The ethnologist interviewed by a student

Translation of an interview conducted in 1998 by Roomi HANIF (Interview de l'ethnologue), who had come to France from Pakistan for her studies; it was a requirement for the “Ethnologists on Themselves” credit at the Université Paris 7, under the direction of professor Pascal Dibie. […]

Interview text: questions asked by Roomi Hanif (R.H.) and answers given by Jean-Luc Chambard (J.-L.C.)

R.H. — Mr. Chambard! I have known you as an ethnologist for several years, because I took classes from you: Indian Civilization at the INALCO and Ethnology in the Ethnology department at Paris 7. In both cases, by basing your teaching on “your” Indian village, you taught me things that I had never learned elsewhere! You are intrigued by certain people, and I have always found you intriguing! I have always wondered about you, and I am delighted to ask you my questions as part of “Ethnologists on Themselves”! It was in 1957, wasn’t it, that you went to India as an ethnologist for the first time?

J.-L.C. — Yes, it was 1957, but remember! I had already been to India as an intern at the French Embassy in New Delhi. Back then, you could surprisingly be sent on a one-year internship to India as a Foreign Affairs exam candidate if you had a diploma in Hindi; this was preferential treatment for “members of the family” (my father was a diplomat). This experience enabled me to make contact with a village of Hindu refugees who had fled Pakistan after the Partition. But the internship thesis that I wrote was not on this village. As an intern, it was not possible to go study a village—there was a lot of work at the embassy, like number-crunching, work which no one hesitated to give me! So I settled on writing my thesis on local agricultural problems, using newspaper articles in English that I translated myself. French was the only language used for theses. The diplomats who are sent abroad with diplomas in foreign languages are only supposed to use those languages in their conversations or to read documents in the original versions—which is better than nothing, you might say!

R.H. — Was this thesis of use to you?

J.-L.C. — Absolutely not! It had no academic value, and ended up in the bottom of a cupboard in the Foreign Affairs offices on Quai d’Orsay. But my visits to a village did at least serve to show me that a village in India was a normal village! I must say that, at the time, I had a lot of preconceived notions about India. I had spent my childhood in China, and to my mind, the Chinese where the only rational people in the world; Indians were engulfed in mysticism, which meant their ideas were suspect!

R.H. — These prejudices you had about Indians, did you also get them from the books you read?

J.-L.C — At the time, there wasn’t much available in French on contemporary India. There was Nehru, Lettres envoyées de prison à sa fille Indira, which was translated quite quickly, and Max-Olivier Lacamp, L’Inde, which happens to be a good book. That was where we were, in a not so distant past!

I had briefly visited India for the first time during the summer vacation after I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the Sorbonne, under the supervision of Georges Gurvitch. When I got back, he insisted on publishing an article of mine entitled “Pour une sociologie phénoménologique de l’Inde [Towards a phenomenological sociology of India]” in Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie. Nowadays, I don’t mention this purely theoretical piece as part of my work as an ethnologist.

I went back to India in 1957, as a CNRS research fellow. I made a proposal to study an Indian village, and this project was accepted thanks to the support of Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose classes I had taken at the Hautes-Études after he returned from spending the war in South America.

R.H. — Did you need a precise research topic to be hired by the CNRS? Most of your work has been on women. When you first arrived in the village, did you know what would interest you?

J.-L.C. — When you wish to study a village as an ethnologist, you cannot have a predetermined program, because that would be anti-ethnological. What does an ethnologist’s work consist in? In going to a place to see what happens there, observing with an open mind what presents itself. A heightened degree of receptivity to one’s surroundings, that is key! An ethnologist must avoid all bookish references like the plague. It is his job, once he is on site, to put together a corpus based on his own observations, and this is an undertaking which requires in-depth preparation. But the foremost quality of the ethnologist must be to remain open to his surroundings, because the most important thing is to live with people! That is my version of ethnology!

