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Talking about Resistance: Ethnography and Theory in Rural France

Author(s): Deborah Reed-Danahay

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 4, Controversy: Hegemony and the
Anthropological Encounter (Oct., 1993), pp. 221-229
Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3318065 .
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This article uses ways of talking about the concept of "resistance"to critique the division
between ethnography and theory in anthropology. The French concept of debrouillardise,as
used by Auvergnat farmers, is a way of talking about social manipulation which can express accommodation, resistance, cunning, ways of "making out," and ways of "making
do." Fieldwork incidents in which the ethnographer unwittingly came to be implicated in
behaviors labelled as such helped her to rethink her own perspectives on power. [France,
resistance, fieldwork, ethnography, cunning]

The place I havefictitiouslynamedLavialle,where

I did my first fieldwork,is located in a mountain
valley in the Auvergneregion of central France.
Lavialle contains seventeen small villages populated by almost 350 farmers,artisans, and their
families. As is commonamong mountainpeoples,
the lives of the Lavialloisare fashionedin the margins of the wider,urban-oriented
society.For most
makinga living
off of small, family-ownedand operated, dairy
farms. The Lavialloishave successfullydefended
themselvesfromcertainkindsof change,evidenced
by the strengthof children'sties to their families
and the modestprosperityof the farms (see ReedDanahay 1993).
Lavialle'sprimaryschool,runby the state, has
helpedto imposeFrenchover the local patois and
tried to instill the moral and civic values of the
bourgeoisiein local children.But parentsin Lavialle do not passivelyaccept the authorityof the
teachers. The French governmentis a target of
mistrust and derision for the Laviallois,despite
changingpolitical regimes. Outsidersof all types
are seen as potentiallythreateningto the continued
perpetuationof familyfarmsand local culturallife.
The Lavialloishave adopted a stance of "resistance"to agentswho threatentheir culturalautonomy. This stanceis, however,difficultto capturein
the vocabularyof contemporaryAnglo-American
social science.Lavialleways of talkingaboutwhat
is called"resistance,"and theirrelationshipto both
ethnographyand theory,will be the subjectof my
Althoughmany Lavialloisare somewhatembitteredby forgottenpromisesand unfairdealings
on the part of the state, as well as by what they
know to be the scornful attitudes of the urban
bourgeoisieconcerningtheir way of life, they do

not describe themselvessolely as victims. More

often they boastof theirabilityto manipulate,outwit, or extricatethemselvesfrom any threatening
personor situation.The Lavialloisbelievethat it is
best to proceedwithoutopen confrontationand to
get the upperhand throughsubtlemeans.
The Laviallois pride themselves on being
highly adept, therefore,at behaviorsthat bear a
striking resemblanceto what James Scott calls
"everydayformsof resistance"(Scott 1985, 1989,
1990). I will argue, however,that the Laviallois
gloss for these behaviors,dbbrouillardise,suggests
a somewhatdifferentview of powerand its uses
fromthat now commonin the theoreticalliterature
on resistance. Rather than presentingdbbrouillardise as a folk concept,I will makethe case that
its theoreticalvalidity cannot be separatedfrom
that of conceptsgeneratedby academicwriters.
The anthropologicalconventionwhich relegates
what our informantssay to "ethnography"and
what we say to "theory"has been questionedby
severalcritics of business-as-usual
in anthropology
1985, 1987a; Rosaldo
1989). When fieldworkis conductedin France,a
nationthat is hometo manyof the most influential
social theoristsof our time, it becomesincreasingly
problematicto separatetheoryfromethnography.
This article is shaped by a perspectivethat
validatesnot only the active role of those studied
by anthropologistsin shaping our research and
thinking,but also the ethnographer'sown active
role in learningthroughfieldwork.Just as theories
of learningincreasinglyquestionthe modelof the
passivelearner,our view of fieldworkmust also be
revisedto take into accountthe active role of the
ethnographerin learning.We learn not just with
our minds, but also with our bodies and through
our actions.Therefore,the participantrole of the



ethnographeris equallyvital to the acquisitionof

ethnographicknowledgeas is that of observer.Action theory can be appliedto our own profession,
not just to our subjectsof study.
I learnedaboutLavialloisnotionsof dbbrouillardise not only throughquestioning,listeningto,
and watchingthe Laviallois,but also througheveryday situationsin which I was participatingand
acting. As I look back on these and other experiences in the field, I see that powerand resistance
can no more be viewed as separateprocessesthan
can structureand agency. Despite Berger'scondemnation(this issue) of fieldworkas a site of
unexamined,hegemonic,and modernistconstructions of knowledge,the elasticityof the conceptof
fieldworkpermitsthe anthropologistas fieldworker
to "work out" and "work with" cultural
The Importance of Being Cunning

According to Scott, who conducted an ethnographic study of it among peasantsin Southeast

