The gender of capital

The Family: An Inequality Machine, La Découverte, 2020. Co-authored with Sibylle Gollac

This work approaches the institution of family from a materialistic point of view breaking with the dominant theory of a modern relationship-based family, free of financial stakes. It takes seriously the observation of economists, in the wake of Thomas Piketty, that there is a return to property inequality, based on the legacy of capitalism in the twenty-first century.
Why do women accumulate fewer assets than men? Why do marital separations impoverish women while they do not prevent men from becoming wealthy?
To answer these questions, one has to explore family wealth arrangements. This implies breaking with the common understanding of the family as an emotional haven of peace in a capitalist world inhabited by brutes. In reality, the family should be designed as a unit that produces, circulates, controls and evaluates assets. The sense of this economic institution is revealed, in particular, when there is a question of inheritance or marital separation.

In this book, Sibylle Gollac and I explain why the gender wealth gap is grossly underestimated by statistical surveys, which focus on households rather than individuals. We describe cognitive biases and patterns of domination that result in unequal sharings in moments of conjugal breakdown and inheritance, favoring male rather than female accumulation of capital. The main of these patterns is the process I have called reversed accounting, which I analyze in detail in a 2019 Socio-Economic Review article. As families and legal professionals strive to preserve real estate and businesses, or to minimize taxes, they produce inventories, estimations and distributions of assets which end up disadvantaging women, even though shares may appear to be formally equal. Reversed accounting is a common logic of practice, in which the result comes first and computation only after, as a means to legitimize the sharing that has been (forcefully) agreed on.

This work adds the gender dimension to Piketty and others’ depiction of capital inequality. It espouses Bourdieu’s legacy in its analysis of strategies of reproduction, while at the same time nuancing the importance of cultural capital: we show that economic capital still plays a major role in maintaining the (gendered) social order. We also contribute to the law and society literature, by describing the role of legal professionals (lawyers, notaries, judges) in the production and legitimation of gender inequality.

Reviews of the book:

Plenty of reviews in French

September, 1, 2020, “Mechanismen männlicher Macht“, by Julia Spohr in Soziopolis [in German]

July, 24, 2020, Shanghai Review of Books by Nan Nan [in Chinese]

Some papers in English about this research:

2019, « Reversed Accounting: Legal Professionals, Families and the Gender Wealth Gap in France », Socio-Economic Review (DOI: 10.1093/ser/mwz036).

review by Dace Sulmane in the bulletin of the Supreme Court of Latvia, dec. 2019, n°19, pp. 118-120

2018, “Is Social Network Analysis Useful for Studying the Family Economy”, Economic Sociology_the european electronic newsletter,vol 19, n°3, p. 4-10 [avec Sibylle Gollac].