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Dossier : L’Europe par ses “autres”

Non-aligned ethnographies

The asymmetrical landscape of the anthropology of Europe
Ethnographies non‑alignées : Le paysage asymétrique de l’anthropologie de l’Europe
Rim Affaya, Fernanda Azeredo de Moraes et Emir Mahieddin
Cet article est une traduction de :
Ethnographies non‑alignées [fr]


Cet article propose un panorama non-exhaustif des expériences d’observation faites par des voyageur·se·s ou ethnologues africain·e·s, asiatiques ou latino-américain·e·s en Europe, en tentant de dégager quelques pistes de réflexion sur leurs conditions d’émergence comme sur l’asymétrie fondamentale qui les caractérise quand mises en regard des expériences d’anthropologues européen·ne·s dans les sociétés anciennement colonisées ou en marge de l’Europe.

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1Internationally, anthropology is still marked by a persistent asymmetry: Europe and the United States remain the central places from which most ethnographers study the world. Although observational approaches are multiplying, as the following contributions confirm, those that reverse this picture remain statistically minimal. In addition, they are overlooked by most texts dedicated to the history and methodology of the discipline, which still too often talk about fieldwork as a matter of antithetical pairs (Affaya, 2020) — the near and the far, the distant and the familiar, the West and the others — fields in which ethnographers known as “halfies” carve out their own way, assertingsupposedly “double” belongings (Abu­Lughod, 2010). However, as later developments in anthropology have shown, ethnographers’ identities, and the ensuing relationships with their interlocutors, are far more complex and labile than the frequent recourse to the binaries of canonical methodological presentations would suggest.

2The undertone conveyed by classical anthropology’s pronoun “we”, or the expression “our societies”, has changed far less than the profile of anthropologists. Not only have African, Latin American, Asian, indigenous, native or aboriginal ethnographers joined the chorus of anthropological voices in the last several decades to speak of “their” own societies, but some of those have turned their ethnographical gaze to the societies that are still the centers of anthropological discourse, looking towards Western Europe in particular. They are neither ethnographers of the “global North” working on the “South”, nor ethnographers of the “global South” working on their societies of origin. And even if it is tempting to think of them as simple figures of inversion, as scientists from the “South” who observe the “North”, their approach can hardly be reduced to this binary opposition. Not only are their scientific institutions — of training or practice — very often located in the European countries of which they become specialists, but their multiple affiliations and trajectories cannot simply be seen as unambiguous categorizations in terms of nationality, ethnicity, confession, class, gender, sexual orientation, administrative situation and the multiple combinations that result from all these axes. These are ethnographers who cannot be easily situated in a relation of domination or subalternity, of distance or familiarity with respect to the subjects they observe and describe. They are what we suggest be called “non-aligned” ethnographers whose paths between societies do not easily align with canonical binaries. On their modest scale, their ethnographical accounts seek to overcome the power structures of contemporary social science geopolitics, calling for a more symmetrical gaze and a more cosmopolitan dialogue.

3We must set aside the main idea of the Papalagui, the best-seller by Erich Scheurmann (2001) in which a fictitious observer from the farthest reaches of the globe describes his exotic, or exoticizing, perception of European societies: those of the “papalagui” (the Whites). It is moreover too often on the carnivalesque or parodic register of the rite of inversion, a modern spin on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, that this type of experience is intended, such as it appears in Jean Rouch’s movie, Petit à petit. Afrique en Seine (1971), which features a Nigerian entrepreneur, Damouré, who describes the customs of a “Parisian tribe”, or as in the documentary by Jean-Marie Barrière and Marc Dozier, L’exploration inversée Le tour de France de deux papous (2007), which depicts French society as a “bewildering tribe”. Not only are the travelers turned to derision, but through this lens, it is ultimately French society that speaks about itself through the mediation of an otherness whose voice is confiscated, diverted for the benefit of an internal moral critique.

  • 1 This type of approach, although interesting, unfortunately often comes at the price of typifying “t (...)

