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Translated by Peter Figueroa and
Look at any curve on a graph, for example of criminal or minor second offences
in the last fifty years. Don’t those traits have a physiognomy, if not like that of
the human face, at least like the silhouette of hills and valleys, or rather, since we
are concerned here with movement – for we speak so appropriately in statistics of
fluctuations in crime or births or marriages – like the twists and turns, the sudden
dives, the sharp ascents in the flight of a swallow?
(Tarde 1890a: 191)1
Today statistics is almost always thought of as a photograph, a fixed image of
reality, which is itself always changing (this being moreover Durkheim’s notion
of it). Tarde thought differently; he championed a theory of statistics as a specific
means of expressing changes in society. For him statistics is not static, as its ety-
mology might lead one to think, but rather dynamic. This conception of statistics
by Tarde is interesting because it is original and surprising, but above all because
Tarde makes statistics an absolutely central mechanism of his sociology. He con-
siders it much more than a simple method; rather than being a secondary tool, for
him there would be no sociology without statistics.2
In order to present his theory, we will begin by showing that, for Tarde, the
world – and with it society – is first and foremost quantitative; it is in itself numeral
[nombre] even before it is analysed by statistics. Following on from this we will
see how statistics can be the sociologist’s best ally in expressing the modifications
of society so that they may be studied scientifically. We will give a number of
statistical examples much used by Tarde, and we will see how his ideas enabled
him to interpret them. Finally, Tarde’s statistical theory would be incomplete if
one last point was not stressed, one moreover which was largely neglected at the
time, but which was crucial for him: turning on its head the question of how it is
that societies can be described by figures, he asks what statistics itself does, and
would do, to the societies that they describe. So, like him, we will conclude by
sketching the portrait of this seldom identified social actor.
164 E. Didier
1 Psychology: tension between initial quantities
The starting point for understanding the increasing importance of statistics for Tarde
is to be found in his psychology. In ‘La croyance et le désir’ (published as a chapter
in Tarde 1895a: 180–235), Tarde explains that for him all psychological states are
combinations of the following three unique elements: belief, desire and sensa-
tion. Although sensation is a quality, the other two are quantitative. So for Tarde
two-thirds of psychological elements are, unquestionably, quantities. The crucial
point is to understand ‘the quantitative character of belief and desire alone’.
To explain this, Tarde first of all proves that sensation is not quantitative. He
All quantitative reality known to us may by its nature have positive or negative
values, internal oppositions. But sensation, which is a reality, has no negative
values. Hence it cannot be a quantity.
(Tarde 1895a: 194)
Further on he explains that, ‘What prevents me from accepting sensations as being in
essence quantitative is that, in their apparent increasing or decreasing, they manifestly
change in kind; these apparent increases or decreases are in reality metamorphoses.’
When sensations undergo chang,e it is a change, in kind, not in degree.
On the contrary, belief and desire are quantities.
All opposition is a conflict, an attempted or realized counterbalancing, which
supposes a similarity of the opposed terms, their numerical comparability,
the possibility of putting them into an equation. Hence no true opposition
can be found outside of quantitative realities. So if belief and desire contain
undeniable oppositions, it is proven that they are quantities; and it is evident
that both of them encompass positive and negative states.
(Tarde 1895a: 196)
It seems to me that his argument is very powerful: opposition automatically implies
similarity, for opposition is a certain form of equivalence, of equation. There being
similar elements automatically implies reduplication, and this means they can be
counted; hence they are quantitative. ‘Quantity is in effect the possibility of infinite
series of similarities and of infinitely small repetitions’ (Tarde 1999: 57). Thus
opposition is always in part quantitative. Since opposition is universal, quantity
too is universal.
However, these quantities are always intermingled with sensations, making it
complicated to enumerate them. ‘The main difficulty in recognizing the quantit-
ative character of belief and desire is the eminently qualitative nature of sensation,
with which they are always found in combination’ (Tarde 1895a: 197). Psychology
thus allows us to see that the world is almost completely quantitative because exact
similarities [de l’identique] occur, but that it is difficult to see this simply because
the world is also made up of sensations.
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 165
It must be stressed that for Tarde these psychological components are never
states, but always tensions, oppositions, or to repeat an apt expression used by one
of Tarde’s commentators, ‘whirlwinds or spiralling clusters’ (Bertrand 1904: 637).
There is never anything fixed or stable. Hence statistics takes on board exactly
similar factors [des unités identiques], but these exact similarities [identités] are
always ‘desires and beliefs’ – and therefore tensions, not resolutions of tensions
(contrary to statistical categories which are constructed precisely so as to be stable)
– or failing this they are ‘products’ resulting from belief or desire (Tarde 1890a:
120). When Tarde speaks of ‘imitation’ what he means is the action of imitating,
not the result of this action (see Benvéniste 1993: endings in ‘sis’ and ‘tus’; ‘sis’
is the name of the result of an action whereas ‘tion’ is the name of the action in
The proper task [of statistics] is to measure special beliefs, special desires, and
to use the most direct procedures to study as closely as possible these quantities
that are so difficult to get a hold of; to count actions that are the most similar
to each other. (emphasis added in ‘actions’)
(Tarde 1890a: 120)
The statistician may be feeling elated with all of this, but he must first of all come
down to earth. In fact, these individual psychological components, although they
are quantitative in nature, are very difficult to measure in practice.
In ‘La croyance et le désir’, Tarde carries on an impassioned and closely argued
discussion with Cournot (1843) in particular. The works of Cournot on the probability
of working-class juries making an error when they are asked to give a verdict on the
guilt of an accused are known. These represented one of the most successful attempts
to measure beliefs. Tarde’s discussion reveals, however, that, while in theory the
two quantities, belief and desire, can indeed be measured, Cournot’s probabilities
in fact also confuse belief with the objective reasons for belief. The probability of
winning on the lottery increases if I buy more tickets, but there is nothing to say that
my belief in the possibility of winning will increase proportionately. Similarly, there
are certain objective reasons which influence the probability of a jury making an
error, but these do not influence in the same way its members’ reasons for holding
a particular belief (for example, the number of jurors affects the calculation of the
probability of jury error, but it is not certain that this counts in the same way in the
minds of the jurors). Cournot’s probabilities depend on psychological hypotheses
that have not been verified. For these to be established once and for all, what is
needed is clarification of the relationship between probabilities and the mechanisms
for holding beliefs, but this has not yet been done. The practical quantification of
beliefs is not yet within easy reach.
Thus, taking a psychological analysis as his starting point, Tarde shows the
importance of the quantitative in the whole of human activity. All mental mecha-
nisms have a quantitative aspect. It becomes obvious that this can give a very
important role to statistics, which will open up a fundamental field of research, if
it can account for these quantities. However, it immediately comes up against a
166 E. Didier
problem: these quantities are difficult to express in practice as long as they remain
in the mind. How can statistics overcome this difficulty?
2 Social aggregates
Once it has been noted that exactly similar units within any given individual [les
identités inter-individuelles] are difficult to measure, the question arises about
the measurement of such units between individuals. The question is: ‘under what
conditions can the powers of belief and of desire within distinct individuals be
legitimately added together?’ (Tarde 1999: 58). In other words, ‘Having demon-
strated that individual belief and desire can be measured, we need to ask whether
beliefs and desires of different individuals, taken together, may legitimately be
added together into one total’ (Tarde 1895a: 207).
Tarde’s argument was refined over time. In his earlier writings he seeks to
identify what it is exactly similar that passes from one person to another. He notes
that orders given by an irascible general are understood in the same way if they
are given by a phlegmatic general (Tarde 1999: 57). And, in any case, he observes
that if there were no such transmission, the existence of many things would be
made impossible: ‘tradition would only be an empty word; nothing human could
be transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next’ (Tarde 1895a: 208). So
there must indeed be transmission of the exactly similar.
These exactly similar things that are transmitted are not sensations, precisely
because these latter depend on how each person is constituted: ‘We consider that a
certain sensation is missing in Peter, and that Paul has a different kind of sensation’
(Tarde 1895a: 208). So the only exactly similar things which can be transmitted
are beliefs and desires. ‘Only through beliefs and only through desires do we col-
laborate, do we fight; so it is only through these that we are alike. No better reason
can be given.’ Tarde cannot help it, that is how things are: human beings have a
tendency to imitate each other, and there is no better explanation. Belief and desire
are that ‘which, under the variable tinge of the shades of the feelings proper to each
individual, circulates as exactly similar things’.
It should be stressed again that beliefs and desires as such are quantitative.
The statistician, therefore, just needs to be skilful enough to locate them, to find
actions or outcomes that are sufficiently similar and to count them. Tarde gives
the examples of the fluctuations in the stock exchange, in marriage rates, and in
crime statistics. These exactly similar things that pass from one person to another,
and which statistics traces with such ease, are beams of imitation [des faisceaux
d’imitations] (Tarde 1895a: 207). And Tarde concludes later:
This is why statistics develops with greater and greater ease when nation states
statistics, the proper object of which is to enquire into and to un-
tangle the truly quantitative from the jumble of social facts, and which is all
the more successful if it concentrates on measuring large amounts of belief and
desire in depth, by means of the human acts which it adds together.
(Tarde 1999: 57)
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 167
Statistics therefore locates, within the mass of beliefs and desires, the exact simil-
arities that pass from one person to another.
Later on, in L’Opposition universelle (1897), Tarde generalizes this argument. In
his treatment of what he terms ‘oppositions of degree’ or ‘quantitative oppositions’
(parts 6–9 inclusive of ch. 7) he realizes that it is not necessary at all for anything to
be transmitted for there to be a beam of imitations. The question he raises is what
is truly quantitative and what is truly social about these oppositions.
He now notes that these oppositions need not be reduced to belief or desire.
Admittedly, these two elements are added together and combined, thanks to dif-
fusion by imitation [la progression imitative], and so they can be enumerated, but
they are not necessary to the enumeration:
Even though everything in each of us belongs to affect and sensation, with no
consistency, all that is needed is for our brains to reflect each other, to com-
municate their states of mind to each other, for the dissemination by imitation
[la propagation imitative] of each of these states to become a magnitude that
can be expressed by a number.
(Tarde 1897: 202)
All that is necessary for statistics (and, as we shall see below, for society) to
come into play is that there is (active) similarity between two beings, and this
similarity may even relate to qualities. Nevertheless, ‘it is true that the quant-
itative aspects of psychological phenomena can be communicated much more
easily and rapidly from person to person’ (Tarde 1897: 203). Thus, quantit-
ative opposition often rests on a basis of belief and desire, but this need not be
Hence there are these two great social quantities, which may be termed
truth and value, in the broadest sense of these two words, or in more con-
crete terms, knowledge [les lumières] and wealth. The dualities of belief and
desire are reflected, although transfigured, in this fundamental duality, from
which flow all the different magnitudes, whether or not they are measured by
(Tarde 1897: 204)
There are, therefore, realities of a different order, more properly social, which
are made up, albeit not exclusively, of belief and desire, and which can easily be
The relationship between social quantities and psychological quantities is that
the social ones ‘take for granted and confirm the consistency’ of the beliefs and
desires of distinct individuals, being the living collection of these; furthermore,
social quantities demonstrate the ‘communicability’ of the psychological ones,
which they subsume.
It must be stressed that, for Tarde, although statistics involves enumeration, this
does not mean that it reduces the world, forces it into over-simple categories, that
168 E. Didier
it simplifies it. On the contrary, Tarde stresses that the production of figures is a
creative endeavour deserving the name of art. Admittedly it is not one of the fine
arts, but it is a craft; something is produced, something is added, it is not diminu-
tion. Statistics brings forward, artistically, the similarities of the world.
The special feature of statistics is thus to produce similar elements in the
overwhelming diversity of the world, and thereby to provide the means of
statistics is the counting of similar actions, as similar as possible. The art lies
in the choice of factors [unités], which are so much the better the more they
resemble and are equal to each other.
(Tarde 1890a: 162)
Without similarity, there can be no addition, and no figures.
This leads Tarde to conclude that ‘statistics is limited to the field of imitation
and excludes the field of invention’. Statistics produces the similarities of imita-
tion. Accordingly, it cannot deal with unique elements. It is not entirely accurate
to say that the field of invention is outside the scope of statistics; this is a slip
by Tarde, because statistics has to invent the points of resemblance and some-
times, for example, the relevant unit for one or other measurement. But, even if
it sometimes has to invent, this is with the ultimate purpose of producing imita-
tions of the world. What statistics expresses, and what is proper to it, are series of
It is now time to stress that for Tarde the statistical and the social are practically
identical. He gives statistics such a central place because the quantitative nature
of belief and desire is essential (in the strong sense of the term) for society to be
possible: without these quantitative realities there would never be any coming to-
gether. ‘If this characteristic is denied, sociology is deemed impossible.’
