Workers’ Anthropology and Factory Inquiry: Inventory and Problematics (2001)

Gérald Bloncourt, OS workers arriving at the Renault car factory in Le Havre, September 14, 1971.

Translators’ Introduction: In a previous essay, Viewpoint has engaged the work of Sylvain Lazarus and the unique framework for thinking politics he has developed over the course of a five-decade long revolutionary trajectory, in groups ranging from the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste to the Organisation politique and alongside militant theorists like Alain Badiou and Natacha Michel. Below we present a translation of Lazarus’s account of factory inquiries that he carried out with other researchers and activists in the 1980s and early 1990s at the Renault-Billancourt and STECO factories, a period when the largely foreign-born OS, or “semi-skilled,” workforces on the assembly lines were waging a fierce round of strikes that challenged the public discourse around the place of immigrant workers in French society. Lazarus points us to the possibilities of inquiry for setting the political prescriptions opened up by concrete situations of protest into relief, and how the collective vocabularies and practices of struggle can lead towards new slogans, new organizational forms.

It was in the middle of the 1980s, starting with the inquiry that I carried out at Renault,1 that I elaborated the constitutive propositions of workers’ anthropology, along with the methods of inquiry and analysis of interviews. 

Factories and the Conjuncture

The conjuncture at the time was marked by major strikes, particularly in the automobile industry, over working conditions, wages, and against management (Citroën-Aulnay, Renault-Flins in 1982), against layoffs and the arrangement of aid for return for foreign workers (Talbot-Poissy in 1983-1984). Since the beginning of the 1970s, the OS [semi-skilled workers] formed in different branches of industry, particularly in the auto industry, the most active and most committed sector of factory workers.2 The strikes at Renault (1973)3 and the shipyards (1974) testify to this. The closure of metallurgic and steel factories from Lorraine to Longwy marked in 1979 another dimension of the conjuncture, that of restructuring and layoffs. Despite its commitment and inventiveness, the struggle of the Longwy steelworkers did not manage to change the decision to restructure; on the other hand, it showed how important the conditions of layoffs were, and in the form of bonuses or severance pay, the recognition by the employer of time spent at the factory. We will see that this question is not only material (amount of severance pay and the logic of its calculation) but that it also specifies the boss/worker relation in this kind of situation, and thus the recognition of the worker by the boss through the counting of the years of work at the factory.

In these years, the situation was marked by these two features: the struggle of the OS on one hand, and restructuring, factory closures, and social plans on the other. Within this conjuncture a debate opened up on the OS, on OS labor, and in fact knowing whether or not they represented one of the forms of the contemporary figure of the worker. On this point, very controversial opinions emerged. In 1983, a certain number of government officials of the time declared that the workers in struggle at Renault-Flins were “Shi’ites,” “foreign to the social realities of France.”4 These very strange words amounted to confessionalizing a strike, and thus suggested passing from the category of a workers’ strike to a confessional strike. “Shi’ite” was the signifier of an alarmist condemnation (Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979), and in no way that of a characteristic of “workers.” This point must be examined. What does the adjective “Shi’ite” seek to indicate? Formally, it is a matter of a religion, one of the branches of Islam; “Shi’ite” summons “Islam,” which summons “Arab,” which summons “immigrant.” The explicit operation consists therefore in conjoining, with reference to a strike, “immigrant” and “Shi’ite,” immigrant and Islam, instead of and in place of the conjunction immigrant and worker. It is remarkable to me that this confessionalization, which could also be called a “cultural approach,” made the figure of the worker completely disappear. Why? It appears from the inquiry that I conducted with the workers at Renault in 1985-1986 that the figure of the worker, starting in the 1980s, could only constitute itself linked to the factory and in its internal space.5

It will indeed be clearly indicated by the OS of Billancourt that the vision that they have of workers is not structured as before by notions of class, the working class, or the workers’ movement, which were effective frames of reference in the preceding period – and which proposed, in particular, a unique dispositif of categories circulating from the factory to society, the category of class making it possible to simultaneously speak of workers in the factory but equally in the space of society with reference to the politics of the State. This period is by all accounts closed at the beginning of the 1980s.6

The election of François Mitterrand as president of the Republic can punctuate the dating of this closure. Little by little it appears that, in the new conjuncture – which I propose calling “postclassist” – the identification of the figure of the worker demands taking into account the entanglement between worker and factory:7 it is the interior of the space of the factory that, in the postclassist sequence, a new figure of the worker finds its terms, its signs, and its practical mode of expression and action. Since then, the declarations of Pierre Mauroy and Gaston Defferre proposing to substitute “Shi’ite” for worker take their meaning in deliberately situating themselves in this postclassist period. The lapsing of the idea of class, if it does not accompany an assignment of the figure of the worker to the factory, effectively has as its consequence the rendering indistinct, rootless, and without norm the possible terms of the figure of the worker. Since the idea of the working class no longer allows us to represent workers in society,8 why not propose that, in society, their religion identifies them? From the moment that the identification of workers cannot take place starting from the space of the factory, every attempt at identification in society, in the postclassist epoch, is in reality a disidentification, a confessionalization, a cultural, then communitarian, then ethnic characterization. That this led a Prime Minister to make remarks, about workers on strike over their working conditions, based on security and anti-terrorism, can be here analyzed as the consequence, with pejorative value, of an approach to workers by something other than their assignment to the space of the factory. If it is not by the space of the factory, then it is by a social trait, always presented as a negative difference, justifying by this the politics led to their place. “Shi’ites” in 1983 for the OS in the auto industry, “relics” [archaïques] in 1995 against the striking railway workers, the logic is identical.9

