“Dignity Matters as Much as Material Needs”: Michèle Lamont on Recognition Claims and Understanding American Politics

“To recognize the existence of injuries requires the recognition of others and their dignity.”
Michele Lamont

Getting respect matters more than you think. After decades of research on workers and members of stigmatized groups like African Americans, Michèle Lamont has written the capstone of her career. In Seeing Others, Lamont shows how much weight we put on being recognized by others and on getting the respect we deserve. Here, Lamont unpacks how “recognition” explains everything from Black Lives Matter to Make America Great Again, how storytelling is good politics, and how change agents and Gen Z contribute to defining who does—and doesn’t—get respect.

Caitlin Zaloom (CZ): Seeing Others is organized around a singular term: recognition. What is recognition and what makes it important to understand right now?


Michèle Lamont (ML): I define recognition as making people visible and valued. So, it is very different than recognizing someone on the street, or recognizing that this is an apple. It is the act of acknowledging someone’s identity and worth, in line with who they want to be, how they self-define.

The idea for this book came before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. By that time, I was deep in the data collection phase so it was clear very quickly, when the movement rose, that participants were making recognition claims. This was true for #MeToo and even for Make America Great Again (MAGA). At the same time, there were social scientists, often political scientists, arguing that identity politics were a problem, that they were getting in the way of class politics. But they were wrong to pit culture against economics, as if classes don’t have identities too.

My intellectual agenda has been for many years to examine the search for dignity and respect, as well as the transformation of class and racial boundaries. The work I have done in the past has helped me approach the current moment and the political polarization of our society.


CZ: You mentioned very different social movements that focus attention and energy on creating recognition. The first was Black Lives Matter, a major movement that swelled in 2020, while you were conducting the research for Seeing Others. Can you talk about Black Lives Matter and the search for recognition?


ML: George Floyd’s murder is crucial for understanding recognition because it forced certain people to look at something—police violence against Black and brown people—that had been going on for a long time but that was largely unseen by many white Americans. The enormous mobilization insistently shed light on the suffering and the injustice, making it visible to all. Black Lives is part of a much broader lineage of social movements that are not only about redressing discrimination, about giving people access to good schools or good housing or jobs. It is also about wanting to make the value of one’s group known and accepted. To recognize the existence of injuries requires the recognition of others and their dignity.

Making that dignity visible is a process. Sociology has tools to help people understand how this is done by lifting up and scaling outward, bringing together the practices that establish public narratives. Sociological research can reveal patterns that are difficult to see. Our role is often to move what is in the background to the foreground, to make people aware of what is there. In fact, Seeing Others is really about the process of making visible what is invisible to those beyond one’s immediate group.


CZ: The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, as you understood them, were about recognizing Black dignity. What do you make of the way the mobilizations unfolded, like protestors taking over streets in both major cities and smaller municipalities around the country and world?


ML: The protests made allyship visible. Participants were multiracial and included both younger and older demonstrators. The protestors were pushing for an American society that would not accept ignorance of the profound injustice inflicted on Black people.

We also have to acknowledge that the protests and the changes they demanded were frightening to many people, and that the support for it has declined quite rapidly, especially among Republicans, and at different speed for Republicans and Democrats.

Nevertheless, the Black Lives Matter movement has had profound impacts. I see this in many ways. One instance is in the composition of the boards of philanthropies, their priorities, and what they fund. Many people have been scared that the protests would only be a moment, but in many ways, they have had lasting effects.

So much can be done by taking seriously how workers fight to affirm their dignity in their own terms.

CZ: Is that an example of what you call a recognition chain—the connections between the street protests and other sites like philanthropic organizations?


ML: Yes. Another aim of the book is to alert readers to a critical but underappreciated fact: the lenses through which we perceive reality are produced. Some groups specialize in the production of messages. Some of them are tied to entertainment, like the 75 Hollywood creatives and stand-up comedians we interviewed for the book, most of whom are committed to shaping new narratives. There are also people, like those who work in strategic communication, who aim to perfect messages that will scale up and resonate with the public. There are also philanthropists that fund organizations that produce new narratives essential to recognition. Considered together, they constitute recognition chains that collaborate in promoting new visions of the world.

