Paul-Henry Chombart De Lauwe: Catholicism, Social Science, and Democratic Planning

By Newsome, W. Brian | French Politics, Culture and Society, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Paul-Henry Chombart De Lauwe: Catholicism, Social Science, and Democratic Planning


Newsome, W. Brian, French Politics, Culture and Society


As the French urban landscape changed rapidly after World War II, Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, a sociologist associated with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, emerged as an important advocate of the democratization of urban planning. Scholars have for years noted his contributions to urban sociology, but few have explored the evolution of his ideas on democratic planning and his impact on the planning process, as this essay seeks to do. (2) Analysis of Chombart de Lauwe also reveals the importance of liberal Catholicism, one of the primary factors shaping his commitment to the working class and community regeneration. As Chombart de Lauwe's research brought him into contact with the working class, he evolved from a sociological interpreter of human needs into a partisan of grassroots democratization. Chombart de Lauwe provides an excellent example of the complex migration of a Catholic from the right to the left, a pattern that was common for individuals and associations of the Catholic Left. (3) In addition, Chombart de Lauwe highlights the progressive contributions of left-wing Catholics during the postwar era, (4) a story that has been marginalized as recent historians have examined the connections between left-wing Catholic intellectuals and the authoritarian Vichy regime. (5) This study does not seek to disprove the association of left-wing Catholics with the government of Marshal Petain. In fact, it points out Chombart de Lauwe's own ties to Vichy. However, this essay demonstrates that an individual who was associated with the wartime government could and did draw unexpected lessons from that experience and apply them in ways that helped change the course of French urban history. (6)

As a member of a prominent aristocratic family, Chombart de Lauwe enjoyed a privileged adolescence far removed from workers and their housing needs, which would one day become the focus of his research. For centuries, Chombart de Lauwe's family had been part of the nation's elite. One of his paternal ancestors was a member of the Estates-General (1789), and his father, Henri-Marie, served as a colonel in the army of the Third Republic. The latter died a slow and painful death from wounds received during the First World War, but he left a legacy that insured the continued prosperity of his family. In the 1920s, Paul-Henry developed an interest in art, and in the early 1930s, he entered the Ecole des beaux-arts and the Sorbonne, where he studied sculpture and philosophy, respectively. He abandoned sculpture because he found the curriculum stifling, but he completed his degree in philosophy and started studying ethnology and sociology, subjects in which he had become interested during a vacation in Spanish Morocco. (7)

In 1935, Chombart de Lauwe began studying under Marcel Mauss: a nephew of Emile Durkheim, a professor at the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, and co-director of the Institut d'ethnologie. To place Mauss's impact on Chombart de Lauwe in proper perspective, one must first consider the work of Mauss's mentor, Durkheim, and that of the progenitor of French sociology, Auguste Comte. A former secretary of Henri de Saint-Simon, Comte was disturbed by the political and socio-economic crises of the early nineteenth century. He believed that social science would facilitate the discovery of natural social laws, the diagnosis of societal illnesses, and the prescription of necessary cures. Comte argued that European society had begun to degenerate when the feudal-Catholic order of the Middle Ages had broken apart, and he ultimately decided that the best way to resolve the crisis engendered by the decline of Catholicism was to create a secular Religion of Humanity, founded on the scientific basis of sociology, to regulate society from above. (8)

Durkheim rejected Comte's Religion of Humanity, but like Comte, he looked to scientific sociology, based on the theoretical and empirical investigation of social facts, for a solution to anomie, or social disconnectedness, which Durkheim believed to be the predominant social illness of his day and the root of surface problems such as class conflict and suicide.

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