Social sciences facing disorder

How can the social sciences think about the constitutive disorder of a society?? How to write about groups marked with a bad reputationand who refuse to be an object of knowledge? This is the challenge that the Toubou of Chad pose to researchers.

We know that the Sahara is not desert: Julien Brachet and Judith Scheele had already shown in their previous work that, far from being a barrier or a border, the Sahara is a connected and central space in the regional economy. With The Value of Disorder, the geographer and the anthropologist take us to Faya, an oasis located a thousand kilometers north of the capital of Chad, NDjamena. The book combines exceptional ethnographic work with sophisticated theoretical reflection on the relationship to history and the value of disorder. The questions posed from the Chadian Sahara also constitute an invitation to reconsider our ways of working. How to investigate groups that deliberately resist attempts to establish their history? How to think about disorder when the social sciences have been shaped by the search for order or balance in all society? How, finally, to write about groups who have already paid the price for their bad reputation?

Unpredictable and elusive

The value of Disorder is not a book that could be summed up in a formula, but a monograph on Faya which immerses us in its economy, its politics, the relationship of its inhabitants to the past, the state, their conceptions of what a good life and a good person is. The authors endeavor to show the unique place of this oasis in the Saharan world, starting with its eventful history since the pre-colonial period (chapters 1 and 2). They particularly highlight the apparent contradiction between the visible traces of the past in the city and the disinterest of its inhabitants for history. The following chapters (3 and 4) focus on local modes of production, resource distribution and trade. In this commercial crossroads, there are no or very few large merchants. To understand this, the authors lived in Faya, but they also followed their investigators when they went to other regions of the country, to Libya or North Cameroon. Faya is indeed a demimonde, in the sense of a world that can only be understood in its links with elsewhere. It is outside the oasis that it becomes possible to invest, to acquire wealth and power. The last two chapters explore the principles and values ​​at the foundations of Faya's political economy. In the oasis, exchanges are marked by the absence of reciprocity and ostentatious forms of generosity. Predation and the dispersion of wealth are more valued than production and accumulation. The question of disorder and its value runs through the entire book. Disorder is understood as a form of instability maintained by its inhabitants who prefer unpredictability to the stability of social relations and for whom autonomy is a central value.

The Chadian Sahara is a blind spot in Saharan studies and the book is already central in this field of study. However, it is not (or not only) an investigation into an unknown space, but also a reflection on the status of knowledge and ignorance. The absence or paucity of sources is in fact not an obstacle, but the very object of the research. Limpossibility of knowing (unknowability) Faya and the Toubou (i.e. the speakers of the Tedaga and Dazaga languages) is one of the enigmas of the investigation. The Toubou are elusive and this impossibility of knowing is constitutive of the historical category Toubou (p. 26). More precisely, among the Toubou there is a disinterest in history. This disinterest, which obviously does not stem from ignorance or incompetence, is deliberate and associated with a refusal to be categorized and a certain ability to escape analysis. Ignorance is both internal And external. She is internal in the sense that the Toubou do not maintain a group memory that would be stabilized and centralized. The story that matters is that of family genealogies: they are particularly important in a society that practices exogamy, since it would be shameful to marry a distant cousin. The Toubou especially value ignorance by foreigners (external ignorance): they do not want to be the object of others' knowledge. Strategies for circumventing the state and escaping knowledge produced from outside are a particularly debated issue since the publication of Zomia by James Scott. It is taken up here from an investigation of great finesse: we discover the multiple ways of escaping analysis as well as a conceptualization of the absence of history as a historical fact in its own right.


See Faya from among women

One of the strengths and originalities of this work is to see Faya from the side of women and men. The two researcherses, an anthropologist and a geographer, explored the same terrain together, one having access to female sociability, the other to male sociability. The entry into the world of women not only allows us to complete knowledge about Faya and the Sahara by adding women to a story which has mainly been told by men. The perspective of women allows us to radically redefine what we thought we knew about this space.

In a region marked by a succession of rebellions and which has never known moments of peace, violence is structuring. The use of weapons, in the army or in rebellion, is reserved for men. By studying women's violence, the book goes beyond violence as a strategy or means to an end. Violence is thought of as a central element in intimate self-definitions and moral and political conceptions. The ability to fight, resistance to pain and insubordination are valued (also) in women. Unlike that of men, women's violence is not, however, a mode of political action and therefore does not allow them to access positions of power in a country where weapons are the key to success in politics. Women also perpetrate violence against other women, not men. However, the book does not strictly speaking develop a gender perspective which would have also involved studying male violence against women, what the experience of this violence means for them, and more broadly the reproduction or destabilization of gender relations in this situation. space.

