The anthropological perspective of the world

The inductive method illustrated

by Dominique Desjeux (Author)
Monographs 374 Pages
Series: Business and Innovation, Volume 21


What connection can there be between the Corps des Mines in France in the 1960s, the exhumation of the dead in Madagascar and sorcery in the Congo in the 1970s, mass distribution in France, urban riots on suburban estates, DIY in the United States in the 1990s, the rise of the Chinese middle class, uses of the SMS in Poland, shopping in Denmark, the economic crisis of 2008 and the emergence of competitive convergence in the 21st century between the West and Asia, starting from the year 2000, etc.? And yet all of these parts of the daily life of consumers, companies, administrations and citizens are linked by the invisible thread of globalisation. All of this gains a sense when we observe that a new global middle class of consumers is in the process of emerging and transforming the whole interplay of social forces which traverse all societies.
This book presents an inductive method in action, as it has been put in practice in almost 50 years of qualitative investigations in fields, offices, trains, kitchens, bathrooms or living rooms, and in Europe, Asia, Africa, the United States and Brazil. The author promotes a new form of anthropology of modernity, showing that not everything in the life of society, the market, the family or the individual can be observed at the same time. The scale of observation needs to be changed in order to see things appear or disappear depending on the focal length chosen. Understanding the world requires mobile knowledge.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface. Social action under constraint
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. What an inductive method is, or how to understand the thread of all of these investigations
  • Introduction
  • How to reproduce the portion of disorder which organises all societies without recreating an artificial scientific order producing a belief in an absolute truth
  • The “I” form as a tool for the elucidation of the real practice of researchers
  • How to explore reality without allowing oneself to be trapped in the apparent rigour of a state of the art which limits the creativity necessary for the exploration of new territories
  • The qualitative investigation – an amoral aid to discernment
  • Induction in humanities, a method which takes the details as a point of departure to retrace the diversity of elements which compose a system of action
  • The inductive methods of observation of reality: scales of observation, the method of itineraries, the method of life cycles and the system approach
  • Scales of observation, or the impossibility of overall observation
  • The method of itineraries and life cycles, or the dynamic and inductive observation of social phenomena
  • The system approach: a theory of constraints and social rough patches
  • The four elementary frameworks of my inductive practice in humanities
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. The discovery of large organisations as a new mode of regulation of the post-war societies (1969–1971)
  • Introduction
  • The State: from the black box to the rise of technostructures between the 19th and the 20th century
  • Chapter 3. From an abstract State to the concrete interplay of political and administrative social networks, the case of industrial policy in France in the 1960s
  • Reversal of the concept of power: from domination which forces to the margins of manoeuvre of actors under constraints
  • The corps des Mines, or the strategic ability to gain access to the top level of State
  • Weak directorates: the complex regulation of links between the local level and the central administration
  • How to gain aid from the State while protecting oneself from it acting within the company
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. The conquest of Madagascar in the 19th century, or the continuing march of globalisation (1971–1975)
  • Introduction
  • In the beginning was human power
  • A French moment of opening up of the world
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. The Sundi peasant society in the Congo: organisation of the land, gender-based division of tasks, the tontine, and management of uncertainty (1971–1975)
  • Introduction
  • The tontine, an original form of structural homology
  • The management of agricultural land, between the technical, the social and the religious
  • The Sundi peasant society: a system of action of the management of uncertainty
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. “Sorcery” and conspiratorial theories of power, or the uncertain borders between imagination and reality (1975–1979)
  • Introduction
  • “Sorcery”, a magical-religious device in the search for meaning, between domination and margin for manoeuvre
  • The place of emotion and of “series” in the system of proof of beliefs
  • Continuity between “sorcery” and conspiratorial theories of power: a constant anthropological factor of the search for meaning
  • The problematic link between the intention and the result of the action in society, or the overestimation of the smooth link between cause and effect
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7. The scales of observation or the discovery of the discontinuity of observation between the macrosocial and the microsocial scales (1986)
  • Introduction
  • Drought in the Sahel, between human microsocial actions and climatic causes
  • The birth of scales of observation: resolving a practical question, that of gathering information which varies depending on focal lengths
  • The three causalities of scales of observation: correlation, situation and meaning
  • The macrosocial, mesosocial, microsocial and micro-individual scales of observation
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8. Life cycles as trigger events of consumers’ itinerary of purchase and use (1989)
  • Introduction
  • The double dimension, sacred and family-centred, of golden jewellery
  • Occasions for purchase of golden jewellery as a function of life cycle stages
  • The method of life cycles: the role of consumer goods in the construction of identity
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 9. Urban spaces of French consumption through the representations which users form of “contemporary entrances to the city” (1990)
  • Contemporary city entrances, or the ambivalences of modernity linked with the development of periurban mass distribution
  • From the development of hypermarkets with a utilitarian goal to the emergence of enlarged shopping centres with leisure facilities
  • The four social phenomena which have an underground influence on practices of consumption: economic fragility, ethnic group, separation of couples and the transition between life cycles
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 10. Choice of hypermarkets, constraint of budget and purchasing strategies, little day-to-day tricks, an anthropology of banality (1991)
  • The relative nature of the proximity of the purchase site: a decision between a distance, time, atmosphere, a day-to-day itinerary and ease of parking
  • Attention to price: a practice under the constraint of overall management of the family budget
  • The range of products inside the shop: a criterion of the choice of chain which varies depending on the occasions triggering the purchase itinerary
