Griaule, Marcel

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GRIAULE, MARCEL . Marcel Griaule (18981956) was a pioneer of French ethnographic research in Africa, an emblematic figure of French ethnography, and a catalyst to the emerging discipline's professionalization. After serving in World War I as an air force pilot, he obtained a degree in living Oriental languages (Amharic and Gueze) before studying with sociologist Marcel Mauss. Griaule was among the first ethnographers trained by the Institute of Ethnology at the Sorbonne, and his career paralleled every stage of the discipline's development. An energetic promoter of innovative technological aids, Griaule introduced the ethnographic film. He also founded the Société des Africanistes and its journal. In 1942, he was named the first chair of ethnology at the University of Paris. Like the discipline itself, Griaule's career took progressive distance from colonial interests. As an advisor to the French Union and the president of France's Commission on Cultural Affairs, Griaule championed respect for African culture and criticized the politics of cultural assimilation.

In the first ten years of his career, Griaule led the principal French ethnographic expeditions to Africa. His first expedition was a year-long mission to Ethiopia in 1928, but his most celebrated journey was the Dakar-Djibouti mission. Over twenty-one months (19311933), it traversed sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Enthusiastically followed by the French press, the mission also forged links with the literary and artistic avant-garde. Griaule gathered an imposing ethnographic harvestmore than 3,600 objects to enrich the holdings of the Trocadéro Museum, plus thousands of photographs, films, and recordings.

During this mission Griaule encountered the Dogon at the bend of the Niger River. Favoring intensive study of individual societies, Griaule and his colleagues subsequently made regular expeditions to pursue research on Dogon culture as a team. A sense of urgency to archive and safeguard disappearing cultures provoked a method of collaborative interdisciplinary investigation. Teamwork provided multiple accounts of an event for analysis, and also enabled the same cultural phenomenon to be considered from various frames of expertise, a factor Griaule termed "plural observation." Splicing observations into a "synoptic account" verified by informants, the method purportedly reconstructed a "typical" instance, purged of modifications that would destroy what Griaule called "its ideal harmony" (Jolly, 2001, p. 164). Griaule progressively extended his team to include "native collaborators," whom he described as "precious auxiliary." The project, beginning in 1935 and spanning five decades, made the Dogon one of the best-known societies on the continent.

In the initial period of his career, Griaule avoided infusing explanation into data, and he approached the ethnographic object as the only reliable "witness" to a society's meanings. Minute documentation characterized his doctoral thesis, which produced two outstanding works, a study of masks, Masques dogons (1938), and games, Jeux dogons (1938).

Deprived of the opportunity for fieldwork for six years during World War II, Griaule elaborated his theory of mythology as an "ordered system" reflected in social organization. His return to Africa in 1946 reinforced this shift. At the behest of Dogon elders, a blind old sage, Ogotemmêli, was charged with revealing to Griaule a deeper, esoteric level of mythological knowledge, reserved for initiates. This postwar phase of Griaule's career was therefore governed by dialogue and a new conception of the ethnographic inquiry as initiation. Griaule focused his research on the complex cosmogony Ogotemmêli expounded, asserting it amounted to "a metaphysic, a religion that puts them on the same level as the peoples of Antiquity."

Presented as a daily chronicle of the old man's revelations in an accessible style, Griaule's account, Dieu d'eau (1948), translated as Conversations with Ogotemmêli, became a bestseller. Foreshadowing a postmodern self-consciousness, Griaule injected himself into the narrative as "the European," "the Stranger," and "the Nazarene." This literary device suggests a frank acknowledgment of roles ascribed to him in the ethnographic situation. Nevertheless, of Griaule's 170 publications, it is the most contested. The book's critics contend that it amounts to unrepresentative theological speculations or mythopoeic invention (Goody, 1967).

After Griaule's untimely death in 1956, his close associate, Germaine Dieterlen, furthered work on Dogon myth and religion, publishing under both their names the monumental synthesis of cosmology, Le renard pâle (1965).

The work of Marcel Griaule and his followers is "one of the classic achievements of twentieth-century ethnography," self-conscious about method and unparalleled in its comprehensive detail (Clifford, 1983, p. 124). However, Griaule's oeuvre has come under sharp scrutiny since the 1960s, criticized for essentializing cultural patterns and privileging a romanticized past over a historically conditioned present. A constant refrain of Griaule's detractors is that he reified "the Dogon."

British anthropologists were especially skeptical of Griaule's reliance on translators and select informants; they charge that he neglected case histories and details of daily existence in favor of metaphysics, which presents a "too perfectly ordered vision of Dogon reality" (Richards, 1967; Douglas, 1967; Goody, 1967). Dutch anthropologist Walter van Beek (1991) continued the polemic, attempting to debunk Griaule's fieldwork with his own contemporary data; however, van Beek's own lack of accountability weakened his verdict. James Clifford explored the complex role played by a group of influential Dogon in the evolution of Griaule's work with greater sophistication, concluding that Griaule's writings "express a Dogon truth, a complex, negotiated, historically contingent truth specific to certain relations of textual production" (1983, p. 125).

That the Dogon celebrated exceptional funerary rites in Griaule's honor proves the degree to which they held the researcher in esteem, recognizing him as one of their own.

See Also

Dieterlen, Germaine.


Champion, P. "Bibliographie de Marcel Griaule (ordre chronologique)." Journal de la société des Africanistes 26, nos. 12 (1956): 279290. A complete bibliography.

Clifford, James. "Power and Dialogue in Ethnography: Marcel Griaule's Initiation." In Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, edited by George W. Stocking Jr., pp. 121156. Madison, Wis., 1983.

Doquet, Anne. Les masques dogon: Ethnologie savante eet ethnologie autochtone. Paris, 1999.

Douglas, Mary. "If the Dogon" Cahiers d'études Africaines 28 (1967): 659672.

Goody, Jack. "Review of Conversations with Ogotemmêli, by M. Griaule." American Anthropologist 69, no. 2 (1967): 239241.

Griaule, Marcel. Jeux dogons. Paris, 1938.

Griaule, Marcel. Masques dogons. Paris, 1938.

Griaule, Marcel. Arts de l'Afrique noire. Paris, 1947. Translated as Folk Art of Black Africa by Michael Heron. Paris and New York, 1950.

Griaule, Marcel. "Le savoir Dogon." Journal de la société des Africanistes 22 (1952): 2742.

Griaule, Marcel. Dieu d'eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli. Paris, 1948. Translated as Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London, 1965.

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

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

Griaule, Marcel. Méthodes de l'ethnographie. Paris, 1957.

Jolly, Eric. "Marcel Griaule, ethnologue: La construction d'une discipline (19251956)." Journal des Africanistes 71, no. 1 (2001): 149190.

Richards, A. I. "African Systems of Thought: An Anglo-French Dialogue." Man 2 (1967): 286298.

van Beek, Walter E. A. "Dogon Restudied (A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule)." Current Anthropology 32, no. 2 (1991): 139158. Responses by R. M. A. Bédaux, Suzanne Preston Blier, Jacky Bouju, Peter Ian Crawford, Mary Douglas, Paul Lane, Claude Meillassoux, and W. E. A. Van Beek appear on pages 158167.

Laura S. Grillo (2005)