Publish at March 06 2023 Updated March 06 2023

Approaching autobiography from a sociological perspective: a delicate exercise

The autobiography of "class defectors": a transmedia approach

Frankly, who wants to read autobiographies? There are eight billion of us on Earth, all encumbered with our own lives. And the prospect of coming to burden our minds with the lives of others seems unbearable. Watching someone look in the mirror, listening to them present their anecdotes as signs of fate... Very little for me!"

And yet, authors have made another choice. They don't pretend to indulge in an exercise in truth or authenticity for their fans. Nor do they develop their secrets of success for the use of those who are struggling. No, their autobiographical writings bear witness to a social environment from which they have never completely emerged, and especially to the people, family members, friends, and neighbors they have crossed paths with. All these secondary characters come to the forefront and come to illustrate social developments in a concrete way.

These biographies are not limited to the book. This one will be amplified in interviews or other media, even in legal actions or rights of reply. To read an autobiography carried by a humanities culture is to go beyond the text. Interviews, conferences, videos, plays, films, but also sometimes the social network accounts of the authors or even the responses of families in the press bring an echo and perspective to the reading.

Annie Ernaux, autobiographical narratives that make social injustice visible

Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, is the daughter of small shopkeepers from Normandy. They sought to escape the working class condition by running a small café-grocery store. The store is part of the house. In fact, customers often enter the kitchen where she does her homework and which looks directly into the store. 

Annie Ernaux's books are all autobiographical. La place, Les années or Une femme, to name three present the author's parents working tirelessly, attention focused on the bottom line, and are far removed from academic culture. School and books create an increasingly strong separation between her and her parents. The Placeand A Woman, in particular, show us how parents who carry ambitions for their children, see see them drifting away from their world as they accomplish the project they accomplish the project they had for them.

There is a taste of social betrayal in some successes. The shame of one's original environment is amplified by a shame of being ashamed, and a sense of being at home socially nowhere.  In a video available on Youtube, she elaborates on this notion of class defector that has accompanied her work for the past few years. Other equally interesting interventions detail her style, her evolution, and that unexpected link betweenautobiography and sociology.

Writing like a knife details her writing biases. She wields a "flat writing style , without metaphor, without apparent stylistic effect. Her writing is very worked, but she does not try to be "literary" in order to be faithful to the spirit of her parents.

" To give an account of a life subject to necessity, I have no the right to take the side of art first, nor to try to do something "exciting something "exciting", or "moving". [...]
No poetry of the memory, no jubilant derision. The flat writing comes to me naturally, the same one that I used to write to my parents in the past to tell them parents to tell them the essential news"

Annie Ernaux - La Place

Annie Ernaux and the Yvetot Store

Didier Eribon- autobiographical narrative and sociological analysis

Can one make a sociological analysis of one's own journey?

Didier Eribon is a recognized sociologist. On the occasion of the death of his father  with whom he had severed ties, he returned to Reims, in the working-class neighborhoods of the suburbs. There he found his family, whom he had not seen for a long time. This return is an opportunity to reflect on his itinerary. A specialist in the homosexual question, he will be interested in Retour à Reims in social identity and its construction.

Didier Eribon describes a misery that locks in a feeling of shame. He presents suffocating geographical and architectural spaces from which he has managed to extricate himself. The film drawn from this literary work immerses us in the urban and industrial traces of this environment.

The researcher appears helpless in the face of his own family, especially when his mother confirms that she has abandoned all ideals of social struggle and turned to the extreme right.  From a personal and family history, the author elaborates an analysis and political analysis, which will continue through other works. works. Among these, a more personal work about his mother to be published in May 2023, and a sociological and activist work: society as verdict. Several readings meet: an intimate narrative that resembles a learning novel, a sociological analysis, a political analysis, a reflection on writing about oneself,...

Retour à Reims is thus an autobiography, but also the chronicle of a separation from family members for a "class defector," and then of a work of rapprochement and understanding. Didier Eribon also shows us through this intimate experience the mechanisms of domination and social reproduction.

Didier Eribon, the glass factory where his mother worked, and his childhood home, according to the author's Facebook account

Edouard Louis: can the autobiography of a stranger change our lives?