  • Ethnography of the moment of purchase: day-to-day tricks, between control and inspiration
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 11. The urban riots of 1994 on an estate in Chelles, a vehicle of analysis of societal tensions and the institutionalisation of consumption
  • The problematic cohabitation between “the French” and “the Algerians”
  • Urban riots, a vehicle of analysis of what makes and breaks society
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 12. The detour via the United States in the 1990s: discovery of the historical origin of large-scale global consumption between the 16th and the 18th century (1994)
  • Introduction
  • The origins of modern consumption between the 16th and the 18th century in England, France, Holland and the United States
  • The anthropology of consumption
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 13. At the origins of global consumption – the detour via the American middle class (1994–2001)
  • Introduction
  • The Grand Canyon as a symbol of American greatness in the face of European cathedrals
  • DIY: do-it-yourself as a male practice in the United States at the turn of the 1950s
  • The lawn, a moral value which is obligatory for the middle class
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 14. Usages and representations of electrical energy in France at the end of the 20th century (1996)
  • Introduction
  • The omnipresence of uses of electricity in the home in France
  • The images of electricity in the 1990s: life against death
  • From lightning to the socket, from nature to culture
  • The ambivalent images of electricity: apocalypse, messianism and androgyny
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 15. The entrance of the Chinese middle class into global consumption in Guangzhou (1997)
  • Introduction
  • China: real but relative exoticism
  • Daily life, domestic space in Guangzhou and the importance of electricity
  • The food itinerary: departure, access, purchase, preparation and consumption – a daily practice
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 16. Pre-existing structures for new items in the French domestic space (1997)
  • Introduction
  • A reminder of the interpretative inductive model which underlies observations of everyday life
  • The four major practices of the management of day-to-day life in the domestic universe on a microsocial scale: delegating, “routinising”, programming and improvising
  • The social norms and codes which organise practices and usages within the domestic space
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 17. Testimony of a left-wing reformist on May 68 in Nanterre, France (1998)
  • Introduction
  • The underground revolution of French Catholicism triggered by Vatican II
  • November 1967: the first strike at Nanterre University, learning collective action
  • May 68, learning to settle conflicts
  • The Edgar Faure law and the creation of MARC 200 in Nanterre: learning political realism
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 18. An immersion in the day-to-day life of the Danish middle class (1999)
  • Introduction
  • Student accommodation: limited cost thanks to the State
  • Shopping: a purchasing practice between canapés, traditional dishes and readymade products
  • Culinary preparation: a conventional gender-based division of tasks between man and woman
  • Ethnography of a Danish family itinerary, in Odense
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 19. China at the turn of the 21st century: the rise of the Chinese middle class, of BRICS and of international tensions (2005)
  • Introduction
  • China: misleading geography, demographics transformed by the only child, and a centralised and authoritarian political system
  • The Chinese economy in 2004: investments in the coast, rise of salaries and movement of companies towards the west
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 20. Social practices relating to SMS and mobile telephones in China, Poland and France, in the young portion of the global middle class (2005)
  • Introduction
  • Use of SMS by a rather young population, with practices which are close in the three cultures
  • A dominant strategy among the young: minimising costs while maintaining the social link
  • The SMS as a tool for the reduction of human costs linked to social transactions
  • The content of SMS between Haiku, post-it and rebus: the reduction of language in China, France and Poland
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 21. The unexpected beginnings of the new digital economy in France, in China and in Africa (2006)
  • Introduction
  • The Dang Dang company (??), an example of the pragmatic creation of the logistical conditions for diffusion of a digital innovation
  • The social conditions of the diffusion of e-commerce
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 22. An anthropological look at the crisis of 2008 (2009)
  • Introduction
  • Uncertainties of three kinds today: historical, pragmatic and societal
  • The geopolitical issues of the crisis
  • Ecological uncertainties
  • The risks for social equity
  • Uncertainties relating to the places of the triggering of problems and solutions
  • Problematic links with the crisis of 1929
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 23. The crossover of the global middle classes, or consumption as a vehicle of analysis of the new international order (2011)
  • Introduction
  • The tripling of the world upper middle class between 2000 and 2009
  • The rise in forced expenditures for the least socially privileged groups in developed countries
  • Rise of a new middle class and social and political movements in emerging countries
  • Global progression in consumption and competition for the access to raw materials
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 24. Thirty years of transformations in the presentation of the body in China: body care and make-up as vehicles of analysis of social cleavages (2012)
  • Introduction
  • The 1960s or “the grey period”
  • The 1980s, the “colourful period”
  • From 1995 to today, the years of abundance
  • The ambivalence of social practices relating to make-up in China
  • The social life of make-up and body care: a life cycle effect under a strong constraint of social norms
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 25. Rise of the global middle class, international tensions and contradictions of the energy transition (2013)
  • Introduction
  • Rise in the military tensions in the South and East China Seas and progression of the middle class of consumers
  • The limits of Chinese consumption: insecurity with respect to sickness and retirement
  • Mass consumption items as an indicator of the outline of the middle class
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 26. The double energy bang, from the great divergence of the 18th century to the competitive convergence of the 21st century (2013)
  • Introduction
  • 3000 years of “pre-coal” economy: the central place of human power
  • Coal and cotton: the two resources which made it possible to bypass the restrictions of access to land in the face of demographic pressure
  • Conclusion
  • General Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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Social action under constraint

