Number 68 (2019)

Distance Matters: Approaching US Social Movements and Race/Ethnicity from a French Perspective

Edited by Sandrine Baudry, Guillaume Marche, and Céline Planchou


What specific challenges does the study of social movements and race/ethnicity in the United States pose for non-US-based scholars? Does distance afford non-US-based scholars possible rewards that make their research a unique contribution to the study of the United States? This edited issue is designed as a symposium in which eleven French-based specialists of various chronological and thematic domains share their experiences and insights on a variety of issues of concern to non-US-based American studies scholars. These relate to the distance between researcher and object, objectivity and engagement, the challenges and rewards of foreignness, as well as the epistemological and methodological positioning of American Studies scholars within the broader field of social science.

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Why Study the Early American Women’s Rights Movement?

Historians have been playing a central part in explaining Trump’s America. From the Muslim travel ban and debates over Confederate monuments, to migrant children being taken away from their families, parallels with past policies and practices such as the separation of enslaved families in the antebellum South and Japanese American internment camps during World War II are drawn in traditional and social media. What has been interpreted as Americans’ inability to come to terms with their past has also made historians’ intervention in the public debate, helped by social media, more visible in recent years for both political and economic reasons.

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Deconstructing and Reconstructing Woman Suffrage History: The Story of the Woman’s Party

Is Story of the Woman’s Party an historical account, a novel, or a political manifesto? What can this source reveal about historical practice? This article will explore the historiographic, epistemological, and methodological challenges the book poses as an historical source. It will examine three main points: first, the relation between activism and historical practice—that is, how activism informs the writing of history. Second, how such a source can be handled by historians, and what the idea of a critical reading entails. Third, what this work actually helps us understand about the politics of the period: What does it say about the suffrage movement in particular? What does it reveal about politics in general?

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“The Moral Equivalent of Rosa Parks?” The New Christian Right’s Framing Strategy in the Latest Chapter of the Culture Wars

In evaluating recent developments in the New Christian Right (NCR), this paper uses the social movement theory approach of framing. Social movement organizations try to gain advantages with authorities and the public by framing their demands in ways intended to persuade people that their cause is valid. The most effective way of doing this is to align their specific issues rhetorically with larger cultural themes and values, which makes the frame accessible to larger audiences. After debating as to whether a conservative religious crusade can be considered a social movement, this paper examines the NCR as a collective movement whose influence on society and capacity to mobilize are heightened by resorting to the ‘discriminated minority’ framing strategy. I argue that viewing the NCR as a social movement allows us to deepen our understanding of both religious conservatism and of the culture wars. 

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Research in a Minefield: Relating with Tea Party Activists

Based on a doctoral research project on Tea Party groups in Pennsylvania, this article deals both with the various pitfalls I had to learn to avoid and the significant impact that being a young, white French woman had on the way activists interacted with me. In addition, I reflect upon the general ramifications of studying a right-wing social movement while not aligning with it politically. The automatic distance—and presumed ensuing objectivity that this viewpoint initially seems to afford—is much more fragile and complicated than apparent at first glance.

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In and Beyond the Field: Researching Black Lives Matter from France

To talk publicly about race remains taboo in France. Since its origins in the late eighteenth century, the French Republic has grounded its political identity on the theoretical equality of all its citizens, regardless of their origins. In practice, this “universalist” ideology tends to deny and neglect blatant racial inequalities among French citizens. Unlike in the United States in recent years, there has been no public discussion about whether France has turned “post-racial” since most white French people consider that their country never entered any sort of “racial era” to begin with. In fact, the French academic world is one of the few arenas in which debates over the issue of race have been accepted and sometimes encouraged.

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Conducting Sensitive Research as an Alien Ethnographer in the United States

As a French PhD student, my work focuses on democratic deficits in the United States and explores the evolution of the American Left since 2001. Adopting methodological tools provided by ethnography, I am investigating how activist groups are using civil disobedience and non-violent direct action under the current legal, judicial, and police constraints specific to the post-9/11 era. My research is contingent on structural shifts occurring on the macro-political level, such as a changes in the federal government. But as the incident related above demonstrates, my own status as a foreign ethnographer is also a factor, since I can neither escape nor disentangle myself from my identity. The aim of this reflexive article is to discuss how, within a broader context of state repression and surveillance, my “double condition of alienage” (alien as a non-citizen and alien as an insider/outsider researcher amongst activist groups), is affecting not only how I am conducting my fieldwork, but is also shaping my object of study.

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France-Based Scholars Researching Minority Groups in the Field: A Symposium

The editors asked four French scholars specializing in American studies a series of five questions regarding their experience of conducting fieldwork, the challenges they faced, and how they met them. The following is a collaborative contribution, a discussion among the four contributors. The four authors are Yohann Le Moigne (University of Angers), who is a specialist of turf-based gang rivalries in the Los Angeles metropolitan area; Caroline Laurent (University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), who does research on casinos on Indian reservations in the Midwest; Rim Latrache (University of Paris 13 Villetaneuse), who specializes on the construction and expression of Arab and Muslim identities in the United States; and Mathieu Bonzom (University of Orléans), whose work focuses on Latin immigrants and their participation in the labor movement.

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Discussion Forum: Authors’ Responses


The Discussion Forum offers the responses of Hélène Quanquin, Claire Delahaye, Marie Gayte, Marion Douzou, Audrey Célestine, Nicolas Martin-Breteau, and Charlotte Thomas-Hébert to the individual papers published in this issue.

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