In L’Opposition universelle Tarde ‘replies to a criticism once and for all’ saying
that it is not because he takes psychology as his starting point that he destroys the
specificity of sociology.
It was sufficient for me to see that people coming together make the social
from the individual, from the mental, by virtue of their animal and pre-social
sympathies, and that social reality is distinct from psychological realities pre-
cisely because it is a combination of these, because it is their non-contrived
synthesis, their true union, their objective numerical reality [le nombre
(Tarde 1897: 203)
This is important since the social is defined by number (imitation, i.e. repetition and
thus it is quantitative). So statistics is entirely within its place when it constructs
and brings to light curves of rays of imitation [des rayons imitatives]. Statistics is
the social made visible. To quote Tarde:
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 169
To say that immorality, criminal tendencies, demonstrated today by an in-
crease in misdemeanours, existed previously in a latent state, would be to
express oneself poorly. It is not true either psychologically or sociologically,
and this so-called demonstration is equivalent to a veritable creation, to a pas-
sage from nothingness to being.
(Tarde 1886: 49)
What he says here of immorality is true of society: statistics does not make manifest
a society that was latent; it brings it from nothingness to being.
This argument is directed against Durkheim (even though he is not named).
Actually, the question of how it is possible to add together individual psychic
states could not be raised by Durkheim. At least, it could only have been raised in
reverse: his question would be how the suicide rate, a social fact, worked so that
certain persons actually committed suicide. This is the problem of embodying an
abstract entity. Durkheim starts from the results of the enquiry to go back to the
individual (see Durkheim 1930: 314) ; he does not enquire how individuals come
to constitute, statistically, a rate.
3 Applied studies of imitation
In practice, which statistics interest Tarde, the sociologist, and how does he use
them? First of all let us look at his great work ‘La statistique criminelle’ published
in Criminalité comparée (1886). It contains very many examples of tables of
figures examined by Tarde. These data were not produced by him, but by his pre-
decessor at the Ministry of Justice, M. Yvernès. However, he commented on them.
In my view there are two points of particular note.
The first is the subtlety with which he separates the effects of the construction
of the figures from the effects of the reality observed. One example (frequently
cited – by Boudon (1979) among others) is his work on how crimes are formalized
as offences in the magistrates court [la correctionnalisation des affaires]. He shows
how crimes are transformed into offences. And this he explains, on the one hand,
by how the court works and the recording of the statistics, and, on the other hand,
by the behaviour of the criminals themselves.
The second point to note is how the analysis of the curves of a graph is buttressed
by the model of imitations. For example a discussion of re-offence leads him to
the following conclusion:
From this it follows that contagion through imitation from this antisocial con-
fraternity [the bandits] is not completely contained within this group, where
it is manifested in their reinforcing each other’s toughness, but that it partly
radiates beyond, among the classless, giving them a class, among the idle, giv-
ing them an occupation, among those who have been cleaned out in whatever
way, firing them with the perspective of a new and very exciting game. This
is the true source of the evil.
(Tarde 1886: 52)
170 E. Didier
If criminals are left together they reinforce each other’s toughness, whence
re-offending, but at the same time the contagion radiates out, all the more strongly
to those who are the most likely to be inclined towards crime. Tarde’s model is
a powerful tool for interpreting the data (on this point, I find that sometimes his
analyses sound just a little dogmatic).
It will be remembered also that he liked to refer to postal statistics (Tarde
1886: 48), statistics of shipping tonnage and statistics that today would be referred
to as ‘demographic’ – birth, marriage and mortality rates.
At the end of L’Opposition universelle (1897), after having presented value
and truth as purely social quantities, he expresses the regret that he has not seen
enough statistics that measure the ‘truth’ of a nation. In referring to the statistics
of knowledge, he comments on a problem that arises when belief and desire are
transformed into knowledge and value.
Knowledge is no less quantitative than wealth. How is it that, while a figure
is bandied about for the public purse, and the national wealth of France can
be estimated at 200 billion approximately, no one has thought of drawing up,
even very approximately, an inventory of the national Truth, a statistic of its
growth and shrinkage?
(Tarde 1897: 205)
That is the question: why is one more frequently enumerated with statistics than the
other, and yet both are quantitative? The first answer is because there is money, the
gold standard of all value, but there is no money for truth: ‘But why isn’t there this
spiritual money?’ Because the accumulation of knowledge does not presuppose the
sacrifice of some other knowledge, and so a yardstick is not needed to measure the
extent of this sacrifice. When one hesitates between two ideas, one might end up
by sacrificing one to the other, and by believing one while forgetting the other. But
Tarde considers that this is a ‘purely individual’, subjective matter, and that society
does not need a yardstick: ‘Thus it is because of its eminently liberal characteristic
that truth, in the sense I intend, has been deprived of the sociological rank which
is rightfully its own.’ But this is a shame; it could be useful to have statistics of
truth: one could investigate which intellectual field – linguistics, law, science, and
so on – contributes most knowledge to society. The ‘variations of public opinion’
could be studied with ‘a good bookshop statistic’ or with ‘the rise or fall of religious
faith’. The problem is that these statistics are sensitive, and above all they deal
with virtuous acts, but it is not necessary to have as good a knowledge of virtue as
of crime because ‘the contagion of virtuous acts is less to be hoped for than that
of crime is to be feared’.
Basically, Tarde provides a kind of methodology for statistics:
The sociological statistician [must] always strive for and remain committed
to this aim, or rather to these two aims: 1st by recording actions or works, to
trace the curve of successive increases, inactivity or decreases of every new
or old idea, of every old or new need, in so far as they spread and consolidate
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 171
or are suppressed and uprooted; 2nd by skilful linkages among the series thus
obtained, by throwing into relief their concurrent variations, to note the more
or less large or zero resistance or support that these diverse disseminations
lend or oppose to each other. […]In other words for sociological statistics it is
a matter of: 1st determining the imitative power of each invention, in a given
time and country; 2nd showing the favourable or adverse effects resulting from
the imitation of each of them.
(Tarde 1890a, 170)
There is then a long discussion with Quételet who defended the importance of
averages, while Tarde on the contrary stressed the importance of the rising sec-
tions of the curves.
The lines concerned are always either ascending, horizontal or descending, or
else, if they are irregular, they can always be broken down in the same way into
three types of linear elements: escarpments, plateaux or declivities. According
to Quételet and his school, plateaux would be the places of predilection for
statisticians; discovering them would either constitute their greatest triumph or
else should be their constant aspiration. There is nothing more appropriate ac-
cording to him on which to found social physics than the uniform reproduction
of the same figures over a considerable period of time, not only for births and
marriages, but even for crimes and trials. Thus the illusion (since dissipated,
it is true, especially by the latest official statistics on rising criminality over
the last half-century) of thinking that these latter figures actually recurred with
uniformity. But, if the reader has taken the trouble to follow us, he will realize
that, without in any way reducing the importance of the horizontal lines, a
much higher theoretical value must be accorded to the ascending lines, signs
of the regular dissemination of a kind of imitation.
(Tarde 1890a: 173)
Tarde stresses the periods of growth because the development of an imitation, of a
movement, of avidity, can be seen there, while Quételet, according to Tarde (who
gives no precise reference, but we can infer that he mentions Quételet 1846), arrives
on the scene once everything is finished; he is interested in society precisely when
it is hardly still moving.
To finish this point let us stress the fact that the most impressive tool for Tarde
is the curve, in preference to charts or tables.
Each of these tables, or better still each curve of a graph which represents
them, is in some way a historical monograph. And taken all together they are
the best history that could be told. Synchronic tables presenting comparisons
of country with country and province with province, usually offer much less
(Tarde 1890a: 164)
172 E. Didier
The statistics are presented in the chapter on history, which shows again to what
extent Tarde considers that they aggregate actions and events.
Thus, the statistics that most interest Tarde concern a multitude of acts, and
indeed some of these had not yet obtained, at that time, the statistic best suited to
them; but the tool that fascinates him most is the curve, and preferably time curves,
because they make it possible to show how rays of imitation [rayons imitatifs] are
Having arrived at this point, Tarde takes a step back; he incorporates statistics into
his own metaphysics. Indeed, as statistics uncovers the history of the trends of
imitation, so statistics itself develops and appears as one trend of imitation among
others: societies believe more and more in the use of statistics and want it more and
more. What is to be said of that trend of imitation? What future can be predicted
for it? This is the theme of the very elegant discussion on the particular avidity of
statistics at the end of Les Lois de l’imitation (1890a: 191–8).
Tarde’s thesis is that, as it is perfected, statistics will become one of society’s
senses, just as the ear and the eye are senses for individuals. He compares the ‘statist-
ical patterns traced out along this sheet of paper’ with ‘the line traced on my retina
by the flight of a swallow’, and asks what the differences are between these two
curves. To start with he stresses that this difference does not at all consist in one being
‘symbolic’, but not the other. The first is said to be symbolic and not the second,
but this is not right; both are ‘symbolic’ for both differ from what they ‘express’
or ‘convey’. In both cases there is, on the one hand, ‘a heap of facts’ (the different
crimes, for example, and the different positions of the bird), and, on the other hand,
a curve. The curve of the bird’s flight and the statistical curve are both symbolic in
so far as they combine facts, which otherwise would only be accumulated.
The only differences between the two are:
1 the cost of statistics (while looking does not cost anything);
2 the time it takes to produce the one and not the other (producing statistics is
very slow; looking at a swallow, very quick):
the statistical patterns traced across this sheet of paper by the mass of suc-
cessive crimes and offences that are transmitted in statements of offence to the
prosecution, from the prosecution, in annual reports, to the bureau of statistics
in Paris, from that bureau, in bound paperback volumes, to the magistrates of
the different courts
(Tarde 1890a: 191–2)
are to be contrasted with ‘the line traced on my retina by the flight of a swallow’.
These differences are indisputable, but according to Tarde, they are only differ-
ences of degree; it is only because statistics are more recent than eyes that they are
less efficient and function less smoothly. As they develop, statistics will become
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 173
perfectly adapted to the world and will be able to ‘statistify’ it in the blink of an
eye (to extend a metaphor).
If statistics continues to make the progress it has made for many years, if the
information it provides keeps constantly improving, speeding up, being nor-
malized and increasing, the day could come, when, from every social event
that is taking place, a figure will so to speak automatically slip out, which
would immediately take its place in the statistical records continually commu-
nicated to the public and reported widely in graphic form by the daily press.
(Tarde 1890a: 192)
The symbolization peculiar to statistics will reveal the homogeneities in ‘the mass
of facts’, just as the eye reveals and expresses the visible (and not the tactile) in the
mass of facts. ‘Consequently, accepting the perfecting and extending of statistics
pushed to this point, statistical services would be entirely comparable to the eye
or the ear’ (Tarde 1890a: 193). The avidity of statistics would transform it into a
sense for society just as efficacious as the eye is for the individual.
As a consequence, it would influence people more and more at the point of
Consequently [its function will be] to have an influence on the tendency of
those who know these numerical results to follow or not to follow this or that
(Tarde 1890a: 170)
Tarde gives the example of medical statistics (Tarde 1890a: 121), which has ‘con-
tributed to making vaccination more widespread’. ‘The day will come, let us hope,
when it will be unheard of for a deputy, a law-maker, who is called on to reform the
magistracy or the penal code, to be ignorant (hypothetically) of statistics’ (Tarde
1890a: 146). In other words, the more the trend of statistics itself for imitation is
reinforced, the more statistics will interfere with, and could reinforce or counter,
other trends, just as statistics shows how trends can be countered (decrease) or
The point, then, becomes that statistics, ‘like any other need’, will also itself
encounter opposition, other trends of imitation that conspire to crush it. It is not
alone in rendering the social ‘expressible’; but it does this in its own unique way,
which itself also encounters opposition.
It is legitimate to add together amounts of belief or desire held by separate
individuals. In fact, this has been attempted with complete success and with
a satisfactory approximation. The variations in the monetary value of things,
statistics and also, as we shall see, the military triumphs or defeats of nations
are all affairs variously appropriate for such measurements.
