Monthly Archives: February 2024

Virtues and vertigo of décentrement

Papa Hervé Camara died on 14 November 2023. He was my interpreter, host and confident in Guinea-Conakry while I was conducting my doctoral research. Initiated into the secrets of custom in 1954, and later a pious Muslim, he was a respected man in the village of Monchon (Kaméliya), courageous and caring, attentive to his family and guests, but also full of humor. He had learned French at the colonial school. Every day for the past 25 years, I’ve been thinking about him, about the intense experience that constituted my first ethnographic fieldwork, and about the incredible encounters and relationships I forged at the time. I owe him an enormous debt.

Many, if not most, of our students, whose scientific appetites and constantly renewed political commitments are, for me, an inexhaustible source of enthusiasm, no longer wish to experience geographically remote fieldwork, or even in some cases to work on topics relating to difference, either close or distant. Auto-ethnography is à la mode. Listening to them, some worry — and rightly so — about their safety in certain parts of the world or the lack of funding to carry out this kind of project. But what most often comes back to me is a feeling of illegitimacy in conducting research far away, in space or within their own society, in trying to describe and theorize the ways in which different human beings live, an intellectual enterprise that is now thought of as intrinsically colonial and extractive. Some feel uncomfortable — and I share their concerns  — with the idea of a non-reflexive hierarchization of expertise, particularly with regard to those discourses that have been belittled and ignored, and still are in many contexts, but also with the prospect of not being able to reciprocate with dignity (or help others) in the ecology of an unequal relationship. Indeed, today’s fieldwork requires even more listening, collaboration and ethics. But by denouncing the coloniality and the intrinsic violence of the anthropological gaze, are we not running the risk of throwing out the baby — the experience of otherness and décentrement — with the bathwater?

The colonial history of our discipline has been explored since at least the end of the 1960s, as has the idea that anthropology never ceased to fill the Western “savage slot” (Trouillot 1991). Since the Marxist critiques of anthropologists as accomplices of oppression, reinvented by the postmodern, postcolonial and decolonial turns (Abu-Lughod 1996, Harrison 1991), no one has been fooled: anthropology is a scientific practice whose questions have been deployed in a particular historical, social and political context, that of American and European colonialism. However, it is one thing to say that the professionalization of our discipline has greatly benefited from these iniquitous/horrendous enterprises and that it has in some cases been at their service, or even that the ethnographer’s presence in certain parts of the world today reactivate scripts of domination from yesteryear, and quite another to say that any quest for knowledge about/with otherness is motivated by a colonial desire. I don’t think that the anthropological project is per se disrespectful, violent and imperial.

I am forty-seven years old and I belonged to a generation of students (at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium) most of whom wanted to go far away and expose themselves to cultural difference in order to be its humble interpreters. Enchanted by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Françoise Héritier, Mary Douglas and Clifford Geertz, we dreamt of a plane ticket to a faraway destination that somebody would have slipped into our diplomas, even though I’ve always hated traveling, to say the least. There was obviously something Oedipal about these experiences. What’s more, as a white, Jewish man, I became interested in a Muslim community in West Africa and in particular in its women’s associations. What fears, dilemmas, irritations, contradictions and mistakes I experienced trying to grasp the contrasting perspectives of the people I met! I felt so much enthusiasm collaborating with and learning from them, but I also felt rage of working in an authoritarian country like Guinea-Conakry, whose political structures were inherited from the colonial past, and many times I accused myself of being a continuation of it (an angoisse that reading Albert Memmi’s Portrait du colonisateur helped to alleviate somehow).

This inaugural research constituted an overwhelming experience of décentrement: putting certain aspects of myself at a distance, with its share of doubts about the conditions under which human intercomprehension is possible. Can we transcend social and cultural differences? Is it possible to identify with somebody else’s existence, thoughts and feelings? But also, does someone who is not me have the right to speak on my behalf? As an anthropologist, even if I share people’s fear at seeing their complex reality described by another (whom they consider to be alien to their experience), my answer to all these questions is “yes, probably”. And, even though these attempts at identification are often fraught with relations of domination that need to be taken into account, I try to make Edward Saïd’s beautiful phrase my own: “If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experiences around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience” (Saïd 2000:72). “Experience does not make one an expert”, writes feminist Bell hooks (2019:44). Not necessarily, I would add to this nuanced statement.