R.H. — There is something that surprised me the other day, when you came to the presentation of an ethnologist at the “Ethnologists on Themselves” seminar. You said “I was born an ethnologist!” Do you really believe one is born an ethnologist, as one might be born a painter, an artist, etc. What difference to you see between yourself and others? Are you more observant than others? Do you really have a different perspective? Is that what you meant?

J.-L.C. — Since you have asked me this question, I am obliged to admit that declaration was idiotic! There is something to keep in mind: the ethnologist cannot be an impartial observer, suspended above the fray. It is important to understand that when you live with people, you are surrounded by individuals who have just as many ideas about you as you have about them! There is something else you must accept: when you want to share the experiences of people, you cannot think they are stupid, as too many ethnologists do! The people one studies are not some kind of primitive being with ideas that are interesting to study but of no real import! That is what Levy-Bruhl believed and the attitude has not completely disappeared! My guiding principle is to participate without worrying about the problems that will then need to be resolved in order for the experience to perhaps be formalized!

R.H. — And did you have this attitude before you left, or did you develop it later?

J.-L.C — No! Not at all before! Everything happens in the field!

R.H. — So, when you left, you were like any other normal “scientific” researcher!

J.-L.C. — No! But I was quite young, 27 when I left, and I had problems, just like everybody else. But, in any case, I did not believe I was above the fray. I felt I had something to learn from others about all aspects of life, including sexuality!

R.H. — When you decided to study an Indian village, had you hesitated to choose another village in another country? I would just like to know if you were certain of what you wanted!

J.-L.C. — I was certain of nothing! My problem, at the time, was that I wanted to go back to China! I had spent my childhood there. When I left, I told myself I would go back. I had learned Chinese in China, at a Chinese elementary school (where my father sent me) and subsequently, in France, I obtained a diploma in Chinese at the École des Langues Orientales in Paris. But in the meantime, China had become communist and did not want any foreign ethnologists. I therefore had to change tack, and I decided to try for the Foreign Affairs exam and used my Hindi diploma—which I had also obtained—to get an internship in India.

R.H. — You had studied Hindi without knowing you would go to India!

J.-L.C. — Yes, without knowing! But I liked the language, which I enjoyed studying and which would ultimately become an excellent contact language for me once I was in the field.

R.H. — When you went to India, were you proficient in this language?

J.-L.C. — No, not at all! I knew the basics, because they are quite simple, but I had to go into the field to acquire fluency, which I was far from having at first. In this respect, I can measure how far I’ve come! After a few years in the field, Hindi became for me a true second mother-tongue. When I go back to “my” village, I start up speaking it again with incredible ease!

— Do you think that, in order to study somewhere, you must speak the language?

J.-L.C. — Yes, absolutely! My principle is that you must live with people. The concept of “immersion” ethnology is fundamental for me, and you can only achieve it if you speak the language!

R.H. — What is your opinion of ethnologists who work in different places without necessarily speaking the local language?

J.-L.C. — That would be a different kind of ethnology, which can perhaps be justified as part of a view that emphasizes a variety of experiences. That would be a different kind of research, which would highlight comparison. But that is not at all what I do! I proved it by spending my entire research career in one single village, which many of my colleagues tried to dissuade me from doing (“It’s insane! Why go back to that village where you have nothing left to learn,” etc.). But experience proved to me that I still had a lot to learn by going back! It is only now that I am learning what is truly important, because, in the end, in an Indian village as in many others, no doubt, it is once you have become part of the landscape that people start telling you what is truly important!

R.H. — When did you begin to feel you truly belonged?

J.-L.C. — I cannot assert I ever have, that would be pretentious! But I think I truly became a member of the village about ten years ago, when I purchased the house I had always lived in. I then became an administrative member of the village. But I realized I still had the same enemies, people who were absolutely opposed to our presence in the village because they felt it was unbearable to have their lives observed, not to speak of the fact that we brought in a Western perspective they considered harmful. At first, this attitude increased significantly with the Hindu Nationalism movement, which at the time manifested xenophobia towards Muslims and foreigners (fortunately things changed later).

