Describe your book
Let’s say it’s a book about social protest that doesn’t talk about social protest – not directly, at least.
More specifically, I became interested in a grassroots South African organization that has been protesting poor neighbourhood living conditions for over a decade. This is obviously a fairly common subject in the field of the analysis of social movements, but I’ve tried to approach it a little differently, using factors that are very far from protest activity in the strict sense of the term in order to understand it.
This approach is justified by the fact that, more than in other types of mobilization, the things that are affected and justify one’s commitment to a poor people’s movement most often reside in the most central aspects of life, which are also sometimes the most vital and intimate: access to water and electricity, the future of one’s children, the feeling of social contempt, the unpredictability of everyday life, etc. To put it another way, the commitment of these activists is rooted in their close and familiar worlds. It’s this observation that means we need to move away from the noise of demonstrations to better dive into the multiple relationships that structure the social life of the poor neighbourhoods in which these women and men dwell, to closely examine their living conditions, to try to enter into their intimate lives, etc. We can then highlight things that seem to have no connection with protest but which in fact allow us to better understand some of its causes: the legitimacy of activists in their neighbourhoods, the meaning of their fight, the persistence of their commitment, etc. Above all, what I have called a politics of the near then takes shape. Its distinguishing feature is the way it emerges in the multiple frictions between ordinary existence and activist life, and expresses itself in proximity, autochthony and a sense of lived space (the space of the township) which permeates the daily lives of these individuals.
In addition to trying to render in highly concrete terms the notions of the “struggle for recognition” and the “quest for dignity” often associated with the mobilizations of the poorest, the book also underlines how, three decades after the end of apartheid, poverty and race are still as tightly interwoven as ever.
Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?
I made this choice because of the review process. It’s a guarantee of quality and, above all, an excellent way of refining one’s own thinking. The remarks and criticisms of the reviewers can of course be destabilizing, even unpleasant, but they help to breathe new life into the manuscript. While I remain faithful to my own experience, it’s obvious that the work of the reviewers on the first versions of the manuscript enabled me to enrich and improve it considerably.
Do you enjoy the writing process?
Yes, but I especially like the rewriting phases. I like to go over the same paragraph several times to improve it, clarify it, make it more rigorous. I tend to believe that the quality of the writing, of the style, is something essential in the social sciences, but that researchers are perhaps not always sufficiently aware of this. Conversely, doubtless in order to seem more scientific, texts are sometimes arid and dominated by a somewhat pointless jargon. I know that what we write isn’t intended to be literature, but it seems to me that scientific rigour feeds as much on the handling of concepts as on the desire to achieve an exacting and accessible style.
I’m continuing to study the connections that are woven between the commitment of individuals and their close and familiar worlds, but I’ve been working in a different field, with a different subject of study, for two years now. I’m interested in collectives that have moved into French rural areas and which, often out of a fear that civilization may collapse, are seeking to conceive a different future, one that involves both autonomy and the “commons.”
Jérôme Tournadre is a research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is the author of A Turbulent South Africa: Post-Apartheid Social Protest. He is the author of The Politics of the Near (2022), published by Fordham University Press.