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Remi Clignet, Death, Deeds, and Descendants: Inheritance in Modern America, with an introduction by Jens Beckert and Brooke Harrington

New Brunswick (NJ/USA) and London (UK), Aldine Transaction Publishers, 2009
Carol J. Greenhouse
p. 260-261
Référence(s) :

Remi Clignet, Death, Deeds, and Descendants: Inheritance in Modern America, with an introduction by Jens Beckert and Brooke Harrington, New Brunswick (NJ/USA) and London (UK), Aldine Transaction Publishers, 2009.

Texte intégral

1Remi Clignet’s classic study of inheritance in the United States, originally published in 1992, has been reissued – a welcome development for a new generation of scholars ready to appreciate the compelling yet subtle force of his argument. The book is, in effect, an argument by demonstration concerning the relevance of law in private life, the interpretive ambiguities of testacy with respect to family life, and the relevance of the study of intergenerational wealth transfers for sociology’s theoretical engagement with issues of social and cultural reproduction. Several broad economic and political developments in the decades since the book’s first publication no doubt will have prepared a broad reception for these arguments. The widespread neoliberalization of capitalism has pervasively blurred the conventional distinction sociolegal theorists once drew between the public and private sectors. In the United States, the response to economic strain has resulted in pressures against unions, as well as wage suppression and various forms of labor market instability -- deepening the vulnerability of working people and their heirs, notably benefits packages that included health insurance and pension funds. Further, in the United States, the politicization of neoliberalism has greatly empowered critics of taxation in two areas relevant to Clignet’s project: in relation to so-called «entitlements» (the economic safety net protecting the elderly and the poor: Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and welfare) as well as in relation to what those critics call «the death tax», i.e., federal and state taxes imposed on the largest estates. Contemporary readers – especially but not only in the United States – are likely to perceive quickly the relevance of Clignet’s themes for sociology and sociolegal studies.

2The insight at the core of Clignet’s analysis is that inheritance by the legal instrument popularly known as «the will» makes visible the complex symbolic role law plays in the intimate solidarities and fissures of personal life. In this, Clignet crafts a creative extension-by-inversion of Durkheim’s thesis (propounded in La division du travail social)regarding the criminal sanction as the index of law’s symbolic functions in relation to mechanical and organic solidarity. Where Durkheim’s emphasis is on the subjective implications of public life, Clignet looks the other way, toward the way the family life cycle generates particular demands for law. Clignet urges us to look to wills as evidence of the ways individuals enlist the law’s support for their efforts to choreograph the distribution of their material assets as they anticipate their own demise – and he leaves readers with the compelling implication that testators align their strategies with what they understand to be community norms. This claim is not offered as an argument as such; however, it is suggested at various points as Clignet details the assumptions guiding his overall subject and its implications for sociology.

3As he notes at the outset (as a keynote echoed in the elegant new introduction by Jens Beckert and Brooke Harrington), Clignet’s concerns are not just with testamentary practices but with social reproduction more generally. His sources are wide ranging, including extensive bodies of literature on social and cultural reproduction, the sociology and ethnography of the United States, cultural studies of law, inheritance practices in sociocultural theory, and temporality as a dimension of sociological theorizing. He writes engagingly about the many forms «inheritance» may take, both tangible and intangible. (On all of these points, his extensive bibliography adds to the value of this new paperback edition as a resource for scholars and students). In addition to those more conceptual chapters, he also undertakes his own study of testacy, reported mainly in two of the book’s middle chapters. Drawing mainly on federal datasets from 1920 and 1944 (the only IRS datasets available to him), Clignet finds regional, ethnic and gendered effects in patterns of testacy. Much has changed in the United States affecting the legal and social contexts of inheritance, but the basic structure most significant to Clignet’s claims regarding community norms remains in place: probate is local, falling within the legal jurisdiction of the member states, but estates are exposed to taxation at both the state and federal levels – thus traversing communities and legal regimes of differing scales.

4One may wish to argue with some of Clignet’s assumptions and inferences, but no more so than the author himself, as he is refreshingly candid throughout as to the potential limitations (both conceptual and methodological) of his project, and in this the book is provocative in the best sense. In any case, the book’s contributions lie beyond the scope of any narrow debate. Clignet is primarily concerned to place inheritance on the sociological agenda as a corrective to more structural and static approaches, and in the process, to counter a pervasive liberal individualism and its naturalization of the myth of free choice. In addition, the book stands as a compelling demonstration of the fact that «modern America» is intricately divided with respect to its attitudes toward private wealth and the legitimacy of law in effecting its circulation, including the making of generations.   

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Carol J. Greenhouse, « Remi Clignet, Death, Deeds, and Descendants: Inheritance in Modern America, with an introduction by Jens Beckert and Brooke Harrington »Droit et cultures, 65 | 2013, 260-261.

Référence électronique

Carol J. Greenhouse, « Remi Clignet, Death, Deeds, and Descendants: Inheritance in Modern America, with an introduction by Jens Beckert and Brooke Harrington »Droit et cultures [En ligne], 65 | 2013-1, mis en ligne le 03 octobre 2013, consulté le 04 décembre 2021. URL :

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