GEMASS is a joint research unit (UMR 8598) associated with Sorbonne University and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). It was founded in 1971 by Raymond Boudon and remained under his direction until 1998. Mohamed Cherkaoui took over from 1999 to 2009, which is when it merged with the Centre d’études sociologiques de la Sorbonne (Sorbonne Center for Sociological Studies), a center with which it already had a close scientific relationship. Olivier Galland directed the unit from 2010 to 2018. In 2018–2019, Pierre Demeulenaere and Gianluca Manzo were the interim director and deputy director respectively, before Michel Dubois took over in September 2019, with Beate Collet as deputy director.
The unit’s premises are spread across two sites in Paris: the Pouchet site at 59–61 Rue Pouchet (17th arrondissement), as well as within the Sorbonne’s Maison de la recherche (Research Center) located at 28 Rue Serpente (5th arrondissement).
GEMASS researchers share the same scientific ambition: to contribute to the production of rigorous empirical knowledge in the field of sociology, in close connection to sociological theory.
Raymond Boudon, founder
Raymond Boudon, founder of GEMASS and its director from 1971 to 1999, died in Paris on April 10, 2013. His work, recognized by the international community, places him among the most significant sociologists of the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century.
More about Raymond Boudon
4 research focus areas
- Social mechanisms and rationality of the actor (supervisor: Gianluca Manzo)
- Science and cognition (supervisor: Michel Dubois)
- Norms and economic sociology (supervisor: Pierre-Marie Chauvin)
- Sociology of inequalities (supervisor: Cyril Jayet)
Research focus 1: Social mechanisms and rationality of the actor
Over the course of the last twenty or so years, an abundant literature has emerged on the concept of mechanism within the philosophy of science, political science, and sociology. Debates have taken place around several concepts: first, around epistemology (what is the nature of explanation by mechanisms?); second, around theory (which theory of action brings us the furthest in understanding social mechanisms?); and last, around methodology (what are the most appropriate methods for applying explanations framed in terms of mechanisms?).
These debates are also striking due to the variety of theoretical views that interest the researchers active in this literature, who deliberate together on the definition of the word “mechanism”: pragmatists, cultural sociologists, rational choice theorists, and analytical sociologists are all present in the discussion. The same goes for methods: promoters of computer simulation, defenders of the experimental approach, and, on the qualitative side, researchers working in the perspective known as “process tracing,” all try to make the notion of mechanism operational for empirical research.
Starting from an open definition—according to which a mechanism is a structured set of constrained actions and interactions which, under specific conditions, regularly generates a given macroscopic result— the work carried out by GEMASS aims to contribute to these debates around the concept of mechanism simultaneously on the levels of epistemology, theory, and methodology. On the epistemological level, the question of causality and models is at the heart of our concerns; on the theoretical level, we give a central place to reflection on the theory of action and social interactions; and with reference to methodology, the use of advanced statistical methods as well as innovative approaches such as computer simulation and big data analysis techniques are of particular interest to us. One unique characteristic of the laboratory is to couple theoretical reflection with empirical research, often from an interdisciplinary perspective, by collaborating in particular with physicists, computer scientists, and economists, so as to advance the perspective of generating mechanisms by applying it to targeted research objects rather than being confined to metatheoretical reflexivity.
Research focus area 2: Science and cognition
Many recent—and often spectacular—scientific and technological developments have a connection to the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, on the level of at least three topics of research in the “Sciences and cognition” focus area.
First, these developments call for renewed sociological analysis of the logics which currently govern their organization, their financing, the production of their discourse, as well as the mechanisms of their reception in the “general public” and their connection to common knowledge. On a theoretical and methodological level, the work carried out around this topic adopts a “medium range” approach to the sociological analysis of science, which is distinguished from micro-centered approaches as well as from global visions in the study of science.
Second, this spectacular development of science and technology also has direct social consequences—particularly where nuclear power and biotechnology are concerned. The work carried out on this topic is therefore intended to be extended into research on environmental questions (for example, the effects of nuclear power, the theory of eco-cultural systems, and the future of threatened forests) as well as on the question of risk.