(Tarde 1895a: 273)
174 E. Didier
In other words, just as rail transport tends to cover the world in opposition to the
horse, so too statistics encounters other means of expression which represent other
rival trends of imitation, such as in particular war.
This example is crucial: war allows better measurement of the relative desires
of two nations. ‘But the oldest and the most primordial, if not the most rigorous,
scale of this kind is war’ (Tarde 1890a: 275). Indeed, at the end of a war the winner
has also learned that he had a stronger desire to live than his opponent. The scale,
‘war’, has shown him that he was superior to his opponent (note here that the suf-
ferings relative to statistics and to war are not taken into account.)
The difference in the sum that a statistic or an army constitutes is that, in the
first case, the putting together is done by adding up; in the second case it may be
done in some other way. ‘Similar desires and acts of faith have only one way of
forming a [statistical] whole: their actual enumeration.’ The army, on the contrary,
is the result of a combination of diverse elements: ‘dissimilar desires and acts of
faith have [the] potentiality of being able to cooperate in the production of a work
that is not the direct purpose of either of them’. In other words, in an army diverse
elements are incorporated one with the other. The army too is subject to ‘counting’,
for one can see by the outcome of the battle which army was superior. In addition,
although the elements are different, they can be aggregated. War is like the total
statistic of all a nation’s trends of imitation.
Next, statistics still has weaknesses which could be said to be intrinsic to its
youthfulness. In L’Opposition universelle Tarde points out that statistics also has
gaps which can be accounted for ‘either by the practical uselessness, apparent or
real, of certain records, or by the practical difficulty of operationalizing them’.
Among these ‘difficulties’ he cites the fact that statistics can be sensitive (he has
in mind an enquiry into religious practice).
Let us bring to an end this discussion on the weaknesses of statistics by con-
sidering a number of the Archives d’anthropologie criminelle devoted to Tarde
after his death (vol. 19, nos 127–8, August 1904). It contains ‘La psychologie de
Gabriel Tarde’, an article in which N. Vaschide (1904) writes as follows about a
discussion with Tarde:
He was surprised to see certain psychologists turn to statistics and to assertions
that were too categorical on the basis of a few poor data. He hated averages
and enquiries. This was, he told me one day, mediocrity of thought.
(Vaschide 1904: 672)
This is bizarre and yet no doubt quite true. Nevertheless, Tarde sees statisticians
who do not follow his example bringing the profession into disrepute and redu-
cing what could be a noble project to mindlessness. He writes for instance in his
commentary on Dumont’s Dépopulation et civilisation (1890) about ‘the range, the
complexity, the greatness of a subject too often abandoned to pure statisticians’. In
short, he was not an advocate of relying exclusively on statistics. It should never
be forgotten that he devised very many other methods of quantifying besides
Gabriel Tarde and statistical movement 175
Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist from Lyon and a friend of Tarde’s, relates
in In memoriam (1904), how the judge from Sarlat came to be appointed to a post in
Paris. In 1893 Professor Rollet, also from Lyon, sang Tarde’s praises to his friend,
M. Antonin Dubost, the Minister of Justice. The Minister ‘requested him to write
to Tarde to engage him to prepare a report on the organization of criminal statistics
in France’. Tarde did so, then on 26 January 1894, wrote back to Lacassagne,
My dear friend, I would not like you to learn of my nomination through the
Officiel. Only two days ago I submitted my report to the Minister – a manu-
script of 44 pages, where of course I often cited the Archives regarding Bodio,
de von Listz and the remarkable articles by de Corre on military criminology.
And this morning at mid-day the Minister put a call through to me and has just
told me that I have been appointed Director of Criminal Statistics.
(Lacassagne 1904: 525)
Thus Tarde’s life was deeply changed, and, we might say, propelled by statistics.
Tarde knew this, and he served statistics well by giving it pride of place in his
works. Statistics is at the core of his sociology, as it was at the centre of his life.
1 The quotes in this paper have been rendered into English by the translators; however, the
page numbers refer to the French texts. In certain places, the original French expression
has been included in square brackets.
2 Many thanks to Olivier Martin and Bruno Latour for having discussed this paper with
me. For a broader view on statistics and on the their social effects see Didier, 2009.
3 The opposition to Foucault must be underlined here. Foucault conceives statistics, by
and large, as a means of control, and this is why he argues that statistics first appear in
small countries, easier to dominate (Foucault 2004: 180).
Benvéniste, Emile (1993) Noms d’action et noms d’agents en indo-européen, Genève,
Bertrand, A. (1904) ‘Un essai de cosmologie sociale. Les thèses monadologiques de Gabriel
Tarde’, Archives d’anthropologie criminelle, 19(127–8), 623–60.
Boudon, Raymond (1979) Présentation, in Gabriel Tarde, Les Lois de l’imitation, Genève,
Cournot, Antoine-Augustin (1843) Exposition d’une théorie des chances et des probabilités,
Didier, Emmanuel (2009) En quoi consiste l’Amérique? Les statistique, le New Deal et al
démocratie, Paris: La Découverte.
Dumont, Arsène (1890) Dépopulation et Civilisation: Étude Démographique, Paris:
Lecrosnier et Babé. Reissued, with a biographical and critical introduction by André
Béjin, Paris: Economica, 1990.
Durkheim, Emile (1930) Le Suicide, Paris: P.U.F.
176 E. Didier
Foucault, Michel (2004) Sécurité, Territoire, Population: Cours au Collège de France,
1977–1978, Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil.
Lacassagne, Alexandre (1904), ‘In memoriam’, Archives d’anthropologie criminelles,
Quételet, Adolphe (1846) Lettre à S.A.R. le Duc régnant de Saxe Cabourg et Gotha, sur
la théorie des probabilités, appliquée aux sciences morales et politiques, Bruxelles:
Tarde, Gabriel (1880) ‘La croyance et le désir; la possibilité de leur mesure’, Revue philos-
ophique, 10, 150–80 and 264–83.
——, (1886) La Criminalité comparée, Paris: F. Alcan.
——, (1890a) Les Lois de l’imitation: étude sociologique, Paris: F. Alcan. Translated by
Elsie Clews Parsons in 1903 and published as The Laws of Imitation, with an introduction
by Franklin H. Giddings, New York: Henry Holt & Co.; reprinted 1962, Gloucester,
MA: Peter Smith; online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/11483225/ TARDE-1903- the-
——, (1890b) La Philosophie pénale, Lyon: Storc. Translated by Rapelje Howell and
published as Penal Philosophy in 1968.
——, (1892) Études Pénales et sociales, Lyon: Storck et Masson.
——, (1893) Les Transformations du droit, Paris: F. Alcan.
——, (1895a) Essais et mélanges sociologiques, Paris: Maloine.
——, (1895b) La Logique sociale, Paris: F. Alcan.
——, (1897) L’Opposition universelle: essai d’une théorie des contraires, Paris:
——, (1898) Études de psychologie sociale, Paris: Giard et Brière.
——, (1999) Les lois sociales: esquisse d’une sociologie, Le Plessis-Robinson; edition
Synthélabo-les Empêcheurs de penser en rond ; reprint from 1898, Paris: Alcan, translated
by Howard C Warren and published in 1899 as Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology,
New York: Batoch Books, Kitchner, 2000; online at http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/
Vaschide, N. (1904) ‘La psychologie de Gabriel Tarde’, Archives d’anthropologie crim-
inelles, 19(127–8), 661–74.
12 Tarde’s method
Between statistics and
‘As Gabriel Tarde said, what one needs to know is which peasants, in which regions
of the south of France, stopped greeting the local landowners. A very old, outdated
landowner can in this case judge things better than a modernist. It was the same
with May ’68: those who evaluated things in macropolitical terms understood
nothing of the event because something unaccountable was escaping’ (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987: 216). As an indication of Tarde’s political sympathies, Deleuze
and Guattari’s association between the work of Tarde and May ’68 is misleading:
Tarde, the judge and liberal imperialist, was more concerned with the problem of
how to monitor and govern the desires of the populace than with how to foster them
(Toscano 2007). Yet this reference to Tarde’s text The Social Laws is instructive
nonetheless in indicating his approach to the question of sociological method.
Tarde was preoccupied, as Deleuze and Guattari’s remarks suggest, with the im-
portance of quite specific movements or variations in social life, their timing and
location, how to ‘catch them in the act’ (Alliez 2004: 52). In this chapter, I follow
Tarde’s interest in finding methods that would be adequate to his conception of
the task of sociology. One of the difficulties that he confronted, I argue, is how to
produce evidence of the processes of imitation and invention that he saw as central
to understanding the phenomenon of variation. What methods were available for
those concerned with the study of the kinds of micro-social variations that were at
the heart of Tarde’s sociology?
This chapter reviews Tarde’s efforts to find a solution to the problem of soci-
ological method, and his suggestion that sociology should be an experimental
and observational as well as a statistical science. In the first part, I discuss the
difference between Tarde’s interpretations of the value of statistics and the more
influential approach of his adversary, Emile Durkheim. In the second part, I focus,
in particular, on his interest, expressed in The Social Laws, in the development of
experimental phonetics pioneered by his contemporary l’Abbé Rousselot. In the
conclusion, I return to the question, raised by Deleuze and Guattari’s observations
on The Social Laws, of the politics of Tarde’s approach to sociological method and
his interest in how both to account for, and to detect, variation.
178 A. Barry
Sociological methods and the detection of variation
The Laws of Imitation, published eight years earlier than Social Laws, gives a good
indication of Tarde’s concern with method and, in particular, the difference bet-
ween his understanding of the place of statistics in sociological research and that of
his rival Emile Durkheim (Antoine 2001; Karsenti 2006). In this text, Tarde makes
it absolutely clear that the main value of statistics lies in indicating the trajectory
of variation over time:
In general, there is nothing more instructive than the chronological tables of
statisticians, in which they show us the increasing rise or fall, year by year,
of some special kind of consumption or production, of some particular po-
litical opinion as it is expressed in the returns of the ballot box, or of some
specific desire for security that is embodied in fire-insurance premiums, in
savings-bank accounts, etc. These are all, at bottom, representations in the life
of some desire or belief that has been imported and copied. Every one of these
tables, or, rather, every one of the graphical curves which represent them, is, in
a way, an historical monograph. Taken together they form the best historical
narrative that it is possible to have.
(Tarde 1903 : 104)
In tracing how the prevalence of particular actions increased or decreased over
time, statistics indicated, for Tarde, those beliefs and desires that had come to be
copied or imitated. The social facts, to which statistics gave some collective repres-
entation, were the forms of imitation, the realm of the inter-psychological, which
both exist within individuals and flow through them (Tarde 1898: 64; Chapter 2,
this volume; Alliez 2004; Barry and Thrift 2007). In effect, the individual was
a nexus within which flows of belief and desire coexisted, interfered with and
opposed one another. In this way, for Tarde, history was to be understood, not as an
evolving context within which events happened and individuals were constrained,
but as a ‘multilinear’ series of intersecting and potentially antagonistic movements
(Tarde 1999b , 1999c ). In this account, the individual was not an
autonomous agent or a source of rational action, but was recognised as a site within
which the cross-fertilisation of distinct currents of practice and thought sometimes
occurred, and invention was thus possible (Antoine 2004: 73, Lepinay 2007). The
term cross-fertilization is apposite, for Tarde considered that social and vital pro-
cesses took similar forms.
At the same time, while Tarde was interested in the spatio-temporal movement
of beliefs and desires, he was unimpressed by the idea that comparative statistics
could inform sociological analysis, certainly on their own. There was little to be
gained, he observed, in merely knowing the quantitative differences between, for
example, the level of telegraph use in France and England at a particular moment in
time. But there could be, he suggested, a great deal of interest in tracing the growth
of telegraph use over time in one country. Why might this be so? Tarde did not give
an explicit answer to this question in The Laws of Imitation. But what might be of
Tarde’s method 179
interest, for the Tardean sociologist, would be to answer the question of how the use
of the telegraph became both progressively imitated and transformed, so that it not
only came to be used by business and government, but also acted as a medium for
personal correspondence (Marvin 1988). How was it that the telegraph became not
just a means for the communication of market information and state organisation,
but also for the communication and transmission of affect? How did the telegraph
become not just part of the technological apparatus of a market and its coordina-
tion in space (cf. Carey 1989, Callon et al. 2007), but also came to act as a device
for the coordination of political action, by trade unions and others, in opposition
to business (Barry 1996)? In other words, how did the progressive repetition of an
act (the use of the telegraph) lead to the generation of something novel?
