Seeing Others: A Conversation with Michèle Lamont
We are thrilled to welcome Michèle Lamont, Mari Sanchez, and Shira Zilberstein to the Contexts Blog in celebration of Michèle’s new book, Seeing Others. In this post, blog editor Elena van Stee chats with Michèle, Mari, and Shira about Seeing Others and their respective studies on Gen Z young adults. You can watch the full interview above and find lightly edited excerpts from their conversation below.
Elena van Stee: Michèle, let’s start with the book. For those who are not familiar, can you introduce us to the main argument of Seeing Others?
Michèle Lamont: The book aims to rectify many of the habits that the American public has in thinking about inequality. I aim to shed light on an aspect of inequality that’s often neglected, which is what I call recognition—the process by which groups are viewed as worthy or stigmatized. I aim to explain to non-experts how this happens. It’s a process that’s going on all the time. And by recognition, I don’t mean, “I recognize Joe on the street,” or “I recognize that this is an apple.” I’m talking about seeing people and being able to define them as valuable.
EVS: This is not your first book. You’ve spent much of your career helping us understand how different social groups think about moral worth—these ideas you were describing about who has worth and what kinds of lives are worth living. Tell us, how do you see Seeing Others building on—or maybe in some ways departing from—your previous research?
ML: Well, one of the central themes is the importance of having a pluralistic understanding of worth. The period of growing inequality that came with neoliberalism supported narrow neoliberal scripts of self, emphasizing self-reliance, material success, having a college degree, consumption. And the alternative approach is to have multiple ways of assessing people’s worth – valuing not only people who make lots of money, but also those who do care work, for instance. So, it’s the idea of different people “shining under different lights,” which was also very central to my book on peer review, How Professors Think, concerning different types of scholarship. Another of my books, The Dignity of Working Men, emphasizes the ways in which French —and to a lesser degree, American —workers tried to put themselves above the upper-middle class by viewing themselves as more moral. This concept is also at the center of Seeing Others: I argue that a society in which only the college-educated professionals are the “winners” is a society that is extremely unhealthy for everyone. And that we need to think about how to create and scale up different narratives so that more people feel worthy—that’s the main argument of the book. I explain in the last chapters how this can be accomplished, and also how the eighty Gen Z young adults we interviewed (college students from the East Coast and the Midwest) contribute to achieving this, just as the change agents that we interviewed do.
Recreating a Plausible Future
EVS: Shira, you’re the lead author on an article that you three have coauthored, which draws on these interviews with college students. This paper, titled, “Recreating a Plausible Future: Combining Cultural Repertoires in Unsettled Times” was published in Sociological Science in 2023. Let’s talk about this a bit. To start off, I’d love to hear more about the concept of the American Dream. To what extent does Gen Z believe in the American Dream?
Shira Zilberstein: In the article, we were really interested in how young people were thinking about their goals, objectives, and futures in a context in which many of the traditional ideals that structured our ideas about success and career paths—a lot of them associated with the American Dream—were becoming increasingly unattainable. Career paths are less stable because of economic precarity. It’s more difficult to own a house. And new narratives about diversity and inclusion are challenging some of our past ideals.
We found that the American Dream was still a prominent ideal for the Gen Z young adults we talked with. It structured young people’s life goals and how they thought about their paths. Many of our respondents still believed in the value of hard work and perseverance, in the association between individual action and progress, and in personal initiative as part of moral worth. But they also expressed some differences in their interpretation of the American Dream. For example, our respondents criticized a hyperfocus on competition, and they criticized narrow ideas about socioeconomic success. They expressed a diversity of goals that could be part of the American Dream, such as being happy or having a balanced life. So, although the pathway to reach these goals was still focused on individualism and hard work—which were largely drawn from the traditional American Dream ideal—they were mixed with some new goals that young people felt were more achievable given the current economic, social, and political contexts.
COVID-19: Social Class, Resilience & Parental Support
EVS: Mari, you’re the lead author of another paper on Gen Z titled “How American College Students Understand Social Resilience and Navigate Towards the Future During COVID and the Movement for Racial Justice,” which came out in Social Science & Medicine in 2022. And I’m of course particularly interested in this, given my own research on college students navigating COVID. Tell us about what inspired the decision to do this second wave of interviews. What were some of the questions that you thought studying this moment could help you answer?
Mari Sanchez: We didn’t originally anticipate doing the second wave of interviews, but once the pandemic hit, we realized these data would be useful for understanding how youth were sustaining well-being amidst uncertainty. The interviews helped us understand their responses to conditions of dramatically increased uncertainty associated with the pandemic, as well as the broader racial reckoning after the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the mobilizations against police violence.
EVS: Tell me more about what you mean by resilience. I’m curious how your concept of social resilience is different from viewing resilience as an individual personality trait, something like “grit.”
MS: Popular scholarship on resilience has been influenced a lot by psychologists, and they tend to focus on individual traits like grit. In that model, resilience ends up being this trait that you have more or less of. Instead, we’re looking at social resilience as a sort of collective capacity—rather than an individual capacity—to maintain or improve subjective well-being. And we recognize that a lot of times, the sociocultural resources that people have at their disposal to overcome these crises are actually produced by groups or communities.
