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An unpublished essay in French, "To live in order to understand", by Germaine Tillion (1907-2008) from Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2009.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 27, 2012 at 6:04am

Those who do not read French can find similar sentiments expressed in Ruth Behar (1997) The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart.

From the first essay, whose title is the title of the book.

"Always, as an anthropologist, you go elsewhere, but the voyage is never simply about making a trip to a Spanish village of thick-walled adobe houses in the Cantabrian Mountains, or a garden apartment in Detroit where the planes circle despondently overhead, or a port city of cracking pink columns and impossible hopes known as La Habana, where they tell me I was born. Loss, mourning, the longing for memory, the desire to enter into the world around you and having no idea how to do it, the fear of observing too coldly or too distractedly or too raggedly, the rage of cowardice, the insight that is always arriving late, as defiant hindsight, a sense of the utter uselessness of writing anything and yet the burning desire to write something, are the stopping places along the way."


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