Seeing Others and the Importance of Recognition, With Michèle Lamont
Recognition is the currency of belonging. It’s not about what you have, but who you are. In this episode, we explore the critical and often overlooked aspect of achieving true equity and inclusion in our society. Our featured guest, Michèle Lamont, sociologist and author of Seeing Others: The Sociological Ethnography of Recognition, guides us through the importance of recognition and how it serves as the bedrock for a more inclusive world. Michèle touches on several issues throughout the episode, such as the American dream, the impact of AI, tribalism, and the role of cultural entrepreneurs. Diving into her extensive interviews and studies, Michèle discusses how individuals and organizations can become catalysts for change by connecting to others and creating a force multiplier effect. Tune in now and discover how recognition can shape a brighter and more inclusive future for all of us.
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/michele-lamont/
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Seeing Others – Recognition As A Foundation For Equity And Inclusion, With Michèle Lamont
Harvard University Sociologist and Author
My guest is Michèle Lamont. Michèle Lamont is a Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University. As a cultural and comparative sociologist, she is the author or coauthor of a dozen books and edited volumes and over one hundred articles and chapters on a range of topics including culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods.
Her book, Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How It Can Heal a Divided World, was published last September 2023. She has earned numerous accolades over the years and is a well-recognized leader in her field. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area. Michèle, welcome. Thank you for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me.
Let’s start by talking about your book, Seeing Others. What prompted you to write it and what’s its overarching message?
I decided to write this during the Trump years because I felt like after decades of growing inequality, it was challenging to see Latinos, for instance, being vilified. You had also movements. It seems like the idea of creating a more inclusive society was going a little bit backward. I also wrote a book, The Dignity of Working Men, where I’m very sensitive to the question of how workers seek to get dignity and respect. I was interested in how can we give dignity and respect to the largest possible number. That book is my attempt to tackle that question.
You made a point early in the book that stuck with me. You said whether groups are recognized and afforded dignity, it is as important to their flourishing as human beings just as vital to their drive to be all they can be. Talk about why that’s so important.
Our society, American society is extremely well equipped to convince people that getting rich is important, and yet we’re not necessarily equipped to understand why and how people struggle to feel respect and why groups that are even very poor in resources like low-income people would want to have respect as well.
The goal of the book was to give people a vocabulary, to try to make sense of how this works, and how being seen through the eyes of others is essential to our self-concept. There are also very important books, for instance, The Science of Dignity by Hitlin and Andersson that offer very compelling evidence that at the level of subjective well-being and physical well-being, both are essential to us doing well. The flourishing of human beings requires respect.
When you are one of those marginalized populations and you live day-to-day, having that weight on your shoulders, it can’t help but affect your mental and physical health.
This course we have in our society like criticism, the woke culture underestimates how essential it is to everyone. It’s not only for Black people or downwardly mobile working-class people, it’s for everyone, for children who want to be seen by their parents, through the eyes of their parents. We know, for instance, since your audience is partly interested in work, that surveys of why work is important to people are that what people find rewarding is not only the money they get from their work but also the relationships in the work context. It allows them to gain self-actualization and a lot of other things. It can also be a source of alienation, but the relationship, even in work that is alienating, becomes often important to people. We have to think more about these things.
We spend more of our waking hours at work than we do doing pretty much anything else. It’s only natural that it is an important part of our identity, how we look at ourselves, and, as you say, our self-actualization.
The fear of downward mobility that has come after, especially the 2008 recession as many people overwork. With overwork came often anxiety about downward mobility and also a sense of being overwhelmed. We also need to learn to reflect on what work does to our psyche. Both positive and negative aspects try to maximize the positive impact as opposed to just feeling like we are on this hedonistic treadmill of working hard to accumulate more, which may lead people to be depleted and anxious. We need to keep things in balance.
Can you talk about it in the context of the American dream? The idea is that any of us can do or be anything that we want to be, that we can raise our station in life, that each generation’s going to be better off than the ones before it. It inspired so many people to come to the US. What drives Americans, whether you’re born in the United States or an immigrant, is to strive for more, but achieving that ideal is a lot harder for some people than it is for others.
