Riots in France and silent anthropologists
What anthropologists failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible: Public debates on inequality, discrimination and post-colonialism. In the recent volume of Anthropology Today (subscription required), Didier Fassin criticizes anthropologists for their silence during and after the november 2005 riots in France. Anthropologist Keith Hart reminds us in a comment to this article on the marginality of French anthropology and a recent letter to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).
Didier Fassin writes:
During and after the events historians, sociologists, demographers, writers and intellectuals intervened in the public sphere, expressing comprehension if not of the rioters’ actions then at least of the problems they experienced. (...)
Anthropologists remained peculiarly silent. Just as we had done during the impassioned debate on the prohibition of the Islamic veil, we kept quiet when the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie Française, suggested that the main cause of the riots was polygamy in African families – a proposal subsequently reiterated by right-wing political leaders. The academically marginal but professionally dynamic Association Française des Anthropologues organized two meetings a few weeks after the events, but significantly invited sociologists to speak.
In Didier Fassins view, anthropologists could have foreseen these events. After having done fieldwork on relations between police and youth in the suburbs of Paris, the explosion and spread of violence was no surprise to him, he writes.
The riots gave French society the opportunity for a public confession of the long-denied policies of economic inequality, residential segregation and racial discrimination. France was beginning to admit that its integration paradigm had become a cover for the denial of its institutional racism. For the first time the French started to consider theirs a post-colonial society. Though long evident to many foreign scholars working on France, French anthropologists were the last to realize what was happening according to Fassin. He explains:
Suddenly, a previously unacknowledged colour bar was discovered. The word ‘ghetto’, previously banned from French vocabulary on the grounds that it reflected a specifically American reality, became common in editorials. Newspaper articles and television reports revealed how difficult it was for Arabs or Black people to get a job or a flat, how they were stigmatized at school and humiliated by the police. What thousands of pages of academic and administrative literature failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible.
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:
When a few of us turned to the study of politics, most described it in terms of rituals and institutions, comparing them with the display and organization of power in African societies. Scientific analyses have certainly been rich and sometimes innovative, but seldom related to the issues that we face in our own societies today.
(2) Many anthropologists found their beliefs and the ideals of the French society uncomfortably challenged: Isn't France a secular and colorblind society?
The reluctance of anthropologists to recognize the existence of racial and religious discrimination in France is thus as problematic as the paradigms they do engage with. (...) Many still resist acknowledging this reality and prefer to ironize about what they see as an excessive display of victimhood. (...) Racial and religious issues remain difficult for many of us to raise when it comes to actual practices because they confront our values with a reality we would rather avoid.
Keith Hart comments Fassins article. He explains French anthropology’s weak engagement with ethnic / social inequality among others by "general divisions and elitism characteristic of higher education there".
He compares different national traditions in anthropology:
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.
>> read Keith Hart's comment (updated link)
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