AE interviews Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ)

Interview by AE editorial intern Meghana Joshi (Rutgers University)

In his February 2014 article in American Ethnologist, “True life, real lives: Revisiting the boundaries between ethnography and fiction,” Didier Fassin reflects on the concern recently expressed by anthropologists that fiction often represents more compellingly and profoundly the worlds social scientists study.

Comparing his own work in South Africa and France with a novel and T.V. series respectively, Fassin discusses similarities and differences between ethnography and fiction, while complicating the dichotomy between true life (as illuminated by fiction) and real lives (as represented in ethnography). He concludes that the value and ethics of our work as ethnographers lies in depicting “…facts that can be said to have ‘really’ happened,” and linking them insightfully to history and sociology. AE editorial intern Meghana Joshi (Rutgers U) asked Professor Fassin why he thinks anthropologists need this reassurance in their time-tested method particularly now. His reply:

Didier Fassin (DF): Ethnography is the method par excellence for anthropologists, even if sociologists, political scientists or legal scholars also use it sometimes. As we all know, it is a unique tool to approach the social world, to account for its complexity, and to do justice to the people with whom and among whom we conduct our research. But its beauty is also its fragility. In a time when neighboring disciplines, from sociology to economics to cognitive and evolutionary sciences, develop formal models, deductive reasoning and quantitative techniques, with strong claims about the exclusive character of their scientific approach, ethnography as an interpretive method using inductive reasoning and qualitative techniques needs to be defended. For instance, when my book on the police was published (La Force de L’Ordre, 2011), I was criticized by French criminologists for proposing theoretical generalizations on the basis of a study limited to one urban area. My response was that there were two kinds of generalization. One, which can be described as horizontal, relies on the principle of statistical representation and implies that the randomly chosen sample allows for an extrapolation to the entire population with a given margin of error: this is what demographers, epidemiologists, and quantitative sociologists do. The other, which can be regarded as vertical, relies on a principle of theoretical reproduction and proposes interpretations of phenomena, logics, processes, structures: this is what ethnographers do – and, as you can see, this is where true life and real lives meet…

Meghana Joshi (MJ): You write that rather than reproducing, or even ventriloquizing the singular story, the scholar has as her responsibility to find that which escapes the interlocutor, and thereby illuminate lives that would otherwise be lost to insignificance. Does this exercise of our authority enable the imaginative and interpretive leaps that might give ethnographers the “magical power” characterizing fictional work?

DF: As social scientists, we interpret the world. This is an exercise of intellectual authority. Rather than denying it, it seems more relevant to admit it and attempt to analyze the epistemological, ethical, and political consequences of this “coup de force.” This is what it is: an intellectual “coup de force,” based on the mobilization of knowledge and theory to comprehend, with all the methodological limitations imaginable, the social facts they have observed. It is quite different from the “magical power” of ubiquity of the novelists who can put themselves in the place of their heroes on which they have an absolute sovereign power. As ethnographers, we have a different project, even if we do use our anthropological imagination.

MJ: Using narrative structure as a rhetorical device in your 2011 book, Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, you bring the best of fiction (efficacy) and ethnography (reality) to your record of truth. Do you propose that part of the ethics of public anthropology constitute a shift in our writing such that anthropological knowledge reaches a wider audience?

DF: Ethnography is certainly as much fieldwork, genealogically, as it is writing, etymologically. The way we write is therefore important to the ethnographic project. When I was writing Enforcing Order, I had constantly in mind the tension between being accessible to a large audience and maintaining an epistemological rigor in the description and interpretation of facts. This implied getting rid of certain academic habits, like the fetishism of citations or the reassurance through obliged conceptual discussions, while trying to maintain the methodological prudence and the theoretical infrastructure, but under cover, so to speak. I hope that when I write on violence or discrimination or on morality, the method and the theory remain present in the text, even if not explicitly formulated. The interesting consequence of this writing strategy is that you can be read – and of course criticized – by colleagues as well as by the people about whom you write and the larger public.

