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  • Society for French Historical Studies

    Border PatrolAuthor(s): Joan W. ScottSource: French Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Summer, 1998), pp. 383-397Published by: Duke University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 19/09/2011 15:11

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    A Crisis in History? On Gerard Noiriel's Sur la "crise" de 1 histoire

    Border Patrol

    Joan W Scott

    Gerard Noiriel is perhaps best known for his important study of im- migration, Le Creuset francais: Histoire de l'immigration, XlXe-XXe sieles, which was published in English as The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity.' In that book, Noiriel sought to ac- count for and correct the "denial of memory" that led generations of French historians to overlook or repress the fact that at least from the end of the nineteenth century on, immigration has been an important factor in the political, economic, and social history of France. Histori- cal amnesia about immigration served the myth of a cohesive French nation rooted not only in the land but in the "postulated filiation" of an enduring and continuous population, a family whose "genetic trace we carry within us" (in the words of historian Pierre Chaunu).2 In fact, Noiriel shows clearly, various practical measures, from identity cards to passports to union membership to the educational system, either promoted the assimilation of foreign-born residents to French national culture or cordoned them off as strangers. In both cases the process effectively obscured the fact that immigration was long a significant factor in France's history and not, as certain politicians have suggested in the past year, an entirely new phenomenon. But if state bureaucrats had reason to represent France as a unified culture and to establish institutions to realize that representation, why were historians so will- ing to go along with them? How can we account, Noiriel asks, for their failure to make immigration the object of historical inquiry?

    The answers he offers are varied and complex. A primary one has

    Joan W. Scott is professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. She is au- thor, most recently, of Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996). She would like to thank Paul Friedland for his helpful suggestions.

    1 Gerard Noiriel, Le Creusetfranfais: Histoire de l'immigration, XJXe-XXe sicles (Paris, 1988); idem, The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity, trans. Geoffroy de Lafourcade (Minneapolis, Minn., 1996).

    2 Pierre Chaunu, LaFrance (Paris, 1982), quoted in Noiriel, French Melting Pot, 41.

    French Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (summer 1998) Copyright ( 1998 by the Society for French Historical Studies


    to do with the influence of the Annales school, which has until recently dominated the field of history and whose preeminence is roughly con- temporary with the beginnings of sustained immigrations. Fernand Braudel represents the strengths and the limits of the Annales school for Noiriel. Indeed, Noiriel's introduction at once pays tribute to the master and repudiates him: "The painful thing about this book ... is that. . . I had to gradually renounce the Braudelian enchantments of my student years and criticize the very foundations of the theoretical edifice he left, because the direction in which it took me was, I real- ized, misleading."3 Although Braudel pointed, correctly in Noiriel's view, to the need to reconcile sociological analysis with history, his pre- occupation with the longue durge tended to obliterate discontinuity as a factor in history and to deprive historians of a (genuinely sociologi- cal) methodology by which they could study the specificities of social interactions. The tenacity with which the Annales historians held to the idea of the longue durge, with its exaggerated insistence on history as continuity, resulted, Noiriel suggests, less from deep philosophical commitment than from the strategic need to counter the "expansionist designs" of sociology. This interest in maintaining disciplinary bound- aries blocked the kinds of investigations that might have illuminated the complexities of France's national history (among them the his- tory of immigration). That sociologists such as Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs were suggesting new approaches to these com- plexities only demonstrates the debilitating effects of disciplinary rival- ries. For it was "competitive games" between the disciplines of history and sociology that finally deprived the Annales historians of the tools that would have made possible a genuine "sociohistory" of national as- similation of the kind Noiriel now sought to write.4

    The arguments set forth in The French Melting Pot- that theoreti- cal commitments can be inimical to history, that sociology provides a suitable methodology, and that antagonisms between history and soci- ology are unfortunate and unnecessary- are again evident in Sur la "crise" de l'histoire. While these themes were in a sense incidental to the major purpose of The French Melting Pot (the point there is the empiri- cal demonstration that immigration was a fact of French history), they are at the very heart of the new book. Here Noiriel seeks to stage the reconciliation that Braudel suggested but did not realize between soci- ology and history, a reconciliation that is a way of both analyzing and solving what has been deemed the "crisis" of history.

    3 Noiriel, French Melting Pot, xxix. 4 Ibid., 41, 265-78.


    "Crisis," Noiriel tells us, is a recurrent theme in the history of the historical profession. Ironically, it has been invoked this time at a moment when the public status of history has never been better. Although others have referred to a crisis of belief in the very status of historical knowledge (an epistemological crisis), Noiriel attributes the sense of disarray to structural factors internal and external to the discipline. (In this he seeks to demonstrate the value of sociologi- cal analyses for understanding the behavior of groups.) Discussions of philosophy, he suggests, are displacements of the real anxieties histo- rians feel about demographic and economic pressures that have exac- erbated tensions between established and aspiring generations of pro- fessional historians. In addition, there has been a change in the status of the university: A steadily increasing influx of students has shifted the emphasis from research to teaching. Many university-based schol- ars in France see the requirements of pedagogy as diminishing their status as research scientists, especially when they compare their situa- tions with those of colleagues at institutions such as the CNRS and the Ecole des hautes etudes.5 Then there is the impact of an ill-defined interdisciplinarity that can be pursued in the elite research centers but not in university teaching programs. Finally, the lucrative market for popularization has deformed the activities, rewards, and motiva- tions of historians; some pursue a certain crass individualism as media stars, while others resent their own obscurity. The demands of popu- larization have, moreover, compromised scholarly and scientific stan- dards in the name of journalism and partisan politics. The sense of community that was characteristic of earlier generations is thus threat- ened: "Dans un univers oui triomphe l'individualisme caracteristique du champ litteraire, qui valorise des auteurs et non des chercheurs, pourquoi les uns accepteraient-ils les taches, souvent ingrates et ecra- santes, d'animation d'une equipe, d'un centre de recherche ou meme d'un projet collectif, au detriment de leurs propres travaux, alors que les autres mobilisent toute leur energie dans des strategies de promo- tion personnelle, cumulant frequemment les profits associes 'a la posi- tion d'auteur, de savant, de journaliste et d'expert?" 6

    Despite this rift, Noiriel thinks history can be preserved as an autonomous discipline, as a distinctive branch of knowledge in the human sciences. But the effort will require identifying its characteris- tic features, extracting some essential "history" from the history of this

    5 Noiriel's book focuses on France, although it includes material on the United States and especially on the so-called linguistic turn and its implications for social history.

    6 Gerard Noiriel, Sur la "crise" de l'histoire (Paris, 1996), 46.


    field. As he chronicles the formative years of the profession in several fascinating chapters, Noiriel emphasizes that disciplinary coherence resulted above all from commitment to a shared practice. It is method, not theory or philosophy, that achieves for history its scientific status; "truth" is the certification by the community of practitioners that cor- rect procedures of research have been followed. For Noiriel, Ma