Jon Bialecki

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Getting beyond arguing over ‘getting beyond the suffering slot’

A recent article in a small, boutique on-line journal named HAU (which, apparently, will publish just about anybody) has reminded me of a recent debate in anthropology: whether there is an inordinate focus on ‘suffering’ in anthropology, and particularly the sort of suffering that has its roots in neoliberalism. The most trenchant for of this argument is Joel Robbin’s arguing for the ‘anthropology of the good.’ Robbin’s gambit is that after the loss of culture as an organizing motif, suffering now serves as the warrant to validate anthropological projects, and what this forecloses is any investigation into how people make lives that run along the lines of what they think is of value in the world. Rather, we can only discuss what they endure.

Of course, there is another side to this as well: there is the competing idea that there is something Panglossian about focusing on the good in a time when neoliberalism is obviously so regnant, and there is so much abject misery in the world. This opposition is usually put forward as a debate, where we are supposed to pick sides. Debates are fun, of course, but as a substantive position this oppositional framing is a bit pathetic, as if ideas were countries locked in a border skirmish over some piece of a map, and not modes of creation.

Alternately we could meekly chirp that ‘both sides have a point,’ which may be the most levelheaded though lukewarm answer. Of the three options, though, that last is the one that strangely seems the most wanting, even if it is the most ‘catholic-with-a-small-c’ answer to the challenge (as if that’s a virtue). The reason that this ‘third way’ feels particularly unsatisfying is probably not because it is so irenic, though. It is because it is the one answer that doesn’t come to grips with the problem. But notice that there is shift – we have gone from ideas, as statements with determinate and mutually irreconcilable content, to a problem – an event or crisis that demands a response. And once we see this as a problem, and a shared one that can be taken up in different ways, then we can frame the various sides as differential resolutions – and hence can think of it in terms not of a binary, but perhaps in some kind of topological way, as different modes of unfolding the same terrain (as opposed to the topographical military metaphor of countries on a map at war.

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French Anthropology and Ethnography under threat?

While a great deal of this situation that seems unclear to me,  Dejan Dimitrijevic from the University of Nice has been circulating a petition (the English version of which is below) which suggests that ‘ethnology-anthropology’ is in danger of being stricken from this list of possible diplomas in France. For those interested in find out more, there are other resources available on this issue.

A ministerial proposal for a nomenclature of headings of license diplomas removes the mention “ethnology-anthropology”. The aim of this page of exchange and discussion is not only to defend this field of production of ideas and knowledge, but also to take advantage of this harmful project to promote public awareness of the program of this discipline to a much wider audience than the usual academic teaching space’s one. In the first place, the scheduled
elimination of ethnology-anthropology would be an intellectual and scientific impoverishment: one only has to look through the great debates of the 20th century to measure the importance of our discipline in the construction of the modern values. The greatest ethnological and anthropological works were all linked to the great societal debates of their time, and they are still relevant.

In the first half of the 20th century, the issues of exchange and gift as questioned by Marcel Mauss (The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies) did not only intend to produce academic knowledge but also stimulate the social reforms of modernity for a more fair and equitable redistribution of the produced wealth. After the tragedy of the Second World War, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss was the driving force for the foundation of a new humanism, after the disaster of the exclusively biological design of the Man who legitimated the racialist attempts for hierarchization of human
groups, leading to the extermination of some of them. The cultural conception of the Man allowed a new momentum, universalist and egalitarian, from which comes the formulation which remains the identity and politics of our discipline “unity of man, diversity of cultures,” that Claude Lévi-Strauss developed in a text entitled “Race and history” to the broad public of the UNESCO.

The period of the decolonisation saw the emergence of the figure and the work of Georges Balandier, many still view as one of the founders of modern anthropology, so strong was his call against any anachronistic or exotic drift for the comprehension of non Western societies, African in the first place. Whether in an era marked by the decolonization, or today, while new antagonisms of domination and resistances grow, the need for thinking all the existing human societies as contemporary from/to each other is an unsurpassable anthropological truth.

In a period of reorganization of the world and redefinition of a thought on human potential, in new modernity, characterized by unprecedented globalization (in the sense it is coextensive to all the territories of the planet), ethnology-anthropology remains an essential resource to produce knowledge on the Man, we absolutely need . The desire to eliminate this jewel of modern knowledge can be explained only by the political distrust towards any
space where can be developed a free thought and a universal conception of equality of individuals and human groups.

Ethnology-Anthropology offers students a wide range of formations and specialties, but it also promotes the development of adult and informed citizens. Moreover, maintaining the words “ethnology-anthropology” in the nomenclature of the headings of license diplomas is not enough. An awareness of ethnological and anthropological knowledge should begin in primary school and its teaching should gradually grow in college and high school. It is urgent to engage via this page a constructive action against the scheduled elimination of our discipline:

1°) By demonstrating by a massive petition our firm refusal of the suppression of the mention Ethnology-Anthropology from the nomenclature of license diplomas;

2°) By informing the Ministry about the reality in Ethnology-Anthropology teaching and
the diversity of local situations.

Nice, Juin 23th 2013
Dejan Dimitrijevic, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

The text is supported by :
Jean-François Gossiaux, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale
Bernard Formoso, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
Jacky Bouju, Université Aix-Marseille
Olivier Leservoisier, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Jean-Yves Boursier, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis
Octave Debary, Université Paris Descartes
Abderrahmane Moussaoui, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Philippe Chaudat, Université Paris Descartes