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From the Bourgeoisie to the Life of an Artist: Crises of Succession and Anticipatory Socialization

De la bourgeoisie à la vie d’artiste. Crises de succession et socialisation anticipatrice
Nicolas Roux
Traduction de Daniela Ginsburg
Cet article est une traduction de :
De la bourgeoisie à la vie d’artiste. Crises de succession et socialisation anticipatrice [fr]


Comment comprendre l’orientation des individus vers une vie d’artiste peu établie et incertaine (mais relativement prestigieuse) ? En s’intéressant notamment à l’héritage familial, l’article, à partir de l’analyse biographique des trajectoires de comédien·ne·s issu·e·s des fractions économiques des classes supérieures, éclaire l’effet d’attraction du champ artistique. Cette attraction fait sens par rapport au rejet d’un héritage perçu comme (petit) bourgeois et incarné par l’ambition ou la prétention des parents. Ce rejet puise dans deux logiques, solidaires entre elles : la volonté de ne pas reproduire les dominations sociale et masculine expérimentées dans la famille et l’espace local d’origine ; et l’adhésion à la vie d’artiste et à ses croyances structurantes (vocation, singularité, désintéressement). Ces trajectoires renseignent au final sur la façon dont les rapports sociaux (ici principalement de classe et de sexe) peuvent s’imbriquer pour façonner des espérances en amont d’un projet professionnel et de formation artistique. Elles donnent ainsi à voir un type particulier de socialisation anticipatrice.

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I would like to thank the organizers of the “Penser l’articulation des rapports sociaux de sexe, de classe et de race en sociologie des arts et de la culture” conference (RT 14 and 24 of the Association française de sociologie, held on November 15 and 16, 2018) where I was able to present and discuss an early version of this paper. I would also like to thank my reviewers as well as Cécile Talbot for their precious suggestions. Responsibility for the arguments in this paper is mine alone.


1Today, the nineteenth-century image of the romantic artist is challenged by images of international commercial success favored by mass consumption, and undermined by the ubiquity of managerial logics (Sinigaglia 2021). Nevertheless, the imaginary of “the bohemian” (Brissette & Glinoer 2010) continues to feed social representations of a non-alienated form of work and of a lifestyle that goes again the grain of dominant norms. Various sociological works have illustrated how the idea of a site where one’s authentic self can be realized—a “pure” site far from external alienations—can translate into a commitment of one’s “body and soul.” The belief and rhetoric that a vocation is “a gift and a gift of one’s self” (Sapiro 2007) justifies, in particular, the sufferings and sacrifices to which aspiring artists and their families agree. Alongside the role played by teachers and the training market (Katz 2005; Dubois 2013; Roux 2019), research has emphasized the central role played by parents. The research has also reminded us that the artistic calling is primarily taken up by people from the middle and upper classes (Pita Castro 2014; Sorignet 2010), and that inheritors are sometimes significantly over-represented (Menger 1997; Paradeise 1998; Rolle & Moeschler 2014). And it has emphasized the material, cultural, and moral resources invested in the education and artistic training of children (Thibault 2015; Laillier 2017).

  • 1 Compared to the rest of the workforce, performing artists are more likely to have a father who is a (...)

2This double analytic framework (which takes into account both beliefs and the effects of social origin) makes it possible to tease out certain conditions of possibility of the artistic vocation. However, this is not necessarily enough to understand what draws some individuals and not others to it. Not all upper-class children become artists, and a small but non-negligeable number of working-class children do.1

3In order to identify the origins of this vocational commitment, the present article seeks to grasp the logics that orient an individual toward the artist’s life. I do not focus on “secondary” socialization—that is, on whether or not habituses adapt to professional contexts—but rather on the sites (the family; primary and secondary schools), spaces (local place of origin), and periods (childhood, and, to a lesser degree, adolescence) of “primary” socialization (Darmon 2016: 9-10). Thus, I undertake a sociology of socialization which takes as its starting point the structuring effect of the first influences in the process of forming and transforming the individual.

4To that end, this article sidesteps the oft-made observation that the artistic professions are highly socially selective and that coming from a cultured social background is advantageous. To focus solely on that fact would be to forget that aspiring artists from the upper classes may be in conflict with their family inheritance (Bourdieu 1987; Coulangeon 2004; Heinich 2005).

5My goal is thus to shed light on the reasons and ways children have turned away from the paths normed and projected by their parents. Thus, the focus here is the artist’s relation to family inheritance, understood broadly to include parents’ social positions and patrimony as well as their expectations for their children. The objective trajectories of the paternal and maternal lines, and fathers’ and mothers’ projections, may in fact be more or less convergent or dissonant (Bourdieu 1999: 509). In addition, I seek to grasp conditions of socialization (Lahire 2004) by observing how practices (music or singing classes, for example), objects (books, paintings, instruments), agents (actors, writers, painters), and imaginaries (of romantic literature, for example) that come out of the artistic field interfere with families’ ways of life and expectations.

  • 2 This article does not focus on the question of gender inequality in the performing arts (Buscatto 2 (...)

6To do this, I draw on a biographical and longitudinal study I carried out with three professional performing artists, one man and two women,2 who have several points in common: their first profession is or was as an actor, and their parents belong to the category of “Cadres et professions intellectuelles supérieures (CPIS)” (upper managerial and knowledge professionals), but are not artists. The youngest interviewee was 35 and the oldest 44 at the time of the study; thus, they have all passed the stage of “entry into the profession” (Rolle & Moeschler 2014) and can provide a longitudinal overview of their own trajectories. Their accounts, which were gathered through non-directive interviews, are unique in offering access to family conflicts—sometimes leading to full-fledged breaks—that arise at the moment of becoming an artist. They are also significant for how they make visible the divisions internal to the upper classes: between the dominant economic fractions (private sector cadres [upper-level employees], liberal professionals, major heads of firms, etc.) from which these artists come, and the dominated intellectual and cultural fractions (artists, professors, public servants [cadres du public]) to which they now belong. These divisions can often be found within families themselves; the father’s side might be part of the economic fraction, while the mother’s side belongs to the cultural fraction. These divisions re-create the history of the artistic field, which, ever since the figure of the “bohemian,” has constituted itself in opposition to the bourgeoisie and its materialist and careerist interests. For example, the two women I interviewed identify with contemporary or “creative” theatre, in opposition to classical or commercial theatre. They position themselves on the side of “pure art,” of “avant-garde” productions that largely depend on public aid, while remaining at a distance from “commercial” (or “bourgeois”) art and from the field of recorded performances, which is structured by large-scale productions and the market (Mauger 2006).

