CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This collective work is the result of discussions begun in 2009 by researchers at the Interdisciplinary centre for research on Germany (Centre de recherches interdisciplinaires sur l’Allemagne, or CRIA) on a project that would “clarify the different positions of the two countries with regard to ethnographic knowledge and probe the two scientific traditions’ distinct relations and attitudes toward space and culture” (p. 23).

2The book is structured in three parts, the first of which discusses relations between theory and empiry; the second, field research tools; and the third, different ways of using fields and fieldwork politically. The chapters thus lay out a reflexive approach to research arrangements for constructing and using “the field”. The aim is also to compare French and German stances and to situate distinct “ways of doing” in their national contexts and disciplinary histories. This is accomplished by way of a “historical and genealogical perspective on the institutionalization of field research within different national and/or disciplinary traditions” (p. 13). How researchers began “taking hold of the field” did vary by national space. Ways of thinking and practices were oriented by a kind of “methodological nationalism” in the sense that the sciences took shape in institutions and were organized at the same time nations were being formed. How German and French researchers entered the field and collected “data” also differed by discipline, though in some areas – notably geography – strong convergences are observed.

3Heavily focused on ethnology, the work presents in detail how ethnographers began “going into the field” in Germany in the early twentieth century, also explaining a specificity of that country, the distinction between Volkskunde and Völkerkunde, the first referring to the study of the German people and folk culture, while the second encompassed other populations as well. Germany seems to have been the pioneer in field research, with such representatives as Franz Boas, who travelled to Baffin Island as early as 1883. According to Hélène Ivanoff, what moved German researchers so precociously into ethonographic exploration were Enlightenment texts by Kant and Herder on the cultural community (Kulturgemeinschaft) and the soul of the people (Volkseele); moreover, these texts worked to cast German ethnographic research in the terms of “self” and “other”. Above and beyond any concern for objectivity – a preoccupation not fully instilled at the time – this exploration of other populations, notably colonized ones, corresponded to an attitude of political domination and an economic interest in purchasing foreign cultural goods. Furthermore, while ethnology was identified as a science of culture, most of the people practising ethnography in late nineteenth-century Germany had been trained in the natural sciences (medicine, biology, geography) and analysed cultures as “living organisms” and “naturalized” the populations involved.

4But the “field sciences” extended beyond social ones, and the book also discusses field study in geology, archaeology, and physical geography. With its multitude of comparisons, the text is extremely rich, to the point where the reader can get lost in the profusion: history of the disciplines, institutionalization of fields and field research, transnational perspective, knowledge production and circulation, researcher practices, a reflexive approach to using empirical materials, etc. In the end, this collective work can only lead us to pursue the reflection needed to construct knowledge that varies with the field.

Alexandra Filhon
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Uploaded on on 16/05/2019
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