Women’s Rights Movements: Historiographical and Methodological Challenges
Response to Claire Delahaye’s “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Woman Suffrage History: The Story of the Woman’s Party”
By Hélène Quanquin
1Claire Delahaye’s essay investigates different aspects of The Story of the Woman’s Party published in 1921 by Inez Haynes Irwin, from the making of the book and the motivations behind its publication to its status at the crossroads between story, history, memory, and politics. This study echoes Lisa Tetrault’s work on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The History of Woman Suffrage (1881–1922) as it shows that Story of the Woman’s Party was also used for political and historiographical purposes, as a tool meant to control and influence the way the history of the woman suffrage movement was going to be written at a time when its future was uncertain. Irwin’s correspondence is also evidence that, although Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, was not listed as co-author, she was the driving force behind it as well as its main character. One of Claire Delahaye’s contributions lies in her investigation of “the historiographic, epistemological, and methodological challenges posed by the use of the book as an historical source,” buttressed by close readings, which illuminate the hybrid nature of Story of the Woman’s Party.
2“From the very beginning, the writing and publication of Story of the Woman’s Party were part of a political endeavor to give sense and meaning to events according to women’s perspective,” Claire Delahaye argues. But who are these women whose point of view Story of the Woman’s Party reflects, one might ask? Claire Delahaye’s essay insists on the heroization and personalization of history presented by the book, in which suffragists are often depicted as “heroines” and “icons,” as well as “martyrs and saints.” She also depicts the process through which activists created their own feminist genealogies and generational narrative through the figures of “exceptional, even deviant women,” to use Gerda Lerner’s words (5). The publication of Story of the Woman’s Party coincided with Anthony’s 101st birthday and the dedication of a sculpture which was meant to celebrate the pioneers of the women’s rights movement, namely Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But like Adelaide Johnson’s white marble sculpture, which is still on display in the US Capitol, and like the color white used in woman suffrage marches, the story told by Irwin is filled with white women, who take center stage at the expense of white male politicians, but also, significantly, of black women.
3At the beginning of her essay, Claire Delahaye shrewdly notes that the Nineteenth Amendment “gave white women the right to vote at the federal level,” thus referring to the restrictions imposed on blacks’ voting rights in the South until 1965. She qualifies the dominant narrative according to which all American women were enfranchised in 1920, and which Story of the Woman’s Party helped create to the detriment of a more accurate and more diverse history of American feminisms. In the interview Alice Paul gave in 1972 for the Oral History Project at the University of Berkeley, she was asked about an article published in The Suffragist in 1914, in which the author argued that “white supremacy could be continued to be maintained by the same means as now prevails in these states” if women were enfranchised—an allusion to the Jim Crow laws, which limited and essentially prevented blacks’ right to vote. Paul did not deny writing the text—“I don’t think I ever personally thought that this was a serious matter. Somebody was always thinking up some dread thing you had to answer,” she claimed (130). The whitewashing of the history of woman suffrage, which was started by some activists, can thus also be read as part of a global strategy to get white women the vote whatever the cost.
4In my essay, I suggest that, when it comes to social movements and their legacies in the present time, narratives matter. Helped by close readings (or “micro-lectures” as the French would call them), Claire Delahaye’s contribution shows the importance of the narratives produced by social movements themselves as they shape the way their histories are written.
Lerner, Gerda. “Placing Women in History.” Feminist Studies 3.1–2 (Fall 1975): 53–62. Print.
Paul, Alice. “Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment.” Interview by Amelia R. Fry. Bancroft Lib., U of California / Berkeley, Regional Oral History Office, 1976. Suffragists Oral History Project. Web. 21 Oct. 2019.
Tetrault, Lisa. The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2014. Print.
Response to Hélène Quanquin’s “Why Study the Early American Women’s Rights Movement?”
By Claire Delahaye
1How can history, as a discipline, a methodology, and a discourse, address its constant invocation in today’s US political debates? How can archival research on social movements be used to probe the present? How can scholars participate in public conversations to rectify misrepresentations of the past? Such contemporary challenges are central to Hélène Quanquin’s article, which demystifies the misuse of the early American women’s rights movements by present-day actors, hence exploring the complex relationships between history and activism. To resist current interpretative distortions, Hélène Quanquin uses a methodology that fosters a dialogue between past and present to show how issues have been understood, formulated, and processed in their specific contexts and throughout time, which highlights both ruptures and continuities in social movements’ political strategies and historical legacy. Such an approach, based on thorough archival research, analysis, and contextualization, considers and reveals the complexities of past social movements, against a tendency to flatten out complicated political and ideological issues, on the one hand, and apply preconceived ideas to these movements, on the other hand.
