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Call for papers for the 24th issue of Temporalités (2016/2) « Temporalities and serendipity »

Coordinated by Ghislaine Gallenga (AMU-IDEMEC) and Gilles Raveneau (UPO-LESC)

Horace Walpole, drawing on a version written by Chevalier de Mailly (2011 [1719]) of a Persian tale, the travels of the Trois princes de Sérendip, introduced the word « serendipity » in 1754, a neologism refering to « the faculty for discovering things one is not in quest of, solely through accident and sagacity » (Catellin, 2014: 25). By doing so, he opens a space for ambiguity (accident versus sagacity) which has played an important role in the history of the concept and in the way it is understood. Following a period of abeyance, serendipity, from the 1930’s, in the United States, traveled from literature to the scientific vocabulary, however with a stress on accident at the expense of sagacity. Within the scientific world, Walter B. Cannon, a physiologist, made the concept popular by linking it to scientific intuition (1965 [1945]). Later on, the idea of serendipity (therefore at the confluence of literature and science) showed up in the process of institutionalisation of various kinds of scientific knowledge and practice implementing the interpretation of evidence, in different fields such as paleontology, medicine, psychoanalysis or semiotics (Catellin, 2014: 67).

In France, the word came into use in psychology in 1968 and from there entered general dictionaries in 2011, only after Robert K. Merton’s researched the idea of a « serendipity pattern » (1945, elaborated upon in the posthumous work published with Elinor G. Barber, 2004 [1958]). Merton describes serendipity as the « discovery, by chance or sagacity, of valid results which were not searched for » (1997: 43). Once well established in social science, the concept travels through all fields of knowledge and spreads out through different social or professional groups of people. Each of which will grant it with new connotations, altering its initial definition until serendipity becomes synonymous with the ideas of accidental discovery, happy finding, coincidence… The development of internet and of new information technologies has led researchers to work on the possibility of programming serendipity.

However, serendipity cannot be reduced to a simple reading of reality, for, as Bourdieu, Chamboredon and Passeron (1983 [1968]: 29) have emphasized: « by insisting on stressing the importance of accident in the process of scientific discovery, one takes the risk of reviving a most naïve vision of invention, summarized by the paradigm of Newton’s apple ». Thus, enters what Michael Polanyi calls implicit knowledge (2009 [1966]), which questions the positivist ideal of pure objectivity in the making of scientific knowledge. Because, as rightfully noted by Sylvie Catellin, « the finding occurs when an unexpected fact or an unanticipated anomaly are correctly interpreted » (2014: 133). Thus, the correct interpretation draws upon the implicit knowledge. Serendipity combines reflexivity and the realization of reflexivity. Also, it embraces the freedom which enables to take into account the unexpected within a research plan, and to redirect observations and change interpretation accordingly.

For a few years now, in France, scientific literature about serendipity has mostly stressed strategic issues, in the form of the serendipian moment, which at some point along the way encourages a researcher to redirect his research. Published in 2008, directed by Pek Van Andel et Danièle Bourcier (2013), De la sérendipité dans la science, la technique, l’art et le droit. Leçons de l’inattendu has helped making this concept popular in France. Sciences Humaines, the journal, has even tipped it « word of the year 2009 ». In this work, the authors set up complex typologies entirely dedicated to the outlining of the concept (positive serendipity, negative serendipity, pseudo-serendipity etc.). After which, they publish the proceedings of a conference organized in Cerisy about the creative process through the input of researchers, artists, philosophers, law specialists, mathematicians (Bourcier, Van Andel, 2011). Anthropoly, as an inductive science, could no more ignore serendipity. In 2012, Haim Hazan and Esther Hertzog analyse serendipity as a « nomadic turn » in anthropological research, in field research as well as in writing. They invoke the mythological concept of serendipity to mark the intuitive logic that transcends both subjectivity and objectivity, by which fluid anthropological sense is articulated and constantly reformulated (2012: 2). One year later, two journals, Social Anthropology et SociologieS, have each dedicated an issue to serendipity. The first centrally addresses the issue of the construction of the ethnographical field while the second deals with the logic of scientific findings in social science, described as a serendipity turn (Namian, Grimard, 2013: 6). While serendipity, as a concept, has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity and has indeed been researched in social sciences, it has to be said that many aspects remain undealt with. For instance, the matter of temporality appears as central.