4This is obviously not the register we have chosen. The contributions gathered here, resolutely reflexive or auto-ethnographic, seriously weigh the implications of the immersion of ethnographers descended from colonized populations or from societies traditionally taken as objects of anthropology when they undertake an ethnography in a European society, from academic pathways to fieldwork practices. It is not merely a matter of questioning the possibility of alternative or “decolonized” epistemologies1, but of exploring the social and material conditions of the deployment of these investigations in Europe, the motivations behind them, and their consequences on the production of anthropological analyses. Thus, we do not claim to be carriers of a knowledge “from outside” — the studies gathered here adopt methodological approaches and epistemologies in their most classical forms. The conditions — in the plural, because it is not a single condition — of these ethnographers underline questions that remain poorly addressed in the production of knowledge in the social sciences in and on Western Europe: how do anthropologists who are heirs to the processes of decolonization, or come from former colonies, or from regions that are considered symbolically as marginal to the “West” (such as the Balkans, for example), view Western European societies? Are the conditions of their investigations and the social and institutional hierarchies in which they produce their knowledge comparable to those experienced by the Europeans. who leave for Africa, Latin America or Asia to acquire their stripes as ethnographers?

5In spite of the indisputable difficulties that social science research is currently facing in Europe, scientific collaboration with the countries of the African, Asian or Latin American continents are indeed very often favorable to Europeans, by their material conditions as well as the symbolic hierarchy, to the detriment of their local colleagues, some of whom are considered more as research assistants or valuable expert witnesses for the collection of data rather than peers capable of theoretical productions in their own right and with whom one should maintain a horizontal relationship (Direnberger & Onibon-Doubogan, 2022). In this respect, Syed Farid Alatas (2003) speaks of an “academic and intellectual dependence”, or even of an “academic neo-colonialism”, that is to say a dependent relationship between the development of social sciences “from the South” and the “development of social sciences within the intellectual, political and economic powers of the North”, where the expertise of researchers from the “South” is often disqualified, considered technical know-how rather than theoretical competence (Direnberger & Onibon-Doubogan, op. cit., 2022). What happens when the situation is reversed, when anthropologists from these continents come to Europe to study it?

6The cosmopolitanism of European universities, which consists in integrating an intellectual elite from outside Europe and “coloring” the image of academic centers with a touch of “diversity”, is marked by a deep ambivalence that is not always made explicit. As Lennita Ruggi shows in this issue, the common rhetoric of exchange and “science without borders” masks the reality of power relations and symbolic hierarchies that are hardly based on scientific criteria, having more to do with the asymmetry of the geopolitics of knowledge. In addition to gender and class — which many accounts of “defectors” [transfuges] have emphasized in recent years — this is based on forms of commodification and fetishization of otherness, which do not escape a certain kind of paternalism. Despite the pluralization of research trajectories and schools of anthropology, Western Europe and the United States maintain centrality in international scientific debates and are often considered as an obligatory stop for “Southern” researchers’ scientific recognition, even within their countries of origin. However, they remain subject to racism in several forms here, with their marginalization from central and generalist research institutions one of the most notable effects, meaning their work is often assigned or reduced to area studies when it is not merely disregarded and invisibilized (Direnberger & Onibon-Boubogan, op. cit., 2022).

7The partition between Europeans and non-Europeans at the origin of the query underlying this dossier, both intellectually unsatisfactory and ridden with flaws, leads inevitably to a questionable binary which focuses solely on binational researchers, who tend to exhibit these notions as polarities in a continuum rather than as clear-cut opposition. This must, nevertheless, be the object of a specific inquiry, because it involves power relationships that are still too often implicit in the production of knowledge. This investigation engages a reflexive path that is still in its infancy, as the processes of assigning researchers’ origins, real or supposed, remain subtle and difficult to grasp, often taking the form of anodyne remarks — the informal question “why don’t you work on your own country?” being perhaps the most common and the most representative (Abdelhalim, 2022). They nonetheless constitute a form of symbolic violence that, in concert with a set of administrative and material constraints, designate the trajectories and geographic specializations of ethnographers. It also serves as an indication of the international division of scientific labor inherited from the time of colonial imperialism, a specter which continues to haunt anthropology.