2This is for instance illustrated by Hélène Quanquin’s insightful analysis of the 2008 Democratic presidential race, which was often misrepresented as a repetition of nineteenth-century struggles between white women and black men for their rights. She shows that these representations completely misconstrue the nineteenth-century setting and post-Civil War debates over the Fifteenth Amendment, which shed light on “the complexity and fragility of social justice coalitions depending on their context.” Indeed, contemporary political and ideological exploitations of past feminist movements abide by modes of simplifications of the past, which is then presented as absolute, universally valid, but most importantly, univocal. In an almost symmetrical, yet reverse movement, current understandings of issues and debates are attributed to the past. Thus, propensities to appropriation of the past in the present, and projection of the present into the past, are two sides of the same coin.
3Furthermore, Hélène Quanquin’s article highlights powerful dynamics where history is used as a persuasive heuristic category within current debates. Chosen representations, interpretations, and narratives are put forward as if they formed objective knowledge, in a process of historical appropriation. Thus, new regimes of truth are created: reclaiming a feminist legacy serves a strategy to gain legitimacy, authority, and control. Indeed, shaping narratives about the past makes efficient political and ideological weapons, as illustrated by Quanquin’s analysis of prolife groups’ misappropriation of Susan B. Anthony’s alleged antiabortion stance, and historians’ answer to it. These current antiabortion groups deliberately produce, distribute and circulate statements that are historically wholly inaccurate, turning the past into a tool of partisan rhetoric. That is why it is necessary to study and to teach nineteenth-century social movements: analyses of contemporaneous nineteenth-century sources show that Anthony did not fight either for or against abortion rights. They also reveal how the diversity and radicalism of past social movements are often left in a blind spot, whereas such diversity should render wrongful appropriation impossible.
4Finally, Hélène Quanquin’s article exposes new directions for further historical exploration of social, political, and ideological uses of narratives and discourses upon feminist history. There is a need to deconstruct dynamics that have produced and reproduced particular historical representations, including by scholars and past feminist activists themselves. How did social movements write their history? How was collective mobilization prolonged by history writing? Such questions are echoed in my analysis of Inez Irwin’s Story of the Woman’s Party, an account which could perhaps be described as a classic within the historiography of the National Woman’s Party, a suffragist organization of the 1910s. I have analyzed how former militants envisioned their participation in history through the narratives they constructed and why it was therefore necessary to deconstruct these narratives. Our papers mirror each other in that they both look at how analysis of social protest can be obscured by assumptions and preconceived ideas, and how history is a strategic tool for legitimacy and political action. They revisit the past of women’s social movements and implicitly argue for distance despite emotional or political connections with the present. In this respect, it could be argued that further conversation in a transatlantic perspective is needed. Circulations, projections, and appropriations of ideas, negating the complexity of social movements in their very context, characterize debates on both sides of the Atlantic. Such phenomena invite us to reflect on cross-fertilization, conventions, and authority, both diachronically with past and present, and synchronically with different contexts. The conditions of construction of statements need to be systematically analyzed: who is making such statements, to whom? And for what purpose? What are the institutions that sustain such ideas? Such questions highlight the manufacturing of historical knowledge as an embodied cultural practice enabled by historical conditions.
Contemporary Conservative Movements: When American Studies Meet Sociology and Political Science
Response to Marion Douzou’s “Research in a Minefield: Relating with Tea Party Activists”
By Marie Gayte
1Studying Tea Party activists on the ground in Pennsylvania brought unexpected challenges for Marion Douzou, but also led her to make adjustments that proved to be fruitful, as she discusses in her article. Putting her observations on her fieldwork in perspective with those of experienced social scientists, she first reflects on the need to constantly adjust her methods. This flexibility led her to use tools—such as “observant participation”—at first unknowingly, but as she remarks, being an American Studies scholar enabled her to draw from an abundant trove of disciplines, which makes her work all the richer. She also realized that a bottom-up approach, meeting first with grassroots members, even in informal contexts, was not only as enlightening as the more officially-conducted interviews, but also opened the door to the higher echelons of the movement, which are notoriously suspicious of academics and the ‘mainstream media.’ This extreme suspicion Tea Party members share with New Christian Right (NCR) actors. While the Tea Party’s distrust stems from the feeling they were ridiculed by media and scorned by academia when they first gained national prominence in 2009, the NCR, also wary of the media’s depiction of their struggles, blames the ‘mainstream media’ for its active role in promoting an extremely secularized society.
