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Video-Interview Frédéric Lebaron

Society – Technology – People

Prof. Frédéric Lebaron, PhD, Paris, erweitert die Ideen des französischen Soziologen und Sozialphilosophen Pierre Bourdieu um die Entstehung und Nutzung von Technik. Er erläutert, wieso wir Gefahr laufen, in Zukunft weniger fundamentale technologische Neuerungen zu entwickeln und was helfen könnte, um dieses Szenario zu verhindern. Lebaron arbeitet als Soziologe zu Bourdieu und Datenanalyse und hat Bourdieus Theorie weiterentwickelt.

29.06.2018 | BIBB

Society – Technology– People: Theory-Interviews on the relationship between societal and technological change


Interview with Prof. Frédéric Lebaron, PhD

This interview was filmed in Paris on 29 June 2018. The interviewer was Thomas Leuchtenmüller. It is part of a BIBB-research project on "Polarisierung von Tätigkeiten in der Wirtschaft 4.0 - Fachkräftequalifikationen und Fachkräftebedarf in der digitalisierten Arbeit von morgen", funded by BMBF.

More information can be found here:


Where do we find sources for technological change and social division of labour?

These drivers are numerous and complex. So, to answer this question I need to refer to my basic theoretical frame, which is very much based and inspired by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and especially the notion of field, social field. So I think the drivers are fields, actually. And I try to explain what a field is and how a field works and how relations between fields can be the basis or the basic element of these drivers. So, a field is a social space, relatively autonomous in the society, which has managed to get a certain level of autonomy, after, for example, a long period of struggles against other powers, like really just powers or economic powers. And it is a structure composed of humans of course, composed of actors, agents, which are related to each other, but who share something together, which is a common goal, a common sense of the game, as Bourdieux states, that is they share of a sort of libido. Bourdieu says "libido sciendi" in the case of scientists for example, but the libido or kinds of libidi can be very diverse of course. And they play a similar game together, they compete together, but they’re also cooperating together for the purposes of the field in general. So in the case of technological development, I would say that many fields are involved in the process and can be described as the main drivers of the general process of development and organization. That is, of course, obviously the scientific field which has more and more created links with what we could call a technological field but both are strongly interrelated now, so that’s of course the major field driving the process. But of course other fields are involved, such as the field of the state, public policies in general, which also functions as a field with vary factors sharing a goal etc. and of course the economic field. I think, it’s the interplay and the interdependence between these fields and the process of the development of new interdependences between these fields, which is the main driver in general of the process of technological development. More specifically, fields are about accumulating capitals, sorts of capitals, species of capitals, as Bourdieux says. And I mentioned three big fields involved in the general process. Each of these fields has its own process of capital accumulation and it’s at the intersection of the processes of accumulation of these different fields that emerges something as innovation, technological new developments, applications in various forms. But it's in terms of balance, that's also a notion that is interesting, because all those fields are always present if you look at history and the industrial revolution, I mean the scientific field, the economic field, the state - but the dynamics have clearly moved towards the economic pole. There is clearly a domination now of the economic pole, of the pole of the market, to simplify – and in this subfield, subsector, which is a field in itself actually, it's clear that at the moment the dynamics seem to be, at least in our country, I don't know if you can so much generalize at the global level, but driven and influencing through consumers and through the expectation of consumption, what will be the next step, or the next fitting innovation. What is supposed to be the next consumer. It's just a description, I didn't try to assess normatively the process, but I think the process has some limits, some backsides at the moment, because it privileges short term, it privileges marketable demand of course, it privileges some criteria of validation and some specific forms of influence - to take this word, which I don't use so much, because I think influence is a bit broad category that is difficult to grasp exactly, and probably at the moment we overestimate the capability of that kind of market-driven system of innovation to really produce changes that go in the direction of collective well-being, I would say. And I think this limited view today which is a unidimensional and simplistic - in a sense - view of interdependencies of the process, is probably the main obstacle to the understanding and to the process of innovation itself. We're, in a sense, putting the resources, not the wrong side, because there is no wrong side in a sense, we can always expect that something will emerge from all those start-ups that create new services or new products; but probably we're beginning to - not ignore, it's too strong to say that, but - to have a too restricted view on the role of fundamental science in the process and of the cultural science in general in the society. So, we have to apply a too utilitarian vision. So, I think at the moment this utilitarian view has become completely dominating for many reasons, that relate to economic policies in general like ideology and so on, will be a limitation of the process of innovation and not the contrary. #00:07:14-8#


Who is driving technological change and social division of labour?

