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The Dogon Mystery: Summary of Marcel Griaule's Work

Eric Jolly

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: This is a summary of Marcel Griaule’s Work by Eric Jolly.

In France, ethnology became a university discipline in the mid—twenties, owing to the combined efforts of the anthropologist Paul Rivet, the philosopher Lévy—Bruhl and the sociologist Marcel Mauss. The founding fathers of French ethnology, who rarely ventured to the field at this time, relied on information from travelers and missionaries to provide data for their anthropological reflections. Nonetheless, Marcel Mauss encouraged his students to conduct ethnographic fieldwork, though he himself never tested the field methods which he taught to his students. Marcel Griaule, the pioneer of ethnographic field work, was one of his students.

In 1928, Griaule went to Ethiopia where he spent a year collecting linguistic and ethnographic data. Beginning in the thirties, he conducted several major scientific expeditions to Africa for the Institute of Ethnology. He instigated and lead the famous Dakar—Djibouti Mission which, from 1931 to 1933, traversed Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. Following this initial expedition, Marcel Griaule organized subsequent missions to Sahara—Sudan (1935), Sahara—Cameroons (1936—1937), and Niger—Lake Iro (1938—1939). These missions marked a double turning point in the history of French ethnology. Through these expeditions, Griaule grounded French ethnology in fieldwork and strengthened its africanist orientation by drawing the first generation of french ethnologists to Subsaharan Africa. The researchers who accompanied Griaule on these expeditions became renowned africanists, in particular, Denise Paulme, Germaine Dieterlen, and Jean—Paul Lebeuf. In 1930, while preparing the Dakar—Djibouti Mission, Marcel Griaule helped organize africanist scholars by participating in the creation of the Société des Africanistes, and the publication of their review, the Journal de la Société des Africanistes.

During the period of the Dakar—Djibouti Mission, the tendency was for multidisciplinary teams to conduct extensive surveys collecting objects and ethnographic data from diverse societies over a vast geographic region in order to provide artifacts for museums and data for comparative research. When Griaule returned from his first expedition, he brought back more than 3000 objects, which were placed in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, 6000 photographs, 1600 meters of film, and 1500 manuscript cards of field notes. From the start of his first expedition, however, Griaule argued for the intensive study of individual african societies. He chose to focus on the Dogon of Mali, then the French Sudan. During subsequent expeditions beginning in 1935, and spanning 25 years, Marcel Griaule and his collaborators resided regularly in the Dogon area pursuing an extraordinary research program, both in its depth and duration. Owing to the perseverance of Marcel Griaule, the Dogon have become one of the most known and studied societies in Africa.

Griaule was more than an eminent field researcher, responsible for all the major ethnographic expeditions conducted in francophone Africa, he also contributed to the professionalization of french ethnology by devoting himself early on to teaching. In late 1940,when the war and German occupation suspended research expeditions to Africa, Griaule was asked to give courses at the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Paris. In 1941, he became the first chair of ethnology at the Sorbonne. In particular, he taught courses on methods of observation and the recording of ethnographic data. The content of his courses was published in 1957 under the title Methode de l'ethnographie.

In this book as in all his previous articles, Griaule recommends working in multidisciplinary teams using the latest audio—visual technics to observe and comprehend cultural events in all their complexity. In his first expedition he assembled a multidisciplinary team of ethnologists, linguists, musicologists, archaeologists, naturalists and technicians. He asked these specialists to collaborate together in order to gain a multifarious view of the same event. Beyond these experimental field methods, Griaule innovated with the systematic use of photography, cinema and audio recording. Griaule was a pioneering this area and some regard him as the initiator of african ethnographic cinema. His interest in audiovisual technics was so great that, in 1955, he obtained a laboratory boat to transport recording and photographic equipment up the Niger River from Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). The films and thousands of photographs of the Dogon now constitute an exceptional and unique testimony of the evolution of an african society since the early thirties.