Asia and coinedthe term, "everydayresistance"is
a form of political action among subordinate
groups that is "informal,undeclared,disguised"
(1989: 4). It is characterizedby "suchacts as foot
dragging,dissimulation,false compliance,feigned
ignorance,desertion,pilfering,smuggling,poaching, arson, slander,sabotage,surreptitiousassault
and murder,anonymousthreats,etc." (p. 4). Scott
(1990) has morerecentlydescribedeverydayresistance in terms of "hidden"transcriptsnot readily
apparentin "official"transcriptsand thoseon-stage
behaviorscontrolledby elites.
Michelde Certeau'snotionof "everydaypractices" (1984) is quite similarto Scott's "everyday
resistance."Certeauhas drawn attentionto what
he calls ways of operating,or bricolage(a concept
made famous in anthropologyby Levi-Strauss),
with examplesfrom both France and the United
States. He defines"waysof operating"as "victories
of the 'weak' over the 'strong' (whether that
strengthbe that of powerfulpeopleor the violence
of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever
tricks, knowing how to get away with things,
'hunter'scunning', maneuvers"(p. xix). An increasinglycommonpracticeamongFrenchworkers
providesCerteauwith an exampleof such behavior-it is la perruque(literally "the wig"). This
term namesacts in which "the worker'sown work
is disguised as work for his employer"(p. 25).

Certeaumarvelsat "the constantpresenceof these

practicesin the most orderedspheres of modern
life" (p. 26).
The behaviorswhich interest Certeau and
Scott can be placedwithin a generaloverallcategory of "cunning."In a discussionof the trickster
traditionin folklore,whichhe considersas a hidden
transcript,Scott writes of the celebrationof cunning in such tales (1990: 164). He adds, however,
that this loadedEnglishterm (whichhas a pejorative connotation)does not adequatelycapturethe
values expressedin these tales. There is a similar
problemin using cunningas a gloss for dbbrouillardise, since the Frenchnoun la ruse, commonly
translatedas "cunning,"is a pejorativeterm in
Lavialle.Detienneand Vernant'sdiscussionof the
Greekqualityof metis nicely capturesthe broader
meaningsof cunning,and is used by Certeauin his
conceptionof ways of operating.They define it
[it] combine(s)flair,wisdom,forethought,
overtheyears.It is
appliedin situations
shifting,disconsituationswhichdo not lead
certing,and ambiguous,
to precisemeasurement,
rigorouslogic(1978:3-4;quotedin Scott1990:164).

This definitionis, in fact, so similarto dbbrouillardise that it is difficult to imagine that the
FrenchmenDetienne and Vernant were not reminded of the French concept when studying

Values of cunning are seeminglywidespread

throughout European society and, as Thomas
Belmontepointsout, relateto the picaresquetradition in Europeanfolkloreand literature(1979; see
also Walker 1985). For the most part these terms
are prevalentamong marginal peoples, like the
Laviallois.Belmontedescribesthe importanceof
cunning(la furbizia) to membersof the underclass
in Naples, for whomit denotesa culturalmode of
survivalin a harsh,cut-throatenvironment(1979:
143-44). In another region of southern Europe
MichaelHerzfeld(1985) details the value of cunning (poniria)amongCretanshepherds,which,he
writes, "signifiesthe conventionallydisrespectful
attitude that Greeks bring to their dealingswith
those in power"(p. 25).
As Erving Goffmanpointedout many years
ago in his analysis of what he termed ways of
"making do" in American institutionalsettings
(which are also similarto Scott's "everydayforms