From “workers’ consciousness” to the statement: “workers think”

Another element of the conjuncture of the inquiry conducted in 1985 had to do with the figure of the OS itself: less on the difficulty of OS labor than on its potentially obsolete character and, as a result, on the potentially obsolete character of workers’ labor. Certain experts predicted the end, thanks to robotics and informatics, of workers’ labor. The CGT union for its part launched a big campaign, within and outside the factories, whose slogan was, “OS life, broken life.” Which theses underlie this statement, which became the object of a massive poster campaign? First remark: if OS can be understood as designating a place and type of work, we could say that it is the workplace which, in the statement “OS life, broken life,” decides upon life, and that this is not one. We are therefore in a dialectic of determination of life, of its meaning, by the workplace; what operates is not strictly the dialectic between material conditions and forms of consciousness, but that between the workplace and the value given to life. It is a matter not of a postclassist thesis like that which is at work in the declaration of Mauroy, but a thesis maintaining itself in classism which, at the same time, tends to adjust itself to the new conjuncture. This thesis maintains itself effectively in classism since it puts into perspective workplace and life (workplace is internal to the factory and life is simultaneously internal and external to the factory), in a dialectic. It is no longer “working class” that circulates in lexicon from the interior of the factory to the exterior of the factory through the dispositif workers’ movement/workers’ union/workers’ party.10 By an analogy and a phenomenological approach, we witness an existentialization of this circulating category which is “life.”

If the extremely pessimistic and denigrating character of this proposition was remarkable (life, any more than consciousness, cannot be deduced from the concrete forms of the division of labor or the characteristics of machines and the gestures of those who activate them), no less clear was the mechanistic character of the process.

An interrogation thus opens up, which structures the process of workers’ anthropology: since the characteristics of production do not determine the forms of consciousness and representations, how then do we reflect on and try to know them? If the figure of the worker can no longer be deduced from the forms of collective consciousness of a group (workers’ consciousness) otherwise objectively constituted – the working class – then it is necessary to build a new dispositif of investigation and analysis of the intellectual field of workers.11 Let’s abandon the classist statement – which supports the existence of a workers’ consciousness – in favor of a postclassist proposition structuring the space of workers’ anthropology. As Lévi-Strauss said of all humans, including “savages,” let’s affirm, for our part: workers think. How then is it possible to know what they think, moreover to identify the singular thought which is potentially theirs? More precisely, when the thought of workers applies itself to the space of the factory, what do they think? What do they think also from the interior of this space of what is not this space, that is, society? And finally, from the interior of this new, postclassist sequence, what do they think of the place of this anterior sequence, which was classist?


When the GRECO 13 research groups on international migration at the CNRS, which I had participated in since my investigation into the training needs of young Algerians in France,12 were asked to take charge of a program of inquiry on the OS in the context of a research partnership between the CNRS and Régie Renault, I proposed a project centered on the study of forms of consciousness and representations, in view of these arguments and attributions put forward about the figure of the worker, and also taking into account my own knowledge and longstanding interest in factory situations – in particular, the inquiry I did at the Talbot factory at Poissy in 1983, at the moment of the occupation of the factory against the restructuring plan. The research partnership between CNRS/Régie Renault gathered a dozen teams, each on their respective theme, notably those of Abdelmalek Sayad and Renaud Sainsaulieu.13

Interviews were conducted at Billancourt during the spring of 1985, and lasted three months. The workers we met were chosen by lot, from a list of assembly line workers. This method only had advantages: it avoided going through the networks, whether of the unions, of the bosses, or the workers themselves (family and parents); it also allowed a clear and credible response to the question that the workers posed in the initial phase of interviews: “How and why have you chosen me? Who gave you my name?” To each it was explained that, on the basis of alphabetical lists of assembly line workers, we numbered the names in alphabetical order, from 1 to n, and that we took out the first, the fifth, the tenth, the fifteenth, etc. Little by little, knowledge of our inquiry spread among the workers, along with the fact that we were interested in what workers thought; but what also became known was that selections were made by drawing lots. 

In the subsequent inquiries, confirmed each time was the importance of what I call the reputation of the inquiry among the workers and, in particular, the practice of drawing lots for interviews. In 1989, in China, at the Guangzhou Heavy Machinery Plant,14 while we had many meetings to present research to workers, during the very first interviews, one of them told us that the workers in his workshop had discussed this inquiry at length, that they had decided to welcome it favorably and that, in the name of his workshop, he wished us welcome.

The practice of drawing lots also gives consistency and made more credible the presentation of the inquiry that we did at the beginning of each interview, insisting in particular on the fact that we had the authorisation of the management of the company, but that we did not work for it, that we were academics and researchers, and therefore absolutely independent from the company. Drawing lots was perceived as conforming to this independence.

