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1 The focus of our dossier is on the mediators of globalization. It is the result of a collective study that arose from the international colloquium “Globalizations and circulations of ideas, knowledge and norms”. This was organised by the Fédération Sciences Sociales Sud in September 2019 at the University of Paris Descartes, the aim being a re-questioning of studies on globalization. We use the concepts of ideas, norms, and knowledge in circulation, as well as a focus on the players, seen from a decentralised perspective. This serves to distance us from an approach that mobilizes notions of transfer and standardization, and also to go beyond “a face-off between hegemonies and subalternations” [3]. We pursue this work by studying the way in which this circulation is materialized and symbolized through what we have called the ‘mediators’ of globalization. To grasp this plurivocal notion, our dossier focuses on figures operating on the border between various social worlds. It broaches fields as diverse as religion and politics, development, associations, and activism, as well as anthropology — agitated at present by burning debates on postcolonial issues. We present different mediators whose thinking has been enriched by the multiplicity and sheer diversity of their interests, while taking part in the constructing of identities and collective imaginations, at the same time as feeding more or less imperative moral or normative injunctions. All of this generates — in the contemporary globalized context — ideological tensions that are sometimes acutely political.

2 The mediators we discuss in this dossier are analysed on several levels and on multiple registers of reality. By “mediator” we mean, on the one hand, an individual whose spheres of activity gravitate between margins and centres, weaving links between a multiplicity of political, economic, and moral players and social groups so that they strengthen one another while expressing diverse, and at times, opposing positions. The notion of the ‘moral entrepreneur’ coined by the sociologist Howard S. Becker, has influenced us; it refers to individuals who create and apply norms, with the aim of reshaping those currently applied. But we understand this category in a broader sense, highlighting the diversity of the logics of action and the dynamics at play, but without their solidity or their lability being prejudged. On the other hand, beyond its materialised figures, the notion refers to a line of anthropological thought that developed in the wake of Gérard Althabe. It is characterised firstly by its exploration of what mediators produce at the level of the imaginary, the symbolic and the ideological. Let us pause here to look at this line of thought, which arose mainly behind the scenes of our issue, in the accompanying debates and exchanges. Our various contributions are inscribed in a body of thought of political anthropology that has been developing for over the past fifty years.

A concept at the heart of an anthropological current

3 Throughout his various investigations, Gérard Althabe has used the concept of ‘mediator’ in ‘different configurations that are by no means confused. It is part of the same theoretical construction’ (Traimond, 2005): a personalized, real, precarious, imaginary, symbolic mediator, and positive and negative ideological players. These concepts have in turn been taken up, reinvented, and updated by a number of other anthropologists. No doubt because of its transformational and somewhat intangible character, not many analyses have tried to capture the centrality of this concept in Gérard Althabe’s ‘approach’: an articulation between micro-local situations and globalized frameworks of analysis, domination, and the various ways of overcoming it; a reflexive approach and critical analysis. Also, this concept has never been theorized outside of the deliberations that have accompanied its practical application. Thus, this concept not only has the advantage of embodying the essence of Althabe’s ‘approach’, but also has the aim of developing the project of anthropological knowledge and keeping it as closely as possible to the logic of the terrain. This also makes it possible to give meaning to this concept which a certain number of anthropologists have grasped — anthropologists who have, to a greater or lesser extent, been in close dialogue with Althabe — while questioning what the field has taught them. In other words, this concept of ‘mediator’ emerges as the matrix of a line of anthropological thinking that updates Althabe’s approach in an open, plural, dialogical and contemporary way. We would like to give our readers an overview of this anthropological thought. We will focus on several examples of investigations that have used this concept, according to three categories: imaginary, symbolic and ideological mediators.

