Do the Social Sciences Shape Anti-Discrimination Practice?: The United States and France

Posted: 26 Apr 2004

See all articles by Frank Dobbin

Frank Dobbin

Harvard University - Department of Sociology


Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, American employers have installed a host of different anti-discrimination mechanisms. They have built those mechanisms with an eye to changing ideas about discrimination found in the social sciences, at first forbidding explicit discrimination, then tackling structural forms of discrimination by changing personnel systems, and then tackling cognitive sources of discrimination with diversity training and networking programs. France also outlawed employment discrimination, in July of 1972, in legislation that took much the same form as the Civil Rights Act. But in France, employer practice has changed little over time. I argue that state structure has produced two very different outcomes in these two cases. In the American case, state fragmentation and porousness allowed the courts and regional governments to elaborate on the definition of discrimination, and generated an industry of human resources specialists who promoted new anti-discrimination measures based in social science. In the French case, state centralization and insulation discouraged those who would have built upon the foundation of the law of July 1, 1972, because the courts and local governments could not elaborate the definition of discrimination. In consequence, French employment practices were little affected by the law.

Suggested Citation

Dobbin, Frank, Do the Social Sciences Shape Anti-Discrimination Practice?: The United States and France. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 829-864, Spring 2002 (published February 18, 2004). Available at SSRN:

Frank Dobbin (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Sociology ( email )

33 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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