The Specificity of Sources: Simona Cerutti and Isabelle Grangaud discuss their Goody Award-winning essay with Andrew Shryock

To celebrate CSSH‘s 60th anniversary in 2018, the journal’s editors organized an annual article award in commemoration of the late Sir Jack Goody (1919-2015). Jack Goody was a frequent author and contributor to the journal over the course of five decades. The award named in his honor is granted to the article that best represents the mission of the journal in a given volume.

We are delighted to announce that Simona Cerutti and Isabelle Grangaud‘s essay, “Sources and Contextualizations: Comparing Eighteenth-Century North Africa and Western European Institutions” is the inaugural winner of the Jack Goody Award.

The jury was composed of Gregory Starrett, Sherry Ortner, and Krishan Kumar. Here is what they wrote about the article:

Sources and Contextualizations: Comparing Eighteenth-Century North Africa and Western European Institutions” provides not only a clear and systematic summary of common ways of thinking about comparison, but offers a fresh way of conceptualizing what kinds of comparisons might be done, what results from them, and how this method both illuminates particular cases and prompts further questions about broader issues.  Reorienting the existing literature on the institutions of the French droit d’aubaine and the Ottoman Bayt al-mal, Cerutti and Grangaud show that what seemed like mechanisms of state expropriation come to appear instead as mechanisms for the definition and protection of private interest, particularly as concern lineages and families. At first reading, the intriguing approach they propose appears methodologically troublesome, as the similarities between the two institutions are only discoverable after the fact. But in the end, the extraordinary insight and depth of the actual interpretation may not have been possible without the framework they set forth. By not taking at face value the textual statements of laws and regulations, but instead digging away at the actual interpretations and actions of administrative agents, the authors show affinities and similarities that are counter-intuitive and highly revealing. In doing so they open up a whole series of questions relating to distinctions between the religious and the secular, the foreign and the local, family and property, poverty and belonging. What is particularly important are the implications for the general study of citizenship and ‘foreignness’ in ancien regime societies. By demonstrating that, for both early-modern French society and Ottoman society, ‘foreignness’ and ‘poverty’ belong in the same category, reflecting the same condition of being ‘unplaced’ and lacking social bonds, they undermine many anachronistic accounts of citizenship and belonging in the early-modern state. Altogether this is a very fine and original piece of work, an inspiring model for how one might approach any number of issues.”

To get a better sense of how this essay was written, we decided to ask Cerutti and Grangaud a few questions. Their answers are fascinating. They explain their working relationship, their approach to sources as both social action and evidence of social action, their careful relationship to comparison, and their intellectual (and political) commitment to modes of collaborative analysis that “denaturalize” the presumed coherence of regions, identities, and cultural fields.

The interview will be doubly interesting if you read the essay first. It is currently available for download, free, on our Cambridge Core site. If you have not yet read it, it will be helpful to know that the two institutions Cerutti and Grangaud analyze were arms of the state that dealt, in various ways, with the property of people who died without local heirs, who were foreign, or poor, or otherwise disconnected from recognized family and lineage ties. Their property was sometimes confiscated by the state; more often, officials went to great lengths to locate heirs and settle claims against estates. As Cerutti and Grangaud note, the two institutions defined their tasks differently (the Bayt al-mâl undertook roles, such as burial, that belonged to the Church in France), but each did important work in defining what it meant to be foreign, poor, related, local, and properly situated in the social order of persons and things.

Shryock: You say in your essay that you were initially “hesitant” to compare the droit d’aubaine and the Bayt al-mâl because they belonged to “distinct cultural fields”; in this case, Europe and the Maghreb. Yet you also had a strong sense that these institutions were similar, and this was based on “long-acquaintance” with each other’s work. Your essay is very much an exercise in formalizing that hunch analytically, which allows you to make the comparison in the right way. I’d like to begin, though, by returning to those early moments of recognition. They seem to be the real motivator of your piece. What were they based on? How did the idea of “distinct cultural fields” impede or intensify those early perceptions? 