As well as his multiple institutional responsibilities to the university and research, Griaule was also a prolific writer. Following his first fieldtrip to Ethiopia, he published his observations in three books: Le livre de recette d'un dabtara abyssin (1930), Silhouettes et graffiti abyssins (1933), Jeux et divertissements abyssins (1935). In addition to these strict ethnographic descriptions, Griaule also demonstrated literary qualities as a writer when he published a splendid travelers journal, Les flambeurs d'hommes (1934). Accessible to the general public, the book was translated into english in 1935 under the title Abyssinian Journey (London, 1935) and Burners of Men (Philadelphia, 1935)

After 1931 and up until the war, Griaule concentrates his research on the Dogon covering an diverse array of research themes. Loyal to his methods, he notes, records, photographs and films all that he sees and hears with the ambition to apprehend all aspects of this society. The scope of his research covers material culture, religious phenomenons, myths, divination, and children's games. The first phase of research leads to a doctoral thesis in 1938 as well as the publication of two remarkable books based on sound documentary evidence : Jeux dogons and above all Masques dogons. The later, republished on several occasions contains a corpus of myths, detailed descriptions of funeral rites, a complete inventory of dogon masks, and an elaborate analysis of the bond between myths, rites, dances and paintings within the mask society. Griaule completed this study with an innovative analysis of the sacrificial process and the notion of the person among the Dogon in a series of articles published in 1940 (cite in bib.)

The turning point in Griaule's career began in 1946 when he meets an old dogon hunter, Ogotemmêli, who reveals to him an extraordinarily complex cosmogony. Their conversations were published in Dieu d'eau (1948), and later translated in english as Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1965). A best seller, republished in paperback, the book is written in a vivid style, combining interview and ethnography. In writing Dieu d'eau, Griaule experimented with a new style of writing ethnography that was more readable and accessible to a general audience and respected the voice of the informant. Griaule's intention was to reveal to a broader public the richness and complexity of Dogon mythology and religion.

After the revelations of Ogotemmêli, Griaule tried to further penetrate the profound knowledge of Dogon society by focusing his research on mythology and symbolism. Unfortunately, his untimely death in 1956 left a considerable amount of unfinished work. His collaborator, Germaine Dieterlen carried on his work and published, under both their names, the first volume of the Renard Pale (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1965), an erudite account and monumental synthesis of dogon cosmogony.

Marcel Griaule left a double heritage. The research he inaugurated among the Dogon has been continued by several generations of ethnologists. In particular Geneviève Calame—Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen and Jean Rouch. Theoretically , Griaule's work is at the origin, in France, of a strong tradition of religious anthropology, especially among Africanist scholars. This enduring and productive field of research is perpetuated through contemporary studies of systems of thought and symbolic representation (redefinition of notions of the person, fetishism, sacrifice and totemism, as well as analyses of divination and funeral rites). These themes, which Griaule was the first to develop in his work, were re—examined in the sixties and seventies, by a new generation of anthropologists. Institutionally and historically the heirs of this tradition are connected, for the most part, with the Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (Ve section), the CNRS laboratory 221 (Systèmes de pensée en Afrique noire), and the Société des Africanistes.

The historical and theoretical importance of Griaule's work is measured by the abundance of critical analyses and exegesis his work has raised. The famous Dakar—Djibouti Mission has been notably examined in several articles and reviews. In 1933, a special edition of the Minotaure was devoted to the Dakar—Djibouti Mission. The following year, the expedition became a literary event owing to the publication a travel diary, L'Afrique fantôme, written by Michel Leiris (1934), writer, ethnologist and secretary—archivist for the expedition. Fifty years later, Cahiers ethnologiques published a special issue about the expedition, La mission ethnographique Dakar—Djibouti : 1931—1933 (1984). In this publication as well as other articles published in France and Switzerland, Jean Jamin (1982, 1987, 1996) reconstructs the historical and scientific context of the expedition and thereby illuminates the emergence of french ethnology. James Clifford (1983) took a similar interest, publishing an analysis of Griaule's work entitled Power and Dialogue in Ethnography (Marcel griaule's Initiation). In "Dogon Revisited", the Dutch anthropologist, Walter van Beek (1991), continues this analysis, but adopts a more polemic tone and restricts his study to Griaule's later work, after the publication of Dieu d'eau. Finally, Mary Douglas (1968, 1975), examines the French anthropological tradition as incarnated by Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen and Geneviève Calame—Griaule in "Dogon Culture — Profane and Arcane" (1968) and "If the Dogon..." (1975).

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