Let’s add that, in fact, by the method of drawing lots, with the number of interviews that we did, the objective characteristics of the people we met were very close to the characteristics of the general population of the workshop or the line: age, sex, workstation [poste du travail], seniority, skill level. We were able each time to note a posteriori that the composition of the group of interviews constituted by drawing lots had a great fidelity with reference to the general group of the workshop. Nothing shocking in this – there is a well known statistical rule that supports it, on the condition that the number of people we meet are sufficient with relation to the set of the population considered. The purpose was not however to constitute a representative sample to apply for example the method of quotas, but to make this finding: drawing lots of workers for interviews is perceived by them, given its aleatory character, as clear and effectively independent of the different hierarchies of the factory.

The interviews took place during working hours, in places close to the lines and as neutral as possible. It was, for example, very clearly understood that the interview could not be done in the boss’s office. We largely used break rooms. The interviews lasted at least two hours, sometimes more. The working language was most often French, sometimes Arabic, which one member of the team spoke. Of course, at the beginning of the interview, it was indicated that we would practice the rule of confidentiality, regarding what workers told us, and we would remember that participation was strictly voluntary, that it was possible to refuse or to leave the interview while it was taking place. In all the inquiries conducted up to today, and all practiced thus, there were very few refused or abandoned, but there were some. That is in my opinion very significant, since it clearly indicates that the possibility of refusing was real, and consequently, those who agreed to respond did so deliberately.

A question often posed at the beginning of the interview was about the usage of the research and its results: “What are you going to do with what we tell you, what is it for?” The response consisted always of indicating that it was a matter of an inquiry into what workers think, that this research was absolutely independent from management, that the results would be a report or a book, written starting from what the workers said, that this book could be read by anyone – including management – but that what people who read will do with this reading is obviously up to them to decide, and them alone. This response is always well received. We often added that the thought of workers is the most often misunderstood, even though today the knowledge of what directors, managers, and engineers think has multiplied. We also said to the workers, because it was our belief, that the interest of the research, if there was an interest, consisted in making better known what the workers of this or that factory thought.

An anthropology of problematic words

A central piece of the dispositif of the inquiry, the interview guide, organized by thematic chapters, contained two types of questions. First of all, questions of a factual nature, biographical – we called them descriptive: age, family situation, seniority in the factory, workstation, professional itinerary, etc.

With the other type of questions, we examined thought, solicited judgments or theses associated with certain words, whose precise meaning, signification, and intelligibility are today open and in debate: “worker,” “labor,”15 “job,”16 “factory,” “immigrant,” “boss.”17 For the workers we met, what was deployed by the word “worker,” as propositions, as theses? The thesis was, at Billancourt,18 in China,19 or later in the ex-socialist countries,20 that the workers did not form a group, did not form a set, did not form a class. It was not a matter then of a sociological entity in the eyes of my interlocutors. The question is not of approving or disapproving this thesis, but of observing that it is that of the workers, and that it is therefore necessary to deepen the argument.

One point of method is to be underlined in workers’ anthropology: the thought of workers is understood starting from certain words, we could say through a few words, which is an introduction to what we have to name an “anthropology of problematic words.” It is the word which carries the thought. In this context, the people we meet, here the workers of Renault, are not informants but interlocutors. The passage from informant to interlocutor is connected to the ambition of establishing an anthropology of people’s thought, in distinction to a scientistic anthropology in which people are understood with the goal of constructing the real by the researcher.21 The intellectuality of people’s thought arranges itself through certain words – which I call “problematic.”22 This demands on the part of the researcher an intellectual rupture of the same order as that with anthropocentrism, which can be described as follows: the relation established focuses on constructing listening not in the sentence, derived from a discursive model which is that of knowledge, but in a non-discursive model, which breaks through in certain words, named “problematic words.”

There exists a strong link between the discursive model, the definitional process and the polysemy or equivocation of words. More exactly, the word said to be “problematic” in people’s thought gives itself, in discursive thought, as polysemy: the polysemy of the word “worker” or “politics,” for example, is not intrinsic to the word itself, but forms an element of its status in discursive intellectuality; in other words, polysemy belongs to the discursive status. To break with polysemy, discursive thought will establish a particular language and intellectuality in terms of definition and object. The only method of suspending polysemy is then the definitional process – which, by definition, suspends polysemy. This position of problems suits the Durkheimian method opposing “prenotion” and science23 as far as ideas regarding the real, one situated on the side of error, the other of rigor as far as ideas. We are then in a network of thought comparable to that of the pair ideology/science.24 What I propose is different. There is for me a specific intellectuality of the discursive approach, and it is from the interior of this intellectuality that the pair ideology/science unfolds. In what I propose, the word is considered as opening a different field from the discursive field.

There are, then, two approaches to words: one concentrated on polysemy that the definitional process suspends – in discursive intellectuality, it is the definition and scientific discourse which resolve polysemy. The other, where there isn’t polysemy but opposition of prescriptions: all polysemy is thus suspended by the opposition of prescriptions. The difference between opposed prescriptions and polysemy can be stated as the following: the opposition of prescriptions is constituted by the opposition of theses and statements while, in polysemy, they are absent.

