Labour and Organisation

CFP: Conference in Aix-en-Provence, 30-31 May 2006

Call for papers
From: Yves Cohen, ,
Directeur d'Etudes à l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

International Conference Labour and Organisation: Research Combining History and Ethnography

Maison mediterraneenne des sciences de l'Homme, Aix-en-Provence, France
May 30-31 2006

Purpose of the conference
For a number of years now many social science researchers on labour practices and organisation have been combining ethnographic and historical investigation techniques and working on the links between the present and the past. Researchers in Sociology, Management Science or Anthropology couple contemporary investigation with examination of the past through archival sources and historical traces of activity (1.1). Historians of labour and organisation not only apply the founding principles of the Annales in using conceptions that emerge from contemporary debate to question the past. They also engage in ethnographic inquiry in the present: monographic studies, long-term field work, enriched archives from first-hand and oral sources (1.2). Generally speaking these researchers aim at clear and explicit description of practices, activities, experiences, customs rather than enumeration of formal processes, official statements or disembodied managerial plans. The multidisciplinary group PraTO (Pratiques Travail Organisation practices, labour, organisation) within which research of this type has been conducted and discussed since 1996, will hold a conference on this crossing of past and present, history and ethnography, archive and direct investigation. The aim is three-fold:

  • To report on the diversity and range of research work that uses a combination of ethnography and history in dealing with these subjects (2.1)
  • To ascertain the reasons why researchers feel the need to use this type of approach with regard to new objects, to new contexts, to changes in the expectations of the social sciences, and to new ways of thinking about time (2.2)
  • To ask what theoretical advances can be expected from application of this type of joint examination of present and past in relation to concrete situations (2.3).

1.1 The combined recourse to ethnography and history we here have in mind is not the same thing as historical sociology or ethno- history which both deliberately adopt a stand-point within the historical past. It is also different from the type of Sociology of the contemporary which uses quick sketches of the history of its field to place it in context. For the type of study we have in mind research field and objects include the historical dimension and this needs to be properly investigated. To this end a few interviews with official representatives of the groups concerned (administrators, executives, trade union officials) will not suffice. The past needs to be examined with the same rigour as the present and this could entail, for instance, revisiting the field, close analysis of life- stories, gathering of first-hand archive material. It is by use of means of this sort that the prevalent dichotomy between past and present can be overcome. We will no longer have to consider the present only in terms of radical break with a homogenised past (cf. current debates on the end of taylorism, on the new «logic of competency», the vanishing of the working class, the intensification of labour...). Change should not be considered only in terms of management instruments (for personnel, technologies, products) or of the overt or covert intentions of those who advocate these. Attention must be paid to actual practices past and present in order to show the variety in technical and social modes of their application and to discover what these actually mean for the actors themselves. This is a necessary condition if we wish to escape from the retrospective over-simplification of the past which often entails over-simplification of the present.

1.2 Historians using ethnography consider for their part that deriving valid questions from an interrogation of the present is not just a matter of «instinctive impregnation», but, as Marc Bloch said, of «deliberate and controlled observation». They use a variety of methods, for instance direct and more or less participant observation, to derive questions for use in exploring the past. The relation thus constructed between history and the present is not at all the same thing as history organised teleologically in retrospect from the present. The relation is not that found in linear history, the point being to remain constantly sensitive to possibilities still open at the time studied, even though they were subsequently closed by the choices made and the «paths» taken. Emphasis is placed on the diversity of pace in temporal change. Clearly this conception of the history of labour and organisations diverges from the evolutionist and functionalist perspective. On the concrete level this also incites researchers to look for non-conventional sources for their studies of the past sources that have been suggested by fieldwork on present.

Papers for the conference should be based on precise accounts of empirical work. They may be oriented in any of at least three possible directions.

2.1 Some papers might give accounts of various ways of combining investigation techniques traditionally associated with ethnography and history for use, for instance, in Sociology, History, Management Research or Anthropology. They might mention any opposition encountered to the use of combined techniques if this was viewed as going beyond the researcher’s area of competence or trespassing on the territory of neighbouring disciplines. They should give an account of the academic and empirical circumstances that made the application of the approach possible and of any difficulties encountered during investigation. It might be possible here to pinpoint some specific features of research activity carried out within this type of framework (such as revisiting a field, examining process rather than key moments...). And does work of this kind entail any specific types of writing? Then there are questions concerning the reception of this epistemological option on the part of various academic disciplines. Researchers could mention, for instance what obstacles and what support they found in the course of their work (finance, posts, access to conferences, to publications etc.)