It often goes hand in hand with this ideology of meritocracy which says that people who succeed very well have more work ethic, self-control, and all kinds of things that are viewed as morally superior. This meritocracy myth doesn’t take into consideration the fact that we start with very different starting points. If you have parents, if you live in a neighborhood with good schools, it’s like being on an escalator. It facilitates everything.
At the same time, since we live in societies, it’s true of the UK as much as the US where college-educated professionals are constantly celebrated in the media. It’s very easy for working-class people to see themselves as losers because they never see very positive images of themselves reflected on the Netflix series that they watch, for instance. The American dream, there’s no question, has brought generations upon generations of immigrants to the US and it has something very positive to say, “You can be what you want to be.”
The downside is exertion and exhaustion for those who are striving too much. Also, implicitly the message is those who don’t succeed in the same way are viewed a little bit as second-class citizens, especially if they cannot survive by themselves. If they need to use public resources, then they commit the dual sin of lacking self-reliance, which is almost as bad as not being upwardly mobile. Welfare recipients, immigrants, and any group that is viewed as depending on the collective resources are condemned, especially by the working class.
When I wrote this book, The Dignity of Working Man, I would ask him questions such as, “What people do you feel inferior or superior to?” The main categories they pointed to are people like renters because they’re viewed as not able to accumulate and welfare recipients. They often associated these categories with a nonracial minority. The moral condemnation would cover at once the class groups in the lower half of the social structure, but also a nonracial minority, both feeding each other.
Ultimately, we are more than our race or ethnicity. We are more than our economic status in life. You argue in the book for a broader definition of viewing the worth of a person in terms of how we view ourselves or how we view others.
The argument is very much that we need to move from a single hierarchy based on socioeconomic success and competitiveness, our ability to succeed materially to a plurality of ways of understanding who’s worthy. This is important to have a healthier society where a plurality of people can succeed because we have a plurality of criteria of worth. Giving true work to caregivers, people who take care of the elderly and children, spiritual leaders, and many other activities that may be underappreciated. Talk about elementary school teachers who play such a cultural role in our society.
People who work in the care fields also are typically underpaid relative to the value that they bring to society. You mentioned on the flip side, you got the people who do have that escalator working in their favor, but they still have that fear of falling economically that came to a head after the economic crisis, which can become all-consuming.
It’s this idea of the hedonistic treadmill, as you called it, the hyper-competition. With people around them, there’s always somebody who has more, who’s wealthier, who’s seemingly more successful, and then people end up staying in jobs that don’t make them happy or that they don’t feel like they’re successful at because they’re fearful of losing that status in life. How do you get yourself off that treadmill?
Often it’s a mental health crisis. They’re conditions where people have no choice but to reexamine what they’re doing. The book is based on 185 interviews with change agents, people like standup comics or Hollywood creatives whose job is to create new narratives that encourage people to think differently about groups that are marginalized.
I give the example of the show Transparent, which presents a middle-aged trans woman who becomes a translator in life, and then has to negotiate her identity with her adult children. You see all the complexities of this. There are also 80 interviews with college students who were, at the time we interviewed them, Gen Zs. They are people who for the most part don’t believe in the American dream because they were preceded by the Millennials who got on the job market with the Great Recession and were never able to buy houses.
This dream of the white picket fence seems increasingly unreachable and that has created a lot of mental health problems with these generations, but it also brings them to create another ideal of what they think life should be about. Inclusion is very much at the center of what they want. Therefore some of them are fighting for pronouns that are not binary or for restrooms that our unisex and a lot of Boomers don’t understand that. They think these are snowflakes or too fragile.
The book makes a case that we need to pay attention to that generation in part because they are sending us messages about how Boomers have screwed up the environment with this obsession with big cars and lawns. Instead of planting trees, we have grass everywhere, which is better for the environment, etc. How can we jolt people out of this life where they might be unhappy and oriented toward being work-obsessed and not finding much satisfaction?
Opening our minds to understanding what other generations want has been productive for me. Especially if you have children who are young adults, you cannot just buck your head. You have to open yourself to understanding what drives them. Also, generally to toward the younger generation who are so upset that the environment is falling into pieces. Contemplating seriously what the future is ahead of us is very important.