contact.Notionsof "cunning"and relatedformsof

practice,in contrast,connotean aspect of fluidity
in social life, whichallowsfor a certainamountof
play or manipulation.Anthropologistsoften focus
on values that providea cohesivenessto maintain
order in social systems. Values associated with
what has been called "everydayresistance,"however, suggestthat culturalsystemsmay dependas
much on social fluidity,a type of "play,"which
sanctionsthe clevermanipulationof meanings.The
unfortunateconnotationsof the word resistance
tend to direct attentionaway from such possibilities. Debrouillardiseexpressesthis value. When
viewedfromthe perspectiveof subordinateor subaltern peoples, everydayresistanceis, therefore,
part of a more generalnotionof "makingdo" or
"makingout," of artfully creating and wangling
cultural meaningsand situations.Such behaviors
are most usefullyviewednot simplyas reactionsto
(or resistanceto) dominance,but as modesfor the
creationof new culturalmeanings.
The termresistancereliesupona moreexplicit
theoreticaluse of conceptsof powerand hegemony
than does that of cunning.Abu-Lughod(1990) and
Kondo (1990) have both criticizedresistancetheRethinkingResistance
ory froma Foucaultianperspective(Foucault1980,
1982), each drawingout differentproblemswith its
original formulations,especially in the work of
That numerousprocessesof everydayresistanceopScott (1985) and Willis (1981). Abu-Lughod
erate throughoutthe worldin responseto state he(1990) writesthat she is waryof the "romanticizagemonyseems to have come as a surpriseto antion"
of resistancein ethnographicand historical
thropologists(and constitutes a new theoretical
she argues,do not sufficientlyemphatexts,
"discovery"),but is moreor less taken for granted
oppression.She advocatesa more
(1990) argues
because we have focused on the official, public complex notion of power and resistance, based
transcriptsof culturethat we have underestimated upon Foucault'ssuggestionthat resistancemay be
a diagnosticof powerratherthan of freedom.
the powerof subordinatepeoplesto formulatechalKondo'scriticismsof resistancetheory,based
lenges to dominantideologies.Scott's work, espein
conupon her researchin Japan,attack biases of indicially
vidualismand agency in much of Euro-American
sciousnessand mystification(whatBourdieu[1977]
social theory.She prefersFoucault'stheoryof the
calls meconnaissance),has drawn attentionto an
intertwiningof powerand meaning,so that "noone
importantarea of social life. There is, however,a
can be 'without'power"(1990:221). Kondoargues
disturbingsimplificationin Scott'spositionthat resistance is found in the hidden transcriptsof the
againstboththe unifiedself whocan "authentically
weak, while only complianceappearsin the public resist power"(p. 224) and the notionof poweras
alwaysrepressiveembodiedin studiesof resistance.
transcriptsof both the weak and the strong.This
Ratherthan pose an oppositionbetweenresistance
simplificationdependsupon an overdrawnview of
mesand hegemony,which are relativelyclosedcatego(official
sage. As I have arguedelsewhere(Reed-Danahay ries, Kondosuggeststhat it may be moreusefulto
and Anderson-Levitt1991), there is contradiction look at the creationof and struggleover meanings
and ambiguityin any ideologicaldiscourse.
in everyday contexts. The perspectivesof AbuMoreover,the word "resistance"suggests a
Lughodand Kondoare usefulin thinkingaboutthe
mechanicalmetaphorof solid bodies coming into
ways in which the Lavialloisuse and expresscon-

of resistance"),folk titles for these practicesare

common (1961: 200). In the Appalachianregion
Rhoda Halperin(1990) identifieda term employing similar concepts of cunning or resourcefulness-"the Kentuckyway." Like dMbrouillardise,
"the Kentuckyway" refersto the idea of "making
do" in difficult situations and overcominghardships. Comparisonsbetween these Kentuckyand
Auvergnattermsare particularlyapt sincethey are
both used to describe"ways of operating"among
inhabitantsof rural,mountainous,and historically
The ethnographicliteraturealso containsexamplesof positivevalues associatedwith behaviors
interpretedas everydayresistancewhen no "native" term or vocabularyfor it is present.Douglas
Foley,for example,has drawnattentionto what he
calls "makingout" games amongHispanicadolescents in rural Texas, wherebystudents"'fiddled'
with, resisted,sloweddown,avoided,and redefined
academicworktasks"(1990: 112). Thesebehaviors
are somewhatdifferentfrom the more overtforms
of resistanceused amongthe working-classBritish
youths("the lads") studiedby Paul Willis (1981).



cepts of resistance.
The Lavialloisindulgein the "romanceof resistance"as much as do any contemporaryethnographerswriting about resistance,often bragging
abouttheir own underminingsof the powerful.The
notion of dbbrouillardise,however, speaks to a
more complex system of power (more "Foucaultian") than the theoriesof Willis or Scott. That
forms of powerlie both with agents of dominant
cultureand with themselvesis intrinsicto Laviallois perspectiveson social manipulation.
The conceptof dbbrouillardiseis part of the arsenal of both the weak and the strong(to use Scott's
metaphors),but in differentways. The Laviallois
do not label their own actions which resemble
Scott's "everydayresistance"or Certeau's"everyday practices"directlyas resistance.Rather,they
place these withina widercategoryand vocabulary
of action which has to do with skillfully"making
do" or "makingout" in difficultsituations.The vocabularyof dbbrouillardiseincorporatesnotionsof
both accommodationand resistance,and provides
nuancesfor commonplacetheoreticalassumptions
concerning official vs. unofficial ideologies or
Debrouillardise(particularlyin its reflexive
verb form-se dbbrouiller)subsumesthe concept
of resisting dominationalong with a variety of
other forms of social manipulationor even partial
accommodation.It is used in Lavialle to express
the ability to be resourceful,clever,or cunningin
difficultsituations.This ability is primarilyassociated with both defensiveposturestoward outside
threats(eithernaturalor human)and copingstrategies in everydaylife. A farmerwill use this term
to speakof how he or she managedin the difficult
birth of a calf, to describeways of "makingdo"
duringthe last war,or to boastof outwittingsomeone of higherstatus.To be able to exhibitthis skill
is highlyvaluedfor both men and women,and it is
felt to be an importantcharacteristicof Auvergnat
regionalidentity(see Reed-Danahay1987, 1991).
Debrouillardisecan implycunning,but is not
synonymouswith it. To be dbbrouillardis positivelyvaluedin Lavialle,whereasa personlabelled
ruse (literally translatedin dictionariesas "cunning") is criticizedand labelleddishonest.For example, a farmer who is rumoredto have added
water to the milk yielded by his cows in orderto

get a better price is called ruse, not debrouillard.