R.H. — But, to come back to the same question, did you feel you belonged, or shall we say that you were accepted, right away, or did this happen only after several trips? It seems to me that it was actually the length of your stay that was decisive!

J.-L.C. — Belonged… You know, I have always had—and still have—enemies in the village, as I have just said! But, obviously, I was accepted at first by the family of Nathuram, my servant, who has played an immense role in my research by helping me in my relations with people (a Barber gets along well with everyone because of his role as intermediary in marriages), with the recording of songs and the preparation of written versions. Nathuram’s brother, Sarvan, also knew a lot about oral traditions. Finally, there is one person who completely accepted me, and this was ground-breaking for me: the very first year, a Brahmin, the Panditji, became my guru in the full sense of the word!

R.H. — How many people were there exactly?

J.-L.C. — Not many! But I got to know a fair number of people when I was drawing up the maps of the village for my Atlas. I needed to visit each house to see how it was built and used.

R.H. — Was everyone comfortable, then?

J.-L.C. — No one refused to let me in, even those who were against me and who ordinarily didn’t want me in their homes so that I could take pictures, like at weddings, for example. But when it came to visits of their homes, they didn’t want to be considered different from their neighbors!

R.H. — So, all in all, how long did it take for you to be accepted?

J.-L.C.  — It didn’t take long for the Panditji to accept me because he was our neighbor. He was in charge of the post office (since retiring from his job as a teacher), so he started early in the morning and finished late in the evenings. The post office was right next door to us. I often spent long evenings there, by the light of a lantern. This brings to mind another point, something that strikes me as important to say on the difference between ethnology and sociology. In ethnology, the value of the information you gather comes from the fact that you have a limited number of informants. You needn’t have a great many!

Sociology’s method is different, because its aim is more statistical. In ethnology, a person who talks to you remains an individual who tells you personal things. I have discussed this point with a colleague who said to me: “Dhaniya the Artisan tells you whatever she wants, anything that crosses her mind!” Well, no! That’s not true! In a traditional society, people don’t say anything and everything. A woman who talks to you about her condition talks about her own condition, not the condition of all women, even if she is a representative case. Dhaniya was not at all putting herself forward in talking to me! The idea that she was highly knowledgeable could not have been further from her mind!

— In your classes, you told us that after your dissertation, you did not go back to India for a while.

J.-L.C.  — Yes, I went back before I wrapped up my work, which was to describe the village through maps, but my Atlas also mentioned the changes that had taken place in the village: there was the arrival of electricity, for example, which was described in one of the chapters. But above all, what the experience taught me was that it is vital for an ethnologist to always stick to the concrete: how people live, what their home is like, their kitchen, what utensils they use. This was brought home to me in a remarkable way with the floor drawings. I discovered not long ago that one of the most common floor drawings, which is made up of two crossing triangles forming a kind of Star of David, was absolutely key to understanding people’s lives and their sexuality. That is what a concrete image can teach you! André Padoux sees it as a tantric image.

— What about this desire to work with women by studying their songs? When did that come about? During your second trip?

J.-L.C.  — Yes, but earlier as well. It was the result of a remarkable set of circumstances! My wife knew Dhaniya the Lacquer Woman well because she often went to her home to purchase the lacquer bracelets she made. Dhaniya had two grandchildren, still infants; one was chubby and the other was scrawny. My wife decided to help the skinny child as best she could. She went over every morning and every evening to give him vitamin drops. After a month, the child was much improved. To thank her, Dhaniya organized some singing sessions at her home with a few friends!

— These were the types of occasions when you began working on the songs?

