Jean Bazin

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The Independent Online

Jean Bazin, anthropologist: born 1941; married (one son, one daughter); died Paris 12 December 2001.

Jean Bazin was one of the liveliest and most impressive anthropologists in France.

He had a distinguished beginning to his career, gaining entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure at the end of the 1950s where he studied philosophy under Louis Althusser, who, in addition to his work on Marxism, was then seeking to interest his pupils in the wider functions of philosophy, especially in the nature of human societies. He was always pleased when a student chose not to take up a career as a philosophy teacher and he encouraged Bazin, once he had completed his agrégation in philosophy, to move into anthropology.

It was Georges Balandier who had supervised Bazin. He was one of the anthropologists studying the plural societies that had been created by colonialism and which were becoming still more complex during decolonisation. Bazin's first experience was in West Africa, in the recently created independent republic of Mali.

He taught in Bamako from 1967 and began extensive research. He studied the ancient kingdom of Ségou and examined the system of government that was developing with self-government. In this way he followed the teaching of his two masters: with Balandier in his historical and ethnic research; with Althusser in his examination of the social basis of the state of Mali.

Yet what distinguished Bazin's work was the full and radical nature of his investigations. He studied oral history alongside archive history; he examined the legends and myths of past conflicts and he analysed the antagonisms that were then developing; he considered the nature of power in terms of the objects that were used, whether fetishes or particular forms of art. But he insisted that researchers such as himself were in danger of creating ethnic, cultural or social models that were not necessarily useful and which could be positively misleading.

It was because of these uncertainties that he adopted the methods of the behaviourists, in which the investigator seeks to know something about the inner experiences of a man when he cannot share these experiences. He must therefore infer them from their manifestations in behaviour. Why does a man steal? Why does he accuse others of witchcraft? Why do angry men start to hit out? In conducting such investigations Bazin claimed to be faithful to philosophy and he said that in Africa he carried with him Wittgenstein's version of the behaviourist doctrine.

Bazin taught for many years at the University of Paris V before being appointed a director of research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Much of his work was published in the anthropological review L'Homme, but some of his most important contributions to knowledge were presented and discussed in his seminars. It is planned that these should be collected and published.

Douglas Johnson