Imaginary mediators, domination, and the process of overcoming it

4 The first seminal example is undoubtedly Gérard Althabe’s pioneering work Oppression et libération dans l’imaginaire (1969/2002), that, when it was published, set off a “bombshell” in Madagascar (Selim, 2020). Althabe is described by Janine Ramamonjisoa (2005) as having been the first researcher in Madagascar to have denounced the violence that the population suffered, as well as having highlighted a ‘logic of the defeated’. He forcefully showed how colonial power continued to dominate, from the outside, the political and social institutions of Madagascar following the withdrawal of the French authorities and the independence of the colony in 1960. His originality lay in showing how ‘conservative decolonisation’ (Bazin, 2005) made sense in the world of the villagers, which he deciphered through a series of relationships with different ‘mediators’, taking care to distinguish between ‘real mediators’ and ‘imaginary mediators’. He was in particular responsible - as part of his reflections on ‘mediators’ — for raising the question of domination, and the ways in which it can be overcome. He did this by looking at the way in which the transition takes place from the real sphere (marked by the ‘dichotomy of power’) to an ‘imaginary situation that becomes the framework of communication between them and whose channels they control. Thus, in his research in Madagascar, a large part of his analysis was devoted to the cults of the Tromba spirits, that opened up imaginary scenes. Civil servants — agents of power — were invested with new roles, scenarios in which villagers reinvented colonial history, ‘idealizing an autonomy that had never existed and that, on the contrary, meant a yoke’ (Selim, 2020).

5 In this line of thinking, we mention two surveys, one by Monique Selim (1996; 1997) in Laos and the other by Pascale Absi (2002; 2003) in Bolivia. They were carried out respectively during the 1990s, focussing on the theme of work. They shed light on the way in which the political upheaval of globalisation had been translated into imaginary mediations. Together with Bernard Hours in Laos, Monique Selim explored the ways in which the ‘world of genii’ had contributed historically to the construction of a ‘mimetic and parallel universe of society’. At the time of the survey, opposition to the party-state and willingness to embrace the opening up of a free market was voiced, together with its chimerical promises of democratic and sexual freedoms. Returning once more to this field more than twenty years later, Monique Selim (2019) observed how the cults still continued to reveal the transformation of capitalism as well as its libidinal economies. Furthermore, Pascale Absi (2003) following her long investigative thesis on the labour mines of Potosi, showed how “the figure of the mine devil and the pacts he created while simultaneously sanctioning them, played an ‘imaginary mediator’ role, making it possible, by giving it meaning, to overcome a reality bearing the traces of the expansion of market liberalism and its succession of new constraints and dominations” (id.: 216). Drawing directly on Monique Selim’s survey, as well as that of Laurent Bazin (1998) (working on the Ivory Coast) — Pascale Absi establishes a link with the world of work and the domain of the imaginary. He has done this so as to highlight the entire range of social relations based on the individual and collective logic that is specific to the field.

6 These different examples have the advantage of having focused on a field traditionally reserved for cultural anthropology, such as cults, religious and imaginary mediations, in order to go beyond the idea of a sphere that is closed into itself and disconnected from the problems of domination that run through the whole of society. They emphasize a “series of relationships between players and a series of mediations”, the relationships which show the same anthropological approach. Contrary to any reification of identity, they consider the object of investigation as a field of exchange that is revealed through its connection with globalized political issues (in relation to neo-colonialism, the globalization of capitalism, the destitution of communism or patriarchy).

Symbolic mediators: political issues and critical reflexibilities

7 Another articulation of the concept can be found in the notion of ‘symbolic mediator’ which refers to ‘people who are excluded from exchange and who are attached to an external figure. When a symbolic mediator is constructed, it gives rise to the sphere of exchanges; the classical model of communication by excluded third parties’ (Althabe, 2001). This notion, still relevant today, was used by Althabe and Selim as early as the mid-1980s — following an urban ethnology survey carried out in low income housing estates (HLM) (Selim, 1979). The survey showed the way in which relationships of differentiation and social hierarchization were built on ghostly ethnic identities, constructing the other as a foreigner, in a French context of rising xenophobia (Althabe & Selim, 1985; Althabe, 1985; Althabe, Selim & Douville, 2003). It also made it possible to identify the way in which the field shapes the anthropologist into a foreigner or an ‘excluded third party’ (Hours, 2005). It established the need to analyse the tensions running through the anthropologist’s position in the field, indicative of the field of exchange in which he/she is involved (Althabe & Hernandez, 2004; Hernandez, 2001). This critical reflexivity not only characterizes Althabe’s various fieldwork sites — in Madagascar, in Congo-Brazzaville (1997), in low-income housing estates (1993a; 1993b), and in Romania (Althabe & Mungiu-Pippidi, 2004) — but it also emerges as a matrix of a line of political anthropology that has been carried out in a wide variety of fields, that link the issues of the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. For example, Laurent Bazin (1998) described the hostility he experienced during his fieldwork research in a company on the Ivory Coast. Here he found himself assigned to the role of being “French” and the “white” — and thereby to the role of mediator of a “symbolic conflict” between Europe and Africa.