As Bruno Karsenti reminds us, Durkheim’s use of statistics in Suicide (1897) is
explicitly opposed to the position taken by Tarde during the same period (Karsenti
2006: 165). On the one hand, Durkheim mocked what he took to be Tarde’s stress
on the importance of inter-personal imitation as an explanation for the reproduction
of acts, such as suicide, over time: ‘are we then to imagine that, in some way, each
suicide had as his initiator and teacher one of the victims of the year before and he
is something like his moral heir? Only thus can one conceive the possibility that
the social suicide-rate is perpetuated by way of individual traditions’ (Durkheim
1952 : 308–9). In arguing thus, Durkheim seemed to discount the possibility,
recognized by Tarde, that imitation did not require explicit instruction, but occurred
as much through relations of desire and fantasy, affectives states of the mind which
were not so much unconscious as pre-conscious (Thrift 2008). Tarde himself, as a
criminologist, was particularly interested in the imitation of specific acts in time and
space, and in what he understood to be the ‘contagious’ character of criminal acts.
Moreover, as a form of contagion, criminal acts not only spread, they also mutated.
Poisoning was a good example of Tarde’s sense of the historical and social geography
of crime, a practice which was once invented and has subsequently mutated into a
virulent disease: ‘poisoning is now a crime of the illiterate; as late as the seventeenth
century it was the crime of the upper classes, as is proven by the epidemic of poison-
ings which flourished at the court of Louis XIV, from 1670 to 1680, following the
importation of certain poisons by the Italian exili’ (Tarde 1912 : 332).
On the other hand, Durkheim claimed that Tarde’s interpretation of criminal
statistics in his text on Penal Philosophy was itself questionable. Whereas Tarde
argued that the number of murders carried out in France had been progressively
increasing in the nineteenth century, Durkheim countered that ‘the variation in
figures for murders is not very regular; but from 1835 to 1885 they have per-
ceptibly decreased in spite of the rise about 1876 … Nothing therefore permits
the conclusion that there was an increase in criminality in question’ (Durkheim
1952: 350). Of interest here is what this dispute between the two sociologists
tells us about what Tarde and Durkheim thought statistics could demonstrate. For
Durkheim, the problem of the lack of variation of murders over time within a given
society was more significant than the existence of variations. For it was precisely
this lack of variation in the rate of suicide, Durkheim argued, that demonstrated the
existence of a ‘moral order external to the individual … a totality of forces which
180 A. Barry
cause us to act from without’ (ibid.: 309–10). By contrast, Tarde’s interpretation of
statistics was rooted in a sense that their variation was the outcome of a multitude of
infinitesimal changes: in short, his sociology was a science grounded in an analysis
of differentiation. Whereas Durkheim supposed the existence of a society which
evolved, Tarde was concerned with the way in which trajectories of social change
were the cumulative outcome of small variations. The debt of both sociologists to
Darwin is clear enough, although the lessons that they derived from Darwin were
radically different. Tarde expressed this difference thus:
This conception is, in fact, almost the exact opposite of the unilinear evo-
lutionists’ notion and of M. Durkheim’s. Instead of explaining everything
by the supposed supremacy of a law of evolution, which compels collective
phenomena to reproduce and repeat themselves indefinitely in a certain order, –
instead of thus explaining the small by the large, and the part by the whole, – I
explain collective resemblances of the whole by the massing together of minute
elementary acts – the large by the small and the whole by the part. This way
of seeing is destined to produce a transformation in sociology similar to that
brought about in mathematics by the introduction of infinitesimal calculus.
(Tarde 1999d : 63, emphasis in original)
Moreover, Tarde’s opposition to Durkheim centred not just on the notion of the
evolution but on the idea of environment (milieu) (Karsenti 2006: 168). Tarde’s
approach is not to seek to account for specific acts in the context of their broader
social environment, but to situate ‘minute elementary acts’ in relation to the line
or multiple lines of movement of which they formed a part.
The experimental method
Tarde’s interpretation of statistics raises two sets of questions, however, to which
statistics alone could not provide answers. The first is the problem of determining
which variations mattered, and to whom. Tarde himself recognized that there were
considerable limitations to existing statistics. They only recorded certain activities
and not others, and they could only be analysed after the variations that they recorded
had already happened. Moreover they could not detect the existence of desires which
were developing, but had yet to be actualized. In this context, one can understand
Tarde’s welcoming of universal suffrage not so much because he was a democrat,
but because it was a device ‘through which a nation is made conscious of the changes
in its desires and opinions in vital matters’ (Tarde 1903 : 109). Elections pro-
vided the means through which a near instantaneous feedback could be established
between expression of beliefs and desires, and their subsequent transformation.
But while a growing range of statistics were produced by both government and
business during Tarde’s lifetime, Tarde does not give us any clear answers to the
question of why particular statistics might be important: what might be considered
vital for citizens to know. Why should sociology be concerned, for example, as he
had suggested, with knowledge of the changing level of fire insurance premiums,
Tarde’s method 181
or the tendency of the French not to travel by train on Fridays? Tarde himself did
not offer an answer to the question of which kinds of variations might be instruc-
tive or valuable to track using statistics, and thereby determine the relevance of the
knowledge of tendencies that statistical analysis might reveal.
A second problem confronting the Tardean sociologist, however, is the question
of the mechanism or process of variation. While statistics pointed to the existence
of the kinds of variations that were of interest to Tarde, they could only detect
such variations after they occurred, and at a distance (cf. Latour 1987). Understood
in the terms of differential calculus, they provided the integrated summation of
infinitesimal variations, but they could not track or observe individual variations
as they happened. Statistics were only available after the event, leaving the soci-
ologist who relied on statistics able to trace variation without gathering any sense
of its process. In this way, the methods and conclusions of statisticians were not so
different, as Tarde observed, from the methods of archaeologists (Antoine 2001;
Tarde 1903 ).
In the Laws of Imitation, however, Tarde suggested one response to this problem.
This was to propose the development of a more fine-grained statistics, a psycho-
logical statistics, which might trace the variation of belief and desire at the level
of the individual. Such a statistics ‘would take note of the individual gains and
losses of special beliefs and desires called forth originally by some innovator, [and]
would alone, if the thing were practically possible, give the underlying explana-
tion of the figures of ordinary statistics’ (Tarde 1903 : 106, my emphasis).
As this quote suggests, Tarde was preoccupied with the phenomenon of imitation
and its mechanism. He also had a special interest in the figure of the ‘innovator’
and how, in particular, the ideas and practices of cosmopolitan innovators, such as
artists, scientists, engineers, might or might not be imitated and adapted by others
(Antoine 2004; Toscano 2007: 599).
But if the idea of psychological statistics remained an aspiration for Tarde,
what other methods did he consider that the sociologist might employ to gain a
more direct access to those social facts, the relations of imitation, to which con-
ventional forms of social statistics merely pointed? How was it possible to observe
or detect the existence of those forms of inter-molecular, inter-spiritual, inter- and
intra-psychological, and what we might now call affective relations, which should
be of particular concern to social researchers (Tarde 1898: 64; Thrift 2008)?
As Lisa Blackman argues, hypnosis provided Tarde with one model of how such
inter-psychological processes of imitation could operate, and how they might also
Tarde’s concept of imitation was one which was not about mechanical re-
production, but more complex forms of imitative desire which was thought
through concepts derived specifically from hypnotic trance and psychical
research. This allowed for spontaneity and repetition to exist in close prox-
imity, and to trouble any notion of a simple stasis of reproduction, which he
attributed to Durkheim.
(Blackman 2007: 581, emphasis in original).
182 A. Barry
While Blackman rightly emphasizes Tarde’s sense of the importance of hypnosis
and suggestion as a way of thinking about imitation and difference, what is equally
of interest is Tarde’s broader interest in methods, such as hypnosis, that were
experimental. Hypnosis did not merely record a process of suggestion and imita-
tion; it produced the forms of inter-psychological relation which Tarde wished to
observe. Whereas Durkheim studied society at a distance using statistics, leaving
the object of research apparently undisturbed by the conduct of research itself (cf.
Osborne and Rose 1999), Tarde’s vision of sociology was intentionally interven-
tionist. Hypnosis was, as he put it, ‘the experimental junction point of psychology
and sociology. … [showing] us the most simplified sort of psychic life which can
be conceived of under the form of the most elementary social relation’ (Tarde
1912 : 193, my emphasis). Sociology, along with the other sciences, might
deliberately have to intervene in social life in order to render the dynamics of social
processes visible (Hacking 1983). The sociologist might need to employ experi-
mental techniques in order to observe processes of imitation and differentiation
as they happened. Although the objects of sociological research were potentially
extremely small, they could be recorded collectively, as determined by statistics.
But they could also be observed closely by being placed under a microscope and, if
it were necessary, produced or isolated by artificial means (Karsenti 2006: 168).
Yet while hypnosis provided one model for an experimental sociology, in the
long footnote from Social Laws cited by Deleuze and Guattari, Tarde suggested
If we wish to make sociology a truly experimental science and stamp it with
the seal of absolute exactness, we must, I believe, generalize the method of
Abbé Rousselot in its essential features, through the collaboration of a number
of trustworthy observers. Let twenty, or thirty, or as many as fifty sociolo-
gists, from different sections of France or any other country, write out with
the greatest care and in the greatest possible detail, the succession of minute
transformations in the political or economic world, which it is given for them
to observe in their native town or village. …
(Tarde 1999d : 130–1)
Lets us leave aside for the moment the question of why it might be helpful and
appropriate for sociologists to observe social life in their own town or village.
Why was the work of Rousselot so significant for Tarde? One reason was the level
of detail in which Rousselot sought to track modifications in forms of pronunci-
ation. In his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne, Rousselot began to develop a
field of experimental phonetics that relied not on the interpretation by the human
researcher of the sound of speech, but on the use of an array of precision electrical
and mechanical devices. These devices recorded both sound and also the physical
movements of the lips, the tongue and larynx (Rousselot 1891: 8, Rousselot 1897).
Indeed, Rousselot’s investigations are remarkable not just in their exhaustiveness,
but in their level of attention to the corporeal basis of speech. He produced a whole
series of diagrams, for example, which traced the relation of the tongue and the
Tarde’s method 183
palate of individual speakers, as well compiling detailed records of the movements
of the lips and larynx associated with different ways of pronouncing the same word
(see figures 11.1 and 11.2).
Tarde’s method 185
In the 1900s Rousselot’s experimental approach influenced not only Tarde. It
was also taken up by the Berkeley anthropologist Pliny Earle Goddard in his study
of the Hupa Indians in California, for whom ‘phonograph records … can never be
sufficient in themselves because they utterly fail to show the physiological proc-
esses by which the sounds upon them have been produced, and after all the manner
of making the sound is more important in the study of language than the sound
itself’ (Goddard 1905: 619, figures 11.3 and 11.4). In a 1907 issue of American
Archeaology and Anthropology Goddard accounted for why he thought a meticu-
lous record of the language of the Hupa was important: ‘the great danger. … [is]
that American languages will become extinct in a few generations, it is extremely
important that a comparative study may be recorded of their relation to each other
and to other languages of the world’ (Goddard 1907: 1).
