What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”) is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.
The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.
At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.
Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.
There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.
So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.
The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.
Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.
Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.
Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.
For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).
So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.
Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.
And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.
The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.
Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.
Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.
But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.
The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.
As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.
And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.
And here too: