As I was about to leave my fieldsite in April 2011 — almost two years ago now, I’m sorry to see — I have a conversation that goes like this:

“I’ve had shallow relationships with people,” I lament to one of my closer comrades among the philosophy faculty. “J’aurais voulu pouvoir comprendre les vies des gens, comme un romancier, mais ça a souvent resté superficiel.” I would have wanted to be able to understand peoples’ lives, like a novelist, but it often stayed superficial.

“Mais c’est comme ça que les gens se connaissent eux aussi,” responds M. But that’s exactly the way that people here  know each other. And he adds: “Le seul ami avec qui j’ai des échanges hors départemental, c’est B., avec qui je discute des choses personnelles…” The only friend who I talk about non-departmental stuff is B., we talk about our personal lives…

I’ve written about this moment before, but re-reading my notes, I’m still struck by this testimony of the intensity of academics’ non-relations with each other, of the depths of their superficiality, of the way that friendship can come to seem the exception to the rule. It’s a good reminder that ethnographies of intimacy may in fact not always be a good way of understanding the social reality of a modern institutional world, where even the locals may not know each other that well.