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2021-2 Distances, Complicities, Dissent. The Inquiry Relationship in Lusophone Research Terrains

Social science researchers, particularly those for whom fieldwork forms the core of their practice, often study social groups for which they have some degree of sympathy. It is easy to understand why studies of groups that share researchers’ ideological orientations, cultural references, similarities based on class, political desires, or esthetic interests represent an important tendency of scientific production. In methodological terms, the proximity between the two parties has the potential of helping to overcome any reticence on the part of the researched and thereby enabling researchers to communicate more directly with them. However, the complicity that is so crucial to ethnographic work—and that requires empathy, understanding, and attentiveness--is often the product of a long, patient period of approach, familiarization, and mutual recognition that are neither easily achieved nor natural (Cefaï 2003, Weber 2009).

Immersion in a group that is close to a researcher’s own group clearly simplifies a field study, provided that a minimum of cognitive reflexes, class habitus, experience of being minoritized, or representations of the world are shared. Conversely, this can also efface or allow to remain unspoken implicit assumptions, prejudices, or patterns of thought that should be made explicit so that they may be understood or analyzed. Moreover, as demonstrated by most of the anthropological literature of Western societies, researchers are systematically required to adapt, learn, and make other similar efforts to participate in the activities that they are studying in order to successfully conduct and complete their studies. Jeanne Favret-Saada (1977), for example, pushed the limits of ethnographic participation by arguing that an ethnologist should participate in the process of sorcery, due to the risk of failing to observe what is truly happening if they do not.

Sharing a language, first of all, but also bodily techniques (Renahy 2005), inter-individual networks, knowledge of political institutions, topographies, or history, if they are not the actual foci of the study, thus constitute the necessary conditions to establish the proximity that fieldwork demands. This sharing sometimes precedes the study, but it become more refined and complexified and updates and reconfigures itself in the course of the study in a more or less radical manner depending on the degree of knowledge with which it began.

Regardless of the cultural, political, or cognitive distance separating researchers from the environment in which their study is conducted, it must be removed, at least partly and temporarily, because of the risk that it will impede the interpretation of social situations. The function of the study context as a social mechanism of domination must be remedied for exchange to occur (Bourdieu 2007: 1389-1424). This explains a methodological tendency to work with and on social groups, topics, and contexts with which a researcher feels proximity and more easily empathic.

In the same way, archival studies or analyses of documents or materiality would perhaps be ineffective if sociological knowledge and ideological affinities were not directly factored into the research process. When a member of a minoritized group pursues sociological or political sciences study of his or her own group, it opens and simplifies the phase of developing an understanding of their research participants and sources. The need for proximity is occasionally expressed through a methodological and political choice, in some cases drawing on the theory of situated knowledges (Standpoint Theory, Harding 1991) and excluding researchers considered to be foreigners to minority contexts. We may thus currently be facing a scholarly field in which proximity, empathy, and critical scholarly work have become epistemologically indissociable from each other.

Conversely, studies that take the opposite position to this viewpoint, and whose goals are to analyze, understand, and compare distinct social, cultural, or political situations that may be the opposite of a researcher’s own personal position, often refer to the complexity of the adaptations that are necessary. They also sometimes reference the distortions that researchers are compelled to enact with respect to study groups with whom they share little or no common point of view or experience (Laurens 2009). The effects of these adaptations and adjustments on research vary according to disciplines and terrains. Although researchers are obviously required to distance themselves from their own assumptions when their work involve either culturally remote terrains—whose conceptual frameworks are far from those of their countries of origin—or remote historical periods, this distancing becomes more subtle and complex when they work on time periods or terrains in which they are implicated as citizens and academics or on subjects frequently discussed in the public space.

Contributions to this special issue that explore subject including immigration, colonization, racism, or political extremes, among numerous potential topics (Di Matteo 2007, Dos Santos 2017) are welcome. They may involve authors in public debates from the political fields of their societies of origin or from the societies that they study. Such debates shape how research is perceived, leading to specific methodological considerations that it is the purpose of this special issue to interrogate.

