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Why me? Experiencing discriminations

November 18 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi Published on #book reviews

I am reviewing a book currently available in French only (“Pourquoi pas? L’expérience des discriminations” par François Dubet, Olivier Cousin, Eric Macé, et Sandrine Rui). It should not be too difficult for someone “trained” to review papers, observing proposals, or grant applications. The fundamental difference with reviews I write at work is that I chose to read and review this book and was not asked to do it. Another difference is that I was learning something new on a subject that is dear to my heart from a research performed by sociologists. Funnily enough, the book ends with an acknowledgment to ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche, the French basic research funding agency). Since it is a blog by an astronomer the organisation of this review will follows the ones I write for scientific journals.

Dear editor,

I warmly recommend the translation and publication of the book “Why me? Experiencing discriminations” written by François Dubet, Olivier Cousin, Eric Macé, and Sandrine Rui. The authors have managed to explain to non-experts different aspects of discriminations in the French society. Recent high-profile incidents in France have shown that a more in-depth view was badly needed.

The subject. Most blatant segregations have disappeared in Western societies. They have been replaced by more insidious discriminations. They are insidious because they are rarely reported although discrimination is an offence in France (http://vosdroits.service-public.fr/particuliers/F19448.xhtml).   

The method. The authors focus on the personal accounts of those who have experienced discriminations instead of chiefly listing and describing them. How a person resents discrimination is central to the study.

The sample. The authors interviewed 222 persons. They targeted people in specific fields like education, health, politics, and culture (actors, writers, …). Others were chosen randomly and may or may not have been the subject of discrimination (random control sample). The authors led group discussions where a high-profile representative in each field was invited.

The analysis. While most of the interviewees wish their differences to be perceived as an addition to their personality, people from different backgrounds react differently to discriminations. Those from the popular fraction of our society can cumulate multiple discriminations: racial and economics. Those at the top can face more “discrete” discriminations (the women for examples). There is a theory that the more educated you are the more your perception of discrimination is acute. Those at the bottom of the society do not see obvious solutions and have “given up” while those at the top are still willing to fight. The authors did not want to elaborate this point further based on the data they have. This is a pity.

The conclusions. The authors argue that discriminations have become a more important issue in our society only recently because the population after the second world-war was fighting economical inequalities. The female workers or the immigrants were both part of the proletariat. Nowadays, the concept of equal opportunity has replaced the class struggle theory.

But the book states it clearly, discriminations were worst in the past. What has changed recently is that people from minorities are becoming more prominent in high-visibility domains like music, cinema, or politics. This is a good thing but this not sufficient. The emergence of a social elite does not necessary means that the issue is starting to be resolved. For example women can occupied high-profile jobs (e.g., Professor of Astronomy) or are prime ministers. But at the same time the poorest people are found among single-mothers.

A critic I can make is that I would have like interviews of known politicians, famous musicians or actors about their own experience. I am more optimistic than the authors and I think that having leading figures is better than nothing. 

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