Comparative politics in France

A tentative academic autobiography
By Jean-François Bayart

The undergoing government-led reforms of the Higher Education and Research system in France may negatively affect those fields of historical sociology and comparative politics that have developed since the early 1970s, and are nowadays gaining grounds within the wider international scientific community. A fresh reading of the masterworks that provided its theoretical cornerstones (those of Weber, Gramsci, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu and historians like Michel de Certeau and Paul Veyne) reminds us of the main ambitions of the whole comparative exercise: crafting and sharing an analytical glossary, rooted in the confrontation of various research experiences without expecting it to become either a common denominator or the first step towards any linear causal explanation. To put it another way, its strategic goals could be listed as follows: instead of entities, comparing practices, processes, and therefore historical periods that by definition are contingent, ambivalent, and fragmentary. Gathering and sharing common questions without expecting common answers. Conveying those questions rose from the analysis of one particular society to that of another. Demonstrating that continuities, that lie at the roots of the historical and political sociology’s approach of things political, are actually discontinuities. Reassessing in a creative manner the issue of the “autonomous historicity” of both European and non-Western societies, by recalling the fact that their relationship to the Other and to the Elsewhere is one of its key constituents, and hence that it cannot be dissociated from their fundamental “extraversion”. Acknowledging that this “autonomous historicity” argument does not lead to assuming that the various trajectories of those political societies are parallel and never merge. In the same way, this acknowledgement should not mean the revival of the old idea of the incommensurability of “cultures” or “civilizations”. This latter point should therefore remind us that comparison should not be only a one way process, and that European societies’ historicity should also be assessed by comparison with African and Asian societies as much as the opposite. To put it in a nutshell, the whole exercise is to make comparisons to mark out, and to mark out to universalize. By doing so, we can deepen our understanding both of how democracy was transplanted in non-Western societies and of the paradoxes of this process on a “long duration” scale.


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