Class social sciences or why the word “civilization” is no longer appropriate in foreign studies


Since foreign studies are no longer limited to the study of grammar, translation and literature of the foreign country in question, students enrolled in Licentiate LLCER and LEA also follow courses of “civilization”. LLCER actually wants to say, according to the official nomenclature, Foreign and Regional Letters, Literatures and Civilizations (and LEA, Applied Foreign Languages).

It was at the end of the 1960s that the term “civilization” was emancipated from the literature to designate strictly the teachings that did not pertain to literary analysis or the acquisition of tools for the mastery of the language. (grammar – nowadays linguistics and phonology – and translation), but which allowed a deepening of the knowledge of the environment in which the language and the literary works studied were inscribed.

The study of civilizations and the inspiration of Braudel

Thus in the LLCER sector, the “American civilization”, which interests us more specifically here, was set up in France at the Charles V Institute of English (later attached to Paris 7) and Vincennes. (which will become Paris 8), by specialists from the United States who wanted to extend the curriculum offered to students studying English.

The inspiration for this change was Fernand Braudel. The historian of the school of the Annales was the author, with Suzanne Baille and Robert Philippe, of a manual entitled The current world: history and civilizations, published in 1963 as part of the reform of the history programs of 1957 which introduced the notion of “civilization” into the classes of Terminale.

Braudel advocated a “new history”, global and interdisciplinary that favored the long term and relegated the event to the background. He used the word “civilization” in the plural (the textbook was partially republished in 1987, with Braudel as the only author, by Arthaud-Flammarion, under the title Grammar of Civilizations) to get rid of the value judgment associated with the idea of ​​progress. and was based on the nineteenth-century meaning, “the set of characters that presents the collective life of a group or an era”. For Braudel, civilizations were defined in relation to the various sciences of man; they were “spaces”, “societies”, “economies” and “collective mentalities”.

The Terminale program fizzled out: event history by chronological segment was reintroduced in 1959 and the study of civilizations gradually abandoned. Braudel’s textbook became less and less relevant until it disappeared from bookstores in 1970.

Make “civilization” at the university

Nevertheless, at the same time, the word “civilization” (in the singular) made its entry into the foreign studies departments of French universities to designate courses in history and, more generally, in social sciences applied to a specific geographical area.

The disciplines now called “civilization” in the LLCER formations, are, essentially, history, sociology, political science, law, economics, geopolitics, studies in visual and performative arts , media studies and cultural studies.

Because of its use in the context of teaching competitions since 1976 (candidates for foreign language aggregation have to choose an option, namely literature, civilization or linguistics), but also in recruitment campaigns ( professed lecturers and university professors in “civilization”), the word has a disciplinary connotation (“made” of civilization) that has been questioned since the introduction of “civilization” in the curriculum, the “civilizationists” departments and UFR called “languages”.

The fact is that, despite many individual attempts, practitioners of “civilization” have never collectively tackled the methodological issues of their teaching and research framework, and the institution has not helped them. Confined to the LLCER and LEA training, the word ended up saying something else – including to the students – what it was meant to mean. It is a term that undermines the legitimacy, visibility and readability of foreign studies.

“Civilization”, object of study or assembly of practices?

This has been said and repeated – in particular by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol in an issue of the French Review of American Studies published in 2000 devoted to the “American civilization”, but we must return to it: the word “civilization” has had its day . It is no longer suitable and must be replaced. “Civilization” has not been transformed into a discipline or field of knowledge; it is at the same time an object of study and an assembly of practices without a spine. The term has become generic and its academic use goes beyond the Braudelian reference (ignored by many “civilizationists”), as the institutional context of its implementation.

Concerning “American civilization”, its introduction into the English-language departments is concomitant with the creation, in 1967, of the first professorship of American history at the Sorbonne and therefore of an immediate competition between two ways of treat the same field (on the subject, we can read the file composed by Paul Schor on the North American studies in France, for Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos, published in 2010, as well as the file directed by Jeanine Brun-Rovet on historians of the United States, for the French Review of American Studies, published in 1982).

If history courses in foreign studies are called courses of “civilization”, it is precisely because they are not taught in Bachelor of history, another area where education can be divided into geographical areas (and where the history of the United States is growing, albeit slowly). ?