Is the beautiful work woven by the expert, sensitive hand of Dominique Desjeux a work of history, economics, geopolitics, the sociology of organisations, the sociology of consumption and innovations, agronomy, political science, conflict studies, ecology or methodology? It is all this at the same time. It is therefore a work of anthropology. Through 25 field investigations, he has explored the diversity and the convergence under tension of contemporary societies in Europe, Africa, China and the Americas. He deciphers the anthropological footprint which crosses all human societies, resembling a composite patchwork more than a Mayenne cloth with a regular weave, to continue the metaphor of weaving.

The position of the author is anchored in the tradition and currents of so-called “qualitative” analyses, using tried and trusted investigation techniques and acknowledged tools (such as photography and film) with which he gained experience first in Madagascar, then in the Congo, and subsequently on the sites of the transformation of consumption, from Europe and France to China, where the author has continued his study and research up to today. The position and the tools used are not all in accordance with the codes of academic “demonstration of proof” (which, by the way, is highly variable from one discipline to the next), but are robust and justified.

Dominique Desjeux’s inductive stance and recourse to analyses situated at different scales of observation makes it possible in particular for him to posit the discontinuity of social practices in analysis and comprehension: “The solution which I propose is to abandon the objective of integrating everything into a single interpretative model, but instead to mobilise different interpretative models depending on the problem which is posed. The point of view which I choose here is to accept the fragmentation of knowledge and the tensions which arise from the differences.← 17 | 18 →

Hence it is an absolutely judicious choice to present, without excessively recreating any continuity, qualitative investigations which were essentially carried out based on orders made by companies or institutions. If only so that the reader, by reading everything and seeing the eclecticism of the different studies, understands the “essential” discontinuity of every social practice, of its justifications, and accordingly of the analysis of society. As the work of Dominique Desjeux coherently shows, it is impossible, at the same time and within the same discourse, to hold together the historical points of view and macrosystemic perspectives (geostrategy, economics, comparative statistical analyses, etc.) along with other points of view, which are called “microsocial”, on the motivations or usages of social actors. The latter, who represent the key subject of the studies presented, are examined here in the framework of the itinerary of consumer items, the daily activity of individuals and situations observed.

The author invites the reader to read in an erratic and potentially fragmented manner. Why not, but it is important to read everything! Every sequence, which is situated and dated, confronts the reader with its own interpretative framework. Dealing with aspects which are diverse and nonetheless linked to the domestic space or daily practices, such as the use of SMS or the consumption of energy in the home, or the “rationality” of sorcery in the Congo in the 70s, they make it possible to see that it is not values or discourses of justification (essentialised cultures or beliefs, for instance) which determine practices and “decisions”.