What should we understand by “prescription”? On the one hand, prescription is a non-definitional assignment of intellectuality: the word is “fixed” by something other than a definition. On the other hand, since prescription breaks with definition, it does not generate an intellectuality acting on what is, but an intellectuality of which the proper register is that of the possible – we will return to this latter notion. Prescription and definition form two relatively disjoined approaches to words. But what does “possible” mean here? An approach by the objective evaluation of things can lead to predictions, scenarii (scenarios), tendencies, or determinisms. This is not the way to understand the possible. In the first point of entry [la première entrée], the purpose of thought is to extract the logic of the real. In the second, the purpose is not to articulate theses on what is. The field of intellectuality, here, presents itself differently: the question of what is only gives itself with regards to what can be. The real is not assigned to what is, but to the order of contradictory prescriptions. In the example on which we will elaborate: “In the factory, they call me a worker, outside, they call me immigrant because they’ve forgotten that I’m a worker,”25 the space of the real is the opposition between society and factory, and arranges itself such that, on one side, the one who speaks is assigned to the factory and maintained in the figure of the worker and, on the other side – that of society – the figure of the worker is denied and replaced by the term “immigrant.” We cannot speak here of the polysemy of the word, but of opposed prescriptions. So that there are two orders of the real, constituted by two alternative prescriptions: in one order, there is an assignment of the worker to the factory and the maintenance of the figure of the worker; in the other order, assignment to society and the disappearance of the figure of the worker by the qualifier “immigrant.”

We see well how the prescription resolves polysemy in a dispositif that is by no means definitional. If we suppose that polysemy is intrinsic to discursive thought, then problematic words are no longer defined by their polysemy, but identify themselves by the category of prescription. It is by prescriptions – since there is not only one of them – that the word is submitted to something other than definition. The problematic words are then those regarding which there is a conflict of prescriptions, starting from which there exists a multiple of possibles. Between the discursive or scientistic process and the one that we propose, there are two differences: the approach by a word and not by definition; and a difference regarding the construction of the real.26 Indeed, in the discursive process, the real, understood starting from what is, is unique. In our process of an anthropology of thought, the possible opens a conflict of prescriptions (there are many possibles) and every prescription supports a distinct order of the real. Because there is a confrontation of prescriptions, and an effective confrontation of different theses on the real, knowledge is confronted with the choice that is not the one between the real and the false, the imaginary and the rational, but that between different orders of the real: taking society as the frame of reference of the figure of the worker consists in making it disappear, as demonstrated by the results of the Renault research, which is not a cognitive “fault,” but the choice of one prescription over another.

The essential upshot of the method is to consider the statement as itself containing the prescription and a conflict of prescriptions. But it is not a question of a problematic of contradiction, in a dialectic or a dualism, nor further in a problematic of commitment and freedom. According to this posture, a statement only constitutes itself, with problematic words, in the interlacing of its possibles which are nothing other than the multiple of prescriptions. If we follow the discursive process, the dispositif is different: it presents pairs – prenotions and representations, ideology and science. This thought does not propose multiplicity because there is only one order of the real, that of science. For the scientific vision, it is the proposition that carries thought. Let’s remember the injunction of Durkheim: “we have to consider social facts as things.”27 Thought is therefore always propositional, on the order of the predicate, of the sentence. It is the sentence that carries intelligibility. For the anthropology of people’s thought proposed here, it is the word that carries it. In what is known as the social sciences, where scientificity is in the space of the sentence and not in the equation as in physics, the the current language is invalidated as a possible support of intellectuality. I argue that this dispositif of propositions does not at all exhaust the forms of intellectuality. There are intellectualities where thought does not constitute itself on the basis of the sentence, but on that of words.

In the scientific approach, through the idea of the object and its construction, it is the real as object that is aimed at. Knowing is knowing what is, whether it be in the form of laws, structures, or ideal types. The category of the real that we propose here implies the category of the possible and assembles itself according to the formula: thought “is a relation of the real.”28 In this formula, it is not at all the being of things constituted by the object that is aimed at, but the category of the possible, as category of intellectuality.

Gérald Bloncourt, Workers leaving the Renault car factory in Le Havre after their shift, September 14, 1971.

The question of the possible as specifying people’s thought

An anthropology of people’s thought such as I have conceived finds itself confronted with the following: the category “possible” is the category through which thought constitutes itself. For a situation to be understood by its possibles is a reversal compared to historicist or scientific thought, for which it is the precise investigation of what is, in terms of determinism, cause or law, that makes it possible to respond to the question of what could be. The possible is then entirely subordinated to the extant [à l’étant].29

In people’s thought, the possible is that by which the real is identified. The investigation of what is participates in but is subordinated to the investigation of what could be. The investigation differs according to whether it raises the category “the possible” or the category “the extant.”

Evidently we can understand the opposition between the given and the possible as raising respectively a static vision and a dynamic vision, the first seeking more equilibrium and recurrences, the second disequilibrium and ruptures. But this differentiation is largely insufficient. It is a matter of two different thoughts: the first is analytic and descriptive, it asks what is; whatever may be the potential complexity of the protocols of inquiry and its discoveries, it provides the scientific inventory [l’état scientifique des lieux]. The second is prescriptive and has as its main point of entry the question of the possible. Both decide on the real, aim at the present, the “there is today.” However, one proposes to understand it according to the extant [étant], and the other argues that, in its space of proper intellectuality, what gives access to the “there is now” elucidates itself by addressing the now as a conjunction of possibles. The possible is thus what characterizes the situation, what sustains its intellectuality. Knowledge of a situation, for people, is understood by identification of its possibles. The possible is therefore not of the order of what is to come, but the order of what there is.

