Eric D. Widmer

Burton-Jeangros, C., Widmer, E.D. (2009) Introduction in Burton-Jeangros, C., Dannefer, D., Widmer, E.D. (eds) Cumulative and compensatory effects over the life course : Introduction. Cumulative effects over the lifecourse. Revue suisse de sociologie, vol. 35, n° 2, pp. 183-192.

Cumulative and compensatory effects have been included in the sociological agenda for a long time – at least since the seminal studies of Merton (1968; 1986) and Zuckerman (1997) were published and since the rise in prominence of the life-course paradigm (Elder, 1974; Cain, 1964) in the social sciences. Studies of cumulative processes have accumulated, especially in social gerontology, in relation to issues of heterogeneity and inequality (Dannefer, 2003; 1988). Why, then, should we dedicate a special issue of the Swiss Journal of Sociology to these questions? We believe that the usefulness of the cumulative disadvantage perspective extends far beyond gerontology because it provides a meaningful alternative to postmodern approaches to social inequalities.
Various European authors proclaimed that the end of the social classes and of the so-called “old order of social reproduction” was a core achievement of late modernity. Referring to the vanishing importance of ascribed characteristics, some authors have stated that social inequalities are decreasing and that the remaining inequalities mainly pertain to individual agencies or lifestyles. Various empirical evidences, however, point out that social inequalities and their collective structuration still shape social life even though their nature may have changed. Although individuals from various origins might be more equal to each other when they turned 20 in younger cohorts than in older cohorts, this might not hold true at age 30, and is even less accurate at age 40. The same is true for differences between men and women.
The structuralist perspective on social stratification strongly emphasized the first years of life and the family of origin as the determinants of most social inequalities that will later characterize adult life (Bourdieu, 1979). This perspective was disappointing in many ways since the explanatory power of variables related to the family of origin has only a limited ability to predict the achieved social position of an adult individual. Its deterministic twist raised a series of unresolved issues about the applicability of theories that assume a unidimensionality of individuals in multidimensional societies (Lahire, 1998). Casting doubt on the exclusivity of the habitus and of resources inherited from the orientation family as generative mechanisms of social inequalities does not, however, denote that external constraints (either institutional or interindividual) should be disregarded as structuring principles of individual lives in late modernity. Quite the contrary; we believe that the increasing complexity of societies generates a large number of social inequalities that are even more individualized since they do not entirely rest on traditional social divisions (manual workers versus white-collar workers) but rather on a complex web of partially overlapping social affiliations (participation in social movements, social networks, schooling, employment and family status, migration, leisure activities, etc.). Furthermore, classical literature on social inequalities has primarily focused on men and their position in the labor market without considering women’s social positions (Acker, 1978). Investigating social inequalities requires the integration of interactions between the statuses and affiliations that interact in cumulative processes.

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