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For a long time, the preliminary title of my research project was communities in the making… I was thinking of Britain and France as the two communities that were in a constant state of creation and recreation. Then I realised how flawed this title was. First of all, many misunderstood what I meant by “community”, thinking that I had such an old-fashioned perspective on society as consisting of different (“ethnic” or whatever) “communities” that were reproducing themselves. (Perhaps I lost a PhD scholarship that way). Second, I finally realised that it wasn’t strange that people misunderstood, as “community” is the very word particularly favoured in multicultural thinking of ethnic minorities. The word then seemed to be useless for my usage in general, and particularly useless, as I wanted to employ it on the situation in France. There, the word seemed most commonly used in relation to communautarisme; the community-making of religious or “ethnic” minorities which threatens the societal cohesion of society as a whole. “Society” seemed thus a better choice.
But what is “society”?
Ouch… when I start think about it, I really hate such words. The advice given in Pelto and Pelto’s Anthropological research: The structure of inquiry concerning the nature of concepts is excellent when it comes to such words. They emphasise that concepts are “arbitrary selections from the universe of experience”, and that they are “abstractions from concrete observations” (P&P 1978: 9). Therefore: “All terms in the stated problem must relate to observable natural phenomena of the universe, however indirect the path of abstraction involved” (P&P 1978: 27). Whatever they might mean by “observable natural phenomena”, P&P acknowledge that all terms used by anthropologists do not have “accessible empirical referents” (ibid.). However, they emphasise that if abstract, relational terms are used in research, “the research design must (…) make clear to the reader just what observational procedures will be taken as evidence supporting a proposition involving the abstract concept” (ibid.).
What observational procedures will be taken as evidence of “a society in the making”, then? “Society” must to be taken apart [… this reminds me of Foucault’s title society must be defended. Should check that one out; what might he have meant by that?], just like “culture”, which Eric Wolf and Adam Kuper tore to pieces once and for all for me with this – oh, so simple – quote:
if the elements of a culture are disaggregated, it is usually not difficult to show that the parts are separately tied to specific administrative arrangements, economic pressures, biological constraints, and so forth. “A culture,” Eric Wolf concluded, “is thus better seen as a series of processes that construct, reconstruct, and dismantle cultural materials, in response to identifiable determinants” (Kuper 1999: 246 (Wolf 1997: 387)).
Then, what are the series of processes making up the thing we call society? What are the identifiable determinants and what kind of material is being constructed, reconstructed or dismantled in the processes creating the unstable and unbound unit called society. The “material”, I suppose, must be relations. Relations are built, rebuilt and broken between people, between people and places, and probably between larger units of people and between people working within and on behalf of institutions… The identifiable determinants can be values, rules, laws, power relations, (lack of) knowledge, prohibitions, traditions… The series of processes constantly reproducing social units are thus all these exchanges going on in the various relationships within different shaping frameworks.
When I chose the term society for the title of my thesis, I of course also thought about the slam poetry scene in Paris as a society in the making, maybe even as France in miniature.
The Parisian slam society, or community – which has a better ring to it, I think – is certainly created and recreated through ongoing series of processes: People meet at various places, usually at slam sessions, but also often in the streets of the neighbourhoods of Belleville, Ménilmontant, metro line 2 (the northern and eastern section)… There they exchange poems, greetings and kisses, opinions… They might eat, smoke and drink together, arrange things together… and drop out of the community for a while and then come back… The territory (=important ingredient in old definition of society) of the slam community is perhaps defined by the density of slammers present: Some places, as the areas (and metro stretch) I mentioned, the density is high, while sometimes – but probably very rarely – two or more slammers (≈distinct people = another important ingredient in old def.) meet in Champs Elysees or the Latin Quarter, and for a brief moment re-enact social bonds in the slam community. And what about the “determinants” these social processes are responses to? I’m running out of time here, but the “ethos” (≈specific “culture” = important ingredient in old def.) of French slam poetry is important here, but this ethos is of course shaped by values and forces in the larger society. I should say something about “institutions” as well, which is the fourth ingredient in the old def. but that must be for later…
I have a feeling that I’ve jumbled things together a little in this piece, but hopefully it will help me to sort out my answer to Pelto and Pelto’s commandment for anthropological research when time has come to write my methods chapter.
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