The possible as understanding of the category of the present

Our approach proposes finding and analyzing prescription, thoughts which do not fall within repetition, recurrence, or the law, but rather the new and the rupture. But it is not a matter here of a problematic position that, through the new and the rupture, would reintroduce revolt or social upheaval, even revolution.30 If this were so, we would find ourselves facing a new attempt at the historicization of forms of thought, by opposing two forms: one which would reflect on the same and the law in historical processes – it is what would maintain, regarding the phenomena that it studies, the said history as a longue durée; and the other which would maintain that it is the history of ruptures, transformations, mutation, revolutions that are situated at the heart of the order of things. The first falling under the idea of order and the other that of disorder, the first favoring stability and the second change.

On the contrary, the possible is according to our perspective a category of people’s thought: this proposition is evidently opposed to all those which assign the possible to what is to come or what can come, and who identify the notion of the “given” to what has taken place. This is indeed what Marc Bloch argues in The Historian’s Craft.31 For him there are characteristics of facts themselves: what has taken place is the given; what will take place is of the order of the possible. For historical thought [la pensée historienne], the opposition between past and future is constitutive, while the category “present” is stretched between two lines of flight: one receding toward the past, constantly augmented by the circle of days [la ronde des jours], and the other running towards the future, constantly postponed by the very same circle.

In historicism, understood by the category “the extant” [étant], the pair past/future is the frame of reference: the category of the present has no status here and becomes unthinkable. Historicism cannot capture the category of the present. How then do we elaborate this category?

It is not a chronological indicator, to aid in dating. The category “present,” to be utilized, demands a proper problematic, which consists in understanding what has taken place with regards to what has taken place and not in identifying it with regards to what preceded it, the category “present” applying itself just as well to what is taking place as to what has taken place. Can we understand what is taking place starting from the consistency proper to situations? Or rather regarding at the same time what preceded and what followed, like the causal approach in history, which, to explain a phenomenon, researches its causes, but analyzes them just as much starting from its consequences? Wherever they are situated in time, the facts studied by historical thought are submitted to the same treatment as the category “present”: they are examined by their causes, their past, and bye their consequences, their future.

The essential dimension of conjunctures, that of the present, escapes causal, comparative, and differential investigation. The latter, can never analyze a process or a phenomenon exclusively interior to itself, in other words, subjectivity. For the historian Marc Bloch, the present is equivalent to a hapax: “In a unique experience the specific elements cannot be differentiated; hence an interpretation cannot be made.”32 The proposition is striking: the French Revolution only happened once, same with the First World War, the crisis of 1929. Bloch knows this well. But even recognizing the singularity of events, he argues that it is what is not singular in the singularity that can lead to the intellectuality of events. Long history [histoire longue] has therefore the force to reduce events in favor of structural invariants and recurrences. But, in long history, not only is there no category “present,” but the dispositif past/future itself inscribes the future as anticipation of what is to come of the past itself. There is now only one category, the past, which conjugates itself according to three times: the past, the present, and the future.

Historicism is unable to seize the category “present” and, consequently, that of the “possible.” At any rate, when Marc Bloch assigns the category “possible” to the future, he excludes it from historical thought. We fall back on the same conclusion. If history is a science of the given and not of the possible, it becomes then exclusively a science of the past, near or far or, to use the climatological comparisons of certain historians, cooled or still hot (“cold history”/”hot history”). The debate is not there. The real debate is to choose between the pair past/future and the pair present/possible, especially since “present” and “possible” apply as well to the taking place as to the having taken place.

Why then not speak, to qualify my approach, of a “historical anthropology,” treating the categories “present” and “possible,” and oppose it to the historian’s approach, which proceeds by investigation of the before and after? Because the investigation using the categories of “present” and “possible” does not fall within the method of inquiry that history practices. It works on words – which are not the words of history – on people’s thought which unfolds in singular intellectualities, which we can access starting from the words employed and the singular theses that they constitute.33

The study of the prescription has as a tool the categories “present” and “possible.” The prescription states a possible which is not referred to what is to come, but to the present: in the statement, the prescription is to the present insofar as it is a statement. It is thus by its intellectuality that the statement engages the present and and not in its effectuation or its already engaged materialization. Without going as far as the radicality of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the preamble to the Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, where he announces, assertively: “Let us therefore begin by setting aside all the facts,” thus arguing that his thought did not fall under strict and direct investigation of facts, we will say that prescription, while not excluding that it can be factualized, materialized, or put to work, identifies itself essentially as an intellectuality, that it to say, as a thesis.

From prescription to strike situations or factory struggles

In 1991, STECO, a factory of automobile battery manufacturing, a kind of production where the working conditions are very hard (particularly because of acid and lead, components of batteries), the company decided to close its Gennevilliers site and thus to lay off several hundreds of workers. The factory is occupied and workers and management enter into difficult discussions, particularly on severance pay for layoffs – not only the amount, but its recipients. In the occupied factory, a discussion took place with the boss, who maintained that he would only award severance to senior workers and that youth, women, and the recently hired would be excluded. The strike assembly refused outright, and the boss withdrew saying he would not give in. There opened a long sequence of discussion on the following point: who, in the factory, counts the workers, who decides that certain people must be considered workers or not?