8This specter is sometimes revived and made more obvious by political events, such as those that have recently affected French universities and, as a result, the field of anthropology as well. Following the example of the “Welcome to France” reform — which inspired this project — the contemporary political context, made up of a succession of neo­liberal reforms coupled with rhetoric indicative of nationalist or European preference, partly explains the partition between “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” that has inspired this issue’s problematique, even though it may lead us to partially reproduce the split that we intend to analyze. However, beyond its appearance as a colonial or imperial specter, this asymmetry is also — and perhaps above all — the result of the connection between the scientific and to the capitalist system of value production, of which the descendants of colonized people as well as the descendants of colonizers are all instruments (Tonda, 2021).

9In this introduction, we provide a non-exhaustive historical overview of the observation experiences made by African, Asian or Latin-American travelers or ethnologists in Europe, attempting to draw out some lines of thought both on their conditions of emergence as well as on the fundamental asymmetry that characterizes them when compared with the experiences of European anthropologists in formerly colonized societies or on the margins of Europe. Let us begin by returning to the genesis of this special issue.

Considering “Europe” from an “extra‑European” perspective

10By examining some of the political underpinnings of anthropological knowledge production, this very issue itself derives its origins from a political mobilization. At the end of 2018, the French government announced a major increase in university tuition fees, applicable exclusively for non-European students. Under a scheme named “Welcome to France” — the ironic title of which is often emphasized — students. from countries outside the European community suddenly owed much higher tuition fees than their European counterparts. The measure hit students violently, reducing them to the status of non-European foreigners, “welcome” only if they had the financial means to pay the increased expenses; thus accentuating the structural inequalities to higher education that already prevail.

11As previously mentioned, despite a long-standing Western monopoly, anthropology has experienced significant institutional and scientific development in regions previously perceived by European researchers exclusively as fieldwork destinations or objects of study. The Journal des anthropologues first reflected upon this fifteen years ago now (Cunin & Hernandez, 2007). As representatives of this renewal of the discipline, young non­European researchers who had chosen to conduct their studies in France or on French society were confronted in 2018 with more limitations imposed on their contributions to the global voices and views that anthropology intends to promote. It is known that politics structure the possibilities in the field of knowledge. In this case, it has created further obstacles to making European societies into fieldwork destinations like any other, granting its own nationals a privileged position to study them in situ. This compounds the constraints of budgetary and sometimes political limitations (notably in terms of critical freedom) that social sciences are subject to in the poorest countries, giving priority to research studying their own societies.

12We are of course also witnessing the closure of formerly colonized lands to European ethnologists, but these phenomena, although parallel, are in no way comparable given their historical circumstances. If European societies become difficult to access because of general restrictions imposed on the movement of people, decolonized societies or indigenous communities protect themselves from the devastating effects of the policies of imperialism that they have suffered until the sometimes relatively recent past. It is well-established that certain unscrupulous anthropologists have used their knowledge for economic profit or military counterins urgency strategies — just think of the role played by Jean Servier in the Algerian War (Lacoste-Dujardin, 1986) or the deceit and violence suffered by the Yanomami (Tierney, 2000; Smiljanic, 2011). Have European societies been exposed to any comparable danger from non-European observers?

  • 2 Organized on December 4, 2020 at EHESS, by F. Azeredo de Moraes, H. Jamid, Y. Perez Hernandez, R. J (...)

13During the meetings in which the mobilization against the “Welcome to France” reform began to take form, one observation became obvious: the majority of social scientists who had come from the countries in what now is known — following many simplifications — as the “South” to study or work in France and in Europe, made their countries or regions of origin their research fields. Indeed, those who have made European societies their field of investigation and who produce empirical knowledge about them are far less visible. As individuals from Latin America, Asia and Africa, we shared not only common migratory experiences but also an interest in studying European societies in their diversity. Our experiences were marked by a number of similar concerns and perspectives: what was our legitimacy to work on a European society as “non-Europeans”? How were we welcomed in the field as such? How would our work and perspectives be received and perceived by the societies we study when they boast their own local specialists shaping the scientific life of institutions that often surpass those of our countries of origin both in matters of competence as well as prestige? Following this logic, who is the intended audience for our work? Indeed, if Europeans write about Others for their peers or for their own public, for whom do we write about our European field experiences when we do so from European institutions themselves, and often in their own languages (mostly English and French in the articles compiled here) rather than those of our countries of origin? From this meeting and these shared questions arose a seminar entitled “When the South thinks about the North: methodological challenges and epistemological issues”2, of which this issue is somewhat of an extension.

