Ordinary relationships to politics: Interview with Daniel Gaxie

A few years ago, I presented what later became this paper at a conference in Florence. I met some colleagues there that were utterly surprised that I was compeltely unaware of the work of Daniel Gaxie. Luckily, a few months after that, CAIRN published the digitial version of Le cens caché, Gaxie’s first major work, which gave me the opportunity to read it. It is a tremendously important and inspiring book. Since I was also supervising two MA-students — Nora Essahli and Gunnar Helle — who also read and found the book very inspiring, I decided to invite Gaxie to present at our Classes and Elites Research Seminar. On that occasion, Gunnar Helle and I did this interview with Gaxie for Sosiologen.no. Below is the original English version of the interview.

Magne;: One of your earliest works, now a classic in political sociology, was Le cens caché, from 1978. Its title translates to something like The hidden disenfranchisement: Cultural inequalities and political segregation. Could you explain what you mean by “a hidden disenfranchisement?”

Gaxie: The notion of hidden disenfranchismenet refers to observations that citizens, who are formally vested with political rights, remain aloof – away – from politics. It refers to the hypothesis that in democratic political systems with universal suffrage, there are informal mechanisms for deprivation of the right to vote, which concern more particularly the disadvantaged social classes, and which are not without analogy with the laws on selective suffrage of the past. These mechanisms are hidden, in the sense that they are unofficial, and also because this reality is not explicitly recognized in current discourses – for example textbooks, journalistic, academic, essayistic discourses on democracy.

Magne: In the book, you also say that the disenfranchisement is primarily cultural?

Gaxie: Yes, its about cultural capital. Interest in politics is linked to a specific competence. This competence is both cognitive and statutory. It may be analysed as a species of cultural capital. So, there is no surprise to observe that there is a link between political interest and the level of cultural capital.

Magne: In the book, you make an interesting analogy between the field of art or cultural production — Bourdieu’s analysis particularly in The Love of Art — and the political field. You’re arguing that, to some extent, the political field is similar to the field of art in that they are both exclusive social universes. Could you explain how these fields are similar, and perhaps also how they are not?

Gaxie: What interested me, in The Love of Art, was less the analysis of the artistic field – which was not very developed in this book. It was not until the book on Manet that Bourdieu really developed his analysis of the artistic field. What interested me was the analyses of the relationship between artist creation and the public, which can be analysed as lay public. It is less the functioning of the artistic fields than the analysis of the exchanges and transactions between the artist fields and the general public. For me, it is very important to make a difference between political fields and political markets. Political fields refer to the relationhips between political specialists, who are, nowadays professional politicians. Lay persons are not acting in political fields; they are outside of them, even if they may influence activities and power relations within them. So what interested me in The Love of Art is the hypothesis that the interest in artistic matters is linked to a specific competence – an artistic competence. So I went with the hypothesis that, by analogy, perhaps, interest in politics would be linked to a political competence. This competence was tacitly defined as a cognitive political competence. My first analyses were a bit too cognitivist.

What was cognitivist is the lack of analysis of the interaction between cognitive and statutory political competence. I think it is important to stress that there are two different forms of political competence. There is lay political competence and the political competence of the specialists, of politicans. The lay political competence is an aptitude to find ones way among political objects. An aptitude to see differences, and to be able to choose between polticial actors – for instance, between candidates for an election. Also a capability to be able to find ones way in debates on, for example, liberalism, or on the European Union, such as “Should the European Union be a political union?” You have to find your way in these debates, and to do that, you need a lay political competence – a political competence for non-specialists, for those outside the political field.

Magne: You say somewhere that lay actors often try to navigate in this with non-political criteria, so that they would judge politcians or parties with a kind of everyday or non-political heuristic…?

Gaxie: Yes, you could say that. Some of them find their way by linking a political object – say a candidate for a presidential election in the United States – to their own economic situation – “my situation worsened during his tenure. Others say they prefer X to Y because X is honest or because Y is restless.

