Photo Hugues Siegenthaler © LIVES

Eric Widmer, new co-director of NCCR LIVES: "I grew up with interdisciplinarity"

Following Professor Michel Oris' appointment as Vice-Rector of the University of Geneva, Professor Eric Widmer will take over the co-leadership of the NCCR LIVES for Geneva from July 2015. Along with Professor Jean-Michel Bonvin, he will be responsible for the doctoral programme and will continue leading the "Family configurations and the life course" (IP208) project, with the support of Professor Clémentine Rossier. Interview.

First of all, a few words to mark the departure of Michel Oris…

Of course! Michel Oris has done an absolutely wonderful job in building and structuring the centre, along with Dario Spini and Laura Bernardi. He organised the work in Geneva very efficiently. He was always up to speed with all the records and knew all the LIVES PhD students by their first names. All the work Michel has done in these last few years has made my new role easier.

What will you do differently?

I think my new role is essentially about continuing the work that was done in the first phase. But now it will be a case of deepening the work on cross-cutting issues (CCI). I have the impression that in the first four years, the teams have made their mark on quite specific questioning relating to their discipline. But I think we are still at the beginning of the interdisciplinary work. In the coming years, there needs to be more collaboration between developmental and social psychologists, sociologists, demographers, statisticians and economists to develop a coherent and original interdisciplinary perspective, which will produce new results on life trajectories and vulnerability. I intend to focus on this aim, from a leadership perspective.

What is your experience of interdisciplinarity?

I grew up with interdisciplinarity, as the "family" aspect, on which I've been working for twenty years, is at the intersection of demographics, psychology and sociology. It is not pure sociology like the sociology which deals with social stratification, and in which you can really remain within the confines of your discipline. From the time I did my PhD, I was exposed to lectures and contacts with the psychology of interpersonal relations, developmental psychology, etc. Then, during my post-doctoral research in the United States, I was involved in interdisciplinary programmes with psychologists, demographers and anthropologists. When I came back to Switzerland, I quite quickly became involved in the PAVIE Centre, which in a way was the predecessor to LIVES. Its objective was to develop interdisciplinary research into life trajectories which materialised as several publications and the "Devenir parent" ("becoming a parent") research project, something we are still working on today. I also completed a certain number of research projects with legal experts and economists; these interdisciplinary experiences were positive ones. But the major experiment is what we are doing now with LIVES!

One of the purposes of the NCCR LIVES is to act as a window on society. What is your aim in this regard?

One of the aims of such a National Centre of Competence in Research is indeed to have an impact on civil society, and enable political leaders, association leaders and the general public to benefit from the knowledge accumulated by the research. As such, the LIVES leadership values relations with social actors. Furthermore, these links are very useful to fundamental research, as they give us easier access to areas which otherwise would be difficult to access and study. It is impossible to launch a research project on a vulnerable population if there are no existing links (ideally, institutional ones) with partners. It is the role of universities and national programmes to help promote more applied knowledge, particularly in social sciences, which must have a good hold on social problems.

Do you have any examples of this kind of project?

Yes! The sociology department of the University of Geneva, with the support of the NCCR LIVES, joined forces with Pro Juventute Genève and the OPCCF (Protestant Office for Couple and Family Counselling) to create the "Avenir Famille" ("Family Future") association. Our project has three pillars. First of all, the operation of a network of family professionals in Geneva – associations, services, foundations, etc. Such a network provides a wide range of services, but they are not very coordinated. The aim here is to try to encourage partnerships, dialogue and communication between professionals to help them produce something more integrated. The second aim: provide individuals with a "one-stop shop" for all the information they may need regarding family issues in the canton. The third point, and it is here that LIVES and the University of Geneva are particularly involved, is the establishment this autumn of a family monitoring centre (observatoire de la famille) which will be responsible for applied family research, in response to explicit requests from professionals via the family conferences which will be held each year, and the concerns of families and individuals. Contacts are also being made on the Vaud side. Ultimately we would like to develop something across French-speaking Switzerland. There is a social need which is being very clearly expressed and which requires the knowledge acquired in LIVES to be applied to civil society.