Cerutti: The idea that our research is inscribed in distinct cultural fields has long been a real obstacle to comparison. The term “cultural roots” gives a clear sense of the distance that, it is commonly believed, separates Western and Islamic societies. The political contingencies of recent years have only added to that sense of distance.

Grangaud: In fact, nothing a priori made our comparison of the droit d’aubaine and the Bayt al-mâl possible; everything was opposed to it. The historiography available to us was not useful. Our collaboration was made elsewhere, “in the kitchen,” so to speak. We benefited from working together. This experience was part of a long-term scientific relationship that went through several stages.

Cerutti: The CSSH essay is based on years of reciprocal interrogations and progressive familiarity with different research materials. Together, we’ve read sources that each of us “controlled” (in Arabic, Italian, French, and Latin). We’ve asked basic questions: who produced the sources, where and when, for what reason, addressed to whom, and why and in what condition have they come to us? This was a slow reading of the sources. “Slow reading” is Nietzsche’s definition of philology. Somehow, we told ourselves that this work was being done “in the pride of slowness.” The questions we posed grew in collaboration, in a process full of rebounds, of exchange, of loans. We went down the wrong roads. We came back.

I believe this way of working is a good product of our historiographical moment, which is characterized by an opening up of the territorial boundaries that once confined us as researchers. This openness is necessary, I think, because it is very difficult for a lone researcher to acquire not only the many linguistic skills, but also the diverse forms of analytical competence, that are needed to engage with a plurality of archives.

Grangaud: My own experience is instructive. For many years, I followed the seminar Simona gave at EHESS, where I was preparing a thesis on Constantine in the eighteenth century. The urban history I wanted to pursue was nourished by the approaches and perspectives being developed in extra-Maghreb (even extra-Ottoman) historiography. But this seminar was valuable above all because it widened the scope and enhanced the reflexivity of the microhistory movement. It showed the importance of reading the sources in ways that paid attention to their conditions of production, diffusion, and use, especially from the point of view of contemporaries, creators, users, or simple witnesses. This perspective greatly enriched a terrain – that of the central Maghreb in modern times – that was poor in historical sources, and it encouraged the exploration of previously unseen social spaces. If the content of the sources was initially not very juicy, the consideration of how they were produced and used gave them new relevance and inestimable historical value.

Simona showed an unusual interest in the subject matter of my research. At the time, it seemed to me that I was evolving in an intellectual world where, on one side, Orientalists existed only by virtue of the exceptionalism of the cultural domains they studied, and on the other side, Westerners maintained a courteous indifference to non-European pasts. Microhistory was one of the few spaces for reflection in which the denaturalization of these barriers was on the agenda. The lines have moved since, but the demarcation is still very much alive.

Shryock: Definitely. And many scholars would say that comparison sets up a new boundary for every old one it erases. I don’t agree with that claim, but it does scare people away from comparative analysis.

Grangaud: Comparison was not our project at first. It became progressively formalized when, starting in 2003, we offered a joint seminar whose common thread was comparison. We didn’t know quite where we were going – Simona was happy to claim the exercise was political – but the goal was what we make explicit in our article: not to lose sight of specificity. We also challenged culturalist approaches that pretended to explain the world while discouraging any comparative work at all. We were convinced that culture was a means of communication and therefore the opposite of a limit to communication. It was therefore up to the historians to grasp this fact and use it to “speak to us.”

More prosaically, our collaboration was born of an intuition that led me to read sources that in other circumstances I would not even have addressed. It was while studying the proofs of Simona’s article on le droit d’aubaine, which appeared in Annales, that I decided to undertake a serious reading of the records of the Bayt al-mâl, which hitherto had been only vaguely assessed, mostly from an etic point of view. It took me several years to understand the meaning of these records, which had an amazing likeness to the sources of the aubaine. It was in the observation of these proximities that the idea of implementing a comparative approach was born.

