Far AfieldFrench Anthropology between Science and Literature

Far AfieldFrench Anthropology between Science and Literature

Vincent Debaene

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9780226106908

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book takes as its object of analysis the relationship between literature and anthropology in France during the twentieth century, a moment that marked ethnography’s rise to prominence as a field science as well as the discipline’s openness to literary modes of writing that stood alongside more conventional anthropological monographs. The book argues that this openness to literature served as a textual counterpart to the institutionalization of anthropology in France, which occurred after the discipline publicly cut its ties with travel writing as a literary genre in order to become a “serious” scientific endeavor. Chapters approach this paradox through a striking observation about ethnographic writing in France beginning in the 1930s: upon their return from fieldwork, many ethnographers produced two written accounts of their research experience, the first being a rather dry, scholarly monograph, and the second a more “literary” text that was much more difficult to classify since it was too aesthetically and philosophically stylized to be a pure ethnographic documentary of everyday life. The book demonstrates how these anthropological “second books” represent a uniquely French phenomenon and bespeak an engagement with a broader conversation between science and literature in France. Chapters engage a variety of texts, from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques and Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme to works by Marcel Griaule and Marcel Mauss, ending with a reading of Roland Barthes’s anthropologically inspired criticism that points to how literature and the social sciences in France jointly created and participated in the same intellectual field throughout the twentieth century.