Abstract: With the admission of women in 1972 and of foreign students in 1996, the student body of the preeminent French higher education institution, l’Ecole polytechnique (l’X), has changed notably over the past 40 years. As part of its emphasis on internationalization, enormous efforts are undertaken to recruit and integrate students of other nationalities at l’X. Yet, what does it mean to integrate across structures and processes of difference, such as gender, class, and nation? In this paper, using an intersectional approach and drawing from case study interviews conducted in 2012-13, I examine what it means to integrate at l’X and identify and describe the symbolic boundaries that distinguish between groups of students on campus. At l’X, boundaries form around students’ backgrounds, while others mark perceived degrees of students’ integration as a polytechnicien. I suggest that hegemonic masculinity represents one of the primary contours around which boundaries form at l’X. This hegemonic masculinity involves intellectual and physical domination, which flows from the institution’s elite academic and military history and values, intimately tied to masculine notions of the nation-state. In the context of global flows and pressures that challenge and potentially change elites’ attachment to the nation, in addition to the declining military career focus at l’X, the contour of hegemonic masculinity deserves critical attention as a conservative, nationalist element that reveals the flaws in the historical ideal of republican universalism and challenges more diverse and multicultural representation in France. Additionally, its influence suggests that institutional opening to greater diversity would require more deliberate efforts and changes within and beyond the institution.
Katrina Uhly is a sociologist specialized in the study of gender, globalization, and higher education. She received her Ph.D. from Northeastern University in May 2015. Katrina’s research examines how the dynamics of globalization impact national systems of higher education, particularly in terms of reconfiguring patterns of social stratification along lines of class, gender, and national origin. Her dissertation, entitled “Reconstituting Portals and Power Relations: The Internationalization of l’Ecole polytechnique,” scrutinized the multiple tensions and discourses surrounding the internationalization and diversification strategies undertaken by an elite French institution of higher education, which are producing frictions that both question and reinforce the notions of republican universalism and meritocracy held by the French nation-state and its elites. Katrina is based in Paris, France.
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