Althoughhe has trickedthe dairy,this farmer'saction worksagainstthe other farmers,who get less
money for the same amountof milk (and work.)
Thereis no hardand fast rule for whena behavior
will be labelled ruse or dbbrouillard-it depends
upon whetheror not the speakeradmiresor feels
threatenedby the action. In general, however,a
person who applies "cunning intelligence"(Detienne and Vernant1978) in dealingswith outsiders is called dabrouillard,whereasa personwho
appliesit with neighborsis called ruse.
Other pejorativeterms for cunning behavior
used frequentlyin Lavialle include malin (for a
male) and coquine(for a female). Althoughthese
may sometimesbe used in a teasingmanner,they
suggest dishonesty.That there are so many terms
for the Englishword"cunning"in Frenchis, in itself, suggestive.Debrouillardiseidentifies,fromthe
perspectiveof the Laviallois,an honestformof resourcefulnessand socialmanipulation-whichmay,
of course,conflictwith the perceptionof that behavioron the part of the other party.
Debrouillerliterallymeansto disentangleoneself, and it is also related to notionsabout being
clear about things. The French word brouillard
meansfog or mist, and brouillercan meanto cloud
over or to mix up. Therefore,dbbrouilleris, metaphorically,to get out of the fog or to see clearly.In
this sense dbbrouillardiseis strikinglysimilar to
the conceptof demystification
(Scott 1985) or ideological penetration (Willis 1981) in revisionist
Marxisttheory.Mystificationin traditionalMarxism refers to the theory of false consciousness,
wherebya dominantideology"operatesto conceal
or misrepresentaspects of social relationsthat, if
directly,wouldbe damagingto the inapprehended
terests of the dominantelites" (Scott 1990: 71-2).
Througha processof demystification,subordinate
peoples "see through,"or "penetrate"in Willis'
terms, the ideologicalhegemonyof the dominant
classes,and, therefore,becomeawareof aspectsof
their oppression.Dtbrouiller expresses,therefore,
beingable not only to manipulateor outwitpeople,
but also ideas (includingdominantideologies).'
Le SystemeD
The vocabularyof dabrouillardiseis not only an
informal,local way of speakingabout such forms
of behavioramongFrenchpaysans,8however.It is
connectedto a more codifiedterm in France-Le

This conceptof soSysthmeD (D for dMbrouiller).
cial manipulationis part of Frenchpublicculture,
and goes hand in hand with the statist tendencies
of Frenchlife (Ardagh 1987; Rogers 1991; Wylie
1963, 1975;Zeldin 1982). Le SystemeD is a common label for dealings with the French bureaucracy and, especially,ways to get aroundit. Laurence Wylie calls it the "art of wangling"(1963:
209) and explainsthat it refersto "anydeviousand
usually ill-definedmeans by which an individual
can take initiativein spite of the restrictionsimposedon him by society"(p. 223). Le SysthmeD is
not the provinceof the weak.In fact, this abilityto
workthe system is very much associatedwith the
strong in France. Both the less formal debrouillardiseand the morecodifiedSystemeD pointto a
worldview in whichpowerand resistanceto it are
two sides of the same coin.
Le Systhme D has been widely describedin
the literatureon France,and has vividlycaptured
the imaginationsof Anglo-Americanwriters.John
Ardagh(an Englishjournalist)providesa description that is perhapsmorerevealingof attitudestowardssuch behavioramong Anglo-saxonsthan of
the conceptitself and, therefore,deservesquoting
at length:
Theirlives (the French)are spentdevisingingenious
rulesandthenfindingequallycunningwaysof evading
them.Thustheyareableto cut cornersandcircumvent
someof thebureaucratic
andthisis knownas
'le systemeD', a long-standing
and cardinalfeatureof
Frenchlife. Thatis, everyoneincluding
thatredtapecan be tacitlyignoredfromtimeto time,
whenit is donebetweenpalsorovera friendly
An Englishfriendof minewitha summervilla
in the Midiappliedforelectricity
to be installed:
he was
told this would take years of delay and form-filling-'But,'addedthevillagemayorwitha shrug,'there's
someoldwiringstackedin the vaultsof the mairie,and
mightfixyouupif youask,butkeep
it quiet'. Le systeme D bringshumanproportioninto in-

it maynotbe thewayto
runa modernnationin an ageof hightechnology

French concepts of national identity are

closelylinkedto le SysthmeD. In her ethnography
of a rural AveyronnaiscommunitySusan Carol
Rogerswritesthat, for her informants,SysthmeD
is "notunderstoodas havinglocal or regionalvariants" (1991: 195); rather, the inhabitantsof Ste
Foy "perceivesuch behavioras a responsecommon
to any reasonablyalert and clever Frenchperson,
as nationallyuniformas the mandateinspiringit"
(p. 195). Rogers'descriptionhere is reminiscentof


