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Giving voice to the voiceless? Actors, strategies and discourse


Although the problem of freedom of expression has long dominated thinking and debate about the functioning of public arenas, the question of access to legitimate expression for the most powerless social groups has, over recent decades, become a public problem in its own right. The conditions under which these groups have access to public expression, and the audibility of their discourse, are now questioned by many actors (associations, trade unions, political parties, intellectuals, social workers, journalists, and so on) who are proposing strategies designed to “give voice to the voiceless”. The objective of this symposium is to examine, within an interdisciplinary perspective, the modalities, forms and issues surrounding these offers to the powerless to have their voices heard: the actors who are promoting them, the strategies shaping them and the discourses accompanying them.

The social sciences, especially political sociology and, indeed, social history, have until now focused mainly on the conditions of access and legitimacy of speech for dominated groups or those with “limited resources” in the areas where public debate is developed: among workers, immigrants, dissenters, ethnic and sexual minorities, the homeless, the excluded, women, children and young people[1]. These groups are sometimes classed into categories such as “the unheard”, “the invisible”, “the faceless”, “vulnerable members of the public”, or “menial groups”.[2] There is little research focusing on the categorisation which contributes to the very existence of these groups, whether it is led by those specialising in social problems (state agencies; professionals working in information, socio-cultural leadership or health; social workers; militants; artists; and so on) or by researchers themselves[3]. The latter have had the opportunity to question (EHESS, March 2016) the conditions of collection, audibility, credibility and intelligibility of words spoken by the “voiceless”[4].

The American anthropologist James Scott considers that occasions when authentic speech by “menials” is heard publicly are the exceptions rather than the rule, and that it is more often expressed in a covert manner or disguised in confined spaces, which are often difficult for historians or ethnologists to access. We might question the processes and agents who help publicise this “hidden transcript” and the effects that their interventions may produce on this. We might also question the nature and texture of this speech, which is all the more difficult for the researcher to access given that he never finds it in its “raw” state, but always partially transformed by the mechanisms determining its conditions of enunciation and reception. In what circumstances and on what terms do agents get to the point of taking on the role of spokesperson or representative of these “voiceless” people, at the risk of reproducing the symbolic capturing mechanisms that some intend precisely to denounce? What are the mediums, forms, formats and genres which provide the special mediations for expressing this speech? In what way is the institutionalisation of these common-sense or scholarly categories and problems likely to open up or close over the space of the possible and thinkable with regard to the problems suffered by the “voiceless”, and the solutions likely to be provided to them in the areas of social action, distribution of wealth, education, media and government action?

We shall, in addition, be concerned with analysing the words spoken by these “voiceless” members of society when they manage to express themselves publicly within the arenas or through the procedures made available to them[5]. How, indeed, should we analyse these private words that have been made public by a process of selection, of scene-setting and of expression in words over which the speakers have, at best, only partial control? What indications enable us to analyse the transformations undergone by these words when they submit to being publicised, and/or when these groups provide for themselves or are provided with “spokespersons” to speak in their name? What repercussions do these forms of expression produce on those who contribute to making them visible and audible? Finally, we intend to question the conditions under which these words are received and able to be heard: what logics govern their circulation in the social environment? How are they interpreted or retranslated according to the listeners who receive them? Do the mechanisms which produce them play an emancipating role or do they contribute to paradoxical forms of confining speakers within imposed roles and categories? 

A last line of thinking might be based upon analysing the mechanisms themselves: the offer of being able to speak can take shape in ways as diverse as a collection in a publishing house, a television programme, speaking groups or blogs, or indeed in an institutional framework, be it in education, health or the cultural domain… So many combinations, both physical and symbolic, which will not be envisaged simply as places for understanding subjects of investigation, but as organised spaces organising social relations.

The symposium will have a multidisciplinary perspective and we invite sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians, political scientists, semiologists, linguists and discourse analysts to present their work and share their analyses and reflections.


[1] A few bibliographical references will give an idea of the scale and abundance of work that has been devoted to the issue. In the domain of sociology and political science, there are: Beaud, 2006; Bourdieu, 1993; Braconnier and Mayer, 2015; Dubois 2008; Elias and Scotson, 1997; Ferron, 2012; Garcia, 2013; Gaxie, 1978; Glady and Vandevelde-Rougale, 2016; Laforgue, Payet, 2008; Hamidi, 2010; Juhem and Sedel J., 2016; Mouchard, 2009; Payet, 2011; Piven and Cloward, 1979. In history, there are: Farge, 1998, 2004; Guillaumou, 1999; Guillaumou, Mesini, Pelen, 2004; Kershaw, 2013; and Zinn, 2004.

[2] Braconnier and Mayer, 2015; Rosanvallon, 2014; Beaud, 2006; Farge, 2004; Spivak, 1988.

[3] For exceptions to this, particularly on the “excluded” category, see Lafarge, 2001; on the “immigrant” category, Spire, 1999; and on the “less” category (the homeless, the jobless, those without legal documentation, etc.), Mouchard, 2009. For a more general sociological analysis of these “classification struggles”, see Bourdieu, 1978.

[4] Symposium Les sciences humaines et sociales face au foisonnement biographique. Innovations méthodologiques et diversité des approches [The human and social sciences faced with biographical profusion. Methodological innovations and diversity of approach] (EHESS, Paris, 9-11 March 2016). One of the workshops was called «La parole inaudible» [Inaudible speech].

[5] The following references provide an initial bibliographical basis for starting to think about these issues: Angenot, 1989; Auboussier, 2015; Barbet-Honoré, 2013; Bilat, Lelay, 2016; Gardet, 2009; Oger, 2006; Puccinelli-Orlandi, 1996; Juhem, Sedel, 2016; Ducard, 2016; Paveau, 2016, 2017.



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