This issue of Temporalités aims precisely at moving the focus away from the serendipian moment of creation and, instead, at pointing it towards the relationship between serendipity and the different régimes of temporalities (Dubar 2004). Indeed, serendipity leads to a different way of assessing time. The discovery process operates in a specific temporality and context. Three distinct temporalities are generally taken into account during research (nothwithstanding the fact that the temporalities governing each of these temporalities are themselves quite complex): the time of the researched object in itself, the time of study, and the temporalities governing the relationship between the researched object and the research procedures. The temporality varies according to each of these elements of time and there is no mechanical relationship between them.

Furthermore, we know that the time of research is compelled by institutions, structured by the temporalities of the researched object and by the activities of the researcher in person outside his research, as well as by his own perception of time. Thus, several temporalities are to be taken into account, each of which can be structured in a different way. How, in this context, do we face the unexpected? Will serendipity not challenge the way a piece of research is organized in time? Will it not challenge the evolutionist outlook on time marching forward? Does serendipity imply a diffraction of the time of research? How does it resonate, timewise? How are these breaks in time to be embraced? What is its relationship to linearity? With anticipation? How to embrace or anticipate any untimely upheavals during research?

Jung (1988) described as synchronicity a coincidence in time between two or more events with no causal relationship, but the combination thereof makes sense for the subject perceiving them (Catellin 2014: 153). How to understand serendipity in the light of synchronicity?

The field for research, for instance in anthropology, includes the idea of space through the idea of multiple sites, it also includes the idea of time, through the idea of multi-temporality (Dalsgaard, 2013). Yet, the criticism directed at anthropology by Johannes Fabian (2006) relates to the denial of temporality and the allochronic dicourse he attributes to anthropological methodology. The concept of multi-temporality of research enables to meet with Claude Dubar’s criticism (2006) about the inclusion and articulation of different and heterogenous temporalities. Through serendipity, the articulation of different temporalities could be made easier. Serendipity could imply a temporal separation between before and after. How does this translate into resarch? To what kind of temporal consequences does serendipity lead in the works and lives of researchers?

In a time of globalization, shrinkage of space comes with compression of time. The global time of the economic market comes at war with the political time of democracies and with the time of research. (Delmas, 1992: 27; Zawadzki, 2002: 26-27). Research stresses accident in serendipity rather than sagacity for political reasons: to fight for the freedom of research, against fundamental research, planned and submitted to the laws of profit. Can’t we see here a nod to musings, to the desire of an entirely different take on research, through the slow science movement and the manifest for a slowdown of science (Stengers, 2013)?

While the time of knowledge is the past, in the sense that all knowledge is retrospective, the time of doing is the future and the time of seeing is the present (Debray, 1992). In this perspective, does the fact of apprehending the time of research as « what practical activity produces in the act itself by which it produces itself » (Bourdieu, 1992: 112) not lead to reducing the subject to the present of its action, in accordance with the presentism of our contemporary societies (Zawadzki, 2002: 14)? The blind spot here would be the weakness of the onlook on the present of research and on its creativity in renewing perspectives. Even when disoriented, research carries on moving forward. Is serendipity not a fresh way of reflecting upon it?

Many questions arise, in their historical as well as sociological and anthropological aspects, with the help of empirical data and surveys. This call is very open and addresses all sciences: social sciences, humanities, literary studies, art studies as well as exact sciences and computer sciences. Proposals based on empirical material will be favoured.


