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Radical Events and Life Reconstruction (anthropological approach in the context of India) – RUPTURES

Ruptures: radical events and life reconfigurations

People can have their lives utterly and irreversibly modified by events, such as illness, accident or experience of violence, and so embark on reconstructing them thus experimenting new possibilities and conditions of being-in-the-world.

Do existences facing rupture reveal other ways of thinking about the world, or other ways of being?

The Ruptures program began in December 2010 at the Centre for South Asian studies, Paris, thanks to a funding from the French national research agency. Its main objective was to provide a platform to reflect upon phenomena of rupture when the existence of individuals or groups becomes radically redefined following events that disrupt their inscriptions in the world.<br />What happens for these lives that do not, or no longer, correspond to local cosmologies? Do existences facing rupture reveal other ways of thinking about the world, or other ways of being? What can considering these lives contribute to anthropological knowledge? <br />Based on works concerning lepers, tribes called criminal and transgenders in India, violence against women in Algeria and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the project focused on ontological displacements caused by those events, the appearance of singularities and their social categorisations. The stakes was to tackle social matters under the angle of their changes, their metamorphosis and the diverging choices they introduce into people’s lives; to consider in the first instance individual experiences of breaking-ups and collective reconstructions leading to questioning the connections between the production of singularities and society, where the predominance of the creations and the reiterations of norms alternates; to place instability, uncertainty and contingency – often pushed aside – in the heart of the understanding of social matters.<br />

We have opted for a comparative approach that cross-examines unprecedented works concerning different forms of life reconfiguration linked to illness, gender and the sentence of the law. This putting into perspective was motivated by the generalising scope of the project: developing a knowledge of the processes of reconstruction of life, as well as the tools allowing to understand those processes. Each of our researches has been conducted according to this global and collective approach. Through putting them together, we did not aim at producing a uniform idea of what rupture is, but understanding the complex ways of expressing it.
Methodological and epistemological issues were in the heart of the project. How should singularities be compared and generalized? What does it mean to tackle social life through case studies? What tools should be elaborated to examine not only norms and structures but also variation and disjunction?

Ontological shift is one of the first notions that appeared. This is quite clear in the case of lepers as this disease entails a physical transformation of the body, exclusion from family and caste, and thus an absolute repositioning in Indian society – not only for the individuals who are physically touched by the disease but also their unaffected descendents. In the case of criminal tribes, the shift has been imposed by the law and the ontology entirely fabricated. Along with the invention of inborn criminality and the application of the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) that led to the massive internment of thousands of people in reform camps, a new form of humanity was created and the descendents of the groups thus classified continue to suffer despite the abolition of this legal status. In another way, the transgenders are also caught in an ontological shift, where the body is the canvas of the transformation. Thus, We have renewed the anthropological approach of ontology, through the notion of ontological shift that led us to examine the emergence of singularities. To capture the work on norms, values and categories of the existences that have shifted, we have elaborated the concept of minor lives, to emphasize the tension between singularities and social structures and to stress the exemplarity (the propositional force) of these existences. Another axis concerned events and time. The persistence of the event encapsulated in the new ontology and the permanent becoming that characterizes these existences led us to place the ‘after’ at the heart of the analysis.

The analysis of radical events and life reconstructions gives anthropology the opportunity to envisage social life, usually approached from the angle of the regularity of its organization, in a totally different manner. To renew the anthropological approach is especially crucial as we live in a world that is characterized by ruptures, exclusions and uncertainties. Moreover, the study of the existences facing rupture reveal new ways of life which bear witness of possible futures, both singular and exemplary.

We have organized during two years a bi-monthly seminar at the EHESS, Paris; expanded the disclosure of our results to a wider audience, in the context of international symposiums and conferences in France and abroad; and produced forty-three papers and seven articles and books chapters in academic editions. We are currently completing a special issue of an online academic Journal and a book in English, to be published in 2014. A collective book in French and an anthology of texts will be published in 2015.

This project concerns life reconstruction as a result of radical events. By radical events, we mean events – such as illness, accident, experience of violence – which change people’s lives utterly and irreversibly. Those events, through the upheavals and the rebuilding they spark off, lead individuals to query their usually unquestioned social relationships and position in society. They start off new ways of relating to oneself and others, define new ways of living, establish new modes of action. The assessable changes thus generated constitute real laboratories, in which the possibilities and the conditions of being-in-the-world can be studied, so affording anthropology the opportunity to tackle social life – usually approached from the angle of the regularity of its organisation – in a totally different way.
More specifically, the hypothesis of this research project is that radical events bring about ontological displacements when they challenge how one relates to oneself as well as one’s position in society. They give the opportunity to comprehend the emergence of singularity at the level of both the individual and society, and as a result, to question the processes producing subjectivities, their social categorisations as well as what connects them.
The carrying out of the project rests on a comparative approach. It will involve cross referencing the field data emerging from original and innovative work concerning three types of life reconstruction: in the case of leprosy people, transsexuals and criminal castes. Those reconstructions, which correspond to three kinds of radical events (illness, discrepancy between body and gender, judicial sentence), all take place in the Indian context. It is indeed important, when focusing on ontological redefinitions, to consider them with regard to the same epistemic regime and therefore use the same cultural area. Moreover, India offers an area of study particularly interesting for the questions which interest us, insofar as that society is characterised by a strong category-specific structure, with the caste, jati which literally means “species”. Each individual is thus defined through his belonging to a group. In that context, when individuals are affected by events, it is inevitable their presence in the midst of their initial caste comes to be questioned.
The originality of this project also lies in its “individualistic” approach of social processes: we will start first and foremost from individual experiences in order to comprehend the continual relations between singularities and society, where individual perceptions and social structures predominate in turn. A reason for its innovative nature is also the way it considers social phenomena from the angle of modifications, ruptures, and the resulting turning points in life.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 621,225 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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