From the 2000s onwards, thanks to the detour via Brazil and China, Dominique Desjeux observed the unexpected emergence of a new phenomenon, the rise of the global middle class. This term is perhaps not yet entirely widespread, but no doubt soon will be. The marker of this class is not only income (although this plays a significant part), but, viewed in more detail, the more or less convergent practices of consumption, which the author of this work is one of the first to analyse. However, when we speak of the middle class – particularly on a global scale – it is difficult to define: what is the position of this “class” in the social order? Is it structured on the political level or not? Is it defined mainly by its behaviours, its values or instead by its mobilisations or the conflicts in which certain sections of it participate? And so on. ← 18 | 19 →

In view of the subject and the traditions of investigation into social classes, one might expect a typical description dealing with analyses based on incomes, inequalities, and comparisons with other classes (higher and lower), analyses which Dominique Desjeux would call “macrosocial”. However, this is not what we find – at least not in a detailed manner – in this work reporting on a life of investigations, which began more than 40 years ago.

Like a large proportion of contemporary researchers and analysts on practices, Dominique Desjeux invites us to conceive of society not in a causal or linear manner, but instead in a “configurational” manner: social actors develop under constraints, both in their activity and in their justifications and values, and act depending on multiple imperatives, with economic aspects not being the least important.

This, as can be seen easily from his discourse and his quotes, is in line with the “Chinese spirit” which he knows so well, and which favours the existence of interplays of tensions, interplays of scales, complicated and involved links between macroscopic causes (for instance access to energy, an indispensable goal for humans and society) and the emergence of mass consumption classes (tending towards to the existence of global middle classes), which he detected during his studies as “weak signals”. The bridges he constructs between overall analyses (for instance that of Kenneth Pomeranz with respect to the Industrial Revolution and the difference between China and the west) are among the most convincing points of this book.

The stance, the methodological discourse, the specific epistemological approach, and the results of knowledge coming from investigations and various meta-analyses carried out by Dominique Desjeux are not only compelling, but absolutely essential. The position proposed by this work is one of major importance, all the more so since the author, as a guarantee and proof of his thoroughness, draws on numerous investigations with which he was assigned, referring to them without excessive ostentatiousness, along with all the weight of the transmission and transfer of knowledge carried out for the past few decades in the programs and networks which he has directed: the dozens of PhD students who have become professionals in the interpretation of practices, and just as many and more conferences and days of transfer, exchange and understanding of practices. ← 19 | 20 →

The work of Dominique Desjeux, through his very refusal to “narrate a tale”, and through the “modest” position which he adopts, through the recognition in situ of the relationships between the scales of analysis of social reality, is precisely of an irreplaceable value. In my eyes, it is of the same order as that of our common teacher, Michel Crozier, who attempted the praxeological leap, which all engineers, in the social domain or elsewhere, need to accept in order to think by acting.

Dominique Desjeux chose, from the beginning of his career onwards, not to position himself in the dominant hierarchical order of his discipline or of the university, which (as shown recently by Jerry in his work “In Defense of Disciplines”) is based on multiple criteria of closedness and preservation of identity. In particular, he spent almost ten years in Africa in the 1970s, although he was able to avoid going away from the centre of the discipline too much, in order to deploy his understanding in ideological spaces of heterogeneous knowledge, something which can be seen and understood clearly in the plethora of kinds of reference used by the author. Let us suppose that the circumstances of his life, with its multiple configurations, also selected for him and led him to this stance of “an insider and outsider” (he recalls this in a particularly impressive biographical chapter on “his” May 1968), which makes his lucidity possible.

The essential point is that the path taken by Dominique Desjeux, like the “inductive” methodological argumentation which he untiringly used in his investigations, constitutes a tool for thinking. This tool is not a “conceptual framework” in the academic sense of the term, but is indeed a collection of devices, combining reflections on methodologies of qualitative investigations, borrowings from diverse forms of situated knowledge, interpretative movements of scale, a distrustful stance with respect to the “essentialist” explanations which can be found in the writings of certain disciplines, etc.

The inductive position taken proves to be very appropriate for investigations on the activity and itineraries of practices of consumption, and conversely has also been transformed and adorned in order to meet precisely the requirements of investigations carried out “under the constraint” of an order. It does not immediately prejudge the motivations or strategies of social actors. This is a stance borrowed ← 20 | 21 → from ethnography, which Dominique Desjeux has refined all through his life as a researcher. He has combined it with a stance drawn from the institutional theory of organisations (strategic analysis) and clear consideration of the systems of constraint, particularly economic, which weigh on individuals or social actors.