8 In the current context, where new ethical standards of research insist on the co-production of knowledge between investigators and the people they investigate, such considerations are particularly important. They undeniably challenge us to see that the political character of anthropology can be found precisely in the processes of alteration, differentiation, inclusion, and exclusion, that mark the researcher’s position in the field. Furthermore, these productions of identity — born of intersubjective exchanges in the field — should be distinguishable from a tendency that is widespread at present; that is to say that from the start of the investigation, the social affiliation (of gender, of class, of race, etc.) is established. It defines the researcher’s position, often in a relationship of domination in relation to the “object” of the survey. These identities, rather than being a reference to a given dominating position of the researcher, are specific to power relations that make up exchanges within a globalized framework, positioning the research in multiple ways. This line of anthropological thought has underlined the way in which fieldwork generates an intermingling of the dynamics of domination and of empowerment. By listening, the anthropologist opens up a space for communication, thereby creating “emergent links” (Fava, 2005; 2015). Bernard Hours (2002; 1986) describes, in the context of a survey on “public health” in Cameroon, a situation where “the complaint is directed to the doctor. No sooner has the anthropologist ceased to appear to be a doctor — due to his/her listening manner and the length of time it lasts, and his/her non-prescriptive discourse — accusations and protests erupt: These are aimed at an imaginary mediator — a third party who is absent and whom the anthropologist represents” (2002: 77). Note the porous border between the notions of imaginary mediators, absent third parties, excluded third parties and symbolic mediators. We would be wrong to try to establish a difference between these different concepts. They should be understood rather as a continuum.

Ideological mediators, globalised heroines: the terrain of globalisation

9 To conclude, “mediators” have been understood as either “positive or negative ideological actors” who participate in the processes of inclusion and exclusion, and legitimation and de-legitimation. In their Political Anthropology of Globalization (2010; 2020), Bernard Hours and Monique Selim have drawn our attention particularly to the ideological and customary players — who have contributed globally to the construction and circulation of a multitude of norms. These mediators vary, from personalised figures to abstract axioms. For instance, in the opposition between the West and Islam, the notion of “terrorism” covers a multitude of identity constructions that have in common a depoliticization of poverty, violence, and inequalities. This is achieved by means of a symbolic alignment with the NGO market and its moralization of capitalism. From a perspective of gender critique, Monique Selim’s work has highlighted the way in which women have become central mediators in the construction of this globalized universe. This has been imposed in accordance with patriarchal norms and dualistic frameworks that glorify women, promoting their liberation, while holding them hostage to interstate and intrastate competition and confrontation (Querrien & Selim, 2015). Moreover, Selim has devised the notion of “globalized heroines” to decipher the way in which female figures are being mobilised to legitimate global inequality. She draws on examples of personified mediators such as Talisma Nasreen, who in Bangladesh in the 1980s “inaugurated this string of figures”, and of whom “Malala, from Pakistan, is, in 2015, one of the latest representatives” (Selim, 2016).

10 This anthropology is in keeping with Gérard Althabe’s view that the very principle of the “universe of communication” consists in a “surpassing of this sphere into a larger sphere that encompasses it and which is created by the fact that it shares a more abstract personalised mediator, whose relations encompass a greater number of players” (Althabe, 1968: 154). The originality has been to adopt a macro level of globalization as a terrain, so as to grasp the ideological stakes being played out through a vast array of mediators. Our dossier, in many ways, is aligned with this perspective, with the aim of tackling political changes of our contemporary world.