J.-L.C. — Yes, and I had no idea at first that the oral culture was so rich! I have always found oral culture boring! When someone told me about it, I had a hard time listening! How did I manage to work on songs? Because Nathuram helped me record them and write them down. His mother, who was a midwife, taught the folk songs to the little girls of the village. Nathuram transcribed them, with his mother’s help at first, but he soon became an expert at it. I then realized that these songs were extraordinarily rich and original. And there was a shift to an even more interesting level when Dhaniya explained a few of them to me.

R.H. — So when she invited you to listen to songs, you didn’t say to yourself “I’m going to get bored!” But if you had, would you have continued? I mean, do you think an ethnologist must carry on with work that bores him? I don’t ask this as a trick question! I am asking you because, as you know, I have a hard time doing anything I find boring.

J.-L.C.  — There is always some personal intuition in the work one does! There are several ways of being and ethnologist; there is no fool-proof recipe for being a good ethnologist. There is knowledge of the language, of course, but using it leads almost inevitably to taking a look at the oral literature, because it is the most widespread form of popular expression!

R.H. — Right! But what if you had found it boring?

J.-L.C. — I was bored when I didn’t understand the songs at all! I had to improve my knowledge of the language so that first listening, then study of the songs could really catch my interest!

R.H.—Alright! But let’s ask the question in a different way! Imagine an ethnologist who is working on a subject or a fieldwork area that he is not particularly interested in. Should he keep going or not? I insist on this question through personal interest, as I am sure you can guess, knowing how easily I drop projects!

J.-L.C. — That happens mostly to the kind of ethnologists we were discussing earlier, who go into the field with a pre-set subject, either because it is determined by a university research program or else is a paid job, but selling oneself as an ethnologist is kind of a sad way to practice the profession!

R.H. — Yes! What do you think about that?

J.-L.C. — Well, I am against it! I feel there are personal and spontaneous factors that cannot be eliminated in ethnology!

— So you have to have a love relationship with your fieldwork and its subject?

J.-L.C. — Absolutely! Doing what you are interested in is having a love relationship, as you say! That is the key, because if you are not doing what you like, what does your work as an ethnologist leave you with, personally?

R.H. — I would like to come back to the first contact, because it’s very important to me!

J.-L.C. — I agree with you entirely there!

R.H. — When you went to the village for the first time, what was your first impression?

J.-L.C. — It wasn’t easy to deal with people at first! They did not want us in the village!

— At first, you probably sometimes said to yourself “What am I doing here?”

J.-L.C. — No, that didn’t happen to me much, because I was there with my wife, and we could always take refuge in our relationship, just the two of us (a terrible temptation for a married ethnologist). At first, we were completely rejected. We had to be strong! The house we wanted to rent needed renovation and it was never ready when we would show up intending to move in, because the owner was being pressured. It took my becoming acquainted a lawyer of the Merchant caste, Madanlal Gupta, who was originally from the village and had begun a practice as a lawyer and notary in the neighboring town—he became a great friend—and my becoming friendly with the director of the village elementary school, a Brahmin who spoke English very well. The two of them managed to convince the owner!

— But psychologically speaking, it must have been very difficult to realize that people were rejecting you?

J.-L.C.  — Of course! But gaining someone’s trust is also an interesting struggle, and I have to say that things quickly improved between us and the villagers! I must say that, right after Independence, India was going through quite a pleasant phase. When we arrived, the village was much more convivial than it is today! But political quarrels, holding elections, electoral disputes, the rise of the Untouchables, their resistance to performing their traditional duties (the Latrine Cleaners wouldn’t empty the latrines), all this embittered the villagers. In the past, there was much less conflict between them! The Untouchables participated in the life of the village: for example, when they were agricultural laborers in a Brahmin family, they played with the children and were not at all considered as enemies. People got along better. The Muslims took part in the Hindu festivals “because they were good singers!” That has all changed, but things remain reasonable! We also ended up being accepted. Indian society is one of tolerance that, in principle, allows for difference, and that remains the case to a great extent despite the violence we sometimes see—which to my mind is part of the system, and not limited to acts of brutality!