Certainly that generation, there is a strong sense that others have spoiled the party for them. They’re going to be left along with their children and their grandchildren and so on to deal with the mess that’s been created by the Boomers, Gen X, and their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. How does that affect what you learned in your research, your interviews with these Gen Z people, how they think about their careers in terms of what they’re aiming to do, and how they define success? If it’s not the American dream, what is it for them?
We did 80 interviews. Half of them are from the Midwest, the other one from the East Coast. Gen Zs were born after ‘97. When we interviewed them in 2019, they were starting college. We re-interviewed them during the pandemic in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement. What we found is they’re American kids. Many of them believe in hard work and being agentic, putting your life together, showing some entrepreneurialism.
Unlike many Boomers or Gen X, they are very passionate about having a work-life balance. They’re very attentive to their mental health. They don’t think that living for work is good. They believe in connecting with other human beings in a very authentic and genuine way. Leading their life in the closet or pretending that they’re not who they are is anathema to them.Gen Zs believe in connecting with other human beings in a very authentic and genuine way. Leading their life in the closet or pretending that they're not who they are is anathema to them. Click To Tweet
In one paper that is fed this chapter on Gen Zs, we say that they braid four different themes. 1) The American dream and hard work. 2) Mental health and work-life balance. 3) This is the theme of what I call ordinary cosmopolitanism. The idea is that we share a lot as human beings, people are people, and try to reconnect with this and fight against power imbalance, which is so important for Gen Zs. 4) They identify as Gen Zs, by which they mean both that they are a very political generation who want to create social change, but also that they’re part of a strong cohort that shares a lot of values.
Many demographers argue that we should not use the term Gen Zs because when you analyze the group, you cannot necessarily distinguish what is due to the period, the cohort, and the age group. They think it’s just a term invented by marketing experts, and it’s not good social science, but I use it because there are enough young people who use this term to self-define. It’s a collective identity that has an existence, whether or not you can operationalize it in terms of social science research. They think of themselves very differently.
Incidentally, I was at a wedding in the White Mountains, and it was so interesting to hear the vows that the bride and the groom exchanged. In their case Millennial, but it was all about creating a community together in a way where we can all be authentically ourselves and grow together. It was all self-actualization and they often criticized Millennials for being so self-centered. At the same time, they are volunteering in community gardens and they’re so skeptical of what’s happening in DC but they believe in local politics and they are trying to build the local communities upside from the bottom up, which is nice.
I like the part of the book that contains a very strong message of hope. For those of us who teach in college, we’ve dealt with so many mental health crises with the students for the last few years. They’ve seen this up close enough that they know that the alternative is to take their life in their hands where they can and try to create a better world now, not wait for 40 years until they can buy a Lexus or whatever. It’s a very different way of thinking about how to live your life.
I want to switch to the corporate world. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, DEI is well ingrained in the corporate world. You argue that a lot of DEI efforts fall short. Why is that?
Here I draw on the work of Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev who authored a book titled Getting to Diversity. They have a very large data set that allows them to compare the corporations that were able to promote middle-level managers that are more diverse versus those that couldn’t. They show what are the practices that don’t work. They’re able to show very clearly that diversity training pisses off people. People don’t like to be told they’re racist or sexist. It doesn’t work to ask people of color to be in charge of educating their coworkers who are racist because people of color are already pissed. Why should you ask them on top of it to be in charge of cleaning the organizational mess?
Their approach suggests is about making the promotion of diversity a core responsibility for all middle-level managers. It’s not only about adding numbers but also creating a culture of belonging. While that’s already happening, there are many organizations that try to do this. In some ways, my analysis pushes it a little further by saying it’s not only about fighting racism. It’s also about recognizing the value of people and making more visible those who are never visible, trying to be much more sensitive to respecting the dignity of people in the workplace.Diversity is not only about fighting racism, it's also about recognizing the value of people and making more visible those who are never visible, trying to be much more sensitive to respecting the dignity of people in the workplace. Click To Tweet
We know that from a study of health workers immigrants in Boston by Erin Kelly and Lisa Bergman, at Harvard and MIT. They found that in this field, giving employees the opportunity to have work flexibility so that they can bring their elderly mother to the doctor or be there for their children when needed creates a sense that they are treated as human beings. It translates into them being much more committed to their lawyer and having more loyalty and more engagement, even cognitive engagement toward their work. That’s an indication of the importance.