With the concept of the recognition chain, I hope the book will help readers understand that multiple groups are needed to create and scale up new narratives. These chains have a profound impact on how we perceive others. We need to appreciate the ways the cultural landscape we are operating in generates the representations that are more or less readily available. With shows like Transparent or Queer Eye, for instance, audiences are progressively becoming accustomed to seeing LGBTQIA+ people as more multidimensional and as having complex experiences. Repetitive exposure to new messages can transform attitudes and bring about recognition.

Of course there are backlashes, such as the recent attacks on drag shows, antitrans laws, or the recent Supreme Court decision on LGBTQIA+ access to services. Movements typically come with countermovements. Nevertheless, dominant representations of groups change progressively. Average Americans perceive gay men with greater complexity today than they did a few decades ago. The theme “love is love” promoted by the HIV/AIDS acceptance movement has greatly contributed to this.1

I conceptualized Seeing Others in a moment of despair, when Trump was president. So many people were asking themselves: How did we get here and how are we going to find ways of continuing to move toward a more inclusive society? My goal was to identify the work that was happening despite the setbacks. Little by little, new messages can transform people’s ideas about what kind of world we should be living in.


CZ: You mentioned that a key part of recognition is shaping a narrative that foregrounds the dignity of a group. Can you talk about how the Ford Foundation or other philanthropies support these?


ML: Part of this is leadership. Darren Walker has been president of the Ford Foundation for the last 10 years. He is a Black man who is also gay. He has focused the foundation on fighting inequality. One of the four pillars he’s pursued is explicitly focused on narratives with the theme of “changing hearts and minds.” He understands that inequality is not only about the distribution of resources—the material deprivation of Black citizens—it is also about stigmatization.

Ford has supported a number of organizations that challenge traditional narratives. For instance, the film Roma was subsidized by JustFilm, one of the organizations that the Ford Foundation funds. The Mellon Foundation has also redefined its funding priorities so that rich universities such as Harvard, where I teach, are not advantaged as much as they have been historically. They have looked at funding track records and are directing more resources toward historically Black colleges, among others.


CZ: At the beginning of our conversation, you brought up the MAGA movement. I’m wondering how you think about that in terms of recognition.


ML: I approached MAGA from the work I did in my book The Dignity of Working Men, which came out in 2000. That book is a comparison of low status white-collar and blue-collar workers in Paris and New York, across racial and ethnic lines. Based on interviews, I showed that white French workers are better able to maintain a sense of dignity for one important reason: they are far more skeptical of the idea that they should or could emulate the lives of professionals and managers or seek the same things. In fact, they are very critical of professionals and managers for lacking integrity and loyalty, for instance not being there for their friends, and for being too self-interested, fixated on money and on climbing the ladder. We saw that American workers, to the contrary, are very much prisoners of the value system that is so dominated by professionals. When I interviewed them in the nineties, they are much more likely to believe in the importance of getting rich, and more often think of themselves as “losers.” The book documents French working-class resistance that claims its worth in a system where they are viewed as unworthy. In another book, titled Getting Respect, my collaborators and I examined how middle- and working-class Black people in the US, Brazil, and Israel, as well as other minoritized groups (Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens of Israel), respond to racism.

