Tristes Paysans: Bourdieu's Early Ethnography in Bearn and Kabylia

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Pierre Bourdieu conducted ethnographic research in his native region of Beam and in Algeria during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He rarely drew explicit comparisons between the two sites, despite striking parallels in themes such as notions of honor in Mediterranean peasant ethos, the habitus as internalized dispositions, and peasant malaise in the face of socioeconomic change. Bourdieu called his Beam ethnography an inversion of Levi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques, as a way to "objectify" the familiar. I suggest that constructions of traditional and modem that informed Bourdieu's early research in both sites led to a nostalgic view of "tristes paysans." [key words: Bourdieu, habitus, Mediterranean, ethnography, rural France, Algeria]

"Having worked in Kabylia, a foreign universe, I thought it would be interesting to do a kind of Tristes tropiques... but in reverse...: to observe the effects that objectification of my native world would produce in me." (Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology)

"Penned inside this enclosed microcosm in which everybody knows everybody...beneath the gaze of others every individual experiences deep anxiety about 'people's words'..." (Bourdieu 1966, "The Sentiment of Honor in Kabyle Society")

"In this enclosed world where one senses at each moment without escape that one is under the gaze of others..." (Bourdieu and Bourdieu 1965, The Peasant and Photography)

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was from a rural family of modest origins, and a native of the region of Beam, in southwestern France. he went back there to do fieldwork in 1959-60, after having conducted his initial research among the Kabyles in Algeria. In the above quotation, Bourdieu employed terms such as "foreign," "native," and "objectification" that articulate a long-standing (some would say, defining) opposition in anthropological fieldwork between near and far (Fabian 1983; Gupta and Ferguson 1997). As with much of his ethnographic work, Bourdieu returned to material from his original study in Beam at several points over the course of his career. In his introduction to a recent volume that collects key writings on Beam, Bourdieu reiterated his desire to invert the LéviStraussian move to seek "the other" in Tristes Tropiques (1992). Bourdieu wrote of "throwing himself" into this very familiar world of his own region that he "knew without knowing" (2002:10) and which he could now "objectify" because he had distanced himself by immersion in another way of life (and here one assumes he means Algeria although he does not explicitly say so).

What is the meaning of Bourdieu's construction of his research in Beam as the "inverse" of Levi-Strauss' part-ethnography, part-travelogue, and part-autobiography Tristes Tropiques? What are the implications of his research "at home" and "away" for the development of his theoretical approaches-in particular, the concept of habitus? Beam and Kabylia served as parallel worlds in which Bourdieu worked on similar themes. In this essay, I will draw out the connections between the two regions of research to each other, to Mediterranean studies, and to Bourdieu's theory of habitus. Bourdieu placed both of these peasant societies within a framework that opposed traditional vs. modern society. I will critically examine Bourdieu's construction of Beam and Kabylia as familiar vs. foreign universes, and his assumptions about objectification, closeness, and distance in ethnographic research. I will also examine Bourdieu's claims to ethnographic authority. In his work on Beam, he stressed his objectification and a scientific approach, so as to avoid any claim that he was too close to the material, but at the same time also used his "insider" perspective to legitimize his work there. he also sought to legitimize his work in Algeria by using his own rural roots in France to claim a sort of "insider" status among Kabyle peasants, and to distance himself from others associated with the colonial power of France. …


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