Is There a French Sociology of Race?

Solène Brun, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Enjeux Sociaux (IRIS);  Claire Cosquer, Université de Lausanne, in Switzerland


The concept of race is, in many ways, a politically and emotionally charged subject, and its articulation in words is seldom straightforward.[1] The numerous controversies that have recently erupted in the French public sphere often imply that studies on racial inequalities in France neglect the distinctions that set the French context apart from the situation in the United States. These criticisms frequently include an even more fundamental allegation: that the epistemic and theoretical framework within which these studies are situated is purportedly “imported” from the United States. In essence, this epistemic and theoretical framework is perceived as foreign to the French national tradition and as a construct propagated by the US intellectual vanguard.

These criticisms raise several noteworthy points. First, they imply that these French studies conform to a single theoretical framework, overlooking the diverse range of theoretical approaches employed within the French scientific community. Conversely, one can also question their interpretation regarding the theoretical debates taking place across the Atlantic: Ethnic and racial studies are far from being a monolith and instead encompass competing approaches. Second, by disregarding the fact that the concepts utilized in these studies are applied to empirical investigations, these criticisms suggest that the global circulation of concepts is inherently problematic, even when grounded in fieldwork or localized data collection. Third, they often coincide with political concerns, as they reflect anxieties about the “globalization” of the anti-racist movement, which is perceived as being guided by its US vanguard, citing the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Fourth, they are at the very least oversimplifying and lack a solid foundation. Consequently, criticism of studies on racial inequality often reveal a significant underestimation of France’s historical significance concerning the concept of race—both as a divisive and hierarchizing idea in human history and as a critical tool for comprehending racism and its ramifications.

In this article, we will focus on this fourth point, elaborating on some of the reflections we presented in our book Sociology of Race.[2] It should first be stated that there is no doubt that the concept of race historically does not hold the same position in French sociology as it does in American sociology. For example, the discipline of sociology in the United States was founded on the study of racial inequalities, under the decisive influence of W. E. B. Du Bois. At the turn of the twentieth century, Du Bois conducted several studies on how the social environment and material conditions of life define racial boundaries between groups. In 1896, commissioned by the dean of the University of Pennsylvania, he carried out a sociological investigation of remarkable scale and meticulousness on the Black population of Philadelphia. It was published in 1899 under the title The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study and translated into French 120 years later.[3] Combining qualitative and quantitative methods, he conducted a survey through questionnaires and door-to-door interviews with 2,500 households, which he complemented with observational work as well as the use of archives and official statistical data. Du Bois gathered an impressive body of empirical material to analyze the demographic and sociological situation of the 40,000 Black inhabitants of Philadelphia. In this regard, The Philadelphia Negro constitutes a seminal work in urban sociology.

French sociology indeed boasts a distinct history. French scholars established the discipline at the dawn of the twentieth century by studying suicide, criminality, or economy. The examination of racial inequalities has traditionally held a somewhat peripheral position in the French scientific sphere. Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to deduce from this that French intellectuals have only recently come across the concept of race, let alone as a result of its importation from the United States. In the latter half of the twentieth century, several authors delved into the topic of race in the context of France: writers of Négritude (Paulette and Jeanne Nardal, René Maran, Roberte Horth, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor) narrated and analyzed the Black condition; Albert Memmi showed that the colonial relationship is fundamentally a relationship of racial domination; and Frantz Fanon was the first to speak of “racialization.”

Fanon’s work is a significant illustration of what is overlooked by the argument that race theories are imported from the United States: Not only does it disregard French contributions, but more crucially, it neglects the impact these contributions had on American scholars. In 1952, Fanon published his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, shortly after attaining his doctorate in psychiatry.[4] In this work, he provides a psychological analysis of racism and colonialism, exploring the effects of white domination on Black individuals. Drawing from his personal experiences as a Black man in France, he scrutinizes the mechanisms and manifestations of racism, as well as the conditions of Black existence. In response to the question posed by Du Bois half a century earlier, Fanon delves into the profound inquiry of “what it means to be a problem.” Influenced by existentialism and phenomenology, the dominant philosophical currents in France at the time, Fanon presents in Black Skin, White Masks a profoundly non-essentialist conception of race. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, he adopts the fundamental notion that human life is shaped not by an inherent essence but by existence, which encompasses the actions one undertakes in and on the world. Drawing from phenomenology, particularly his engagement with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work, Fanon underscores the significance of “lived experience”—an existence fundamentally molded by one’s relationships with the world and others. For Fanon, race is not an inherent essence but an experiential construct. In other words, it emerges as a product of existence and the unique circumstances that mold it.