There is no doubt that the success of the anthropology at home is a blessing. Provided that it does not fall into the solipsism of autoethnography (which, if controlled, can be a methodological asset), I have no regrets whatsoever about the “proximist” turn that our discipline has taken. On the contrary, for years we have been teaching the theoretical wealth that lies in the ethnography of others who are close, or even very close, to us, the very ethnography that also requires a capacity for self-disorientation. Ethnographising others, even so friends, always requires décentrement. For decades, we have been extricating ourselves from an Orientalist nostalgia for distant paradises. I myself went from village ethnography in Guinea-Conakry to urban research in Laos, then to digital anthropology from Belgium. Above all, from an epistemological point of view, for some time now we think beyond the far/near distinction, one of the last vestiges of the great colonial divide between Them and Us, which has become untenable in a globalized world. I can, in fact, feel a much stronger empathic identification with people who are geographically distant, and share a number of cultural practices, representations and values with them rather than with people from Brussels. Yet remains otherness, that Holy Grail of the anthropologist, the reality of the other who is not me. And what would our discipline be without this desire to understand others, whether they be neighbors or distant, in their striking, disturbing, sometimes unbearable differences, but also in their eminently familiar, resembling ways?

For a number of years now, as part of MA classes, I invite my students to reflect on the essential ingredient of our method — décentrement. To do so, I ask them to draw an ethnographic portrait of a person for whom they feel little or no empathy, or even antipathy (because of their profession, religious, moral or political beliefs, etc.) and to question their positionality — cognitive and emotional — as anthropologists in such situation. Over the years, I have read some excellent profiles of bankers, far-right activists, brokers, policemen and politicians. These terrains without sympathy, as they are called (Avanza 2008), are very uncomfortable, even shocking. One has to establish a relationship of understanding (in some cases complicated from the outset, given the initial aversion), try to forge sympathetic links and then, sometimes, to feel “with” these very different interlocutors. The aim is to reflect on the difficulty of overcoming relational barriers and moral and political differences while accepting the emergence of strange and unpleasant emotions.

Make no mistake about it, every ethnographic experience generates negative capacities: being lost, being an embarrassment, being powerless (Phillips 2009) are the minimal ingredients of social science research. But such exercises in décentrement are reminders of crucial aspects of our intellectual quest: to strive to suspend judgment and, through empathy, to open ourselves up to the world of others, so familiar and different at the same time.


Avanza, Martina. 2008. 2: Comment faire de l’ethnographie quand on n’aime pas « ses indigènes » : une enquête au sein d’un mouvement xénophobe. In : Alban Bensa éd., Les politiques de l’enquête. Pp. 41-58. Paris : La Découverte.

bell Hooks. 2019. Apprendre à transgresser. L’éducation comme pratique de la liberté. Paris : Éditions Syllepse.

Harrison, Faye. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology of LiberationArlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Memmi, Albert. 1985 [1957]. Le portrait du colonisé, précédé du portrait du colonisateur. Paris : Gallimard. 

Phillips, Adam. 2009. Trois capacités négatives. Paris : Éditions de l’Olivier.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1991. Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness. In : Richard G. Fox éd., Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Pp. 17—44. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School for Advances Research Press.

Saïd, Edward. 2000. Culture et impérialisme. Paris: Fayard. Thanks to Sarah O’Neill, Sasha Newell, Marco Di Nunzio, Alice Baudequin, Anneke Newman, Thomas Hylland Ericksen, Maïté Maskens and Marie-Pierre Gibert for stimulating discussions. The opinions expressed in this text are mine. 

Initially published on 22/01/2024 on the Terrain blog: