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Dieterlen, Germaine


DIETERLEN, GERMAINE (19031999), a towering figure in French ethnography, is especially known for her exhaustive documentation of the Dogon of Mali. In 1931 she joined the famous ethnographic expedition, the Dakar-Djibouti mission, led by Marcel Griaule (18981956). She became an integral part of Griaule's interdisciplinary research team and his closest associate. Dieterlen's interests and investigations were wide-ranging. She made more than forty expeditions, mostly to Mali but also to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger, and Ghana. She researched Bozo, Peul, and Bambara (Bamana) as well as Dogon cultures, including music and instruments, statuary and art, jewelry, oral literature, language, and religion.

Dieterlen was already married and thirty years old when she decided to earn her baccalaureate in order to pursue a vocation in the nascent science of ethnography. That she defied the constricting social conventions of her day shows the extraordinary will and determination that she extended into the field, where she was reputed to be both exacting and tireless.

Dieterlen's first work, "Calebasses dahoméennes" ("Documents de la mission Dakar-Djibouti"), published in 1935 in collaboration with Griaule, was a descriptive study of the more than thirty-six hundred objects brought back by the Dakar-Djibouti mission for the Trocadero Museum. Dieterlen's careful attention to material culture reflects the influence of her teacher Marcel Mauss (18721950). Her first great work, Les âmes des Dogons (1941), inaugurated her innovative research on religious ethnology. During three subsequent expeditions she deepened her focus on belief systems, producing the classic Essai sur la religion des Bambara (1951). These three works, though disparate in content and style, reflect the two orientations in Dieterlen's scientific life: concrete objects and symbolic representations. Dieterlen's fascination with the relationship of concrete manifestations to systems of belief is evident in another work coauthored with Griaule, Signes graphiques soudanais (1951).

Dieterlen carefully attended to the very words of those she studied as a means of understanding their beliefs and systems of representation. Her method was to note their language and then later develop reflections and deepened insights by examining their words. This was the method used in Le renard pâle (1965), which she published after Griaule's death under both their names. An extraordinary work, it is the extended study and amplification of the cosmogonic system first expounded by a Dogon elder seventeen years before and related by Griaule in his landmark book, Dieu d'eau (Conversations with Ogotemmêli) in 1948. Her comprehensive synthesis of Dogon cosmogony is complemented by a thorough analysis of its concrete manifestation in their social arrangements. Dieterlen's respect for the authority of her native informants' own self-representation is epitomized in Le titre d'honneur des Arou (1982), almost entirely comprised of direct transcription.

Dieterlen's assumption that key informants were articulate exponents of local knowledge provided the guiding impulse for her novel use of ethnographic film as a research tool. She viewed filmed ceremonial events with informants to elicit a dialogue and insights that led to fuller comprehension. A unique achievement in the history of ethnography was the series of eight films she made with Jean Rouch (19172004) between 1967 and 1973 consecrated to the Sigui, a Dogon masking ritual held every sixty years that extends over a seven-year period. A pioneer of the medium, Dieterlen eventually served as the president of the Committee on Ethnographic Film.

Another critical contribution Dieterlen made to the field was her promotion of dialogue between the French and British schools of anthropology, which employed characteristically opposing means of interrogating West African culture. The French approach, personified by Griaule and Dieterlen, gave primacy to the symbolic and mythical features of culture, while the British method, more analytical than metaphysical, documented social organization, particularly kinship and politics. Collaborating extensively with British colleagues, Dieterlen played an ambassadorial role that fostered constructive discussion about method even as it promoted work that cut across the boundaries of Francophone and Anglophone countries. Dieterlen served on the Council of the International African Institute (CIAI) along with Daryll Forde (19021973), who edited the important collection African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples (1954) that also bridged French and British preoccupations.

During the mid-1960s the CIAI organized two seminars on the Voltaic region. The result was an important collection, African Systems of Thought (1965), coedited by Dieterlen and the British anthropologist Meyer Fortes (19061983). The volume initiated a wide and enduring debate on the meaning of non-Western thought. It also explored the degree to which the contrasting theoretical orientations and methods of the two schools determined strikingly different appraisals of similar cultures.

A founding member and director of research for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Dieterlen created a research group on African religions. She organized the CNRS's influential 1971 international colloquium on what later became a fashionable theme in anthropology, the "notion of personhood." Dieterlen's contribution recovered the feminine as important aspects of the Dogon mythology and social system, including a consideration of pregnancy, childbirth, and the placenta as the bearer of the sacred signs of creation. In an astounding homage to Dieterlen, the Dogon gave her the status yasiguine (sister of Sigui), which entitled her to be a member of the male masking society.

See Also

Griaule, Marcel.


Dieterlen, Germaine, in collaboration with Marcel Griaule. "Calebasses dahoméennes" ("Documents de la mission Dakar-Djibouti"). Journal de la Société des Africanistes V, no. 2 (1935): 203246.

Dieterlen, Germaine. Les âmes des Dogons. Paris, 1941.

Dieterlen, Germaine. Essai sur la religion Bambara. Paris, 1951. Translated as An Essay on the Religion of the Bambara (New Haven, Conn., 1960).

Dieterlen, Germaine. "Mythe et organization sociale au Soudan français." Journal de la Société des Africanistes 25 (1955): 3976.

Dieterlen, Germaine. "Mythe et organization sociale en Afrique occidentale." Journal de la Société des Africanistes 29 (1959): 119138.

Dieterlen, Germaine. "Colloque sur les cultures voltaïques (Sochamp, 68 décembre 1965)." Recherches voltaïques 8 (1967): 3344.

Dieterlen, Germaine. "L'image du corps et les composantes de la personne chez les Dogon." In La notion de personne en Afrique noire, Paris, 1117 octobre 1971. Colloques internationaux du C.N.R.S., pp. 205229. Paris, 1973.

Dieterlen, Germaine. Systèmes de signes: Textes réunis en hommage à Germaine Dieterlen. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Paris, 1978.

Dieterlen, Germaine. Le titre d'honneur des Arou (Dogon, Mali). Paris, 1982.

Dieterlen, Germaine, and Marcel Griaule. Signes graphiques soudanais. Paris, 1951.

Dieterlen, Germaine, and Marcel Griaule. "The Dogon of the French Sudan." In African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde, pp. 83110. London, 1954.

Dieterlen, Germaine, and Marcel Griaule. Le renard pâle. Paris, 1965. Translated by Stephen C. Infantino as The Pale Fox, Chino Valley, Az., 1986.

Ferry, Marie-Paule. "Hommage à Germaine Dieterlen." L'humanité (November 29, 1999).

Griaule, Marcel. Dieu d'eau. Paris, 1948. Translated as Conversations with Ogotemmêli (London and New York, 1970).

International African Seminar (3d, 1960, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia). African Systems of Thought: Studies Presented and Discussed at the Third International African Seminar in Salisbury, December 1960. Prefaces by M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen. London, New York, 1965.

Lewis, I. M. "Obituary." Anthropology Today 16, no. 2 (April 2000): 2556.

Piault, Marc-Henri, and Joelle Hauzeur, eds. "Les empreintes du renard pâle: Pour Germaine Dieterlen." Journal des Africanistes 71, no. 1 (2001): special issue.

Laura S. Grillo (2005)

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