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Difference, Competition and Disproportion. The Sociology of Creative Work

Pierre-Michel Menger


Serge Haroche
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

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1The notion of work is a very rich topic of reflection, at the crossroads of sociology, anthropology, history, economics, philosophy and law. Many studies are currently examining the changes in the conditions in which work is performed and remunerated, at a time of major transformations and insecurity. In an uncertain economy subject to unpredictable crises, the individual qualities of mobility and adaptability to an environment that is very rapidly changing under the effect of new technologies are increasingly valued over traditional professional competences. At the same time, disparities in remuneration and gratification are constantly growing. While they measure workers’ ability to react ever more swiftly to the insecurities of professional trajectories, they also reflect the share of chance inherent to the risks workers have to take in order to succeed.

2In this context, the analysis of creative work, that of the artist or the scientific researcher is particularly enlightening insofar as the qualities of this work and the conditions in which it is performed present an extreme case of the insecurity and randomness of the highly individualized forms of modern work that I have just mentioned, exacerbated. While the researcher and the artist need to have acquired great technical skills in their respective fields, this is not enough to explain their success or failure. For the same level of skills, results and gratifications can vary enormously. Chance plays its part, but is the quality of the exceptional researcher or artist not precisely the fact of having the intuition to recognise, in an unforeseen phenomenon or the comparison between seemingly disparate forms, the inspiration that will lead them to the original thought or work?

  • 1 Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science”, Science, vol. 159, no. 3810, 1968, pp. 56-63, DO (...)
  • 2 Matthew 13:12.

3The Matthew effect1, popularized by the sociologist Robert Merton, offers another explanation of the diversity in success rates. “Whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him”.2 Applied to creative jobs, this precept can partly explain that small initial differences in competence or creativity are considerably amplified in terms of ultimate recognition or gratification. This is in a way a version of the butterfly effect, a metaphor according to which the smallest difference in initial condition, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, can in the chaotic evolution of the world lead to drastically different results, for example a storm or calm weather on the other side of the world. For a researcher or an artist, the fate of this flutter will result either in international renown, or total obscurity.

4But the Matthew effect’s explanation of the artist’s or the researcher’s success is too short, or too cynical. Another, in my opinion more constructive element is the environment’s influence, which introduces a collective notion into the analysis of the success or failure of creative work. At certain times, new ideas and visions of the world emerge that change perspectives and approaches. The researcher or creative artist is he or she who will be able to support this movement, to draw from it the inspiration that will allow him or her to amplify it and thus to cause a real artistic or scientific revolution. The difference between the craftsman practicing techniques inherited from the past and the innovative artist will thus stem from the latter’s ability to invent or explore new approaches. The same goes for scientific research, and it is probably no coincidence that the great scientific revolutions, both during the Renaissance and at the beginning of the last century, supported those occurring at the same time in the artistic and intellectual fields.

5For a scientist or an artist, the issue that I have just mentioned are fascinating, and even somewhat unsettling. All of us, researchers and artists, tend to experience our job as a passion more than as work in the strict sense of the term, and wonder how a passion can be quantified! We often consider talent, not to mention genius, as a largely unexplainable, if not ineffable notion. But we cannot completely hide behind this ineffability. Artists must have their work recognized by their peers, and be able to sell it in an art market subject to often opaque rules, which it is nevertheless in their interests to decipher. Researchers must undergo constant evaluation not only to justify their salary, but also to obtain the funding they need for their research. And these activities, both scientific and artistic, are carried out in a global world, where the publications market and communication are becoming more and more financially challenging, against the backdrop of increasingly intensified international competition.

6Pierre-Michel Menger, who today inaugurates his Chair of “Sociology of Creative Work”, studies these complex and fascinating issues in depth. Through highly detailed analyses, which on the surface seem to focus on a restricted and specific area of the labour market, he extends his reflection to a much broader field related to all modern forms of work, which tend increasingly to value individualism in what can be seen as an economy of singularities. In a way, the artist or the scientist’s work constitutes an “ideal model” from which broader reflection on modern forms of work can develop.

7Pierre-Michel Menger’s career partly explains his early interest in his research field. He was an excellent student who was passionate about music from the youngest age. He then pursued brilliant studies in Lorraine and Alsace, joined the École normale supérieure in 1973 and obtained his philosophy aggregation in 1975. Driven by his passion, he focused his PhD thesis on academic musical creation and the stream of aesthetic innovations in post-war France and Europe. This led him to analyse biographical trajectories, training, professional careers and the aesthetic positions of French composers living in a dual economic and institutional context. Through this study, he came to measure the highly asymmetrical distribution of these creators’ material success and professional and social recognition.

  • 3 Paris, Seuil, coll. “La République des idées”, 2002.
  • 4 Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, coll. “Hautes Études”, 2009; new ed. Paris, Éditions Points, coll. Ess (...)

8He entered the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in 1981, where he spent his whole career until he was elected to the Collège de France. In 1994 he added the function of Senior Researcher (DR) at the EHESS to his activities. To summarize his research, I will cite the person who supported the creation of his Chair at the Collège de France, Pierre Rosanvallon: “[Pierre-Michel Menger] has oriented his research towards a systematic analysis of the notion of creative work, seeking to encompass under this term all the activities carried out in a context of uncertainty regarding both the conditions of production of results and the relative value of these results or of the goods produced”. Pierre-Michel Menger has moreover presented the findings of his work in books widely recognized both in France and abroad, particularly Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur. Métamorphoses du capitalisme3 and Le Travail créateur. S’accomplir dans l’incertain.4

9Pierre-Michel Menger, I am pleased now to leave the floor to you, for you to deliver your inaugural lecture: Difference, Competition and Disproportion. The Sociology of Creative Work.


1 Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science”, Science, vol. 159, no. 3810, 1968, pp. 56-63, DOI: 10.1126/science.159.3810.56.

2 Matthew 13:12.

3 Paris, Seuil, coll. “La République des idées”, 2002.

4 Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, coll. “Hautes Études”, 2009; new ed. Paris, Éditions Points, coll. Essais, 2014.

© Collège de France, 2016

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