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The Belhoumi Family and the Sociologist

What are the objective and intimate conditions for the social ascension of the children of immigrants? And what roles do family relationships—between parents and children, but also between brothers and sisters—and residential rootedness play in this process? Stéphane Beaud’s 2018 book La France des Belhoumi takes the form of a long-term biographical study that explores the differences in social trajectories between genders and generations within a family of Algerian origin.
Reviewed: Stéphane Beaud, La France des Belhoumi. Portraits de famille (1977–2017), Paris, La Découverte, 2018, 353 pp.

The French sociologist Stéphane Beaud has for many years sought to trace the trajectories of working-class populations of immigrant origin, and more particularly those of younger generations (Beaud 2003; Beaud and Pialoux 2013). His 2018 book, La France des Belhoumi. Portraits de famille (1977–2017) (“The France of the Belhoumis: Family Portraits, 1977–2017”), examines the life stories of an Algerian couple that emigrated to France, and those of their children. The book portrays a heterogeneous group, full of contradictions but united by solidarity that makes up for the shortcomings of an unequal society. This study thus provides an important empirical counterpoint to culturalist analyses that consider young people of North African origin solely in terms of ethnic specificities (Lagrange 2010), or even in terms of the “radical temptations” (Galland and Muxel 2018) that suppposedly drive them. In particular, it enables us to understand the mechanisms of intergenerational social mobility at play within a family whose parents belong to the most precarious sections of the working classes, and whose children have managed to find stable jobs, without the constant specter of unemployment.

Understanding a “social miracle”: the benefits of a long-term study

By surveying a sibling group of eight children born between 1970 and 1986 over several years, Stéphane Beaud provides a broad overview of the many ways in which people live their lives as descendants of Algerians in France. The study was born out of a meeting in June 2012 with three sisters from an Algerian family who attended a conference by Beaud on the professional integration of young people from working-class backgrounds. It is based primarily on biographical interviews that the author conducted over a period of five years with members of this family [1], which enabled him to trace their educational, professional and geographical trajectories. One of the book’s great strengths is that it does not stop at an objectivist restitution of social trajectories, but gives access to individuals’ viewpoints on their trajectories. By giving the respondents the opportunity to reread the interviews and comment on them, and also give their opinion on drafted chapters, Beaud manages to include this family in the writing of its own history. The study thus seeks less to reveal structural inequality mechanisms (domination, urban and educational relegation, discrimination) than to grasp the singular ways in which a group of siblings apprehend them and try to cope with them.

This sympathetic approach, attentive to protagonists’ justifications, is complemented by archival work that seeks to root this family monograph in the structural changes of contemporary French society. The author’s consultation of local archives in the provincial town where the family settled aims, for example, to circumvent the risks of “biographical illusion” inherent in any life story (Bourdieu 1986), in order to retrace the conditions that made the trajectories of the members of this sibling group possible and conceivable.

The social ascent of the two eldest daughters and the fact that the boys remain in stable sections of the working class are, in fact, socially improbable phenomena. How did this sibling group escape the mechanisms of social reproduction that all too often consign children born into working-class and immigrant families to educational relegation and the least-qualified occupations (Meurs, Pailhé and Simon 2006; Brinbaum and Kieffer 2009)? Stéphane Beaud offers several explanations in a bid to answer this question.

The first of these explanations lies in data on the social makeup of the neighborhood inhabited by the family and on the schools attended by the children. The father, originally from a village in western Algeria and the son of poor farmers, went back and forth between France and Algeria before bringing his wife and three children to France in 1977, as part of the family reunification policies. Stéphane Beaud emphasizes the importance of the effects of place, and in particular of the elementary school, where “the educational destiny of the Belhoumi siblings was partly determined” (p. 70). The location of the family apartment—a four-room low-income housing project on the edge of a social housing neighborhood in a working-class suburb in central France—allowed the older siblings to attend this school, where children from working-class backgrounds cohabit with those from the middle classes. This social mix is presented as the main reason for the academic success of the seniors, who benefited from a studious work environment and the support of teachers who were attentive to their success.