2Another issue Douzou raises is that of distance towards one’s subject, and the way her initial assumptions were tested. As French scholars, we naturally experience distance from our American subjects, whether it be emotional or simply geographical: my paper highlights the fact that even to less religious Americans, the framing strategy revolving around alleged violations of religious freedom—a constitutional right—used by the NCR, is likely to evoke a sympathy with conservative Christians’ alleged plight that foreigners are less prone to feel because of their lack of attachment to the US Constitution. The research for my contribution, conducted while residing in France, relied largely on the study of statistics, the material produced by NCR groups, and secondary literature. This geographical distance, though bridged by digital means, caused little risk of identification with the subject. The downside to this is that analyses can sometimes come across as abstract and disembodied. Douzou, on the other hand, was in direct contact with her subjects for several months. Yet she arrived in the United States convinced that her being French—in addition to her basic lack of agreement with the movement’s tenets—would automatically protect her from undue empathy with activists. She recalls her vision of the Tea Party before leaving France as “simplistic and even caricature-like.” But being French, on top of her being white, young, and female, also made her job of getting in touch with movement participants easier—as she was considered by many of them as being in need of assistance, protection, and explanations—sparing her from the stigma attached to academics. While her identity undoubtedly made her entry into the activists’ world easier, she came to the realization that, contrary to her expectations, it constituted no guarantee of distance, and she became aware of the fine line that the social scientist has to tread while conducting fieldwork.
3Finally, Douzou’s article highlights another very interesting facet of the research on social movement organizations. My paper brings up the fact that there is an ongoing debate among scholars about the nature of the NCR. Is it a social movement? An interest group? An annex of the Republican Party? Some deny the ‘social movement’ label to right-wing movements, as these want to prevent change or return things to a status quo ante—whether real or imagined—and argue that the phrase ‘social movement’ has been largely associated with groups promoting change, especially toward equal rights for minorities. Yet, there is little discussion as to whether NCR members think of themselves as activists. As researchers, we tend to put people into categories without taking into consideration whether they identify with these categories.
4Douzou’s article alludes to the fact that asking social movement members how they think of themselves is likely to yield interesting insights into the movement’s goal. Many of her Tea Party interlocutors were struck by her referring to them as “activists.” One of them said he had never thought of himself in those terms and did not consider himself one. Instead, many called themselves “citizens” or “Americans,” while the first person mentioned went on to say that “real citizens are patriotic, that’s the core of it. Activists might work for another group of people.” To their mind, activists defend the special interests of a particular group. Tea Party members, when they choose to identify as “Americans” or “citizens,” emphasize the fact that, contrary to special interest activists, they are working on behalf of the common good. This belief in the validity of their ideas may lead them to try to impose them on the rest of American society. The NCR’s current framing strategy, relying on the defense of religious rights, aims at shaping public policy to make their ideas on traditional family, gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and freedom of religion become the law of the land. Like the Tea Party, and unlike progressive social movement organizations, it is not fighting for more equality. Were the NCR to have its way, the LGBTQ community and women would witness a significant decline of their rights. Were the Tea Party to have its way in reducing the influence of the federal government and drastically cutting taxes, many Americans would find themselves bereft of programs that have sustained them economically. Both movements, presenting themselves as embattled and fighting the good fight, claim to be working to change the entire country by restoring it to the values of its founding: that of the United States as a Christian nation for NCR members, that of the United States as a country with a much-reduced federal government for Tea Party members.
Response to Marie Gayte’s “The Moral Equivalent of Rosa Parks?” The New Christian Right’s Framing Strategy in the Latest Chapter of the Culture Wars
By Marion Douzou
1The way the term “New Christian Right” is often used conjures up images of a clearly defined and homogeneous movement. Marie Gayte’s article very convincingly shows that this characterization is far from reality. She describes a much more complicated social movement whose members do not share the same agenda and do not have one leader. The Tea Party follows a rather similar pattern: it can also be described as a loose structure of organizations that work together. Both movements are decentralized. Grassroots Tea Party groups are characterized by their refusal to institutionalize the movement and to identify clear leaders. It therefore makes it difficult for pundits to follow their tactics and mobilization. For this reason, just like the New Christian Right, pundits often announce the movement’s disappearance.