Cerutti: So – collaboration. It requires great flexibility. A flexible method is obviously different from the working protocols we associate with the hard sciences. The opposite of hard is flexible, but – and I think that it’s very important to stress this point – flexible does not mean inaccurate. I believe that historians and social scientists should protect ourselves from a feeling of guilt about our analytical methods; in fact, we should try to formalize these procedures based on friction, porosity, and borrowing. It could become a new field of comparison in which fellow researchers, and related social sciences, reflect on the possibilities and limits of this historiographical moment.

Shryock: You insist on the importance of dealing with “sources,” of rooting the comparison in a careful analysis of what is being done in and through the sources. Clearly, “sources” in your case are documents, but one of the things our jury found appealing in your essay is the possibility of applying your method more generally. Do you have any recommendations for how to go about that? Would you like to reapply the method yourselves?

Cerutti: Historians deal mostly with documents, and the traces left by the Bayt al-mâl or by the aubaine are records of testimonies, judicial actions, and post-mortem inventories. But these records are not just reports of past actions; they were themselves actions. They were meant to intervene in reality, modifying it. Each of these records could be used (and often would be used) to claim something. Nothing is less obvious than producing a source. Notarial acts, petitions, trials, maps, claims to rights. Even apparently neutral sources such as demographic documents constitute, in most cases, claims to jurisdiction. Our perspective requires analyzing the sources for the intentions they express (as we said in the article, “the intentionality of sources” does not indicate a plan or particular goal, but rather an intention that is inscribed into the act of doing, the intention “in doing something.”)

Grangaud: We treat sources as social products from start to finish. The essay is about documents, but it would be possible to apprehend other materials (languages, gestures, objects) in the same way. Sources should not be classified or distinguished using pre-existing categories because, again, it is only through real social activity that they make sense.

Cerutti: This perspective brings the work of historians closer to that of other social sciences. The actions the researchers observe shouldn’t be read as reflections of social structure, but rather as people’s interpretations of the forms that social structure ought to assume, or attempts to find agreement over these interpretations, or strategies for legitimating the choices actors have made. The creative character of action in Ancien Régime society was nurtured by a specific culture: a culture of jurisdiction, which gave rise to rights and enactments. More than having a formal property right, it was often the de facto situation that was crucial – familiarity with the object in question and having used it habitually. More than being formally designated to an office or post, it was acting as a such-and-such that affected one’s status. In this sense, actions are not mirrors of social edifices constructed elsewhere, nor reflections of external norms. They are how social constructions, reasons, logics, and norms are built, and also moments in legitimation. Seen in this way, the relationship between practices and norms really changes profoundly. This alliance between Ancien Régime cultures and the theories of action put forward by some sociologists and ethnomethodologists is fruitful (however paradoxical). These conceptions of sources and actions are the true points of convergence between historians and other social scientists.

Grangaud: If, by relying on sources, we have done something exceptional, it is precisely by showing that it is possible to trace the processes through which commensurable contexts emerge and assert themselves. The most precise account of these processes is rooted in the specificity of the sources and the means by which they are produced, formatted, and updated. This is our work on sources. Personally, I think this method is the only way to work across different terrains. It gives access to a radical perspective on the real conditions of observation, and it allows us to counter the effects of inequality generated by historiographies that have different degrees of development and social use.

Our essay is peculiar only in that we try to preserve in the text the different stages, conditions, and effects of writing it. But the results, the analytical displacements, the questioning of the boundaries between pre-established fields, and the alternative readings we propose all derive from an analysis of the sources that links them to contextual processes that are elaborated in the very specificity of those sources.

Shryock: Your arguments often go in unexpected directions. The jury was impressed by your ability to find the centrality of kinship and lineage to institutions that most historians would see as arms of the state designed to expand its (greedy) powers against inheritance claims made by individuals and lineage-based groups. You also find an unconventional link between concepts of foreignness, poverty, and what can only be described as incomplete, or unknown, kinship networks. It really is an impressive analytical turn. I know you don’t want to overgeneralize, but one wonders about the extent to which kinship, lineage, and succession are still central to state formation, and citizenship itself, in ways modernist political idioms cannot acknowledge.

