Work And Revolution In France Essay

1251 words - 5 pages

William H. Sewell, Jr.’s Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (1980) is a qualitative analysis of the French labor movement, sweeping three radical revolutionary eras: 1790’s, 1830’s, and 1850’s. Sewell’s strategy encompasses “aggregating and analyzing” (1980: 5) events that would generally be considered the banal factional struggles and encounters of individual French workers. He amasses these facts into a macro-history of the workers’ plight to class-consciousness from the ancien regime to the repressive post-revolutionary era of 1850’s. Sewell frames his historical analysis within the context of the way the workers’ movement utilized the evolving rhetoric to advocate their pro-rights agenda. He performs a stringent investigation on the progression and determination of the use of specific terminology, focusing his lens on how concepts of culture (i.e., ideas, beliefs, and behaviors) aid in shifts of existing structures.
Sewell’s theoretical perspective is admittedly self-constructed. He “borrowed shamelessly from such sources as ‘the new history,’ intellectual history, cultural anthropology, and certain new strains of Marxism” (1980: 5). I find borrowing from cultural anthropology to be the most influential of these theoretical viewpoints, and Sewell highlights the importance of ethnographic field methods in his work. However, he is quick to acknowledge that, from a historical perspective, conventional ethnography, as we understand it, is not suffice in this context. While traditional ethnography tends to focus on non-Western, “relatively small-scale and homogeneous societies” (Sewell 1980: 12), Sewell’s initiative is to “analyze the complex society that was rent by all sorts of conflicts and contradictions [and, therefore]…the culture of artisans must be seen as part of the cultural complex of France as a whole, as being defined in relation to the culture of other groups” (1980: 12-13).
However, it is my feeling that, yes, Sewell painstakingly analyzes the laborers’ movement within the context of all of France, but perhaps doesn’t relate it well enough to the beliefs and behaviors of other social groups. This is an oversight he comes to charge the workers themselves with, in regards to their inability to achieve support for their agenda from the bourgeois and peasantry. Just as the workers, Sewell’s scope is so narrowed on the lexicon of labor that he fails to encompass how other non-linguistic cues (i.e., gestures and behaviors towards other societal orders) may have affected the outcome of the movement. However, Sewell would probably be quick to argue that the aforementioned issue was not part of his scope to begin with. I don’t doubt this, but overall it may have made for a richer analysis of class-consciousness and the ostracizing effects it had on the laborers. Regardless he is lucid in his analysis of where the French laborers fell short when relating to the other social groups. Sewell...

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