Together these books made me very interested in Trump’s strategies for gaining influence, especially the ways in which he has appealed to workers. As my students and I showed in a paper on his 2016 electoral speeches, he told them, “You are the hardworking people who pay your bills, who try to keep your kids out of trouble. You are being displaced by immigrants and by globalization. This is not fair and I’m going to stand by you. I’m going to defend you.” We show how Trump used rhetoric pointed toward propping up the working class. His strategy affirmed their dignity and gave them recognition. At the same time, the Democratic Party is perceived in many parts of the country as a party of overprivileged people who are just feathering their nests, looking down at everyone else, and using the media to promote their views. There are a lot of parallels with the perceptions of Emmanuel Macron, the French president. Of course, to some extent President Biden is less easily subjected to the same criticism because he has roots in the working class. In that first election, though, Hillary Clinton and many Democrats were viewed as serving the interest of Wall Street against the interests of workers. Trump could base his appeal in white working-class recognition because the Democratic Party was perceived, rightly, as veering away from this position. This is at the same time as Trump was able to garner support from many privileged people.

Today, a number of people on the Left say if the white working class is racist, and that we should just ignore them: “They are the enemies anyway and not our problem.” My position is that dignity is something everyone needs. At the end of the day, it is counterproductive to pit victims of racism against white downwardly mobile workers. We need to think more about forging allyship across all these groups. That is the way forward.


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CZ: These seem like two different forms of recognition. The first recognition is between people, like the recognition French working-class whites feel from worker to worker, and which forms the basis of class solidarity. Trump’s type of recognition is very personalistic and top-down. It is not about recognizing the value of labor and loyalty, it is about singling out morally worthy people. Trump hailing his potential voters as those who look after their family and defend the country clearly implies that others don’t. I’m wondering if you want your readers to be thinking about the variety of forms of recognition?


ML: Yes, absolutely. But I think many people perform both kinds of recognition.

I should add that Biden has been very vocal about defending the middle class, in which he often includes financially stable working families. This is a cultural concept of the middle class with which many working-class Americans also identify. The dignity of that group is not only work based or morality based. It also involves drawing boundaries toward low-income people because they alleged lack of self-reliance.

Trump is a dark genius at using humor, including sexist humor, to signal that he is culturally like a worker, in ways that resonate in the public sphere. Biden also performs this cultural recognition, but many other Democrats cannot do it. As a result they may be less successful at attracting workers as potential voters supporting the Democratic Party. Sociologists like Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg have shown how each party aims to take ownership of cultural terms, especially ones that are not clearly politically laden, like “family” or “America.”2 These terms are multidimensional. Battling about who takes ownership of them is an important way politics plays out.

Thinking about the 2024 election, an important arena will be how the Democratic Party repositions itself to counter Republican claims that only they speak for American workers. So much can be done by taking seriously how workers fight to affirm their dignity in their own terms.


CZ: Let’s talk about the limits of recognition. Does recognition always include dignified treatment? Is there a possibility of recognition without that? What about backlash?


ML: In Seeing Others I try to invite readers to think about the relationship between equal treatment—who gets what—and dignity in a multidimensional way. For instance, sometimes workers are paid badly because they belong to a group that is stigmatized, but sometimes the relationship is the other way around: some groups are poor because they are stigmatized (think of LGBTQIA+ youth who become homeless after their parents reject them). To fully understand how inequality works, we need to consider the range of relationships and cases and to explore questions like, Is there a boomerang effect in which people are treated less well because they make more visible their stigmatized identity?


CZ: That brings to mind the treatment of LGBTQIA+, or queer, people, who are currently experiencing massive backlash. Seeing Others holds up queer people as exemplars of writing new narratives about dignity and inclusion, but at the same time, we see that recognition has come with punishment. This is a political project for Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his Tennessee counterparts, among others, and has legal ramifications, like the recent decision from the Supreme Court that allows some content creators to withhold certain services from queer customers. How do you think about that tension?


ML: When I decided to write Seeing Others, I wanted to focus on advances and the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum. The rhetoric of the Right was already a lightning rod, for good reason, especially because Trump was president. We know from social scientists, like Albert O. Hirschman, that there is always a pendulum effect of reaction and counterreaction. Obama quoted Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” After Trump’s election, many people felt that this didn’t hold, that we were going backward. I certainly was one of them.