2Marie Gayte stresses the evolution of the tactics and demands of the New Christian Right, which moved from a top-down approach to a more grassroots focus. The disappointment that followed Ronald Reagan’s inaction on abortion caused the New Christian Right to change its methods and to target a different level of decision making. Similarly, after Barack Obama’s reelection, which came as a shock to many activists, the Tea Party movement shifted its focus to the state and local levels. For instance, the elimination of the property tax or the refusal for public employees to pay union dues became the main discussions in grassroots groups.
3Both the New Christian Right and the Tea Party federate groups that, at first sight, have little in common. Marie Gayte shows that the New Christian Right managed to bring together white evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and Mormons. The Tea Party is made up of an unlikely alliance of libertarians, Christian Right activists, and John Birch Society members who, unlike the New Christian Right, came together around fiscal concerns, leaving aside social issues. Tea Party Patriots’ initial slogan called for “Fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.” The manifestos published by organizations like FreedomWorks or Tea Party Patriots did not address abortion or gay marriage. However, social issues were far from neglected by the movement, but they were couched in the language of fiscal responsibility. For example, the justification to end federal subsidies to Planned Parenthood was phrased in fiscal terms and did not mention abortion in particular.
4In order to understand how the Tea Party was framed as a fiscally-oriented movement, one needs to examine the top-down organizations that gravitate in its galaxy of grassroots groups. Indeed, local groups often rely on organizations at the state and national levels to get their training. Heritage Action teaches “sentinels” how to talk to their elected officials in a non-abrasive tone and provides them with talking points. Americans For Prosperity organizes training sessions with activists to teach them how to share their stories in a way that can resonate with people who have not joined the movement yet. For instance, instead of complaining about the debt, one woman claimed that, when she held her child in her arms for the first time, she asked herself: “What did I just do? He owes the federal government 50,000 dollars today because he was born.” Marie Gayte underlines the same desire to frame the New Christian Right’s demands so as “to persuade people that their cause is valid.”
5According to Marie Gayte, in order to attract more people to the movement, the Christian Right shifted its rhetoric and started to frame itself as an oppressed minority. A similar shift took place in the Tea Party. After the first rallies, the idea that conservatives had woken up and had finally made their voices heard was exemplified in Glenn Beck’s motto: “we surround them.” However, according to Tea Party activists, the treatment they received in the press and sometimes even in their own family was extremely painful. Their portrayal as racists and lunatics made them see themselves as an oppressed minority. Many of them who were not active before 2009 equate their mobilization to “coming out of the closet.” They also often compare themselves to the Civil Rights Movement. On March 24th, 2010, on his show, Glenn Beck claimed that the Tea Party was going to experience similar treatment to the Civil Rights Movement: “I wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetime dogs and fire hoses are released or opened on us. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of us get a billy club to the head. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us go to jail—just like Martin Luther King did—on trumped-up charges. Tough times are coming.” The impression of being the rightful heir of the Civil Rights Movement also transpires when they use civil disobedience as a tactic and compare their actions to Rosa Parks’s. For instance, during the 2013 government shutdown, when Pennsylvania Tea Party groups organized a march in Valley Forge Park to protest the decision to close down the park, they presented their action as follows: “This is civil disobedience in action. No violence. Just patriots walking through their parks that they paid for. Our Founding Fathers did it, Rosa Parks disobeyed unjust and immoral laws too, and so can we!”
6Marie Gayte’s article presents the New Christian Right’s way of framing itself as an oppressed minority as one of the tools in the repertoire of social movements. In the case of the Tea Party, comparing their actions to the Founding Fathers and the Civil Rights movement is, indeed, the result of a rhetoric that has been passed on by national organizations and talk-show hosts. It could therefore be seen as the same tactic used by the New Christian Right activists to generate public sympathy for the movement. However, after spending time in Tea Party meetings and doing interviews, this rhetoric appears deeply rooted in the fact that Tea Party activists do feel misrepresented and under constant attack. Is this tactic all the more efficient because it echoes, and feeds on, the genuine distress that activists are experiencing?
Reflections on Sensitive Fieldwork: Practical, Epistemological, and Ethical Issues
Response to Thomas-Hébert’s “Conducting Sensitive Research as an Alien Ethnographer in the United States”
By Audrey Célestine and Nicolas Martin-Breteau
In her stimulating article, Charlotte Thomas-Hébert addresses the many-sided and very concrete problems encountered by a non-native doctoral candidate working on contemporary contentious issues in a foreign country. In the post-9/11 context of the growing US state apparatus monitoring potential threats to national security, Thomas-Hébert’s research on non-violent left social movements raises specific issues. In a reflexive manner, she rightly characterizes herself as an “alien ethnographer” working on a “sensitive” topic. Our own research experience on Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) raises similar methodological problems as Thomas-Hébert’s. These are twofold.