While Goddard’s research focused on the embodiment of speech, and not just
its sound or meaning, and was explicitly influenced by Rousselot, Rousselot had
already gone further than Goddard, taking experimental phonetics in a different
direction. After all, he had not confined himself to the study of the relation between
sound and muscular movement. Nor was he interested simply in the problem of
how to record the way in which words were spoken before a language or dialect
disappeared. Rather, through studying generations of his own family, he sought to
detect changes in process. Through the study of how a foreign word was spoken,
he became equally concerned with ways in which the repetition of a sound or
word could, in different speakers, lead to its subtle modification. In his thesis,
titled the ‘Phonetic Modifications in language studied in the dialect of a family of
Cellefrouin’, Rousselot noted how he came to realize that genealogy was critical
to his analysis (Rousselot 1891: 2). It was not just a matter of recording speech,
but of tracing variations in time and space. Using his methods, Rousselot was even
able to detect variations in the expression of parts of letters, thereby demonstrating
that individual letters were not, as he put it, ‘real unities’ at all, but only ‘unities
of impression’ (ibid.: 21). In this way, his research bore out Tarde’s observation
that more ‘subtle and profound’ distinctions opened up as investigation became
progressively more detailed (Rousselot 1891: 21, Tarde 1999b: 48, 1999a). As
Tarde’s work suggests, the micro turns out to be more complex than the macro
Yet perhaps there was another reason why Rousselot’s work was so significant
for Tarde. For unlike the work of the hypnotists, Rousselot’s experimental phon-
etics involved field research. Rousselot’s methods were geographical, as well as
experimental. His research was like ‘a walk in a phonetics laboratory’ (Rousselot
1891: 5). Indeed, towards the end of his thesis, Rousselot gave a preliminary
analysis of the geography of phonetics through a brief tour of the villages of the
Franco-Italian border, working on behalf of the Ministry of Public Instruction
(figure 11.5). This was a geography, as Rousselot recognized, that was rapidly
changing, driven by the progressive development of universal education and the
186 A. Barry
newspaper. Rousselot’s maps of the border region pointed both to the sedimenta-
tion of history, and the geography of its movement. He argued that Cellefrouin had
been a good place to begin his earlier research project because, on account of its
location, it revealed the linguistic influence of the two regions (the north and the
Midi) which divided France and were engaged in what Rousselot called a ‘secular
struggle’ (Rousselot 1891: 347). Later, in 1902, he returned to the question of the
political geography of the pronunciation of French: ‘In effect, what is French? An
artificial language like Italian or German, imposed through the power of literary
works? No, it’s the language of the monarch carried to the provinces by the ad-
ministration’ (Rousselot and Laclotte 1902: 11).
There is also an underlying concern with the relation between the city and the
provinces in Tarde’s work. Tarde himself stressed the importance of the work
of the metropolitan creative classes (Lepinay 2007; Tarde 2007 ) and the
subsequent imitation of their inventions elsewhere. In this respect Tarde’s use of
Rousselot is utterly different from Goddard’s. As an anthropologist, Goddard was
concerned to record the existence of a cultural form before it disappeared, while
Tarde was interested in the manner in which traditional habits and practices were
transformed, but not in order to preserve them:
But anyone who knew thoroughly, in exact detail, the changes of custom on
some particular points, in a single country and during ten years, could not fail
to lay his hand upon a general principle of social transformation, and conse-
quently upon a principle of social formation, that would apply to every land
and to all time. In such a research it would be well to take up a very limited
number of questions: for instance, it might first be asked, by whom and how
the custom was originally introduced and propagated, among the peasants
of certain rural districts of the Midi, of not greeting the well-to-do landown-
ers of their neighbourhood; or what influences led the belief in sorcery and
were-wolves to begin to disappear.
(Tarde 1899: 93, 1999d : 131, my emphases)
In his concern with the specific, Tarde might appear to be advocating a form of
ethnography, but only if we understand ethnography in a particular way. After all,
Tarde’s interest was not in the comparative study of cultural or linguistic differ-
ences between distinct societies, but in the analysis of spatio-temporal variations in
specific elements, as they are enacted historically (Born 2009). Tarde recognized
that statistics and archaeology might make it possible to trace the accumulation of
variations, but there were obvious limitations to such methods, not least because
of the poverty of existing statistics (Tarde 1903 ). The Tardean sociologist
might need to study a particular setting that s/he knows well, not in order to show
how the parts of a community come together to form a whole, but because it
would only be through the acquisition of detailed knowledge, accumulated over
time, that s/he would be able to detect, trace and map the course of variations. No
wonder that it would be better, in Tarde’s view, to send sociologists to their own
villages, for this would enable them to be attuned to the most subtle variations in,
188 A. Barry
for example, language, clothing or gesture, and to be able to place them in the his-
torical trajectory of their own experience, as well as the experience of their family
and acquaintances. The sociologist, for Tarde, could act as a kind of monitoring or
tracking device, picking up movements when and where they occurred. There was
a need to know the histories of particular objects, forms of speech and habits within
a particular village, not in order to give an account of the culture of the village or
the nation as a whole, but in order to be aware of the occurrence of variation, and
why it mattered in this location. In thinking about history, Tarde frequently drew
on the language of geology and physical geography, writing about those processes
of sedimentation and accumulation over time, as well as those moments of violent
eruption, through which radical differences or inventions arose. For Tarde, the soci-
ologist would need to be sufficiently immersed in a specific setting to be attentive
to, and to be able to record, both kinds of movement.
What are the implications of this discussion of Tarde’s approach to the question
of sociological method for an understanding of his politics? Deleuze and Guattari
read Tarde as a theorist of the micropolitics of 1968; a sociologist who pointed to
the space and time of those movements which eluded the grasp of social analysis
and party discipline. This interpretation is, as I have noted, radically at odds with
Tarde’s own political analysis (Toscano 2007). In both his Penal Philosophy and
the Transformations of Power, Tarde made it absolutely clear that it is primarily
social superiors (inventors, the nobility, geniuses) who create, and social inferiors
Go into the home of the peasant and look at his household effects. … not one
of his implements, which, having come down to his cottage, was not origin-
ally an object of luxury of kings or warrior chiefs. … [and] you will find that
[the peasant] has not a single idea on law, agriculture, politics, or arithmetic, a
single sentiment of family or patriotism, a single wish, a single desire, which
was not originally a peculiar discovery or initiative, propagated from the social
heights, gradually down to his low level.
(Tarde 1912 : 329)
But if Tarde is not the kind of political radical that one might imagine from reading
Deleuze and Guattari, his work is nonetheless important in the light that it sheds
on the relations between social research and the political. In his essay ‘Political
Education’, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott stressed that the study of politics
needs to be ‘an historical study – not, in the first place, because it is proper to be
concerned with the past, but because we need to be concerned with the detail of
the concrete’ (Oakeshott 1962: 63). In his concern with the concrete and the spe-
cific, Oakeshott was critical of the reductive formulations of the social sciences,
in part because of their tendency to explain away the indeterminacy and speci-
ficity of political events, and their failure to recognize political transformation
Tarde’s method 189
unless it is ‘ self-consciously induced change’ (ibid.: 8). Part of the antagonism of
Oakeshott towards the reductivism of the social sciences is analogous to Deleuze
and Guattari’s antagonism to the molar political thinking of the established political
parties. This line of argument, from philosophers on both left and right, is that the
social sciences have all too often failed to attend to subtle movements and varia-
tions that occur in political life, which cannot simply be understood as the product
of decisions, or a manifestation of competing interests or conflicting ideologies.
A Tardean sociology, likewise, might be a form of social research that is
attuned to forms of variation that are critical to politics, including those that may
exist ‘below the thresholds of conscious communication and intent’ (Colebrook
2008: 127; Thrift 2008). Tarde pointed to the need to attend to variation, and to
locate and trace it, to keep the possibility of both temporary disturbances and
long-term tendencies in vision. What is questionable about the political thought
of Tarde is the assumption that the origins of movements are likely to derive from
the actions of the nobility or the minds of geniuses or innovators, which are only
subsequently imitated by others. But if social research followed Tarde’s approach
to the question of method, it should not be hostage to such assumptions about the
timing and spacing of variation. It would find the origin of variations not just in
the ideas of geniuses, the habits of the nobility, or the doctrines of political lead-
ers and activists, but at unexpected times and across a range of settings. It would
not assume, in other words, that politically significant variations had their origins
in sites and practices that are conventionally understood to be political. Social
research, following Tarde, would need to be attentive to the occurrence of those
variations that might or should come to matter.1
1 My thanks to Georgina Born for her insightful and critical reading of this chapter.
Alliez, E. (2004) ‘The difference and repetition of Gabriel Tarde’, Distinktion, 9, 49–54.
Antoine, J-P. (2001) ‘Statistique et Métaphore: note sur la méthode sociologique de Tarde’,
introduction to Tarde (2001), 7–42.
—— (2004) ‘Tarde’s aesthetics: art & art, or the invention of social memory’, Distinktion,
Barry, A. (1996) ‘Lines of communication and spaces of rule’, in A. Barry, T. Osborne
and N. Rose (eds) Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and
Rationalities of Government, London: UCL Press.
Barry, A. and N. Thrift (2007) ‘Gabriel Tarde: imitation, invention and economy’, Economy
and Society, 36, 4, 509–25.
Blackman, L. (2007) ‘Reinventing psychological matters: the importance of the suggestive
realm of Tarde’s ontology’, Economy and Society, 36, 4, 574–96.
Born, G. (2009) ‘On Tardean relations: temporality and anthropology’, this volume.
Callon, M., Y. Millo and F. Muniesa (eds) (2007) Market Devices, Oxford: Basil
190 A. Barry
Carey, J. (1989) Communication as culture: essays on media and society, London: Unwin
Colebrook, C. (2008) ‘Bourgeois thermodynamics’, in I. Buchanan and N. Thoburn (eds)
Deleuze and Politics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1994) Difference and Repetition, London: Athlone.
Deleuze G. and F. Guattari (1987) Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,
Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Durkheim, E. (1952 ) Suicide: A Study in Sociology, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Goddard, P. E. (1905) ‘Mechanical aids to the study of language’, American Anthropologist,
NS 7, 4, 613–19.
—— (1907) ‘The Phonology of the Hupa Language’ American Archaeology and Ethnology,
Hacking, I. (1983) Representing and Intervening, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hayward, K. (2000) Experimental Phonetics, Harlow: Longman.
Karsenti, B. (2006) La Société en Personnes: Études Durkheimiennes, Paris : Economica.
Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
—— (2002) ‘Gabriel Tarde and the end of the social’ in P. Joyce (ed.) The Social in Question:
new bearings in history and the social sciences, London: Routledge, 117–32.
Lepinay, V-A (2007) ‘Economy of the germ: capital, accumulation and vibration’, Economy
and Society, 36, 4, 526–48.
Marvin, C. (1988) When old technologies were new, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oakeshott, M. (1962) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, London: Methuen.
Osborne, T. and N. Rose (1999) ‘Do the social sciences create phenomena? The example
of public opinion research?’ British Journal of Sociology, 50, 3, 367–96.
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Rousselot, L. (1891) Les Modifications Phonétiques du Langage Étudiées dans la Patois
d’une Famille de Cellefrouin, Paris: H. Welte.
—— (1897) Principes de Phonétique Expérimentale, tom. 1, Paris: H. Welte.
Rousselot, L. and F. Laclotte (1902) Précis de Prononciation Française, Paris: H. Welte.
Tarde, G. (1898) ‘Les deux élements de Sociologie’ in Études de Psychologie Sociale, Paris:
V. Giard and E. Brière.
—— (1903 ) The Laws of Imitation, New York: Henry Holt.
—— (1912 ) Penal Philosophy, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
—— (1999a ) Monadologie et Sociologie, Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
—— (1999b ) La Logique Sociale, Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
—— (1999c ) L’Opposition Universelle, Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
—— (1999d ) Les Lois Sociales, Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
—— (2001 ) Les Lois de L’Imitation, Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
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—— (2007 ) ‘Economic Psychology’, Economy and Society, 36, 4, 614–43.
Thoburn, N. (2003) Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, London: Routledge.
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Annaler 86B, 1, 55–76.
—— (2008) Non-representational theory, London: Routledge.
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and Society, 36, 4, 597–613.
13 Intervening with the social?
Ethnographic practice and Tarde’s
image of relations between
So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. Is it absurd
to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make
and to try to find a place for them?
How would we think of the practices of ethnographic fieldwork if we were to ac-
cept the Tardean premise of ‘mutual possession’, ‘the transmission of something
internal and mental, which passes from one to other of the two subjects’ (Tarde
2008 : 20)? Might we need to elide one of the foundations of Durkheimian
sociology in our practice of ethnography? That is, does the assumption of a
super-organic entity, an over-arching, determining structure of social and concep-
tual relations (which Tarde argued against) shape our position as ethnographers
in a manner whereby we not only construct culture in order to explain what we
see to ourselves (Wagner 1975), but misperceive the actions and requests of our
informants as representative of this abstraction, rather than their perception of our
Early in The Social Laws, Tarde writes:
Sooner or later, one must open his eyes to the evidence, and recognize that the
genius of a people or race, instead of being a factor superior to and dominating
the characters of the individuals (who have been considered its offshoots and
ephemeral manifestations) is simply a convenient label, or impersonal syn-
thesis, of these individual characteristics; the latter alone are real, effective,
and ever in activity; …
(Tarde 2008 : 27)
Working loosely with Tarde’s idea (Bateson 1972: 82–6), I look to Tarde’s work as
impetus in thinking through ethnographic practice and the relationships that consti-
tute anthropological method. What is the alternative to an ‘impersonal synthesis’
made abstract through the concept of society or culture, one which does approach
what is ‘real, effective, and ever in activity’?