Herzfeld'scommenton "cunning"and power in

Debrouillardiseis thus part of wider, public
Frenchculturalmeaningsat the sametime that its
use in Lavialleexpressesparticularlocal meanings.
The Lavialloisdo not generallylabeltheirbehavior
as operatingaccordingto Le SysthmeD in everyday life. They are moreapt to speakof cunningor
It is not so
resourcefulbehavioras dMbrouillardise.
much that the more publicconceptis not part of
their vocabularyor ways of operating,but rather
that Le Systime D is associatedmorewith official
life in urbancenters.Debrouillardiseis a moreinclusivetermthan le SysthmeD, in that it refersto
social manipulationof manytypes, but it is in one
way morespecific,since it is connectedto the identity of the Lavialloisas ruralAuvergnats.For the
Laviallois,dibrouillardiserelates to their strong
senseof regionalidentityand self-viewas resourceful, cleverpaysans, but also to their more general
resistanceto a state bureaucracythat presents,not
just red tape, but an attemptto underminelocal
cultural meaningsand power (see Reed-Danahay
1987). Le Systeme D is associatedwith "Frenchis associatedwith local
ness," but dMbrouillardise
and regionalidentity.'
Since I rarely heard the term le Systtme D
used among the Laviallois,its use by Catholic
teachersat a meetingfor parentsof childrenwho
attended their school was striking. Because the
schoolwas 40 km away, this eveningmeetingtook
place in Lavialle'scommunityactivitiesbuilding.
The term le SysthmeD appearedon sheets of paper handedout to parents.Othertermslisted with
it included le copiage (copying schoolwork),le
chapardage(pilfering),le mensonge(lying), and le
vol (stealing)-recalling Scott's own catalogueof
"everydayformsof resistance"(1989: 4). Whereas
the other termsreferredto the behaviorof pupils,
the religious Brotherswho taught at the school
tried to initiatea discussionof le SysthmeD as the
underlyingvalue systemfor the manipulativeways
in whichparentstried to "help"their children.
The directorof the schoolsuggestedthat parents sometimesactuallydo the homeworkfor their
childrento ensurethat they get good marks.This
he, said, was an exampleof Syst1me
D in action.
This topic led to growingdiscomfortamong the
parents(most of whomwere mothers)who, nonetheless,evadedany outrightchallengeto the Brothers' handlingof the discussion.The teacherswere
using le SysthmeD in a pejorativesense to label



and criticize parental behavior of which they disapproved. This use of the term is a form of "everyday
domination" through which the teachers tried to
assert their authority over parents (see ReedDanahay and Anderson-Levitt 1991). The parents
of Lavialle knew, however, that the best way for
them to deal with such comments by teachers was
se dMbrouiller,that is, to avoid open confrontation
and to simply proceed as usual (which may, in
some cases, include continuing to help with
I have thus far suggested that it is common for
social actors in positions of subordination, like the
farmers of Lavialle, to value cunning, manipulative
behaviors. I have argued that these behaviors artfully combine both resistance and partial accommodation. However, it is a very different thing for
an anthropologist to hear informants use a term or
to ask them about concepts, than it is to be implicated in behaviors of cunning or resistance through
one's own actions.

LearningAbout Resistancein the Field

It was through my attempts to participate in life in
a rural French community through anthropological
fieldwork that I came to understand the subtleties
of dMbrouillardise.The process by which I came to
learn about its uses and to see it in terms of a critique of resistance theory was long and complex.
The most illuminating situations in which the concept was used were, however, those in which I was
myself a participant. Two of these "revelatory incidents" (Fernandez 1986: xi-xii) involved my delivery of a small speech to parents and my encounter
with a broken phone booth.
#1 The Speech
I came to Lavialle primarily to look at school-community relationships. Soon after I arrived there, the
teachers suggested it might be a good idea for me
to address the parents (most of whom I had not yet
met) about my research among their children during the upcoming parent-teacher meeting. The
teachers thought this would help parents to be
more comfortable about my presence at the school,
and I hoped that it would help me to meet parents
and lead to visits with families. I stood before the
assembled group and briefly explained that I was a
student from the U.S. who had come to study the
life of children in a French community. (This was