There are dividends for employers who instead of just trying to push their workers to be more productive, often boomerang because people feel dehumanized. If you think of the Amazon strike, for instance, one of their demands was, “Can we please have time to go to the restroom?” What can be more human than that? For employers not to acknowledge the needs of workers, you feed a negative work culture that creates a lot of downsides. We could argue that. It’s very much in the interest of employers to register that.
You certainly hear these stories about places where people don’t feel like they have time to even go to the bathroom or aren’t allowed to take a break to go to the bathroom. Those are certainly extreme situations that need to be dealt with. You said that the problem with meritocracy as a concept is that people don’t start off equally.
The question is, in the spirit of equity, how do you balance the idea of trying to treat everyone equally while also celebrating their differences and acknowledging those uneven starting points that they had and maybe even the inequitable day-to-day circumstances that they have to deal with? It feels a little bit paradoxical, I’m sure.
It does. In some ways, I deal with this because I mentor a lot of graduate students and you can see some of the children of professors. They start in academia already extremely well equipped to be very successful and others don’t. How do you distribute your time, which is a very scarce resource in this context, which parallels many workplaces?
You need to balance interests. My personal interest is to have the best student possible, but at the same time, if I deal with my graduate students so instrumentally, it doesn’t create a nice community or a nice culture. Employers who are too intransigent and focus on success and on celebrating the highest achievers will find themselves with a lot of trouble down the line.
To me, it’s hard. It is a balancing act to figure out how to create an inclusive environment to create equity but also to give people a boost who didn’t start with the same. Go back to the escalator analogy that you used in terms of kids being born into the right families in the right circumstances. People still need that opportunity gap to persist into their time of working. You’ve constantly got to be looking for that and trying to, at the same time, not unfairly treat somebody who is in the alternate situation.
I agree with you. I’m not a management expert, but my sense is sometimes some of the most competitive and high-performing workers are also very needy in terms of attention. I imagine the role of a good manager is also to tell them once in a while, “We all appreciate you. You’re amazing, but you cannot be patted on the back each time we celebrate people. This is a good that needs to get around and be distributed. You understand I appreciate you, but there are a lot of other people who do important work or are invisible.” Normally, different people celebrate at different times.
This is an article that I co-authored with two other academics that came out in the Harvard Business Review. That might mean, for instance, thinking seriously about who is going to be seated in the center of the group and who’s going to be the margin invisible. There are a lot of groups that remain invisible, and often this might be older workers, people who didn’t have a straight professional trajectory, so celebrating diversity of trajectory or even older women who are often invisible or older people in general. What would define a good manager is not only someone who can get a lot of productivity out but also someone aware that some very successful people are narcissistic and have a need to be celebrated. That is endless. It is not fair to everyone.
As a manager and an organization, even as a team member and as an individual contributor, you need to figure out how to navigate those nuances. To be accepting of people’s different styles, but also not putting up with their less desirable traits. As I say to people, being your authentic self doesn’t mean that you hang up the obligation to try and bring your best self to work every day. You have to find the right balance. Recognition is one of the things you focused on in the book. The idea of truly being seen, being recognized for who you are, having somebody’s full worth being considered. What are some of the ways that recognition can be built? I know that was a big part of what you put into the book.
For people who don’t know what recognition is, I should start by saying, it’s not like I recognize that this is an apple on the table, or I recognize that this is Jim on the street. It’s about the fact that our self-identity as human beings is built through the eyes of others. This is something that we can only get from other human beings, and it’s about defining other people as worthy.Recognition is about the fact that our self-identity as human beings is built through the eyes of others. This is something that we can only get from other human beings, and it's about defining other people as worthy. Click To Tweet
The counterpart is stigmatization, defining people negatively. To prosper as human beings, you need to be surrounded by a context where you experience this. This is why AI workers, for instance, who interact all day with the laptop and who are evaluated by algorithms, we will have to figure out ways for them to find this sense of recognition at work, and it is being depleted.