Can a book, film, lecture, or article on autobiographical themes change the lives of others?  "Change: method" by Edouard Louis shows us how a lecture by Didier Eribon on his Retour à Reims transformed his life.

Change: method is an autobiographical account. Like the aforementioned works, it's probably also a good introduction to the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From a very modest family in Hallencourt, in the suburbs of Amiens, Eddy Bellegueule suffers rejection and violence because of his homosexuality. He has only one objective: to flee his village and his family environment. He discovers the middle class in a high school in Amiens, strives to copy and assimilate the culture of his new friends. 

Mastering the syntax and vocabulary, acquiring elements of general culture are not enough. His best friend soon makes him discover that change is not limited to accumulating knowledge and discussion topics. He also has to work on his accent, his way of laughing, his dress code, his way of eating... Social belonging is not only in words, it is also in the body, the voice, the walk... and the name. The mother of his friend suggests to him to replace Eddy by Edouard, first name which he will adopt definitively.

He meets Didier Eribon during a conference. The young student immediately recognizes himself in the philosopher's journey and in his presentation of the Retour à Reims. He convinces himself that he must flee even further. Leaving Hallencourt for Amiens is not enough. He wants to leave Amiens, to go to Paris, to write, to be published and to give lectures too!

He will follow Didier Eribon's courses, become his friend and publish in his turn. Edouard Louis is now translated into some forty languages and no doubt inspires other readers in turn.

Edouard Louis, his childhood home from the author's twitter account

Autobiography with a sociological purpose: for a transmedia reading

As a conclusion, one can only invite a transmedia reading. The reading of Annie Ernaux's books is complemented by the interview books and the numerous television appearances.  The tone is different, and Annie Ernaux develops both her social vision and her literary principles. The tone is different, and Annie Ernaux develops both her social vision and her literary principles. Without this being planned at the time of the publication of the book, it is extended in various media. On the occasion of her Nobel Prize, dozens of interviews, articles and broadcasts came to question the facets of her work. The term "social defector" has become commonplace, the question of style, the feeling of injustice and social reproduction have also been the subject of debate.

For his part, Didier Eribon quickly resumed a sociologist's posture. Interviews relayed on youtube, visits to the places of his childhood on the author's Facebook account, a film and even a play complete the puzzle of a personal history, a working-class culture and a possibility of social analysis of his own life.

These writings have in common that they do not seek seduction. This is in sharp contrast to conventional biographies or auto-biographies. It is often a matter of making visible people condemned to discretion. Places are also exhumed from oblivion, like the glass factory where Didier Eribon's mother worked.

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Annie Ernaux -all of her work, and in particular: the years, the place, a woman

Annie Ernaux,  Writing as a knife, interviews with FY Jeannet, 2003

Radio France - Class Transfuges with Annie Ernaux - November 2021

National Library of France : Writing at the Risk of Sociology - October 2022

Didier Eribon  Retour à Reims published in 2009 and published by Champs Flammarion in 2018

Théâtre de la ville de Paris - Retour à Reims, a play by Thomas Ostermeier

Jean-Gabriel Périot, Didier Eribon, Retour to Reims - fragments - 2022

Didier Eribon - Society as a verdict - Fayard 2013

Edouard Louis- Changer: Method - Éditions du Seuil 2021

Julien Rousset, students from Sciences-Po Bordeaux and Edouard Louisinterview at the Mollat bookstore

Le courrier Picard The Two Faces of Eddy Bellegueule - February 2014

Chantal Langeard Culture Workshops - "Eribon, the shame of origins" - 2015

Claire Stolz"From Simple Man to Simple Style" linguistic, literary, didactic practices - 2015

See more articles by this author


  • Reliable models

Access exclusive services for free

Subscribe and receive newsletters on:

  • The lessons
  • The learning resources
  • The file of the week
  • The events
  • The technologies

In addition, index your favorite resources in your own folders and find your history of consultation.

Subscribe to the newsletter
Superprof: the platform to find the best private tutors  in the United States.

Add to my playlists

Create a playlist

Receive our news by email

Every day, stay informed about digital learning in all its forms. Great ideas and resources. Take advantage, it's free!