Social Sciences from Dissonance to Ambiguity: Breaking the Deadlock

Convenors: Lynda Dematteo (IIAC EHESS CNRS Paris) & Mariella Pandolfi (Université de Montréal)


Beethoven wrote and several time revised “Fidelio”, his opera on love, political conflict and aspiration to fraternity. Because it was so difficult to compose, this opera lends itself to experimentation. In the Salzburg Festival 2015, director Claus Guth provoked vociferous booing on the opening night. He had decided to replace the singspiele (spoken dialogues) of this opera by recorded sounds: subdued rumbling, industrial creaks and clanks, moaning and breathing. During these moments, the singers either acted out the story silently, or stood around trying to look absorbed in thought. In that way Claus Guth wanted the public to explore the idea that we all live within self-devised prisons, even in our lives as couples.

This provocative experiment should make us reflect on the dilemmas generated in universities by identity politics and the reactions it causes. Researchers are mired in dissonance: there is no longer a widely shared framework and they are constantly being called upon to define themselves (politically, socially, culturally, sexually…). Such injunctions can be a source of anxiety and a great cacophony the result. Social networks have amplified the phenomenon and the risk of collision between divergent world-views has been increasing. Fake news ends up locking us into cognitive prisons by interfering with reality. In that way mediation has become a problem in itself, whether it is the involvement of subaltern groups in the affirmation of a populist aesthetic or the stereotypical descriptions conveyed by journalists. In order to shift preconceived ideas within the current media setting, dialogue is a prerequisite.

How do social scientists cope with cognitive and behavioural discrepancies today? Dissonance is creativity. Inventiveness is un-discipline. Conceptualization is resistance. How do different generations of social scientists approach this epistemic process? How do they deal with the perilous passage to creation in which each one expresses dissonance and copes with his or her own limits? The chains of some are not necessarily the chains of others. Can we help ourselves to break them reciprocally?

In order to effectively prevent that dissonance from turning into ambiguity, we have to leave space for contradiction. In recent years, we have seen academic debate atrophy, because remaining ambiguous has become a way not to offend anybody and to go forward. Researchers no longer know where their interlocutors stand and accordingly, they are more cautious in expressing themselves so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Political polarisation puts critical thought and free speech under pressure. In order to defeat conformism, we will strive to privilege rethinking about deconstruction and easy whistleblowing.

The conditions in which research is developing must also be highlighted, in order to capture their epistemic effects. Precariousness, devaluation of social scientists’ work by informants, and control of data access, have been impacting the production of knowledge. It is becoming incredibly difficult to work, whatever the subject matter. How to report on dissonances experienced in fieldwork? The researcher’s perspective often frightens people who may find themselves caught up in investigative work, the outcomes of which are completely beyond their control. Some researchers have been sued because of their ethnographic studies and others fear being sued. Confinement as a sanction has been replaced by exclusion (that is to say confinement outside). In some cases, access to the field is denied outright. The 1980s utopia of multi-sited ethnography is threatened today by the hardening borders of dissonance, which have been cast over true critical confrontation, intrinsic to the social sciences project. Is the researcher’s freedom still an ideal today?

Posted in