Our contributions

11 Our dossier takes us successively from Morocco to Cameroon and Indonesia, via Lebanon, Sweden, the United States and France. It covers three themes: the disappearance of the “left” from subjective modalities of commitment; religion as a domain of the reconfiguration of politics; and contemporary debates on postcolonial issues.

12 Based on his research in the marginalized region of Drâa-Tafilalet, Mohammed Benidir describes the way in which left-wing activists have distanced themselves from past combats, becoming players of development in what he calls a “useless Morocco”. These trajectories reveal the learning process of new practices and their technicity, giving access to brokerage and development services. These new mediators find themselves caught up in multiple reconfigurations of identity, professional and social roles that reveal the many contradictions of the developmentalist rhetoric that the state has adopted. Gérard Amougou focuses on Bernard Njonga, a Cameroonian player’s biographical background. His role in the peasant movement was extremely important, due to his position at the cusp of historical transformations, both national and global. Amougou’s article shows how despite the occasional victories of Njonga’s struggle, it could not win against the neoliberal offensives and political interference of the reputedly “stationary” state. Amougou, insists however on Njonga’s efforts of subjectification, which brings out the coherence of his life-long engagement.

13 In the context of the current authoritarian turn in Indonesia, Gabriel Facal focuses on the case of a mediator — “Alip”, a political oligarch, whom he conceives of as a “political initiator”. Alip’s influence unfolds at the crossroads in which Islamist philanthropism, the media, political parties, and conservative social movements all intersect. He displays a pragmatism that is devoid of ideology, using it to impose his power at the point at which intermediation and capitalization intersect. Going back to Olivier Nay and Andy Smith’s (2002) work on intermediaries in politics, Facal’s article provides an exemplary illustration of the way in which the interstitial socio-political space is constituted.

14 In the religious domain as well, the reconfiguration of deterritorialised identity spaces makes it possible for new forms of mobility to emerge and for the imaginary to expand (Meintel and LeBlanc 2003). Therefore, the religious universe is particularly well suited to the study of globalized mediating figures. This is especially so in the evangelical field, a wave of Protestantism characterized by its transnational development. Fatiha Kaouès and Émir Mahieddin co-author an article in which they focus on specific transnational figures (itinerant pastors and missionaries), observing them on several sites within the vast network in which they carry out their religious activity. Fatiha Kaouès’s observations on evangelicals in Lebanon and the United States are accompanied by Émir Mahieddin’s ethnographic observations conducted in Sweden within similar networks. These organisations produce and manage opinions that have a strong emotional component.

15 The third part of our dossier opens with an interview of Kaoutar Harchi by Fatiha Kaouès. Here, contemporary debates cover themes of colonialism, identity and recognition. The writer and sociologist finds herself at the interface between various worlds. She examines globalised mediators’ trajectories that gravitate to the domain of literature.

16 Monique Selim and Bernard Hours respectively explore the notion of “mediator” based on their anthropological experiences. They show the way in which anthropology helps to surmount certain identity-based tensions and contemporary intellectual rigidities. Responding to the polemics in which the work of past anthropologists is being challenged by postcolonial critics, Bernard Hours examines the influence that certain “masters” of the discipline have had on his anthropological training and travels. He speaks of the need not to simply suppress (“cancel”) the legacy of those who have played the role of mediators. He reminds us that each one of these masters is a product of his/her historical era. Through his reflection on the symbolic meaning of anthropological status, Bernard Hours bridges the gap between two historical worlds, enabling us to move beyond the violence of the present day. Monique Selim sets out to clarify the alliances and epistemological pairs she has set up in the course of her fieldwork with various “mediators”. She radically challenges the colonial vocabulary that still so often attributes the role of “informant” to fieldwork partners. She reminds us of the relational exchanges through which investigation is established — providing a contribution that is invaluable to the question of co-construction of knowledge in the anthropological field.

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Kassia Aleksic
CESSMA, UMR 245 IRD, Université de Paris, Inalco
Fatiha Kaouès
CNRS – GSRL (Laboratoire groupe sociétés, religions, laïcité)
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