So, there is a dialectic maybe, that's the word that we can use, because fields are structures with processes of asymmetrical distribution of resources including technology as a resource. But they are also very dynamic objects. So they are structures and dynamics, that's why my theoretical perspective can be labelled "genetic structuralism" in a sense  following the expression that was invented by a famous epistemologist and psychologist from Switzerland Jean Piaget. Your question is about the implementation, but I think the three fields are involved as well in the process of implementation of technological developments: That is the scientific and technological field itself with two poles which are pure science, in a sense, and very applied science on the other side. The bureaucratic field as we say, or the state as a field is also very important in the process. And of course, the market that is the economic field, which is strongly connected to the state in all the economies actually, which are a mixture of actors. So more precisely inside those three fields the social division of labor is quite strong now, so we have a diversity of actors, which are obviously not only scientists in the scientific field, because research-engineers now have an important role and I think more and more teachers and students play their role as well in the reproduction of the scientific field itself - here, I mean a school, so we have very important reflection about the connections to develop between research and training and teaching. And I think this cannot be forgotten, because teaching is clearly part of the implementation of technological development as part of the reproduction of the scientific and technological field in general. Now with this idea that we can have very rapidly massive data, massive information on topics which is changing of course the scientific practice in my discipline. That is something that we are seeing every day, that it's now much easier to get data, massive data, but at the same time difficult to interpret. So, we have now sort of inflation of massive information, a renewal of the tools that can be used to synthesize or to organize this information with new techniques deep neural networks, machine learning and all those things that are known emerging a lot in the public sphere, changing the way we proceed with data in general, we visualize data, we, in a sense, look at the data, we are informed about the world and so on, including climate change, but also of course demographics and very various fields. And it's clear that what is changing is probably the balance between the technical uses of data in terms of prediction for example - we see that with vote. We take the example of vote. And interpretation based on theoretical insights and the accumulation of knowledge that has been realized in social sciences, in sociology, demographics, history, and there is now a sort of a changing balance between techniques that are used to produce not only numbers, but also predictions and the frame in which we can interpret them, which is sometimes forgotten or put aside. #00:11:28-0#


Which consequences will arise from technological change?