7This article primarily uses reasoning by case (Passeron & Revel 2005) to illustrate a double process: rejection (of family inheritance), and adherence (to the life of an artist).

8First, I analyze these trajectories through the concept of “honorable refuge” and the artists’ feeling of downward mobility (1). Next, I seek to go further by putting into perspective two cases belonging to two distinct class fractions: one, to the “old” or established bourgeoisie (2), and the other to the “new” bourgeoisie, with a less significant patrimony (3). Analysis of the variations and contradictions within this bourgeois inheritance will bring out the role played by the intertwined experience of social (class) domination and gender domination in its rejection. On the basis of this analysis, the article will endeavor to grasp the general and transversal signification of these trajectories. I advance the hypothesis that there is an “anticipatory socialization” (Merton 1949) into the artist’s life that begins during primary socialization and is encouraged by parents, even in spite of themselves (4).

The interview process and the interviewees

  • 3 Names have been changed.

As part of his doctoral research (Roux 2017), the author, who had already completed a research thesis on performing artists, met the three interviewees via his connections to activist networks: a group of cultural employers who had hired Aymeric,3 and associations for part-time performing artists [intermittent·e·s] with which Béatrice and Marie are or have been involved. Out of loyalty to these structures or to their causes, the artists immediately accepted the interview request. Although this research dealt with individuals’ relationships to employment discontinuity, the topic of the interviews was conceived and presented both more broadly (by putting interviewees’ professional situations into the context of their biographical trajectories) and more openly (the first question asked was “What do you do and what has been important in your life?”). The total recording time was at least 1 hour 30 minutes for the first interview and over 2 hours (with Aymeric) and 3 hours (with Marie) for the last.

In terms of professional integration, the interviewees, who live in Paris, are at an intermediate level—neither major “stars” nor “ordinary” artists (Bois & Perrenoud 2017). At least at the beginning of their careers—for Aymeric, a short career—they received unemployment benefits as part-time performing artists. Apart from Aymeric, their revenue (salary and compensation) are well above minimum wage and even reach the median when they are working (see table 1). Béatrice owns her home; Marie owns a second home in Picardy.

In terms of their positions within the artistic field, these artists work for the most part in live performance and are actors above all. However, the two women also turned rather quickly toward other creative pursuits: directing, writing, making documentary films.

  • 4 The age and position of arrival correspond to the first interview conducted, during the year 2011.

Table 1. Social trajectories and situation of actors4

  • 5 École nationale supérieure des arts et techniques du théâtre [National School of Theatre Arts and T (...)

Interviewee (age)

Parents and grandparents


Professional status at time of most recent interview (2013/2014)

Income and housing

Aymeric (38 years old)

- Paternal grandfather oral surgeon

- Father oral surgeon

- Mother no career

Incomplete DEUG (2-year undergraduate degree) in history-geography

- Former actor

- Entrepreneur

- 800 euros

- Rents (Paris 10th arrondissement)

Béatrice (35 years old)

- Father engineer

- Mother professor

International theatre school (Italy)

- Production assistant, temporary employment contract

- Documentary filmmaker

- December-January-February 2012: 2,200 euros in salary

- Owns (Paris 20th arrondissement)

Marie (43 years old)

- Paternal great-grandfather laborer

- Maternal grandmother “peasant”

- Father engineer

- Mother no career

- Licence (3-year undergraduate degree) in philosophy and literature


- Actress

- Director

- Author

- 3 000 euros

- Rents (Paris 18th arrondissement) and owns (Picardy)

An Honorable Refuge?

  • 6 According to data from the Ministry of Culture and the INSEE [French National Institute of Statisti (...)

9Although careers in the performing arts are generally short, selective, and provide no guarantee of a high or stable income,6 for the past several decades (at least until the current Covid-19 crisis), there has been an exponential influx of candidates seeking to access a limited number of positions (Menger 2009; Gouyon & Patureau 2013).

10In a competitive context marked by strong inter-individual competition, specialized training is increasingly important. As Catherine Paradeise (1998: 31-33) already noted in the late 1990s, a growing number of actors and actresses have degrees and receive specialized training through private lessons, internships, or at prestigious schools. Those who pass through these schools are more likely to last in the profession (Descamps 2012; Darras 2015).

11The case of Béatrice (35 years old) makes it possible to measure this training effect (Roux 2019). Béatrice is from Strasbourg, from a social milieu she describes as “fairly bourgeois”; her father is an engineer, and her mother teaches at the university. It was her mother who raised her from the age of two, when her parents divorced. She says that she and her mother were “surrounded by academics” and by the children of teachers and “diplomats.” Her social origins no doubt explain her assessment that “nothing could be more banal” than her academic trajectory, which included a B.A. (licence) in theatre and an international drama school in Italy.

12Béatrice’s assessment of her schooling must be understood in light of her distance from the dominant drama training establishments and the national stages. After attending an international high school, where she received her baccalauréat in literature with a focus in theatre, she studied theatre as an undergraduate in Paris, because this was presented to her as “the logical next step.” It was only later, and rather belatedly, that she attempted entry exams for drama schools. She did not take the exams for the Théâtre National de Strasbourg (TNS) or for the Conservatoire National Supérieur des Arts Dramatiques (CNSAD) in Paris—two institutions, which, along with, to a lesser extent, the École Nationale des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre (ENSATT) in Paris, constitute the royal road for accessing the Comédie française and subsidized theatres; that is, the “elite” of the dramatic field. She was ultimately accepted to an international school in Italy. But, after graduating in 2004, when she returned to France at the age of 24, she noted with regret her near-total lack of any professional network specific to the theatre. She maintains that her “Parisian network is crap,” compared to that of friends who had “even just taken private courses” or who went through the national schools. These friends remind her of the professional trajectory she has not had: “It makes for a somewhat bizarre trajectory, one that hasn’t been very successful… I haven’t ended up where I think I could have, or should have, given my schooling… I wasn’t pre-destined to what I am doing now!”