Social sciences facing disorder

The different chapters of the book are united by the constant concern to reread in positive terms what until now have been analyzed as absences or failures. The authors developed a conceptual vocabulary that allows Toubou sociability to be described in positive rather than negative terms (p. 33). Associated with a critique of the functionalist bias, this approach corresponds to a basic trend in the social sciences which consists of going beyond missing assumptions to define and study what is rather than what is not. From this perspective, order is not the default social situation; disorder is not a parenthesis that would interrupt the order of things: it belongs to society.

If the criticism of functionalism is not new, Julien Brachet and Judith Scheele go further: they study not only the place of disorder in the social order, but the absence of order. By following the reflections of Marilyn Strathern, they invite us to think that there is perhaps no social order after all (chapter 6). They thus attack a foundation of social sciences: the idea according to which each society has a certain order which could be described and analyzed. Anthropology has historically endeavored to give meaning to societies which seem difficult to read by outsiders. By studying the resolutely disordered life of Faya, the authors are not content with renewing the work on the Toubou (the only monograph on the Toubou, published by Catherine Baroin who worked in the South-East of Niger, precisely questioned the relationship between anarchy and social cohsion). They also question the very project of the social sciences and the temptation to systematically seek the part of regularity and predictability of all society.

write in min ground

The work poses another central question for the social sciences: how to write about a society that has a bad reputation? The authors worked on minefields: the Toubou have since the colonial period been described as thieves, violent and too lazy to work. We find these photos in the colonial archives; traces of it remain today in the mixture of fascination and apprehension that foreigners (especially the French military) feel for the Toubou. The issue, however, goes beyond the (post)colonial question: the Toubou also have a bad reputation in their own country and face hostility from Chadians from other regions and ethnic groups. Since 1979, the presidents of Chad have come from northern Chad: Goukouni Oueddeye, Hissne Habr, Idriss Dby, and now his son Mahamat Idriss Dby. The stereotypes associated with northern populations have powerful political implications. To write about theft or violence among the Toubou is to take the risk of reactivating a colonial cliché and resuming a political narrative.

For those who write about stigmatized groups, there are at least two possible paths. The first consists of analyzing the historical and social construction of the bad reputation and the conditions of its distribution. It is therefore less a question of studying the practices which give rise to rejection than of understanding the social and political logics at the origin of the stigmatization (writing against it). It is this perspective that I adopted in my own work on armed men in Chad. The other way is to study the most stigmatized practices for themselves (write about). Julien Brachet and Judith Scheele took this second, steeper, but perhaps more interesting route. They study the most stigmatized practices such as theft and violence (but exercise great caution when approaching the marriages by capture (p. 239). They combine this analysis with reflection on what people think and do about their reputation. They thus show that the inhabitants of the region ended up endorsing the stereotypes produced about them.

If the depreciation of work is relatively ordinary in Saharan societies, it is an element of bad reputation Toubou. By working on the refusal of agricultural work in the palm groves (p. 148-157), the authors return to the reports written by colonial administrators and establish the same observation: the Toubou do not want agricultural work, which they do not consider to be a respectable activity. Researchers share the observation, but obviously not the judgments ports on the Toubou which changes everything. writing about the relationship with theft is more delicate. The authors are less interested in the social and political conditions that make theft commonplace than in the meanings that the people of Faya give to it. Behind the social acceptance of theft, there is a valorization of cunning and a form of intelligence which consists of making good moves and getting by in a world full of uncertainties. As anthropologists, they situate anarchy, individualism and disorder in the Toubou's valorization of moral and political autonomy and in their own debates on what is a fair circulation of goods and a dignified person.

In the concluding pages, the authors move away from this approach which consists write about to question the supposed exceptionality of the practices of theft and violence which have made Faya's reputation. They show that these practices are in fact much more widely shared. The economy of predation is thus not specific to the Toubou, it is at the heart of imperialism, while violence and war formed the state in Europe. By traveling Faya, we finally take a fresh look at the Euro-Atlantic world.