Germaine Tillion (1907-2008) on the method of the human sciences

An unpublished essay in French, "To live in order to understand", by Germaine Tillion (1907-2008) from Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2009. Preface by Tsvetan Todorov. An ethnographer of North Africa and historian, she joined the resistance in WW2 and was put in a concentration camp; she intervened against the Algerian genocide. Here she lays out a powerful and moving case for a humane methodology based on solidarity between observer and observed.

"Cette solidarité fondamentale de l’observateur et de l’observé et cette lenteur à la percevoir nous expliquent pourquoi, beaucoup plus que toutes les autres sciences, les sciences humaines ont eu grand-peine à conquérir un vocabulaire précis, affranchi des lourdes hypothèques du passé : on peut parler très longuement de chimie ou d’astronomie sans rien savoir des alchimistes et des astrologues — mais avant d’écrire le mot « ethnologue » en sous-titre d’une étude, il faut faire bien attention et très attentivement définir ce qu’on entend par là."

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Comment by John McCreery on August 29, 2012 at 2:41pm

Keith, I look forward to reading the translation.

Huon, I am more the prepared to agree that ethnographic encounters involve human beings on both sides, as observers as well as participants. I have more than once insisted on OAC on the fundamental similarities (blood, hands, bipedal location, binocular vision, genitalia, etc.) that provide a common ground for discourse. That said, to leap to a conclusion that sounds like an assertion that every encounter involves particulars so specific that generalization is rendered impossible seems to me to be going too far. I may, of course, be pushing the argument too far. But as in my discussion of the poetry of sadness with M. Izabel, the question is where to stop. Can you give me a hand here?

Comment by Huon Wardle on August 29, 2012 at 11:05am

Tillion says that, unlike the hard sciences, there are, in the human sciences, no strict techniques of engagement that interrupt the fundamental sameness/solidarity existing between the observer and the observed. If we want to set up that distinction we have to decide what language we are going to use and where that language comes from in each encounter. This is why it is difficult to arrive at a precise or essentially agreed vocabulary in the HS; it takes a few words to say what an astronomer does, but many to describe what an ethnologist is up to. But the experience of Ravensbruck reinforces the need for an imprecise and solidary viewpoint on the human condition.The paper by Tillion is very beautifully written and extremely thoughtful. I recommend it.

Comment by Keith Hart on August 29, 2012 at 9:35am

Hi John,

I just discovered this piece and two books of previously unpublished wiriting by GT. I like it so much that I want to translate this piece and maybe more. That requires permission of course, but I hope to post the original and an English translation together as an OAC Press paper for seminar discussion in the coming months. I am currently tied up in South Africa, but I wanted to share my discovery immediately, even if with some communication difficulties. So I hope to provide a fuller treatment later. Thanks for your interest which only enocuraged me in this task.

Comment by John McCreery on August 29, 2012 at 3:39am


  1. A powerful and moving case
  2. A humane methodology
  3. Based on solidarity

Please do tell us more.

Comment by John McCreery on August 28, 2012 at 1:21am
Keith, please, I am not suggesting that my reading of a couple of sentences in a language I don't know well at all in the one paragraph you cited from a longer essay captures the central thrust of the whole essay. They may, in context, be only a passing remark, just one that happened to catch my eye. I am just curious whether my reading of these particular sentences is mistaken and, if not, how they fit into the argument as a whole.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 27, 2012 at 6:13pm

No, it doesn't contradict what you said, but it isn't what she said either. I need to translate the piece to find out if it confirms your conclusion or not. I start from the premise of needing to make an effort to understand the author in her terms not to see if what she says is consistent what I think already. This is, I acknowledge, a matter of intepretive politics and, as often is the case with us, we differ. But not always.

Comment by John McCreery on August 27, 2012 at 4:05pm

Keith, while agreeing with what you say here, I don't see it as contradicting my reading of the sentences in question. The hard scientist's precision opens the door for measurement and tests that distinguish, to use the examples Tillion cites, astronomy from astrology and chemistry from alchemy. Do social theorists' attempts to speak precisely achieve the same end? Or do they only leave us with the academic equivalents of scholastic logic chopping, Talmudic pilpul, or the endless speculations of Chinese or Hindu cosmology? Playing the devil's advocate, I might argue that the very nonjudgmental openness to the other that keeps our encounters with the other warm makes it likely that, when we extend it to those others we call our colleagues, all we have left at the end of the day is one bricolage after another.  

Comment by Keith Hart on August 27, 2012 at 11:40am

John, she is saying that the "exact" sciences are able to separate coldly observer, observing instrument and observed. This also allows them to put distance between their current practices and their past. It is the opposite with the human sciences, which maintain a hot conenction between the trio above and this makes us slower to come up with a precise vocabulary about what we do as ethnographer/anthropologist. The past is still mixed up in our practices and how we talk about them, which makes our professional discourse less exact. In consequence, the issue for us methodologically is to examine the sources of solidarity between observer and observed, while recognizing that our intellectual practices can't (yet or ever?) be modeled on those of the hard sciences. To which I would perhaps add that theirs could learn something from ours.

Comment by John McCreery on August 27, 2012 at 11:23am

Am I misreading the last sentences where I hear her saying that, while one can discuss astronomy or chemistry at length while knowing nothing of alchemy or astrology, we have to be very careful when we see the word "ethnologist." Is she implying that when we find ethnological theorists obsessed with precise vocabularies they are often producing schemes no better than those of alchemy or astrology?

Comment by Keith Hart on August 27, 2012 at 6:26am

Thanks, John. I felt that we should encourage a bit of multi-lingualism when we can.

I have known about Tillion for some time, whom I knew to be a remarkable person and an anthropologist who deserves to be better known outside France. But did not know that, like Levi-Strauss, she reached 100. I only came across this essay yesterday and found it to be indescribably beautiful. I will translate it when I get a chance.


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