13Béatrice explains that it was only after the fact that she became aware of the symbolic hierarchies that structure careers in theatre. This structuring keeps her in less well-established and more economically precarious positions. Today she works within what she calls “networks that are not subsidized, or are barely subsidized,” which have fewer financial, material, and human resources to mount shows and pay actors. It is difficult for her to renew her unemployment claim as a part-time performing artist, especially since the birth of her first child in 2007.

  • 7 See the website HF Île-de France on gender equality in the arts and culture:

14Although Béatrice is of upper-class origin, her case underscores the social and familial encouragement and advice that she did not receive, and which would have allowed her to access more stable and dominant positions within theatre. While she does not mention the inequalities between men and women in the performing arts (Prat 2009; Hamon 2016), these inequalities no doubt play a role in the fact that women are less frequently called upon, prepared for, or supported in taking management or writing positions: women represent less than 30% of theatre companies subsidized by the state or by DRACs (Regional Directorates of Cultural Affairs), and account for less than a third of directors.7

15At the time of my first interview with her, in 2011, her career as an actress was waning as she aged. Anticipating eventually leaving it behind, she dedicated herself to another activity dear to her—directing documentary films, which thus far has not generated income. She secures a minimum of income by working as a production assistance for a public radio station. But, at the time of my second interview with her in 2014, when her second child had just been born, Béatrice, at age 35, had just lost her right to unemployment benefits, and went into a period of depression: “I was drowning for three weeks. I couldn’t get out of bed, I kept telling myself my life was a failure. Well, not quite that but it was still a bit of panic.”

  • 8 Insofar as the educational levels of fathers are not precisely known, I refer to the professions th (...)

16Thus, her example signals that the relatively long schooling undergone by these artists does not protect them from the precarity of employment and income, and does not necessarily allow them to reach positions that are at least equivalent to those of their parents. The feeling of downward mobility sometimes comes in terms of academic achievements,8 but for Béatrice, it is primarily economic. “It’s strange not to be able to reproduce the familial schema,” she says, referring to things such as going on vacation. It is the fact of not “having succeeded as well as” her parents on this level that “depresses” her. Her feeling of inferiority comes in addition to her impression that there is a distance and a lack of understanding between her own world and that of her parents. Today, she is mostly surrounded by other intermittent performing artists, who are for the most part “broke.” She and her husband, who is also an actor, see themselves as “minimal consumers who are somewhat against the madness of consumer culture.” Her parents, who, in contrast, have always benefitted from job security, struggle to understand her precarious condition: “It’s hard to talk to my mom about it because I don’t think she has any sense of what it’s like, what it feels like to be unemployed and not know if you are going to work again…She’s been a teacher all her life.” In addition, Béatrice’s family inheritance is split, and is thus a source of internal contradictions: her father identifies with the right and with the world of business and economic success, while her mother identifies with the left and with the intellectual world. On one side, her mother believes in public service, defends universities, and has always encouraged her daughter to pursue theatre. On the other side, her father, with whom she has a conflictual relationship, in her eyes represents “the new rich, rolling in dough”: “Living on credit to get richer, that’s his thing…He has a big house, cars…”

17Thus, in the struggle that pits the dominated fraction of intellectuals and artists against the dominant fraction of “bourgeois” both within the upper classes and within Béatrice’s family, Béatrice manifests her belonging to the former by contrasting “freedom, disinterestedness, ‘purity’” with “necessity, self-interest, the baseness of material satisfactions” (Bourdieu 1984: 254). Disinterestedness is here expressed through the open refusal to pursue commercial or careerist interests in order to invest instead in “purely” artistic or activist goals (Béatrice is active in organizations for part-time performing artists or people with insecure employment, particularly around the question of maternity). She “despises” her father’s values of money and business and which she sees as serving “the capitalist model and the alienation of work,” and finds that people “have better things to do” than work the kinds of odd jobs she has occasionally held (cleaning lady, hostess).

18Ultimately, it can be said that Béatrice’s case exemplifies the artist’s life as “honorable refuge”: what might be seen as a downgrade is compensated for or motivated by access to relatively indeterminate and prestigious artistic professions, which are earned rather than inherited, and are disinterested (Bourdieu 1984; Heinich 2005: 132-137). However, this interpretation of the honorable refuge can here only be deduced after the fact, once someone has already become an artist. In other words, we still do not know what makes the artist’s life attractive as early as primary socialization. To shed light on this, we will now turn to the order of succession—that is, “managing the relationship between parents and children, and, more specifically, the perpetuation of the line and its inheritance, in the broadest sense of the term” (Bourdieu 1999: 507).

19On this note, while the interviewees used the terms “bourgeoisie” and “petite bourgeoisie” more or less systematically in their discourse, the terms are here seen as ordinary translations of the artist’s relationship to familial inheritance and to the social world. Although Béatrice did not use the word “bourgeoisie” itself, her discourse refers indirectly to the capitalist bourgeoisie. In the following pages, the term is used in accordance with Bourdieu’s lexicon, in order to emphasize the cultural dimension of social class relations—that is, to emphasize the symbolic boundaries that mark the differences of position between classes and between class fractions, and which play a central role in strategies of social distinction. The term “new bourgeoisie” is used (Bourdieu 1984) to refer to upwardly mobile socio-professional groups in second half of the 20th century (Boltanski 1987). Béatrice’s father, like Marie’s, both of whom are cadres ingénieurs [upper-level engineers], belongs to this group. As for Aymeric’s family inheritance (his father is a dental surgeon, his mother does not work), it is closer to an “old” bourgeoisie endowed with the most economic capital. Including these elements of discourse among the social determinants of these family trajectories makes it possible to highlight what Vincent de Gaulejac (2010) called “crises of succession” within the petite bourgeoisie. The present article analyses these crises with respect to the bourgeoisie, without appealing to De Gaulejac’s theoretical framework, which connects social and psychic determinants.