The position of the strikers-occupiers was the following: severance for layoffs, paid by management, recognized that it was the boss who lays off, that it is not the worker who leaves. It indicated that it was him who lays off and that, by doing this, he causes harm to the workers of the factory to which severance attests and for which it weakly compensates. In this sense, the striking workers stated that, from the point of view of the boss, those to whom he paid severance were counted as workers and those whom he did not pay were not counted; this was the count, by the boss, of who is a worker of the factory and who is not.

This debate finally concluded with the thesis according to which, to know who is a worker at the factory, there are two possibles: the count of the worker by the boss and the count of the worker by the worker. The strike assembly demanded that severance be paid to all, men and women, young and old, recently hired or not, that this was their principle of counting. Not because “one is worth one,” that is, that one worker is worth one worker, but for more complex, less formal reasons: to give in on “one worker is one worker” or to exclude certain people, certainly would undo the word “worker,” itself, but even more the possibility for workers to count the workers, to be the ones who count the workers, to say who they are. Here, it is possible to extract the prescription, the one that is constituted starting from the word (“worker”) and in a convergence of possible presents, signalled by contradictory prescriptions.

After many twists and turns, including an expedition by the strikers to another site of the firm in the provinces, management gave in to this prescription, and severance for layoffs was payed to each, which is to say to everyone.

In this example, the statement of the prescription precedes, by several weeks, its effectuation. It appears just as clearly that two prescriptions were opposed: who counts the workers, who names them thus, the boss or the workers themselves? The prescription is not a demand, it is a thesis, a principle. The demand states: “Severance for all”; the prescription maintains: “It is the worker who counts the worker, it is not the boss, severance for all.” It would be false to say that the prescription is a principle (“It is the worker who counts the worker”) plus a demand (“Severance for all”). “Severance for all” is entirely subordinate, interior, to the possible that is introduced by “it is the worker who counts the worker.”

If we agree on the category of the possible, this example does not lead to a chimera or a utopia (“No layoffs,” “Work for all,” “The factory must stay open,” etc.). It is not at the space of the economic or financial logic of restructuring that possibles open. It is one what takes place in the interior itself of these situations, regarding the relation workers/workers or workers/boss. If we designate the economic sphere as the sphere of objectivities, the possible is of the order of the subjective. 

In 1992, Régie Renault announced its decision to close the Billancourt industrial site and put in place a very peculiar dispositif, named the “social plan,” which proposed to workers the payment of a bonus of 80,000 francs if they signed a declaration indicated that they would be willing to leave the factory and thus that it was of their own volition that they left. The bonus in question would not therefore be called “severance pay” but “bonus for voluntary departure,” and, during the whole sequence of closures, the principal task of management and supervision would be much less the interests of production than that of obtaining the signature of the greatest number of workers on this declaration of voluntary departure.

Little by little, the number of workers who refused to sign, at the risk of losing the bonus, grew finally to reach 300. At the same time, the situation at work of those who did not sign and thus were still in the factory became more and more difficult, the objective of management being to push them to leave by all means: changing the station every day, intimidation, but also seeking or creating opportunities in which it would be permissible to lay off a worker for serious professional misconduct – layoffs being then immediate and without severance. There then appeared, in the course of the meetings of assembly line workers, meetings independent of the unions, a prescription, which was stated thus: “80,000 francs for all the workers, whether they sign or not.” 80,000 francs was the amount of the said bonus of voluntary departure and the prescription proposed to reunify the workers, whether they signed or not.

The statement “80,000 francs for all the workers, whether they sign or not” is a complex proposition. It makes the payment of the bonus the point of unity, while the situation seemed shaped by the division between those who had signed and those who had not signed. The statement proposed seeing things otherwise: those who received the bonus received it in the name of being a worker and not because they had signed, while also taking the position that, still in the name of being a worker, those who refused to sign also received the bonus. As far as those who did not sign, they demanded the bonus in the name of being a worker, like those who had signed. This prescription proposes then other principles of calculation [décompte] than the bonus subordinated to the signature – where the signature, the condition demanded to be recognized in the calculation of who is a worker, driving the bonus, it was accompanied by a denial: the denial of the situation of layoffs, deliberately masked in the situation of voluntary departure. In the spirit of the prescription, if it is the bonus that counts the worker, then it is necessary to relativize the importance of the signature, combining those who had signed and those who hadn’t signed, and supporting the possible of a bonus for all.

Finally, Régie, after many uncertainties, paid the bonus of 80,000 francs to the majority of those who hadn’t signed. It must be noted that, contrary to STECO where the count of workers by the boss, through the allocation of the payment, was unanimously refused by the workers, in the case of Renault, the count proposed by management was approved, if not accepted, but an important part of the workers. The prescription took into account this divided situation, it did not cancel it, it proposed simply to not subordinate to it the principle: “One is one, a worker is a worker, each must receive the bonus, whether they have signed or not.

