Who Is François Nielsen?

I am a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  I am married with Martha. We have two children, Claire (born in 1995) and Sam (born in 1997).  Martha is a clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice. I was born in Watermael-Boitsfort (a suburb of Brussels) in Belgium, the son of an American father and a Belgian mother.  My parents had met in Paris where my father was on the GI Bill studying mathematics at the Sorbonne and my mother was visiting her aunt Judith and her sister Dominique.  My parents divorced when I was little, and my father went back to the US.  I was raised by my mother and my grandparents as a French speaking Belgian.  On my father's side my ancestry is half Danish, half British Isles.  On my mother's side my grandfather was Belgian (with roots predominantly in Wallonia but also in Flanders) and my grandmother French.  I used to spend so much time figuring out my ethnic/national mix that I finally sat down and wrote it out, percentages and all. Watermael-Boitsfort is a pleasant community near a big wood called the Forêt de Soignes.  It used to be composed of two separate villages (before becoming engulfed in the urban spread around Brussels) and has retained much of its village atmosphere.  I started elementary school in the neighborhood school there but then went to a boarding school for grades 3 to 6 (age 7 to 11).  My mother must have had her reasons to put me in a boarding school but I can't say I would recommend doing this to a child that young.  I came out of there having learned quite a bit about group living but feeling very much cut off from my cohort in the neighborhood.  All my kindergarten and elementary school friends had become strangers after that long separation.

 For grades 7 to 12 I went to Athénée Robert Catteau, a public school in uptown Brussels that is considered to be highly selective.  (You have to present a special exam to get in.)  It was a very urban setup.  The school is situated in a sort of well down the cliff from the Palais de Justice, an enormous stone building that houses the principal courthouses in Brussels.  I had some family connection with that location because my great grandfather and my great uncle on my mother's side had both been high level judges: my great grandfather was President of the Brussels Appeals Court, and my great uncle President of the Court of Cassation, the Belgian equivalent of the Supreme Court. They had both conducted their business in the Palais de Justice.  My grandfather himself had been the head librarian at the Ministry of Justice right across the plaza from the Palais.

Robert Catteau's student population included a substantial proportion from well off or powerful families, including the ones picked up by the chauffeur in the black limousine at the end of the day.  Although my own family was literate and artistic, it was not well off and I experienced first-hand at Catteau the situation of being at the relative bottom of the status scale.  There was more than financial security involved.  I was also missing the self assurance and taken-for-grantedness of one's own existence that being from a "bourgeois" milieu seemed to confer.  (Of course, I didn't really know what was going on in the heads of my classmates, who may have been full of their own social insecurities.)  The saving grace was that I was doing well in school, and was therefore viewed as one of the intellectuals, who enjoyed a not inconsiderable prestige in the school value system.  (I did not yet know that I was suffering from a bad case of status inconsistency.)   Adding to that feeling of alienation was the fact that for about three years my mother and I lived in a poor area of Brussels called Les Marolles.  To go home I would walk down the ramp in front of the Palais de Justice and then along the rue Haute toward the Porte de Hal where we lived.  My mother was a social worker and a probation officer.  As part of her job she visited the households of her clients.  Since many of them lived in the area that location was practical for her.  But the lack of luster of our neighborhood added to my social discomfort.  Later on in the late 1960s and early 1970s I saw some of these privileged kids become leaders of left wing student movements.  I have never been able to shake off a deep suspicion that those who lead movements based on lofty socialist ideals are really using these ideas as a vehicle of their own (conscious or unconscious) ambition for power, status, and the girls, to advance or preserve their own privileges.  Because of that cynical view of politics I never became involved in leftist movements.

In the Belgian secondary school system you have to choose a section, or curriculum.  I was in the Greco-Latin section so we had many hours of Latin and ancient Greek, as well as mathematics, some sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, geography) and modern languages (Flemish [Dutch] every year, English and German).  I had chosen that section (or it had been chosen for me) because this was the route to Law School, and it seemed a natural thing to do given the family tradition.  In high school I was interested in all sorts of philosophical questions concerning society, politics, psychology, and language.  But I had concluded that many of the juicy questions that used to be the purview of philosophy had been taken over by scientific fields such as sociology, psychology, and linguistics.  Professional philosophy had been left with a set of arid issues that had been not yet been taken over by other fields and did not seem so interesting to me.  Later that feeling was confirmed and reinforced when I read Histoire de la philosophie occidentale by Jean-François Revel, who argues that very point with great conviction.

(I forgot to say that Robert Catteau was an all-boys school.  Today most or all secondary schools in Belgium are co-ed, but at the time there were still parents who thought that unisex schools were better.  The main argument was that unisex schools are less distracting.)