First, the issue of what conceptual and explanatory tools should be mobilized in this type of research is central. Thomas-Hébert remarks that her university curriculum in American Studies accustomed her to the “practice of interdisciplinarity.” In France, American Studies (or US Civilization) is not related to a single specific discipline. Among other disciplines, history, sociology, political science, as well as law, economics, geopolitics, visual and performing arts belong to its academic scope. Our own research on BLM/M4BL is interdisciplinary by necessity: we resort to history, sociology, and political science to study social movements that encompass multiples social, political, and historical dimensions.
Interestingly Thomas-Hébert decided to complete her university education with a degree in political science, which is, to some extent, a reflection of the historical and sociological turns in political science in France. Indeed, the practice of interdisciplinarity in American Studies can be an “epistemological resource,” but it can also be a serious methodological issue necessitating specific clarification on how one’s research crosses over different disciplinary fields and traditions. This is increasingly the topic of debates within American studies in France (Caron and Rolland-Diamond
). Thomas-Hébert’s claim that being a woman makes her “particularly receptive to critiques of the inherent male-centeredness of positivism,” however, may seem less intuitive.
How to distinguish between “violent” and “nonviolent” activist groups is one of the key questions raised by Thomas-Hébert’s research. In a context of growing criminalization of social movements and organizations, it seems that the frontier can often be blurred as the disruptive methods of certain groups can be considered “violent” by political opponents or law enforcement agencies. In 2017, a leaked memo revealed that the FBI had declared so-called “black identity extremists” a domestic terror threat, allowing a monitoring of Black Lives Matter militants reminiscent of FBI counterintelligence programs targeting civil rights leaders in the 1960s and 1970s (Beydoun and Hansford
). This critical situation might explain why Thomas-Hébert does not comment on the geographical location of her fieldwork nor the sociological characteristics of her informants.
The second set of methodological questions raised by Thomas-Hébert’s article concerns the ethics that should govern the research. Thomas-Hébert insists on the role of emotions and empathy in her research. Researchers usually get involved in research projects according to their personal and political leanings, and can therefore be, if not practically, at least emotionally involved in the action of their informants/interviewees. We face the same kinds of questioning in our own fieldwork on BLM/M4BL. A vast literature exists on this subject.
How to find one’s place on the field is therefore a central concern. Thomas-Hébert mentions her “double condition of alienage,” referring to her French nationality and outsider status. We met the same kind of problems, with race and class also entering the equation. Race, particularly for one of us who is seen as a white man, is crucial when interacting and discussing with black militants. But being identified as a black woman can also be problematic when the “militant” nature of her research goes almost unquestioned. Likewise the question of class is paramount since many BLM/M4BL activists do not belong to the upper-middle class background to which we both belong.
Thomas-Hébert relates in detail how she carefully protects herself, her work, and her informants through a sophisticated array of protocols and devices. She takes into account the recent hardening of “security” legislation in the United States. Not only did she decide to focus her research on non-violent rather than violent groups, but she tries to hide her identity while participating in public street demonstrations. In this context, Thomas-Hébert’s efforts at constructing a politically neutral identity as a researcher raises an epistemological question, as being mistaken for a journalist can indeed hamper the success of observant participation.
While, as Thomas-Hébert insists, there are no institutional review boards in French universities and little formalized procedures on matters of ethics regarding fieldwork, a number of French sociologists and political scientists have written on their experience on sensitive fields, both in democratic and authoritarian settings (Albera
; Boumaza and Campana
; Cefaï and Amiraux
; Combes et al.
; Nordstrom and Robben). Along with US scholarship of the matter, this literature stresses the relevance of ethnographic practices to unveil perceptions of the actual risks of getting politically involved. Indeed these risks cannot be properly addressed and assessed when researchers work at distance. This perspective echoes Thomas-Hébert’s forceful analyses on the researcher’s moral and intellectual responsibility when working on a sensitive fieldwork.
Albera, Dionigi, “Terrains minés.” Ethnologie française 31.1 (2001): 5–13. Print.
Beydoun, Khaled A., and Justin Hansford. “The F.B.I.’s Dangerous Crackdown on ‘Black Identity Extremists’.” New York Times. 15 Nov. 2017. Web. 20 July 2018.