To this end, and in an exploratory mode, I follow Andrew Barry (2005) in asking
192 J. Leach
about ‘events that matter’ (see also Strathern 1990), with the intention of under-
standing ‘matter’ not as merely that which causes change (as Tarde may be read),
but as that which causes change which is desired, that has recognized value for
those involved as subjects. As Tarde says, ‘The relation of one mind with another
mind is, in fact, a distinctive event in the life of each’ (Tarde 1999: 20). Tarde’s
emphasis on micro-interactions, and on tracing change to specific moments in
relationships is a spur to ask how we can understand the ethnographer’s role with
informants as more than just that of collecting data about an entity beyond any of
them. This chapter, then, is an attempt to think about the value of the ethnographic
method for its subjects in relation to its users, its effects as an encounter for the
people concerned that is not premised on the notion of culture contact or system
collision, but specific meetings between specific people.
Attention to the ethnographic method, and to the process of abstraction through
distance and inscription, is (of course) a perennial one for social anthropology
(e.g. Fabian 1983). Recently there have been several convincing arguments for the
necessity of distance from one’s informants, building on the origin points of this
method. David Mosse (2006), writing of the reactions of his informants (people
working for international development agencies), tells us that the integrity of an-
thropological knowledge is given by the fact that we do not have informants with
us as we write. His concern follows from an explicit recognition of the receding
possibility for other kinds of (geographical/temporal) distance, particularly when
studying powerful institutions and groups close at hand. As he writes, ‘as other
boundaries fade, it is often the detachment of writing that has become the primary
mode of exit’ (937). And ‘exit’ is necessary for ethnography as such to happen at
all; ‘anthropologists have to negotiate a space for their involvement to be more
ethnographic and resist institutional pressures’ (941). The outcomes of these
analytic moments in ethnographic practice are generalized as a result. They are
precisely not about particular people, or the effects of particular relationships and
projects. Rather, ‘[t]he ethnography explains all these [pressures/contradictions]
as general and inherent features of the system of international aid not as failings
of one particular project’. To achieve this ‘ultimately’ requires ‘the re-affirmation
of the Malinowskian boundary between field and desk’ (948).
It was the shock of the rejection of his ‘well made’ analysis by his informants
that caused Mosse to ask ‘who anthropological knowledge is for’, and examine its
construction in contemporary conditions of practice. Mosse’s answers come down
to the fact that ethnography becomes analysis outside relations with informants by
necessity, and that this involves translating personal, real relations with people into
knowledge about the wider conditions and systems in which they find themselves.
The move is to make ‘relationships become evidence’ according to Hastrup (2003),
in the service of making representations. Mosse agrees that uncomfortable relations
with the subjects of ethnography are an almost inevitable outcome as they try to
‘unpack’ this evidence back into relationships (Mosse 2006: 951).
It is not that I disagree with Mosse’s argument, which is a nuanced and brilliantly
realized one in defence of the classical separation of responsibility which has made
the discipline possible after Durkheim. (Responsibility is best realized through
Intervening with the social? 193
remaining true to the method.) I do, however, want to examine what ethnography
might look like if it were not in the service of making the kinds of representations
specified by Durkheim’s legacy: abstracted ‘features’ of super-organic ‘systems’.
Or rather, if that claim sounds too grand, to examine, with the assistance of some
of Tarde’s ideas, the implications of the assumption of culture on what it is that
anthropologists end up interacting with. My concern is that the relations demanded
by ethnographic research, in specific instances where informants have asked
anthropologists for help, can be misperceived because of these abstractions.
I start from the idea that we ‘invent’ culture while in the field to make sense
of our experiences, and the now well-established argument that the legacy of
Durkheimian sociological thought, because of its emphasis on the super-organic
creation that is society or culture, has been a hindrance (as well as a necessity) to
the impetus for understanding other’s worlds in their own terms (see e.g. Wagner
1975: 32–3 and passim, Strathern 1996 ). And that the work that the no-
tion ‘society’ does in shaping Euro-American thinking needs to be part of our
investigation, not its guiding and shaping force (Strathern 1988; Latour 2005). In
a very Durkheimian manner, the concept of a super-organic entity has, on the one
hand, been dictated by some very specific historical conditions, the outcome of a
particular (if expansive and colonizing) life world, and, in turn, the concept has
dictated how we can come to think about difference (Durkheim 1915: 17–20).1
Fundamentally, it leaves anthropologists in the position of imagining their relations
to be to an abstract entity (Wagner 1975) rather than to other people (Strathern
1990, Strathern 1991). That is, we misapprehend data and interactions as con-
cerned with our own categories, and thereby miss the possibility of developing our
theory and understanding in relation to other categories based on rather different
In seeming contrast, Barry writes that, ‘one could say that Tarde conceives of
empirical research itself as a form of inventive activity, one which should never
merely confirm what one knows already, but makes a difference’. This could be
read in several ways. Perhaps what Barry means is that for Tarde, sociologists
should intervene through making information available. This information and the
resultant understanding of emergent patterns is not just reporting, but suggestive
of modes and possibilities for interventions, thereby tracking and understanding
the changes that continually occur in social life (cf. Latour 2005).
But what would a more direct interpretation look like? As we know, the fact
of intervention by an ethnographer in the field has only very occasionally been
seen in a positive light. And that is a consequence of the way the entry into others’
lives has been conceived: that societies and cultures are whole entities, internally
consistent and coherent, subject to generalized change, change that at this level
is conceived of most easily as loss (of the integrity of meaning) once elements of
a more powerful or technologically expansive system come into contact with it.
While Tarde is arguing for a sociology that intervenes, anthropology has had to
live with a methodology of intervention that undermines the integrity of its own
The engagement with Tarde then becomes a real chance to grapple with a
194 J. Leach
long-standing puzzle, one that was forcefully brought to my attention while
undertaking long-term fieldwork on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. That
puzzle is not the puzzle of angst-ridden reflexivity of the colonial or neo-colonial
anthropologist. As I will outline, it has remained through fieldwork in other con-
texts as well. And that puzzle is how one maintains integrity as a social scientist,
with the aim of producing knowledge for the academy, having a disinterested, if
you like, approach to the phenomena under study, and yet providing something
of value for the people one works with and among (an ‘interested’ position) that
does not assume that the contribution to overall public human understanding will
satisfy everyone. I am taking as a given that what we hold steady in the different
ethnographic relationships we have is this integrity. Put simply, I argue that the
knowledge we produce should hold some interest and value not just for ourselves,
but for those whose lives we have become involved in. That may not be best served
by the Durkheimian legacy.
Tarde was certainly interested in the aspirations and values of the people sociolo-
gists study. His focus on imitation and repetition that might have effects in social
life revolved around the aims people have. Tarde writes:
successful imitations are numerous indeed, but how few are they in compar-
ison with those which are still unrealised objects of desire. So-called popular
wishes, the aspirations of a small town, for example, or of a single class, are
composed exclusively, at a given moment, which, unfortunately, cannot at the
same time be realised to ape all particulars of some richer town or superior
(Tarde 1903: 107)
A mixture, in other words, of a desire to imitate and achieve the same status, in-
evitably modified by circumstance and history.
Reading this quotation from Tarde, I was put in mind of those extraordinary
imitations-cum-innovations that have commonly been called cargo cults in the
South Pacific. I am also mindful to acknowledge that the ethnographers I know
well in two cases (one because it is my own experience that is in question; the
other because of a recent film that engages the issue in a very evocative manner)
are not observing but participating in the social relations of these phenomena’s
emergence and development.
I refer here to the work of Andrew Lattas among the Pomio Kivung in West
New Britain, and my own fieldwork in Reite on the Rai Coast, both in Papua New
Guinea. In my own case, and I suspect in the case of Lattas (more than he admits
to in the film at least), the ‘aspirations of a small group’ are directed through the
ethnographer themselves. The imitations and innovations are to have their effect
through him. Ethnography is not observation in such instances, but elicitation of
a form for social action. As Paul Ricoeur, Marilyn Strathern and James Weiner
among others pointed out some time ago, and Hastrup has recently reiterated
(2003), it is through social relations that we study social relations.3
Our subject is
also our tool, as Strathern puts it. In other words, I take from Tarde a rejection of the
Intervening with the social? 195
position that ‘social scientists tend to stand aloof from events, preferring to analyse
what is common to society as a whole, or understand events in what are thought
to be more general social processes’ (Barry 2005: 8). As Barbara Bodenhorn has
recently argued (2008), the idea of ontological separations between worldviews
is challenged in practices whereby relations emphasize the mutuality of interest
and method between apparently very different modes of knowledge practice. She
is making a claim, similar perhaps to Tarde,4
for the social sciences to consider
carefully what the reliance on ‘conceptual separations’ do for our disciplinary
understanding of knowledge and politics.
Eliciting data and shouldering burdens
A large amount of my time on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea was spent in
the negotiation and renegotiation of the effects and potentials of my presence. It
became uncomfortable at times. From the very outset of fieldwork it was clear
that for some members of the villages that welcomed me, there was a hope that
my presence might be the recognition they felt they had long deserved. Closely
associated with what became known as the Yali movement (Lawrence 1964), these
villages have lived with the reputation of being kago kalt since the 1940s. Australian
colonial officers were still complaining in their reports in the late 1960s that these
people had no cash crops and no interest in starting any business enterprise because
they considered such activities distractions from the ‘work’ of imitation: of ritually
complex, local versions of Western bureaucratic organization.
Kiap, an old man whose enthusiasm for my presence in the village had been
a major factor in my choice of field site,5
for example, never tired of telling me
that Reite deserved recognition as the source of the power which brought national
independence to Papua New Guinea in 1975. The fact of their power and centrality
had been acknowledged, he told me, by the District Administrator in the 1950s.
As a younger man, Kiap had been arrested and threatened with prison for involve-
ment in the meetings and ceremonies organized by the local leader, Yali. Kiap had
been released, he said, because of the position of Reite village at the very base of
the mountain (Apirela) which dominates that area of the Rai Coast. Having heard
the story so often, I can repeat by rote what the district officer is said to have said
to Kiap on releasing him from gaol: ‘[Y]ou are the base/foundation of Apirela.
You must go back to your village and work for change.’ Kiap took this as both an
acknowledgement of his vital and powerful position, and of his right to lead others
in the movement for development and independence.
Kiap felt that the work he had done ever since – organizing what are called lo
– had not been acknowledged. In addition, he felt that his work had
not brought the change he had felt was promised by the District officer either. My
arrival presaged another flurry of activity to realize this potential. Kiap was an old
though still vigorous and energetic man. My arrival, as he kept saying, was the
reason he would undertake laswok (the final work), the final piece of ritual organ-
ization which would bring about the change to ful independens (full independence)
so long desired.
196 J. Leach
Most ethnographers must surely work with some version of this difficulty (see
Webster 1982), with negotiating perceptions of their use or aims. I found other
people in the village who had, in my terms, more realistic expectations of what my
presence and work could bring. It turned out that these people were more careful
and detailed in their engagements with my questions and confusions as well. In the
end, I came to actively avoid lo bos meetings, as I had come to understand that,
although I could participate and record what was occurring there, the (to me) con-
fused and confusing elements of those activities were unlikely to be resolved, as my
presence, thus implicit endorsement, was a varying element in their continuation.
In one instance, during a three-month return visit I paid to Reite five years after
my initial fieldwork, things came to a head. Kiap was impatient. Very. He organ-
ized a large ‘last work’ meeting in a neighbouring village where he had many
affinal kin. I demurred at the invitation to attend, but found myself forced to make
the trip by a delegation who said they would not leave the house in which I was
staying until I came along with them. They had worked hard to prepare for this,
and I was not going to refuse them what was their due. It was a nerve-wracking
experience, made more so by the long lines of people waiting for my arrival. Many
of them smiled, and all shook my hand, standing in lines to do so. As we shook
hands, each and every one pressed coins into my palm. I unwillingly gathered a
large amount of small denomination coins before being led to a central, elaborately
decorated platform from where I was told to address the meeting.