Third, the development of the life sciences—more specifically, of the cognitive sciences and their stated ambitions (often considered “hegemonic”) with regard to social sciences—constitute a major challenge for the social sciences. It is a question here of showing, beyond sharp epistemological oppositions, that it is possible to articulate views developed in the social sciences with certain views developed in cognitive sciences without mutual reductions, provided that sufficient attention is paid to a crucial mechanism largely neglected by the social sciences, as a result of their often internal and decontextualized conception of cognition: “social interaction.” The objective here, as before, is to conduct this research by closely combining empirical inquiry—in particular on human/animal interaction, cultural evolution, and collective beliefs—with theoretical reflection, while striving to implement effective interdisciplinarity.
Research focus area 3: Norms and economic sociology
The “Norms and economic sociology” focus area endeavors to deepen the analysis of contemporary economic functioning in three main areas: the role of norms in the functioning of economic life, the functioning of markets, and non-market exchanges.
Both economic sociology and institutional economics have insisted on the importance of the rules of organization of economic life. The justification of these rules remains, to a large extent, unexamined. We explore it from two points of view: one, based on the economic literature, is to study the normative positions of economists vis-à-vis the rules governing economic life, beyond the notion of Pareto optimality (and its variants). The problem of negative externalities is also addressed in order to show that it goes beyond strictly economic considerations. The other point of view is interested in more “ordinary” judgments on the norms to be adopted with regard to economic life (in particular from surveys on the subject).
The functioning of markets is an important point in current economic sociology. A book on the sociology of reputation is underway, seeking to identify the forms that reputations take in contemporary markets, as well as their causes and effects. The objective is to compare the economic literature on reputation with other fields for which reputation is relevant (in particular the worlds of art, politics, and education). Do the reputations of banks, brands, or individuals follow the same logic of formation, preservation, and possibly “crisis”? Is the question of “e-reputation” in the process of renewing traditional issues of “offline” reputation? The sociology of markets is also applied to digital media through the issues of handling (personal) data and the conditions of its economic valuation.
Lastly, the functioning of markets is examined on the basis of the methods of matching supply and demand. Reflection on this question is organized around a “sociology of matching” research group, aimed at pooling expertise on a wide range of matching methods (centralized or decentralized, algorithmic or by human decision), in various markets (particularly the labor market) and various non-market areas (organ transplants, prisons, healthcare, schools, dating sites, etc.). The project is planned for a period of three years and is expected to lead to a joint publication. In addition, first contacts have been made with Brazilian colleagues from the University of São Paulo to initiate an international research project on matching practices that goes beyond the market/non-market distinction.
Research focus 4: Sociology of inequalities
We all know Tocqueville’s famous aphorism according to which the progressive equalization of conditions contributes to the passion for equality, which itself becomes a fundamental value of modern societies. In line with this development, equality—or, more precisely, inequality—has been a central subject of sociology since the discipline was born. However, the founding fathers did not use this term, laying the foundations for a sociology of social stratification revolving around the notion of social class, whether from a binary and antagonistic perspective in the Marxist tradition, or from a perspective of continuity in the Weberian tradition. Later on, the question of social mobility and the role of family and school in the transmission of positions comes to the fore.
GEMASS, for its part, has fueled sociological reflection on these central issues, with founder Raymond Boudon at the helm: one of his major works on the inequality of opportunity presents a theory of social mobility in modern societies and remains extraordinarily current. It was, unquestionably, a visionary work. GEMASS carried out research on behalf of the Commissariat général du Plan (French General Planning Commission) in the wake of this book, in the rather different field of the perception of inequalities and social justice (1974). Thirty-five years later, our unit took up this research again in collaboration with Michel Forsé’s team at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (CMH, Maurice-Halbwachs Center) by carrying out a survey titled Perception des inégalités et des sentiments de justice (PISJ 2009, “Perception of inequalities and feelings of justice”), then again in 2013 after being selected by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR, French National Research Agency) to lead in-depth research on a related issue (the Dynegal project). These two projects made it possible to carry out large-scale surveys, the data of which are available to researchers and can give rise to numerous complementary analyses.
GEMASS has thus acquired first-rate experience regarding the formation of representations of inequality and social justice, which it intends to continue developing. In addition, the laboratory is carrying out more theoretical work on social stratification and the redefinition of the concept of inequality, fueled by the increasingly pertinent question of discrimination and demands for recognition.