— I was quite struck by the story you told of the severe violence you were subjected to during the Holi festival—which is characterized by traditional conflicts—when a few villagers decided to give you a lesson by breaking your film equipment, physically beating you and abandoning you, unconscious, leaning against the edge of a well. Wasn’t that a terrible ordeal for you?

J.-L.C.  — That was at the end of our first stay…

— Yes! What I’m interested in knowing is what you thought at the time!

J.-L.C.  — I found the experience extraordinary; it was an impromptu psychodrama that I was happy to go through! I would not have traded my place for anything! In addition I really understood the motivations of the Brahmins, who had given themselves up to this kind of brutality simply in obedience to a group decision by the panchayat, the village assembly of Brahmins, and that included many of my friends—the Panditji among them—as well as my enemies; so those who were against the decision were forced to go along with it out of caste solidarity!

R.H. — I’m talking about right when it happened! What was your reaction right then?

J.-L.C.  — Right then, my reaction was that I was interested in the experience. I was leaning against the well, waking up from a blackout that had actually lasted less than ten minutes! I was looking at what was happening around me with curiosity. It was an ascetic, a sadhu, who had been staying in the village for a few days, who came to help me; my Brahmin friends had to stay out of it because they were bound by the decision made the day before to take advantage of the Holi festival to “give me a lesson.” I also learned that day that an ascetic does indeed have freedom, of a kind comparable to a Westerner’s! I experienced all this “right then,” as you say so well, and I have to say that I thought the people who had attacked me were right to do so, because I know caste solidarity is an important thing! The Panditji and my Brahmin friends were hiding in the alleys around the square where the well was located!

R.H. — Let’s change the subject! When you work on an article in India, do you work on it every day?

J.-L.C.  — I couldn’t say that! My guiding principle is not to systematically sit down at my desk—although I do have one in my house. What is more important to me is my idea of “living among people,” i.e. to be open to observation more than to writing, which means that I routinely put off the moment of writing and readily decide to first go visit friends or informants instead. Sometimes, it seems to me this way of doing things is really laziness, and that is sometimes the case, but I have gotten a lot out of this “strategy” by learning some important detail during my visits. And it goes quite well with my guilty pleasure, which is perfectionism!

— When you have an idea in mind and you want to work on something specific, do you see the same people every day?

J.-L.C.  — I wander around the village a lot, there is always something to talk about with someone or other!

R.H. — Is that how you gather the information you are missing?

J.-L.C. — Yes, it depends on whatever my problems are at the time! I do not artificially fabricate my experiences!

R.H. — When you are in India, do you visit your informants often?

J.-L.C. — I visit a great many people, to the extent that I’m very tired on some evenings!

R.H. — You don’t really write until you get back to France?

J.-L.C. — Yes, I don’t write much in the field, but I record as much as possible, which is not always easy because people don’t like recordings, which disrupt the spontaneity of the exchange, and sometimes they think it is spying! They get ideas like that from the American TV series they watch (there are over 300 TV sets in the village); what they like are the most diabolical sequences! It’s their way of accessing all kinds of Western fantasies, including pornographic ones!

R.H. — Do you keep a journal, like most ethnologists do?

J.-L.C.  — Yes, I do that from time to time, only episodically, but not in a notebook with dates. I wrote down the conversation with Dhaniya, for example. I didn’t have my tape recorder with me, and anyway it would have been a bit rude to record her. I wrote it down once I got home, but transliterated, to keep it secret. That is the kind of “journal” I keep in my work there!

R.H. — With your method, how many articles are you able to write per year?