Magne: In the book from the 30 years after Distinction conference you have a chapter revisiting the idea of “modes of production of opinion” that Bourdieu put forward in Distinction. This is in the eight chapter, which is very rarely commented on in the international reception of Distinction. Bourdieu posited that different people in different classes react very differently the same questions — they have different modes of producing opinions. This is obviously an important point in your work too. How would you contrast your views to what Bourdieu argued?

Gaxie: First of all, my idea of “modes of production of political opinions” – not all opinions! – comes from Bourdieu. I’m very grateful to Bourdieu for that. I was convinced about the importance of this hypothesis about the existence of different modes of production of political opinions. In this chapter, I try to develop a bit what Bourdieu had written on this topic, which was not his main preoccupation in Distinction. I think there are two additional points:

The first one is, by relying on our research on the views of ordinary citizens on European integration, I have spotted several types of modes of production of political opinions that Bourdieu did not take into account. So I have analyzed a few more modes of production. One is the lack of means of production of political opinion. One result from our survey on European attitudes of ordinary citizens is that on many issues, many people – including among the educated, not only among the lower and intermediate classes, but also among the upper classes –  are unable to understand and even more to answer questions on various topics such as the issue of ” the democratic deficit”. They just didn’t understand what does that mean. Yet, as you know, there are Eurobarometers that ask these very same questions, and, miraculously, they get answers!

So a first mode of production results from the lack of means of producing opinions – the impossibility to shape opinions on certain subjects, especially the most ideological and abstract ones.

Another mode of production that Bourdieu did not take into account, is a mode of production based on one’s ordinary situation. “I have to vote in the Presidential election. Well, this man, the incumbent did not improve my situation these last years. Its his fault. I would not vote for him. He has failed!” This is also an interesting mode of production of political opinions. It helps to understand, for instance, why working classes are more staying away from politics now than in the past, with the worsening of their living conditions. Also why have the working classes abandoned the “workers’ parties”? One hypothesis is that relying on their own perceptions of their own situation, they blame politics, and especially the supposed workers’ parties, for not improving their own situation, and even for worsening it! So it’s an important mode of production for sociologists.

Another complement to Bourdieu is the analysis of the specific political mode of production of political opinions. It is based on political principles. I tried in this chapter to explain why this mode of production is especially powerful. It’s the mode of production of those who are politically privileged. I tried to explain why it is a privilege by analyzing it as a mode of production with full jurisdiction, in the sense that it allows people to fully defend their own political interests. It empowers people to act in the most politically rational way.

Magne: In your more recent work you have also studied lay persons’ critique of politics. You argue that these are not as monolithically negative as they are often portrayed, and are rather more ambivalent, characterized by enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment. Could you explain that for us?

Gaxie: I can try, but I need a lot of time! This relates to what is commonly analyzed as political mistrust, political distrust. My point is that there is not only one, but several modes of political distrust. For instance, one which is most frequent among popular classes is relying on a mode of production of political opinion based on one’s individual economic situation. So there are people who think that their situation did not improve, even that their situation has worsened, like members of the yellow vests’ movement, who are typical of that! They think that politicians not only did not try to improve their situation, but that they have taken decisions that have worsened it. 

So, it’s the same mode of production, based on perceptions of personal situations, and of the reasons why they are bad. It’s this precise mode of production that is on the basis of this particular type of political distrust. People who share such views are frequently, but not only, belonging to lower classes. These people are very dependent on politics and on politicians. They tacitly think that politicians have huge powers. They could improve their situation, but they don’t! Why? Because they are selfish. They only think of themselves. 

For instance, I remember an interview with a young woman who was a groom for a riding stable. Jacques Chirac was Presidentof the French Republic at that moment. She says, “Look at Chirac! He’s always travelling abroad! He has a good life! And when he’s travelling abroad, he doesn’t think about unemployment. He doesn’t try to fight unemployment. He only thinks of himself!” So the tacit idea is that Chirac could have improved the employment situation, but he didn’t! So in fact there is a huge belief in the capacity of politics, in the power of politics to solve current problems. These people very much believe in politics, and also for that reason, they are ready to engage in a new craze. For instance, they say: “we have had government on the left, we have a government on the right, there are no differences, they are all the same, let’s try something new, for instance the National Front, perhaps they are different.” Or, they look different, so perhaps they will help us”. So we see that their view of politics is somewhat ambivalent. 

