Sheep and shepherds in the Swiss Alps (PhD Hélène Weber)

I’m proud to announce the successful public PhD defence of Hélène Weber, who has worked with me for five years as a doctoral assistant.  Hélène researched a practice operating in the spatial, cultural, and political margins of Swiss agriculture: sheep farming. She investigated the on-going transformation of sheep farming in Switzerland, pushed by eco-modernist policies, market institutions and demands, and also by the actors themselves and their practices and relationships (farmers, herders, sheep, grass, dogs…). Hélène’s intuition was that an ethnographic, practice-centred approach to her topic would give different and complementary insights.

Hélène showed quite convincingly that the phenomenon of sheep raising existing in French-speaking Switzerland today – in all its diversity – is hardly fixed, but a fragile conjuncture shaped not only by policy, not only by historical trajectory, not only by environment, but crucially by the sheep, people, dogs, technologies (RFID tags, mobile fences…), and practices involved. Furthermore, in this ‘assemblage of domestication’ she sees not only simple interactions between diverse actants, but relations of care, affect, and world-building. That leads her to her final arguments, a warning of the ever-present, often-dominant forces of productivistic modernisation that affect these relations, often (but not always) to their detriment through processes of ‘alienation’.

The thesis-by-monograph is based on three empirical methodologies: (1) a quantitative postal survey of sheep raisers in French-speaking Switzerland, with very high completion rate, (2) interviews of ~50 sheep farmers and ~50 other actors in the field, and (3) participant observation in formal trainings at the school of agriculture in Valais, during four one-month placements as an apprentice shepherd at four different farms, and during a variety of events (transhumance, markets, assemblies).

Participant observation fieldwork – the apprentice shepherd

In constructing her work, Hélène tested out a wide variety of theoretical notions before finally settling on the multispecies assemblage notion of authors like John Law, Marianne Lien, and Anna Tsing. As such, she is able to craft an analysis of sheep raising in Switzerland that confronts the top-down view of political economy (writ large) with a nuanced, bottom-up view that starts from actual practices, environments, technologies, and people. She contributes enormously to the study of ‘human-animal’ relations by not losing sight of the political economy and by taking seriously, and in detail, the technologies and practices shaped by breeders associations, markets and certification programs, state regulators, and so on.

Hélène’s thesis is entitled “Instaurer l’élevage ovin en suisse, avec ou sans moutons” (roughly: “Forging ovine farming in Switzerland, with or without sheep”) and a version oriented towards practitioners and policy makers is the inaugural research report of the Développement, Sociétés, et Environements research group (website here, direct download PDF here – in French)

Hélène’s success is all the more poignant given that she started her PhD intending to focus on contract farming in highland Madagascar, and switched mid-stream. I highly appreciated her support in my teaching and research, her initiative and rigour, and wish her all the best in her future endeavours, particularly in “forging” (instaurer) some sheep of her own!

Celebrating a successful thesis defence. From left to right: Prof Jérémie Forney (Univ. Neuchâtel, external expert), me (thesis supervisor), Hèlene, Professors Valérie Boisvert and René Véron (members of supervisory committee). Missing from photo is Prof. Laine Chanteloup, internal expert for the defence.

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