Studying topics or societies for which a researcher has little sympathy can initially be questioned from the angle of the researcher’s relationship with his subject. What happens to a researcher who faces an alterity with which empathy is either difficult or appears almost impossible? How should a researcher to respond to a difference so great that it requires a permanent effort to achieve distance from one’s own convictions, which are at times academically constructed, in order to grasp the whys and wherefores of the cognitive or political positionings of the environment under study? How to do social science about situations and groups with whom we share nothing?

In addition to these individual questions, methodological factors can also be questioned, including the researcher’s positioning within academic and political spheres. How do sympathies/antipathies towards a specific focus of research influence scientific collaborations? How debates in the political arena influence the ways in which researchers view their research topics and position themselves--eventually in public--with respect to them?

In light of certain processes and evolutions that characterize the territories that it encompasses, Lusotopy is a propitious terrain for these sorts of interrogations. Although sharing a language facilitates comparative research and the circulation of researchers, knowledge, and analytical frameworks, these territories are also traversed by dynamics that engender strong oppositions and polarizations in both political and academic arenas.

The heritage of colonial episodes exerts a powerful influence on Portugal’s relations with the countries and citizens that if formerly administered, and by extension on the scholarly interpretations of phenomena such as lusophony, the contours of racism (Machado 2004), or migrations (Morier-Genoud & Cahen 2013, Minga 2020). In countries that were colonized by Portugal, researchers who are perceived as Portuguese are potentially identified as representatives of an imperial power, despite any effort to position themselves otherwise (Pina-Cabral 2002).

Further, given the colonial history and the distribution of the territories of Lusotopy to the “North” and the “South,” the knowledges produced within them rely on distinct hierarchical economic structures, political traditions, and institutional logics that influence the gaze directed towards political and social phenomena while also framing the processes of dissemination of knowledge and interpretations, whether they are believed to be legitimate or not.

Finally, these territories have sheltered--or are currently experiencing a reemergence of--authoritarian regimes and practices on both right and left that nourish political, as well as scholarly, polarizations related such themes as memory, violence, and relations of domination.

The purpose of this special issue of Lusotopie is to interrogate the methodological and analytical stakes underlying research on topics and social groups with which researchers share little or no social, political, or esthetic affinity or, conversely, with which they are in close proximity. The journal welcomes contributions that take the form of either classic articles, research notes (20,000 characters), interviews, or essays. The dates for submissions and publication follows below:

Publication of call for papers: March 22, 2021
Receipt of complete contributions: June 30, 2021
Submission of final versions: September 30, 2021
Publication of the special issue: November 30, 2021


Bourdieu, P. 2007, La misère du monde, Paris, Points.

Cefaï, D. 2003, L'enquête de terrain, Paris, La Découverte.

Di Matteo, L. 2007, L’idiotie en politique, Subversion et populisme en Italie, Paris, CNRS.

Dos Santos, I. 2017, “Postures du chercheur dans les processus mémoriels et patrimoniaux des migrations. Réflexivité revisitée,” Communications, 100 : 57-71.

Favret-Saada, J. 1977, Les Mots, la mort, les sorts, Paris, Gallimard.

Harding, S. G. 1991, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Laurens, S. 2009, Une politisation feutrée. Les hauts-fonctionnaires et l’immigration en France (1962-1981), Paris, Belin

Machado, I. 2004, “Imigrantes brasileiros no Porto. Aproximação à perenidade de ordens raciais e coloniais portuguesas,” Lusotopie, 11 : 121-140.

Minga, E. A. de Paula, 2020, A construção do outro na opinião pública. Representações contemporâneas do Brasil e dos brasileiros na sociedade portuguesa, Dissertação de Doutoramento, Lisboa, FCSH-UNL.

Morier-Genoud, E. & Cahen, M. eds. 2013, Imperial Migrations. Colonial Communities and Diaspora in the Portuguese World, Basingstoke-New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Pina-Cabral, J. 2002, “Agora podes saber o que é ser pobre. Identificações e diferenciações no mundo da Lusotopia”, Lusotopie, 9 : 215-224.

Renahy, N. 2005, Les gars du coin. Enquête sur une jeunesse rurale, Paris, La Découverte.

Weber, F. 2009, Manuel de l'ethnographie, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

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