On the prescription in an ordinary factory situation

In certain situations of inquiry – as is the case with the inquiry conducted at Renault in 1985 – what workers say does not always, like at STECO in 1991 or Billancourt in 1992, have the status of a formulated prescription which is assumed as such.34 However, we can find theses and statements presented in which we can see, by analyzing them, the potential spaces of prescription they outline. 

Here are for example a certain number of quotes, extracts of interviews conducted with the workers of Billancourt in 1985, where they took positions on what was carried in their eyes by the words “worker,” “immigrant worker,” “immigrant.” They argued that there existed two distinct places: the factory and what was not the factory, which they called “outside the factory, the city” or “society.” Depending on whether we are speaking of one of these places or the other, the polarity “worker” or the polarity “immigrant” will prevail. For some, the polarity “immigrant” prevailed in both places.

  1. “I’m an immigrant worker in the factory, but I’m considered just an immigrant outside it – because they don’t know that I’m a worker.”
  2. “I’m an immigrant and a worker. In the factory, they take us as immigrant workers, but outside, they take us as immigrants. The French forget that we’re here to work and we work.”
  3. “I’m an immigrant worker in France, but even though I’m an immigrant, I work like all the workers.”

In these three quotes, “immigrant worker” is referred to the factory and “immigrant” to the outside (to society), in distinction to the factory. In both cases, “immigrant,” indicates a restriction or a denial of the figure of the worker or the figure of labor – supported by the exterior, also called “them,” or indeed the “French”: “They don’t know that I’m a worker,” “The French forget that we’re here to work and we work.”

  1. I’m an immigrant worker, that’s one thing, it’s true that I’m a foreigner, but I’m also a worker and that’s what counts first. But they always say, ‘immigrant, immigrant.’
  2. In the factory, I’m an immigrant worker. In the street, I’m an immigrant, but immigrant worker or immigrant, it’s almost the same thing and different from being a worker.

In these two quotes, “immigrant worker” is maintained, but denied by the more and more extensive usage of the word immigrant which comes to cover up that of the worker, including in the factory. Immigrant is not simply the category of the absenting of the quality of the worker in society, it is also that by which “worker” is absented from the factory. There is therefore a return into the factory of the phenomena of society, more exactly a return into the factory of the image proposed in society of factory workers, understood as we said in cultural and confessional terms, and thus exclusively as “immigrants,” that is, as others.

The field of workers’ anthropology that we propose unfolds by the study of theses about problematic words. It is a matter then of a labor on statements whose logic of intellectuality is not of description, but prescription. There can be statements in different situations. The analysis of a statement is made however less in regard to the situation in which it is produced than in the framework of prescriptions that it proposes and which are not taken as prescriptions of a situation, as an intelligence of the concrete, but as a proper field, that of people’s thought, configuring the real through prescriptions and possibles. This workers’ anthropology argues that it is necessary to join to the scientific vision of the real, of which we know all the importance and richness, another order of the real: that which is configured by people’s thought, certainly identified by the researcher, but unfolding subjective singularities. My proposal is for subjective singularities, or the space of people’s thought distinct from science, to be advanced as the matter of anthropology. To identify people’s thought supposes finding the proper space of intellectuality which is not discursive intellectuality. The categories of “primitive mentality” dear to Lévy-Bruhl,35 and “ideology,”36 negatively indexed to scientific thought, are not adequate. The hypothesis of the existence of people’s thought must be argued in a disjunctive relation with regard to definitional thought, and it is necessary to establish the proper and non-comparative requisites. This is why my enterprise is in no fashion philosophical, but demands a specific anthropology permitting us to identify the intellectuality proper to people’s thought.

– Translated by Asad Haider and Patrick King

This text was originally published as “Anthropologie ouvrière et enquêtes d’usine: état des lieux et problématique,” Ethnologie française 31, no. 3 (2001): 389-400. 


