True life, real lives: Revisiting the boundaries between ethnography and fiction

by Didier Fassin

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By Didier FassinFull Article:onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/amet.12059/abstract


(image: [aesurl]/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/02/fassin-figure-2-300px1.jpg alt: Affliction. Pietà depiction of a woman carrying a man at an advanced stage of AIDS, evoking the iconic image of an adolescent running with the dead body of Hector Pieterson, the first victim of the 1976 Soweto uprising, which is visible in the top left part of the poster. This serigraph was realized, posted in public places, and photographed on a wall in Durban by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a founder with Jacques Derrida of Artists of the World against Apartheid. A sketch of the serigraph, generously provided by the artist, served as the cover for When Bodies Remember. Photo by Didier Fassin.

Affliction. Pietà depiction of a woman carrying a man at an advanced stage of AIDS, evoking the iconic image of an adolescent running with the dead body of Hector Pieterson, the first victim of the 1976 Soweto uprising, which is visible in the top left part of the poster. This serigraph was realized, posted in public places, and photographed on a wall in Durban by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a founder with Jacques Derrida of Artists of the World against Apartheid. A sketch of the serigraph, generously provided by the artist, served as the cover for When Bodies Remember. Photo by Didier Fassin.

) Affliction. Pietdepiction of a woman carrying a man at an advanced stage of AIDS - read more.Ethnography and fiction have long been in dialogue in their common endeavor to understand human life and through their shared foundation on writing. Recently, anthropologists and sociologists have expressed concern that the worlds they study might be depicted more compellingly, accurately, and profoundly by novelists or filmmakers than by social scientists. Discussing my work on the embodiment of history in South Africa and on urban policing in France in light of, respectively, J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Life & Times of Michael K and David Simon’s television series The Wire, I analyze their commonalities and singularities. Using Marcel Proust’s meditation on life and suggesting the heuristic value of distinguishing true life from real lives, I propose, first, to differentiate horizontal and vertical approaches to lives and, second, to complicate the dichotomy associating ethnography with the former and fiction with the latter. This reflection, which borrows from Georges Perec’s rumination on the puzzle-maker, can be read as a defense of ethnography against a certain prevailing pessimism.