Social Sciences in the LINC Divisions

It is also because the courses of “civilization” do not rest, in the texts and models (we do not speak here of personal pedagogical practices), on the same learning of the historiography, the treatment of the archives and the historical analysis. Nevertheless, although history occupies an important place in “civilization”, it does not exercise any monopoly, because the objective is, as explained Braudel, the possibility to consider, in their entirety, spaces and cultures in which a language predominates.

The interdisciplinary perspective integrates the analysis of the present tense, in agreement with the idea, dear to the historians of the Annales, that there are no watertight boundaries between past and present.

Thus the departments and UFR, already multidisciplinary, propose, under the heading of “civilization”, a panoply of courses in various approaches, the contents of which depend as much on the identified pedagogical and scientific needs as on the research areas of the teachers. (of which a number is, let us note it, aggregated in history and holds a doctorate in history).

In “American civilization” (in truth, “United States”), are thus offered to students in English CLRC courses of history (on the Puritans of New England, the American Civil War, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement …), but also courses involving sociology, political science and law, or “studies” (cultural, urban, film, media, black, women’s, queer, etc.).

The courses taught – in English for the most part – allow some audacity; nothing, nor anybody, is excluded. They mobilize history and the other social sciences, and are naturally permeable to any epistemic opening, thus contributing to the decompartmentalization of knowledge. The word “civilization” as it is understood today does not do justice to this diversity of knowledge to which it refers only implicitly.

Semantic, institutional and methodological issues

No doubt it will be possible to object that the word is functional and that it is difficult to replace, or that it is mediated and accepted, in short that we can adapt to it. This is not our opinion. We identify several problems related to the persistence of this term, which seem to us to weaken part of the research in foreign studies. They are of three kinds: semantic, institutional, methodological.

In the LINC branches, as in LEA, the term “civilization” has a meaning of its own, which escapes from those who are not able to decipher university jargon, and which is difficult to export.

However, its use in our universities dispenses with a discussion of the very meaning of the term – which, from its etymology civis, ended up referring to the ideal of progress – as to its use, from eighteenth century, for colonialist purposes. Its institutional use is abstracted from the debate, since the beginning of the twentieth century, in the humanities and social sciences as in linguistics, on the “word and the idea” to take again the title of the work directed by Lucien Febvre, master of Braudel, on the subject.

Civilisation, culture, studies

In the institutional language, we put the word “civilization” to the words “history” and “culture”, without really knowing why; and without the term “culture”, often more adapted but also curiously used, to succeed in supplanting it (except, in some places, in the acronym LLCER).

Here, according to the site of such a university, one assures the students that they will discover “the culture, the literature, the history, the civilization” of the country, or that they will be able to acquire “strong competences in the linguistic fields, literary, historical, cultural and civilizational “and follow ” courses in language, culture and civilization “.

What does it need to understand? Does not the civilizational understand the cultural (Larousse 2015)? What does it mean to follow a “course of American culture” (or Slavic, or Japanese)? And when it came a few years ago, to add the R to the acronym LLCE, the question of the definition of “regional civilization” – to get even closer to the Annales School program – was it been explicitly asked?

The problem is perhaps more acute in cases where the French word “civilization” and its translation into the language studied are close, which is the case for other Romance languages ​​such as English.

The polysemic and connoted dimension of the word is accentuated by the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden” of the British Rudyard Kipling (published in 1899 to praise American expansionism in the Philippines) or “the clash of Civilizations “by Samuel Huntington (who diverted from his account and for other purposes the subdivisions of Braudel).

In United Kingdom universities, the word is used only in its historical and anthropological sense (Classical civilization, East-Asian civilization). In American universities, it is in the process of extinction: “American Studies” have often replaced the program “American Civilization”, as at Brown University, or “Area Studies”, set up after 1945 in a Cold War context, while the so-called “consensus” story dominated and American exceptionalism was glorified.

As a result of the development, in the late 1960s, in the United States and Great Britain, of a story called the “New Left“, which gave its nobility to the study of Marginalized groups and historical studies “from below”, the expression “American Civilization” has been denounced in American universities as conveying a racist, sexist and imperialist vision.

