02:49:14 pmCategories: Fieldwork, Anthropological notes, Oslo

Back home part 2 – presenting my project so far (part 1)

Each time I tell about my fieldwork, I end up saying different things to different people, and usually I feel that it turns out quite messy, whatever I say. That was certainly the case when I tried to sum up the main points to my supervisor. So before my first seminar presentation (in front of a small multidisciplinary audience), the time had come to structure all I had experienced neatly into a comprehensible – and hopefully quite comprehensive – format.

My presentation was almost purely empirical, as I’ve not been reading much else than newspapers the last 9 months. The structuring principle I chose was to first give a socio-political overview of the bigger social events that took place during my fieldwork (October 05 to July 06), before I shifted to a more concrete micro focus on what and whom I’ll focus my research on (due to a need to anonymize at the web, I’ll be a little less concrete in this English version). I see the major socio-political events as forming a backdrop to my ethnographic micro focus, which – I hope – in turn can contribute to the understanding of these larger events. The first part of this post gives an English version of the first, events focuses, part of my presentation. The next part moves on to the micro focus, with a few words on my intended comparison with London as well as an attempt to sum up some of the comments I got after my presentation.

This is roughly what I said:

I have not changed the fundamental focus of my project, thus I still focus on societal integration in two postcolonial European metropolises, particularly aspects of identity (formation) and belonging. However, my narrow focus on the so-called second generation (of one ethnic category; British Asians) in London, seemed – as predicted – of little relevance in Paris. [And coming to think of it, neither “identity” nor “belonging” is of that much importance to me anymore… We’ll see now, after summing up, if not “Communities in the making: Space, time and revolt” isn’t after all a more fitting title.]

During my 9-10 months of fieldwork, several large political events with huge relevance for my project took place. In the end of October, three weeks of rioting – car burning (which French youth are particularly keen on doing on a regular basis) and burning of schools and the like took place in deprived suburbs characterised by high unemployment and a large proportion of habitants of non-European decent.

In the spring, we had several weeks of massive protests against the new labour law, which had the intention of liberalising and increasing the flexibility of the labour market, but were seen as creating more insecurity (

on, I would like to mention the abrogation, by President Chirac, of the less than a year old law paragraph saying that schools should teach the positive effects of colonisation. Until it’s abrogation, the paragraph and the protests it caused, never ceased to make it to the headlines. For instance, scheduled protests by the Martiniquais, including the poet Aimé Césaire, made Interior Minister Sarkozy to cancel his trip to the (French!) island.

The first day in commemoration of slavery (as a crime against humanity) took place the 10th of May. I had been looking forward to the day, anticipating it as a key event in my fieldwork. It was perhaps due to my great expectations that the day – for me – turned out to be almost a non-event.

The latter two events – the controversial paragraph about the teaching of history and the commemoration of slavery – give evidence to how important the struggle around the definition of (the correct and official version of) history is in France. I read into these events, as well as the last one I’ll mention – the active mobilisation against the new immigration law –, an increased demand for recognition of the transnational foundation of the French nation. [If this appears opaque at the moment, I’ll probably return to it in later posts, as I’m planning to work on what I’ll claim is a transnational appropriation of time and space this autumn…].

(Contrary to what was the case in the UK – and Norway! – the caricature affaire was no big event in France.)

I was struck by the constant focus on crisis and the feeling of anger and frustration present in the French society. The feeling of economic insecurity was present to a completely different degree there than what I was used to from Norway. In the beginning, the protests against the liberalisation of working conditions, seemed of little importance to my research (despite the fact that the law was part of Prime Minister de Villepin’s project on “égalité de chances”). However, as the protests gained ground, they pointed me in directions of important aspects of French social and political life:

*) Mobilising and protest: the belief that it’s possible, worthwhile and even correct and a good thing for proper citoyens to protest (i.e. it had already worked against the paragraph on colonialism).

*) Revolutions and riots as central aspects of the French national narrative, which is echoed on various levels in society, from the enthusiasm with which the pedestrians cross the street on red light – often dragging their children along, to the widespread (acceptance of) civil disobedience when “godfathering” and hiding sans-papiers children who are threatened by expulsion. For instance, many parents, teachers and other middle-aged people described the (sometimes quite violent) protests in the spring as a learning experience of democracy for the young. Apropos the riots in the banlieues: many commentators saw – utterly seriously, which surprised me – the riots as a positive sign: they riot against injustice, donc they are very French indeed!

*) Explicit and active scepticism against “(economic) liberalism”, partly as a so-called “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon. (I.e. also “the republican model of integration” is also seen in contrast to the “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalisms.

The two waves of protest and riot were easily interpreted within ideological discourses – not only by social scientists, but also not least in the public discourse. Both the two large events were frequently lifted up to a higher politico-philosophical level: For instance, one could readily hear that the riots in the banlieues were a proof that the French model of integration was destitute and France needed to turn in more in direction of multiculturalism. Equally, instead of the typically (so it went) French line of confrontation in politics – resulting with 1-3 millions in the streets against the CPE/first employment contract – needed to learn more from the “Scandinavian line of consensus”.

I find it interesting – particularly to my British/French comparison – that an excellent newspaper like the Guardian in my opinion not wholly grasps some particularities of French society in this respect. They wondered about the fact that 70% of French youth wished for something as boring and safe as a position as a public servant, and interpreted the protests as conserving and backward looking. My point is not whether their interpretation is right or not, but I find it quite ethnocentric and in lack of a native French point of view. (But that’s what we have anthropologists for ☺ )

My analysis is still at an embryonic or even less developed state, but it seems to me that these differing interpretations indicate a different relationship to the state, thus different state traditions, amongst British and French youth. I also have suspicion that one might read into the attitudes differences in visions of what constitutes a good life: perhaps in terms of more focus on career versus leisure, on consumption versus other forms of expressivity…. Well, probably I’m idealising the French context…

I hope to get a better grasp of these larger socio-political issues by looking at them though an ethnographic micro focus. However, it took me many months of fieldwork before I found such an ethnographic focus where I would be able to grasp what I saw as significant in the present situation. I went to loads of meetings and various gatherings and hung around in various places, but I found neither a suitable environment nor a suitable focus – until two months before I left the field.

I know this post can do with some links, but I’ll have to leave that for later... sorry

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