Magne: So on the one hand, you have many people who believe in the power of politics, but I think you also found some people who realize or appreciate that politicians actually have very limited power now?

Gaxie: Yes, especially among politicized, educated strata in the population there is a different mode of production of political mistrust. It’s more a mistrust than a distrust, I would say. But it’s also ambivalent! They say “In the past, there was politics, there was real politics. Now it’s just management”. So you see, they do not mistrust politics in general, but politics as it is now. They see a difference between politics as it is, and politics as it should be! They believe in a different politics, which, to some extent, existed for them in the past. They also insist that unlike the popular classes or ordinary people, they don’t think politics is rotten. There is a kind of concern for distinction – a concern for political distinction – towards the lower classes. People of the lower class often say that “politics and politicians are rotten”. Individuals belonging to the politicized and educated categories seek to distinguish themselves by saying, “I don’t think everything is rotten”, which also means; I don’t think the same as these vulgar people. Also, some of them, with a right leaning, appreciate, as you say, that politicians now have more limited power.

Gunnar: This autumn, the Classes and Elites seminar, which you are also visiting now, was visited by Kevin Geay, who has conducted in-depth qualitative research on the politicization of the parisian upper classes. And one finding of his is that the bourgeoisie is not always so perfectly politicized, but often express an ambivalent relationship with politics, often with real holes in their competence, which in some cases tend towards explicit disinterest. Does this resonate with what you’ve found, as you were just discussing now?

Gaxie:  First of all, the relationship between politicization and cultural level or social position is statistical and probabilistic. So it does not mean that all members of upper classes are politicized, and all members of lower classes are indifferent. It is only a difference in frequencies. You more often find politicized people among the upper and intermediate classes, than in lower classes. And facts are stubborn. I don’t know in Norway, but in France, if you look at the level of electoral turnout in well to do neighborhoods, compared with popular districts, there are huge differences.  Sometimes twenty percentage points! And these differences are bigger now than they were in the past, in the 60s or in the 70s, when the political context was different. 

A second point is that there are different mechanisms which brings people to move away from politics, or which bring them closer to politics, which are not linked to social class. For instance, in some circles, there is what we may call a lay division of political labour within families — between men and women. Within such a division of political labor, women are statutory less able to be involved in politics than men. So, it is not surprising to encounter women belonging to the upper classes who are not much interested in politics.

A third point, is that the relationship to politics is  not only dispositional. It does not rely only on social and political dispositions. It also depends on political context. There are politicizing and depoliticizing contexts. In France, and I suppose in many other European countries too – although not in the United States presently – there is a rather depoliticizing context. What would be the political attitudes of apparently indifferent members of upper classes, if a strong left party was leading the government and implementing tax policies with significant increases in taxes paid by the wealthiest? Would they stay indifferent? If you think so, I think you’re a bit naive.

Fourth point is that the relationship to politics also varies according to political orientations. There is very interesting research by Guy Michelat and Michel Simon, two French sociologists, on this subject. They show that perceptions of politics are different depending on whether the point of view adopted is conservative or socialist. From a conservative standpoint, you don’t want to change the world. You think the world is good as it is or that it is not so bad. You don’t want politics to seek to change it, in the fallacious hope of improving it.  And you don’t think politics is that important. You think business is much more important. It is much more important to make money than to be involved in politics. From this perspective, real life is about acting in the market, to make a profit. In such a view, politicians are not that important. They are not the winners. They speak, but they do not act. We entrepreneurs are the important people. 

But if you perceive politics from the left, if you are a socialist, you would think that the world is not in order. You have to change the world, you have to improve the world, and you may improve the world through politics. Politics is very important! You believe very much in politics, in political parties, in political ideology and programs! So you have a very strong interest in politics. 

What about political parties? From a conservative point of view, political parties are not so important. They can even be dangerous because they spread illusions and divide the population. They are important to politicians. It is a tool for politicians to gain power and to gain the money and fame that go with it. Otherwise, political parties are not that important. It’s like religion, it’s nice to have them, but it’s not that important. Thus, we can understand that the people of the upper classes, especially their economic fractions, have a somewhat contemptuous relationship to politics! Such a vision of politics is very different from that of bourgeois intellectuals or high officials, whose interests are linked to the state, and therefore to politics.

