Deconstructing Fieldwork in Contemporary Urban France

Article excerpt

As anthropology's focus has become increasingly urban, cosmopolitan, and Western, conventional understandings of ethnographic authority, access, and power relations are contested and problematized in new, more complex ways. This essay closely examines the politics of research and the process of ethnographic fieldwork. It focuses on the centrality of texts, not as theoretical models, but as critical sources of data and as strategic sites of negotiation between the ethnographer and her consultants-French chocolatiers. Texts are integral to a complex politics of identity which engage chocolatiers directly with representatives and structures of power. Chocolatiers supply scholarly, popular, and administrative texts to the ethnographer. They also solicit and selectively appropriate portions of her ethnography as a device to affirm their collective identity and to validate their strategic goals. [France, fieldwork, power, craft, identity]

Introduction

In 1996, five years after my fieldwork among French artisanal chocolatiers in Paris and southwest France had ostensibly ended, an unsettling event occurred. I received a package from Guy Mourier, a friend and consultant from southwest France. He enclosed a copy of the March 1996 issue of the journal (La Confiserie1) published in Paris by the chocolatiers' professional organization. He drew my attention to a feature article on his business of which he was justifiably proud and then added, rather mysteriously, that there was another article in the same issue sure to interest me.

As I studied the journal table of contents and found my name listed, I began to feel quite uneasy. I had conducted fieldwork among French chocolatiers during a period (1989 and 1990-91) which posed diverse challenges for them in the form of intrusive European Community (EC) regulation and intensified international competition. Fearing the loss of both craft identity and market share, chocolatiers had sought to authenticate and institutionalize a unique French art of chocolate production. This had involved them in difficult, ongoing negotiations with bureaucratic officials in Paris and Brussels on critical issues ranging from training and certification to new norms of production and labeling. It had also engaged them in a new politics of identity and representation aimed not only at state and EC officials but also at members of their own craft community, a changing clientele, and the ethnographer. The analysis, production, and dissemination of numerous written and visual texts were and remain central to their efforts. In that context French chocolatiers, both national craft leaders and local artisanal practitioners, not only read but also produced texts, often in collaboration with cultural taste makers (such as food critics, restaurateurs, journalists, and intellectuals) and state officials.

From my earliest contact with chocolatiers in 1989, they had not only welcomed my interest in their craft by opening their businesses and archives to me but had also offered to publish my research. Between 1991 when I left France and 1993 when I defended the dissertation based on that fieldwork research, I had received periodic inquiries about the status of my writing from both national craft leaders in Paris and local chocolatiers in Southwest France. Had I finished my dissertation? When would it be published? Could they have a French version of it? When it was finally finished in 1993, I had written to the journal editor of La Confiserie explaining the problems posed by the translation of a 400 page document and offered instead to provide a copy in English. A year later, in August 1994, both he and the vice president of the chocolatiers' professional organization separately sent urgent requests for a copy of my thesis-in English. They wanted to present it at a special plenary session of their craft congress to which several well-placed French politicians and European technocrats had been invited. …