If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography
Didier Fassin is James Wolfensohn Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, a Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and the author and editor of many books, most recently, Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition.
Vincent Dubois analyzes the reception of his book on the bureaucracy of welfare in France. The national context of the social sciences is important to take into consideration insofar as it is characterized on the one hand by the public funding of most scientific programs, with institutions defining issues but guaranteeing the autonomy of the researcher, and on the other by a certain porosity between the academic domain and the public sphere, with scholars commonly writing opinion pieces for newspapers. The interactions developed with the agents of the organizations were therefore based on mutual acknowledgment of the expectations and limits of the collaboration. Yet it would be a mistake to subsume policy ethnography under the category of applied social science and oppose it to critical approaches, as is often assumed. Like the practitioner of martial art, the ethnographer studying policies can use his knowledge and skill to manipulate the force of those in power rather than directly confronting them.