La sociologie comme elle s’apprend

La sociologie comme elle s’apprend” is the filmic narrative of a learning process—both of a discipline (with its scientific norms, analytic frames and methods) and of critical thinking on the social. Emphasizing the articulation between the international circulation of sociological theories and the localised reality of fieldwork in a provincial town in Russia, this documentary follows Russian students engaged in a French curriculum at the State Universities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg during a week of fieldwork internship. While most of these students never learned sociology or ethnography before, this internship, which is organised every year, is always very intensive. During a full week, we have meetings after meetings to talk about students’ difficulties in the field and help them formulating research questions. My job can also imply joining them in the field to support them and negotiate interviews if needed. And when they come back, late in the evening, after a day of observations and interviews, we talk about their results even if that is in the middle of the night. This is generally a 19/24h mentoring, as exhausting as it is stimulating.

As a consequence, shooting conditions were far from being completely controlled: I had to shoot while supervising students all day (and part of the night). The aim was to involve students in a film project to familiarise them to the practice of visual sociology in the field. But we were always in the rush. This led to many shots where the camera was bouncing and the sound was not always perfect. I tried to keep this “making while doing” effect while editing since I felt that was a testimony of what the film aimed to be: a pedagogical experiment and not a smoothed, festival-suitable film. I started the film project writing detailed conceptual and production files. However, I ended up letting the students’ fieldwork shape the film’s narrative so that they could be more directly involved in the filmmaking process. Filmmaking became an integral, embedded part of the pedagogical process; learning how to do fieldwork became learning how to express, narrate and image their advances in the field and their development of sociological reasoning. The film was shot in Vologda (Russia) in March 2020 with students of my 2019-2020 cohort. I now use this film in my introductory course of sociology, at the first lesson of the semester, while remote teaching due to the 2020 pandemic has made filmic pedagogy more relevant than ever.

The film starts in black and white with the reading of an extract from Marcel Mauss’ Manual of ethnography and becomes increasingly more colourful, until completely saturated colours in the few last seconds of the film. Influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s methodology and Loic Wacquant’s “carnal sociology”, this editing is explained by the citation appearing right before the credits (37:37, translation in English below): sociological reasoning and empirical fieldwork can lead to change your perspective on the social world around you. While developing critical thinking, you can end up realising that common sense used to distort, alter and impoverish your vision—you didn’t use to notice the nuances and the complexity of your daily environment. The practical reason changes that, beyond the practice of sociology as a profession. As I conclude at the end of the film: sociological reasoning can become an art of living that you keep nurturing, even when life leads you to other professional horizons. When developed with reflexivity and thoroughness, it enlarges your colour palette.

The film is in French (except a few sentences in Russian). The rationale for not translating dialogues with English subtitles is epistemological. What I shot during this week was the result of a person-to-person pedagogical relationship between my students and me, who use French and Russian. As a sociologist trained in France according to some specific schools of thoughts and teaching in Russia, I started to reflect on the international circulation of sociological ideas—in the vein of Bourdieu’s “social conditions of the circulation of ideas” and Edward Said’s “travelling theories”. The language(s) we use in the transmission of knowledge, as well as the cultural origin of some theories or methodological approaches, are politically shaped and socially localised. Trying to preserve the linguistic context of my relationship with the students, the way it was shot, was a way to include this recognition of the non-neutrality of languages in the film, since this issue partly frames the pedagogical process.

Translation of section titles:

  1. The inquiry as a social relationship (and its consequences)
  2. A practical reason
  3. Body-to-body inquiry
  4. From the flesh to the text

Translation of the texts:

2:27 — “The French University College of Moscow and Saint-Petersburg gather French-speaking Russian students. Each year, some of them contribute to a week internship of familiarisation to fieldwork practice in sociology, in a provincial city in Russia. This film was shot during the 2020 internship, from 9 March to 13 March 2020, in Vologda.”

37:37 — “As soon as we admit that cognition is a localised activity, emerging from a dance where the body, the spirit, the activity and the world are intertwined, we can enrich our descriptions and deepen the explanations we provide about them. Gather these three ingredients—an incarnated being who engage practical skills, navigating active and moving configurations of affect, action, and power—and you obtain the foundation for a sociology of flesh and blood, able to provide multidimensional and polychromatic records of social life which capture this life in its course, rather than these torpid reports in black and white that fill academic journals today.” (Citation from Loic Wacquant, “Pour une sociologie de chair et de sang”, Terrains & travaux, vol. 26, no. 1, 2015, pp. 239-256.)

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