Jean-Pascal Daloz, Expressions de supériorité. Petite encyclopédie des distinctions élitistes

Paris, Max Milo, 2021

Bibliographical reference

Jean-Pascal Daloz, Expressions de supériorité. Petite encyclopédie des distinctions élitistes, Paris, Max Milo, 2021, 368 p.

Text

In two previous English-language studies, Jean-Pascal Daloz has already established himself as the foremost scholar of social distinction from a comparative perspective.1 The first offered a critique of the general theoretical frameworks that had dominated the field (most famously those of Veblen and Bourdieu), while the second constructively outlined aspects of a less rigid and more inductive approach to the phenomenon. His new book continues this intellectual journey, taking the inductive-comparative method and the critique of universalizing theory to their logical conclusion by offering an empirical synthesis of practices across time and space and from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

This study builds on and considerably expands a typology of ‘manifestations of superiority’ first sketched in more cursory form in the middle part of The Sociology of Elite Distinction. This structures the current book into four parts. The first and most extensive one considers those manifestations that are perhaps most readily associated with the phenomenon of social distinction, namely the ubiquitous external signs of material culture. This begins with personal adornment, including dress and other accessories, and then residence, considered as edifices, locations, and interiors. A chapter on vehicles follows a more diachronic exposition, with the evolution of technology from ancient chariots to private planes (and, we might now add, the race for space). Continuing with the manifold aspects of culinary culture, this part ends – fittingly – with interment. The second part moves to signs imprinted upon the human body itself: from the significance of corporeal self-confidence and assertiveness, through physical appearance, to manners, linguistic competence, and other forms of self-cultivation. The third part turns to other bodies, those of the entourage of elites, and the question of vicariousness. Following discussions of family, glamorous company, elite sociability (with a focus on club culture), servants, and artists, a final chapter offers a fascinating survey of the role of animals in the cultivation of human distinction. Whereas these first three parts focus primarily on the single efforts of competitors for distinction – whether as owners, bodies, or masters – the final one examines social codes that involve interaction or even direct confrontation among them: gesture, precedence, and gift-giving. All these divisions and sub-divisions are of course not mutually exclusive, and illuminating inter-connections are drawn throughout (for example, the material culture and human entourage involved in the grooming of animal companions, p. 292).

To outline the practices of social distinction, the author has cast a wide net in time, space, and discipline (the only universal to survive is thus social distinction itself). The phenomenon is examined comparatively throughout history and across the globe, though certain societies – especially classical antiquity, France, modern Britain and America, China, and sub-Saharan Africa – recur more frequently, either due to the nature of existing scholarship or because they relate to the author’s expertise and experience. The study is also remarkably omnivorous methodologically, drawing on a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including but not limited to archaeology, ethnography, history, sociology, and even ethology. Examples are taken from scholarly studies, printed sources both fictional and non-fictional, and the author’s own observations over decades of fieldwork and travel. Some readers might find this self-avowedly eclectic methodology unsettling, and specialists will inevitably spot omissions or arguable points of detail or interpretation. The author’s point, however, is not exhaustivity or heterogeneity for its own sake, but rather to demonstrate the logics of variability – of the phenomenon in general and of each type of manifestation in particular – against conceptualizations based on overly-narrow contextual or disciplinary boundaries.

Another benefit of such juxtapositions is that they reveal how mechanisms of distinction that are typically associated with past or ‘traditional’ social formations persist in contemporary guises among so-called ‘egalitarian’ societies (such societal contrasts are, of course, themselves a distinction mechanism). Some readers will hopefully shift uneasily in their seats at the analogy between the pre-modern practice of household servants and the personalized experience offered in modern hotels (pp. 258-9, or indeed in restaurants), or between racial queuing in apartheid South Africa and the private health care schemes prevalent in contemporary liberal societies (pp. 332-3). While the book focuses on ‘elitist’ distinctions, it does so on several levels, not just for the apex of the societies in question. It also addresses the agency and impact of ‘dominated’ groups, for example in the dependence of masters on servants or in the case of ‘trickle-up’ processes from below.

Methodologically, chapters begin by outlining general trends, which are subsequently complicated by the variability of practices as revealed through comparative study. The aim behind this, however, is not empiricism or relativism per se or in their extreme forms, but rather to develop ‘middle-range’ models (p. 357) that would better account for observed realities than do classical grand theories. Here, differences are not explained away but rather made an object of inquiry. For each manifestation, the study identifies and analyses a set of characteristics or variables that have tended to express social distinction in past and contemporary societies. One such recurring variable is whether distinction has been signified by quantity, by quality, or by some combination of the two. Significantly, hardly any of these variables follows universal logics, and some even demonstrate outright contradiction. For example, in some societies inferiors are expected to greet their superiors, whereas in others the latter are expected to initiate interaction. Such differences, argues Daloz, are important, and to unlock their rationale and significance the student of social distinction must search for the subtle meanings that social actors themselves have ascribed to representations and practices. Always a tricky undertaking, this is not made easier by the fact that social distinction is intertwined with other cultural meanings and motivations, as notably demonstrated in the analysis of the polysemic codes of gift-giving in the final chapter.

This book is an essential read for scholars of social distinction in any period or culture and, more generally, for readers with an interest in the comparative study of social representations and practices. It would also be of great use to specialists in the numerous disciplines and inter-disciplinary fields of inquiry invoked and discussed in the seventeen chapters. The clear division into parts and chapters makes the volume easy to use as a reference work. Those embarking on new empirical studies would do well to consult it in advance, to pre-empt ‘pseudo-discoveries’ and to mitigate against ethnocentric, anachronistic, or otherwise reductive interpretations. More constructively put, they will discover illuminating and often gripping parallels with other human societies across time and space as well as a toolkit of potential questions and variables to guide their inquiry. The prose is only occasionally dense – probably inevitably given the formidable feat of synthesis – but never opaque. Some readers would have welcomed more detailed referencing at some junctures, but, as the author explains, this would have at least doubled the length of a work drawing on a corpus of more than twenty-five hundred items. Instead, there is a helpful recommendation of a few dozen select French- and English-language monographs and collections at the end. A ‘little’ encyclopaedia in this sense – but in substance a work of great synthesis.

1 Both published by Palgrave Macmillan: The Sociology of Elite Distinction: From Theoretical to Comparative Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2010);

Notes

1 Both published by Palgrave Macmillan: The Sociology of Elite Distinction: From Theoretical to Comparative Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2010); Rethinking Social Distinction (Basingstoke, 2013).

References

Electronic reference

Giora Sternberg, « Jean-Pascal Daloz, Expressions de supériorité. Petite encyclopédie des distinctions élitistes », Revue d’histoire culturelle [Online],  | 2022, Online since 04 avril 2022, connection on 01 décembre 2022. URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.fr/rhc/index.php?id=1201

Author

Giora Sternberg

Hertford College, University of Oxford