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Social Anthropology

Corsican Fragments: Difference, Knowledge and Fieldwork


Candea, M. 2010. Corsican Fragments: Difference, knowledge and fieldwork. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The island of Corsica has long been a popular destination for travellers in search of the European exotic, but it has also been a focus of French concerns about national unity and identity.Today, Corsica is part of a vibrant Franco-Mediterranean social universe. Starting from an ethnographic study in a Corsican village, Corsican Fragments explores nationalism, language, kinship, and place, as well as popular discourses and concerns about violence, migration, and society. The book traces ideas about inclusion and exclusion through these different realms, as Corsicans, "Continentals," tourists, and the anthropologist make and unmake connections with one another in their everyday encounters. It seeks to provide new insights into the dilemmas of understanding cultural difference and the difficulties and rewards of fieldwork.


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(from the Prologue (pp2-5)):

At the heart of this book is a question about the place of difference in Corsica and in anthropological analysis. Anthropologists working in Europe, and particularly those working in the Mediterranean, have often found difficulties with the widely held conviction that anthropology is, at heart, a science of difference or, to quote Adams, “the systematic study of the Other, whereas all of the other social disciplines are, in one sense or another, studies of the self ” (Adams 1998, p. 1). In this particular division of labor, the Mediterranean, as Michael Herzfeld once noted, adapting Douglas, is matter out of place: neither quite Other, nor quite self (Herzfeld 1989, p. 7), and the same goes for Europe, that constantly shifting terrain of differences and similarities, which can in no straightforward sense play the role of a stable “us” against which the anthropological account of a “them” can be deployed.


In turn, this has left Europeanist anthropology itself somewhat “out of place,” as the embattled 1980s debates around “anthropology at home” testify. In the best cases, this liminality has been an asset, forcing Europeanist anthropologists, more urgently perhaps than others, not to take difference for granted—which in turn has led to some extremely sophisticated analyses of the processes whereby difference is socially constructed, an outcome of certain processes, rather than the starting point of the anthropological account (Chapman 1978; Herzfeld 1989; McDonald 1989). This interest in the construction of difference, however, came under serious critical fire from those who felt that “anti-essentialism had gone too far” (Werbner 1997) in disregarding people’s affective investment in their own identities, or in disempower- ing members of dominated communities which relied on identity politics (Briggs 1996). In the twenty-first century, there was a powerful return toward taking dif- ference seriously in anthropology, as Said’s (1979) and Fabian’s (1983) critiques of Othering lost some of their impact and the whole 1980s “crisis of representation” (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986) increasingly came to seem somewhat old-fashioned and overblown. The mark of this return to difference has been a shift away from postmodernism in what has been called an “ontological turn” (Viveiros de Castro 2003; Henare et al. 2006), marked by calls to move beyond mere cultural difference (which still implies natural sameness) into real ontological alterity (Henare et al. 2006). For one of the main theorists of this new turn, anthro- pology’s vocation is to become “the science of the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples” (Viveiros de Castro 2003, p. 18).

This is not just a story about theoretical trends. We have here a dilemma which goes to the very core of the anthropological endeavor: is difference or sameness the ground against which analysis should proceed? If traditional anthropology was taken to task for “Othering” its object (cf. Said 1979), is social constructivism in danger of “saming” it (Viveiros de Castro 2003)? Corsica in and of itself forces the analyst to reconsider this alternative, for the foremost issue in debates around Corsica, ethnographically speaking, is precisely the question of Corsican difference from the French: to what extent does it obtain, and of what kind is it? Thus, one is likely to write past much of the action if one begins either with the assumption that this difference is the basic datum from which the analysis should proceed, or with the assumption that this difference is a mere social construct. Somehow, we must keep in view two seemingly incompatible realities. In the first, entities whole and meaningful are an explanatory asset, a starting point, as when the political scientist Bernabéu-Casanova states: “we consider that there is a Corsican people, which shares a language, a culture, a territory. To say this is already to take a position” (Bernabéu-Casanova 1997, p. 13). In the second, such entities (people, language, culture, territory) are an effect, a contingent selection from a teeming multiplicity of other possibilities for contextualization. In order to address these apparently incompatible realities, the book proposes a double theoretical move.