20In the following two sections, the examples of Aymeric and Marie demonstrate two distinct forms a crisis of succession may take. They also both show conditions under which the artist’s life can come to represent a site for accessing individuality that is all the more attractive because it produces an enchantment that exists alongside disenchantment with respect to one’s family.

From the Contradictions of Inheritance to the Loss of Patrimony

21Aymeric (35 years old) has had the most significant inheritance of the three interviewees and his family are long-standing members of the bourgeoisie. He benefitted from conditions that favored his success in school and in a multitude of cultural and athletic activities. But such an “objective” understanding of inheritance, understood as synonymous with resources, must be complemented by a “subjective” one having to do with the transmission of something both constraining and contradictory: Aymeric’s parents’ expectations for him both diverged from one another and conflicted with his own.

22Aymeric spent his early childhood in Paris in the building where his father had his office, “on the Champ de Mars,” one of the capital’s most upscale neighborhoods. His parents’ friends were doctors, lawyers, or “intellectuals,” mostly on the left. Aymeric recounts that his father became a dental surgeon after an “enormous course of study” lasting 14 years, adding that he was “considered an intellectual of his generation.” For example, he “helped Sartre start his newspaper” (Libération) and “knew Gide and all the great writers of that time.” His father, who grew up with both “the elite” and “the jet set,” made ostentatious usage of his economic capital when Aymeric was a child and an adolescent, and the family’s particularly luxurious lifestyle set it apart even within Paris’s 7th arrondissement:

“He had Afghan and Russian hounds. He bought enormous cars from America. When the other kids went on vacation to the Bois de Bologne or the Bois de Vincennes, I went skiing in Courchevel, I went to Cabourg, I went land sailing or boating…”

23This lifestyle was largely made possible by Aymeric’s father’s work. Although Aymeric’s mother had an inheritance from her family in Guadeloupe, which she had left in order to pursue her studies in musicology, she was not able to have the career as a concert pianist that she had dreamed of. “When she had only two children and was still young, she managed to dedicate herself to her studies and her family life at the same time,” Aymeric, the oldest of six boys, explains. His father decided to move the family to the countryside far from the capital, where Aymeric spent his late childhood and adolescence. His mother had to abandon her professional aspirations, and Aymeric declares, “My father locked my mother in a golden cage,” to illustrate her isolation.

24For Aymeric, the logical consequence of this was that his mother “poured” her frustration onto her children and projected on to them the career she would have liked to have had. “She couldn’t help but live vicariously through her children and do everything she could so that they would become successful musicians.” She became the manager of all his younger brothers, who today are well-known musicians. Aymeric was the only one not to follow this path, perhaps because he was the first inheritor of the power struggle between the two sides of his family and responded more strongly to his father’s expectations—namely, that he do well in school. In his account of his family’s conflicts and of his reasons for becoming an actor, he emphasizes his father’s influence. This is a recurring theme that we also find in Marie’s account below. Whereas mothers often play a decisive role in managing everyday life and in family’s social statuses, whether working class (Schwartz 1990) or bourgeois (Pinçon & Pinçon-Charlot 2016), fathers figure larger in individuals’ accounts, where they embody the lineage. This leads to the invisibilization of the role of mothers in primary socialization.

25To explain why school seemed “extremely easy” to him, Aymeric mentions, of course, the socio-economic conditions of his schooling—a private Catholic school in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, “200 meters from the Champ de Mars, surrounded by embassies,” he says, laughing at his privileges. But he also connects this ease to his internalization of his father’s expectations of him: “I was good at school because I was the perfect child. I played my role of the model child, the first-born son.” From middle school to high school, his father’s hopes in him were “justified.” His teachers had similar projections for him: “I was supposed to go on to study business or politics at one of the top schools [HEC-Sciences Po-ENA]. That was my trajectory. That’s what my teachers, my father, everyone told me I was going to do. Because I was destined for that, I was supposed to do that.”

26However, Aymeric’s childhood and adolescence involved more than just excelling in school. He was still in elementary school when the family left Paris to go live in “the far-off countryside” of the Eure-et-Loir region. Conditions there were ideal for him to pursue his passion for horseback riding: the house, an old restored farmhouse, was surrounded by a hectare of land. Thus he developed an eclectic athleticism, competing in sports favored by the upper classes and by his father—skiing and tennis—and playing soccer.

27But like many upper-class families who see sports as a secondary activity (Mennesson & Julhe 2011), his parents saw them as a leisure activity that could not be turned into a career. In addition to his father’s academic ambitions for him, his mother “absolutely” insisted that he play music. Against his wishes, beginning at age 5, he began to play the instruments favored by the bourgeois: piano, violin, flute. Thus, although athletic trainers recognized his “potential” and told his parents he could make sports his career, Aymeric was not supported in this direction, and faced categorical refusal and the threat of family rejection: “When I told them I wanted to become a ski instructor, my mother told me: ‘If you become a ski instructor you will never set foot in this house again. You will no longer be our son.’”

28These obstacles were part of what he calls a period of “disenchantment” during which he, through his friend group, turned to artistic activities, but as a form of reappropriation. He did this for pleasure, in opposition to the discipline imposed by his mother, and through a type of literature suited to his disposition at the time: 19th-century romantic literature, whose authors he describes as a “disenchanted generation,” and whose writing symbolized an “escape hatch” out of his family and his bourgeois life. He “amused himself” reading “all of Sartre, all of Victor Hugo,” and Alfred de Musset. Once again, he distinguished himself from his mother in terms of his way of apprehending music and more generally in how he appropriated various forms of art. We may consider that alongside his father’s imperative that he do well in school, his mother played a role in transmitting to him—even if by force—“musical capital” (Ravet 2007) and, more broadly, a built-in cultural capital.

29At the age of 18, after receiving his high school diploma, he registered at a private Catholic institute in Paris to continue his studies. There he enrolled in the history-geography track, which was also an intensive course of study designed to prepare students to take the competitive entrance examinations for the Paris Institute of Political Studies [Sciences Po]. But Aymeric felt disconnected from school and found no interest in the courses offered, in contrast to what he still felt for music and literature. He did not take his studies very seriously, and spent his time skiing, travelling, and “partying”; he did not receive his DEUG diploma.

