Observer le travail: Histoire, ethnographie, approches combinées (review)
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Observer le travail: Histoire, ethnographie, approches combinées. Edited by Anne-Marie Arborio et al. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2008. Pp. 351. €29.

This volume unites eminent sociologists and historians from both sides of the Atlantic in a consideration of work. In part 1, the contributors observe people at work in a wide range of arenas, past and present: government offices, family firms, factories, museums. They illuminate the ways in which specific methods from ethnography or history—such as archival research, or narrative descriptions of work practices—have sharpened their analyses of workplaces and practices. But they are not content only to consider the techné of workers in these various arenas. In parts 2 and 3, the divergent disciplinary technés of ethnography and history themselves come under the microscope. Part 2 gives voice to six different authors’ testimonies about the benefits and hazards of interdisciplinarity. Part 3 provides recommendations for institutional changes that will work to effect an increased integration of historical and ethnographic methods.

Only two of the six editors are historians, and historians authored only four of the seventeen chapters. This results in a conversation more dominated by sociology than the editors seem to have envisioned. While both historians and sociologists of labor seek to understand work and its significance within individuals’ lives and human society, the two disciplines cultivate drastically different methods—as Pierre Fournier, Nicolas Hatzfeld, Cédric Lomba, and Séverin Muller note in a marvelous introduction. The editors assume that each discipline stands to learn from the other, and the contributions to their volume provide overwhelming evidence in support of interdisciplinarity.

The introduction emphasizes history’s rigorous methods for reading texts, and the discipline’s penchant for calling attention to specific sources. This is contrasted with the tendency of the social sciences to veil sources, often for ethical reasons. The editors suggest that, despite these concerns, ethnographers might still adopt historians’ tactics to more closely interrogate their sources’ assumptions and biases. They define ethnography as an “auxiliary science” cultivated by anthropologists and sociologists to engage in the “thick description” of living societies. Ethnographers engage in direct observation of their subjects and collect both interviews and material objects produced by the practices in question. Ethnography urges the researcher to consider his own role within the work site, and to evaluate how the research conditions influenced the findings. This level of reflexivity would greatly benefit historians in considering their own place in their research.

Some of the finest chapters in this book are by traditionally trained sociologists who have taught themselves historical methods to conduct [End Page 980] archival research, interrogate texts, and evaluate sources. In so doing, they provide models for rigorous interdisciplinary methodology. Lomba, for example, urges his fellow sociologists to consider using archives and documents in their research. According to Lomba, documentary analysis is not taught in sociology departments in France and is only rarely integrated into published sociological studies. His own research centers on studying the work practices and organization of business firms, and the careful reading of the firms’ internally produced documents provides an important component of his analysis. Similarly, Léonie Hénaut’s study of changing work practices among art-restoration professionals at the Louvre relies on interviews and direct observation alongside analysis of archival documents. These studies produce careful ethnographies of business or museum work that are sensitive to how these work sites have changed over time.

The editors have done a great service in collecting such a dramatic range of workplaces, including the workplaces of scholars of work. I do, however, have a few reservations about their neglect of ethnography in history. Particularly strong in the American academy, the “new cultural history” of the 1970s and 1980s introduced ethnographic practices into history. The editors make little mention of this longstanding interdisciplinarity and its consequences for the fields of history and sociology. In addition, I regret that this text glosses over some of the profound criticisms of both ethnographic and historical methods to emerge in the past generation. Ethnographers have participated in a systemic questioning of the cultural prejudices and researcher’s own personality that are seemingly built into the...