People I know who work at Google or in the electronic field arch field talked a lot about how their life is largely about running marathons and doing other things outside of work because it allows them to create a community that they cannot have by working with data all day. That is very important. Being aware that this is such an elementary human need and it’s often in the background, people don’t register how important it is. The opposite of stigmatization. There’s this huge literature on how microaggression the daily experience of racism gets under the skin to create enormous health problems.
Epidemiologists use the term allostatic load and they say how inequality gets under the skin because little by little confronting the microaggression every day is extremely negative for your health. As I explain in the book how to sustain it, some people will say meditation or mindfulness, but I’m not a psychologist. Instead, I’m a cultural sociologist. I’m talking about the importance of creating an environment that contains a lot of narratives or stories that demonstrate to us how diverse groups are being valued.
One example would be with some students, I did a content analysis of the 73 presidential speeches that Trump gave in his first electoral campaign. His speeches were very much oriented toward the working class, telling them, “We know that you’re good people. You pay your bills. You try to keep your kids out of trouble. You’re survivors, yet you feel very devalued in American society because manufacturing has been going downhill. It’s not your fault. It’s the fault of globalization. We’re going to do MAGA, Make America Great Again, by bringing industries back, but we’re also going to kick immigrants out because immigrants are taking your jobs.”
This for me was a powerful example of how, on the one hand, it was very systematically giving recognition to workers, recognizing their complaints, and their sense of being left behind. On the other hand, he was doing this by treating the value of immigrants as a zero-sum about their worth, which is ridiculous since they contribute so much to society.
One question we have to contemplate is, “Is it possible?” I think it totally is possible to think about elevating the recognition of several groups at once. One of the basic theories that you’ve certainly heard about is tribalism, the idea that it’s human nature to adore your group and put everyone else down. It’s often described as central to human nature, but my own belief is we don’t know much about human nature. People who write about this often use limited evidence.
There’s just a lot of narration about human nature more than serious research. We go through a lot of our lives being either indifferent to others or intolerant. I may or may not be close to my neighbor, but she leads her life, I lead my life. Sometimes we chat around the garbage can, but it’s not like I feel either I have to embrace her or hate her. This is not at all how most human beings go about leading their lives. We need to revisit how the group boundaries are drawn to make more rules for what I call a bagel model, in which instead of being in and out, you have a middle zone, which leaves a lot of room for coexistence.
We’re talking now in the middle of this devastating attack by Hamas on Israel. That’s an extremely explosive topic. The whole country in the US or around the world now is mobilized around talking about this. I want to mention it to say that to force everyone to take positions and use this to reshuffle the taking order between groups is quite counterproductive as opposed to taking the position of we’re all witnessing what’s happening there and we all should have solidarity for all human beings. It’s a terrible situation, and I have three kids in college and they’re telling me how, through social media and otherwise, many kids are being forced to take positions in very radical ways, one in support of Israel or Hamas, which is just ridiculous. Moving away from this tribalism is essential moving forward.
This idea that you mentioned in passing of ordinary cosmopolitanism or universalism. The idea of focusing on the things that we all have in common rather than the differences. It’s a simple concept, but for a lot of people, it is hard. I know you cast doubt upon the concept of tribalism, but there are a lot of examples out there where it seems to be the modus operandi of a lot of groups and societies.
I so agree with you. Also, 40% of the American population doesn’t vote. A lot of them vote, because of conspiracy theories or because they don’t like politicians. Many people don’t vote because they are tolerant or they don’t care. We need to shed more light on people who are middle of the road because there are plenty of them out there and people who are apolitical as well. If the news is always extremist, and that has been demonstrated by studies of social media, organizations that promote extremist anti-Muslim positions get far more coverage than those that don’t. It’s also what creates clicks. The whole big click culture is pushing for greater radicalization and many people are writing about that as well.
