In 1973, almost 35 years ago now, Clifford Geertz first published his famous remark concerning "thick" description in anthropology. Attempting not so much to set out a program for anthropology (in short, stating what anthropologists should do), but rather to define the anthropological approach, Geertz furthermore reaffirmed the descriptive character of anthropologists' activities. From the outset, he suggested that in order to understand what makes up a discipline, it was not so much necessary to focus on the results it produced, the theories it formulated or the discoveries that emerged from it; instead, the focal issue should be what its practitioners actually do. And Geertz said that what anthropologists most obviously do is describe; in other words, they are actually ethnographers. Geertz's affirmations are still immensely relevant for today's anthropologists, and it seems to me that they could also very clearly be applied to what ethnology has become in Canada.
For the purposes of this text, and, as such, in a manner that is truly exceptional, I wish to apply the classic North American distinction, one that is (or was until recently) made by ethnologists and folklorists, between ethnology (1) and anthropology, with ethnology presenting itself as the diachronic study of Western cultures and defining itself by the fact that the researchers are themselves members of the culture under study ("close" or the "same"), whereas anthropology, is (or was) instead thought of as the synchronic study of exotic cultures where the researchers are not members of the cultures they are studying (Bergeron et al. 1978; Desdouits 1997). It must furthermore be specified that, generally speaking, in North America this distinction is essentially made by ethnologists and folklorists and is most often ignored by anthropologists, who, perhaps given their superior numbers (there are fewer ethnologists), seem to regularly ignore the very existence of ethnology, which has long tried to distinguish itself from anthropology. Of course, before having recourse to such a distinction, we must, moreover, immediately add that today it would no longer be considered necessary to provide any distinguishing theoretical, methodological or epistemological foundations for the discipline of ethnology. Notwithstanding the fact that in the past ethnology took on the distinguishing characteristics that I just described and that this distinction has been the source of specific disciplinary institutions and traditions, today there are of course researchers trained in ethnology who work from the synchronic perspective, and sometimes (though more rarely) in exotic contexts as well. In addition, for some time now anthropologists have been interested in the historic dimension of the phenomena that they study, and many of them have also applied their approaches to Western societies.
Nevertheless, it would still seem necessary to recognize the existence of an institutional distinction and of different disciplinary traditions. In fact, Universite Laval still has an ethnology program that is separate from its anthropology program, just as at Memorial, there is still a folklore department distinct from its anthropology department, and this same type of overlapping duality can be found in the vast majority of American universities that have folklore departments. Lastly, I would like to emphasize that we would surely be wrong to think that today this distinction only represents an administrative division; nothing seems to me further from the truth! In fact, whereas anthropologists see themselves as being the heirs of Mauss or Malinowski, ethnologists perceive themselves more as the heirs of Van Gennep or Propp, and while anthropology students at Universite Laval read Levi-Strauss for the first time, ethnology students instead discover Favret-Saada. Finally, no matter what can be said about the former culturalist divisions between fields of study, which once enabled people from both camps to establish their anthropological credentials and which no longer seem relevant today, it must be noted that many anthropology programs still reflect divisions into culture areas, and in my view these divisions nowadays seem to resonate even more in the way that new professors are recruited for anthropology departments (in fact, professors are seldom recruited without there being a specification that preference will be given to candidates interested in a particular culture area). In the same way, the clear persistence of diachronic questioning and perspectives (these can be found in all the articles of the current issue of this journal) can also be observed among ethnologists, as well as a predilection for certain subjects that were for a long time focal concerns of this discipline. More concretely, ethnologists have their associations, journals, academic networks and scientific events, and this is also true for anthropologists, and while an intermingling of the two does sometimes occur (some do occasionally venture into their neighbour's backyard), this is still the exception rather than the rule. To make a long story short, even though we seem no longer able to make distinctions as regards methods, theoretical frameworks or subjects of study, the disciplinary heritage is nevertheless not the same and the scholarly literary corpus into which undergraduate students are initiated differs, and this also applies to the areas of study and the types of questioning most often chosen in each respective field. Clearly then we should still recognize a distinction, even if it is only contingent upon and linked to the history of various institutions, and, based on this distinction, note that, though the importance of the ethnographic approach could already be observed more than thirty years ago among anthropologists, it appears to be a relative novelty among ethnologists.
The importance that Canadian ethnologists have placed on ethnographic undertakings seems to me to be closely linked to a shift in perspective which has progressively led away from the study of culture as a product to a study of culture as social experience. In the following pages, I would therefore like to set out what I believe comprises this shift and to reflect upon the characteristics of this type of ethnography as it is currently practiced. It seems to me that the current issue of this journal provides me with the perfect opportunity to risk such an endeavour. In fact, the texts assembled here are very special in that none of them were submitted to the journal in response to the sort of call for articles that we regularly send out when preparing a thematic issue. This collection of texts is thus a priori the group of articles of an "open" issue, i.e. a collection of all the articles received by the journal during the last few years and months. But let me make one thing perfectly clear: even though the texts in question do not necessarily deal with the same subject matter, phenomenon or field of study, there is still a certain unity within the whole. In fact, in contrast to thematic issues, open issues have this particularity: they most often demonstrate a strong disciplinary unity (as is definitely the case with this issue). Though it is common for the journal to publish the work of researchers from other disciplines who offer their texts in response to a call for papers for thematic issues, it so happens that the other articles received by the journal are almost always written by ethnologists, who perceive themselves as belonging to this discipline and consider this journal as being their own. Not only does the unity of these texts seem to me entirely real, but I also find their shared characteristics to be very revelatory given that the articles of this issue deal with a variety of fields of study, periods and phenomena.
From one perception of "culture" to another
When I began my undergraduate studies in ethnology at Universite Laval (in 1994), in nearly all of our courses the professors encouraged us not only to conduct interviews in a near systematic manner, (2) but they also very strongly encouraged us to create a file in the school's folklore archives and always to make sure to file away the results of the surveys carried out in the course of our studies. I do not know to what extent ethnology students today are still encouraged to file the …