The papers should reach the coordinators of the issue, Ghislaine Gallenga ( and Gilles Raveneau (, as well as the editorial office of the Journal ( before May 15, 2016.
Our instructions for writers:
Our procedures:

Planning and deadlines

Submission of papers (50,000 characters maximum): 15 May 2016
Feedback following appraisal by referees: 30 June 2016
Submission of revised version: 1 September 2016
Submission of final version: 15 October 2016
Publication: December 2016


Bourcier Danièle, van Andel Pek, 2013 [2008], De la sérendipité dans la science, la technique, l’art et le droit. Leçons de l’inattendu, Préface de François Ascher, Paris, Hermann Éditeurs, 327 p.

Bourcier Danièle, van Andel Pek, 2011, La sérendipité, le hasard heureux, Paris, Hermann, 412 p.

Bourdieu Pierre, Chamboredon Jean-Claude, Passeron Jean-Claude, 1983, [1968], Le métier de sociologue. Préalables épistémologiques, Paris, Mouton, 359 p.

Bourdieu Pierre, 1992, Réponses. Pour une anthropologie réflexive, Paris, Seuil.

Catellin Sylvie, 2014, Sérendipité. Du concept au conte, Préface de Laurent Loty, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 270 p.

Cannon B. Walter, 1965 [1945], The Way of an Investigator. A Scientist’s Experiences in Medical Research, New York and London, Hafner.

Dalsgaard Steffen, 2013, The field as a temporal entity and the challenges of the contemporary, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 21, 2 213 – 225.

Debray Régis, 1992, Vie et mort de l’image. Une histoire du regard en Occident, Paris, Gallimard.

Delmas Philippe, 1992, Le maître des horloges. Modernité de l’action publique, Paris, Odile Jacob.

Dubar Claude, 2004. « Régimes de temporalités et mutations des temps sociaux », Temporalités, 1 : 118-129.

Dubar Claude, 2009, « Johannes Fabian, Le temps et les autres. Comment l’anthropologie construit son objet », Temporalités [En ligne], 5 | 2006, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2009, consulté le 10 septembre 2015. URL :

Fabian Johannes, 2006, Le temps et les autres. Comment l’anthropologie construit son objet, Toulouse, Anacharsis, 2006, 313 p.

Hazan Haim, Hertzog Esther, 2012, Serendipity in Anthropological Research : The Nomadic Turn, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 320 p.

Jung G. Carl, 1988, Synchronicité et Paracelsica, Paris, Albin Michel, 352 p.

Mailly de Louis, 2011 [1719], Les Aventures des trois princes de Serendip, suivi de Voyage en Sérendipité, Vincennes, Éditions Thierry Marchaisse, 247 p.

Merton K. Robert, 1945, The Serendipity Pattern, American Journal of Sociology, 50, 462-473.

Merton K. Robert, 1997 [1953], Éléments de théorie et de méthode sociologique, Paris, Armand Colin, 384 p.

Merton K. Robert, Barber Elinor, 2004 [1958], The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 313 p.

Namian Dahlia, Grimard Carolyne, 2013, « Pourquoi parle-t-on de sérendipité aujourd’hui ? Conditions sociologiques et portée heuristique d’un néologisme “barbare”», SociologieS [En ligne], Dossiers, Pourquoi parle-t-on de sérendipité aujourd’hui ? mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2013, consulté le 23 novembre 2013. URL :

Polanyi Michael, 2009 [1966], The Tacit Dimension, Chigaco, University Of Chigaco Press.

Rivoal Isabelle, Salazar B. Noel, 2013, Contemporary ethnographic practice and the value of serendipity, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 21, 2, 178-185.

Saint Augustin, 1998, Les Confessions, Livre XI, Paris, Nathan.

Stengers Isabelle, 2013, Une autre science est possible ! Manifeste pour un ralentissement des sciences, suivi de William James, Le poulpe du doctorat, présenté par Thierry Drumm, Paris, La Découverte, 215 p.

Zawadzki Paul, 2002, Malaise dans la temporalité, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne.

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