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This gaze from across the English Channel has given rise to two common linked impressions about French anthropology among the British. Secondly, and conversely, it is commonly said not to be very concerned to derive general principles inductively from ethnographic facts.

The latter, of course, is often thought to be the strength of the British tradition in particular, which also likes to think of itself as cultivating a healthy scepticism of theory. Indeed, it is hard to think of a major British contributor to theory who has not been, at some time or other, a fieldworker too. Accordingly, we argue that there is a sharper distinction, and disjunction, between theory and ethnographic practice in France than in Britain, where, as just noted, many anthropologists have seen it as their task to contribute to both simultaneously.

The British editor of this volume still remembers being struck by the novelty of this discovery, which came as a revelation after years of his viewing French anthropology as excessively theoretical and almost anti-empirical, in accordance with the prevailing British stereotype. Is not the conventional British view of French anthropology therefore seriously distorted? Are not the grand theorists, who are mostly anyway associated with other disciplines, falsely and perversely seen as being more representative of French anthropology than those who have pursued their profession in the field as much as in the study, if not more so?

These are the main questions we are asking in this volume. We fully acknowledge that this situation has nothing to do with any lack of theoretical awareness or competence generally among French ethnographers, as Lucien Bernot showed in his brief but pungent dismissal of structuralism discussed below.

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Moreover, the quality of their ethnographic work is undoubtedly as high as in other traditions. Nor do we wish to exaggerate this tendency in France, far less claim that it has been the only approach to fieldwork there, nor indeed suggest that it is entirely absent outside the country. Dumont, as well as the French Marxist anthropologists — both those who were influenced mainly by Althusser, such as Emmanuel Terray, Claude Meillassoux and Pierre Philippe Rey, as well as Maurice Godelier, famous for his attempts to combine Marxism with structuralism — all did fieldwork and had a clear Introduction 3 theoretical framework within which to do so which, however, was often seen by others as directing, rather than reflecting, the search for facts.

Yet even Dumont, who perhaps comes closest to what we see as typical British practice, liked to present himself first and foremost as a craftsman or technician Delacampagne 4. We therefore argue that ethnographic essentialism represents a distinct but not exclusive trend in French anthropology, one based not just on a simple disinterest in theoretical positions but a positive rejection of them. In fact, this tendency seems every bit as characteristic of the French school as the theory-heavy ruminations of those thinkers we have all learned to know and, sometimes, even love so well.


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What are the reasons for this? Any assessment has to be based on the history of fieldwork and of field enquiries generally in French anthropology. In the rest of this introduction, we provide a brief survey of this history, starting with the early nineteenth century and proceeding to the heyday of structuralism. We then proceed to provide a brief overview of each chapter before considering what commonalities and differences can be discerned in the lives, careers and works of these subjects. This was the era of antiquarian and other learned societies in France, as elsewhere in Europe, that is, of amateur intellectuals and collectors working in an intellectual environment that was only then beginning to institutionalise itself.

This promoted rather than initiated such activities, which were already going on, for example, in Senegal in the s, where General Faidherbe was already busy producing anthropological and linguistic studies of its indigenous peoples Gaillard In addition, many missionaries were also active in this period in various parts of the world, such as Jean Kemlin, who went out to the Bahnar in Vietnam in the same decade, long before French rule had been established there.

Apart from a crude colonial-style evolutionism, none of this work can be considered theoretically informed.

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Even at this early stage, therefore, a certain separation between ethnography and theory can be discerned in France. Other currents in the nineteenth century can be linked to France itself, or at any rate Europe, rather than growing overseas empires. Perhaps of greater influence were studies into the folklore of France in this period and later.

In doing so, he Introduction 5 resisted the attempts of the French political right to enlist folklore for its own nationalist agenda, as well as becoming almost a structuralist avant la lettre in his most famous work, Les rites de passage ; on ritual forms in the world in general.


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  • For Susan Rogers, this fusion of folklore and anthropology still informs the anthropology of France itself, partly because of a desire to challenge sociological studies of the death of rural France by stressing the uniqueness and continued viability of such communities — Indeed, some of the figures treated in this volume took part in studies of French communities before moving on to fieldwork in other parts of the world Bastide, Bernot, Dampierre, Dumont. This practice of separating fieldwork and theory persisted into the twentieth century in France, where anthropology as a distinct discipline developed differently than it did in Britain and America, especially in turning to professional fieldwork rather later.

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    In the early twentieth century, however, fieldwork by amateur missionary and administrator ethnographers still continued. First, it was seen as having been discredited by the speculations of the nineteenth-century British intellectualists-cumevolutionists — for Durkheimians, one of the main examples of wrongheadedness in the social sciences of the time. Secondly, it was too closely 6 Robert Parkin and Anne de Sales connected with amateur, antiquarian folklore.

    It may also be found in the criticism that Robert Hertz, a leading Durkheimian scholar, faced from his own colleagues after conducting a brief period of fieldwork on the cult of St Besse in northern Italy in Parkin 12, MacClancy and Parkin Conscious that French anthropology was falling behind British in this regard, he encouraged others to do longterm fieldwork in the s without participating in any himself.

