Partner Series
Studying the Value and Worth of Modern Life
Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard University, asks, "How do we define worth?"
Credit: Ed Quinn

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Knowing how much something, or somebody, is worth is an important ability. Michèle Lamont investigates how we define worth and excellence, and how these definitions influence hierarchies of all kinds, frequently focusing on racial and class inequality.

In her award-winning book The Dignity of Working Men (Harvard University Press, 2000) she describes how, for a diverse cross section of working-class men, moral virtues such as self-discipline and caring are a primary basis for identity and self-worth.

A professor of sociology, African and African American Studies, and European Studies at Harvard University, Lamont has also shined light on the academic evaluation system known as peer-review. Her book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2009) looks at the ways in which academic assessments of excellence are not only rational but also based on emotional and social considerations.

Lamont found that peer-review panels value disciplinary and institutional diversity, as well as the excellence that each discipline seems to define differently. (She investigated anthropology, economics, English literature, history, philosophy and political science.) Currently, Lamont is undertaking a coordinated study of stigmatized groups in Brazil, Israel and the U.S.

In the video below, she answers the ScienceLives 10 questions.

Name: Michèle Lamont
Institution: Harvard University
Field of Study: Sociology

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.