture … et cultures populaires,” Le Monde, 26 April 1984 ; Paul Veyne, “Doctor Miserabilis et Mister Populo. Quand la sociologie

3 Taken from ScienceDirect, 27 December 2016. A symmetric reading of the number of times these two books’ titles appear in French social science

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1 This project has been coordinated with the collaboration of Isabelle Gouarné and Romain Pudal.

2 Lucien Malson, “Culture … et cultures populaires,” Le Monde, 26 April 1984 ; Paul Veyne, “Doctor Miserabilis et Mister Populo. Quand la sociologie cesse d’être puissante et bête comme du Zola,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 19-25 July 1985. These two reviews were followed by historian Arlette Farge’s “L’oubli du peuple,” Libération, 18 January 1990.

3 Taken from ScienceDirect, 27 December 2016. A symmetric reading of the number of times these two books’ titles appear in French social science journals from 1989 to today, reveals that Le Savant et le Populaire is referenced much more frequently in comparison, but with an imbalance in favour of Distinction. This is the case in La Revue français de sociologie (7 for Le Savant et le populaire, compared with 23 for Distinction), Sociétés contemporaines (8 vs 29), Genèses (3 vs 10), Sociétés et représentations (1 vs 14), L’Année sociologique (1 vs 10). Taken from, 4 January 2017.

Le Savant et le Populaire, 1989 edition

Le Savant et le Populaire, 1989 edition

© Gallimard/Seuil, “Hautes études”.

Le Savant et le Populaire, 2015 edition

Le Savant et le Populaire, 2015 edition

© Éditions du Seuil, “Points”.

Claire Ducournau

Université Paul-Valéry–Montpellier 3/RIRRA21

By this author

Karim Hammou


© Presses Universitaires de Vincennes 2020