30Aymeric summarizes: “My parents never supported me in what I really wanted. I did lots of little things, but could never go all the way with anything.” His inability to invest in one of the many possibilities open to him—sometimes because of the limits laid down by his parents—and his difficulty in fully investing in one of them for fear of eliminating the others, are two effects of his inheritance. He says he was “never able to decide.” An alternative finally appeared when he was 23 and met a former actor and acting teacher, who offered a vision of the actor as a unique individual who is at the same time able to embody a wide range of characters:

“I heard everything I needed to hear: why I didn’t know where I was headed, didn’t know what I was going to do; why I couldn’t commit to a conventional path and why I couldn’t commit to music; why I wasn’t able to commit either to sports or… […] He said: ‘This is a profession that allows you to live a thousand lives. You will never be one and the same person, living the same life, the same blahblah! You will be able to live all the lives you want!’ […] And he said: ‘Without consequences. Because once you leave the stage, everything you’ve lived up there won’t have any importance whatsoever when you’re outside.’”

31Here, imaginaries of the artist’s life combined to give him hope in a career as an actor: a lifestyle that would be different from ordinary routines and social rhythms, and the feeling of being able, at least in thought, to occupy all the positions of social space without being burdened by their restrictions. Thus, it is significant that Aymeric invested in a career by imagining himself “as a bohemian.”

“I decided to shape my life into the life of a struggling actor in order to fit in and have an experience that would be bit more human, so to speak, if for no other reason than to understand the parts I was playing and what I was doing…And that’s when I decided to become homeless [laughs]: to not have an apartment, rent, not to ask my parents for a cent anymore.”

32Here, material insecurity is transformed into authenticity and individuality and stands in contrast to a bourgeois inheritance that is the antithesis of the life of the “bohemian.” Aymeric’s relation to that life, however, remains marked by his social origins. His enchanted view of precarity denotes a certain upper-class ethos, turning what for others is a consequence of poverty into a distinctive act of risk-taking.

The Double Shame of a “Petit Milieu Bourgeois Beauf” in Light of Intertwined Social Relations

33Aymeric’s case is quite different from that of Marie (44 years old). Whereas Aymeric was born into the established Parisian bourgeoisie, economic ease, and enjoyed distinction and familiarity with legitimate culture, Marie’s trajectory was marked by the rise of her engineer father—who was the grandson of a laborer—and by the family’s relative social and geographical distance from legitimate culture. This difference is crucial to understanding these two individuals’ different relationships to their respective inheritances. While both perceive their inheritance as restrictive, Aymeric emphasizes its contradictions, while Marie’s is characterized by the socially constructed shame she feels regarding her parents.

34Of the three cases presented here, hers is the only one that will truly allow us to explore the interconnections of class dominance and male dominance, on the basis of three of the four principles for analyzing social relations proposed by Danièle Kergoat (2011: 18-20). First, the materialist principle requires that trajectories be viewed within the relations of exploitation that influence families’ material living conditions. Next, Marie’s case, and to a lesser degree’s Aymeric’s, make particularly visible a second principle, which involves identifying socio-historical constants, such as the gendered division of labor—here, within the couple. And finally, her case draws attention to the possible subversion of categories’ meanings in the pursuit of individual or collective emancipation.

A Family at the Center of Relations of Domination, Exploitation, and Oppression in their Hometown

35With a kind of revulsion, Marie situates her parents between the petite bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie: “It wasn’t even a working-class background—that would be something you could be proud of, but you come from a cruddy little milieu, a pretty hick bourgeois milieu.” These words reveal the relatively indeterminate position of upper-level employees [cadres], which has both bourgeois and petit-bourgeois traits. This is a reminder that cadres are often “recruited from outside,” with ascendants (such as Marie’s father) rubbing elbows with inheritors (Bosc 2008: 55). Marie’s view of the family’s social status is based on her negative judgment of what she sees as pretention—a pretention that betrays her parents’ desire to belong to a bourgeoisie to which they are newcomers. Her rejection also has to do with their traditional values, which she denigrates for being conservative.

36To understand this, the family’s trajectory must be understood in connection with that of a town in the Lorraine region that, until the early 1980s, was one of the most important industrial areas of France. Marie’s mother came from what Marie describes as “a super-rural background, very poor,” and Marie presents her as “a housewife.” After attending private school (a “school run by the nuns”), she gave French lessons in that same school. But, not having completed all the requirements for her high school diploma, and having already met her future husband, she “dropped” the idea of teaching in favor of her relationship with him. Her husband, an engineer at the main factory in town, embodied the upward mobility of the paternal side of Marie’s family since the time of her great-grandfather, who was a steelworker. This upward mobility corresponds to the rise, beginning the 1950s, of the cadres, who benefited from the legitimation of “white collar workers” (Bosc 2008: 13-20). The development of careers with advancement opportunities that lasted until the 1990s allowed a significant proportion of non-inheritors within that group to solidify their positions and to believe, as Marie describes her father believing, in merit based on work and academic success.

37This position was visible in particular in the family residence. Like all the other engineers at the factory, their house was “huge,” as was the garden. And it was bigger than the foreman’s house next to it and was located at the end of the street. “And after that came the cottages, that is, the workers’ housing,” Marie concludes, highlighting how this physical space corresponded to the professional hierarchies of the factory and the social hierarchies of the town. These hierarchies structured the social relations between inhabitants. This is illustrated by Marie’s story of a dinner she and her parents had at the apartment of an Algerian family whose father was a worker in the same factory as Marie’s father (the mother did not work). Marie sees this experience, when she was 8, as the beginning of her awareness of “a whole bunch of things” that would become important to her in her later trajectory.

38She describes the scene as her discovery of social domination: the condescension of a French family, whose engineer father is identified—and identifies—with the “boss,” is complemented by the immigrant worker’s reverence:

“I remember my father saying, very proudly, ‘Ah, my workers are inviting us over for couscous.’ […] My mother wore this sort of fur jacket. It was really like the bourgeois going over to the workers’! But such shitty bourgeois! My father, super paternalistic: ‘Oh, Mohamed, your couscous is so great, and your wife is charming.’ And the worker, when the boss arrives: ‘Oh sir, sir!’”

39The spatial proximity of the two families (in the town and in the factory) was no doubt an additional factor in Marie’s parents’ efforts to distinguish themselves from the immigrant couple and to display the signs of their social superiority.

40In this respect, the meal represents a miniature version of the local social space of the town and of the family’s place within it. Marie explains that the “bosses’ influence” extended into everyday life (“The factory paid for everything”: electricity, water, heat, the house, the Christmas tree…). To describe the consequences of the factory closing, she evokes a town that was economically “dead” and speaks of a “psychological disaster.” The family’s standard of living “fell” from one year to the next as a result of the layoffs and career slowdowns that affected cadres beginning in the 1990s (Bosc 2008: 54). Marie attributes the alcoholism of her father—now retired—to the disillusion created by his periods of unemployment, “the worst shame there could be” for someone whose social rise was accompanied by “boss worship” and denigration of the unemployed, who were incapable of “meeting the situation head on.”

  • 9 Marie’s father managed to “tumble into retirement” by becoming the part-time director of an organiz (...)

41Here, the principle of materiality is visible and especially relevant, since Marie either directly witnessed, or heard about from her parents, scenes that physically contrasted different members and social groups of her hometown. For the young Marie, these oppositions were visible in the structure of the town, which separated workers from foremen, upper-level employees from management, or in instances when workers’ deference was complemented by her parents’ efforts to distinguish themselves. Here we must mention the story of Marie’s father being locked up by “the workers” when the factory shut down because, as a cadre, he was associated in their minds with management. And we must also take into consideration what it meant for him to find himself unemployed, just like his subordinates, even if he was not affected in the same way as they were. Undoubtedly, the symbolic effects of his imprisonment added to the economic, moral, and psychological consequences of his being laid off. Through him, Marie’s family can be understood to be at the center of relations of exploitation, domination, and oppression—first as a vector, as part of the “trustworthy salaried class” subordinate to capital (Bouffartigues 2001), and then, with unemployment, as a victim. In short, the life of the factory lined up with the life of the family: it stands as a symbol of its ascent and loss of rank and of a kind of social failure mitigated by the father’s resources.9 Thus, we understand even better Marie’s shame of her parents, whose abrupt social downfall rendered their bourgeois pretentions obsolete.

42The violence of the social world thus marked Marie, who says she formed her identity “in reaction to” the town and the negative model of her parents: “It was, ‘I don’t want that life.’” This rejection came to a head when she decided to become an actress. “My parents cut ties with me the moment I decided to pursue this career.” They refused to help her financially when, in parallel with her studies in literature and philosophy, she began working as an actress and had to take “dumb jobs” (seasonal agricultural worker, salesclerk, cleaning lady, bathroom attendant in a nightclub…). Her parents’ rejection makes visible something else on which they based their hopes: in addition to “boss worship” there was the “cult of academic success” that had allowed three generations to attain an honorability compromised by their descent:

“When their oldest daughter, who was quite good in school, ultimately told them that she wanted to be an actress: ‘My God!” [...] The whole family was there, the cousins—you have to go to the best schools, have the best professions. It’s a kind of working-class family that rose up in three generations, and now it’s like, you can’t let up, keep going!”

43Marie’s rejection of her family inheritance thus went hand-in-hand with her family’s rejection of her as unworthy. Her shame is not that of rising “transclass” members (Jaquet 2014), for it is not about the domination her parents experienced, but rather the domination they exerted. In short, it is the shame of belonging to the dominant class.

Social and Male Domination via the Family

44Marie’s parents are also ashamed of their daughter for turning toward a profession from which they are distant and which they associated with marginality and deviance. “My father was still operating on the basis of the paradigm of the actress-whore—my parents are really old fuddy-duddies. For them, an actress meant Sarah Bernhardt sleeping with rich men. They told me I would die of AIDS by age 30, on drugs, and that I would be a whore before that.” These cognitive schemas draw on social judgement and gendered representations. Marie tells a story that for her reveals her parents’ conservatism:

“My mother, a housewife, the first time she went into a café with someone other than my father—it happened to have been with me—I was 18 and so she was almost 50, she said: ‘But don’t you realize, two women alone in a café, what will people say?’”

45The two-way shame between Marie and her parents is thus based on more than class domination, and points to another principle for analyzing the imbrication of social relations: the principle of invariants—in this instance, the division of the sexes. When Marie states that “my parents are really old fuddy-duddies,” her shame comes from two inseparable elements: their ignorance of class—which expresses what she sees as their trajectory as social climbers, and which causes them to associate the life of an artist with deviance and failure; and their sexist schemas of thought (the “schema of the whore actress”), evidenced by the anecdote about the café and Marie’s mother’s discomfort at the idea of two women, and in particular a married mother, alone in a public space “for men.”

46The domination of the paternal line can be observed when, for example, Marie describes her mother has having “a lot of hang-ups” about her farmer origins, in particular in relation to Marie’s paternal grandparents, considered more “cultured.” This manifests in her self-deprecating tendencies (“She was always saying that she was stupid, that she didn’t have…”) and in the propriety she imposed on herself—for example, buying etiquette manuals to learn how to behave with her husband’s family. For Marie, her father’s relationship to culture was more one of pretention than of ease; she recounts that as a teenager they would occasionally go to the theatre or to art exhibits, in particular, contemporary art shows, which would make her father “super violent,” and sometimes lead to him leaving in tears at not understanding their “codes.”