14Let us specify from the outset that the problematization adopted here does not refer in any way to fixed or essentialized identities which would consider the “West” and its “Others” as stable entities, each possessing their own forms of intellection. Rather, the texts collected here seek to describe and understand how relational identities are inhabited by ethnographers in an investigative situation, both in terms of social and academic labelling and in the form of tactics adopted in order to interact with their respondents, along with some of the institutions that frame their field experiences, be it the university, the migrant “community” formed on site, or migration services, to name but a few of the central places in the lives of these migrant anthropologists. These interactions impact even the elaboration of their research questions themselves, sometimes curtailing room for maneuver when the threat of expulsion hangs overhead, or when they come from stigmatized social groups (as is the case for Léon-Quijano and Mahieddin in this issue).

15This special issue fits with a spirit of our time defined by what seems to be a desire for symmetry in the representation of otherness, of which ethnography is only one form among many others. It thus echoes other artistic or intellectual projects in what appears to be a genuine process of “provincialization” of Europe (Chakrabarty, 2009). But before dwelling on the recent experiences of “non-aligned” ethnographic research on European countries, it is appropriate to look back at a set of past experiences, for despite the impressions of incongruity or curiosity that they may provoke, these approaches are nothing new. They simply, for the most part, bear the brunt of amnesia or invisibility.

Europe observed by the world: a brief historical overview

“We do not, and probably never will, have a Kalabari anthropology of the white man. And that is why even a Kalabari anthropology of the Kalabari will adopt the same representational form, if not the same substantive conclusions, as the white man’s anthropology of the Kalabari” (Chatterjee, 1986: 17).

16In an article on the anthropology of the United States, Nicholas de Genova (2007) wrote that Partha Chatterjee had highlighted a notable fact in this passage: that a “white” hegemony permeates contemporary global anthropology as a direct legacy of colonialism. While anthropology is no longer a science linked to colonial imperialism, it remains largely imbued with a certain “imperiality”, a concept coined by the philosopher Mohamad Amer Meziane (2021) to designate the resurrection of the form of the “Empire” under new features, generating power relations marked by an imperial imaginary and related practices, beyond their mere colonial versions (see Meziane & Mahieddin, in this issue). But as Meziane points out in the interview he grants us here, imperiality has not historically been the prerogative of “Western” societies, and the temptation has crossed many political communities throughout history, leading them to develop projects of knowledge of otherness, including European otherness.

17Non-European observers of Europe are little knownoutside of specialized circles. There were, however, several traditions of observation in ante-colonial societies, whether Arab, Persian, Mongolian or Indian (Habfass, 1990; Alam & Subrahmanyam, 2007), to mention only the best-known, some of which described societies on the European continent. It could be rightly argued that this was not social anthropology in the contemporary sense, since these forms of “xenologies” (Chaterjee & Hawes, 2008: 5) are part of a definition of anthropology in a broader sense, as suggested by Florence Weber: “An experience of disorientation and decentering, a back and forth witnessing between two cultures with its knowledge effects”, which would thus trace the origins of anthropology back to Antiquity and the medieval period, long before the “European hegemony” (Weber, 2015: 11). These “proto-anthropological” traditions should not be neglected in order to step away from the authoritative denial of extra-European societies’ agency, since they have long-standing contributions to world literary and scholarly life, including descriptions of their colonizers, who have never had a monopoly on the knowledge on humankind through the observation of the variety of its habits and customs.

