Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon Charlot, Paris 15 Promenades Sociologiques (French, 2009)

This is a little (French) guidebook to explore 15 neighborhoods of Paris with a sociology angle. I was curious to see places close to home under a new light. Then I got frustrated and realized I don’t know what to expect with sociology in general because I can’t really define it and I’m not really comfortable with it.

I pride myself to get to know the places I choose to live, and in this respect, the observations that Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot offered about neighborhoods close to home didn’t teach me much. They highlight if people there are rich or poor, native French or recent immigrants, if the buildings are sophisticated or rather like slums, and how their present use of the dwellings continues or contradicts the historical sociology of the same neighborhoods in the centuries before them. It’s an excellent introduction to often-overlooked places if you’re a tourist or a short-term visitor, but not for the resident.

For example, they take the visitor through Chinatown (in Paris, it’s a big part of the 13th district – the book provides simple maps and directions and poor quality pictures) and show that not only Chinese live there, but different waves of various Asian immigrants who came to France along the 20th century for very different reasons. That, I daresay, is no news for Parisians. I would have hoped to understand if criminal triads had really a footing in those streets, how integrated are the 1st, 2nd and later generations of immigrants compared to other immigrants. But there were nothing on it all in this rather short introduction.

The second drawback I see in the book is that Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot are sociologists from the left wing specialized in the wealthy elites of France (influenced by Bourdieux, I guess more than I have checked). They are public figures who regularly criticize the right wing government for unduly favoring the richest French. It doesn’t make their analysis worthless, but it shows. Indeed the chapters on the richer districts are the most interesting pages of the book, but I feel as a reader the mix of fascination and repulsion from the writers (university researchers in France, all the more in sociology, are poor in general and to be wealthy in France is rather suspect than praised).

Someone interested in Paris’ past and its neighborhoods would much more benefit from Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris (which has the advantage of being translated to English), but I realize it’s no sociology. Eric Hazan’s book remains vivid in my memory and I will gladly read it again if the occasion arises. The Guardian calls it a “psycho-geography” of a city… another study field that is hard to define!

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