In the Belgian system you start Law School as an undergraduate.  With a high school degree you can simply register at any university of your choice.  There is no application and no Admissions Office.  (But at the end of the first year of college they flunk a large proportion of the cohort.  That's where the selection operates.)  So the plan was that I was going to register for Law School in the fall following graduation.  But during the Summer I chickened out.  I realized that I was not at all interested in a Law career.  A large part of my feeling about Law was based on the impression that the field of law has no firm gounding.  There is no firm basis of principles, or systematic set of procedures, from which legal decisions are derived.  The whole body of laws seemed suspended in words, a completely arbitrary construction at the mercy of political sentiments.  I realized I would feel insecure in that profession.  So in a huge reaction I decided to study architecture.  That was not so easy in practice because Architecture School required a special entrance exam in addition to the high school degree.  The exam covered materials, such as a branch of math called descriptive geometry, that I had not had in my Greco-Latin section.  So I spent the Summer learning that stuff and passed the exam, and started in the Architecture program at La Cambre in Brussels.

In architecture school we had a number of courses on structural engineering, chemistry related to building, etc., but there was a major practical component in which we learned to draft plans for buildings.  We were constantly working on a new project.  I was doing well in the courses but I was not satisfied in the program because I felt artistically inhibited at that time.  I had read a book on the sociology of art by a French author (I don't remember his name) and was enthused by his approach.  So I decided to drop out of the architecture program and study sociology.  That was around Easter time in 1968.  Two weeks after I dropped out the world erupted in student protests.  The University of Brussels, and soon afterwards La Cambre, were occupied by students.  I was hanging around all this activity.  Eventually things quieted down and in the Fall I registered at the University of Brussels as a sociology major.

As part of the undergraduate program we had to produce a mémoire de license, which is equivalent to an honors thesis but is in fact closer to an MA thesis in terms of size and the amount of work involved.  In a seminar on social stratification taught by Henri Janne I had discovered Italian-French economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, and I decided to write a thesis about Pareto's work.  Pareto had made important contributions to economics, including formulating the standard model of utility maximization of micro-economics in terms of indifference curves, inventing the notion of Pareto-optimality (the state of a society from which one cannot deviate without lowering the subjective utility of at least one individual), discovering a mathematical function representing the upper tail of the size distribution of income in many societies (the Pareto distribution), and developing a philosophy of science (including the social sciences) that anticipated by many years that of Karl Popper.  He saw economics as the study of human actions that he called "logical", meaning they can be modeled as resulting from maximization of subjective utility (which we would called a "rational choice model" today).  He thought that a large class of human actions (which he called "non-logical") could not be approached with the rational-choice model.  He viewed the domain of sociology as the study of these actions (which he called "non-logical") that do not conform to rational choice assumptions.  My thesis was entitled Problèmes de méthode dans l'oeuvre de Vilfredo Pareto.  I became thoroughly absorbed in that thesis, reading much of what Pareto had written (and it is a lot!).  I was amazed to how far ahead of his time Pareto was, including his use of mathematics to theorize about social phenomena and his prescience of modern evolutionary psychology (as sociologist Joseph Lopreato also realized).  I still plan to write a book about Pareto's neglected contributions some day.

In the late 1960s I had also read The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.  Morris wrote before the advent of sociobiology (and he still used group-selection arguments) but I was captivated by the notion that human behavior, like that of other animal species, has a genetic basis and can be explained as the product of evolution by natural selection.  So when sociobiology came on the scene a few years later with the publication of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (1976), I embraced the new movement wholeheartedly.

Because of my father I grew up as an American citizen, but it was a conditional citizenship.  To remain a citizen I had to be a resident of the U.S. for 5 years before my 28th birthday.  To keep my options open I decided to apply for graduate school in the U.S., in time to be there before my 23d birthday so I could fulfill the residency requirement if I chose to.  I was accepted at Stanford University and I decided to go there in part (I must confess) because I had seen the palm trees on this amazing campus on my first trip to the U.S. in 1970.  (People who visit Stanford sometimes think that it is too beautiful to be true, that it is fake, like a movie set.  It is real, but the problem is that one gets quickly blasé about the physical surroundings.  Then one becomes involved in daily preoccupations of work and relationships, like anywhere else, and one forgets about the surroundings.)  I had other reasons to leave Belgium and seek a "geographical cure" at the time, including what I felt to be the oppressive intellectual atmosphere in French-speaking Europe.  Marxism was an almost obligatory component of intellectual life then (including the "structuralist Marxism" version of French philosopher Althusser, who later took a turn for the worse), and incipient post-modernism was rampant: Claude Levi-Straus had stopped writing intelligibly, Foucault was on his way up the chart (I loved his Histoire de la folie), Derrida had begun deconstructing, and structuralist Freudian Jacques Lacan was all the rage, his success fueled largely by his habit to write incomprehensible prose. In graduate school I was lucky to find Michael T. Hannan as my main adviser.  Mike had recently finished his Ph.D. at University of North Carolina where he had been influenced by Hubert M. Blalock, Amos Hawley, and Gerhard Lenski.

Destiny would have it that I ended up at UNC myself, after stints at McGill University in Montreal and at the University of Chicago.



Last modified December 2007