J.-L.C. — Not many, I must admit, but my way of working has enabled me to understand a great many things, precisely because I wasn’t obsessed with publication (the CNRS sometimes sterilizes some of its research fellows by requiring them to publish a lot)! For example, it allowed me to have a very deep relationship with the Panditji’s son, Prakash Narayan Sharma, who is the Brahmin in charge of the local RSS chapter, someone who is important and feared. He is my “brother by guru” because he is the son of my guru, the Panditji. I have had several deep conversations with him that were not to be shared. For example, I asked him why the RSS, which is an extreme right-wing, ultra-nationalist party, and the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist party, do not play the caste card! He explained to me that for them, the castes are not appropriate today. They think people now need to be egalitarian! He said: “I’m like my father, I believe in the caste system, but this RSS and BJP policy is right in our present context of parliamentary democracy, as laid out by the Indian constitution!” I understood that they were not at all being chameleons, an attitude which does exist, one has to admit, in political parties all over the world!

R.H. — But I would still like to know why you write so little!

J.-L.C.  — Yes… I don’t write much, it’s true! I have mostly published journal articles and book chapters. I am in the process of gathering them together on a CD-ROM entitled Être ethnologue dans un village indien [Being an Ethnologist in an Indian Village], where difficult to find references are collected! […]

R.H. — Among the articles you’ve written, which are your favorites?

J.-L.C.  — “Violences d'un village hindou [Forms of Violence in a Hindu Village]” and “La tradition des 5 Vierges [The Five Virgins].” I feel there are not many ethnologists who could have written these, because they talk about quite uncommon experiences!

— The fact that you stayed exclusively in your village has often been held against you… Did you never feel like going to study another village in India, in addition to yours?

J.-L.C.  — No, I really didn’t! After my dissertation, I told myself I would start writing books! But it never really worked, so everything I published was in article or chapter form. I am convinced that it is not part of an ethnologist’s vocation to write systematic works. Ethnologists who do so often get derailed! Even if they are recognized and approved of by a few colleagues, the scholarly community knows very well that it is difficult to write such well-constructed works! […]

R.H. — There is another question I would like to ask you, just for the fun of it! Have you visited the rest of India, aside from this one village?

J.-L.C.  — You’ve hit on a sore spot! I must answer “No, I have almost never visited the rest of India, aside from my village.” When I am there, I don’t feel like acting the tourist. I have only been to Banaras with my wife, but that was mostly to complete my study of the villagers’ movements; they often go to Banaras for all kinds of reasons!

— Nothing that happens outside your village interests you?

J.-L.C.  — No, that’s not the case. I stay abreast of events in India and elsewhere! At the village, I get a Hindi-language newspaper, which I read over breakfast. I also subscribe to the English version of India Today, and to the Nouvel Observateur for news from France. But when it comes to keeping abreast of Indian politics, I prefer to talk things over with the Panditji’s son, who always has a lot to teach me about the RSS and the BJP.

R.H. — You who have lived so long in this village, would you not be interested in going to see what’s going on somewhere else in India?

J.-L.C.  — Yes I would be interested! But since I have made my niche this way, the most natural thing for me is to go back to my village. When you have lived somewhere for a long time, you always feel there is something going on you would like to know about! It’s a bit like the Indian TV series (not the American ones) that the villagers like to watch so much! Of course, you have to give up on other things, but I must say I trust in colleagues and friends like Denis Vidal, Gilles Tarabout, Marc Gaborieau and Catherine Clémentin-Ojha to keep me informed of what’s going on in India!

R.H. — Now, you go to your village every year, and spend up to a month. How many years total have you spent in the field?

J.-L.C. — It started with two and a half years, uninterrupted, with my wife; then another rather long stay of a year and a half, then six months in 1984. Nowadays, I go spend a month or two from time to time, but by myself.

R.H. — Having had a career like yours, in “another world,” do you not feel that you are not quite a Westerner anymore?