Also its institutionalization and its persistence in the departments and UFR of English-speaking studies in France are paradoxical insofar as, if the “civilization” remains based on a will of opening, it is to be in shift – since several tens years hence – with historiographical advances in the United States and Great Britain. This is evidenced by the embarrassment that seizes the “civilizationists” when they must present themselves to their American or British colleagues.

“Civilization”, field outside discipline

The approach proposed in LLCER is, without doubt, endowed with irreplaceable specificities. The interdisciplinarity it encourages and deploys, the training of teacher-researchers, a good part of which holds an aggregation of languages ​​(English, Spanish, German, Italian, to quote the most common) lead to consideration particular issues related to strangeness.

It can be argued that thorough knowledge of the associated language-culture not only makes possible access to a vast body of sources, but also an in-depth understanding of the full range of nuances of written and oral expression.

Nevertheless, in addition to the fact that there are more and more French teachers and students, whatever their discipline, to know how to handle a foreign language – and English in particular – practices and context do not make any difference. “civilization” a discipline, and “civilization” does not have the prerogative of interdisciplinarity.

We thus affirm that what could formerly be the strength of “civilization”, namely its “border-crossing” character, is today its weakness and gives it a DIY look. To want to kiss too much, she does not hug anything.

Because “civilization” ignores issues of discipline and does not rely structurally on any disciplinary training. She is self-sufficient and learned on the job. Its object and methods are only rarely examined, and when they are, it is marginally and at the discretion of practitioners. In this respect, it is very distinct from “Cultural Studies”, which, in the words of the historian of science Stéphane Van Damme, “seems at once everywhere and nowhere”, but which is constantly redefined.

In the absence of courses dedicated to the methodology of the disciplines on which it is based (archival research, surveys, the collection and analysis of empirical data, reading images, etc. .), his teaching produces excessive generalities and tends to essentialize populations.

Invisible “civilizationists”

Because it escapes the nomenclature of the social sciences, because the word makes sense only for those who use it daily, civilization lives recluse and has difficulty crossing the walls of departments and UFR where it is taught.

Either we see some progress and collaborations, here and there, but who will say that “civilization” is part of the social sciences apart from the “civilizationists” themselves and those who really know their work? Who finally knows what the “civilizationists” are and do? These civilizationists that one regularly takes, including within the faculties of literature, for literary or linguists. The very people whose system – and the public – willingly makes language teachers (as it does with the literary and linguistics of our departments and UFR) in the service of other humanities and social sciences, which they are recognized as such.

In recent years, in English-language studies, there has been growing embarrassment in the field of “civilization”. The ground is said to be “undermined” by some and many still claim the title of “civilizationists” (often on the grounds that no other term is satisfactory), but more and more teachers-researchers express their criticisms. vis-à-vis the appellation.

This is due to the semantic aspects highlighted above, to the institutional dimension which maintains the disciplinary competition and tends – by design, one ends up thinking – to invisibilize the “civilizationists” (in some universities, the theses “in civilization” lead to a PhD in Languages ​​and Literatures), as well as to the epistemological and methodological problems posed by an unthinking use of the term.

Semantics are important – it must be remembered. We therefore feel it urgent to change our practices and to stop using the word “civilization” as a matter of course in UFRs and language departments, such as laboratories and doctoral schools. There is no civilization that holds; there are objects and scientific methods that belong to the social sciences.

Since foreign studies are no longer limited to the study of grammar, translation and literature of the foreign country in question, students enrolled in Licentiate LLCER and LEA also follow courses of “civilization”. LLCER actually wants to say, according to the official nomenclature, Foreign and Regional Letters, Literatures and Civilizations (and LEA, Applied Foreign Languages).

It was at the end of the 1960s that the term “civilization” was emancipated from the literature to designate strictly the teachings that did not pertain to literary analysis or the acquisition of tools for the mastery of the language. (grammar – nowadays linguistics and phonology – and translation), but which allowed a deepening of the knowledge of the environment in which the language and the literary works studied were inscribed.

Author Bios: Nathalie Caron is a Professor of American history and civilization – UFR of English Studies at the Sorbonne University and Caroline Rolland-Diamond is a Professor of History of the United States, University Paris Nanterre at the University Paris Lumières