I had been in such situations before, and stuck to my script: I was a student who
was there, and had been accepted there, to record kastom (local ancestral know-
ledge and practices), to write down for people in the future and people outside
Papua New Guinea things about the way of life and the history of people there. I
probably said something about how we can learn from each other, and that it was
important that people in other parts of the world knew of the beautiful and clever
things people on the Rai Coast do.
There was obvious disappointment. In fact, there were some rather demanding
and tough questions: how would I use the coins I had just collected to ‘open the
path’ for radical change in their lives to occur? I was told that the valuables I had
been given were not for me, but for me to give to The Queen (Papua New Guinea is
a Commonwealth country), from whom they expected a return, and so forth. Then,
in one of the few instances where I have been happy to be dismissed as useless in
public, a man stood up and made a speech to the effect that the audience were not
listening to what I had said; that I was a student there to record kastom, nothing
more. They were wasting their time. I had no power or influence.
‘Just a student’ sent to record kastom let me off the hook in one sense. (There
was a danger, ever present in these movements, of secondary elaboration going
on here as well of course – I was not in a position of enough power or authority to
have the desired effect. They were wasting their time with me but may not be with
someone else, etc.) But it did suggest that, for the purposes these 400 people had
been brought together, I was useless.
In the course of my extended, ongoing and happy presence in those villages, I
made this emergent understanding of my uselessness in this sphere my own, as it
Intervening with the social? 197
were, by never eliciting information on the lo bos activities, avoiding the meetings
when I could, and thus not encouraging my association, or the association of some
hopes of that movement, with my work. My explanations to myself at the time and
since have been focused on the fact that the premises on which the actions were
occurring were misguided.
The very language of my explanation until now has been indicative of a notion
of cultural misunderstanding at the foundation of what I was observing. To cari-
cature the position would be to write, ‘these movements were bound to fail, and
encouraging them by my interest and questioning would only serve to build up an
expectation that the “right” approach to me might yield spectacular results’. In this,
I was perhaps not taking enough account of the relationship I had to Kiap. (I will
come back to this.) Another strategy however seems to be to take more interest,
to gather information on what is occurring. To focus on it, as a chance to focus
attention on the meeting of cosmological worlds.
In a recent highly acclaimed ethnographic film, Garry Kildea and Andrea Simon
teamed up with Andrew Lattas, an Australian anthropologist who has written
extensively on a social movement usually termed cargo cult in New Britain, an
island in Papua New Guinea adjacent to the Rai Coast. The film is called Koriam’s
Law and the Dead Who Govern (Kildea & Simon 2005). The film is brilliant, the
anthropological analysis it contains first rate, and the evocation of the situation true
to my own experiences of being in the field. Although I take elements of the film
as material for my argument here, I do so in appreciation of its many successes
(described by Deger 2007).
Koriam’s Law takes as its subject how members of the Pomio Kivung move-
ment perceive the material inequalities between themselves and white people. The
members of this political and religious movement believe that both the church and
the government of their region hide the knowledge that has led to the whites’ power
and technology. Thus, they seek to uncover the knowledge that lead to the whites’
standard of living. Part of this involves harnessing money, and bureaucratic prac-
tices, to rituals that their charismatic leaders outlined. Activities include confession
and attempts to undo the ancestral fault that subjugated them to the whites.
Note how, so far, the explanation is about how Pomio people attempt to use
relationships to further their aims. It is our tendency to translate this into aspects
of ‘cultures’ and meetings between them. Using the vocabulary of culture then,
the Kivung movement marries traditional images of power (the dead) with new
images of white power: money and the tools of bureaucracy. The ultimate aim in
doing so is to develop their own ‘central government’, which consists of Koriam
and the deceased (Lattas 2006). Money is used to atone for sins. In this the activ-
ities are very similar to those of lo bos. As interpreters, we are drawn to see these
moments as imitations, but specifically as imitations of cultural practices adopted
as symbols empty of any real power.
Tarde, however, offers us a different notion of imitation, as Karsenti (this
198 J. Leach
volume) points out. Tarde insists, against Durkheim, on the fact that imitations
go from the inner to the outer, from the core to the surface, and not the other way
round. He applies this principle to religion and ritual, for instance, in his Laws
of Imitation (Tarde 1903 ch. 6.1), in which he claims that in cases of inter-faith
contact, people of different faiths tend to imitate each other’s beliefs before they
imitate each other’s rituals, just as Renaissance Italians, he claims, embraced the
spirit of classical paganism before they took on its outer artistic and other forms.
This reaffirms the more general point that imitation goes from the heart of things
to the outer trappings, because imitation for Tarde is inter-subjectivity and not just
In Pomio Kivung, sins are confessed in front of a bottle in the village square and
money is cast into the bottle. More prosaically, the power of money is validated
in the fact that it is bribes from the movement that stop the government and the
church from intervening with and preventing their practices of ‘feeding the dead’.
‘Money protects us’, claims the main protagonist of the film, ‘it shields us while
we contact the dead’. In an articulation which echoes complaints familiar to me
from Reite he tells us: ‘They come and tell us we should plant [tea, coffee, coco-
nuts] … and if we do that we’ll get change … a better life and change. But though
we do this we just grow old and die. We have the same problems and worries we
had before whites came.’
The filmmakers are concerned to be ‘reflexive’. That is, they show the presence
of the anthropologist, we hear him asking questions, see him sweaty and flumoxed
at times, and so forth. Yet there is a lack of acknowledgement, in the film at least,
of the effect that the presence of the anthropologist, and then, anthropologist and
filmmakers, may be having on the scenes they are capturing. As an old hand, as
it were, at such an enterprise, I cannot help seeing the remarkably clean and neat
villages shown as conscious effort on the part of villagers in response to the out-
side presence. I cannot help but imagine that people put more money and more
effort into their confessions and payments to the dead with the presence of not only
white people (representatives of the dead), but also of a piece of technology (the
camera) directly associated with reporting on their activities to others who are not
present, who maybe ‘govern’.
There is a very poignant moment in the film where an old woman who has been
close to the anthropologist for many years, has nurtured and fed him, and whose
husband has recently died, questions Andrew about when he is going to give them
what they have been asking for, for so long. When, she asks, will he reveal the
secrets of the white people and allow her some respite from all the hard work of
care, feeding, ritual and so forth, which she has put in all her life? She cries, think-
ing on all this work and how she is still waiting for the results now her body is old
and broken and her life nearly at an end. Andrew, clearly moved by her emotion,
gets up and leaves the scene without answering. Now, this is my own interpreta-
tion based on my own experiences and reactions, but I think he leaves because he
cannot answer her question, cannot and could not give her what she has come to
expect white people to possess.
There are differences between lo bos activities on the Rai Coast and Pomio
Intervening with the social? 199
Kivung in New Britain. Pomio Kivung is well established. It has many followers
and supporters. The film even shows national politicians attending Pomio Kivung
ceremonies in order to gather political support at election time. (The commentary
in the film makes clear that they do not go anywhere near these meetings when they
are not canvassing for that support!) Lo bos meetings and agendas are faltering,
small affairs in comparison. Lo bos ideas meet internal resistance in the villages
where it occurs, as in the speech during the village meeting that I have described.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but question how much influence the attention of
anthropologists and filmmakers has on the Pomio Kivung. How much do these
micro-interactions (in Tarde’s language), these particular and structured interven-
tions with technology, shape the subsequent trajectory of the social form that is
under scrutiny as if it were independent and impermeable to such influence?
Other contexts for ethnography: other demands for influence
Now Tarde may have been sympathetic to my intuition here. There is something
in Lattas’s approach that has to obviate the possibility that he is eliciting what he
sees. And my suggestion is that it is the generalization ‘culture’, something which
Tarde saw as too vague to be useful to sociology, which is the stumbling block.
Tarde’s answer was to focus on highly detailed studies of minute interactions over
time. I am going to ask the reader to follow me to another ethnographic context:
one where concerns over having ethnographic relationships, and an analysis based
upon them shaped by generalizations, were prominent for me.
A few years ago, a PhD student, along with a postdoctoral researcher and
myself were commissioned by the European Commission to investigate gender
imbalance among Free/Libre and Open Source software (F/LOSS) designers in
Starting from the remarkable fact that in 2001/2, 98 per cent of these
software engineers were male, the Commission asked us for an analysis of the
phenomenon, and policy recommendations for correcting what they saw as a
problematic imbalance. This concern picked up on emergent support groups
within F/LOSS for women. Given the ideology of freedom which is central to the
formation of these production focused groups, and the contexts in which F/LOSS
is written, the numbers of women seemed to require explanation (Leach 2009).
While the numbers of women in computer science generally is lower than that of
men (with 72 per cent of coders who work in proprietary software contexts being
male [National Science Foundation 2004]), the figures in F/LOSS were remarkable
enough to concern those who also wished to promote it as a progressive mode of
The fieldwork for this research was carried out in major European cities, as
well of course as in the online discussion groups and forums of software projects
themselves. One immediately obvious element was the highly stereotyped views
of gender attributes and capacities that emerged in informants’ statements, whether
to us, or among interactions that had nothing to do with our study. People in the
developer groups and surrounding them had ideas about gender that appeared
to account for the division of labour within the groups. For example, men were
200 J. Leach
supposedly correctly engaged in the edgy, dangerous and risky work of actually
making new functions and operations though writing the code, while women were
in the softer, socializing roles of translation of this technical material into more
user-friendly formats (Nafus forthcoming; Nafus et al. 2006). They were involved
in the documentation. Furthermore, direct questioning about gender produced stark
stereotypes: women are more socially minded than men; men are more aggressive.
Women have differently structured brains because of evolutionary pressures on
them to multitask rather than relentlessly pursue a single goal, and so forth. Men
were continually cast in the role of making technology work while women were
cast as negotiators, as translators, making accessible the valuable creation of the
men. We also came across pervasive ideas of ‘ geekiness’, men in the commu-
nities often described themselves, without regret, as poor in social situations. In
conducting their work on the projects, they did not see the value of politeness or
of consideration of other people’s feelings.
OK, so this is all very stereotypical. Clearly, these views and behaviours were
part of the data, not part of the explanation of that data. The challenge for us became
whether we could produce an analysis which avoided saying ‘the reason for so few
women in F/LOSS is because these perceptions are inevitable and true (I think they
are not) or, that stereotypical, societal images of gender roles direct participants into
behaviour which is off-putting to women’. That also seemed unsatisfactory. The
resultant policy advice (why we undertook the study) would have to be ‘change the
culture in which these stereotypes have currency’. I felt that that level of abstrac-
tion was useless. What we actually needed to try to describe was how stereotypes
about gender roles were being made and remade in particular social and technical
endeavours. To that end, micro-observations about actual technical activities and
their framing in emergent relations of prestige, hierarchy, power and so forth in the
developer communities seemed vital (see Holbraad & Pedersen 2009).
I would be hard pushed to claim we were deliberately pursuing a Tardean ethno-
graphic approach here. The ethnography was not that well observed, or that detailed,
but it was also not a straightforwardly Durkheimian approach either. Rather than
find social categories that explain behaviour, leaving little chance of changing or
influencing them, we looked at the everyday minute interactions in which imitation
played a large role – imitation by newer and less well-known programmers of the
behaviours and attitudes of prominent ones, the emphasis on the centrality of the
technical procedure, not the social context of that procedure, and so on. Rather than
look to the super-individual entity ‘gender role stereotype’, we became interested
in the actual emergence and change in gender positions and roles as they came into
being alongside significant software objects. As Barry says of Tarde, ‘the contin-
gent historical formation of social institutions, galaxies and landscapes could only
be understood as a product of a whole series of interactions’ (Barry 2005). As I
mentioned above, there is clearly this element latent in Tarde’s sociological project,
a sociology of events, a sociology of the minor modifications and innovations that
make a difference in the subsequent trajectory, the social form.
In his seminal and widely read 1936 book Naven, Gregory Bateson describes
the progressive differentiation of persons from one another through individual
Intervening with the social? 201
events among Iatmul people from the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea.