Is it linked to the current shift in family structures?

It is mainly linked to the absence of an explicit family policy in our country, at both the canton and federal level, which is even more damaging as, in the last five decades, family structures have become much more complex, not only in terms of divorce and blended families, but also in terms of increased life expectancy and migration. We recently obtained a mandate from a commune in the canton of Geneva where there are a large number of working-class families. There is great job instability, childcare problems when both parents work and major housing problems, in situations where family networks are relatively weak as a result of relocation through migration and when the generations live far away from each other. The commune authorities are asking themselves: what can be done to help these families, which have become vulnerable through a combination of factors, both economic and demographic? What are their needs, and what kind of services should be in place to respond to vulnerable families in precarious situations? I think that LIVES has all the skills to respond to this type of questioning.

Another priority of the NCCR LIVES is to develop internationally, this time from an academic point of view. How can this be done?

The first way to develop scientifically and gain better international recognition is to have original research results with a solid empirical grounding. A way to make LIVES more visible, in my opinion, would be to increase collaborative work on cross-cutting issues and on the interdisciplinary dimension, as that is what sets our work apart. The paradox is that this makes publication more complicated, because unfortunately, we are evaluated by colleagues who belong to specific disciplines. Typically, sociology experts will have very strict requirements in terms of sampling and will soon become critical of the small, non-representative samples which may be acceptable in psychology; at the same time, psychology experts will pay much more attention to the validity of the measurements and replication of results than sociologists. When these two sets of expectations are come up against one another, it is harder to publish interdisciplinary articles. But when they are balanced, something very valuable is achieved!

You will be mainly in charge of directing the third cross-cutting issue (CCI 3) concerning the multidirectional approach, i.e. over time. What are the features of this?

As this has been described in our proposal to the Swiss National Science Foundation, we are interested, for example, in the effects of the first years of life over the long term: is everything decided before the age of five or not? Although we have no studies on children, a retrospective assessment can be made. There is also this fundamental hypothesis of the cumulative effects throughout the life course, which in my opinion, should be explored even more than they have been up to now. Finally, the third important point is the "biographisation" of life trajectories, this idea that individuals participate quite actively, via the recomposition of their projects, in conducting their life course over the long term. I would like to add something that has been very widely discussed in the international literature: the idea of opening the black box of "agency", i.e. the actor's ability to act, to have an influence on their trajectories, via their preferences, orientations and their aims in life. It is a classic theme in life course analysis, but we need to know more about how this action-oriented dimension is expressed over the medium- and long-term of life trajectories, in different structural situations which are at first glance negative: single-parent families, health problems, work problems, unemployment, disability, etc. I believe that the interplay between structure and agency over the long term is an important point.
I am also involved, more marginally, with Dario Spini and Oriane Sarrasin, in the CCI 2 on social interactions, and here, I think we have succeeded in promoting this strong idea of "misleading norms", social norms which push individuals to take paths which prove counter-productive for them over the medium or long term. For example, in a country such as Switzerland, where 50% of marriages end in divorce, this norm, which pushes women to stay at home or greatly reduce their involvement in the labour market. We can build the hypothesis that each generation sets out in life with the norms set in place by the previous generation.

Within the IP208, you also want to investigate the issue of family ambivalence. What does this mean?

Ambivalence, as it is defined in sociology, mainly by Kurt Lüscher, is the oscillation between contradictory social norms. Typically, the social imperative to be professionally active and to breastfeed your child until the age of two, or the obligation to actively help ageing parents and the obligation to lead a very independent life, to pursue a career which requires social and geographical remoteness. From Kurt Lüscher's point of view, this ambivalence can generate innovation and personal development, as it requires individuals to come up with new solutions. My hypothesis is that this form of agency is possible only if people have significant reserves of financial, cultural and social resources. When more disadvantaged individuals are affected by these contradictory normative forces, they can become stress factors and thus lead to the weakening of personal identity and the ability to act. But this remains to be seen! Essentially, sociology views the family as a place of rejuvenation, support and solidarity, while the IP208 postulates that the family itself is a source of stress, due to the many conflicts it generates in the allocation of different resources – money, affection, time… What is given to a child in time, to a partner or an ageing parent, cannot be given to another person, in families where links are much more individualised than before. Hence the benefit of seeing these family links as generators of resources, but also as links which generate vulnerability. And up to now, this has not really been done.