The author is also interested in the division of roles and affective relationships within the family. An element of biographical rupture in the father’s life, suffering from a pulmonary infection contracted while working as a labourer in the construction industry, had ambivalent consequences on the family trajectory. On the one hand, this situation has greatly worsened the family’s financial situation and led to humiliating situations, such as the day when the father accompanies his daughter to register at the nursing school from which she has just graduated, but realizes that he does not have enough money to pay for the registration. The two older sisters are also forced to work at a young age to supplement their parents’ income and have to give up their educational aspirations, like Samira who wanted to study literature and become a teacher. But this situation of inactivity also has advantages for the father, who can escape the stress of working on the construction site. The older daughters describe a man who is particularly available, who plays the role of moral support and encourages his children to “work with the pen” to escape the fate of unskilled manual labor. A third explanation is the rigid upbringing of the two older sisters in a family where the mother exercises "close supervision" over her daughters. This controlling practice fostered the development of a good student ethos, especially in the older sister, who developed a fear of the outside world and invested all her time in reading. What initially stemmed from a desire to control the girls’ sexuality thus seems to play a role in distancing them from the adolescent sociability of the neighborhood, where academic investment is not highly valued.

These different elements provided favorable conditions for the social ascension of the two older sisters, who became executives in the public service. This success was then passed on to the other members of the sibling group. This is what Stéphane Beaud shows by studying how the older sisters played the role of "locomotives", transmitting the capital acquired during their career to their younger siblings, who experienced less favorable socialization conditions. Stéphane Beaud’s attention to the configuration of the neighborhood as well as to the organization of relationships within the family unit allows him to avoid the pitfall of a hagiographic account, which would read their success through the prism of the meritocratic mantra, according to which "where there is a will there is a way. In restoring the conditions of possibility of the "social miracle" (p. 52) that constitutes the exceptional destiny of this ordinary family, the sociologist also gives us to see, in hollow, what prevents the majority of the descendants of Algerians to follow this way.

Managing inequalities “as a family”

The study of the singular trajectories of siblings also offers a glimpse into the diversity of the paths of those who are sometimes referred to as "second generation" immigrants. The family prism offers a privileged point of view to follow the way in which the paths of the children of Algerians are broken down according to gendered socialization, place in the sibling group, the institutions attended and the time of entry into the labor market.

But the survey also shows that the siblings are constantly careful to prevent mutual misunderstandings that might arise from these differentiated social mobility trajectories. Whether it is a matter of "secretly" rewriting a brother’s cover letter, or of discreetly avoiding attempts at arranged marriages devised by the mother, the anecdotes described by Stéphane Beaud are revealing of this concern to preserve the honor of the other while not abandoning one’s ambitions for social success and independence for oneself and one’s family. "This fatherly advice illustrates the strategies used within this family to preserve spaces of freedom while avoiding too brutal a confrontation with the system of norms that governs the lives of the different generations: "Respect your mother... but do your things from behind. The survey thus gives us a glimpse of the "affective diplomacy" (p. 117)—a subtle mixture of strategy and affection—that structures family interactions. The observation of the division of roles in the parental couple also offers an image of the father that contradicts the sexist stereotype of the "Arab man" mobilized by part of the feminist movement (Souilamas and Macé 2004). In the case of this family, as in others, [2] it is the father who acts as a moral support and an attentive ear, accompanying his daughters in their academic success.

The situations of mutual aid identified by Stéphane Beaud are also rich in lessons for understanding how this family deals with unequal situations. It is a matter of managing "as a family" the difficulties encountered by siblings, particularly brothers, who have experienced more difficult situations, by providing them with moral and material support and by guiding them in their search for employment. This family management of the obstacles that stand in the way of immigrant families contrasts with the collective solutions envisioned in the early 1980s by participants in the Equality Marches (Hajjat 2013). While it was a matter of this politicized fraction of youth of immigrant origin attaching their fate to that of a group plagued by unequal situations, the Belhoumi family practices an "avoidance of politics" (Eliasoph 2010). Although one can question the collective benefits of this strategy, which limits mutual aid to the family circle, the trajectory of this family shows that this choice also protected them from the difficulties of reclassification and the disillusionment experienced by activists in the 1980s when these movements ran out of steam (Momméja 2016).