First, it aims to introduce a disturbance into debates about the social construc- tion of identity. Theorists working in the field of science and technology studies have repeatedly claimed that the distinction between essence and social construction is something of a red herring. Construction, after all, is key to actually bringing things into being—as long as we drop the qualifying word “social” (Latour 2005, pp. 88–93). To claim that things are constructed is not to somehow negate their reality, any more than seeing a building site negates the reality of the building which later comes to stand there. Applied to the subject of this book, this real constructiv- ism would not insist condescendingly upon the emotional importance of identities to participants, nor would it praise them as a fake but politically useful “strategic essentialism,” nor even insist that their being socially constructed is fine because everything is socially constructed (i.e., unreal). Rather, it would take seriously the ways in which the solidity of (id)entities emerges not through the magic of social fiat, nor from the collective imagination of people, but from real, historical, trace- able assemblages of people, things, places, and ideas held together by links and relations of different kinds. In this vein, the questions I will be asking of the entities which undergird people’s accounts of difference—such as the village community, the French nation, or Corsican culture—are not “are they real?” or “are they made up?” but rather “have they been realized?” and “of what are they made up”?

Second, the book aims to counterbalance the previous move by tempering the recent push to ground alterity in ontology. Indeed the particular field of identity, ethnicity, and nationalism presents some tricky terrains to navigate for the would- be real constructivist. In a context in which the French state has gone so far as to decree that legal mention of the notion of “the Corsican people” is in and of itself anticonstitutional, I cannot but share Viveiros de Castro’s concern for the dangers of saming. However, as an ethnographer working in Europe at a time of increasingly virulent neo-nationalisms, which turn on grounding difference in being (Stolcke 1995; Holmes 2000), I am also slightly worried about the thought of anthropol- ogy as “the science of the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples.” This proposal, by an Amazonianist anthropologist, is premised on a distinction between Euro-American mono-naturalism and Amazonian multi-naturalism. The thought is perhaps that non-Euro-American ontologies, unlike Euro-American ones, inherently obviate the mirage of holism and ethnicized closure. But in that view, what are ethnographers of Europe or America supposed to do? Either we take the implication that anthropology has no place studying Euro-American ontologies (which would seem a rather problematic step backward, to say the least), or we risk extending the program of ontological self-determination to precisely the kinds of ontological projects of mono-naturalist ethnicizing closure of which everyone in this anthropological debate is equally wary. As Viveiros de Castro points out:

The image of Being is obviously a dangerous analogic soil for thinking about non-western conceptual imaginations, and the notion of ontology is not without its own risks. Perhaps Gabriel Tarde’s bold suggestion that we should abandon the irremediably solipsist concept of Being and relaunch metaphysics on the basis of Having (Avoir)—with the latter’s implication of intrinsic transitivity and an originary opening towards an exteriority—is a more enticing prospect in many cases. (2003, p. 17)

This book follows the trail of Viveiros de Castro’s “perhaps.” As a result, the analysis here remains always in media res, located in between purportedly different groups of people. It does not take one such group and its difference from others as the self-evident starting point of the account—as is common in much anthro- pological exegesis about the culture or ontology of the X. In this respect, it retains the central insight of 1970s and 1980s works on the construction of difference (Chapman 1978; Handler 1984; McDonald 1989): for better or worse, difference and sameness are only ever partial achievements.

In sum, the first argument is about the achieved reality of differences among people, places, languages, and so on: there is nothing “mere” about construction. The second argument is about the always contingent, partial, and incomplete nature of such differences and samenesses: whether ontologically or analytically, difference does not come before sameness, nor sameness before difference.

Luckily—and here I am giving away the ending—achieving this balance between alterity and a common world, between difference and open-endedness, is not just an anthropological concern, but also concerns many of the people with whom I lived and worked in Corsica. Thus, one solution to this theoretical prob- lem is already there, ethnographically, in Crucetta and in other such places where people deal with relationships and differences on a daily basis. The book’s narrative progresses from this theoretical problem to its ethnographic resolution.