18The modern era, from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, was a time of observation of Europe undertaken by representatives of colonized societies who had visited the continent, whether they were Haitians, Indians, Chinese, or Amerindians; others, like the last Aztec chroniclers, described the Europeans who ventured far from their places of origin to land on their shores (see Chaterjee & Hawes, op. cit.,2008). Later, from the end of the 18th until the beginning of the 20th century, Egyptian reformist intellectuals “rediscovered” Europe on study missions funded by the government of Muhammad ’Ali (Sabry, 2019). Some offered descriptions of Europe, the most famous of which was probably that of the Egyptian Al-Tahtawi, but there were many other accounts from the Arab world as well as from Persia (Abu-Lughod, 1963; Lewis, 1984; Dabashi, 2020). Hamid Dabashi also emphasizes that it was not only Europe that interested them, as if it were an exceptional place from which emanated this thing called “modernity” and whose secrets would have been necessary to uncover in order to imitate it, but indeed the whole world, at a time marked by the opening of new horizons and the gradual blossoming of a planetary conscience, shedding new light on the understanding of the Self (Dabashi, op. cit., 2020: 2). In their eyes, Europe was merely one place among others, albeit a particularly powerful one, and it was sometimes only a stage on an itinerary rather than a destination perse. Far from being the exclusive object of a blissful fascination, it could also be the target of criticism. The relationship of these observers of Europe, fully aware of the colonial gaze cast upon them cannot, therefore, be reduced to a face-to-face relationship. They became aware of other places in the world simultaneously (Dabashi, id.). Their attitude was, thus, one of true cosmopolitanism and evident of a project of knowledge identical to that which modern Western anthropology claims to have pioneered.

19The Arab, Persian or Turkish worlds, whose bodies of travelogues and voyage narratives are the best known and perhaps the most documented to date, are not the only ones to have developed the viaticum genre in Europe at the dawn of the colonial period, since we find narratives by African travelers, such as Olaudah Equiano (also known as Gustave Vassa), an Igbo from the Kingdom of Benin in the 18th century (Le Blanc & Weber, 2009: 12), or Asians, such as the Tibetan Adjroup Gumbo, who came to France at the beginning of the 20th century after working as a guide and translator with the ethnologist Jacques Bacot. In 1910, Gumbo published his “Impressions d’un Tibétain en France” or the “Account of the joys and sorrows” of his life in Paris and Marseille in the French press. Beyond mere landscapes, these articles showed a subjectivity in flux. Presented as an autobiographical narrative rooted in the Buddhist tradition, Gumbo’s writings attest to the author’s emotional states during his travels. But it should be noted that the relationship between the European explorer and the Tibetan traveler was deeply asymmetrical. Gumbo did not enjoy the same status and prestige in France as Western travelers did in Tibet, for whereas the latter were perceived as gods, he was perceived “as a savage” (Thévoz, 2021).

20Paradoxically, one could therefore consider the formation of the various colonial empires, at their respective periods, as moments of dynamization of thoughts that were subject to the magnetism of Europe when taking it as an object of description from the outside (Le Blanc & Weber, 2009), although they did not necessarily develop the methods that would later mark the professionalization of the scientific professions of the observation of customs and societies. The consolidation of the asymmetry that ensued and would long characterize the relations of power and knowledge established with colonized societies probably contributed to the invisibility of their history. Although they have re-emerged from oblivion in recent years following the development of connected history (Subrahmanyam, 1999; Gruzinski, 2004), these studies have become historical curiosities rather than preludes to African, Asian or Arab schools of social science research on Europe, or on the rest of the world. Who knows what styles of anthropology might have emerged in their wake?

  • 3 Since 2015, there has been a journal of the same name in Lebanon, Al-istighrab, which proposes to a (...)

21Of course, these texts come from another time when imaginary geographies, the geopolitical order of the world, and fields of knowledge were hardly what they are today (Chaterjee & Hawes, op. cit., 2008). Contemporary geopolitical and scientific relations should not be projected onto this era. But more recent thinkers, especially in philosophy, have undertaken endeavors to gaze upon “Europe” or “the West” as an object of study from the “outside”. It is obviously impossible for us to conceive of this supposed “exteriority” as anything other than a particular historical mindset, extending political frontiers, the fruit of historical contingencies, to spaces of knowledge production whose contours are thus naturalized (Dakhlia, 2001). The latter never serve as anything other than territories of circulation, exchange, transmission or borrowing, marked by “whole swathes of history made of capillarity, of contiguity, sometimes peaceful and sometimes conflictual and chaotic” (Dakhlia, 2008: 25). But this is in any case how several authors have problematized their approach. To cite just a few examples, since the 1980s, the Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi (1991) has been engaged in founding a field of research on the West called Al-istighrab, “occidentalism”3. We could also mention Moroccan philosophers such Abdallah Laroui and Mohamed Abid Al-Jabiri who, although critical of the idea of an ontological divide between the East and the West that they took as their object of reflection, fell in turn to reifying certain biases on the distinction between “Arab” and “European” thoughts, which would constitute each other through confrontation (Dakhlia, 2001).