Learning through play how inequalities build over the life course

Learning through play how inequalities build over the life course

The Swiss National Center of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES) began a series of workshops in French-speaking Swiss schools in spring 2015. The Kalendaro workshop is the result of a project between social science researchers and the education system. It involves group play and data collection, to make connections between contexts and personal stories, observe the interdependence between different life domains and move from an individual to a general outlook in a resolutely systemic approach.

"When my grandfather left the Congo, he was very young and had to learn everything again in Switzerland. He did a lot of different jobs, as he had to look after his family. He had to be responsible. But I didn't know that he had also left a lot of children back there, with other women…" When this pupil from the Collège des Terreaux in Neuchâtel recounted his discoveries to his classmates, he took the whole class on a journey through time and space, and revealed the extent to which family, residential and career histories are interlinked. The story of this African grandpa also illustrated how our values are the product of relative norms, and how individuals retain a certain ability to act, even in the most difficult situations.

All this took place on 19 May this year, during the second part of the Kalendaro workshop, which has been available to secondary classes in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland since spring. On the first day, pupils were made aware of certain notions through a board game based on the trajectory of a fictional life, with its associated tragic and joyful events. There are accidents, which make you lose time as well as health, training phases that contribute resources, the economic crisis, affecting players to differing degrees, but also encounters and separations, celebrations and bereavements, as well as difficult choices, coinciding with career transitions or the birth of the first child.

Then the organisers ask the pupils to make links between the events that occurred in the game and think about how they might impact different areas of life. Stress at work that leads to a divorce and moving house, sometimes with depression to boot; a disability that makes it impossible to do certain activities; a lack of money that limits education opportunities: the pupils understand all this very quickly and can imagine a whole range of interactions.

The life calendar

Then comes the time to see specifically how these interactions play out in a real-life situation. To do this, pupils are given a "life calendar" to complete based on an adult of their choice, if possible aged over 50. This tool, which is also used by the NCCR LIVES researchers in actual studies on life course, documents the important events and phases of someone's biography. In the Kalendaro project (the word means "calendar" in Esperanto) this task contributes an interesting intergenerational dimension, in addition to introducing pupils to real empirical data.

Pooling observations leads to a deeper understanding of social inequalities in the second session. Through the analysis, the pupils are able to perceive the glaring differences between the life trajectories of men and women from different social backgrounds, and the extent to which certain non-normative events strike individuals and have long-term consequences on their life course.

Cross-disciplinary skills

According to one of the teachers in Neuchâtel, where the first sessions took place, "this workshop fully meets the objectives of the French-speaking secondary school curriculum to give pupils cross-disciplinary skills. Furthermore, it is ideal at the end of compulsory education, at a time when young people are making a major transition and have to think about entering the labour market and the implications this brings."

"It's a very good resource, clear and pleasant to use, and the topics it deals with enable teachers to subsequently revisit certain themes, such as gender issues or migration, for example", noted another teacher on 23 June after another session at the same institution.

This is precisely the objective of the citizenship education pedagogical team at the Applied University of Education of the canton of Vaud at the start of the next academic year; it has included Kalendaro in the induction course programme for future citizenship teachers. It is up to the trainee teachers to come up with possible developments and implement them in their respective classes, in connection with the other subject they teach, often history, geography or economics, and sometimes French or foreign languages.

Nothing would make the members of the National Center of Competence in Research LIVES and its partners happier. The same also applies to the Science-Society Interface of the University of Lausanne and the éducation21 foundation, which were involved in building this project and producing the associated training guide.

Their hope is that the interdisciplinary approach to the life course perspectives will attract other educational institutions across French-speaking Switzerland. See you at the start of the next academic year!