J.-L.C. — A bit, but only to a certain extent! Of course, I experienced inequality in this village, and the consequence was that I became extremely critical of our Western egalitarianism and universalism, and I have come to believe that these are sometimes ills that our society suffers from as well. Do you not yourself share the Islamic perspective on universalism, which you believe in without its contradicting in your mind the inequality of women, which is also an Islamic tenet? When one is a Universalist, one is in the same boat as the Westerners. But the Indian boat is different because it puts the inequality of men and the inequality of women on the same level, with a more coherent overall vision. When I say this, my French and Indian friends of all religions accuse me of being reactionary!

— When did you start thinking this way?

J.-L.C. — A long time ago! My students were interested in this point of view!

R.H. — Today, it seems to me that your soul is about 50 % Indian. Can you put it that way?

J.-L.C.  — No, because I remain extremely close to my own culture! Even when experiencing another culture, even if convinced some of its affirmations are right, an ethnologist—and I believe this must be one of his qualities—always keeps in mind the essential aspects of his own culture. I found a good way to maintain a critical outlook in my classes and my publications, as I’m sure you’ve noticed: it is to be as humorous as possible! This allows you to maintain a certain distance with various convictions, be they ours or those of others. Is that not also the best way of defending the idea that we are not ever sure of anything, neither us nor the Indians? Fortunately, I share this conviction with my guru, the Panditji, because it also exists in his Hinduism, which on this point has been influenced by Tantrism—which does seem to be quite present in the local mindsets!

R.H. — At this point, do you think you could go without being in the field?

J.-L.C.  — Ah! While I was going, I always told myself I could do without it. But with my retirement coming on, I’m not very sure I’ll be able to, and this is a source of worry for me!

R.H. — Don’t get sad uselessly, ahead of time! To come back to your first days in India, was it easy for your family to live in an Indian village?

J.-L.C.  — They had no choice but to accept it, as best they could! It’s essential for an ethnologist to be accompanied by his family! An ethnologist who went somewhere alone would be seen as a wolf in the sheepfold! There were some tragic events at the village elementary school when two or three single teachers arrived: this set dramas in motion that went all the way to suicides among the women! In an Indian village, you live in a glass house, where everyone knows everything. You must not take moral questions lightly or you are put out! Although Indian society is overall one of tolerance and hospitality, people take it seriously when rules are broken. Speaking of this, there is something I have never dared talk about: there was a carpenter who was murdered, cut into pieces and thrown into a well by a group of young Brahmins because he had a wife who was considered to be a prostitute. The husband was punished by murder! This elicited a police investigation, but it never amounted to anything, because no one would agree to testify.

R.H. — India must have had a big impact on your family as well?

J.-L.C.  — Yes, but much less than on me actually! My wife has not been back as regularly as I have. We first spent two and a half years there together, with our son Jean-Pierre, who was ten (his one dream is to go back to make a movie, since he became a film maker and photographer). My wife came to speak Hindi quite well. She got on well with Nathuram’s mother, who often came to give my wife massages—her specialty. They talked up a storm!

R.H. — Should an ethnologist be neutral? Can he be?

J.-L.C.  — No, an ethnologist cannot be neutral! He is in fact a person, involved in a certain number of concrete situations, with his servants, his informants, and his friends, so he is always “in immersion.” Being neutral would mean he looked down on people, took them for idiots or reprobates who can’t be trusted with anything!

R.H. — Do you feel that an ethnologist can “steal” people’s lives, their “souls,” as I have sometimes heard it said?

J.-L.C. — That is what some people say, and it was quite a commonplace idea in May of 68, when it was not uncommon, in somewhat tempestuous meetings, to hear someone speak of “rape”! If that were true, then the only thing left for the ethnologist would be to commit hara-kiri! You cannot force someone to recognize guilt he doesn’t feel!

— Have you never ever felt guilty?

J.-L.C.  — No, but I had other problems. When I published my article on the Five Virgins, my wife knew I was not talking about experiences I had had myself, because Dhaniya had explained them to her, but I could not escape the hints of a few friends!

