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Few scholars actually practice the discursively much-touted interdisciplinarity of early-twenty-first-century social science. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, an anthropologist whose intellectual homes are history and philosophy, is one. Haitian by birth and in sensibility, he came to the United States by chance but chose to become a Caribbeanist. His work on Dominica and Haiti, though steeped in the details of time, place, event, and person that some carelessly dub local color, embraces the Americas and the world through a radical yet discerning critique of the West and capitalism. Some fifty publications, in three languages and spanning the usual text types, display Trouillot’s unusual capacities for sophisticated, politically engaged theorizing and careful empirical observation. Trouillot’s conference presentations, undergraduate courses, graduate seminars, editing of scholarly book series or journals, and informal conversations have also been important pathways for his critique’s cumulative movements.
Family History and Education
Since Haiti’s independence in 1804, many Haitian families have had black and mulatto wings with rural or urban staves in the peasantry, the middle and working classes, and the elite. By the mid-twentieth century, the black middle class Trouillots of Port-au-Prince included intellectually inquisitive and politically active professionals. Trouillot’s father, attorney Ernest Trouillot (1922-1987), deftly practiced the historian’s craft as an avocation. His paternal uncle, Henock Trouillot (1923-1988), arguably Haiti’s most prolific, subtle, and influential Noiriste historian, was a professor and for many years director of the Archives Nationales d’Hai’ti. Michel-Rolph, born on November 26, 1949, the second of four children, grew up in a household full of ideas and lively argument about things of this world—literature, science, art, economics, music, politics—and about how the past shapes those things in the present.
At age five, Trouillot enrolled in Port-au-Prince’s Petit Seminaire College Saint-Martial and, under the tutelage of its progressive Peres du Saint-Esprit, completed the Baccalaureate II (Philosophy) in 1968. In the same year, he began courses at L’Ecole Normale Superieure. However, the Duvalier dictatorship’s escalating repression of student activists compelled Trouillot to join hundreds of young compatriots who sought refuge in New York City, which was then host to the Haitian Diaspora’s largest population. Trouillot received a bachelor’s degree (BA) in Caribbean history and culture at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY) in 1978, driving cabs to pay for his education and support his wife and children. He devoted spare time (not free, he would emphasize) to reading, Haitian Diaspora politics, and writing poetry and journalism. In 1977 he completed his first book, Ti dife boule sou istoua Ayiti, an incisive Marxist analysis of the Haitian Revolution and politico-ideological developments immediately after Haitian independence, presented in the playful style of Haitian Creole dialogues. At the same time, he initiated research for two papers on coffee production in Saint-Domingue/Haiti that would alter Caribbeanists’ thinking about the sociology, economics, and politics of slavery and freedom around the turn of the nineteenth century.
In 1978, anthropologists Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price recruited Trouillot for the Johns Hopkins University Program in Atlantic History and Culture, and he completed a PhD in anthropology in 1985. By that time, Trouillot was already an assistant professor at Duke University (1983-1988), working closely with colleagues in other departments to establish the University’s Caribbean Studies program and planning revisions of his dissertation, which became his second book, Peasants and Capital (1988), a detailed ethnographic and historical study of how Dominica’s peasantry copes with the global banana industry. Trouillot subsequently returned to Johns Hopkins, first as associate professor, then as Krieger/ Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, History, and Power. Since 1998, he has been professor of anthropology at The University of Chicago.
Work and Influence
Haitian relatives and intellectuals aside, Karl Marx is Trouillot’s main source of inspiration in the study of world history. However, his work also reflects lessons learned from an international, multidisciplinary cohort of predecessors including Mintz, Eric R. Wolf, Price, David W. Cohen, Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel, C. L. R. James, Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel de Certeau, and Hayden White.
Synthesizing diverse lineages of ideas, Trouillot routinely unsettles taken-for-granted dichotomies concerning concepts and data in research on political economy, society, and culture by historicizing and contextualizing them. Nevertheless, three binary oppositions establish a purchase for understanding the scope and depth of his work: stasis/movement or flow, agency/contingency, and articulation/separation or plural integration. Trouillot relentlessly zigzags across the boundaries of these concepts to gauge relations of dominance and determination between the canalizing effects of material conditions and the creative potential of structures and processes of signification.
Polemics against empiricism, parochialism (e.g., exceptionalism, individualism, and subjectivism) and idealist or realist cultural approaches to symbolism (including identity politics) animate Trouillot’s work. He is especially critical of the common, though nal’ve, assumption that the purposes of study, objects of observation (or units of description and analysis), and sites of inquiry are homologous. Carefully crafted operational definitions of concepts and categories for a research project, one imagines, might overcome naivete. Yet Trouillot rejects operational definitions, insisting that they fetter serious investigation of the play of concepts and categories, and the search for relevant evidence.
These two moves puzzle methodologically oriented scholars who view theory as an indispensable guide to empirical research, but do not consider theory construction its sole or primary goal. The point holds even for core subject matters of Trouillot’s best-known works. One example is the concept of the State, particularly in countries once called third world or peripheral but now forming the Global South. Another is the productivity of varied forms of power in history that precipitates privileged narrators along with mentions and silences in narratives about selected information from the past. Likewise, Trouillot had probed the savage slot by placing the presuppositions, propositions, and consequences of anthropology’s mission to study “primitive” peoples, cultures, and societies in a world-historical context. Therefore, he responds with a knowing smile to the malaise among anthropologists concerning epistemology, ethnographic authority, and incursions into their traditional turf, field-work. As disciplinary boundaries crumble and global flows accelerate, Trouillot laconically proclaims that academic disciplines are what their practitioners do.
The dust jacket of Silencing the Past (1995) dubs Trouillot “one of the most prominent Haitian scholars in the United States.” Although true, the statement conceals as much as it reveals. All scholars will find in Trouillot’s work buoys on troubled waters—the intellectual demimonde’s fitful struggle to make interdisciplinarity yield knowledge and understanding of the late-modern world’s historicity. Since 2003, Trouillot has been recuperating from aneurysms; this has unfortunately interrupted his ambitious research projects, conscientious training of doctoral candidates, and wise contributions as a board member or editor to scholarly organizations and publications.
Scholars who have learned from his work await its next movements.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1977. Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti. Brooklyn, NY: Kolèksion Lakansièl.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1981. Peripheral Vibrations: The Case of Saint-Domingue’s Coffee Revolution. In Dynamics of World Development, ed. Richard Rubinson, 27–41. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1982. Motion in the System: Coffee, Color, and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue. Review 5 (3): 331–388.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1986. Les Racines Historiques de l’État Duvaliérien. Port-au-Prince: Éditions Deschamps.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1988. Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1990. Haiti, State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph.  2003. Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness. In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 7–28. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1992. The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:19–42.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1997. A Social Contract for Whom? Haitian History and Haiti’s Future. In Haiti Renewed:
- Political and Economic Prospects, ed. Robert I. Rotberg, 47–59. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press; Cambridge, MA: World Peace Foundation.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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