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Julien Bonhomme

Alumnus of the Ecole normale supérieure (1995), agrégé in philosophy (1998), I received a PhD in anthropology from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in 2003. I have been assistant professor in anthropology at the University of Lyon-2 (2006) and deputy director of the research and teaching department of the quai Branly museum in Paris. I am now assistant professor in anthropology at the Ecole normale supérieure (Paris) and researcher at the Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale.

Fields of interest :
Anthropology of ritual and religion, Ethnography of communication, Urban ethnography, Visual anthropology.

My research is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Gabon and Senegal (and, to a lesser extent, in Cuba), as well as on work on the colonial archives of French Equatorial Africa and Belgian Congo. My current work addresses four main topical issues:

1. The powers of speech in ritual context

I am interested in various genres of ritual discourse (divination, oath, ordeal, curse, spells, etc.) in order to study how social efficacy is conferred to speech. In this perspective, I also investigate the contextual embedding of speech with the other semiotic means used in rituals: action, music, images, graphic signs, artifacts, etc. More generally, I am interested in the relation between ritual and ordinary speech, as well as in the relation between speech, gender and social status.

2. The social dynamics of witchcraft: from gossip to rumors

I am interested in the social dynamics of accusatory speech in witchcraft affairs. I study the circulation of gossip among kin or neighbors and I show how indirectness in communication is strategic to avoid head-on conflict. I also investigate how divination represents a ritual scene on which witchcraft accusations can be publicly stated. In parallel, I am interested in a series of witchcraft rumors that circulate on a wider scale, sometimes across most of the African continent. I study how these transnational rumors are spread by the media and the “radio-trottoir”. I also examine how they sometimes lead to public accusations, violence and lynching. These rumors of witchcraft give us the opportunity to grasp the forms of sociability, the modes of communication, the moral values, and the rites of violence that define contemporary Africa.

3. Prophetic writings: literacy and religion

As part of a larger project on the appropriation of modern technologies of communication, I am interested in the use of writing in various African prophetic movements since colonial times. Prophetic writings are as much a sign of the prophet’s charismatic authority as they are a semiotic means to communicate his new religious message. I study how these religious writings borrow at the same time from the official document and from the Holy Scriptures. They refer to an ideology of writing the origin of which lies in the colonial situation and its two main pillars, mission and administration. Writing is indeed a technology of power as well as of knowledge. By appropriating it, prophets seek to capture its social powers.

4. Building champions: ethnography of Senegalese wrestling

With several colleagues, I am conducting a multi-sited ethnography of Senegalese traditional wrestling, one of the most popular sports in the country. We study the whole chain of actors and institutions involved in the field of wrestling: from the local teams where wrestlers are training to the wrestling arena where they fight, including the official body that regulates the sport, the media that help turning the fights into a popular show, as well as the promoters and the public figures who sponsor wrestling. Based on fieldwork in the popular suburbs of Dakar, we study how wrestling is not exclusively a matter of athletic skills: it also requires the full mobilization of the wrestling team, the family and the neighborhood, in order to provide the wrestler with the material, moral and “mystical” support, without which he cannot hope to succeed. In order to understand how to build champions, we focus not on the most famous wrestling “stars”, who are already consecrated by the arena and the media, but rather on the young men who strive to break through in the world of wrestling.

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