So, following Michelat and Simon, we can say that there is a sort of structural disposition to political indifference in conservative upper-class circles. But their political dispositions also depend on the political context. When the political context becomes threatening,those who were indifferent, and seem incompetent… Don’t worry, they will become interested and competent. So there is a sort of, I would say, sleeping and inactivated political interest and competence, among upper classes in some contexts.

Magne: Another point that Kevin Geay makes, is that he often encounters members of the bourgeoisie who, in a way, dislike politicians for reasons very different from why workers dislike them. He says something like that the bourgeoisie dislikes politicians because they are so close to them, in a way, that “Oh, I know him from the tennis club, he’s not a nice man” or “I know Mitterand from his summer house and all his mistresses, I don’t trust him” Because they know to much about them, in a way.

Gaxie: They also have access to politicians. So they don’t need to follow day to day development in the political fields, to get informed on events, because they know, in case, they are able to get to them.

Magne:  It occurs to me that the different modes of disliking politicians in different classes might look similar in quantitative analysis. So and so many people may be reported as saying they do not trust politicians, and you couldn’t tell the difference between the bourgeoisie disliking politicians because they know them very well, or they know what they are like, and the workers being alienated or very estranged from the whole field. In your earlier work you used more quantitative methods and statistical work, but in the last decades you’ve turned to more qualitative work. How would you say using a qualitative approach has affected your work and your findings?

Gaxie: When i started my research career, I wanted to do quantitative surveys. And I was lucky enough to be able to do several. But there came a time when I could not find funding to conduct further large sample surveys. So I began to conduct in-depth, open-ended, semi-structured interviews. Whether alone or with colleagues and students, I have conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews, sometimes repeated several times with the same persons, and also focus-groups. And the more I was conducting in-depth interviews, the more I found them interesting, and even better than quantitative surveys with questionnaires. Why? Because I think that qualitative methods open up more possibilities for deepening sociological analysis.

For instance: as sociologists we think that the way people perceive the social world, the way they behave in the social world, is linked to their position in the social world. It is rather complicated to understand the real position that an individual occupies in social space. You need a lot of information to fully understand it. It is not enough to know the occupation. You need a lot of information about, for example, their family. Sometimes you have to get information not only on their parents, but on their grandparents. I could give you the example of a follower of the National Front. There are many reasons for understanding his preferences for this party. The in-depth interview allows us to identify a complex set of converging factors, one of which is linked to his grandfather! Information is therefore needed on families and also on the individual trajectory, first of all education, not only the level of education, but the type of education, the establishments attended and the relationship with formal education. For example, many supporters of the National Front have a very bad relationship with the school system. Many of them declare: “the best day of my life was when I left school”. Many also say that they hated some of their teachers. Of course, when you inquire about the social situation of individuals, you want to know their profession, but you have to know precisely what do they do, what is their rank in the local hierarchy, in their company. The relationship to the profession is also very important. Are the respondents satisfied with their profession? Do they want to change it? what would they like to do? What do they like about their job? What they don’t like? What did they do before their current profession? why have they changed? You need information on the profession of their relatives, that of their spouse, of the friends they meet. And also whether someone belongs to a church, or to trade unions, and so on… To really understand why a given person supports the National Front or a socialist or conservative party, you need a lot of information, and you need time to get it. Sometimes it takes several hours of in-depth interviews just to gain insight into an individual’s life history. It seems to me that it is much more difficult to obtain such a result with a questionnaire. When conducting a semi-structured interview, you can interrupt the interviewee, ask them to clarify or expand on their point. It is also particularly interesting to resort to in-depth interviews repeated over time for these same reasons.

Also, as I work on the relation of citizens to the political domain, to the political domain, I am interested in the observation of the tools thanks to which they manage to orient themselves in the maze of political objects. Open-ended questions are very useful for this. With open-ended questions, respondents must respond with their own words. Not the words you suggest to them with closed-ended questions and ready-made answers. The words they use are very meaningful, as they allow the sociologist to move from words to the categories behind. So you can, for example, try to observe whether these categories are specifically political or not. And, it seems to me that it is very difficult – not impossible, but difficult – to obtain comparable information with questionnaires.