To find out more (in French)


Project team

  • LIVES Researchers: Ana Barbeiro, Nora Dasoki, Jacques-Antoine Gauthier, Nadia Girardin, Andres Guarin, Jean-Marie Le Goff, Davide Morselli
  • UNIL (Science-Society Interface): Nicolas Schaffter
  • éducation21 foundation: Florence Nuoffer
  • Graphic design: Vincent Freccia (Secteur B)
  • Illustration: Luc  Frieden (MEYK)
  • Coordination: Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle
 “Transformation of the Swiss elites”: First article of a new series on social change

“Transformation of the Swiss elites”: First article of a new series on social change

During the past thirty years, the coordination model of the Swiss elites has been significantly eroded as a result of globalisation and the rise to power of the financial market, as described by Felix Bühlmann, Marion Beetschen, Thomas David, Stéphanie Ginalski, and André Mach. Their contribution was published in the series "Social Change in Switzerland", which FORS, the LINES Centre and NCCR LIVES co-edit.

Based on a large dataset including the profiles of 20,000 leaders in the economic, political, and administrative spheres between 1910 and 2010, five researchers in the social and political sciences from the University of Lausanne show that traditional networks of co-optation and coordination have lost quite a large part of their influence.

Their article, “Transformation of the Swiss elites”, is the first of a new series entitled Social Change in Switzerland, which is co-edited in French and German by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequality Research Centre LINES (Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lausanne), and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES.

The authors observe different characteristics of Switzerland’s elites at five moments in time: 1910, 1937, 1957, 1980, 2000, 2010. They notably look at issues like gender, the education level, the nationality, the military rank, and the involvement in executive boards, extra-parliamentary commissions, committees of economic organisations, etc.

On the basis of these comparisons, they demonstrate how the Swiss elites were co-opted and have coordinated throughout the 20th century, thanks to their educational paths (law studies mainly, ETHZ to a lesser degree) and the involvement in typically masculine socialisation hubs (student associations, army, clubs-service, but also executive boards, extra-parliamentary commissions, economic organisations).

For the past thirty years, this multipositionality of the Swiss elites’ central figures has constantly diminished: the proportion of leaders linked to several spheres of power clearly decreased, which reduced occasions for consultation. Even within the sole economic sphere, relations between industry and the banking sector have weakened, as shown by the changes in the composition of executive boards. This situation reflects the fact that large companies have partly abandoned credit in favour of the stock market.

The current dominant fractions of the Swiss elite – UDC party in politics and hyper globalised managers in economics – seem to have no common ground. It is an open question whether and how these winners of the Swiss elites’ transformation process start rebuilding a new system of coordination.

This 10-page paper is perfectly in line with the new series’ ambition to propose empirical findings drawn from academic research to a non-scientific, yet well-informed public, so as to stimulate reflection on social change in Switzerland. Other topics are in the pipeline. The editors aim at a frequency of about six articles per year.


>> F. Bühlmann, M. Beetschen, T. David, S. Ginalski & A. Mach, Transformation des élites en Suisse / Der Wandel der Eliten in der Schweiz. Social Change in Switzerland N° 1. Retrieved from



Image iStock © Aleksandar Petrovic

Unemployment hurts senior jobseekers more. Can a good social network offset this disadvantage?

Two recently-completed theses at the University of Lausanne as part of a LIVES project have produced interesting results relating to the Swiss labour market. Isabel Baumann shows that people over 55 have fewer prospects than young people when seeking employment. Nicolas Turtschi observes the impact of networks on the chances of rejoining the world of work: although personal relationships are useful in decreasing the handicap of age, they do not reduce the impact of other types of inequality.

Using samples of unemployed people produced for the IP204 project of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research LIVES, Isabel Baumann and Nicolas Turtschi successfully defended their doctoral theses in June 2015, each documenting in their own way the channels via which people find, or fail to find, a way out of unemployment.

In Switzerland, unlike elsewhere in Europe, young people and the low-skilled are unlikely to become stuck in long-term unemployment following the closure of a company. This is one of Isabel Baumann’s conclusions from her studies on the trajectories of around 1,200 people who were collectively laid off between 2009 and 2010 from five industrial companies which closed their doors in different regions of Switzerland.

