Beleaguered French Anthropologists?

A little to busy to find and read this myself right now, but I wanted to point out an article from Anthropology Today which touches on a favorite subject here at Savage Minds, namely the (lack of) engagement of anthropologists with the rest of the world. The article he is commenting on is by Didier Fassin and it discusses how last year’s riots in France caught French anthropology off-guard. Even though I haven’t had a chance to read this article, Anthro-blogger extraordinaire, Lorenz has read and digested it for the rest of us:

Anthropologists had little to say on these subjects for two reasons in Fassins view:

(1) Very few anthropologists were working on the banlieues, on immigration or inequality: This relates to the history of the discipline in France and its predominant epistemological position. Anthropology in France is above all the study of the present of remote societies. Even when French anthropologists became interested in their own society, they tended to analyse its traditional aspects:

(2) Many anthropologists found their beliefs and the ideals of the French society uncomfortably challenged: Isn’t France a secular and colorblind society?

There is an equally interesting commentary on this article by Keith Hart, which I have read as it is freely available on the web. Hart attempts a sociological analysis of the failures of French anthropology:

The French profession is divided: the Association pour la recherche en anthropologie sociale (APRAS) is the keeper of the exotic flame, while the Association française des anthropologues (AFA) is more explicitly engaged with contemporary society, but lacks the other’s institutional influence. Finally, anthropologists share with other French academics the entrenched inequality privileging Parisian researchers (CNRS, École des hautes études en sciences sociales) above those who teach in the provincial universities. The present government has tried to do something to reduce this gap, but has met with the organized resistance of scholars whose conditions of employment are the envy of academics everywhere.

French anthropology’s weak engagement with racial inequality thus mirrors the general divisions and elitism characteristic of higher education there, with the added problem that it lacks the established position of history, philosophy or sociology. The concentration of institutional power in Paris both deters public criticism by academics who are ultimately dependent on it and ensures that their voices are largely excluded from policy-making circles and the media.

He also looks at the state of other national anthropologies:

If French anthropology seems to be beleaguered these days, Brazilian anthropology, having once been confined largely to Amazonia, is now booming as a source of investigation and commentary on mainstream urban society. Scandinavian anthropology offers a flourishing model of public engagement. Anthropology is a major operation in India and Nigeria today, being mainly concerned with ‘tribal’ populations and internal cultural diversity. Anthropologists in the USA and Britain have organized themselves quite effectively as professional guilds, but there is little public knowledge there of what they do (try using ‘anthropology’ as a keyword for email alerts from the New York Times); and the discipline’s relationship to the universities is precarious.

One thought on “Beleaguered French Anthropologists?

  1. I think my experience at the EHESS speaks to Didier Fassin’s reflections: in the series of roundtables in “Actualites de l’anthropologie” dealing with French urban violence, the guests have all been sociologists (like Stephane Beaud, who uses a lot of ethnography) and the articles presented so far have all been by American anthropologists or sociologists.

    As I work on these issues, this can be worrisome; however, I have noticed that several people in my cohort in anthropology at the EHESS are doing research in the banlieue, some dealing explicitly with violence (and this was before november that they started), some with immigration, others with the practice of Islam, etc. So maybe there’s some hope for the future generation, which, if the people I know at the school tell you anything, should look a lot different (less white, less male) than the professors now.

    Other than that, I’ve found French anthropology to be stuck in some sort of perceived halcyon of the discipline, like the structuralist period or the segmentary debate. Even in “Actualites” (supposed to be contemporary anthropology) we read The Souk of Sefrou. But I know a few French professors who are trying to move past that, one of whom perceives a recent “neo-primitivism” trend in the discipline in France, which may not bode well for my hopes.

Comments are closed.