  • 4 In terms of audiovisual production, it is worth noting the existence of a few African films on Euro (...)

22In anthropology, we have seen several anthropologists from former colonies set their gaze upon European fieldwork destinations, especially since the 1980s, when Latin American and African ethnographers “pitched their tents” in the middle of cities and villages in France and Italy4.

  • 5 We thank Marion Aubrée who allowed us to identify these works.

23Brazil seems to be a particularly dynamic case in this respect. The intrinsic indecision between the ethnologies of the “near” and the “far” in Brazil (where the “exotic” is at the heart of national borders) has probably contributed to the foundations of the undertakings of Brazilian ethnographers who have made European societies their field of investigation. Several of them, among whom the pioneer seems to be Klaas Woortmann, have indeed produced ethnographic works on France5, often focusing their attention on groups or themes that appear as “social problems” (Ribeiro, 2007). For example, Maria José Carneiro (1995) proposed a study of sociability in the French Alps, Fernanda Ribeiro (1999) studied child protection at the end of the 1990s, Jacqueline Ferreira (2004) the practices of a care center, Claudia Magni (2004) an art workshop for the homeless in Paris, and Emerson Giumbelli (2006) worked on the issue of so-called “sectarian aberrations” [dérives sectaires].

24In the early 1980s, the Transcultura program, through the project “Ethnologie de la France par des chercheurs du Tiers-monde” (Ethnology of France by Third World Researchers), a Franco-Italo-Senegalese initiative launched by Papa Massène Sene and Alain Le Pichon in 1983, sponsored by famous writers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Umberto Eco, set out to work towards the advent of a “reciprocal anthropology” in order to “come closer to the ideal of a true universality in the knowledge of humans” (Daiyun & Le Pichon, 2004: 8). Several African observers thus studied French sites at the time, including Massaër Diallo, Samba N’Daw Sarr, Oumar Bâ, Diawné Diamanka, Romule Dede (from Senegal, Mauritania and Madagascar), who were quickly joined by Amerindian and Chinese observers César Mohéno Pérez and Wang Bin. The Malian anthropologist Moussa Sow, who was part of the adventure, ironically described the endeavor as “carnivalesque” because of the inversion it marked with the arrival of “a curious crew of indigenous individuals [indigènes] who had come from their own continent and elsewhere to practice fieldwork in Europe” (Sow & Le Pichon, 2011:10). It was in this context that Sow produced an ethnography of the Vendays-Montalivet commune in the Bas-Médoc (Sow, 2011), which received some media attention. Massaër Diallo, who had studied the white clientele of Parisian marabouts, reported his experience of the “reversed gaze” [regard à rebours] in a book co-authored with the writer Blaise N’Djehoya (1984), which seems to have had little resonance. For Diallo, this “reverse ethnology” was to take as its object the “hidden”, “savage” face of Western cultures (ethnicity, regionalism, peasant traditions, magical thoughts and practices, etc.), going against what he called the “myth-image” [l’image-mythe] of the West (Greco-Latin humanities, science, Christianity, technology, etc.) which, according to him, reigned in what was then called the “Third World” (Diallo, 1984: 126).

  • 6 Cf. Zhang J. New Chinese anthropology: what can we expect from the revival of international ethnogr (...)

25On the other side of the globe, since the beginning of the 2000s, China has been promoting projects called hǎiwài mínzúzhì yánjiū, i.e. “the study of distant societies” (in Africa, Asia and Europe), wherein Bingzhong Gao, as director of the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology at the University, or the Institute, of European Studies in Beijing, constitutes a central figure, thus reawakening a cosmopolitan intellectual tradition that had fallen into obscurity under the Maoist regime, which banished sociology and anthropology until the 1980s for being “capitalist” sciences. Ethnologists such as Jinling Zhang and Xinhang Zhou have been working on corporate anthropology in France and Germany respectively6.