So here I will add to the very general frame that I just draw the idea that the dynamics and the evolution process in at least periods that dates back from the beginning of the 80s or middle of the 70s is the period of the economic sector, economic field takes a central place in shifting the entire system and phagocytating - it's also a metaphor from science - to its own rule of game, rules of game and its own stakes that is profit accumulation. And that's the reason why I think we're facing at the moment a process where the autonomy is very restrictive, there are very strong counter-mechanisms against the autonomy and especially against the autonomy of fundamental research, which I think is put into threat by these dynamics of completely market-driven process of development of science and technology. Another aspect is the evolution of inequality. We didn’t mention this point, but I’ll come back to that, I think technology is also a vector of inequality, with the digital divide and things like that, which can be reversed if the public policy of course really aims at reducing the unequal consequences, the unequal development, that relates to technological evolution. And I think, here my hypothesis is that, at the moment there is no real public policy to limit these unequal dynamics, which is a dynamic sort of income, with the work of Piketty an others, of the dynamic of wealth, which relates to the way we share the products in terms of the value in general economic and social terms, created by the technological sector at the moment. It’s very badly distributed at the end. Some people get very, very rich after some innovation that I described, I mentioned social networks that are not so strong in terms of technical invention, properly speaking, they are absolutely great in terms of design, of social technology, of organization and so on. So here, my hypothesis is that the unequal dynamic is not stopped and will go on, until it finds a limit. It’s all the issue, that’s the fourth hypothesis, that it will find a limit and I think that many aspects of what I have said point to this direction that is the short-term in itself is reducing the ability to produce real technological innovation at the moment. There can also be some limitation related to the fact that we underinvest in fundamental research and I think this point should not be underestimated. If a may speak of my value system, I would insist on big values. I would say equality, social equality on one side and freedom and democracy on the other. In France we’ve also brotherhood in our motto, but I would say that technological evolution can have of course ambivalent effects, that is positive and negative, even the same innovation can have clearly both. As regards equality, especially social equality, I already mentioned that there are clearly unequal dimensions of the consequences of innovation, that is appropriation that are unequal, because people have different levels of educational, cultural capital and are more or less able to seize the opportunity that relate to new technologies. We have seen that with the digital divide, which is also inter-generational. I think the natural – there is no natural, but the mechanical process could lead to an increasing, even a strong increasing in some aspects of inequality. The ones who have the data, the ones who have the tools to investigate the data – for example with what happens with big data today – and the ones who are unable to get data. It’s obvious in terms of countries, it’s obvious in terms of firms, there are small firms in poor countries, which will be unable to access to market data that the big firms will have. So, if we think in terms of asymmetries and above all inequality, an unequal level of resources on the market, it’s clear that any change may have unequal consequences in terms of increase of inequality, so that’s the negative side. Basically, like other aspects that I already mentioned, I will mention a second one, that is on the negative side, which is the loss of signification, of practices and especially social interactions at the moment, to digitalize, they may not make sense anymore. This issue I think with changing interactions between men and machines for example, that’s clearly one of the stakes and so immediately understandable in terms of loss of cohasion, social cohasion, which I think is also related to this value of equality, of social equality, of equal opportunity. It creates social division, new social division and it creates new social pathologies – here I use a wording that comes from Emile Durkheim in the 19th century and which is still very relevant today. You may have countries with a very high level of technology but with a very strong pressure on education, high rates of suicide, bad social indicators in general. It’s possible, I mean, technology doesn’t mean - a high technological level for a country doesn’t necessarily mean a lower level of certain specific pathologies of modernity, psychic pathologies, mental illness and so on, which tends to develop in a relation to work pressure for example and to many other factors. Here I would say at the moment we’re seeing the bad effects in a quite rapid evolution, especially as regards the work force at various levels, but even at high levels of responsibility the pressure is so strong, that the number of burnouts and so on, seems to tend to increase at the moment. Because I think democracy has to do with sharing a value with sharing ability to interfere with decisions in a collective process. And technology can create divisions and precisely also on this aspect of including people together in the decision making process. And I think technologies can be used to develop new processes of decision making, more democratic, more collective, more inclusive – including the representation of marginal groups and the representation of minorities and the representation of dominated groups in general. We could use including all this big data that we have now to move in a better direction on many topics. And it will increase freedom in the sense that freedom is not something completely metaphysical but freedom is the degree of autonomy in certain conditions of life. And distanciation allows to give more freedom. And technologies may give more freedom if they are combined with the distanciation. Technology can help but it can also be a new slavery and we see people that are enslaved, that have become slaves of some technological tools – including professions I think; that’s a collective issue not only individual. Of course, we all know individuals that are facing pathologies relating to technology. It’s more collective pathologies which has to be taken as such and handled as such. #00:20:20-1#


How are drivers and consequences of technological change connected?

My theoretical vision is really centered on this idea of society dividing in fields. That is differentiated a lot and getting more and more differentiated over time. Which is an important point, because I think that's part of the knowledge that sociologists and historians have acquired. It's very difficult to generalize from one field to another, once the fields are very autonomous, and so the way this autonomy is conquered is in itself a very important mechanism of autonomy production, the autonomy construction of the field, including professional groups, get more and more autonomous, that is the intent to monopolize aspects of activities or specialties - that's the obvious case for medical doctors - and in science it's a sort of "scissiparité" - I don't know if the word exists in English, but in French it is this process of cells to divide themselves all the time. That is, we have scientific fields that get more and more specialized with very specific specialists unable to talk to each other once it is two subsectors too far from where they are. So that's a very strong mechanism we have observed, we know it exists, we know it goes on, working and it's very important, especially to understand that you cannot stop technological change in a sense. Once it has begun and it has become something important, central in our society, which is the case. Until there are strong restrictions against science and against technology, which are impossible to imagine at this stage - where it goes on. So, there is this process of accumulation as well, so the other mechanism related to autonomy is accumulation - those fields are places of accumulation. Accumulation of assets that are different from one field to another, but which are more and more hybrid as well, because fields interpenetrate. They are both autonomous and at the same time there are - and that's the third mechanism - forces that put them together with dependency mechanisms. #00:22:54-1#


What measures can be taken to steer technological change?