Two years after losing their jobs, two-thirds of the displaced workers had found new employment, half in less than six months, a third with a salary increase and most in the same area of work. Most people with a low level of education had not been forced to take service jobs such as cleaning or in fast food outlets. The manufacturing sector remains a provider of employment in Switzerland.

The most vulnerable are those over 55 years of age; this group is the most likely not to have found employment, or to have accepted a lower quality, lower paid job following a longer period of unemployment than young people and low-skilled people.

For those left behind, the negative repercussions on well-being and sociability are significant. Only older people who were able to take early retirement eventually experienced this transition in a positive way. 32% of those over 55 were able to access this solution, while 37% were still unemployed at the end of 2011 and only 31% had found work again, often under less favourable conditions.

Potentially growing phenomenon

"This result is striking in the context of the current demographic development," says Isabel Baumann. As baby boomers enter this age group, unemployment among older people could affect a growing number of people over the next fifteen years.

The young researcher is therefore calling for continuous training measures to be improved. The apprenticeship system, which at first improves the employability of young people in Switzerland, risks putting those who did not keep up with technological progress at a disadvantage thirty years later.

In the shorter term, she recommends better support in searching for employment for older people who have been let go. She also believes that making it easier to take early retirement is an option to be considered.

Her thesis, which was directed by Prof. Daniel Oesch, has been accepted for publication in the Springer Life Course Research and Social Policies. This will be the first monograph published and will be in open access in autumn 2016.

Compensating effect of networks

Still as part of IP204 but under the supervision of Prof. Giuliano Bonoli, Nicolas Turtschi worked on another sample of unemployed people, which was more diverse in terms of profile, but limited to the Swiss canton of Vaud.

From February to April 2012, all persons attending the group information session on unemployment benefits, organised by regional employment centres, were asked to complete a questionnaire on social networks and access to employment. People who found work within twelve months received a second questionnaire. Those who were still unemployed after one year were also interviewed with a third type of questionnaire. Around 3,500 people took part in the study.

Nicolas Turtschi shows that certain disadvantaged sub-populations, such as people aged fifty and over, benefit from a "compensatory effect" thanks to their networks. But he notes in particular that "the most advantaged profiles statistically have the most interesting social resources". Clearly, people of foreign origin and those with the lowest educational level have fewer useful contacts for finding work. Among the most valuable relationships, former colleagues are much more useful than family and loved ones. Being a member of an association appears to have no effect on the period of unemployment, a finding that mirrors the other research mentioned above.

Feelings of guilt

"Social networks amplify the inequalities involved in rejoining the workforce," concludes the researcher, calling for targeted actions on the least advantaged profiles to help them identify and mobilise their contacts. He also recommends "exonerating" the unemployed, so that their shame does not cut out relationships.

Finally there is the question of the quality of the employment found through networking, which, according to Nicolas Turtschi, deserves more research, which has already been partially provided by Isabel Baumann: in her sample of industry workers, people who found a new job through a personal contact lost an average of 6% of income compared to their previous salary, in comparison with just 2% for others.

This puts the importance of networks into perspective somewhat, whose "negative aspect", in some cases, should not be overlooked. This nuanced reflection by Nicolas Turtschi invites further research to better understand the complexity of social networks and their influence on the values, perceptions and ideas of individuals.

In a very metaphorical conclusion, he ends by suggesting that, as sources of information, networks could be likened to a sense, in the same way as sight or hearing. A kind of "social sense", "developed to differing degrees, with different levels of effectiveness", the only one that is likely to improve with age, in fact!

As for the future of our two young PhDs, no one will be surprised to hear that they themselves will not encounter the problems of unemployment: Isabel Baumann will continue her career at the Centre de recherche des sciences de la santé at the Haute École Spécialisé de Zurich, and Nicolas Turtschi has a position at the Haute École de la Santé du Canton de Vaud.


>> Baumann, Isabel (2015). Labor market experience and well-being after firm closure: Survey evidence on displaced manufacturing workers in Switzerland. Under the supervision of Daniel Oesch. University of Lausanne.

>> Turtschi, Nicolas (2015). Les réseaux sociaux : un outil de réinsertion pour les chômeurs désavantagés. Under the supervision of Giuliano Bonoli. University of Lausanne