Grangaud: For sure. And, with the support of anthropology, it is necessary to question the distinction that our modernist societies have naturalized, that consigns family and kinship to private space, without connection to the civic dimensions that govern their formation and reproduction, on the one hand, and unconnected to public political space, on the other. This raises the question of the meanings of sovereignty today. It is too often associated with the exercise of the exclusive authority of the state, whereas it could be grasped through the processes of responsibility that structure rights, but also obligations, with regard to transmission and succession. This is a point I will develop in my new research on the Bayt al-mâl in Algiers.

Shryock: My favorite moment in the essay comes when you claim that “the activities of [the droit d’aubaine and the Bayt al-mâl] provide persuasive evidence that, in both cases, the power of the state resulted directly from its ability to compensate for weak ancestral lineages and sovereignty was shaped by the configuration of lineages” (CSSH 59/1: 27). State officials seem not to have concluded that a pervasive weakening of lineage sovereignty would heighten the powers of the state; instead, they wanted to insure that lineage-based rights to property and inheritance were protected. This goes against several dominant strains in Orientalist and modernist political theory. In fact, it renders them anachronistic in relation to the worlds you describe. What do you make of this outcome?

Grangaud: We don’t want to ignore the will of state authorities to exercise their power. On the contrary, it seems important to account for the fact that the activities of the institutions we analyzed were deployed in contexts of rivalry and intense competition with other authorities, around the same prerogatives, whether or not they were state-owned elsewhere. Such a context is generally ignored in contemporary approaches. On the other hand, what these results reveal, which is crucial, is the importance given to the rights conveyed by things in the construction of belonging – hence, the need to restore a history that takes into account things and rights to things. One point that seems essential to me is finding modes of analysis that do not borrow from the paradigm of identity, which is essentialist as such. Our work shows that a consideration of resource rights and unequal access to them is a radical alternative to the identity approach. Likewise, many works today in anthropology and sociology lead to a reconsideration of citizenship in terms other than formal ones closely linked to the state. Our joint work is part of this analytical trend.

Cerutti: In my case, the development of the research has been anything but expected. The droit d’aubaine, formally, and according to current historiography, is the right of the sovereign to take possession of the property of foreigners who have died without heirs. It was only after a careful analysis of procedures that I saw that in reality, and in spite of the official norm, seizures made by the king’s functionaries were very rare. In most instances, officials were concerned with protecting the properties of foreigners (but not exclusively foreigners) whose heirs were uncertain or absent. This evidence emerges through reading the sources “against the grain,” against “historiographical common sense” and the logical and chronological sequences they were placed in after the fact, restoring to them instead their contemporaneity, and therefore the significance they had for social actors.

So, I realized that at the center of the institution’s activity were things (heredity, patrimony) rather than people (foreigners). Every inheritance must have its heir or heirs. The reason for this is simple and essential: there may be creditors, and their claims must be satisfied. Without this condition, no transaction would have been possible, which is why the intervention of a central institution was a social necessity. This “discovery” forced me to abandon the anthropocentrism that characterizes historical research and, gradually, also another prejudice: the idea that the attribution of the rights of citizenship or of nationality was a monopoly of the state. The connection between inscription in a chain of inheritance and the attribution of naturality began to appear clearly. The Crown never had a monopoly on conferring citizenship and naturalization (even though it showed remarkable determination in trying to prove to itself, its subjects, and historians that the opposite was true); moreover, it modeled its action on parallel logics of transmission. It was indeed the Treasury’s capacity to take over the succession of “foreigners” that legitimated the Crown’s jurisdiction over the problem of attributing nationality. The family, kinship, and descent were the areas in which the rights of succession, legal responsibilities towards creditors, and the right to represent the interests of third parties were built. They were all criteria of belonging, and all were destined to become essentially territorial. This is another important reversal of perspective, I think, that blurs the common distinction researchers make between society and institutions; family and state, micro or macro levels of analysis. It is one of the principal insights of our research.

Shryock: Let me say in parting that you’ve written a wonderful essay. I hope it’s widely read and put to use by comparativists everywhere in search of new methods, and new inspiration. Congratulations to you both on winning the first Jack Goody Award.