ML: The idea is also that we can create societies that allow for more or less collective resilience. So instead of thinking some people have grit and others do not, it’s more like we can we create societies that enable more social resilience. It’s a very big difference in perspective.
MS: As Michèle mentioned, there’s some really nice literature around social resilience—take a look at her book, edited with Peter Hall. But our paper is taking the idea of social resilience and putting it in conversation with literature on time and the role of future projections. We compare two social class groups to see how they are accessing resources that enable or constrain the development of social resilience, and how they’re doing that at different temporal scales.
ML: Elena, you published a paper comparing class differences in reactions to COVID among college students, which came out in the Journal of Marriage and Family earlier this year. So, we have some questions for you on this.
EVS: Yes, have at it.
SZ: As Mari mentioned, in our research we focused a lot on temporality, both in terms of the unfolding of crises in time and the imaginations of futures as part of cultural change and resilience. So, I’m wondering if temporal trends came up in your research at all, especially in terms of past associations with different domestic or educational experiences.
EVS: Yes, definitely. A concept that stuck out to me from your article and really shaped my own thinking about this was the idea of the temporal origin of the crisis. For many of the less privileged students in my study, the pandemic wasn’t their first crisis. It wasn’t the first time they had seen their parents shaken. I found that these students saw their parents and their homes as being much more vulnerable to external shocks than the privileged students did. For the more privileged students, their parents’ homes seemed to have this kind of mystical safe-haven image. And this was this was not something that the less privileged students described—for these students, home was not a shelter from the troubles of the world.
ML: Let me throw in another question. Your argument is very much about the role of cultural understandings—as scripts, if you will—that are shared among the people you interviewed. Maybe you can expand a little bit on how you understand the place of cultural understandings in your analysis.
EVS: Here’s what I think we gain from thinking about cultural understandings of parents’ roles and of dependence vs. autonomy. In order for the privileged students in my study to benefit from their parents’ resources, a couple of conditions had to be in place. Yes, parents had to have the resources. But the parents also had to think that it was their role to give these resources—to give advice, to give money, to have their young adult child move back home. And the young adults had an active role here, too. I mean, they could have found another place to live. And so it’s the assumption of prolonged dependence that enabled the transmission of the parent’s resources. You might ask, what happens when it’s not a global pandemic? Or when the kid is 28 instead of 22? And that’s what I’m looking at with my dissertation right now, which is a story for another day. As it turns out, there are more cases where these resources—the guidance, the money, etc.—are not being transferred so seamlessly.
Sociology for the Public
EVS: To wrap up, I want to return to the book. At Contexts, of course, we have this goal of making sociology accessible to non-sociologists. And Michèle, for this book you’ve decided to publish with a trade press. I’d love to hear more about your thinking behind that, who you envision as the audience for your book.
ML: Well, having written books that were oriented toward my peers, other academics, I wanted to have an impact on non-academics. So, I talked with a wonderful agent Margo Fleming (at Brockman Inc.) who convinced me that I could do this—although I had my doubts. And then she auctioned the proposal, which raised the stakes. Then I had to learn to write differently, and it was a humbling position to be in because editors were correcting my writing at the level of details. I had to learn to write differently and rewrite the book several times. And then for the past few months it’s been podcasts and trying to write op-eds, which is also quite difficult. So I’ve been learning how much determination it takes—because you know, op-eds get turned down. So far, I’ve learned a lot. I really wanted to challenge myself. But we will see how I feel in a year from now! In any case, it’s been a great experience so far.
EVS: While the book may appeal to non-sociologists, I imagine many people in the audience right now are sociologists. So, what is your message to sociologists? What do you hope we all take away from it?
ML: I hope people read the footnotes! [laughs] Because there’s a lot of them. Although the writing is very accessible, there’s just an enormous amount of research that went into the book. Every sentence is backed up. Really, the book was inspired by a sociological lacuna, which is that the literature on inequality does not look at cultural processes that much. People who’ve read my previous books know what this is about. But I think Seeing Others really moves this agenda forward in new ways. So, I hope that colleagues will really engage. And I plan to give a in the U.S. and in Canada and Europe to colleagues, at the same time as the book is being launched to a wider audience. So, I think that the book will have two lives simultaneously. I remain most interested in having conversations with my colleagues about what difference the book makes in terms of how we conceptualize inequality. So, we will see.
EVS: Well, thank you. We’re all very excited to read it.
Mari Sanchez, Michèle Lamont, and Shira Zilberstein. 2022. “How American College Students Understand Social Resilience and Navigate towards the Future during Covid and the Movement for Racial Justice,” Social Science & Medicine 301.
Michèle Lamont is in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Her most recent book is Seeing Others. Mari Sanchez and Shira Zilberstein are PhD students in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Sanchez studies how societies manage and make sense of growing ethnoracial diversity, and Zilberstein studies culture, science, and technology. Elena van Stee is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies culture and inequality, focusing on social class, families, and the transition to adulthood.