Anthropology, a shared discipline

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Since 2022, anthropology has been in the spotlight at CNRS. Caroline Bodolec, the deputy scientific director behind this initiative, looks back at the main mediation actions around the discipline after it "put on a show" on April 30, 2024.

The CNRS Sciences humaines & sociales "Sharing Anthropology" focus ended on April 30. What does anthropology look like today?

Caroline Bodolec 1: Anthropology as a discipline studies forms of social and cultural otherness through immersion in long and/or prolonged and repeated fieldwork, which requires mastery of the language(s) of the inhabitants. Ethnologists/anthropologists prioritize the gathering of knowledge from "emic" categories, i.e. those used by the interlocutors, and detailed observations of phenomena in progress. Anthropologists, for example, study not the "family institution" as defined by laws or institutions, but what people consider to be a family, which may differ from country to country, culture to culture, and individual to individual.

Anthropology is one of the disciplines most spontaneously open to shared science methodologies, and many recent projects have demonstrated the value of co-constructing research objects with the individuals and groups studied. The current reflexivity around the forms and devices of research writing (fiction films, sound and cinematographic documentaries, photographs, comic strips, novels, collaborations with the performing arts, etc.) contributes to the restitution of research objects to the populations studied, but also enables anthropologists to densify their statements and express the sensitive, emotional and unspeakable aspects that conventional writing in articles or books does not always allow. As a result, this research is always situated and reflexive, and each one is different because it is produced by a different individual.

Anthropology covers a wide range of fields, revealing human inventiveness and the ways in which human beings deal with contemporary situations, developments and challenges. Anthropologists are committed to studying objects, themes and contemporary issues that are often networked and interconnected. Interdisciplinary from the outset, anthropology constantly engages in dialogue with the other human and social sciences (history, linguistics, economics, territorial sciences, sociology, law, literature and art...) as it seeks to understand the human being in society in all its dimensions. Similarly, many anthropologists engage in dialogue with other sciences (medicine, biology, computer science, mathematics, physics...) and take up major contemporary issues: the environmental crisis, genetic engineering, aging, robotics, bio-materials, indigenous pharmacopoeias, human-animal relations...

C. B. : In France, anthropologists are relatively few in number, and the discipline is not taught in all universities and higher education establishments. Just over half of all tenured anthropologists work for the CNRS, and in some parts of the world, such as the Near and Middle East, 77% of anthropologists working in France are CNRS staff recruited in the last fifteen years. The vast majority of CNRS researchers base their work on non-European situations, contributing to debates and the exchange of knowledge on a global scale through international symposia and international projects.

This international dimension was illustrated last year by the decision to include Laurajane Smith, an Australian anthropologist specializing in indigenous heritage issues at the Australian National University, among the top ten CNRS fellows-ambassadors.

Why and how did CNRS Sciences humaines & sociales highlight this discipline?

C. B . : Anthropology is one of the disciplines included in the Institute’s strategic positioning, alongside archaeological sciences. We therefore wanted to shine a light on this discipline, which is somewhat fragile institutionally, and to support a focus on mediation actions that began in January 2022 and ended on April 30, 2024.

The notion of sharing quickly emerged as a common thread capable of mobilizing colleagues and enabling the organization of a number of collective actions aimed at a variety of audiences. The chosen theme, "Sharing Anthropology", covers a wide and adaptable field: sharing of objects of study, sharing of methodologies, sharing of the history of anthropology, generational sharing (in particular, between associations and schoolchildren and non-academic audiences), sharing of experiences (portraits of researchers and researchers in the field), sharing of knowledge and experience.experiences (e.g., portraits of researchers), sharing of fields, sharing of analyses of methodologies and various forms of restitution, sharing of new forms of mediation, sharing with other sciences (within and outside the SHS), sharing in the construction of objects, sharing with the public, etc.

We began with a "sharing of portraits of women anthropologists" on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in February 2022, in which 39 anthropologists took part. We continued by creating a dedicated section on our website and in our quarterly newsletter, setting up a mailing list for anthropology laboratories, and designing an interdisciplinary blog on CNRS Le Journal showing how anthropology shares its objects with other sciences. The need for this blog is linked to the very history of the discipline. For a long time, anthropologists weren’t just anthropologists: they were mathematicians, archaeologists, lawyers, philosophers and linguists. These trajectories can be explained by the virtual non-existence, for a long time and particularly in France, of courses dedicated to anthropology at undergraduate level. They are also justified by the need that has arisen in many scientific fields and social debates to address cultural otherness. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that anthropologists today still include defectors who have also trained in medicine, law, history or philosophy, and who sometimes even continue to practice in these other disciplines.

This particular history of anthropology provides fertile ground for interdisciplinary dialogue within the humanities and social sciences and beyond. Today, anthropologists collaborate with researchers from other disciplines, practitioners and specialists to better understand complex social phenomena that raise numerous questions for science and often for the rest of society.

One of the highlights was the photo competition launched in 2022, open to anyone who self-identifies as an anthropologist, regardless of job, status or section. Of the sixty or so entries received, sixteen were awarded prizes, making up a travelling exhibition that has already travelled extensively throughout France, sharing with as many people as possible the particular and singular views that anthropologists have of the world.

This focus culminated in a particularly sharing event at Le Hasard Ludique in Paris. Entitled " L’Anthropo fait son show" (Anthropology puts on a show ), the aim was to demonstrate the concrete results of anthropologists’ collaborations with performing artists (music, storytelling, mime, dance, juggling, graffiti). These encounters, which enable a singular, dense and sensitive expression of research work, are also conducive to the emergence of new questions and to acting as media for sensitive research.

Finally, the apotheosis of sharing our day-to-day work as anthropologists was the publication on May 2 by CNRS Éditions of the comic strip Anthropologues! This book, aimed at schoolchildren and the curious, presents seventeen embodied research projects, evoking Parisian milliners, Puerto Rican gangs and Samoan tattoo artists. The result of a collaboration between a CNRS graphic designer and colleagues who have agreed to share their experiences and their fieldwork, this comic strip allows the objects studied by the discipline to be widely disseminated, and continues to promote it beyond the CNRS Humanities & Social Sciences Focus.

    1 CNRS research director at the China, Korea, Japan laboratory (CNRS / EHESS / Université Paris Cité) and deputy scientific director of CNRS Sciences humaines & sociales in charge of anthropology.