a watered down, although not inaccurate, version

of my fieldwork aims, which were to look at the
politics of local influences on schooling). I also
spoke a little about my desire to get to know people
in the community and to participate in daily life in
Lavialle outside of the school. I spoke in my still
rusty French, using a fairly simple vocabulary.
The first time that I heard se debrouiller used
in Lavialle was in the context of this short speech.
After the meeting I was chatting with a small
group of parents whom I had already met. They
congratulated me on my handling of the presentation. One of the mothers, using the term dMbrouiller, said that I had managed the situation well,
particularly using another language. Another
mother said that if one of them had to speak in
front of a group of American parents, she would
have been much less at ease.
At the time I interpreted these comments at
face value-as nice, supportive, friendly words.
Glad that my little speech was finally over, I felt
that I had expressed my goodwill toward the Laviallois, and that it had been reciprocated. I was,
however, troubled by the use of the concept of
dMbrouillardise, with which I was already acquainted through Wylie's writings on Le Systhme
D as a form of social manipulation in French society. I wondered why this term was used to describe
my performance in front of the parents.
In time, as I have thought about this concept
and its uses in Lavialle in a variety of contexts, I
have realized that the message from the parents
was not so straightforward. The parents' were signalling to me that they suspected there was more to
my research than I had revealed. The mother who
used se dMbrouillerto describe my behavior was indicating that she knew that I had engaged in some
cunning and had evaded telling them of my true
motives. This remark was not necessarily a condemnation, however, and it was in many ways a
compliment on my ability to exhibit a quality welladmired among the Laviallois themselves.5
This choice of terminology signalled guarded
mistrust about me and my motives, especially as an
outsider who had come all the way from America,
but it was done in such as way that I was, in a
sense, forewarned that I could not easily outwit the
Laviallois. After some early suspicions that I
worked for the CIA, most people in Lavialle came
to see me as relatively harmless and certainly not
always good at d~brouillardise. My lack of sophistication in Lavialle ways of cunning and manipula-

tion were particularlyevidentin the next example,
which comes from an incident about one-third
throughthe periodof my fieldwork.


tage of any situationin whichthey couldoutwitor

manipulatethe governmentand its agents or, for
that matter, most outsiders.Whetheror not they
used the vocabularyof dMbrouillardise
to talk
#2 The BrokenPhone Booth
as importantelementsof everydaylife. A ski company was very consciouslymanipulatedby the
Four monthsafter the talk at the school, when I
youthgroup,whichtookadvantageof a full day of
had come to knowseveralfamilieswell, I had ancross-countryskiingfor all of its members(includother memorable (because troubling) encounter
ing myself),offeredas a promotional
ploy to secure
with the conceptof dbbrouillardise.
One afternoon
to Lavialleland. The leadersof the youth
I wentto makea phonecall in the publictelephone
groupknewwell that the town councilhad no imboothin the centralsquareof the majorvillage in
mediateintentionto do businesswith this company,
Lavialle.This is a highly "public"space, close to
but neverthelessenjoyedthe free outing.In a perthe publictoilets and trash dump.When I entered
moreseriousvein whenthe teacherswerefelt
the booth, I noticedthat the money compartment
to have become too politicallyactive in socialist
had beenremoved,so that any changeinsertedinto
the telephonewouldcome backout. My immediate politics, parents staged a series of veiled oppositionalbehaviorsto underminetheirauthorityin the
reactionwas that this was a case of vandalismthat
school. This action was also consideredcunning
should be reportedto the telephonecompany.(In
Francethis is the P.T.T., a state-ownedutility.) I
These two incidentsfrom my fieldworkcapwent
tell my neighbor,who owned
ture the dual nature of dMbrouillardise:
it refers
a telephone,expectingthat she wouldthen call the
both to "makingout" and to "makingdo." As it
authoritiesin orderto have the phonerepaired.
This middle-aged,life-longresidentof Lavialle was used in the broken phone booth incident,
expressesa formof everydayresistance
laughedand said that in such situations"ilfaut se
or otheremblemsof power.When my
booth were free, she
said, and we should take advantageof the situa- neighborused the phonefor free calls, she was extion. If the phonewas broken,that was the prob- ploitinga situationthat had presenteditself to her
and was "makingout"-as in the case of the youth
lem of the P.T.T., not our problem!She told me
groupand the ski company.AlthoughI am certain
that she had alreadyplaced severalphonecalls to
that my neighborwas not involvedin the original
Paris and elsewhere,and she suggestedthat I call
act that removedthe cash box, she nevertheless
my parents
seized this opportunityto take advantageof the
This was one of those times in fieldworkthat
state-ownedtelephonecompany.Her lack of identikeep an ethnographerfrom the complacencyof
with the "P.T.T."fueled her attitudethat
takingculturalmeaningsfor granted.I see, in retit
to gain someprofitfromthe situathat
brokenphoneboothreflectedbothmy own middle- tion. She would have hesitatedto attack the teleclass Americancategories,as well as my desireto
phone companyopenly, since this would violate
Laviallenorms,but she was unhesitatingin her debe viewed in Lavialleeyes as an honest person.I
sire to undermineit with a cloakof anonymity.To
had come to knowmy neighborfairly well by the
"makeout" at the loss of the state was a valued
time of this incidentand saw her daily. In my confeat becauseit expressedresistanceto state power
fusion over the brokenphone I assumedthat she
would share my interpretationand reaction.That
(as embodiedin the telephonecompany).
she did not was a sourceof furtherconfusionand
In the case of my presentationto the parents
cultural ambiguityfor me. Eventuallythe phone the use of se dMbrouiller
capturesthe mixtureof
boothwas repaired;but I neverdid make any long
andresistanceimpliedin notionsof
distancecalls on the phone,mostlyout of fear that
cunningand "makingdo." The parentswere remy neighborsmight criticize me for having done
markingon my ability to handlemyself well in a
so. Now, however,I am certainthat I was mocked difficultsituation,but beyondthat my attemptto
for not havingdone so!
turn the situationto my own advantage.I was, in
As my fieldworkprogressed,I came moreand
my self-presentation,as I have become aware
moreto understandthat the Lavialloistook advan- throughthe parents'commentary,givinga version



