- Ettore Recchi, Professor of Sociology at Sciences Po
Are you interested in pursuing a PhD in sociology? A key discipline taught at the college level, sociology is also one of the pillars of research at Sciences Po. What kind of research in sociology does Sciences Po do? How does one select a PhD topic in this discipline? Ettore Recchi, a sociologist and director of studies in sociology at the Doctoral School, offers some advice and answers.
Could you tell us about your career path and your research focuses?
As a sociologist, I have always been drawn to strategic categories of individuals – somewhat obscure minorities who are in fact key actors in social reproduction and social change. During my PhD, I studied young political activists in Italy, and then turned to mobile EU citizens in Europe. At the time of my study (the 1990s), young Italian politicians were enmeshed in a context of apparent turbulence; however, I found out that they were predominantly a product and a vector of continuity and social reproduction. In the new millennium, I started focusing on EU movers – European citizens resettled in other EU member states – because they struck me as an uncommon population of transnational people quietly eroding the century-long solidity of nation-centered ways of living and thinking. With the free movement regime, the EU has created a unique status of immigrants enjoying full citizenship rights that can bypass – on paper – the traditional assimilation mechanism of the nation state. So, are EU movers bringing about change? Yes, but not so much in the sense of sustaining the empowerment of supranational institutions. Rather, they have triggered a huge backlash – its tipping point was the rejection of the European constitution because of “Polish plumbers”, and its culmination was Brexit because of “Romanian welfare tourists”. In our societies mobile people, and particularly the EU movers who epitomize them, are outsiders who exacerbate the increasingly salient “locals vs cosmopolitans” divide.
Currently, I have a persisting interest in human mobilities and migrations –from both a macro and micro perspective – at a global scale. My sense is that transnational social practices and international population movements are a powerful force of change. The direction of this change remains to be fully assessed, and it may well be paradoxical and counterintuitive.
In retrospect, I see that these research interests intersect with my personal biography in a non-linear way. A large number of migration scholars are migrants themselves. In my case, I’ve actually lived a largely immobile life, having been academically trained at the European University Institute, which is incidentally located in my hometown, and having been a professor at the University of Florence for almost twenty years. Ironically, my move to Sciences Po was a kind of ex post endorsement of the trajectory of the people I used to study.
What activities do you carry out at the Center for Studies in Social Change (OSC)?
I am currently finishing a book titled "Everyday Europe" with a number of colleagues from all over the continent (Adrian Favell, Mike Savage, Juan Diez Medrano and others). This book pulls the threads of a mixed-method, six-country comparative study on 'social transnationalism' - that is, the cross-border relationships of Europeans. We claim that this texture of relations is the actual societal basis of European integration; and while it is quite widespread, it is far from deep-seated and uniform across countries and social categories. Moreover, I am advancing another more personal project on 'space-sets' - that is, the palette of significant places where individuals spend their life. My idea is that, in a highly mobile world, 'space-sets' (their size, range and focus) capture social differentiation better than traditional 'social markers'. I have developed indicators of 'space-sets' that have been used in the ELIPSS panel in France, in a ad hoc survey in Italy, and most recently in the GESIS panel in Germany, and will seek to advance the analysis comparatively in the near future.
At the beginning of the academic year you were appointed director of doctoral studies in sociology. What do you find interesting about supporting the studies of PhD and Masters students?
A not-so-hidden secret of Sciences Po – a cause and a consequence of its success, in a virtuous circle – is the quality of its students. Both PhD and MA students are most stimulating, and a pleasure to be with. They speak out and listen. And the variety of backgrounds – in terms of intellectual training, disciplines, and origins – amplifies all this. What I like most is when students elaborate on your teaching contents and show you angles that you never would have considered. Recently an Indian student taking my course on free movement in Europe asked himself (and myself) “how freedom of movement could be introduced in South-East Asia”. I had never thought about it, and I knew too little about the context to be able to answer. I ended up learning a lot from the essay he wrote about it.
What do you believe are the keys to successfully completing a PhD?
PhD students enjoy a freedom of exploration and focus that rarely reoccurs in an academic career. I wish I had their time to read, peruse, go to seminars, play with data, linger… At the end of the day, they face a trade-off between nailing down their work on a specific research topic, which may speed up their writing, and intellectually wandering, which may strengthen their ability to ask better research questions and develop more fine-grained answers. A critical point is exactly this last one: what are your research questions? Curiously enough, such a straightforward point is elusive and slippery for many otherwise brilliant young (and not so young) scholars. This is one of the reasons why I started offering a course this academic year in the MA in sociology on “Sociological research questions”. Students can listen to and discuss issues with a number of established faculty researchers, who are asked to illustrate the research questions that drive their work. Then students are challenged to sharpen their broad research interests into theoretically meaningful questions – less easily done than said! To articulate sensitivity to a topic into questions, relate them to a theoretical debate and – last but not least – find the data and methods that lead to possible answers: these are the nuts and bolts of doing research.
What advice would you give to students seeking to pursue a PhD in sociology at Sciences Po?
Embarking on a PhD is a bit of a life choice. Not one as committing as taking vows, but still… Like it or not (and I personally don’t), investing years in the pursuit of a PhD ultimately precludes a number of career paths outside of academia. Are you ready to discard these paths? Then comes the issue of sociology. Which sociology? After their MA, young scholars in the field should be aware that sociology is an epistemologically plural discipline. What kind of sociology is for you? And is it represented at Sciences Po? Of the great variety of research interests and approaches, most of Sciences Po’s sociologists are inclined towards empirical research. They also share a theoretical independence of sorts from “schools” and “grand theories”. Does this intellectual freedom and propensity for evidence-based analysis fit with your understanding of sociological inquiry? As a cherry on the cake, I would also invite prospective PhD students to remain open to expanding and deepening their knowledge of research tools and methods far beyond their comfort zone. “Methods” comes from the Greek meta hodos, “the way through”, and getting a PhD should be just that: a somewhat long but certainly fascinating walk.
Regarding the integration of the doctoral students at the OSC: why is the process of integration made within the research centers? What is the advantage for them?
PhD students are a key ingredient of any lively and thriving research centre. What they do is to unfold research themes, exploit ideas, and develop perspectives that seniors may have inspired more or less consciously but never had the time or capacity to inquire themselves. PhDs make labos blossom! As a side effect, they also help launch bridges between researchers in the same centre, as they are encouraged to find support and open a dialogue with several members of the centre at the time. To this purpose, it is essential that PhDs live the daily life of their 'labo', as much as possible, participating in seminars, having lunch and chatting in the corridors with the faculty. That is the real added value of being a 'labo', the human infrastructure, so to speak.
=> On the Master in Sociology
Photo: Ettore Recchi, Professor of Sociology at Sciences Po
Credits: Caroline Maufroid / Sciences Po