Landmarks in the emergence of a French Deaf Studies

This post outlines a number of circumstances and events which have contributed to the emergence of Deaf Studies in France. Our current work builds on this legacy; a history of exchanges, interconnections, even disagreements, between the deaf community and a community of researchers both Deaf, and hearing.

In the introduction to their 2014 edited volume “ Surdités, langues, cultures, identités : recherches et pratiques” [Deafness(es), languages, cultures, identities : research and practice] ( NRAS, 64 , 2014: 9), the editors Andrea Benvenuto and Didier Séguillon identify the 1970s as the moment at which French studies of sign language and the deaf community adopted their current form. This new field evolved out of two linked currents of academic enquiry. The first consisted of a body of new research coming from across the Atlantic, itself triggered by the linguistic research of William Stokoe, and which then progressively grew to encapsulate a broad range of interdisciplinary work into deaf arts, culture, history and more. The second was research ongoing in France at the time, spurred on by an upsurge of campaigning by French Deaf people for the recognition of sign language – a movement known as the ‘Deaf awakening’ (Minguy 2009, Kerbourc’h 2021). If we stress the contemporary nature of this research, it is because the first linguistic, anthropological, philosophical or political observations about deaf people and about sign languages appeared well before the field of enquiry that is modern-day Deaf Studies appeared on the academic horizon. For example, one of the first linguistic reflections on the nature of sign language was offered [in the early 19th century] by Roch Ambroise August Bébian (Bertin 2019). And if one of the key distinguishing features of a Deaf

Bernard Mottez and Harry Markowicz with a copy of Coup d’Oeil [At a Glance], a newsletter on sign language and deaf culture which they established together in 1977.

What disabled people want to talk about is their disabling, not their disability. The thrust of their message is aimed at society and society, therefore, must be changed by what they say. The alternative is (as was seen in a recent case) that specialists who know everything about deafness and nothing about deaf people are allowed to talk about disability… and so do, in a way that is designed to not only disarm their critics, but better demonstrate the exceptional (the humanitarian!) nature of their actions, by painting deaf people in the most miserable, deprived, misrepresentative light.

« Intégration ou droit à la différence ? Les conséquences d’un choix politique sur la structuration et le mode d’existence d’un groupe minoritaire, les Sourds » [Integration, or the right to be different? The consequences of political choice on the structuration and the lives of Deaf people as a minority group], Mottez and Markowicz, CEMS 1979.

This engagement and intellectual and personal integrity echo the humility of Auguste Bébian (1789 – 1839) who dedicated his career to demonstrating Deaf people’s right to take up their place as fully fledged members of society. Like him, Mottez’ arguments are built on a deep and practical knowledge of his field of research. To that end, along with Harry Markowicz, Mottez was the editor of Coup d’oeil [At a glance], a journal that ran for 45 issues, between January 1977 and June 1986. The journal   offered researchers, medical and service professionals, and Deaf associations from France and around the world, a forum in which to share news and information about their work and to gather, explore and digest a wealth of evidence produced by exchanges between deaf and hearing researchers and the deaf community, both in France and overseas. Mottez and Markowicz also organised a number of training internships at the university of Gallaudet in Washington DC, where Deaf people were provided with the skills necessary to bring about their own empowerment (1978, ’79, ’81 and ’82). (An account of the first of these is available by Françoise Chastel, entitled Une sourde Française au Gallaudet College  et le compte rendu  Été 78. Stage à Gallaudet [A French deaf woman at Gallaudet College, an account of the 1978 summer internship] INJS 1978.

Été 78. Stage à Gallaudet , [Summer ’78, Internship at Gallaudet] INJS, 1978. Cover art by Guy Bouchauveau.

A further key moment in in Franco-American exchanges, and one that led to wider dissemination of Deaf Studies work in France, was the ‘Tour de France’ undertaken in January 1987, by Deaf American researchers Carole Padden and Tom Humphries. The tourwas organised by Harry Markowicz and Bernard Mottez.

Carol Padden presenting at a conference at the INJS in Gradignan, 9th January 1978, with Bill Moody providing ASL/French interpretation. Published by La Voix du sourd [The deaf mouthpiece] March 1978, #47.

In the 1980s, research work from outside of France was published in translation. See for example the contents of Études & Recherches , a ‘Study and research digest’ published by the Association Deux Language Pour Une Education (2LPE) [Two Languages in Education] or, more recently, Thomas K. Holcomb’s (2012, OUP) ‘Introduction to American Deaf Culture’, which was published four years later (2016, Erès) as Introduction à la culture sourde.

In 1982, Mottez set up a new study series entitled Ethnography of communication; between deaf people, and between deaf and hearing people. The same year, Yau Shun-Chiu established an annual programme exploring the ‘analysis of gestural languages’. Finally, in 1983, came another Mottez series: Gibbering and gurning : what goes down between the deaf and the hearing. In 2006, further seminar series were launched under the leadership of Christian Cuxac and Alexis Karacostas—joined the following year by Andrea Benvenuto—and have continued to the present day (see links below). The following work by Bernard Mottez: intitled Les Sourds existent-ils? [Who are ‘the Deaf’?] brings together the key texts

Additional events have either taken up the themes of these seminar series, or used them as a springboard for further exploration. These include: “Deaf people in the city” (2006), which was run in partnership with the association ‘GESTES’ and was timed to coincide with the launch of Bernard Mottez’ book Les Sourds existent-ils? ; in 2012, “Deaf Studies & Deaf History: Exploring epistemologies” study days; in 2015, a colloquium entitled Deaf people and health: multiple mediations, co-organised with the unit for sign language treatment of deaf people of the hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière; in 2016 and 2017, study days on sign language and creative signing; in 2017, two conferences with the British Deaf academic Paddy Ladd (see; in 2019, a panel discussion entitled “Deaf Studies across the Atlantic”. Over the last fifteen years, EHESS seminars have hosted a number of overseas researchers, many of whom are key figures in the field of Deaf Studies: Harlan Lane, Carol Padden, Renata Fischer, Genie Gertz, Patrick Boudreault, Christian Rathmann, Patti Durr, Paddy Ladd, Tom Humphries, Rachel Hartig, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Ronice Müller de Quadros, Flaviane Reis, Annelies Kusters…

In June 2020, the EHESS Press published a French translation of Carol Padden and Tom Humphries seminal “Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture” (1998, Cambridge, Harvard University Press). The translation was completed by Soline Vennetier.

We will soon be adding new references (and a few surprises!) to this post. If you have photos of any of the conferences, meetings or demonstrations that we mention above, and you would like to share them with us, please do send them on and we’ll publish them with your permission.

For the most part, the events described above have been the initiative of EHESS researchers. However, it goes without saying that as we have interacted, informed and published more widely, we have established links beyond the EHESS, beyond France, and beyond the membership of the ‘Deaf Studies in Question’ study group. A wide range of initiatives have been set up by other teams, institutions, researchers, sector professionals and associations. The exchanges that have resulted from these have been richly informative, and go to show that there is no need to be an official ‘Deaf Studies’ programme to share in what commonly unites us: that, by adopting linguistic and socio-anthropological perspectives in our study of deaf people and sign languages, we deny medical science its assumed ownership of the field of study. By, instead, embracing methodologies from the social-sciences and humanities, we place Deaf people and their perspectives firmly at the centre of our research.

Traduction : Mike Gulliver

Article original : “Quelques repères sur l’émergence en France des Deaf Studies”

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