French anthropology

The modern tradition of French anthropology, which dates from the beginning of this century, has always been stretched between the two poles of grand theory, on the one hand, and the minute and exacting study of data on the other. In the history of the discipline, these have sometimes been integrated into single bodies of work and have sometimes represented complementary or rival approaches (Jamin 1991). At the pole of specific data, French anthropology has been characterized by penetrating thoroughness of description, exhaustiveness, and craftsmanly care. At the theoretical pole, it has been centrally concerned with human societies as wholes, with a particular leaning towards the analysis of systems of social representations. A characterization of the ‘French school’ before 1935 may be taken for the tradition as a whole: ‘The French school maintained the primacy of the whole over the parts, the functional interdependence of the elements of a system, and the importance of establishing correlations among these elements’ (Menget 1991: 332). The central thrust of French anthropology has thus been quite distinct from that of both British and North American anthropology.

A few characteristics of French anthropology deserve particular mention. First, France possesses a general intellectual culture which involves the educated public in a way unknown in Britain or North America: Levi-Strauss, for instance, is a recognized public figure, respected, in particular, as a writer of fine prose. Through its participation in this broader culture, French anthropology has always been connected to other human sciences, to philosophy, and to literature, so that each major development in anthropology has had repercussions outside the field.

Second, much of French anthropology, particularly that which has been most influential outside France, has been theory-driven. In France, Lowie wrote, ‘it was not ethnography that stimulated the theory of culture, and through it other disciplines. On the contrary, the impulse to field research finally emanated from philosophy’ (Lowie 1937: 196). The internationally recognized French masters — Lowie cites Durkheim, Mauss, and Levy-Bruhl, and Levi-Strauss fits the pattern almost uncannily — have been philosophers by training and temperament, who promulgated their theories on the basis of what field ethnographers, often of other nationalities, were bringing in. The burgeoning of French field research has provided a counterpoint to this style of armchair construction; but at its best, French ethnography either teases out indigenous philosophies (Leenhardt, Griaule) or seeks in ethnography answers to fundamental questions in the human sciences (e.g. Dumont).

Third, French scholarship takes place in a web of institutions, each with its own character, history, responsibilities, and centres of power, that is unique in the world. This includes, in no particular order: university departments; a chair in anthropology at the College de France; the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, which are devoted to research and graduate training; the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, which trains field linguists and does research in linguistic anthropology; and the vast structure of the Conseil National de Recherche Scientifique, with its cadre of researchers. Also important are the institutional bases of French-language anthropology outside France, in academic departments and research centres in Europe, Canada, Africa, and other parts of la Francophonie.


From the sixteenth century, with Rabelais’s ‘ethnography’ of the late medieval imagination and Montaigne’s ruminations on cannibals, French thinking on cultural differences has had a distinctive contour: a cool eye for one’s own society and a sympathetic curiosity about the other, often using the exotic to criticize the familiar. This tradition involves most of the great names of the Enlightenment. Through these centuries, reports were coming in from missionaries, explorers, and colonists about the wonders of the newly discovered world. Specific reportage and broad theory came together in the Jesuit J.-F. Lafitau’s 1724 comparison of the peoples of North America with those of les premiers temps.

The nineteenth century

The nineteenth century was one of institutional foundation and consolidation. Until mid-century, new efforts were made to carry out an essentially philosophical agenda, incorporating the information coming in from around the globe. In 1799 a group of philosophers who came to be known as the Ideologues founded the Societe des Observateurs de l’Homme, whose manual ‘on the observation of savage peoples’ urged observers to live with the people studied and learn their language (see Stocking 1968). The Acade-mie Celtique, founded in 1807, promoted the collection of folk practices and beliefs, understood as survivals of a pagan past (Belmont 1986). The Societe Ethnologique de Paris, founded in 1839, produced its own manual for the collection ofrepresentative ethnographic data.

By mid-century, the philosophical agenda was being incorporated into a colonial one, requiring information that would be of use to administrators of empire. This shift is marked by that from the term ethnologie, the study of specific languages and cultures for the purpose of understanding humanity, to an anthropologie generale, an overall science that would include physical anthropology and human geography along with culture and language. The second half of the century saw the founding of a chair in anthro-pologie at the Natural History Museum, of the Ecole d’Anthropologie de Paris, and ofthe Musee d’Ethnographie, which would later become the Musee de l’Homme.

The sociological synthesis

The development of French anthropology has gone through periods of consolidation and of relative drift. The former have gelled around groups of scholars working in Paris and have always centrally involved links to other disciplines.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim and his collaborators created a comparative sociology that was to become the basis of modern French anthropology. The Durkhei-mians understood social life as an autonomous level of analysis constituted centrally of collective representations. The school published major comparative analyses of social, symbolic, and religious institutions, many in their journal the Annee Sociologique. Associated with this group was the philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, who assumed fundamental differences between civilized and primitive mentalities, but sought to explain these through differences in social life rather than through innate capacities.

The Durkheimian school was decimated by World War I. Marcel Mauss, the most important survivor, continued to promote sociology and particularly ethnology, playing a role comparable to that of Boas in North America. Mauss’s book The Gift (1925) proposed that the social whole could be conceived as a system of exchange, an idea that would have a profound effect on later anthropology; his 1934 essay on ‘Body Techniques’ prefigures many of today’s concerns.

The Durkheimian approach directly influenced Saussure and the development of a systemic linguistics; the school of social and cultural history that formed around the journal Annates; and folklore, in the person of Arnold van Gennep, whose topic on rites of passage is a comparative study of Durkheimian scope.

