HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article, in French, on French anthropologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep, who coined the famous concept of “rites of passage.”
Laurière, Christine, 2021. “L’ethnographie pour raison de vivre: un portrait d’Arnold van Gennep” (“Ethnography as a reason for living: A Portrait of Arnold van Gennep”), in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.
Contrary to scholarly clichés, this biographical essay on French anthropologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep does not treat him as a cursed figure under the shadow of the Durkheimian school. Nor should he be remembered solely for having coined the famous concept of “rites of passage” in 1909. Christine Laurière reconstructs disciplinary, ideological, institutional, and personal clashes underpinning van Gennep’s entire scientific career, which was marked by numerous failures and bifurcations, but was also remarkably productive.
The article follows his intellectual transformation in the course of exchanges with historians of religion and later attempts at rapprochement with Durkheimian sociologists. This failed due to theoretical and methodological divergences, but also for political reasons related to van Gennep’s anarchist Weltanschauung and his views on the place of the individual in society. This startling essay puts forward an alternative understanding of van Gennep’s trajectory, avoiding the trap of focusing on Rites of Passage or his later, impressive works on French folklore. To understand van Gennep’s career and scientific choices, it is necessary to consider his crucial yet underexplored rivalry with Marcel Mauss, rather than his opposition to Durkheim, which has been the subject of several studies. Rivalry with Mauss, Laurière argues, is one of the main reasons for van Gennep’s definitive abandonment of “classical,” “exotic” anthropology to devote himself solely and entirely to the field of French folklore from the 1920s onwards. After burning all his bibliographical files on general anthropology, he fiercely defended ethnography as an autonomous discipline, rejected the great divide between “Us” and “Them,” and advocated the import of ethnographic fieldwork “at home.” Thanks to his many editorial and institutional initiatives, which never ceased to challenge and stimulate methodological and theoretical reshufflings in French anthropology and museology throughout the first half of the twentieth century, van Gennep was a dynamic maverick with a decisive role in the history of the discipline.