"Republican hypercorrection" versus "religious overkill": trouble in the sibling group

The avoidance of politics nevertheless finds its limits when intra-family solidarity fails to conceal the antagonistic positions that result from divergent social trajectories within the siblings. The sociologist saw conflicts arise as his investigation progressed, which crystallized in particular on subjects such as the observance of fasting during Ramadan or the positioning vis-à-vis the national solidarity movement after the January 2015 attacks. Stéphane Beaud analyzes these conflicts as significant of an "ideal-typical opposition" between "two social generations". On the one hand, the older sisters, who have achieved trajectories of class defectors, are quick to distinguish themselves from "bad immigrants" by denouncing "bearded men" or even "tarpaulin girls." [This posture of "republican hypercorrection" on the part of the eldest sisters is matched by the "religious outbidding" of the youngest, who has a more troubled background and denounces her sister for not fasting or demands that she begin the Ramadan fast one day earlier than the religious calendar requires.

But the sociological analysis of the divergent positions of the siblings is not always completed. The privileged investigative relationship established with the two older sisters sometimes leads the sociologist to take on board their expectations of the investigation. The "investigation pact" made with the elder Belhoumi sisters responds to a common objective: to fight against the amalgams that weigh on the descendants of Algerians by writing the story of a successful integration. We can therefore ask ourselves if such an approach can manage to escape the biases that result from this pact of inquiry. By accompanying this family in its quest for respectability, does the sociologist not run the risk of naturalizing (i.e. of having the children of Algerian immigrants misunderstood as such) and setting up as a model the multiplied efforts that they must make to "reassure" people outside the working-class and immigrant worlds about their allegiances?

The younger brothers of the family seem to have admitted the absurdity of this Sisyphean task of always having to prove their integration. They above all seek ways to symbolically resist this permanent injunction, refusing to declare themselves as "Charlie" or to denounce "bleached" Arabs. [3] The existence of such a strategy of defense and resistance in the face of stigma, which risks reinforcing prejudice against them, should raise questions about the state of inequalities that keep the children of immigrants in a dominated position, and about the need to address them through a structural policy to combat ethno-racial discrimination.

Bibliography

  • Beaud, S. 2003. 80 % au bac... et après  ? Les enfants de la démocratisation scolaire, Paris: La Découverte.
  • Beaud, S. and Pialoux, M. 2013. Violences urbaines, violence sociale, Paris: Fayard.
  • Brinbaum, Y. and Kieffer, A. 2009. “Les scolarités des enfants d’immigrés de la sixième au baccalauréat : différenciation et polarisation des parcours”, Population, no. 64, pp. 561–610.
  • Bourdieu, P. 1986. “L’illusion biographique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, no. 62, pp. 69–72.
  • Eliasoph, N. 2010. L’Évitement du politique. Comment les Américains produisent l’apathie dans la vie quotidienne, Paris: Economica.
  • Galland, O. and Muxel, A. (eds.). 2018. La Tentation radicale. Enquête auprès des lycéens, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Guénif-Souilamas, N. and Macé, É. 2004. Les Féministes et le garçon arabe, Paris: Éditions de l’Aube.
  • Hajjat, A. 2013. La Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme, Paris: Amsterdam.
  • Lagrange, H. 2010. Le Déni des cultures, Paris: Seuil.
  • Meurs, D., Pailhé, A. and Simon, P. 2006. “Persistance des inégalités entre générations liées à l’immigration : l’accès à l’emploi des immigrés et de leurs descendants en France”, Population, no. 61, pp. 763–801.
  • Momméja, A. 2016. Les Enfants d’immigrés au temps du droit à la différence : socio-histoire d’une politique compassionnelle, PhD dissertation, Paris-Nanterre University.

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To cite this article:

Adèle Momméja & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Belhoumi Family and the Sociologist”, Metropolitics, 15 October 2021. URL : https://metropolitics.org/The-Belhoumi-Family-and-the-Sociologist.html

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