of my fieldwork that would appeal to the parents,

children, and teachers (a form of accommodation
to them?), while holding back those aspects of my
inquiry dealing with issues of power that might be
more troubling (a form of resistance?). By praising
my ability to "make do," the parents were suggesting that in my handling of this public performance about my fieldwork, I was artfully combining
tactics of resistance and accommodation. This use
is similar to their own strategies with teachers.
Their commentary on my performance was intended to suggest that they knew that by "making
do" in this situation, I was also "making out." In
this way the concept of debrouillardise provides a
meta-commentary on the subject of resistance and
accommodation in social life.

Conclusions:The Rhetoricof Resistance

Anthropologists have paid little attention to meanings of what we call "resistance" among the people
we have studied despite the growing tendency in
ethnographic research to look for attempts by
subordinate groups (such as peasants, women, and
the working classes) to subvert or outwit dominant
cultural forms and meanings." By looking at discourses of resistance in a cross-cultural perspective,
we can gain a greater appreciation of ambiguities
and contradictions associated with power, domination, and resistance. This step involves some rethinking of the common distinction between anthropological discourse (which is generally called
"social theory") and the discourse of those we
study (which is usually thought of as "folklore").
Scott, for instance, writes that his own "observations about power and discourse . . . are part and
parcel of the daily folk wisdom of millions," but
then goes on to say that what he has "tried to do
here is pursue this idea more systematically"
(1990: x). Scott makes the typical assumption that
his theories are systematic, and, therefore, different
from the (unsystematic?) folk wisdom of the
Johannes Fabian writes that "the anthropologist and his interlocutors can only 'know' when
they meet each other in one and the same contemporality" (1983: 164). His important point is
that this contemporality ("coevalness") needs to be
acknowledged not just during fieldwork but in the
writing of ethnographic texts and the formulation
of "theory." Michael Herzfeld's "social poetics"
approach is predicated upon such an assumption of

Herzfeld has made important contributions to
the dismantling of the distinction between theory
and ethnography in his analysis of social poetics
among Cretan shepherds (1985; see also 1987). In
The poetics of manhood he argues for a "semiotic
perspective" that
rejects the artificial distinction between symbolic discourse and objectivedata, and instead treats the ethnographictext-which is no less empiricalas a result-as a
constructionresulting from the fusion of the ethnographer'sconceptualframeworkwith that of the local informants. In this approach informants' presuppositions,
whether consciouslyarticulatedor not, acquire pivotal
importance(1985: 46).

The ways in which the ethnographic text is constructed from this fusion is not spelled out by
Herzfeld, but his perspective invites attempts to
clarify this step through more explicit discussions
of fieldwork.
This perspective involves a humbling of our
own claims about the validity of our ideas as well
as a growing respect for the ideas of our informants. It also depends upon a view of our informants as social actors. The degree to which social
actors are truly aware of their objective circumstances is a subject of much debate in contemporary social theory.? A useful middle ground to this
issue is suggested by Sider, who writes that
people act in terms of what they cannot understand,or
understandin radicallydifferentways, and in terms of
relationshipsthey cannot form, or sustain, or leave, as
well as in terms of what "works,"what they think they
clearly understandand probablydo (Sider 1986: 10;
quotedby Vincent 1990: 405).

