Full of question marks

Continuing my analysis of the April 2010 debate at Paris-8 over the passage to “Expanded [Managerial] Competences,” which I invoked in my last post, I wanted to give a snippet of that discussion, since it says a lot about how French academics grapple with the future of their institution. I haven’t gone through the whole recording yet, but I wanted to just present a little fragment as an example of (a) how my informants debate institutional politics and (b) of the fragmentary, partial nature of ethnographic evidence. The following was the speech (they call it an “intervention”) of one senior male professor, a fairly outspoken character as I recall:

Est-ce qu’on va l’année prochaine, est-ce qu’on va pas l’année prochaine, à mon avis c’est vraiment une fausse question, et l’argumentation pour nous expliquer qu’elle était la bonne est surréaliste. C’est-à-dire ou alors on nous dit que la loi n’existe pas, c’est-à-dire que si effectivement le prochain président est un navré zozo, qui va appliquer la LRU dans toute son horreur, il aura la loi avec lui, donc, ça ne sera pas très compliqué de défaire les trois motions qui ont été voté par le CA, il aura assez de majorité, et pour ailleurs le CA qui votera trois motions contradictoires différentes, et basta. Donc l’argumentation de pourquoi il faut y aller maintenant me semble extrêmement étrange ou alors il me manque quelque chose que je n’ai pas compris. Par contre, le vrai débat est, puisque nous sommes tous d’accord que cette loi est une catastrophe, ils ont dit ça au tribune ce que le gens se sont dits (???), la question c’est, comment on résiste à une catastrophe et comment même, si on sait que la loi c’est la loi et que Paris-8 n’est pas dans la stratosphère en dehors de la loi, en dehors de la réalité, de comment on se met en position de pouvoir résister le mieux et avoir les meilleurs gardes-feu qu’on peut se ???. Peut-être que c’est effectivement de réfléchir à la question, est-ce qu’il n’y a pas une solution pour sortir de la logique de la loi LRU, est-ce qu’il y a pas une solution pour réinventer le statut expérimental ? Je dis pas que c’est possible, je dis que la réfléxion de la porte est là-dessus. Et je dis le même en ?? de l’argument en disant, mais, attention, la LRU n’est que la prémière étape de la ?, dont la deuxième, là on est ??. Donc la vraie question c’est quelle stratégie prend l’université ? Quel contenu elle défend ? Quelle spécificité elle défend pour que, malgré l’offensive de restauration qu’il y avait avec la LRU, premier état de refuser, nous ? pas toute la trame ? C’est ça, le débat. Et je ne sais pas la stratégie qu’on prend l’année prochaine si on prend cette alternative c’est quoi la différence ? Il y a une différence politique pas [??] Tout le monde sait que c’est différent de dire et ben oui et hélas la stratégie [cherchait la dissolution??] et comme je suis dans un état de droit m’oblige d’appliquer la loi, ah, bon, y a une loi, nous allons l’appliquer, ah bon, que nous soyons contre. Si personne ne voit la différence, c’était trop.

Or in English:

Do we go [to expanded competences] next year, do we not go next year, in my view it’s really the wrong question, and the argument in favor of it is surreal. In other words, either we’re told that the law doesn’t exist, which really means that if the university’s next president turn out to be a sorry idiot [un navré zozo], one who wants to apply the LRU in all its horrors, then he’ll have the law on his side, and it won’t be very complicated to undo the three motions passed by the CA (Administration Council). He’ll have enough of a majority to do that, and moreover the CA will pass three different contradictory motions, and it’ll all be over. So the argument for moving Enlarged Competences strikes me as extremely strange — or else I’m missing something that I didn’t get.

But on the other hand, the real debate is — since we all agree that this law is a catastrophe, on the podium as among all of us [?] — the question is, how do we resist a catastrophe? And how, even, since we know that the law’s the law, and that Paris-8 isn’t in the stratosphere outside the law, outside reality—how do we get ourselves into position to best be able to resist and to have the best flame guards we can (?) get? Maybe we need to reflect on this question: isn’t there a solution for getting ourselves out of the logic of the LRU, isn’t there a way of reinventing our university’s [post-1968] experimental status? I’m not saying it’s possible, I’m just saying that reflections lie that way. And I would even say that ?? about the argument in pointing out that, but, remember, the LRU is only the first step of the ?, and the second step, where we are ?. So the real question is: what strategy is the university taking? What kind of content is it defending? What kind of specificity is it defending in the face of the offensive of the [reactionary] Restoration that goes with the LRU, the first step of refusal, so that we don’t end up with ?? the whole trame. That’s where the debate is. And I don’t know what strategy we’ll have next year if we accept this alternative [to go to “enlarged competences” or not], what’s the difference? There’s a political difference but not ??. Everyone knows that it’s different to say, sure, alas, the strategy [came to an end?] and since I’m subject to the law I have to apply the law, yes, well, there’s a law, so we’re going to apply it, but, still, we’re against it. If no one can see the difference, it’s just too much.

There’s a bunch of analytically interesting stuff here, I think, having to do with how the speaker is trying to contest the terms of debate, and about how he’s groping for some alternative, “experimental,” almost counter-cultural project for the university, tacitly invoking the radical heritage of 1968, and about the rhetoric he uses to openly c0ndemn the Sarkozy government (“this law is a castastrophe”), and about the way he forecasts what a future campus president might do if he were “a sorry idiot”…

But I don’t want to get into the details of my analysis here, which isn’t half done in any case. Rather, I’m presenting this to show readers what it looks like to work with a rough transcription from French, with a rough translation, with only a rough, vague sort of meaning in English, with only a partial understanding of the discourse one is studying. I’m presenting this partially put-together text because I think it’s only fair to be honest with the world that, frankly, fieldwork in a foreign language and a foreign institution is not only practically hard but also incredibly epistemologically fraught. There’s a lot that I just can’t make out in the recording, that I can’t transcribe, that I therefore can’t really translate. It would help if I had a French native speaker handy to help with the transcriptions, but I don’t have one in Chicago, I can’t afford a professional, and I can’t really beg my friends for assistance at every turn. And so the reality is that my understanding of my fieldsite remains littered with question marks. Not all of which will ever get resolved.

When you have more recordings than you can ever fully analyze, transcription is an investment, and it’s hard to know when it’s worth the effort. I just don’t have the time or energy to transcribe everything, and the reality is that there’s no exact formula for figuring out how to allocate your resources as an analyst. It would be helpful, I think, for ethnographers to talk more about how they decide what data to work through and what data they decide to leave aside. My suspicion is that this is almost always a matter of guesswork, intuition, or sheer whim, and that the shinier the finished analysis ends up looking, the more it conceals the arbitrariness of its relationship to the data.

One thought on “Full of question marks

  1. Despite the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, this is a shared issue, and one I’ve been interested in for quite a while.

    See related issues discussed at many links here: http://www.delicious.com/MichaelBishop/openscience

    Jeremy Freese is a strong voice in sociology in calling for making more research more reproducible. I think this would really change quantitative research a lot as people were forced to acknowledge their results are more sensitive to specification than they would otherwise admit.


Comments are closed.