R.H. — Do you share your work with your informants? When you write articles, do you translate the texts for them and do you keep them informed or not?

J.-L.C.  — The question has not come up much for me, because I prepare my articles almost entirely from the documents my informants have given me and the conversations we have had, more rarely from recordings. But there are recordings I gave up on trying to make, for example of my conversations with the Panditji’s son on the Nationalists, in which he talked about some of their unorthodox convictions!

— You told me once that you were in favor of inequality, which is one of the characteristics of village society! To what extent is that true?

J.-L.C. — I am not for it, but when I am over there, I’m careful not to say I’m against it! In my opinion, we must not at all believe the Nationalists made a mistake when they declared themselves against the caste system and for egalitarianism!

— But it does seem to me that India changed your mind on this point! Do you not cast doubt on the benefits of egalitarianism in the West?

J.-L.C.  — I am convinced that egalitarianism can be debatable in the West, as is its opposite in India! In both cases, changes would need to be made! But this won’t be easy in India! And yet we mustn’t imagine that our egalitarianism does not ever result in questionable situations. We’ve had an example of this with the story of President Clinton and the young intern who fell in love with him. After having first asserted that the President and the intern were equals, we ended up saying that the young woman was different, that she was a kind of regicide who was preventing the President from governing the country! It is on the basis of this difference that a compromise was reached which brought satisfaction to the American legal system (which often goes beyond the boundaries of Western norms in the articulation of compromises): the intern received the modest sum of 25,000 dollars (enough to buy a very small car), and was compelled to forego the analysis of a spot on a dress she had kept. This was a blatant slip-up of the Western system with regard to its egalitarian principles!

R.H. — Just one more question to finish up! India is said to be very different. Can it really be said to be “another world”? You who have studied a village from a perspective that is Western, in the end, do you think India is a world set apart?

J.-L.C. — India is very different, but it is not in its best interest to cling to that difference. It will need to evolve. Even the Hindu Nationalists are aware of this, since they do not advocate a return to the old system. But will this evolution be able to easily modify the current system, with its sacred categories of “dharma,” morality and religious faith, and “varna,” social divisions which are of primordial importance both for religion and for society, because that is the way people think! India will have to change tremendously, and it already has in its constitution. But we cannot say things are moving in that direction for the moment: the Untouchables are playing a more and more prominent role and their accession to power on the local level has become one of the characteristics of Indian politics, as Christophe Jaffrelot tells us. Yet we have seen that, in the cities, there are egalitarians who are backed by the Nationalists!

R.H. — There is one more broad question: what is ethnology good for?

J.-L.C.  — I have come to believe that ethnology should not be judged on the basis of its utility. That is not a valid criterion, we had better agree on that. The idea of using the social sciences as a way to become more rational, to better manage societies, is a great illusion. The vocation of the social sciences is not to be useful for development. Yet political leaders often hold out this hope in order to exploit people as much as they want while pretending they have their approval to do so!

— But I’m not talking about the ethnology of development! According to how you see ethnology, do you think it helps improve knowledge of situations?

J.-L.C. — Perhaps! But it often provides only a localized grasp of things!

— Then it would be more useful to shut our eyes completely! Can ethnology not at least have its place in the field of knowledge?

J.-L.C. — This is conceivable only with tremendous care!

— Mr. Chambard! I would like to thank you for having given me so much of your time for this interview!

J.-L.C.  — You know, I really enjoyed talking with you. Thanks to the proverbial feminine obstinacy you have mastered so well, you managed to get me to say what was really on my mind! The ethnologist is not in an easy situation—he is often in conflict with his own society, sometimes considered a reactionary. Fortunately, your interview has made it possible to better understand my work.

Submitted by Roomi Hanif in September 1998

Secrétariat CEIAS,
22 Dec 2015, 08:49
Secrétariat CEIAS,
22 Dec 2015, 09:16
Secrétariat CEIAS,
22 Dec 2015, 09:16