Fanon introduces the term “racialization” and puts forth a relational understanding of race, suggesting that race is shaped through interaction rather than preexisting it. Echoing Sartre’s renowned statement that “it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew,” Fanon asserts, “it is the White who creates the Negro.” This idea is particularly elaborated upon in Chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks, titled “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Fanon recounts an encounter with a child and their mother, in which the child exclaims, “Look, a Negro!” This act of interpellation represents the epitome of racial categorization. It is the first act of objectification and subjugation that, in his terms, “imprisons” him. The child’s interpellation is performative: it does not merely describe what Fanon is or looks like, but effectively defines him as Black—essentially creating race. In this chapter, Fanon elucidates the very principle of racialization, wherein whites deny non-white individuals their humanity, neutrality, and universality, qualities they claim to exclusively possess. Instead, they reduce non-white individuals to their difference, otherness, and particularities. Fanon states clearly that there are no “Blacks” unless there are “Whites” designating them as such. Consequently, he concludes that “the Negro does not exist. No more than the White,” thus pioneering a radically constructivist and relational perspective on race.

What is particularly intriguing is that in the same year, 1951, the UNESCO program on the “Race Question” issued its second declaration, authored by anthropologists and geneticists, titled “Race and Racial Differences.” The second paragraph of this declaration states:

Anthropologists unanimously agree that the concept of race allows for the classification of different human groups within a zoological framework that facilitates the study of evolutionary phenomena. In the anthropological sense, the term “race” should only be applied to human groups that are distinguished by clearly characterized physical traits that are primarily hereditary.

In 1951, the prevailing consensus among scholars and scientists was that different human races, biologically rooted, existed. During this period, both in the natural and social sciences, there was consensus about the absence of scientific support for the theories of racial purity and racial hierarchy. However, the belief in the biological existence of distinct human races persisted at the time when Fanon was writing and publishing his book. While Black Skin, White Masks did not achieve significant commercial success upon its release and went relatively unnoticed at the time, Fanon’s analyses would exert a substantial influence in subsequent years, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Although the process of racialization is expounded upon in Black Skin, White Masks, the term itself only surfaced ten years later in The Wretched of the Earth.[5] Fanon did not provide an exact definition, but the concept subsequently became a pivotal theoretical tool. Its trajectory is particularly enlightening and challenges the notion that it was imported from the United States. The concept of racialization was, in fact, initially introduced by the British sociologist Michael Banton in his 1977 work, The Idea of Race.[6] In this book, Banton defines racialization as the social process that leads to the invention of a new mode of categorizing human populations according to their “race.” He elucidates that this new mode of categorization emerged in Europe between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. It is then Frank Reeves, also British, who takes up the term in his 1983 book, British Racial Discourse.[7] Reeves employs racialization to depict the process by which race transforms a social situation, essentially racializing a phenomenon that was previously non-racialized. This dynamic operates on two levels: In terms of discourse, racialization refers to the increasing role that race plays in worldviews. On a practical level, racialization directly refers to the “formation of racial groups.”[8] Contrary to the belief that racialization was imported from the United States, it initially emerged in the work of a French author and was subsequently embraced by British authors. It was only later that American researchers adopted it: Michael Omi and Howard Winant take up the term in 1986.[9]

The thesis of importation overlooks another crucial aspect: the high degree of specificity of the concepts employed within certain segments of the French scientific community. Not only are these concepts not imported from another national space, they also pose challenges when translated into English. French scholars, for instance, frequently navigate between the terms racialisation (racialization) and racisation(racization). The latter appears in the work of the materialist sociologist and feminist Colette Guillaumin, where it means assignment to a racial minority status. In the 1970s, Guillaumin was among the pioneers in France to approach race and racism from an explicitly sociological perspective.

She published L’idéologie raciste in 1972, a work that originated from her doctoral thesis, defended in 1969.[10] This seminal work remained relatively unknown in France for a long time. It was initially rejected by French publishers Gallimard and Le Seuil and had limited distribution before being reissued in the early 2000s. According to Guillaumin, the terms majority and minority are not statistical or numerical criteria but are defined by power dynamics. Minorities, in her view, are defined by their “relationship to the majority, meaning oppression” and are marked by particularity.[11] The majority position aligns with generality and the norm: the majority names, categorizes, and racializes. In other words, the majority/minority relationship corresponds to another conceptual pairing: racisant/racisé (racizing/racized). Guillaumin presents a fully relational understanding of racism and racial inequalities and formulates a perspective on racism rooted in the act of minoritizing. For French sociologist Véronique de Rudder, the advantage of the concept of racisation is that it “directly links the formation of the idea of ‘race’ […] to that of racism, as both an ideology and a social relation,” and that it “accounts for the fact that it was racism that created the category of ‘race,’ rather than ‘race’ serving as a pretext for racism.”[12]

The framework of thought and analysis developed by Guillaumin, influenced by the materialist tradition, is closely linked to the concept of the rapport social de race. While this concept is frequently used in contemporary French research, it lacks a direct English equivalent, as English typically employs the term social relations for both rapports and relations sociales. In French, however, the notion of a rapport social is characterized by its crosscutting nature across society as a whole and its involvement with groups constructed as socially antagonistic. It is marked by three key dimensions: exploitation, which encompasses the division of labor; domination, which pertains to symbolic control; and oppression, which relates to physical violence. Since the concept of race has, to some extent, entered French social sciences through the materialist perspective, its conceptualization as a rapport social has gained widespread acceptance in French sociology.