Boumaza, Magali, and Aurélie Campana, eds. Spec. issue “Enquêter en milieu difficile.” Revue française de science politique 57. 1 (2007). Print.
Caron, Nathalie, and Caroline Rolland-Diamond. “Des sciences sociales en filière LLCER ou pourquoi le mot ‘civilisation’ ne convient plus en études étrangères.” Conversation. 26 Aug. 2018. Web. 15 Nov. 2018.
Cefaï, Daniel, and Valérie Amiraux, eds. Spec. issue “Les risques du métier. Engagements problématiques en sciences sociales.” Cultures et Conflits 47.3 (2002). Print.
Combes, Hélène et al., eds. Spec. issue “Observer les mobilisations.” Politix 93.1 (2011). Print.
Levin, Sam. “FBI Terrorism Unit Says ‘Black Identity Extremists’ Pose a Violent Threat.” Guardian. 7 Oct. 2017. Web. 20 July 2018.
Nordstrom, Carolyn, and Antonius Robben, eds. Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. Print.
Response to Audrey Célestine and Nicolas Martin-Breteau’s “In and Beyond the Field: Researching Black Lives Matter from France”
By Charlotte Thomas-Hébert
1I am reading Audrey Célestine and Nicolas Martin-Breteau’s article on the methodological approaches they have adopted for their ongoing study of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as I am about to start writing my dissertation. I have completed most of my fieldwork, and am back in France for the next phase of my work. Physical distance from the United States provides me with emotional detachment from my research, or at least from some of it as I do follow the news and am in close contact with some of my informants. This is only a small issue since studying contemporary political events presents broader challenges, and it is quite comforting to learn that, in order to grasp BLM, Audrey Célestine and Nicolas Martin-Breteau have devised solutions and made decisions that I can relate to.
2First is what they call their “methodological bricolage,” which includes interviewing, archiving, and observant participation. As they are studying a new, current, and (to this day) open-ended movement from the point of view of the actors themselves and not from that of the institutions, pre-existing frames of analysis or models might not fit “the multifaceted reality of the movement.” This inductive approach allows them to overcome anyone’s lack of historical perspective on this recent, ongoing dynamic, and it resonates strongly with me. I am indeed unsure whether existing theories fit the events I am currently observing, at a time when it seems that prevailing theoretical models are being broken and macro-political structures are in deep crisis. Therefore, adopting a DIY/“whatever works” approach seems more apt to researching political and historical events as they are unfolding and to approaching uncharted waters, even if it might entail failing, being wrong, feeling uncomfortable, and making mistakes.
3The aspect of their work that I hold in highest regard is their embrace of interdisciplinarity as a “crucial intellectual effort.” I do not know if it is an academic fad, a generational phenomenon, an opportunity mostly available to established researchers, or if it is due to American Studies themselves, since the discipline tends to contribute to the development of new fields of study (a quick browse on H-Net shows no fewer than 42 networks under the American studies tab). Yet I have observed, in my readings of American academics (in social sciences and the humanities), that they seem to disregard the walls that have been erected between the different branches of knowledge, or at least seem to have less pressure than their European peers to conform to well-drawn disciplines. I remember, after a seminar in Paris on Judith Butler and contentious politics, having discussions with fellow graduate colleagues about how jealous we were of her. It seemed impossible for us to do what Butler often does: convene the authors she needs when she needs them, regardless of their affiliations or traditions, such as, when writing about the movements of the squares—Tahrir, Indignados, Occupy—, reading Eve Sedgwick alongside Pierre Bourdieu or Jacques Derrida (Butler 2015). Hence, reading the way Audrey Célestine and Nicolas Martin-Breteau are claiming interdisciplinarity is thrilling.
4Lastly, I realize that unifying social sciences or trying to break boundaries between disciplines is not exactly a new project—it has been over 20 years since the Gulbenkian Commission failed in its mission to produce new directions for the organization of knowledge (Wallerstein 1996). But investigating the current wave of protests taking place in the United States, and especially BLM, raises a broader question that I cannot put to rest: given the popularity and expansion of intersectionality, as a framework, as a claim and as a practice, should studying an intersectional group require a new paradigm—a “new-new social movement” theory perhaps? Or am I just too entangled in the present, enthralled by the “never seen before-ness” of the current political climate and stunned by the never ending, ever louder news cycle?
Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2018. Print.
Wallerstein, Immanuel, ed. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. Print.