    Such activity, one assumes, would not give emphasis to theory. In fact, a scrutiny of some of his more programmatic statements indicates that he, more than anyone else except perhaps Marcel Griaule, was the probable source of the widespread focus on the facts and on ethnography in much French anthropology after the First World War.

    Yet, this was also the period of expeditions and ethnographic travel at least as much as fieldwork in the Malinowskian sense, the former method sometimes being allied with diffusionism, as had been the case about a quarter of a century earlier with, for example, the Torres Straits expedition in Britain. As for Griaule, he did much to popularise anthropology in France, both before and after the Second World War, partly through his own charisma as a teacher and partly through the quite large cohort of his colleagues and students he gathered around him.

    Many of these were significant figures in their own right, such as Michel Leiris who soon broke with him , but also Marcel Delafosse, Germaine Dieterlen, Denise Paulme and Jean Rouch on the latter, see Paul Henley, this volume. Although Griaule himself has been accused of exploiting informants in questionable ways and of indulging in cultural reproduction rather than ethnographic reporting by deliberately staging ritual events, he abandoned his early diffusionism in favour of a focus on the field and a theorising of field methods.

    Nonetheless it rapidly came to be treated as a theoretical tendency, if not a school. In his critiques too, his target was British structuralfunctionalism more than anything else in anthropology. Above all, his aim of creating a science of culture on the model of structural linguistics was explicitly a break with the past. His influence was such that the fieldwork of others and the facts they collected began to be shaped and organised in relation to his theoretical ideas.

    As already noted above, in tandem and, through Maurice Godelier, even overlapping with structuralism was the work of mostly Althusser-inspired Marxists like Terray, Meillasoux and Rey, chiefly on West Africa. Here too, theory Marxist this time was used to explain ethnographic facts rather than vice versa. With structuralism and Marxism, therefore, French anthropology converged more with practice in other national traditions of anthropology in intimately uniting theory and practice, and even in subordinating the latter to the former.

    In fact, several important publications have recently tackled these issues from various points of view. Thus Claude Blanckaert has produced a historical perspective on the transformation of the status of the observer in the course of the past three centuries in a collection of studies of texts, basically French, which enact research directives and codify the empirical work of travellers and, after them, researchers Blanckaert Four manuals directed at students on methods of enquiry have also appeared.

    Thus four recent studies deal with the research actors, colonial administrators, indigenous scholars, official and unofficial researchers, and institutions involved in colonial research.

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    This, of course, is a dilemma for anthropology generally, and it is especially significant in fieldwork, where not only are facts and impressions 10 Robert Parkin and Anne de Sales collected, but also the Other is confronted on a human level of mutual comprehension and incomprehension. Mention should also be made of the series Terre Humaine, published in Paris by Plon over many years, the focus of which was precisely the publication of ethnographies in French. While we do not engage directly with these texts here, we do seek to supplement them with a wholly English-language perspective on the particularities of the relationship between ethnographic practice and theory in French anthropology.

    The present collection The approach adopted in addressing this question was to ask French and British anthropologists to compose intellectual biographies of French anthropologists, some of them little known, if at all, to the Anglo-Saxon public, yet who offer particular potential in exploring the relationship between ethnography and theory.

    Hence the eclectic character of this gallery of portraits when compared to either a manual of ethnographic practice or a history of the discipline. Thus the present collection is selective rather than comprehensive.

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    It is unfortunate that there is no chapter on a female French anthropologist. This partly reflects the principle we chose to adopt of not featuring any living anthropologists in this collection, which restricted us in large measure to the middle and early histories of French ethnography — and these periods in France appear to have had even fewer women fieldworkers than the British and American schools.

    Many Introduction 11 French women ethnographers, now deceased, such as Germaine Dieterlen and Denise Paulme, were linked to Griaule, a circle represented here by Jean Rouch. A main thrust of these chapters is therefore historical. Is the ethnographic essentialism of many of the figures dealt with in this volume now similarly historical?

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    In fact, given what has been identified as the general tendency for anthropologists to refrain from large-scale comparisons and theoretical statements today Gingrich and Fox , with a concomitant concentration on the facts of specific ethnographic situations, ethnographic essentialism appears rather to be alive and kicking in at least some quarters. In addition, of course, it cannot be said that the fundamental problems of doing fieldwork have gone away, nor that the basic process itself has changed markedly since the time those discussed in this collection were themselves in the field, despite the distinctive attitudes of many of them to fieldwork.

    The time therefore seems right to draw attention to this tendency once more in the context of the past practices of some though not all adherents of the French tradition, in the belief that, in a more general way too, their experiences and their own telling of them remain very relevant to contemporary anthropology. A review of the chapters follows, which are arranged broadly according to the ethnographic areas in which their subjects mainly or wholly worked. The first chapter in the collection focuses on a key figure in the transition from folklore to a recognisable anthropology of symbolism and ritual, Arnold van Gennep — Being almost entirely armchair anthropologists, his rivals were especially vulnerable to attacks of this kind.

    Much of this reaction was formulated in the Chroniques pages of the Mercure de France, but these pages were not only critical of others, they also put forward a prescription for how fieldwork in a literate or semi-literate society should be carried out.