Clearly, there are two things: A rebalancing between fields is in sight and here probably rebalancing at the moment will necessitate a stronger comeback of the public actor. That's my first idea – a hypothesis, not more than a hypothesis but I think at the moment and at a global level I think, it's especially necessitated by the situation as regards climate. It's the direct implication in a sense, of what will happen for the climate and for the way to deal technologically with climate change, because we have to deal with it, scientifically und technologically of course, but also socially on many other aspects. But I think, the second is the transformation of habitus. It's clear that the dispositions of the way we concretely behave is changing, but probably here, maybe it will be surprising, but I don't think the modern habitus will change so much. I think innovations in the last years have also created a lot of useless tools or useless services that finally will be seen as something well, it was at the moment something that we also that would be the way to behave and finally we didn’t. So there is a selection process as regards what we take from innovations and here probably I think we will be facing some - probably because there will be cyclical crisis in the economic sector, in the financial sector but we are now in a phase of the cyclical evolution of the economy, which is quite optimistic, but that could change - we have seen that in 2008 -  oh, before with the internet bubble. Bubbles at the moment, they splash, they crash. There are crashes, there are also moments where you think, well we have gone in that direction, but it's probably - we have many applications on our smartphones etc. but at the moment we limit number of applications, we limit the time we spend - and I think we begin to see things like this with social networks for example, which are clearly, obviously a technological innovation, but also a social innovation clearly - organizational innovation - an innovation which put people together technologically, everything was already there, the internet and so on. It's something very important in terms of innovation but it's a change for the behavior of people precisely because it has fitted with something that was present, but not explicit and not clear enough in the demand side. But, probably there will be a retraction of some of these spheres that have expanded and have taken part of our lives. So here I think it´s our role as scientists, public intellectual if you want, but scientists more generally – we have a long lasting tradition since the scientific revolution in various countries, of scientists that also try to not only diffuse their own ideas, but diffuse a particular relation to knowledge that is critical, that is nuanced, that is modest, that is distanciated again. That notion of distanciation is what I think we lack the most. And here its clear that we have tools in social sciences to help that distanciation. Distanciation doesn’t mean we don’t take innovation. I think there is also this…of course…I did not mention that but there are people who are clearly resisting any innovation that exists and I think we should not point them as purely conservative and so on. And even discriminate them in some aspects but on the contrary we should develop are more distant way to talk about technologies and our uses of technology in general to avoid that kind of resistance to any change that can lead nowhere. There are good reasons to resist some technologies as well. I don’t want to say that all the resistances against technological changes are bad. I mean sometimes we know for example industrial agriculture has created a lot of very bad consequences, so as I am not an environmentalist but very aware of ecological issues I think here we have to be very very careful with all the negative aspects of supposed productive innovations, which have created a very bad world which we live in. And in general the industrial revolution has created climate change so we see that the issue is really, really central and the negative consequences probably what people, the further they are from the scientific world, see immediately. It’s a problem. Because at the same time we know that to combat negative changes related to technological developments in general and industrial developments etc. we need more technologies of various kinds. Especially more science and more, I think, critical spirit in science with what definces a critical spririt in science which is a certain level of distance towards what we do, refusing a discourse of promises, prophecies of course, which is cooling the system.

Informationen zum Video

Interview aufgenommen am 29.06.2018 in Paris

Interviewer: Thomas Leuchtenmüller

Kamera, Ton: Irfan Akcadag

Team vor Ort: Irfan Akcadag, Robert Helmrich, Thomas Leuchtenmüller, Michael Tiemann

Produktion: überRot GmbH

Der Inhalt steht unter der Creative Commons-Lizenz 4.0 International CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 (mehr dazu bei www.bibb.de/cc-lizenz).

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