Category Archives: France

Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.

Merci Philippe!

Près de quarante ans après sa sortie, le film qui m’a nommé me fait toujours de l’effet.

Alexandre le bienheureux (1968)
Faut dire que Noiret, c’était plus qu’un grand personnage. C’était un exemple.

TàC en France

L’article de Zilbertin me semble un peu étrange, côté écriture (problème de rédac‘?). Tout de même intéressant de voir que Le Monde peut s’intéresser au phénomène Têtes à claques. La capsule elle-même joue sur plusieurs stéréotypes mais, bon, c’est permis, après tout…

Les “Têtes à claques” du Québec débarquent en France
LE MONDE | 20.06.07

© Le

Food and Social Life

Short blog entry by Jacques Attali on statistics about shared meals in “Western Civilizations.”

Conversation avec Jacques Attali: Dînons ensemble

The main claim is that France is still at the top of the list of places where people do enjoy shared meals. Still, Attali does mention some of the realities hidden by those statistics.

Interestingly enough, several of the comments on this entry are about other parts of the world where food consumption is an important social activity, including parts of Asia and Africa.

To me, a basic part of ethnography has to do with groups formed at meals. In some cases, it might be a group of relatives considered as a “household” or “family unit.” In other contexts, meal sharers might consider themselves to be part of the same social group, as when all members of the same age-set eat together.

There’s also the shared consumption of non-nutritional items like tea and alcohol. Perhaps because of my passion for both coffee and beer, I find the process of having coffee or beer with someone else one of the most pleasurable experiences one can have. The complex aromas of those drinks do enhance the experience and the fact that their nutritional value isn’t the main point of their consumption makes the event less utilitarian than socially consequent.

No idea if there are statistics on shared consumption of drinks but they clearly represent an important domain for the study of social life.

Balado et radio, version Sarko

L’effet est saisissant. Arte Radio, la balado-diffusion de la chaîne Arte, s’amuse à faire une parodie de DJ radio, version Sarko. Outre le thème politique, j’apprécie le contraste entre cet extrait et le son habituel d’Arte Radio. C’est en entendant cet extrait que je m’aperçois à quel point la radio me rase et que la balado est plus près de mes habitudes d’écoute.

Vous êtes bienvenus

Un vidéoclip Sarko-phage.

Zêdess Sarkozy Un Hongrois chez les Gaulois

French «Intellectuels» (draft)

[Old draft of a post that I never finished writing… Started it in late February.]

Been thinking about intellectuals, especially French ones. It might have been a long-standing issue for me. To this French-speaking North American academic, the theme is obvious.

More specifically, though.

Was listening to a podcast with French journalist Daniel Schneidermann who, among other things, is a blogger. During the podcast, Schneidermann made a simple yet interesting comment about validation by readers. As a journalist, he has an obligationto adopt strict standards, verify sources, etc. As a blogger, he knows that if something that he says is inaccurate, blog readers will quickly point out the mistake. Again, dead simple. One of the basic things people have understood about online communication since at least 1994. But some journalists have typically been slow to understand the implications, perhaps because it causes a sea change in their practise. So Scheidermann’s comment was relatively “refreshing” in such a context.

Wanted to blog on that issue. Went to Scheidermann’s blog and read a few things. Noticed one about a Wikipedia entry on Schneidermann. While the blogger understands the value of reader validation, he seems to be uneasy with the fact that his Wikipedia entry was, when he first read it, disproportionally devoted to some specific issues in his life. Which leads me to the intellectuel thing.

A little over ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu was on Schneidermann’s television set for a show about television. Bourdieu had been thinking and writing about television’s social impact. The context in which Schneidermann invited Bourdieu was a series of political and social events centering on an important strike with which Bourdieu had been associated. By participating in the show, Bourdieu had the (secret) intention of demonstrating television’s incapacity at taking distance from itself. Bourdieu had participated in another television show a few years prior and apparently saw his presence on a television set as an occasion to experiment with some important issues having to do with the media’s channeling of dialogue. Didn’t see the show but had heard about the events that followed without following it. A brief summary, from very limited evidence.After appearing on the show, Bourdieu published a short piece in Le Monde diplomatique (Schneidermann was a journalist at Le Monde). That piece was strongly-worded but can be seen as a fairly typical media analysis by a social scientist or other scholar. Not Bourdieu’s most memorable work, maybe, but clear and simple, if a bit watered down at times. In fact, the analysis looked more Barthes-type semiotics than Bourdieu’s more, erm, “socially confrontational” work.

Schneidermann’s response to Bourdieu’s analysis looks more like a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived as personal attacks. Kind of sad, really. In fact, the introduction to that response points out the relevance of Bourdieu’s interrogations.

At any rate, one aspect of Schneidermann’s response which is pretty telling in context is the repeated use of the term intellectuel at key points in that text. It’s not so much about the term itself, although it does easily become a loaded term. An intellectual could simply be…

[Google: define intellectual…]:

a person who uses his or her intellect to study, reflect, or speculate on a variety of different ideas

[ Thank you, Wikipedia! 😉 ]

But, in context, repeated use of the term, along with repeated mentions of Collège de France (a prestigious yet unusual academic institution) may give the impression that Schneidermann was reacting less to Bourdieu as former guest than to the actions of an intellectuel. Obligatory Prévert citation:

Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes.

(Intellectuals shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches.)

Now, second stream of thought on intellectuels. Was teaching an ethnomusicology course at an anthropology department. A frequent reaction by students was that we were intellectualizing music too much. Understandable reaction. Music isn’t just an intellectual object. But, after all, isn’t the role of academia to understand life intellectually?