Debrouillardise is a way of talking about what

My reflections upon Laviallois ways of talking
(and thinking) about resistance have led me to rethink two major assumptions about power that I
brought to the field. The notion of dabrouillardise
implies that power has more to do with the ability
creatively to "make out" or "make do" than with
particular individuals with particular statuses. That
is, if you can artfully manipulate a situation to
your own advantage, then you have power. This insight tempers de facto assumptions about the relative power of anthropologists and the people they
study, that is, that the anthropologist necessarily
always has "more" of it. Obviously, the anthropologist from a more powerful nation or of a higher

status than her informantsrepresents,and can
drawupon,widerrealmsof power.Nevertheless,in
the field situationitself we are not always"in control" and must adapt our methodsand conceptual
frameworks(see also KennethGeorge,this issue).
The more cunning we are in accomplishingthis,
however,the more power we can, paradoxically,
My encounterswith the Lavialloishave,moreunderover,led me to suspectthat anthropological
standingsof power and resistanceare culturally
and class-based.That is, notionsof resistanceare
perhapsmost problematicto those of us whoseAnglo-Americanmiddle-classvalues (or "habitus"
[Bourdieu1977]) resemblemost closely those of
the dominantideologyin our own culture.When I
reactedto the brokenphoneboothwith the desire
to call the telephonecompany,I was unquestionably supportinga whole institutionalapparatus
with which I have been socializedto identify. In
this responseI was perhapsmore "mystified"than
my neighborsin Lavialle.For them, everydayresistance is a recognized "way of operating" in
Certeau'sterms,not a "hiddentranscript"as Scott
wouldhave it.
This discussionof concepts of resistancein
Franceraises,beyondthe issue of what constitutes
resistanceand how poweroperates,questionsabout
the relationshipbetweentheoryand ethnographyin
Europeanfieldwork.France is, after all, a place
from which many of the most famousand influen-


tial social theorieshave issued. When I appealto

the theoriesof Michel de Certeauor Michel Foucault to explainbehaviorsamongthe Laviallois,am
I not simplydealingwith the same (or at least similar) cultural meanings in different guises (one
called theory, one called folklore)?The ambivalence between resistanceand accommodationinherent in the concept of debrouillardiseand its
uses in Laviallemay be connectedto the themeof
ambivalenceabout the relationshipbetweenstructure and agency in French social thought more
generally (for instance with Durkheim, LeviStrauss,Bourdieu,Foucault,or Certeau-who critiques both Foucaultand Bourdieu).A complete
collapsein the distinctionbetweenthese socialtheorists and the Lavialloiswouldneglect the important class differencesbetween French academics
and Frenchpaysans.However,by callingattention
to the similaritiesin ideas about power among
these two groups, I hope to encouragefurther
thinkingalongthese lines and discouragefacile assumptionsabout differencesbetween official and
unofficialdiscourses,theoryand ethnography.
I do not wish to concludehere that the term
resistanceand its theoreticalimportshouldbe banished from anthropologicalanalyses and substitutedwith a termused by Frenchfarmers.Rather,
my aim is to bring into relief the ways in which
certainwaysof thinkingaboutpowerare restrained
by the vocabularieswe use to talk aboutit.

AcknowledgmentsThe fieldworkdescribedhere was fundedby
a National Science FoundationDissertationFellowshipand a
Bourse Chateaubriand.I would like to thank Wendy Weiss,
Michael Herzfeld,and two anonymousreviewersfor comments
on this article.I wouldalso like to thankall fellow participants
in the NEH "Poeticsand Social Life"summerseminarat Indiana University,Bloomington(1990) for the lively discussions
that helpedshape the ideas presentedhere.
'Their own literal translationfor metis in Frenchis, however, la ruse.
2One reviewerasked me to point out that my word play
here is only play becausehis/her dictionaryshowedthat mystificationand mist have differentroots.However,the two terms
sharea similaretymologyaccordingto the OxfordEnglishDictionary CompactEdition, which states that mystify is "often
associatedwith English mist" (1984: 818).
SWhenI referto the Lavialloisas paysans, I do not intend
to mean that they are "peasants."Rather, I am reflectinga
common terminologyfor contemporaryFrench farmers (and
sometimesartisans)used by both ruraland urbanFrenchpeople. Most inhabitantsof Lavialle are farmers, but they are
hardlypeasants.They own and run modernfarms and are not
marginalto the Frencheconomy.Becauseof the very different
historicalsituationsof American farmers and French small-

scale farmers,I use the termpaysan occasionally,ratherthan

farmer,in orderto invokethe politicaland historicalparticularitiesof Frenchruraldwellers.
4I do not mean to imply here that other Frenchpeopledo
not use the conceptof debrouillardise;rather,that the Laviallois associateit with what they considerto be uniqueregional
behaviorsand stances towardsoutsiders.They also associate
the dance la boure?with local and regionalculture,althoughit
is found in other partsof Franceas well. This does not, however, negate its meaningto the Laviallois.
5Herzfelddescribesa similar experienceduringfieldwork
in Greece,wherea commentthat he had "stolen"bits of communicationwas approvinglymade by his sheep-stealinginformants (1985: 49-50). I thankhim for pointingout this incident
to me.
"In a similarvein Urciuoli (this issue) addressesthe lack
of attentionto "auto"-representations
of class status amongthe
lowerclasses.Weiss' focus on the term "gringo"(this issue) is
also related to informantrepresentations-notof themselves,
however,but of "us."
'See, for instance,Abercrombieet al. 1980, Martin 1987,
Giddens 1984, Certeau 1984, Gambetta 1987, and Bourdieu