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How and Why Do We Unite Today?

The Mechanisms and Shifts in a Founding Practice of Societies
p. 317-328

Notes de la rédaction

An International Conference Organised by the French Association of Anthropologists and the Montpellier Bistro of Ethnologists
University of Montpellier
June 14-15 2019

We mark the 40th anniversary of the French Association of Anthropologists and the Montpellier Bistro of Ethnologists in a tense social and political context tied to a supposed solidarity crisis and to new forms of struggle. On this occasion we therefore find it important to consider the roots of engagement, its causes, and the many ways, both complex and unscripted, to organise today.

A dual assessment informs our reflection. We live in societies where socio-economic inequalities, forcefully denounced in the recent “Gilets Jaunes” protest, are part of the new historical dynamics, even if poverty is diminishing globally. We also live in that part of the world where decades ago the welfare state began its clear decline, disdaining citizens’ highly fought-for rights. In this situation, involvement in the public cause and diverse forms of solidarity (practices that are individual or collective, ephemeral, transitory or longer lasting) challenge the disinterest towards the state that results from individualization, introversion or egocentric consumerism. To become socially engaged in a society where processes of individuation are possible may be, paradoxically, a source of diversification and a new expansion of forms of citizen engagement (Ion, 2012). With these diverse forms of solidarity and places that are increasingly inclusive of involvement, what are we creating together? What forms of mobilisation – that involve meeting people and sharing ideas and meals – have the “Gilets Jaunes” Vests, for example, deployed? Which horizons, which democratic practices need revitalizing? Which role should, and will, take the public debate called for by an uprising?

Institutions have called upon organizations to provide new solutions in our societies where the welfare state spends its last money within the framework of economic, cultural and digital globalization. These incentives to participate can also become traps for representative democracy, stifling possibilities of contest or opposition to the decisions taken by one’s representatives (Godbout, 2014). Nonetheless, the liberty to take part in what Georg Simmel refers to as “social circles” undeniably allows for an enrichment of the political experience and the acting power of individuals. In what measure does the political experience of today not further itself through movements such as those of the Indignados, Nuit Debout, Occupy Wall Street and others known by the name of “civil disobedience” (Gros, 2017)?

Modes of organising always remind us of others and in particular those that presided over specific stages of industrial society, as studied by sociologists and historians (Durkheim, Weber, and then Hobsbawn).

Today, forms of social organisation inscribe themselves resolutely in the regime of liberal economy. Such organisations have always been very strong in the United States where they have galvanised the full resources of immigration and today mobilise around new forms of inequality. They do so all while borrowing certain modes of expression and strategy proper to traditional forms of organisation (cultural or elective affinity, ritualization of practices, pacts…).

This conference aims to examine the contemporary aspects of forms of organisation (and does not have as its principal object their historical dimensions), for example, the professionalization of organisations, the impact of digital technology, the function of volunteering and its social utility, experimentations in participative democracy, and new forms of solidarity among the women and men who live this democracy. Current forms of social engagement in relation to the exercise of the actors’ reflexivity (a sign of both their autonomy and their vulnerability) solicit a singular reflection on the part of anthropologists.

Furthermore, what is the significance of organisational involvement in connection to social science research, or derived from it? Reflexive approaches vis-à-vis our own ways of forming associations and organisations, the many functions and relations to our disciplines, and the established and yet to be established ties with other groups and their actions will be equally valorised.

This conference calls for analysis and discussion of different experiences of social engagement and organisation, on the local, national, European or international level.

There are four proposed thematic directions

Social Organisations and the Withdrawal of the Welfare State?

Social organisation is understood here as an action on the part of subjects united around a specific objective, one that is based on shared interests. Such organisations now call into question the role of the welfare state. The sensitive question of the financing of migrants and the reception of non-accompanied minors is one example. Indeed, in the field, we observe that the emergence of citizen organisations for mutual aid and action groups that unite organisations and militant movements tend to replace the activity of the welfare state, notably in what concerns the reception of newcomers. Public funds for social administration have become a variable of economic adjustment whereas the state’s procedures in these domains have been redeployed and reoriented for fifteen years (Cottin-Marx et alii, 2017). As a result, does the expansion of the organisational network of mutual aid, both militant and citizen, not lead to the development of a capitalist philanthropy? This situation contributes to (our) thought on the absence of real political will to integrate marginal subjects into society.

On Volunteer Work

Volunteer work leads to a certain number of questions on the evolution of the world of social organisation, as observed in the larger context of transformations in types of employment and in political mobilisation in contemporary French society (Simonet, 2010, 2018).

Volunteer participation in an organisation is commonly viewed as an informal, autonomous and divergent path of socialisation that is not subject to economic motivations. We know that the majority of organisations operate thanks to volunteers; the time dedicated represents 680,000 fulltime employments, according to a calculation by Insee Première (January and March 2016). However, volunteer work has greatly evolved over the course of time. Today, organized volunteering is increasingly formalized in a similar trajectory to professional integration that, by using a managerial approach, aims to emphasize and develop first the managing and administrative functions within organisations. In this tailoring of organisational involvement, the volunteers’ skills are seen as individual attributes, and the organisation is no longer a space for the development of collective identities and for social and economic innovation. Organisations adapt themselves to the requirements of the neoliberal workplace.

While these observations cannot be generalised, they nevertheless highlight the heterogeneity of the social patterns underlying the customs and forms of social organisation in such environments. In light of the tensions that develop around the role of volunteers, how do new forms of engagement and political mobilisation establish themselves within French organisations?

On Organisations and Resistance Movements

Dissent is one of the foundations of representative democracy and social organisations are instrumental in the implementation of these alternative ideas and their execution through experimentation or social transformation. Certain digital devices that are commonplace today (such as carpooling platforms) are practical responses that wager on the surplus value represented by the collaborative form and that have managed to disrupt economic standards. These recent years marked by a fresh upsurge of police suppression have seen flourish a multitude of solidarity initiatives in support of vulnerable populations (migrants, the homeless, the disabled …) and causes that are neglected despite their urgent character (environmentalism, the role of women). Such initiatives can even take the form of simple manifestos on social networks. The “Gilets Jaunes” movement, which unites the demands of different fights (economic, environmental, social solidarities…), has reinjected the issue of spontaneous mobilisation and class struggle within social science analysis. Moreover, their mobilisation does not develop through a union or organisational structure, in the formal sense of the term. Instead, it is relayed through digital platforms. These platforms, such as Facebook, enable the organisation of a lasting struggle in real time. Could this be the new form for future organisations? This central question also leads anthropologists to reconsider their methodology. The #metoo and #balance ton porc movements in correlation show the effectiveness and reach of political consequences achieved by such movements that bring actors together through digital platforms.

Organisational and Engaged Social Sciences

The decade-long increase in organisations and action groups linked to the social sciences is manifest. Yet in addition, the interdisciplinarity favoured today in all research environments calls into question the role attributed to and claimed by anthropologists in these actions groups and new organisations. Whether “scholarly” professional organisations, ones for scientific mediation, “militant” organisations, consulting groups, cultural collectives, theatre companies… Their forms are diverse but all generally stem from people trained in the social sciences and have the aim of connecting the academic and non-academic worlds. What are the practical experiences of the social sciences in such initiatives and what relations to social engagement and political life do they produce?

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