Research Interests

Culture, Inequality, and Boundaries

The prime focus of Michèle Lamont's research has been how culture is used to create and maintain boundaries between categories of people and how these symbolic boundaries generate and perpetuate social and economic inequality (see "Culture and Identity," Handbook of Sociological Theory, edited by Jonathan H. Turner. New York: Plenum, 2001, pp. 171-185). Drawing on the tools of cultural sociology, she has been particularly concerned with the content of boundaries, a topic neglected by social psychologists. Her edited volume Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (1992) and her book Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (1992) influenced the growing body of research on symbolic boundaries. Her more recent book The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (2000) extended her research to black and white workers in the United States, and to white and North African workers in France. Her article "The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences" (with Virág Molnár; Annual Review of Sociology, 2002) offers a broad overview and assessment of research on boundaries across the social sciences.

Racism, Race, and Immigration

The Dignity of Working Men explored how black and white workers in the United States, and white workers and North African immigrants in France, think about similarities and differences between various categories of people. This work led Lamont to a broader analysis of the rhetorics of racism and anti-racism and of institutionalized definitions of cultural membership (defined as taken-for-granted frameworks of what makes people "worthy"). Recent papers have paid close attention to "ordinary cosmopolitanism" among the African-American elite and other groups (see "Ordinary Cosmopolitanisms: Strategies for Bridging Racial Boundaries among Working Class Men" with Sada Aksartova, Theory, Culture and Society, 2002, 19 (4): 1-25; and "North African Immigrants Respond to French Racism: Demonstrating Equivalence Through Universalism" with Ann Morning and Margarita Mooney, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2002, 25 (3): 390-414). She has also analyzed how marketing specialists understand the use of consumption by African Americans as a means to gain cultural membership ("How Blacks Use Consumption to Shape their Collective Identity: Evidence from African-American Marketing Specialists" with Virág Molnár, Journal of Consumer Culture, 2001, 1 (1): 31-45). She has been promoting a cultural approach to inequality that avoids the pitfalls of the "culture of poverty" approach, notably in her edited book The Cultural Territories of Race: Black and White Boundaries (2000). In the context of her involvement in CIFAR's research program on Successful Societies, she is embarking on a comparative study of anti-racist rhetoric across societies that present markedly different systems of inequality. This project compares the destigmatization strategies of African-Americans, Negros in Brazil, Francophones Quebecois, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Definitions of Excellence in Higher Education

One of Lamont's first articles to receive attention was "How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida" (American Journal of Sociology, 1987). This paper traced how Derrida came to be valued for very different reasons, and by very different audiences, in France and the United States. She has pursued intermittently her interest in the study of the institutionalization of excellence by focusing on definitions of the ideal self among prize-winning students (see "The Best of the Brightest: Definitions of the Ideal Self among Prize-Winning Students" with Jason Kaufman and Michael Moody, Sociological Forum, 2000, 15 (2): 187-224), changes in the content of letters of recommendation between the 1950s and the 1970s ("From Character to Intellect: Changing Conceptions of Merit in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, 1951-1971" with Angela Tsay, Andrew Abbott, and Joshua Guetzkow, Poetics, 2003, 31 (1): 23-17), and related topics. She is currently at work on a book about how people who serve on funding panels in the social sciences and the humanities understand academic excellence and draw the line between winning and non-winning proposals. She is also pursuing her interests in the field of the sociology of knowledge broadly defined. With Neil Gross and Charles Camic, she is developing a project on "The Social Study of the Social Sciences and Humanities" with the goal of bringing together and systematizing research concerning social science and humanities disciplines.

Comparative Sociology

Lamont has a long-lasting interest in the comparative study of national cultural repertoires, which she offers as an alternative to "national character" explanations that have long predominated in the social sciences. In Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology (2000), she and Laurent Thevenot presented the results of a five-year collaboration between teams of French and American sociologists who analyzed how different modes of justifications and evaluation are unevenly salient in France and the United States. Money, Morals, and Manners and The Dignity of Working Men also show how available cultural repertoires shape boundary work across races, classes, and national contexts and how structural factors influence access to and use of different repertoires.

Contemporary Sociological Theory

Through her teaching, Lamont has maintained a strong interest in analyzing new developments in sociological theory. Her contributions to this literature have included "Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments" (with Annette Lareau, Sociological Theory, 1988, 6 (2): 153-168) and articles comparing contemporary social and cultural theory in France and the United States (see in particular "The Power-Culture Link in Comparative Perspective," Comparative Social Research, 1989, 11: 141-150, and "Betwixt and Between: Recent Cultural Sociology in Europe and the United States" with Robert Wuthnow, in Frontiers of Social Theory, 1990, edited by George Ritzer).