The development of field research

The institutionalization of French ethnology continued between the wars with the 1925 founding of the Institut d’Ethnologie by a philosopher (Levy-Bruhl), a sociologist (Mauss), and an ethnographer/physical anthropologist (Paul Rivet). The Institut itself, and French anthropology of the period, juxtaposed the two poles of grand theory and the meticulous concern for particular data in the form of Mauss’s vision of a theory-driven and autonomous ethnology versus Rivet’s ideal of anthropology as the meeting place of descriptively exact disciplines in the social and natural sciences.

This was the classical period of French ethnography, and most of the major practitioners of the craft combined these two poles. The French-speaking world has produced a series of great field scholars, some devoting much of a lifetime to the explication of a single social and intellectual universe, most often through the analysis of its language and symbolism. One exemplar of this tradition was Maurice Leenhardt, a missionary, then an ethnographer on New Caledonia, whose book Do Kamo is a landmark in the comparative study of the person (Clifford 1982). But the great bulk of French ethnography has focused on Africa. The Dakar—Djibouti Expedition of 1931, the ostensible purpose of which was to collect museum artefacts, was at the beginning of (at least) three major contributions: the work of Michel Leiris, ethnographer, critic of colonialism, and a celebrated poet; the pioneering films of "Jean Rouch; and the many years of analysis of the ritual, language, and philosophy of the Dogon of West Africa associated particularly with the names of Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen, and Genevieve Calame-Griaule. The work with the Dogon remains the world model for long-term elucidation of levels of cosmology (cf. Clifford 1988: ch. 2).

The period between the wars was also marked by the overlapping between ethnology and literature (Clifford 1988: ch. 4). The journal Minotaur published Griaule alongside Picasso and Eluard, and just before World War II, the College de Sociologie brought together social science, in which ethnology held pride of place, and avant-garde literature.

The structuralist synthesis

During the occupation, while anthropology in France virtually froze, European anti-fascist scholars were meeting in New York under the auspices of the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes. Here the exiled Claude Levi-Strauss came into contact with the linguist Roman Jakobson and with North American anthropology, notably in the person of Franz Boas. Levi-Strauss welded these influences into the new synthesis of structuralism, seeking to define the mechanism of culture as parallel to that of language, which is systemic (Saussure) and based on binary oppositions (Jakobson); like language, other aspects of culture can be understood as systems of exchange (Mauss). The structuralist paradigm took shape in the 1950s, after Levi-Strauss’s return to France, linking his work in anthropology with that of Lacan in psychoanalysis and Barthes in literary studies.

Within anthropology the decade saw an expansion of French interest in new regions of the world (notably Asia and Latin America), in linguistic anthropology, studies of the environment, and prehistory. A new theoretical thrust came with the politically committed, sociologically oriented anthropology of Georges Balandier. But it was structuralism that emerged as a great consolidating force in the 1960s, both within anthropology and between it and other fields, with anthropology playing a privileged role in general intellectual life, as illustrated by the famous cartoon showing Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault sitting around talking in the jungle in grass skirts. Levi-Strauss’s own work set the anthropological agenda, reorienting research in several key domains. In kinship, French anthropology came to stress alliance, that is, exchange, over descent (Dumont, "Heritier); myth and ritual were seen primarily as forms of language and cognition, rather than as social charter or expression of psychological drives (Izard and Smith 1979); the economy, in structural Marxism, came to be seen as one aspect of a systemic whole (fGodelier), rather than as either a simple quest for maximization or a simple determinant of everything else. This structural Marxism developed autonomously into an influential school insisting on the multiplicity of modes of production in particular cases and the complexity of relations among levels of analysis ("Meillassoux, Rey, Terray). Structuralism also reinvigorated regional anthropologies (Dumont on South Asia, Condominas on Southeast Asia, de Heusch on Africa, Levi-Strauss on North and South America) and such ‘anthropologies’ of the past as Indology, Sinology, classics, folklore, and Indo-European studies (Dumezil).

After the millennium

Even during the heyday of structuralism, dissenters were objecting to its attack on personal agency, its often scientistic tone, and its apparent lack of interest in contemporary problems. After the student uprising of May 1968, intellectual trends in France became more free-flowing and pessimistic, and structuralism came in for severe criticism from Marxists and anti-authoritarians. On the whole, however, French anthropology has remained more committed to learning things about others in a structural and/ or a detailed ethnographic mode than to worrying about whether such knowledge is possible or permissible.

The field is curently suffering or enjoying a period of relative dispersion. Thematic interests stand out more than grand-theoretical monoliths. Major work is being done again (listed here in no particular order) in field linguistics and the collection and analysis of oral texts; in medical anthropology; in a continuing tradition of ethnopsychiatry; in the study of cognition and ritual; in the study of the past and present, particularly that of Northern and Southern Europe; in a new anthropology of the modern. These last two themes draw on an increasing integration of history and anthropology. At the same time, structuralist projects continue on kinship and exchange, on religious symbolism, and on classification and cognition. Most of these thematic tendencies are institutionally based, and some have their own journals. Particularly striking is the renewal of passion for the ‘Griaule option’ of long-term, detailed ethnography. Much of French anthropology is being carried out in regionally defined research teams, which now exist for most parts of the world. The field is also undergoing a process of Europeani-zation and internationalization, with increasing collaboration in the context of multilingual conferences and publications.

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