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Wilfried Lignier, Julie Pagis, L’Enfance de l’ordre

Corentin Roquebert (English translation)
Traduction de Chloé Paris et Emily Talpey
Cet article est une traduction de :
Wilfried Ligner et Julie Pagis, L’enfance de l’ordre, Comment les enfants perçoivent le monde social
L'enfance de l'ordre
Wilfried Lignier, Julie Pagis, L'enfance de l'ordre. Comment les enfants perçoivent le monde social, Paris, Seuil, coll. « Liber », 2017, 325 p., ISBN : 978-2-02-134303-8.

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Notes de la rédaction

Review translated by Chloé Paris (ENS de Lyon) and Emily Talpey (Columbia University, Barnard College), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

Texte intégral

1“How do children, in their daily lives, manage to understand the social order so that they can position themselves within it, classify themselves and classify others socially?” This book proposes to answer this question by presenting the results of an ethnographic survey in two Parisian elementary schools. Straightaway, we can note two aims in this investigation. The first is to understand a population through empirical research in childhood sociology, and the second is to formulate an answer to an important theoretical question in sociology – what does socialization mean? This inquiry is certainly ambitious, but the researchers’ rationale is clear and persuasive. Instead of viewing socialization (i.e. the (re) production of the social order, or at least the perception of it) as an imitation or mimicry of parental and school-related models, the authors interpret socialization through a phenomenon they call “recycling”. This word refers to the fact that children take on suggested roles acquired in particular practical contexts and then repeat them in other settings.

  • 1 These questions (notably those of the transition from a passive reception to a passive production) (...)

2To put it another way, the two sociologists draw upon Bourdieu’s question of “practical sense”1 by providing precise empirical indications about the “sociogenesis of habitus”. By aiming to “understand how children go about symbolically organizing the society to which they belong” (p. 19), this book grapples with the way in which perception frameworks imposed on children in daily contexts (clean vs. dirty, good vs. bad, etc.) are used by the children to build their own perception of the social world. This book contributes to the debate on the autonomy of the children by offering a strong empirical argument against the theories of children as free agents of their own socialization. Meanwhile, it concedes that a group of peers can be, under a certain set of conditions, a powerful social force.

3One of the main challenges of this research is noting how the children’s representations of social order differ according to their social characteristics. The study brings these differences to light by hinging them upon the classic variables in sociology: the child’s gender, his or her social background and migratory origin. Children were the only individuals interviewed during the study, and the researchers perceived and analyzed these differences through the words the children themselves used. The cases presented are, however, analyzed in detail to show that what matters most is the socializing experience and not the childrens’ statistical categories. Age, also a factor considered in the study, and is used to explain differences in perception, level of speech, and even a more direct relationship to the study. It is thus considered less as a biological phenomenon than as an indicator reflecting the probability of having experienced different social situations.

  • 2 Basil Bernstein, Langage et classes sociales. Codes socio-linguistiques et contrôle social, Paris, (...)

4The first chapter mostly addresses the different ways in which the children responded to the interviewers depending upon whether they were interviewed at home or in school. These places were the two major socialization factors analyzed throughout this text. For example, the study revealed that children from middle and upper classes families were more willing to respond to the interviewers’ questions. Sociologists associate this with the children having learned a “code”2 promoting the expression of personal opinion. In addition to this, working class children, who often live in smaller families and in smaller spaces, are socialized in an environment that is less isolated from adults. This can lead the children to interaction with the interviewers in ways that are less “childlike”.

  • 3 Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, “Finding one's way in social space: a study based on games”, So (...)

5The second chapter of the book uses a tried and tested methodology to analyze the strategies children implement to classify occupations. The methodology consists of asking the children to rank cards with job names. The researchers revitalize the methodology by spending a lot of time analyzing the different forms of rationalization the children use to justify their choices. In this case, the ethnographic focus of the researchers is sharper. They examine the role of images accompanying the professions3, the role of peers, the words that are used and reprised during interactions with peers or with the researchers. All of these are endowed with different meanings, depending on symbolic baggage that each child has. The end result then shows how the child’s categorization shifts, particularly as he or she ages, from an associative approach to categorization that includes multiple criteria and that is justified in ways that are self-centered, tautological, or based on anecdote, to hierarchical and abstract classification, with a stronger use of general criteria used to rank jobs (according to social utility, level of responsibility, salary, etc.).

