Saints of the Atlas
Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria 1954-1968
Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria
The Battle of Algiers
Change at Shebika: Report from a North African Village
Ramparts of Clay
Physicists, novelists, logicians, and art historians have recognized for some time that what we call our knowledge of reality consists of images of it that we ourselves have fashioned. In the social sciences this is just now coming to be understood, and then only imperfectly. The contribution of the investigator not only to the description and analysis of his object of study but to its very creation still tends to be obscured by the sort of mentality which regards the Human Relations Area Files, the Gallup Poll, and the US Census as repositories of recorded truths waiting merely to be discovered. In the arts, the unimplicated observer has been reduced to a minor convention; in the sciences to an unreachable limiting case. But in much of sociology, anthropology, and political science he lives on, masquerading as a real person performing a possible act.
Part of the reason for this failure, on the part of investigators otherwise only too self-conscious, to reflect on the way in which they first construct the objects they then inspect is that the issue has generally been confused with the not unimportant but rather less profound one of bias. Concealing private prejudices in public language is certainly an affliction of social scientific research; for some people, that, in fact, is its vocation.
But beyond the tired debates about “value neutrality” and the pious unmaskings of other people’s parti pris is the more disturbing question which the unreliable narrator raised for fiction, the complementarity principle for physics, and Rashomon for common sense: if what we see is to a considerable degree a reflex of the devices we use to render it visible, how do we choose among devices? Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird are twelve too many for someone who still believes that facts are born not made, and that differences of perception reduce to differences of opinion.
That they do not so reduce is apparent from a recent series of rather desperate attempts to get a sociological hold on the contemporary Maghreb—i.e., western North Africa—a part of the world which, resembling everything but itself (when Tocqueville first saw Algiers it reminded him of Cincinnati), has an unusual capacity for inviting the application of standard notions about how societies work, and then defeating them.
Academic monographs, social realism documentaries, and belletristic essays compete to develop a representational form in which Maghrebi society can be caught and communicated. The first result of the dawning realization that though society doubtless exists independently of the activity of sociologists, sociology does not, is a proliferation of genres. The second, still so faint as to be scarcely visible, is the development of the sort of radically experimental attitude toward modes of representation that set in so much earlier elsewhere in modern culture.
As would be expected, the academic studies—Saints of the Atlas and Revolution and Political Leadership—are the least affected, in both senses of that term, in this way. Gellner and Quandt are old …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.