All of the lines of questioning – which today are vigorously pursued – coming from all parts of the analysis of the production of knowledge (from epistemology to the analysis of the construction of scholarly knowledge, school knowledge, political knowledge, popular knowledge, etc.) contribute towards supporting Dominique Desjeux when, reinforced by his inductive stance, he rejects the hypothesis of the coherence of discourses of knowledge (let us not even speak of discourses of truth). In fact, he is not alone in saying this, and could also draw on solid analyses now provided by the social sciences of science and knowledge (Dominique Pestre (dir.), Histoire des sciences et des savoirs; Y Gingras, Sociologie des sciences), sociology of values (Nathalie Heinich, Les valeurs, une sociologie), and Science and Technology Studies on forms of expertise and modes of knowledge (Harry Collins, “Tacit Knowledge”; Wiebe Bijkers et al., “The Paradox of Scientific Authority”), etc.

The reader may say to himself that it is easy to flog a dead horse relating to the analysis of discourse and the practices of knowledge, and believe that there is no need to seek for coherence in the interpretation of social reality… Such a reader is probably unaware of the realities of the dominant system of production of legitimate knowledge which is discussed, for instance, by Science Studies. On this topic, let us recall that the production of knowledge is massive today (hundreds of thousands of articles and patents every year) and is concentrated in the life sciences and material sciences, the sciences of the engineer, where the discussion on scales or methods is posed differently from in social sciences, in the socioanthropohistory of sciences or specific disciplinary epistemologies.

In arenas of discussion of the social sciences, the constructivist “paradigm” is accepted as being important, and sometimes even as self-evident (a recent development). In the domains of the sciences and engineering, the perspective on the production of knowledge ← 21 | 22 → is different, most often stemming from a great naivety with regard to self-reflection or general epistemology. The scientistic hypothesis of interpretative coherence, at least in an institutional situation, constitutes a discursive “group norm”, as actors of university life know. The implicit hypothesis is that there is only one valid point of view, and that in one single discourse it is possible to contain all of the scales of social organisation. Secondly, due to effects of domination and the necessity to fight for resources in a polarised space of scarcity, the “chieftains” dominating the disciplines of social sciences themselves also have occasion, in particular in the crucial moments of evaluation or judgment of peers, to defend an implicit point of view of supposed coherence. It is at these moments that it is possible to see in negative the implicitly shared definition of what is real and its organisation.

Dominique Desjeux has the intelligence not to make of his point of view a debate or a general or conceptual battle, which would precisely contradict his approach: let us recall that according to him it is fruitless to try to look for a single, coherent interpretative system of action and of social structures. However, his claim is no less powerful, and it forces the reader to reflect: “the success of a social movement is not to be explained by underground actions and invisible manipulations, even if minorities certainly do conspire and try to manipulate the situation”. He adds, and his work proves the relevance of this point of view: “More generally, I am distrustful of overinterpretations, of overall approaches and of explanations which focus on representations and values, and which do not take into account the constraints of the situation.” [] “This led me little by little to understand society as the result of structural effects, as a field of forces, as a flow of things, Shias they say in Chinese, in the middle of which actors make alliances, search for margins of manoeuvre which will allow them to act, or look to see how they can flee.

In substance, this work states and restates that thought is also situational. It takes place for an individual within the “Shi” of his existence: his cognitive dispositions, his life itinerary and his emotional “bruises” (the importance of which has recently been recognised by the psychology of learning), the interpretative frameworks learnt and ← 22 | 23 → transmitted, the institutional and material structures encountered or created, strategies used in the conflicts and actions carried out by the individual, etc.

Man exists in action. His thought is a moment.

Jean-Claude Ruano-Borbalan

Professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (a further education centre)

Chair: Technology and Sciences in Society

Director of the research laboratory Techno-sciences in Society (HT2S-Cnam)

Research Director: Centre Michel Serres pour l’innovation HESAM

Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, London

Chair of the Board of the European Institute of Education and Social Policy
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ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2018, 374 p.

Biographical notes

Dominique Desjeux (Author)

Born in 1946, Dominique Desjeux is an anthropologist. He has worked with Michel Crozier, Alain Touraine and Georges Balandier, with whom he did his state doctoral thesis on the Congo, and was also an editor for 30 years. He was appointed professor at the Sorbonne in 1988 (Université Paris Descartes, USPC). Today, he carries out investigations on decisions, innovations and consumption in organisations and daily life, in Europe, China, Brazil, Africa and the United States. He organises the network of professional socioanthropologists Anthropik.


Title: The anthropological perspective of the world