Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology

The Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (LESC – Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology) is among the French main research centres in Social and Cultural Anthropology. This “lab”, as it is often called, is on campus of the Université Paris Nanterre (where it is part of Maison de l’archéologie et de l’ethnologie René-Ginouvès).

It is co-funded by the University and by the CNRS, and has 17 Faculty members (5 full Professors), 30 full-time permanent Researchers (9 with rank of Professor), 11 administrative and documentation staff, and more than a hundred graduate students. A large number of the Faculty, as well researchers, teach undergraduate students in the Département d’anthropologie of the University. The lab regularly hosts foreign research scholars and post-docs, and is part of a European doctoral convention that comprises the Universities of Paris West Nanterre, Bucharest, Perugia, and the Free University of Brussels (ULB).

The lab’s vocation is comparative in scope. Its activities extend across various cultural areas and different sub-disciplines of Anthropology , including: religious studies, kinship studies, migration studies, political Anthropology, gender studies, linguistic Anthropology, performance studies, heritage studies, Anthropology of human / non-humans relationships, and the epistemology of the discipline. In recent times it has also integrated two more specialized teams: a Centre of Research in Amerindian studies (EREAEnseignement et recherche en ethnologie amérindienne), and a Centre of Research in Ethnomusicology (CREMCentre de recherche en ethnomusicologie).

The LESC places special emphasis on scientific documentation and the use of ethnographic archives, and is an active member of scientific networks and programmes that deal with these political and ethical issues. There are three research libraries: the main one, Bibliothèque Éric-de-Dampierre (named after the founder of the lab), coordinates a hub of four documentation centres in Anthropology, belonging to other French institutions; the two other libraries are those of the EREA and the CREM. In addition to this, the LESC hosts a large and valuable collection of ethnographic and ethnomusicological materials, including field documents dating back to the first half of the 20th century. This collection is available for scientific consultation. The catalogue forms part of a hub with two other institutions (Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme). A large number of documents have now been digitized; a collection of documents in ethnomusicology is on open access on the internet site of the CREM.

The lab publishes a peer-reviewed electronic journal, Ateliers d’anthropologie, on thematic issues.

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Professor Éric de Dampierre joined the faculty of Arts in Nanterre in 1965. In October 1966, he created an ethnology course and then in 1967 founded the Laboratory of Ethnology and Comparative Sociology. Most of its members taught at the university. This laboratory formed an association with the CNRS in 1969.

Since then, the laboratory has become a unit financed jointly by the university and the CNRS (1989). In 2006 it merged with the Centre Enseignement et recherche en ethnologie amérindienne (EREA), and in 2007 with the Centre de recherche en ethnomusicologie of the musée de l’Homme (CREM); these two units have preserved scientific autonomy within the LESC, of which they are “specialised centres”.

Some notable ethnologists who have either taught or studied at Nanterre during this period are Alfred Adler, Cécile Barraud, Carmen Bernand, Hélène Clastres, Daniel de Coppet, Michel Dieu, Jeanne Favret, Michel Izard, Altan Gokalp, Remo Guidiéri, Alexander W. Macdonald, Aurore Monod Becquelin, Jacques Pimpaneau, Pribislav Pitoëff, Marshall Sahlins, Christiane Seydou, Pierre Smith, Dan Sperber, Andras Zempléni.

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Projet intellectuel

Anthropology, as a discipline, has undergone many changes in recent years. As the LESC adapts to these changes, it continues to draw on its historic principles: first, a broad, comparative perspective and, second, an emphasis on long-term fieldwork that in turn contributes to theoretical discussions.

Thanks to its comparative perspective and its broad inventory of cultures and societies, the LESC is developing critical knowledge about what characteristics all humans share. One such characteristic – though it is not unique to humans – is the ability to organize themselves into societies, and to form mental representations of themselves in society. It is this ability that warrants a broad, comparative perspective. This perspective is bolstered by the size and flexibility of the Laboratory; the large number of researchers facilitates innovation and the exploration of new themes.

Since its foundation, the LESC has stressed long-term fieldwork, which includes learning the local language(s) and, if possible, returning to the field repeatedly; the materials collected over years, if not decades, serve to build theory. The importance given to fieldwork and to the production and preservation of ethnographic material and data – a top priority of the Éric-de-Dampierre Library – goes hand in hand with an emphasis on remote locations. The local is not ignored, but a detour via the Other enriches the comparative exercise.

In its quest for rigorous ethnographic description and interpretive models drawn from comparative sociology and social anthropology, the LESC places great importance on analysing forms of social organization and on interpreting systems of representation found on all five continents. Ethnographic methods are becoming more diverse, and now include tools from interactionist sociography, quantitative methods, and experimental models inspired by the cognitive sciences. Still, institutions of all types remain a central concern of the LESC.

A high priority is given to mastering local languages, whether they have a standard writing system or not. Within the LESC, there has long been a fertile dialogue between ethnology and linguistics, in particular ethnolinguistics, and including recent developments in linguistic pragmatics and the cognitive sciences. The EREA, in particular, is interested in these fields; and the ethnomusicologists of the CREM favour a cognitive approach.

History has long been a central concern of LESC researchers: the comparative exercise starts with contemporary materials, but examines them in a historical dimension, including the context in which they were collected. Diachronic comparison can reveal structural changes and continuity, and also the means of transmission or rupture that organize the perpetuation and the transformations of societies and cultures.

Interdisciplinary dialogue is intensifying and opening new areas of study on the edges of established knowledge. The LESC is participating in this movement by forging crossdisciplinary research topics with geography, political science, psychology, and life sciences, and is opening new fields of study that interface with the history of science, the anthropology of art and technology, museography, and even robotics.

The LESC is working to transform anthropological knowledge and redefine anthropology’s intellectual sphere, and, furthermore, hopes to contribute to ongoing epistemological inquiry and research in the discipline.

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