You’ve mentioned AI a few times in the interview and our discussion. Certainly one of the things you read about in the news is that some of these AI tools when unleashed on the internet and everything that’s on the internet quickly demonstrate racism and intolerance in their answers because that’s essentially what they’ve digested.
It reflects to us a reality, which is much worse than what is happening. Indifferent people don’t respond to surveys. The response in the surveys is generally much more extreme than what the population thinks.
You mentioned that you interviewed some change agents. You talked about Hollywood types and creatives, but you also interviewed people who are on the social services front lines. It was a much broader mix than just the creative people. What did you learn from that part of your interview population?
That narrative change is also crucial there. I remember interviewing one person who works for Feeding America, one of the largest organizations that supports food banks and fighting hunger in the US. This person was talking to me about the importance of moving away from a narrative that is about charity, which has a paternalistic aspect to it, or, “Those poor people cannot manage. We’re going to help them to a framework that is much more in line with what we’re talking about earlier. Some people are on the escalators, others are not. If you’re lucky enough to be in the top 50% of the population, give some.” It’s a very different framework that is more oriented towards solidarity than charity.
That’s a small example in a field that is very practical in terms of giving people the resources they need, where even a change in framing makes a very big difference in how the recipient receives the support. Whether they think, “Those are other human beings who care for me because as human beings we all support each other,” versus, “Those are people who think of me as weak and needy. They’re helping me, but in part, in a very paternalistic way which is not as solid heuristic.
There are other examples. For example, Russia Robinson is the leader of an organization called Color of Change, and it’s organizations that are dedicated to helping to get the vote out in the African-American neighborhood. One of the things they’re doing is also using these voting campaigns to get support for prosecutors in areas where the prosecutors are elected to limit racial violence by the police. All forms of contributions are emerging from the field.
You use a term in this part of the book, cultural entrepreneurs. Talk about what you mean by that term and the impact that cultural entrepreneurs are trying to have.
I gave the example of Oprah Winfrey as a woman who is an extremely successful entrepreneur and she played an important role in de-stigmatizing domestic violence and violence toward women. She also embraces the get-rich idea. She’s combining a recognition focus with what we could call a neoliberal focus on promoting success through the market.
The same thing is Martha Stewart. As for Martha Stewart, she played a very important role in teaching working-class women how to become middle-class goddesses by teaching them domesticity and how to decorate nice Christmas tables or whatever. She is also de-stigmatizing a deeply stigmatized group, the homemakers who were very much viewed and construed by second-wave feminism as women who were dependent and lacked agency to women who could realize themselves by creating a beautiful home. She also did it in the framework of entrepreneurialism and neoliberalism.
Those are two examples. I also talk about several other writers who are trying to humanize capitalism. Heather Boushey, for instance, who now serves on the Council of Economic Advisors of Biden, is one of person I interviewed. There are several foundations like Felicia Wong, the President of the Roosevelt Foundation, who are fighting and saying, “We have capitalism. It’s not going to go away, but we can also have capitalism that is far more fighting solidarity as opposed to simply creating more.”
You talk as well about recognition chains. The idea individuals and organizations can create a force multiplier of sorts by connecting to others. Talk a little bit more about what you mean by that term and how these chains develop and take hold.
One example is I talk about the Ford Foundation, one of the largest foundations in the country. The president who resigned created a huge initiative to combat inequality. Instead of only focusing on the redistribution of resources and working closely with economists which was the case in previous decades with programs such as Moving to an Opportunity which aimed to move low-income people from one neighborhood to another, he created an approach with four pillars, and one of them is what he called Changing Hearts and Mind. That was focused on narrative change.
They focused on creating fortune films, such as the film Maid, which is available on Netflix, and present indigenous domestic workers in Mexico City who work in a middle-class family. The whole film is about the maids. It’s not about the family. It’s very interesting because as you watch it, you realize the stories are never about the maids. It’s always about the rich family. It could be viewed as a three-dimensional description of these women. Also, it humanizes them. It moves us away from the stereotypes.
