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Creating the Review: an anthropological gesture

Homage to Jean-Pierre Poitou
Rigas Arvanitis
Traduction de Marc Barbier
Cet article est une traduction de :
Créer la revue : un geste anthropologique [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Crear la Revista: un gesto antropológico [es]

Texte intégral

1While we were gathering the material for this special issue dedicated to the 10 years of the RAC, we learned about the death of Jean-Pierre Poitou “senior researcher at CNRS, also known as “Le Rouzic’’ painter, drawing artist, humorist and art engraver, founder of the journal Technologie Idéologie Pratiques, of the Société d’anthropologie des connaissances, of the association Chamal, member of the French Communist Party”, as it is mentioned in his obituary.

2Jean-Pierre Poitou was a discreet person but knew how to assert original ideas and defend them thoroughly. One of his ideas was to create a journal on the anthropology of knowledge. He had created and directed for a number of years a journal called “Technologie Idéologie Pratiques” (TIP) that was publishing annually an issue on a specific technology or, in the more recent years, on a specific theme. The subtitle of the journal was “Review of anthropology of knowledge”, which we inherited, not only intellectually but also materially since Jean-Pierre gave a small sum of money that permitted to launch this journal in its current form.

3The phrasing “anthropology of knowledge” was a trapped one in those years (the end of the nineties) in our milieu (that is the social sciences and particularly the science studies). In effect, Jean-Pierre defended the idea of a materialistic analysis of knowledge and of cognitive processes, an empirical analysis of the practices that also focuses on the technical gestures, on places of production of knowledge like the industrial R&D units, and on cognitive processes defined as a social activity embedded in a social agency and not as a purely mental and individual activity disconnected from material and social constraints. His highly original reflection was based on the analysis of techniques and know how needed to make them work.

the real object of the analysis of techniques and their development lies neither in the cognitive functions of an isolated person, as is assumed by a somewhat restrictive point of view of psychology, nor in the instrumentation from the point of view of technology. But in the organic association of each producer with his tools, in a relation of cooperation with other producers. Complex relations that need, in effect, to consider a large range of determinants. (Poitou, 1999: 2)

4He supported with vigour that we should extend the analysis of the technical gesture –a concept Jean-Pierre liked a lot– to the scientific knowledge. That supposes a real anthropology of knowledge: at that time we were confronted to a strong opposition of scientists from the “hard” sciences against the mere idea that they could be themselves an object of research, and they qualified as “relativist” (supreme insult!) any attempt to understand the production of knowledge that is not limited to the blind belief in scientific truth but to the empirical analysis of the social processes that permit to produce science. On their front, social psychologists (like Jean-Pierre Poitou) had to face the success of the neurosciences that proposed to limit the cognitive processes only to intracranial physicochemical processes. He proposed an analysis of technical practices, of technical devices (dispositif) –an idea that he developed early in an original way, based on the work of ergonomists, of Dagognet and of Janet (who had proposed as early as 1935 the concept of intellectual object). Jean-Pierre Poitou proposed a management of knowledge to ‘tool thought’.

5In 2000 he formulated for the first time (to our knowledge) that clearly the main lines of an anthropology of knowledge, in the Congress of sociology of work of Latin America of Buenos Aires. This presentation was delivered in a working group on technical efficiency in developing countries that was created by Jean Ruffier who had also created a network of researchers in sociology of productive activities and technology (INIDET). It had been a crucial moment: it showed the intention of Jean-Pierre Poitou to confront himself to a community distinct from his own discipline –social psychology–, and his desire to address researchers in the countries of the Global South (we were talking of ‘developing countries’ at that time) and to think ‘out of the box’. Jean-Pierre was a discoverer and a builder. At that time, he was also interested in the traditional construction techniques in Morocco that he described quite well, about which he also directed a documentary film, and he translated that effort in the realization of a social solidarity project aiming at the reconstruction of a community house in a village of the Moroccan Rif Mountains.

6The polished version of his reflections has been the object of an article “From Knowledge Management Techniques to Anthropology of Knowledge” that condenses this complex line of thought from practices to the analysis of knowledge, proposing a type of analysis that can be found in most pages of our journal. When reading Jean-Pierre Poitou we can appreciate the immense richness of his references and the variety and range of his thought:

That defines a field that we can call anthropology of knowledge. Through the study of tools and methods used in the management of goods and intellectual means implemented in the production, it tries to understand the mental human functions. In other terms, it elaborates a theory of thinking as a management of knowledge through the study of production as a collective activity. (Poitou, 2007: 12)

7Obviously we cannot reduce the work of Jean-Pierre Poitou to the few elements that we have just highlighted. For example, we should recall his history of computer-assisted design, his work on the Bézier curve (among others) and of the R&D industrial centres. We should also recall his work in social psychology very closely linked to ergonomists. We need to underline his permanent concern for human collectives, for collective mention and his commitment expressed in all his work. Let us recall also that his interest in cognition stemmed from his attention to workers and employees engaged in production. And he never disavowed his political commitment that was consubstantial to his scientific choices.

8In his scientific peregrinations, and encounters with some of us, he expressed his intention to stop the production of the journal called TIP and he wanted to hand us the sub-title (Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances) arguing that he should pass the baton because a Journal exists only because those who run it are active scientists. He has thus gathered researchers from different backgrounds and disciplines, founding the Société d’anthropologie des connaissances that became the owner of the title and by beginning with us the editorial work as member of the Editorial committee. Looking back, we can only be happy with this choice that enabled us to advance in this anthropology of knowledge, both on topics that were strongly inspired by the discussions we had with him, as was his wish, as well as by exploring the themes and methods different from those he knew and which none of the founders of the RAC had imagined at the time of its foundation.

9It is difficult for us to limit this homage only to its scientific dimensions, since Jean-Pierre Poitou was a man of exceptional qualities, and we can mention his sympathy, intelligence, friendship and talent. He was an intellectual and also a crafter, both psychologist and ‘painter by profession’ –he produced paintings under the name Le Rouzic1– two activities that he combined blissfully. This was a man of multiple talents that helped us a lot by encouraging us with his knowing smile and his mischievous humour.

10We are very proud to dedicate this special issue to Jean-Pierre Poitou who has been, for many among us, a sincere and dear friend.

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Poitou, J.-P. (1996). Savoir s’y prendre : la gestion collective des connaissances et la mémoire individuelle. Techniques et culture. 28 (juillet-décembre), 49-63.

Poitou, J.-P. (1999). Les conditions culturelles techniques de l’efficience. Projet d’application de la méthode d’analyse autonome des activités à l’inventaire du patrimoine technologique. Actes des Journées de l’efficience. Lyon : INIDET.

Poitou, J.-P. (2000). Fondements anthropologiques de la gestion des connaissances. In Actes de conférence : Congrès latino-américain de sociologie du travail, Buenos Aires (Argentine), 26 p.

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1 Some of his paintings can be seen on

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Rigas Arvanitis, « Creating the Review: an anthropological gesture »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 11-2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 28 mars 2020. URL :

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