47Marie says that she inherited the “denigration” of the maternal line: “There was something that was not recognized by my father, who was from an extremely patriarchal and macho background, which made it so that girls were just not considered interesting.” She sees her anger and rebellion as the result of the lack of a valorized and valorizing place for her within her family, as she sums up with irony: “They put up barriers, telling me: ‘You’re a girl, you won’t do this or that.’ So that drove me nuts…”

48The artistic vocation here appears to be closely linked to experiences of social and gender domination. As with Aymeric, the domination of the paternal line echoes throughout Marie’s discourse, which attributes a mainly negative role to her mother (as a model not to follow), although she also seems to have been the driving force behind certain practices and aspirations. We may suppose that Marie’s mother’s cultural good will might have had something to do with Marie’s success in school and with her ability to pass the highly competitive entrance exam for a national dramatic arts school. Her mother’s influence can also be observed in the presence of books in the house: her mother ordered classical works of legitimate French literature by mail (Baudelaire, Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Ronsard, Diderot)—but did not read them. According to her daughter, these books were part of the “bourgeois decoration” of the house. Marie, on the other hand, appropriated these books for herself. She was “astounded” by the “joyful” and subversive elements of what she read, in comparison to her rigoristic education: “You think to yourself, ‘Holy shit, if my mom knew what was in her library!’” In addition to sensitizing her to the classics of French literature and to art more broadly and providing her with literary models that opened the door to other possibilities, the presence of this library constituted an advantage over other students (in middle school, Marie had already read the books discussed in class), and nurtured her future activities as an actress, director, and writer.

Social Engagement that Combines Class, Gender, and “Race”?

49The way Marie connects social and gender domination brings us to the third principle for analyzing social relations we find here: the ways in which individuals can perceive, reinterpret, and sometimes subvert the meaning of categories. Her case demonstrates the possibility of individuals taking a reflexive stance towards their family inheritance, and shows what might be done with this. With respect to her artistic and activist involvement in an organization that defends the democratization of culture and gender parity, she says that she is committed to desacralizing art and making it “accessible to everyone,” even if this means creating “cultural clashes”:

“I think it’s good to give people something to think about […]. Because there are a lot of things in the contemporary world that I don’t understand, because I’m kind of in a Parisian, intellectual, left-wing, bougie milieu, and it’s important for me to go rub elbows with women in the banlieue who have just immigrated here, or kids.”

50Let us note that this quote also draws attention to social relations of “race.” Marie appears to connect questions of gender, class, and race when she speaks of recently immigrated women in the banlieue. This echoes the dinner scene with Marie’s “French” (white) family and the North African (non-white) family, which was the occasion for several colonial clichés: Mohamed and his “charming wife,” couscous, the paternalism of the white man calling the “natives” by their first names, the deference of the Arab man responding by calling him “sir.” Marie’s sensitivity towards racial minorities is connected to her childhood in Lorraine, where dominated groups were primarily immigrants and the children of immigrants. This is no doubt why, in thinking of “the milieus of social misery,” she thinks of the urban “banlieue,” rather than of rural spaces, and on the topic of “recently immigrated women,” she thinks of women in the banlieue rather than those in bourgeois neighborhoods.

51From this angle, we may also wonder whether Marie sees the precarious fractions of the working classes (which include immigrants and the children of immigrants) as populations that are particularly disposed toward the sexism she strives to combat—in short, a social judgment coming from an established artist from the upper classes toward the poor. But we may also, at the same time, highlight her sense of injustice around the “codes” contained in artistic and cultural works, which maintain social boundaries. Thus, she presents her work as oriented toward deconstructing these codes for audiences who are in principle distant from legitimate culture—as her own newly bourgeois family was, albeit to a lesser degree. This is a form of social engagement similar to that of artists from working-class backgrounds who engage in “everyday activism” (Sorignet 2016) in order to build bridges between categories of audiences that do not usually come into contact.

52Finally, Marie’s case leads to a consubstantial reading of relations of domination that intertwine to form a “knot”—here, at the level of the individual rather than the group. Her attention to gender gives a certain tint to the shame she feels about her parents and that her parents feel towards her. Marie is ashamed to be the daughter of people she sees as having barely justified claims to the petite bourgeoisie, but also, inseparably, she is ashamed of the sexist and racist clichés she experiences and observes in her family and in her local place of origin. Thus, investigating her past, her primary socialization, and the various social relations that comprised it, has allowed us to better understand the meaning she gives to her social engagement (independent of the real forms this may take). “Giving women a voice, within milieus of social deprivation,” as Marie puts it, intermixing gender, class, and “race.”

Anticipatory Socialization to the Artist’s Life

53As we move from inter-individual variations towards more general observations, we are brought to a broader reflection on the ambivalent role of bourgeois family inheritance. Without taking into account the implications of the experience of dominations, we might have thought, at first glance, that parents’ familiarity with or social closeness to art and culture leads—in a causative and positive manner—to encounters with the practices, works, and figures of the artistic field. And indeed, sometimes unwittingly, parents do encourage their children’s identification with the life of an artist. It is in light of this that the cases of Béatrice, Aymeric, and Marie have made it possible to understand the crises of succession within their families—a task sometimes made difficult by enchanted discourses about the artistic vocation, which is rooted “in deep denial of the social mechanisms that participate in its formation at the collective and individual level” (Sapiro 2007: 7-8). This article shows how the contradictions of inheritance can become contradictions within inheritors, contained, for example, in the feeling of downward mobility, as when Béatrice says she is “depressed” to not be able to “reproduce the familial schema” in terms of lifestyle, and wonders if her “choices” (including the choice to become an actress) were not the result of an acceptance of “failure.”

54In this process, I have drawn particular attention to familial resistances, which are rarely considered to be of primary importance, or else are associated with the working classes and their lack of familiarity with artistic worlds. This is the figure of the “blocked vocation” theorized by Juan Carlos Pita Castro (2014) in relation to young aspiring Swiss artists, which becomes concrete in dashed hopes and failures. And whereas, among the cultivated classes, Philippe Coulangeon (2004) distinguishes between “inheritors” and “rebels” who adhere to adolescent “counter-cultures,” he specifies that it is less a matter of real hostility on the part of parents and more one of fear and hesitation around relatively unestablished professions and the uncertainty of success—their attitude tends to change with the first signs of success. In contrast, I have here emphasized the active and paradoxical—because involuntary and indirect—role of family resistances to a child becoming an artist. By looking into contradictions in inheritance, an ambivalent result has emerged: these resistances must not be interpreted as hindrances to children’s hopes, for this type of ordeal is an integral part of the development of the vocation, constructed in opposition to those who do not believe in it or do not see it as being of (professional) interest. The parents (or the father) see art as something “ornamental” rather than as a “serious activity” (Ravet 2007: 63). But in a sense, “the damage has been done”—an encounter with legitimate art and culture has been made possible.