This is very characteristic of how narrative change is produced. The people I interviewed talked about how the Ford Foundation made this possible. They work closely with another group I interviewed, the National Alliance for Domestic Workers, which is headed by Ai-jen Poo, who is a great labor leader. The chain is the collaboration between the cultural creators and organizations such as Ford or the National Alliance for Domestic Workers, which can scale up the discourse to the point where it can have a social impact. If I’m sitting in my office in front of my laptop and I’m thinking great thoughts, I’m not going to create much narrative change.
If you connect your capacity to create different narratives with those very important infrastructures that are diffusing messaging, it makes a very big difference. The sociological message there is about how we can create these changes, it’s already happening and it can happen more. I give the example of same-sex marriage, which is a change created by the law against the work of a great many social movement activists, journalists, and all kinds of other knowledge experts.
When these laws were passed in 32 states already, it was possible to see a drastic decline in the number of attempted suicides among LBTQ youth because they thought, “Now we have access to marriage. We’re not viewed as pariahs or weirdos anymore.” Even laws are sending clear messages about who is viewed as a valued member of society.
You talk about how some of these traditional social structures reemerge. We’ve talked in the course of the discussion about the divisiveness and extremism that exists not just in the US but in a number of countries, and yet ultimately, you present a hopeful message. What underpins your message of hope?
It’s a little bit what I just said. The fact that changes are happening, it’s already happened a lot, and it can happen more. A lot can be done by all of us to support change in the way that we make decisions daily. For instance, if we think about what life do we want our children to have? If you are upper middle class, you can decide to move to a neighborhood where everyone else is upper middle class, and then your child has far less exposure to a wide range of people and may not necessarily know much about the lives of those who are less privileged.
This is very much in line. There have been, over the last few years, books written on themes like excellent sheep, helicopter parenting, and opportunity hoarding, how middle-class parents are trying to give all the resources possible to their kids to get them into universities such as Harvard where I teach. That’s not necessarily very good for the children because they end up feeling like they are little competitive machines and that their parents may not love them if they don’t succeed. There are other approaches to this. You can decide to put your kid in a more diverse environment where they will also learn to appreciate and understand different people.
A lot of the basic choices that we all make in the course of our everyday life can be made and oriented more toward creating a more pluralistic society. That’s one thing that I propose. I also discuss how organizations then create a more equal environment by, for instance, putting in place family-friendly policies that also acknowledge that men and women are also caregivers. They’re not only workers. I’m optimistic because a lot of these things are already taking place and much more as possible.
What thought would you leave us with in terms of a call to action?
It’s a very agentic message, the book, that we can all make a difference, but it’s also a collective message because all decision-makers, policy-makers, and politicians, are making a lot of decisions that can narrow who belongs, who feels worthy, and that can broaden it. We should maybe learn to read our political reality, not only through our pocketbook but also through what messages are being sent to the largest population about who’s in and who’s out. Creating a successful society is also creating a society where more people feel that they’re invested in the collective world that we create together.
It could be read as a very Pollyannaish message, but on the other hand, if we don’t give ourselves the tools, we need to think about our societies differently. It’s very hopeless. Hopelessness is the alternative. I don’t think that works very well. We know it’s not working well. I talked about the mental health crisis of the Gen Zs, but American society is going through a mega mental health crisis right now. This can very well force us to rethink our priorities when we think about our collective living.
We covered a lot of ground. Thank you for doing this.
My pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s very nice.
I appreciate your perspectives. I certainly learned a lot from reading the book. It was thought-provoking and hopefully, others will pick it up and read it as well.
I certainly hope so. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I appreciate it.
I want to thank Michèle for joining me to discuss the new book, Seeing Others, and its focus on the importance of recognition, and being truly seen in creating an inclusive workplace and an inclusive society. There is much to consider and reflect on from our discussion. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for our newsletter, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks and have a great day.
- Michèle Lamont
- Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How It Can Heal a Divided World
- The Dignity of Working Men
- The Science of Dignity
- Getting to Diversity
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About Michele Lamont
Michele Lamont is a Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University. As a cultural and comparative sociologist, she is the author or coauthor of a dozen books and edited volumes and over one hundred articles and chapters on a range of topics including culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods. Her most recent book, itled Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How It Can Heal a Divided World, was published last month. She has earned numerous accolades over the years and is a well-recognized leader in her field. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area.