While tracing the development of a critical theory of race in France, it is crucial not to embrace any form of epistemological nationalism. Conversely, the purpose of emphasizing the presence of French and francophone authors who, as early as the early twentieth century, articulated the Black experience, dissected the mechanisms of racism, and examined its impact on the lives of colonized and marginalized individuals, is to underscore the country’s significant role in the global process of racialization and in the construction of race and racism. It was their shared encounter with racism and French imperialism that initially brought together the authors who would later establish the Negritude movement in Paris. In March 1926, Lamine Senghor, a Senegalese tirailleur,[13] communist, and anti-imperialist activist, took the initiative to establish the Comité de Defense de la Race Nègre (CDRN). As explained by Oumar Ba in this volume, Senghor’s motivation stemmed not only from his belief in the paramount importance of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggle but also from his frustration with the lack of support and recognition he sought within the French Communist Party. His personal experience with French colonialism, imperialism, and racism compelled him to assume a central role in what Oumar Ba characterizes as a transnational and transracial coalition during the French interwar period.

In a broader context, the assertion that the concept of race has been imported from the United States into French social sciences implies that race is fundamentally an alien concept with no relevance to French history or the experiences of colonized or formerly colonized individuals in France. Highlighting the existence of a critical race discourse originating in France also underscores the objective reasons for the emergence of such thinking. This then serves as a means of revisiting France’s unique history regarding the concept of race, spanning from the scientific elaborations of this deadly concept in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to the critical developments that played a role in establishing constructivism as the prevailing paradigm within the social sciences.

Undoubtedly, there have been exchanges with other national scientific communities, notably the United States, which have served to both enrich and sometimes challenge the analyses conducted in France. These dialogues have brought diversity to the approaches within the French scientific landscape, which is no longer confined solely to the materialist perspective. However, the notion that race theory has been imported from the United States implies a significant imbalance in these exchanges, seemingly aimed at discrediting studies in France. This pattern is reminiscent of the criticisms directed at gender studies, which, interestingly, are themselves regarded in the United States as an outgrowth of “French Theory,” influenced by thinkers like Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva. Ultimately, both sides of the Atlantic accuse each other of imposing overly critical (and foreign) theories on their campuses.

Furthermore, one could turn the accusation back on the accusers: Substantial critiques of the supposed importation of race theory from the United States could also be considered an importation. Recent attacks on so-called “decolonial” or “intersectional” studies in French universities, which indiscriminately target any research that critically engages with the concept of race, appear to draw inspiration from developments occurring in the United States over the past few years. In the United States, there has been a surge in attacks against critical race theory, with some states passing laws aimed at preventing schools from incorporating concepts from this body of research and restricting teachings on racism and discrimination. These laws essentially impede the understanding of racism as a system of power involving privileged or dominant groups and marginalized or subjugated groups. More broadly, these attacks explicitly target anti-racist perspectives and teachings that critically examine American history.

The reciprocal flow of ideas and influence does not always align with conventional perceptions. While in France concerns about the “Americanization” of universities and research are voiced, the United States is concurrently challenging critical work on race and gender through censorship efforts, which fortunately have not yet found an equivalent in France. Ultimately, this situation should prompt us to question whether it is the critical theory of race or the critique of that scholarship that poses the greatest threat to academic freedom and the production of knowledge.

[1] This chapter is based on a paper originally published in French. See Solène Brun and Claire Cosquer, “La sociologie de la race n’est pas une importation états-unienne,” AOC, August 2022.

[2] Solène Brun and Claire Cosquer, Sociologie de la race (Paris: Armand Colin, 2022).

[3] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996 [1899]).

[4] Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (London: Penguin Books, 2020 [1952]).

[5] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1961]).

[6] Michael Banton, The Idea of Race (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977).

[7] Franck Reeves, British Racial Discourse. A Study of British Political Discourse about Race and Race-Related Matters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[8] Reeves, British Racial Discourse, 14.

[9] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (London, New York: Routledge, 1986).

[10] Colette Guillaumin, L’idéologie raciste (La Haye: Mouton, 1972).

[11] Ibid, 119.

[12] Véronique de Rudder, “Racisation” in Vocabulaire historique et critique des relations inter-ethniques, Cahier 6-7 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000): 111.

[13] Senegalese tirailleurs (skirmishers) were a corps of colonial infantry formed within the French Colonial Empire in 1857.