55It is for this reason that I believe that “anticipatory socialization” (Merton 1949)—by which individuals detach from the values of their group of origin to take on those of their group of reference—can begin as early as primary socialization, and even before the influence of educational institutions and the institutions specific to a profession (in the cases Merton studied, the military institution). It is possible to reappropriate this concept, which originally came out of functionalism, and put it to dynamic use toward structuralist ends in order to express the process by which individuals turn their hopes toward the artistic field. This article has presented some of the conditions under which the illusio appears—that is, the gradual and variable prelude to the work of socialization that “tends to favor the transformation of the original libido, that is, of the socialized affects constituted in the domestic field, as one or another form of specific libido, in particular through the transference of this libido onto agents or institutions belonging to the field” (Bourdieu 2000, 165). I have focused primarily on the stage of “orientation towards,” rather than exploring in depth that of “access to,” which could have been used to show that anticipatory socialization cannot be considered an automatic or linear process leading to the integration of professional norms (Darmon 2016: 80-81)—in the same way that the adjustment between an original habitus and an arrival field through the intermediary of the illusio is not self-evident (Costey 2005). The later trajectories of my interviewees make such inter-individual differences clear. Aymeric is no longer an actor, having grown weary of a “performer’s life” filled with uncertainty, significant geographic mobility, and multiple jobs (for several years he worked each weekend as an entertainer in hotels and nightclubs “across all of France”). He confronted a new form of precarity when he started his own events company, which at the moment of the interview was not highly profitable. Nevertheless, this commercial path is compatible with bourgeois values (“entrepreneurial spirit,” agreeing to take financial risks) and with his father’s liberal profession. Thus we may speak here of a socialization of “transformation” for Aymeric, whose ethos retains the imprint of his inheritance and preserves strong links with his family. To the contrary, the case of Marie, who never saw her parents again, represents a socialization of “conversion” (Darmon 2016). If there was a time when she thought of changing careers because of financial difficulties, ultimately, she went on to be admitted to a major drama school, something Béatrice and Aymeric lacked. Today, she is an actress, director, and writer, recognized by her peers in the publicly subsidized theatre community—that is, by the legitimate representatives of the world of live performance in which she operates.


56Ultimately, this article reminds us that vocation is not intrinsic to a type of activity. The case of “ordinary” artists, for example, indicates that other modes of engagement exist within the artistic field (Bois & Perrenoud 2017). Hence, vocation must be studied on the basis of empirical cases that correspond to specific conditions. Charles Suaud (2018), in his comparison of various ideal types of vocation, emphasizes in particular the role of educational and recruiting institutions, which are absent from the literary field but near-omnipotent in the religious field. In the case of the performing arts and acting more specifically, the importance of training and of these institutions increases with time, and the selection effects and symbolic hierarchies that they create significantly structure careers (Katz 2005; Roux 2019). The example of the “petits rats de l’Opéra” school demonstrates that the bond between these institutions and the family can form very early on in the process of shaping a vocation (Laillier 2017). This article demonstrates the role of the family before this interdependent connection and even before future artists have made any professional artistic plans; thus, I have sought to shift the focus from training and selection institutions (and the moments and periods when interviewees have come into contact with them) towards interviewees’ original familial and social milieus. The constitution of a vocation has been seen to be closely linked to artists’ relationships to their bourgeois inheritance, either the constraints of their parents’ demands for academic and social success, or the shame they felt towards them. Like two sides of the same coin, an orientation toward the artist’s life thus results simultaneously from its intrinsic attraction and from what it symbolizes with respect to an individual’s biographical trajectory: a means of accessing a singularity made impossible or limited by parental expectations or projections, but also a way of leaving behind conflictual relations and their underlying relations of domination.

57This perspective complements that of Becker’s “art worlds” (1982), which focuses on the networks of co-operation at the origin of artistic works, as well as Menger’s understanding of the variable rationality of actors (Menger 2009). Both of those views tend to relegate processes of socialization that precede entry into the profession to the background of analysis, although such processes orient, at least in part, professional dispositions. In this article, on the contrary, the hypothesis of anticipatory socialization has been contructed through the lens of social trajectory, which has made it possible to cross-reference familial inheritance and social relations. In so doing, the goal was to advance our understanding of the encounter between a set of initial dispositions and a given field, and thus, to better understand the conditions for embracing an artist’s life that maintains some of its original enchantment.

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1 Compared to the rest of the workforce, performing artists are more likely to have a father who is a “cadre supérieur” [upper-level employee] (26% versus 11%) or who belongs to a “profession intermédiare” [intermediary profession] (24% versus 14%). 19% of their fathers are “workers” [ouvriers] and 24% of their fathers are “employees” [employés] (Gouyon & Patureau 2013: 153).

2 This article does not focus on the question of gender inequality in the performing arts (Buscatto 2007; Coulangeon & Ravet 2003) nor, in general, on the inequalities artists may face in the course of their career. Nor does the material I am drawing on allow for an in-depth exploration of the subject of racial inequalities (see Buscatto, Cordier & Laillier 2020).

3 Names have been changed.

4 The age and position of arrival correspond to the first interview conducted, during the year 2011.

5 École nationale supérieure des arts et techniques du théâtre [National School of Theatre Arts and Techniques]

6 According to data from the Ministry of Culture and the INSEE [French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies], just 10% of artists account for over half of total salaries earned in the field, raising the average income for artists. In 2009, those who received unemployment benefits in accordance with Annex 10 had annual revenue of 24,200 euros (2,017 euros per month). In 2011, approximately a third of artists had income below the median for France, including 10% who were below the poverty line (Gouyon & Patureau 2013: 2014).

7 See the website HF Île-de France on gender equality in the arts and culture:

8 Insofar as the educational levels of fathers are not precisely known, I refer to the professions they practice and the educational credentials these professions require, and/or to information gathered during interviews.

9 Marie’s father managed to “tumble into retirement” by becoming the part-time director of an organization that helps individuals develop businesses.

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Nicolas Roux, « From the Bourgeoisie to the Life of an Artist: Crises of Succession and Anticipatory Socialization »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 10 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2022, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Roux

Maître de conférences en sociologie, Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne, CEREP, CEET

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