Enforcing Order, 2013

MJ: If your political project is to make sense of facts by relating them to larger structures and to modestly, yet authoritatively, state that which remains unarticulated by our interlocutors, then what is your position vis--vis collaborative anthropology? Could it be a manner in which anthropology broadens its publics and its efficacy?

DF: If collaborative anthropology means that we should always remember that the sort of knowledge we produce is a coproduction in which the agents we study and those with whom we work have a too often overshadowed contribution, this is an important ethical and practical reminder. If it implies a form of direct intervention with local agents, one has to be probably more cautious for two reasons. First, people are engaged in their social world in ways that do not allow them to see or say certain things: the autonomy of our practice supposes that we do not participate in this blindness or censorship, even if we understand their reasons. Second, people are not waiting for the social scientists to tell them how they should change their world: it happens that we are seldom good at that exercise, which should make us modest regarding our competence and legitimacy to intervene as experts. How then can we account for what is lost in translation when a scholarly account is adapted to other formats of representation, for instance a media clip or a T.V. interview? Once our work is made available to the public – or to a variety of publics – it largely escapes us. One may consider this period to be the afterlife of our research. The control we can exert on what journalists write or say, what agents appropriate and what people comment is very limited. Still it is important to react to the misunderstandings, either in good faith or ill-intentioned, especially when these misunderstandings can harm the persons or groups with whom we have conducted our work.

MJ: The Center for A Public Anthropology has been soliciting book proposals for ethnographies that illuminate social inequalities, the criteria of selection being that the writing in these books is not scholarly but instead reaches a wider, non-academic audience. In order to “reinstate anthropologists and sociologists in a public sphere” (as you put it in your AE article), would you be open, say as a dissertation adviser, to accrediting these alternate forms of ethnographic recording as scholarship?

DF: The initiative is interesting. I was a little surprised that, for the competition, the theme would be limited to “Inequality in America”, when social disparities should be a concern worldwide and when such a restriction might discourage non U.S. students – but the term “America” probably includes, in the mind of the organizers, the whole continent and not only the United States. This being said, would I be favorable to this sort of scholarship? Definitely, as long as the popularization of the writing does not imply a decrease in scientific vigilance. Almost all the dissertations I have advised deal with contemporary issues, such as inequality, immigration, asylum, epidemics, disasters, conflicts, and violence. And I have always told my students that they should try to write as close as possible to what could become a future book. Still, trying to reach wide audiences remains a difficult challenge.

MJ: Would you encourage graduate students to read fiction?

DF: I would encourage anyone to read, in general, and read fiction, in particular. And as far as graduate students are concerned, I would do so not in a utilitarian manner, not to become better ethnographers or write better ethnographies, but rather to enlarge their intellectual perspectives, to open their mental world to imaginaries and possibilities, and simply to have the experience of the pleasure of literature. If ethnography could produce this kind of experience for its readers, it would certainly have a much stronger impact on society, and anthropologists might regain some of the space they have lost in the public sphere during the past decades.

MJ: Given the feminist, and “writing culture” critique of representation in ethnographic texts, the term ‘facts’ has taken a battering in the last three decades. The uncertainty of speaking for others has paralyzed to some extent the endeavor to conduct face-to-face fieldwork. Critiquing such a distancing from our object of enquiry, John Borneman and Abdellah Hammoudi (co-editors of Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth), for instance, argue that the ethnographic encounter is crucial to the production of ethnographic knowledge. Where would you locate your latest intervention in this debate?

DF: It is fortunate that our discipline and more generally the social sciences have benefitted from the critical insight of the interpretive turn and up to a certain point of its textualist variation. A dominant perspective in anthropology had often as corollary a reification of certain objects and an objectification of “our others.” Critiquing it from the perspective of “writing culture” had two important effects: first, to render us more aware of the intellectual constructions we produce (rather than mere reproduction of reality); second to reopen a space for those with whom we work (reintroducing them as subjects involved in a relation with us). However, this critique involves neither giving up our account of social facts, nor renouncing the ethnographic encounter. Well-tempered positivism (facts) and reasonable intersubjectivism (encounter) are good epistemological ingredients for the practice of social science.