1 This inquiry was carried out in 1985 in the Renault-Billancourt plant, mainly on the l’Île Seguin production lines, in the context of a partnership between the Régie nationale des usines Renault and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). It resulted in a research report: Sylvain Lazarus and Natacha Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault, research report, Paris, under the aegis of the CNRS/Régie nationale des usines Renault research collaboration, Les os dans l’industrie automobile, 1986.
2 Translator’s note: OS, “ouvrier specialisé,” means “semi-skilled worker” – in the leftist discourse of 1970s and 1980s France this term largely referred to immigrant workers. For a useful genealogy of the term and its eventual attachment to immigrant workers, see Gabrielle Varro and Anne-Sophie Perriaux, “Les sens d’une catégorisation: ‘les O.S. immigrés,’Langage et société, 58 (1991): 5-36.
3 On this strike, see Laure Pitti’s article, “Grèves ouvrières versus luttes de l’immigration : une controverse entre historiens,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 465-476.
4 Gaston Defferre, Interior Minister, January 26, 1983; Pierre Mauroy, Prime Minister, January 27, 1983. On this question see Pitti, “Grèves ouvrières versus luttes de l’immigration : une controverse entre historiens.”
5 Lazarus and Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault.
6 See for example, Alain Touraine, Critique of Modernity, trans. David Macey (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997); see the special issue of the journal Autrement, no. 126 (1992), titled Ouvriers-ouvrières, un continent morcelé et silencieux; see also the article by Olivier Schwartz, Stéphane Beaud, and Michel Pialoux, “La question ouvrière a été progressivement refoulée dans l’opinion,” Le Monde March 6, 2001, 16.
7 This question of post-classism is present in all the articles of this issue of Ethnologie Française, especially in Anne Duhin’s text, “Une figure ouvrière féminine?,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 413-422. 
8 Lazarus and Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault.
9 TN: This insult was hurled against SNCF and other public sector workers who organized a series of general strikes from October-December 1995: it refers to the fact that these forms of trade union solidarity, especially in the public sector, were viewed by some commentators as out-of-date and anachronistic. See for example Sophie Wahnich, “Du côté des cheminots, raconter une grève, en faire l’histoire,” L’Homme et la société 132-133 (1999): 167-194.
10 See Samia Moucharik’s article, “Trois romans pour trois figures: l’ouvrier, le militant, la grève,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 401-412.
11 On this point see the note de lecture by Laurence Kundid and Myriam Hidouci, “Sur le ‘Retour…’: À propos de la démarche sociologique de Stéphane Beaud et de Michel Fialoux,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 497-501.
12 Sylvain Lazarus, Les besoins en formation des jeunes Algériens en France, enquête dans l’Isère, la Loire, le Val-de-Marne, study for the Ministry of Labour, 1982; Sylvain Lazarus, “Les besoins en formation des jeunes Algériens en France,” in Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux and Émile Temime (eds.), Les Algériens en France, genèse et devenir d’une migration (Paris, Publisud, 1985), 287-300.
13 Renaud Sainsaulieu and Ahcène Zehraoui (eds.), Ouvriers spécialisés à Billancourt: les derniers témoins (Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995). Abdelmalek Sayad, Condition d’immigré et condition d’os : les effets mutuels de l’une sur l’autre et leurs effets sur la relation au travail, research report, Paris, under the aegis of the CNRS/Régie nationale des usines Renault research collaboration, Les os dans l’industrie automobile, 1986.
14 Sylvain Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, trans. Gila Walker (London: Seagull Books, 2015 [1996]), 205-218.
15 On this category see Marianne Hérard’s article, “Que pensent les ouvriers de leur salaire?,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 431-439.
16 See the article by Athena Kassapi, “L’art de travailler au fond de la mine: Enquête à Kassandra en Grèce du Nord,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 423-430.
17 See Delphine Corteel’s article, “Les paradoxes du travail en groupe : l’usine Volkswagen de Hanovre,” Ethnologie Française vol. 31, no. 3 (2001): 441-452.
18 Lazarus and Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault.
19 Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name.
20 Sylvain Lazarus, “Formes de conscience ouvrière et effondrement du socialisme dans les combinats sidérurgiques de l’ex-RDA,” Cahiers du CIASOC 4 (1992).
21 Pierre Bourdieu, “The Space of Points of View,” in Pierre Bourdieu et al., The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, Susan Emanuel, Joe Johnson, and Shoggy T. Waryn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 3-5.
22 The way in which a singular thought comprehends itself [se pense], I call its “intellectuality.” It thus involves its own intellectual field.
23 Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes, trans. W.D Halls (New York: Free Press, 1982 [1937]),
24 “But, because these notions [“sense perceptions,” or “crudely formed concepts”] are closer to us and more within our mental grasp than the realities to which they correspond, we naturally tend to substitute them for the realities, concentrating our speculations upon them. Instead of observing, describing and comparing things, we are content to reflect upon our ideas, analyzing and combining them. Instead of a science which deals with realities, we carry out no more than an ideological analysis.“ Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 60.
25 Lazarus and Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault, 121.
26 Sylvain Lazarus “Singularité et rationalité,” in Jelica Sumic (ed.), Universel, singulier, sujet (Paris, Kimé, 2000), 33.
27 Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 60.
28 Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, 7 and 53.
29 TN: the noun “étant” is difficult to translate into English in a way that distinguishes it from the infinitive “être.” To employ “being” and “beings” would be to enter into a Heideggerian framework which is not Lazarus’s; his aim is not to make a philosophical argument, but to criticize the reduction of politics to the realm of the sociological-empirical. We have reluctantly used the word “extant,” though this loses the ordinary language quality of the original, to avoid confusion with other key terms. We would like to thank Gavin Walker for his insights on this point.
30 Sylvain Lazarus, “Révolution, un mot singulier,” Lignes 4 (February 2001): 97-107.
31 Only the future has contingency. The past is something already given which leaves no room for possibility…The uncertainty, then, exists in us, in our memory, or in that of our witnesses, not in the things themselves.” Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 124-5. In my Anthropology of the Name, I offered an analysis of historical time in Bloch’s work: Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, 119-137.
32 Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 43.
33 Jacques Rancière, The Names of History, trans. Hassan Melehy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
34 Lazarus and Michel, Études sur les formes de conscience et les représentations des os des usines Renault.
35 Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality, trans. Lilian A. Claire (New York: Macmillan Co., 1923).
36 Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method.

Author of the article

is a French sociologist, anthropologist, political theorist, and philosopher, and is a professor at Université Paris VIII. In English, he is the author of Anthropology of the Name.