In the last week of June of this year, we had three difficult back-to-back decisions, one striking down affirmative action, the decision about services and queer rights, and then another declaring unconstitutional Biden’s college loan forgiveness policy, which would have brought relief to low-income students and Black and brown students in particular. As I argued in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, these three decisions deprived people of resources, but at least equally important is the fact that the decisions sent a message to many Americans: “You thought you belonged. Well, guess what?”

The concurring justices justified this with appeals to notions of First Amendment free speech principles, what they consider to be a sacred theme in the Constitution. Of course, there are themes about equal treatment that are also central, also grounded in legal history. Reaction. Counterreaction. That is the tug of war around recognition.


CZ: So, there is a push and pull between recognition and stigmatization.


ML: Recognition is central to American politics. We have to understand the process to make sense of it all, even though legal scholars and policymakers are not at all trained to look at how their decisions impact people’s feelings of belonging. Recently, that has carried a huge cost. It is important to have conversations about the cultural effect of these decisions. Lawmakers and policymakers have a critical role to play, as we saw with the adoption of same sex marriage, which was followed by a steep decline in the number of attempted suicides among LGBTQIA+ youth.


CZ: I’d like to ask you about recognition and boundaries, which are another theme of your work. How do you think about that relationship? What happens when people are left out of recognition? What happens to them?


ML: I understand boundaries to be a collective understanding about the line that divides us from them. I make a distinction between symbolic boundaries, the cultural symbols around which we organize inclusion or exclusion, and social boundaries, which have to do with resources and demographic patterns—who marries whom, where we draw neighborhood borders, or who has access to good schools. Who gets what, essentially. Both of these kinds of boundaries can be more fluid or strongly drawn.

In Japanese society for instance, rich and poor people more often live next to one another in the same neighborhoods. There is much less residential segregation than we have in the US, where class-based and racial divides have grown exponentially over the last twenty years. This deepening is something that many Americans don’t know about. It also has enormous social effects. Professionals and managers are far less likely now to have relationships with people who are not college educated than they were two decades ago.3

Seeing Others is all about how to make boundaries more fluid, which requires reducing stigma. We need to understand how that can happen.

Look at the transformation of regard for a group like people living with HIV/AIDS. Historically—like when I came to the US in the early 1980s—this group was absolutely stigmatized. Now, they are not as stigmatized anymore; at least, not within popular culture. We can compare that process of overcoming stigma with other cases where there is still work to be done, such as people living with obesity. They were stigmatized then, and they are still stigmatized. What explains the difference?

In another paper, my coauthors ad I show that in the first case, alliances were crucial.4 Knowledge workers, legal experts, medical professionals, social scientists, and journalists worked closely with social movement participants to craft an understanding that contracting HIV doesn’t have to do with gay people being overly sexual. They separated the sickness from the perceived behavior and the negative moral identity, a process that created an affirming cycle. This has not happened for people with obesity. They remain viewed as self-indulgent and lacking self-discipline. From a sociological perspective, the book contributes to our understanding of how groups can change where and how boundaries are drawn. It is against what is sometimes called “tribalism,” as that term is used by Jonathan Haidt and many others. They wrongly view boundaries—who is included and excluded—as hardwired, or written in minds as a result of human nature.

Boundaries change. They have changed. They will change more and we can as human beings contribute to changing them in a positive direction. icon

  1. Matthew Clair, Caitlin Daniel, and Michèle Lamont, “Destigmatization and health: Cultural constructions and the long-term reduction of stigma,” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 165 (2016), pp. 223–232.
  2. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41, no. 12 (2015): 1665–81.
  3. Jonathan J.B. Mijs and Elizabeth L. Roe, “Is America Coming Apart? Socioeconomic Segregation in Neighborhoods, Schools, Workplaces and Social Networks, 1970-2020,” Sociological Compass, vol. 15, no. 6 (2021).
  4. Clair, Daniel, and Lamont, “Destigmatization and health,” pp. 223–232.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. Featured image: Michèle Lamont. Photograph by Nina Subin.