Those comments tended to come in reaction to some of the more difficult readings. To be fair, other reactions included students who point out that an author’s analysis isn’t going beyond some of the more obvious statements and yet others are cherishing the intellectual dimensions of our perspective on music. Altogether the class went extremely well, but the intellectual character of some of the content was clearly surprising to some.

The third strand or stream of thought on intellectuels came on February 27 in a television show with Jacques Attali. His was a typical attitude of confidence in being a “jack of all trades” who didn’t hesitate to take part in politics, public service, and commercial initiatives. I personally have been influenced by some of Jacques Attali’s work and, though I may disagree with several of his ideas, I have nothing but respect for his carreer. His is a refreshingly unapologetic form of intellectualism. Not exclusion of non-intellectuals. Just an attempt at living peacefully with everyone while thinking about as many issues as possible. He isn’t my hero but he deserves my respect, along with people like Yoro Sidibe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Armstrong, Boris Vian, Jan Garbarek, Georges Brassens, Steven Feld, Roland Barthes, James Brown, and Serge Gainsbourg.

A fourth thread came in a departmental conference at Université de Montréal’s Department of Anthropology. Much discussion of the involvement of anthropologists in social life. And the visit of two public intellectuals who happen to be anthropological provocateurs, here in Quebec: Serge Bouchard and Bernard Arcand.. . .

Never finished this draft.

Should really follow on these threads. They have been haunting me for almost a year. And connect with multiple issues that I tend to think about.

My attitude now is that through blogs, mailing-lists, online forums, classes, lectures, conferences, informal and formal discussions, I’m able to help people think about a large set of different issues, whether or not they agree with me on any single point. Not because I’m somehow better than others: I’m clearly not. Not because my ideas are better than those cherished by others: they clearly aren’t. Possibly because I’m extremely talkative. And enthusiastic about talking to just about anyone. There’s even a slight chance that I may have understood something important about my “role in life,” my “calling.” If so, great. If not, I’m having fun anyway and I don’t mind being (called) an intellectual. 😉

France and Higher Ed

[Yet another older draft…]

Choses Vues » Blog Archive » Higher education in France

(That link now leads to a paid article. Here’s another link to the article.) Perhaps typical of NYT pieces these days, this article is rather detailed without being edifying and somewhat provocative without being thought-provoking. It’s also very ethnocentric. Too bad, though, as the issue would merit a thorough analysis. Coming from French-speaking institutions outside of France and currently connected with academic institutions in the U.S., my personal perspective is quite different. Not that the issues with the French system are at all surprising to me. But comparison with the United States doesn’t really bring the issue forward. As Paul says, Scandinavian institutions could provide more interesting models. My experience in Switzerland and Quebec is also significantly different from what is described in the article. Not that any one of those post-secondary educational systems is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. But post-secondary education is not limited to France and the United States. In fact, France and the U.S. are isolated cases in today’s educational world. What might even be surprising to many people is that those two countries are often much more similar than different. For instance, the extremely high prestige afforded a precious few institutions is a striking feature of both educational systems (Grandes écoles, Ivy League…). It might exist in other places (say, England) but, at least, it’s not characteristic of universities in Quebec. In Canada generally, most academic institutions have much of the same status, despite attempts by MacLean’s to rank universities every year (à la Princeton Review). While the rankings have some effect, they are much less restrictive than what exists in either the U.S. or France. Also, faculty members across Canada get almost exactly the same salary for the same position, irrespective of their host institution. Disparities in salaries exist at many other levels but they usually don’t distinguish one institution from the rest. Will probably post a blog entry about this pretty soon.

Barthes on Wine

www_incipitblog_com-20050913-ROLAND_BARTHES-Mythologies_Le_vin_et_le_lait-Le_bifteck_et_les_frites.mp3 (audio/mpeg Object)

Says a lot about drinks and cultural identity.


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(It’s me, a couple of months ago.)
Was editing some older entries with ecto to add categories and tags. Saw this old one (from late March, 2k5) which was meant as an introduction/blurb. Was teaching at IUSB then. Time for an update or three.
Since then, been teaching in Massachusetts (BSC and Tufts, during the Fall 2005 semester) and Montreal (Concordia during the Winter/Spring 2006 semester). Came back to Tufts to teach during the first summer session. Currently (06-06-14 13:19:34) in Cambridge, at a condo that belongs to some friends who are spending some time in Paris for academic reasons.
So, many of us, in academia, end up moving around quite a bit. Been moving more than twice a year for the last six years. Looking forward to a bit more stability. In fact, because my wife is in Northampton, MA (doing a post-doc at Smith), my time in Massachusetts has typically been divided between the Western part of the state and the Boston area.
Speaking of my brilliant wife, she’s in Montreal right now to defend her dissertation! Can’t go myself, because of my course, but it’ll very likely be an extremely good defence (Catherine knows her stuff in and out!).
Whew! It’s weird to post entries like these but it’s probably what people expect from blogs. Even wanted to start blogging while in Fredericton, NB, in 2003. Kept sending messages to my wife instead (she was in Moncton, NB at that time). Should eventually report back on some places where my semi-nomadic lifestyle has led me in the past (Somerville, Lausanne, Baguinéda, Bloomington, Sienna, Northampton, Kassela, Zinal, Bamako, Fredericton, Mandelieux, Markala, Edimburg, Moncton, South Bend, Brockton, Hyères, Montreal, and, of course, Poggibonsi).