He noted early on that this was a society with no chieftainship, and thus structural
positions were necessarily emergent from individual actions with regard to specific
other persons. The Naven ritual complex refers to a series of acts of submission
by a mother’s brother to their sister’s child, in recognition of the achievements of
the later (Bateson 1958 ). These acts are elicited by achievement, by pro-
gressing through various elements of initiation, or growth and success. The events
in the Naven ritual are events for me in the Tardean sense I have just referred to
because they progressively and cumulatively differentiate persons so that they can
be in productive, if antagonistic, relation to each other. These relations are taken
by Bateson as elements of a communication system. Information communicated
comes to have the status of event in Bateson’s analysis when it produces changes
and innovations in the behaviour of another person or group. This then has a
further differentiating effect on the original performer, their reaction causing a
further response of difference, and so forth. A micro-sociology of the emergence
of persons and identities is what Bateson points us towards then. For Bateson,
these ‘schismogenic’ processes, this coming into being of productive difference
in ongoing feedback loops of communicated information, revealed what he called
as shorthand, ‘ethos’ (Bateson 1972: 82). Ethos might be taken as a series of
understandings or principles that guide action because of imitation and precedent,
without that being anything existent in some mystical and abstracted realm above
and beyond the persons themselves.
A similar notion was helpful in the research for the European Commission
on F/LOSS producers and took us back to relationships in the field as the most
significant aspect of our study. We actually made an intervention in that case.
We wrote a report on the findings and analysis. And we finished it up with policy
recommendations: how one might make small interventions that would change
the overall pattern of the communities’ emergent form so that more women were
represented at the highest levels. But that was not the end of the matter. In response
to requests from F/LOSS participants, we invited the most influential software
developers we could find to a meeting to discuss and disseminate our findings and
recommendations. It was easy in a way Tarde would have recognized perhaps, as
one of the researchers on the project was a free software developer herself. She was
in fact already feeding back ideas and suggestions through the specific contacts
and relationships she had – not to serve our agenda – but because she found them
interesting or pertinent for those interactions.
The workshop we held was a success insofar as we found agreement in general
that the picture of the community that emerged from our work was accurate, and
also, that we had hit on some of the behaviours being imitated in the actions of
aspirant developers, which might be having disproportionate effects on gender
balance. One response was particularly telling: in response to a question as to how
our research would be perceived by the developers, after making what could only
have been seen as some critical observations, one developer replied, ‘Oh, don’t
worry about that. We will take this work and promote it and defend it. It is useful
for us, and it is our community!’
202 J. Leach
All this leads me to wonder whether, for Tarde to be helpful in thinking through
what ethnography is and does, we might need to consider two levels of ‘event’: that
is, events which perpetuate, through continual minor replication or innovation, a
wider ‘ethos’ formation, and in contrast, events which come to cause a change of
direction or understanding. With Tarde, there is no need to posit a system which
the actors may be ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of, a tempting thought habit, but one which
makes for problems.
What then of the innovation that is the presence of and engagement with
the ethnographer in Papua New Guinea? What Tarde lets us see clearly is that
without an imagined culture or abstraction in place which could be disrupted by
the seismic shock of contact with another similarly sized and weighty system, the
ethnographer’s presence produces events – micro-moments of replication and dif-
ferentiation, ideas and suggestions, associations, and so forth which may well be
innovations. But that these (a few emails, a report, a few conversations, presence
at a lo bos meeting, holding a workshop in Cambridge for software developers)
may or may not be events that matter, events that have an influence on the future
trajectory of the social form or ethos.8
For Tarde, the elementary social fact is inter-subjectivity, and the realization of
each individual in relation to that fact:
The relation of one mind with another is, in fact, a distinctive event in the life
of each; it is absolutely different from all their relations with the rest of the
universe, giving rise to certain most unexpected states of mind, that cannot
be explained at all according to the laws of physiological psychology. This
relation between a subject and an object which is itself a subject – and not a
perception in no way resembling the thing perceived – will not allow the ideal-
istic sceptic to call in question the reality of the latter; on the contrary, it means
that we experience the sensation of a sentient thing, the volition of a conating
thing, and the belief in a believing thing, – the perception, in short, of a per-
sonality in which the perceiving personality is reflected, and which the latter
cannot deny without denying itself. This consciousness of a consciousness is
the inconcussum quid which Descartes sought, and which the individual Self
could not give him. Moreover, this unique relation is not a physical impulse
given or received, nor is it the transmission of motor energy from the subject
to an inanimate object or vice versa, according as we are dealing with an active
or passive state; it is rather the transmission of something internal and mental,
which passes from one to other of the two subjects, and that, curiously enough,
without being lost or in the slightest degree diminished in the first.
(Tarde 1899: 19–20)
Culture and rationality
The manifest advantage of allowing the abstraction of system, of ‘cultures’ meet-
ing to explain the phenomenon of cargo cults is to level the playing field between
people like Kiap and myself by acknowledging that we are both subject to irrational
Intervening with the social? 203
interpretations of the world driven by our cultural categories. And, of course, that is
the main message of Lattas and Kildea’s moving film. They go out of their way to
show that we are all operating under cosmological assumptions and beliefs which
mask other realities. The film makes us realize that we are all irrational in that
we are governed by culture and cosmology. They make it explicit. The Catholic
priest in Pomio is shown undertaking rituals and saying things which seem wholly
incredible. The message is: we all operate in cosmologies and are driven by the
wide belief systems that we call culture. Cargo then is always seen as a meeting
of two cultures, and we are reminded of our own because of the very fact of the
apparent irrationality of the other. In many anthropological studies, this approach
sets the agenda, and thus we are left not looking at systems of relations between
persons at all, but at a relation between inside and outside forms of symbolization
and rationalization. And that, I suggest, disempowers by locating the agency in
culture, in the abstraction, which only Westerners have the language and tools and,
most of all, interest in analysing. Kiap was clearly not doing this.
Back to Tarde then: he says we must focus on the moments of imitation and
difference in social relations. Not starting with the category ‘culture’, or its emer-
gent corollary (cargo cult). This gives us a chance to start from the relationship in
which we are enmeshed when we think about these experiences of ethnographic
knowledge making. In a relational frame such as Tarde’s, there is room to examine
exactly what it is that people are doing in their imitations and differences from
one another, and how they draw relations such as those to the ethnographer into
those projects. Perhaps personal emergence and influence is the real issue in Pomio
Kivung and Lo bos, not the acquisition of material wealth through symbolic manip-
ulation (see Hirsch 2001); that I was uncomfortable on that trip to Kiap’s affinal
village, not because I was being dragged into an irrational cultural efflorescence
that threatened the Rai Coast with irrationality writ large, but because I was being
dragged into representing the desire of Kiap to make himself prominent through
showing effective organization of me to the detriment of other people. In other
words, missing the ethnographic engagement, missing the relationship in which
these matters occur, is to misguidedly focus on culture as explanation and miss the
scale of what is occurring, a scale of principles of effective action and the emer-
gence of differentiated persons as the key to people’s motivations.
Working with Tarde, with the focus on micro-interactions as a refinement of
large abstractions, helps us to understand the micro-relations of fieldwork and
influence, value and so forth, in a new (old) way. These moments are not about
culture, but about people, and about how people change and develop, through their
relations to others, be those anthropologists or kinsmen.
Why am I worried by Lattas’s approach (and see Jebens 2002)? Because I think
it will encourage activity that is a waste of time, that will not achieve the stated
desired ends, and so forth. Who can say if I am correct in that thought? What I can
say is that I would not undertake that study in Reite (Leach 2003: Preface). It seems
204 J. Leach
that such a thing would be far too likely to be an event in Tardean terms.
In her book on scale and anthropological knowledge, Partial Connections,
Strathern (1991) points out that anthropological authority has always been prem-
ised on a scale shift: the anthropologist has a one- to-one-relationship with each
informant, but also a one-to one relationship to ‘the whole culture’ which that
informant could never have. The observation was in a sense prefigured by Tarde
in Monadologie et sociologie, where he made a critical distinction between ‘mu-
tual possession’, that which flows from and in social relations between subjects
regarded as subjects, and ‘unilateral possession’, the possession or apprehension
of a whole social world from without.
When I enter into verbal communication with one or more of my fellows, […]
this relation is the relation of one social element with other social elements,
considered individually. By contrast, when I observe, listen to or study my
natural environment, rocks, water, plants even, each object of my thought is
a hermetically sealed world of elements which may indeed know or possess
each other intimately, like members of a social group, but which I can only
embrace globally and from the outside.
(Tarde 1895 : 90–1 trans. M. Candea)
As David Mosse puts it:
Anthropology does not have the option (moral or epistemological) of a de-
volution to science that disregards social relations that are the basis of its
knowledge. The right to academic knowledge has to be negotiated among
other legitimate claims. And the negotiation of ethnography as a ‘situated
intervention’ rather than a disinterested observation (Gupta and Ferguson
1997: 38) requires that its practitioners are clear on their position, perspective
(Mosse 2005: 952)
I have suggested that it is the idea of an abstract entity – society, culture – that
prevents us from seeing clearly what that position is. It is not ‘society’ or ‘culture’
that is the problem, but what ‘it’ is: a super-organic, organizing entity to which
all are necessarily beholden (society) or subscribe (culture). Or is ‘it’ a series of
relationships and interactions?
This chapter has been a thought experiment. In it I have rehearsed an old di-
lemma, but have drawn on some of Tarde’s words and ideas to illuminate one
aspect: the relation between ethnographer as subject and informant as subject. I
took up the Tardean emphasis on two core elements of social life, imitation and re-
petition, and events as causal moments in social innovation. I also took from Tarde
his emphasis on micro-observation, explicitly though arguing against the value of
emergent super-organic abstractions for entering into relations to other people.
Tarde considered it essential to identify moments in which the trajectory of par-
ticular social processes were given new direction, and considered a concentration
Intervening with the social? 205
on individual encounters, exchanges and interactions to be vital. I turned these
ideas to the service of considering something like the responsibility we have to
informants and to our discipline, the potential influence of ethnographic relation-
ships to produce something of value to both parties, without suggesting that one
must always do what one’s interlocutors want. Tarde has proved valuable insofar
as many of his abstract and technical sociological/philosophical insights provide a
counterpoint to well-established Durkheimian frameworks, which I have attempted
to deploy. All of this holds even though Tarde himself is not necessarily a model
for anthropological practice or ethics by our current standards.
The dual emphasis on micro-interactions (on collecting them together to build a
picture of continually emergent social forms) and on events (moments which can
be seen to change the direction or trajectory of the social form) has been helpful
as it is a way to place a kind of sociology which is theoretically driven to explore
the tools of our science and thus examine how we gather and make knowledge in
the presence of others – not as representatives of another culture, but as people
with interests as well.
Matei Candea has been vital in more ways than one to the production of this
chapter, while he can in no way be held responsible for its inadequacies. I have
benefited greatly from reading Andrew Barry’s work, and from conversations with
him. I thank the participants of the Department of Anthropology weekly seminar
at the University of Aberdeen for their comments, and also Gary Kildea.
1 ‘If it seems to many minds that a social origin cannot be attributed to the categories
without depriving them of all speculative value, it is because society is still too
frequently regarded as something that is not natural; hence it is concluded that the
representations which express it express nothing in nature. But the conclusion is not
worth more than the premise’ (Durkheim 1915: 19fn2).
2 ‘[W]e are at best making prior assumptions about the logic of the system under study,
and at worst using symbols of our own as if they were signs; as though through them
we could read other people’s messages, and not just feedback from our own input’
(Strathern 1980: 179).
3 Although as has been pointed out to me (Candea 2009), Tarde relies on a notion of
‘intuition’ rather than social relation with his subjects. His attempts to understand others
are more of an attempt at an intuitive grasp of remote or opaque social objects than an
investigation of them through ethnographic relationship.
4 And certainly similar to Latour: ‘At Context, there is no place to park’ (Latour 2005)
[because there’s no there there].
5 I had no idea at that stage what this enthusiasm was based on, of course.
6 Lo bos as in, ‘in charge of the law’: people who make sure people abide by the laws
handed down by Yali, and which would bring about millennial change.
7 See http://www.flosspols.org.
8 Clearly, where I lump together lo bos meetings and workshops in Cambridge, I am
losing vital distinctions and subtleties. For one thing, I did not want to change lo bos
206 J. Leach
activity, other than perhaps to discourage it in relation to expectations I would have to
fulfil. That lack of attention was clearly not an event that mattered to people involved.
Rather, it confirmed their suspicions that I was unwilling to aid them as they required.
That may in fact have been the event that mattered. In contrast, I had been expressly
asked to make policy interventions in the world of software. The influence I might have
on lo bos activity, having been made central to its revival and effects, was more likely
to cause events other than a meeting with a group of software engineers in Cambridge.
There are very different power relations and expectations involved in the two scenarios.
People are trying to do very different things, and realize themselves as persons in dif-
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