26Other individual trajectories of anthropologists could be mentioned, the best-known cases probably being those of Jeanne Favret-Saada and Mondher Kilani, ethnographers of Tunisian origin who conducted fieldwork investigations on witchcraft in Normandy (Favret­Saada, 1977) and cattle breeding in the Swiss Alps (Kilani & Berthoud, 1990), respectively. This panorama is of course very far from exhaustive, but it does provide us with some milestones in the history of the anthropology of Europe by its “Others”.

Portrait of the ethnographer as an immigrant: the inequality of gazes

27Even if these figures of “Third World” ethnographers were invested in the hope to renew anthropology by contributing their distant gaze to the discipline, the terms chosen by Umberto Eco to describe their particular outlook were, to say the least, intriguing: while acknowledging that communication technologies had made these observers very familiar with several aspects of European societies, he also postulated that these foreign ethnographers were endowed with a “freshness” and had a “psychological virginity” that would allow them to have a fresh look at Western countries “unknown” to them (Eco, 2011: 10). Such a fetishization of the supposed virtues of their so-called innocent gaze might be connected to the reification of “international” students and researchers as objects though neoliberal university policies — which capitalize upon their presence to generate profitable statistics of institutional diversity and worldwide influence (Ruggi, this issue). This kind of objectification might also be reproduced by field correspondents and journalists, as shown by some of the experiences reported in this volume (see Léon-Quijano and Mahieddin). Moreover, this hope masks the reality of the social relations that characterize this kind of investigation. Looking back at the program “Ethnologie de la France par des chercheurs du Tiers Monde”, Alain Le Pichon (2000) bitterly points out that the anthropologists who participated in it were much more observed than they were observers and, thus, speaks of an “unequal gaze”.

28Through the public they addressed as well as through the status they assumed in the knowledge relationship, these anthropologists experienced the asymmetry between European and non-European ethnographers in foreign lands firsthand. The obstacles they face begin well before the arrival on the field, the possibility of which still remains exceptional today due to the numerous restrictions on the international mobility of people from the “global South”. If, however, all of these material, administrative and institutional obstacles are overcome by way of singular circumstances or opportunities — with, for instance, administrative facilities facilitating binational researchers’ ability to circulate and sojourn in Europe — other difficulties more intimately linked to the ethnographic practice as a “view from afar” remain unconsidered. In any fieldwork situation, the ethnographer is very quickly assigned to the pre-existing local category of foreigner. However, the role of foreigner that European ethnographers potentially assume in former colonial societies is far from similar to that projected on non-European ethnographers in Western societies. These differentiated labels of foreignness have very unequal effects when it comes to the placement of the ethnographer in local social hierarchies, inevitably influencing their legitimacy to observe, to ask questions, to carry out an analysis, to state the truth or to be merely present as a foreign body on a national territory. Let us sidestep ambiguity by taking a concrete example: the administrative status of a Senegalese student in France is far more unfavorable than that of a French expatriate in Senegal, as is the social prestige associated with these respective positions. Despite the fact that non-European researchers interested in studying Europe often emanate from their domestic bourgeoisie class, the practice of fieldwork still renders these social boundaries rather blurry. The administrative precariousness — even if they have been granted access to the country and a residence permit — and the potential material insecurity during fieldwork expeditions reveal the polymorphous dimension of the social hierarchical positions that are at play (see Léon­ Quijano and Tatic, in this issue).

29Apart from shedding light on the epistemological and practical conditions of these “non-aligned” ethnographies, our project does not seek, in any way, to select objects supposedly specific to or defining of Europe, nor to proceed through a logic of inverted correspondences (Diallo, 1984: 127). It would have been a mistake to seek to respond symmetrically to the study of “traditions” elsewhere through a study of “modernity” or of “Western techno-scientific prodigies” in Europe (ibid.); or to set out to study only Europeans whom we would have judged “archetypal” (Whites, secular people working in a technical or scientific field for example). This would have resulted in an idealized image of an aestheticized, fictitious Europe that does not reflect the real Europe, which is characterized, like any other region, by its heterogeneity. Even if this idealization of Europe is not alien to the motivations of some ethnographers who come to study it, such a view is taken here as the object of critical reflection, something that permeates the work of the artist Myriam Dao, daughter of the post-colonial diaspora, who here analyzes her approach to artistic cartography.