6The third chapter studies these same rationales of “recycling” but applied to “more localized, incarnated and intimate perceptions of social order” (p. 155), that is, judging their classmates. These judgments entailed “considering the relationship between subjective affinities and the existence of an objective social distance” (p. 156). In the first phase, through the answer to a questionnaire administered in all the classes of the 2 schools, the researchers carried out an analysis of the ordinary socializing networks of the children. They found in the results, a strong preference for other people of the same gender, as well as class and race. Then, through one-on-one interviews, sociologists asked the children, “who are your friends?” and, “who do you not like being in your class?” How do children rationalize their negative response towards individuals “that the objective social order keeps at bay?” (p. 167). It is very rare for social differences to be explicitly evoked, thus showing the “recycling” phenomenon of the frames of reference that children are exposed to over the course of their socialization. Hostility toward their peers can, for example, be based upon poor grades, disruptive behavior in class, writing difficulties (which reflect the frame of reference pertaining to school), or judgments about personal hygiene or physical appearance.

7Finally, the last chapter of the book concentrates on children’s perceptions of politics. In addition to the different levels of exposure to politicals (which informs the (dis)taste for the profession of politician), the chapter analyzes the role of the media as a means of perception that is usually enabled by a familial environment, and how, particularly, it affects the acquisition of certain frames of reference. The same recycling process takes place here: children make inferences based on the reactions they perceive (reactions to certain media content, for example), based on the preferences of their socializing agents (parents, teachers, peers, etc.), and assimilate these preferences as own. This example provides an opportunity for the authors to show how social context plays into the learning of new ways of schematizing the world: children first absorb an opposition (left/right for instance) before being able to give it meaning. In other words, they “first know which political opinions they should have before knowing why” (p. 274).

8Furthermore, the authors try to grasp accurately the effects of situations in which the ethnographic material (data), which is very present in the narrative and analysis of the survey, is constituted and then extract the scientific results. For example, the researchers noticed in the study that the younger the children, the more likely they were to say they like the “right”. After further investigation on the meaning given to this category, during the interviews or in the open questions of the study, the researchers understood that “right” is to be taken in its concrete meaning of laterality, the children connecting it to the hand they use (or not) for writing. Instead of supposing to an flaw in the study, the researchers argue on the contrary that it provides an additional support to their “recycling” model, since their model testifies to the high correlation between social rules and the control of one’s own body: “Thus the emergence of a new category of perception depends above all on the initial practical situation of the children, which is to say the injunctions that usually act upon children” (p. 257).

  • 4 This leaves both the possibility of internalizing the categories that dominate us or, on the contra (...)

9In short, whether we consider their perceptions of various occupations, of politics or of their classmates, we observe this phenomenon of recycling those frames of reference that children experience and construct in other spheres of practice4. This notion also enables us to think about the unforeseen effects of socialization: indeed, in recycling, there is an element of improvisation and thus a potential for discrepancy or misalignment. As the authors remind us, however, the means used by this symbolic reproduction of the social order are always enforced from the outside (which provides framework of possibilities). When the misalignment is too great (if the recycling selects the wrong elements, one might say), the socializing agents exercise a strong “reframing” power over children. This framing-reframing pattern is also carried out by a number of institutions – notably through language, inasmuch as it shows the shift between different orders, from words that order actions into words that ground the (relative) stability of the social order.

10Before concluding, because part of the goal of a review is to provide a critique, I would add that one potential weakness is the way in which researchers used quantitative data along rationales that are at times too lax and not accurate enough. For example, the average rankings of occupations within a group were used to show similarity in the perception between both jobs, when it would have been more judicious to measure the dissimilarity between these two jobs in each individual ranking. Ultimately, this book makes an important contribution to sociology in several ways. It combines a study of socialization incentives, categorization, articulation of the social world, with theoretical perspectives on the practical meaning on the relationships between language, cognition, and social order.

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1 These questions (notably those of the transition from a passive reception to a passive production) are considered here not through a classical approach in terms of incorporation, but through the prism of language, linking social structure and cognition, and that the authors defend through a reading cultural psychology (particularly Lev Vygotski, Pensée et langage, Paris, La Dispute, 1997 [1934]).

2 Basil Bernstein, Langage et classes sociales. Codes socio-linguistiques et contrôle social, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1993.

3 Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, “Finding one's way in social space: a study based on games”, Social Science Information, 1983. Bernard Zarca, “Le sens social des enfants”, Sociétés contemporaines, 1999.

4 This leaves both the possibility of internalizing the categories that dominate us or, on the contrary, using alternative schemas and classifications (although the authors note that these resistant strategies are not very present at this age).

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Corentin Roquebert (English translation), « Wilfried Lignier, Julie Pagis, L’Enfance de l’ordre », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 05 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Corentin Roquebert (English translation)

PhD. Candidate at the Max Weber Center

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