2.2 Other contributions could well question the apparent novelty of the combined approach and situate it in relation to research currents such as microstoria, Alltagsgeschichte, socio-histoire, history of the present time. Some points that could usefully be raised here are the collation of time and social scales, diversity in the pace of change, focus on practices and references of actors. It may be possible to situate the appproach with respect to longer traditions. We could recall here the current reappraisal of the Leplaysians’ monographs and also the influence of interactionist sociology which emphasised both life stories and precise analysis of work situations. In these attention was paid to actions, to views of these actions and of the situation, as well as to their material context. 2.3 Furthermore, because they combine history and ethnography, the content of these papers derives directly from concrete traces and actual practices of actors in situation. All endeavour to specify links made by actors between past and present and propose ways of characterising relations between temporal registers that orient behaviour. In what way do proposals of this sort actually help renew theory? It should be possible to show a minima how in each discipline they modify classical analyses of labour and organisation. Some papers might discuss new ways of periodising their object. Others might deal with objects in which past and present are obviously connected (norms, categories of labour, where what exists in the present was thought out in the past, or those professions that emerged from a gradual process of social construction) or with concepts that account for discontinuity phenomena or transformation (process, generation, memory, for instance).

The Conference is organised by the group PraTO (Pratiques, travail, organisation) with the support of the Laboratoire mediterraneen de sociologie (LAMES, CNRS-Universite de Provence), the Laboratoire d'economie et de sociologie du travail (LEST, CNRS-Universite de la Mediterranee-Universite de Provence), and the assistance of the Centre de recherches historiques (CRH, EHESS-CNRS), the Laboratory Cultures et societes urbaines (CSU, CNRS-Universite ParisVIII), the Laboratory Institutions et dynamiques historiques de l'economie (IDHE, CNRS-ENS Cachan-Universites ParisI, VIII et X), the Laboratoire de sciences sociales (LSS, ENS-EHESS) and the Maison mediterraneenne des sciences de l'Homme (MMSH, Universite de Provence- CNRS)

Organising committee
Anne-Marie Arborio (Universite de Provence/LEST), Yves Cohen (EHESS/CRH), Pierre Fournier (Universite de Provence/LAMES), Nicolas Hatzfeld (Universite du Val d'Essonne/IDHE), Cedric Lomba (CNRS/CSU)

Scientific committee
Members of the above committee and Stephane Beaud (Universite de Nantes/Centre nantais de sociologie), Samuel Bordreuil (CNRS/LAMES), Christian Bromberger (Universite de Provence/IDEMEC), Jean-Michel Chapoulie (ParisI/Groupe de recherche ecole, travail, institutions), Sylvie Daviet (Universite de Provence/TELEMME), Patrick Fridenson (EHESS/CRH), Susanna Magri (CNRS/CSU), Delphine Mercier (CNRS/LEST), Philippe Mioche (Universite de Provence/TELEMME), Catherine Omnès (Universite de Versailles-Saint-Quentin/IDHE), Olivier Schwartz (ParisV/Centre de recherche sur les liens sociaux), Danièle Voldman (CNRS/Institut d'histoire du temps present), Florence Weber (ENS/LSS)

To contact us
Laboratoire mediterraneen de sociologie
5, rue du Château de l’Horloge
BP 647
13094 Aix-en-Provence cedex 2

Contact : Pierre Fournier

Laboratoire d'economie et de sociologie du travail
35, avenue Jules Ferry
13626 Aix-en-Provence cedex

Contact: Anne-Marie Arborio

Dates for submission
600 words maximum, including clear description of material used
email before December 12, 2005

Text of selected paper
7500 words maximum, notes, appendices and bibliography included
email before April 1 2006

Proposals and texts in French or English to be sent in rich texte format (rtf) to Please mention your name, family and given, status, institution and address etc.

The conference will be held on May 30-31 at the Maison Mediterraneenne des Sciences de l’Homme, 5, rue du Château de l’Horloge à Aix-en Provence ( It will include plenary sessions and workshops. Texts of papers will be available on the website of LAMES at URL The site will give further details about organisation in the course of preparation for the conference.