30We also had to eschew the idea of a face-to-face confrontation between Europe and the rest of the world, as well as that of a revengeful approach which, although seductive on an ideological or even psychoanalytical level, constitutes a hardly compelling pitfall at the scientific level. Thus, objects, spaces and minority communities, marginalized or considered as allochthonous, are an integral part of this issue. To exclude them from the field of an anthropology of Europe would have merely renewed the preconceived notions about their social, cultural and political legitimacy in the formation of the political idea of “Europe” itself. Anthropology must study continuities and relationships as well as differences and disruptions in order to understand the way in which the fictitious borders between said “cultural areas” are established and perpetually renegotiated (Mahieddin, 2018).

31The fact that Europe is made up of all those who live there does not mean that everyone has the same symbolic status with regard to “Europeanness”. It is this indeterminacy and this conflictuality as to what is and what is not European that we had to consider in the selection of the cases gathered here. We have therefore included the voices of ethnographers who, although born on the European continent, find themselves on the margins of “Europeanness” due to historical, social and political conditions. The contributions of Émir Mahieddin and Hamza Esmili, through the respective figures of the “orientalized ethnographer” and the “blédard anthropologist”, testify to this. They make it possible to grasp these boundary spaces within which the ethnographer’s belonging is presumed or magnified, which has effects on the relationship of investigation, in which they see themselves characterized as figures of otherness. All of them are objects of a form of otherness in their places of study or in their fields. It is precisely these social, ethno-national, and religious hierarchies and the way in which they affect ethnographic relations for these “non-aligned” anthropologists that we found most interesting and worthy of analysis.

32The articles gathered here by no means represent the entirety of the myriad reflexive aspects that could be addressed when European societies are studied or observed by their “Others” (the issue of race, for example, is absent). In addition to the images of explorers and travelers, our intention has been to include the immigrant as observer and interpreter of human differences in the repertoire of the discipline, a role often assumed by non-aligned ethnographers in Europe. With this special issue, we hope to render these non-European anthropologists who came to study Europe more visible, bringing their approaches, conditions and positions, often obscured in the history of the discipline, to light.

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1 This type of approach, although interesting, unfortunately often comes at the price of typifying “thoughts” (Arab, Amazonian, Chinese, etc.) by reducing them to a few features, failing to underline their internal heterogeneity and the more marginal voices within them, in order to oppose them to a “Western” thought that is itself reduced and typified to some of its facets. See Déléage (2020).

2 Organized on December 4, 2020 at EHESS, by F. Azeredo de Moraes, H. Jamid, Y. Perez Hernandez, R. Jung Sue and Y. Dansac.

3 Since 2015, there has been a journal of the same name in Lebanon, Al-istighrab, which proposes to address Western currents of thought from an Arab-Iranian perspective (Belkéziz, 2017).

4 In terms of audiovisual production, it is worth noting the existence of a few African films on Europe in the 1950s and 1970s. The Senegalese Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Mamadou Sarr made Afrique sur Seine in 1955, a portrait of African immigration to Paris. The Nigerian Inoussa Ousséïni, a student of Jean Rouch and Jean Duvignaud, was encouraged by Robert Jaulin to study Europeans by making an ethnology of the French. He directed La sangsue, a movie dealing with sexuality in France, in 1970, and Paris c’est joli in 1974. Ousséïni also went to Sweden to study the effects of the sexual revolution. See “Inoussa Ousseini: “Jean Rouch has traced the furrows of my life”, RFI, April 28, 2017. URL: See also the "Image Book" in this issue, compiled by Jacob Durieux and Sophie Accolas.

5 We thank Marion Aubrée who allowed us to identify these works.

6 Cf. Zhang J. New Chinese anthropology: what can we expect from the revival of international ethnographies? Unpublished paper. We thank M. Selim and N. Khoury for bringing this work to our attention.

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Rim Affaya, Fernanda Azeredo de Moraes et Emir Mahieddin, « Non-aligned ethnographies »Journal des anthropologues [En ligne], 170-171 | 2022, mis en ligne le 28 avril 2023, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Rim Affaya

Norbert Elias Center, EHESS, Marseille.

Fernanda Azeredo de Moraes

Research Center on Colonial and Contemporary Brazil (CRBC), EHESS, Aubervilliers.

Emir Mahieddin

CéSor, EHESS, Aubervilliers

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