So I think that qualitative surveys, in-depth interviews — if possible, repeated in-depth interviews — are very relevant. But they also have weaknesses. The main weakness is that they can’t provide information on frequencies. For instance, with in-depth interviews you may identify specific ways of being on the Left of the political spectrum. It’s interesting, for there are many different ways of being on the left, according to social class for instance. Left-leaning workers are not left-leaning in the same way as left-leaning university professors. You may observe a specific way of being on the Left, but you have no idea of the number of people who share this particular way of being on the Left. So the ideal would be to complement qualitative surveys with quantitative surveys. I would love to do that, but you need money. Presently it’s very difficult to find money for research project, I don’t know in Norway, if your universities are rich, but ours are not. 

Gunnar:  In one of your more recent works you and your collaborators have extended the study of politicization to a broader array of EU-countries, but also more specifically on the citizens’ perceptions of Europe, or the European Union. Could tell us about your main findings, and how this builds on your previous work?

Gaxie: The first result, I would say, was to see how the citizens are little informed about European issues. This is true of the lower and middle social categories, but also of many members of the higher and educated social categories. We have found that many people are unable to understand and answer certain questions concerning important issues of European integration. For example, many, including among the educated categories, do not know what the European Commission or the European Council is. Yet, there are Eurobarometers’ questions about asking: “What is your level of confidence in the European Court of Justice”. Very few people know what it is! Also, in the Eurobarometers, you observe a relatively high level of “no answer”, “I don’t know” to such a question (between 20%and 30%), but you have a high percentage of people who answer, saying that they “trust”, or that they “don’t trust the European Court of Justice”, even if they don’t know what it is.

As I mentioned previously, many people do not understand when we ask about “democratic deficit” in the EU through in-depth interviews with open-ended questions. But, if you ask a closed-ended question like: “Do you totally agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree that there is a democratic deficit in the European Union”, you will meet responses like: “Uuhhhm I agree, tend to somewhat  agree”. This is also another reason why it is relevant to conduct in-depth interviews.

A second result is that the level of knowledge about “Europe” is linked to the level of education. Of course it is not very surprising. But we observe that even people with university degrees, for instance in hard sciences or humanities, were poorly informed about Europe. Only those who have a law degree, a degree in political science, international relations, sometimes history, are the ones who were able to issue informed judgements on European political issues. So I think it is interesting, because it shows that it is not only a matter of general cultural capital. Cultural capital matters, but what also matters is the species of cultural capital. We sociologists do not know much about species of cultural capital, and I think we should elaborate on that.

A third result: we conducted a comparison of perceptions of European integration by people from different social backgrounds in Germany, France, Italy, and Poland. And this comparison allows us to understand that attitudes towards Europe depend on social position, but also on what we may call national experiences of European integration. For instance, at the beginning of our research, we encountered workers with negative views of “Europe”. And we said “Ah, that’s typical of a worker’s attitude towards European integration”. But it turns out it’s not workers’ attitudes towards European integration, it is French or German workers’ attitudes towards European integration. Polish workers have a different views. So Europe is seen from your social position, within a national context. And, again, we observe that political attitudes rely on dispositions and contexts.. For this matter, the context is the national experience of european integration. You do not see “Europe” or the EU in the same way whether you are in the Western or the Eastern part of Europe. We were surprised to see that in Poland, for instance, the European Union is sometimes perceived as an empire, a new dominating empire. After the Soviet Union domination of Poland, you now have the European Union domination. So from a German or French point of view, it was somewhat unbelievable! We need this comparison to see that the European Union may be seen as an empire, an authoritarian empire or a pillar of democracy.  

Gunnar: Already in Le cens caché you used data from different countries in developing your argument.  Also in the study of attitudes towards Europe, you have a comparative approach with different countries. Do you see significant differences between countries, and contexts as you said, in the inequalities of politicization, for example how we talk about politics, or the legitimacy of political participation et cetera?

Gaxie: I would be very interested to know if the analytical tools that I have developed would be useful in Norway, or not, and to what extent they are not useful. It would be very interesting. Of course the relationship to politics depends on context, as I have said several times. These contexts are partly national and partly historical.. For instance we know that the ability to perceive differences between political parties depends on cultural capital, on the cognitive political competence. But it  also depends on the degree to which the political parties are different in fact! What is the ideological distance between political parties? I don’t know in Norway, but in France, and in other European countries, the ideological, political, and programmatic differences between political parties were larger in the 1960 and 1970s than they are presently. So, of course, it was easier to see differences between the Left and the Right, in the 60s and the 70s, than it is presently. Each country is different when it comes to these differences between political parties, differences in what are the main issues debating on political fields, to what extent issues debated on political spaces are salient to different categories or not. For instance, I would assume that the present relationships to politics in the United States, which appear as a very divided and polarized society, are not the same as what we are able to observe in France or Germany.

Magne: When you have bigger differences between the left and the right, when they are more clearly different in policy, does that increase politicization, or perhaps decrease the inequality of politicization? 

Gaxie: I think that it increases politicization, I think it also contributes to increase the level of cognitive political competence. But at the same time, the differences berween social classes remain. So it is a kind of translation in the levels of political interest and political competence. With such a translation, the differences might perhaps be narrowing, I don’t know, we need surveys to answer this question, but I think that even if they narrow, they remain.

Magne: I think Piketty is suggesting something like this, in Capital and Ideology, that the workers now support the Left less, and more workers do not vote, because the social democratic or the Left parties are now more similar to the Right, politically and ideologically.

Gaxie: It’s a component of the context. And also the relationship between political parties and the social groups. For instance, the social background of politicians is an important component of a political context. I am presently reading the very interesting book by Barack Obama: “The Promised Land”. He repeats many time that he is an African American. It is of course an important element to understand his interest in the situation of black people, and his political disposition to take their condition into account, and to try to improve it. The social background of the politicians, and the differences between countries, in that respect, are a component of the political context. To what extent, for instance, the leaders of the social democratic parties are coming from the trade unions, or from intellectual circles.

Gunnar: Your work may be seen as painting a rather bleak picture of the politicization of citizens in our democracies.  What would you say are the implications of your research for the functioning of representative democracies? And what should we do about it, If you want to answer?

Gaxie: I don’t think its necessarily bleak. You know, we, as sociologists, are more at ease at trying to understand how things are, than to say how they should be. From a normative point of view, it is questionable to say that all citizens should be always involved in politics. Perhaps yes, perhaps not? There is a political theory literature, where many writers contend that it’s dangerous that all citizens be involved in politics. From my normative point of view, what seems bleak is more the political inequalities than the political indifference. Is it so important that all citizens be attentive to the day to day events in the political fields — like political struggles, rivalries, betrayals, gossip and ambitions? But indifference to salient public policies and political debates on public policies can be more damaging if one is interested in the possibilities for each social group to assert its interests.

So there are political inequalities. It means that political interest and political competence are a kind of social privilege. And it is a privilege that is linked to the volume of cultural capital, in the first place, and also to the social position – that is, to the position occupied in the social space. People belonging to privileged categories are more equipped to deal with politics —  to find their way in the maze of political objects — than are members of underprivileged, dominated social categories. And those differences seem bleak to me!

How to fight them? Well, it’s difficult. Because it’s a whole social organization which is at stake, behind all that. You would need to have a different social order, a different social organization, and as you know, it’s very difficult to change that. Many people have tried in the past, still try, but we know that the best intentions can fail or lead to disaster. One point, perhaps, is education — civic education. I don’t know in Norway, but as far as I know, for instance in the French case, civic education is presently not adapted to narrow the difference in political knowledge linked to cultural capital. So we should think about it. What should we do with civic education to narrow differences in political competence? It’s a very tricky subject. Because first, it’s difficult put forward proposals, and, second, I’m not sure that ruling categories are inclined to accept civic education that could be effective.  

Magne: Because they would lose some relative advantage? 

Gaxie: I think they would say it would be too politicizing or cause the school system to interfere in political struggles.

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