mardi 11 juillet 2017

« The ways to politics in Cameroon » About Fichoz, a relational database

Invited to the international multi-disciplinary conference The connected past: The Future of Past Networks? at Bournemouth University (UK) on August 24-25th 2017, I had to produce a scientific poster that aims to explore the use of network research in the study of the human past. This is a good opportunity to present methods I developed over the past three years. This is what this blog is all about for that matter.

Why Fichoz? Coping with complexity and fragmented material 

The historiography of decolonization in Cameroon is particularly fragmented and polarized. Consequently, the endeavor has failed, with very few exceptions, to go beyond the classical oppositions of ethnicity/social classes, urban/rural, resistance/cooperation, youth/seniority and educated/non-educated people. While some scholars have unveiled the complexity of the ways to politics in contemporary Africa, Cameroon remains strikingly undocumented when it comes to shedding light on embedded social activities and ambivalent postures of various actors. The goal of my study is to cross point of views and highlight cases of politicizing masses in an African colonial setting – not only amongst the elites – with a special effort on taking into account the mix of multiple cultural layers and reticular social activities. In this respect, the project is clearly multi-disciplinary.

This overwhelming complexity conducted me to develop different strategies in order not to get lost. It means stay focused about my point, be able to plan my work efficiently and – yes! - still have a lot of fun while working.
 First of all, I digitize every bit of archives. Secondly, I use under Zotero a specific status has been given to each document .

« litf » here means the record has been fully read, tagged (TheBrain ) and spit into actions under Filemaker (Fichoz). These codes allow me to plan my work and retrieve every piece of documentatio and the treatment applied to it.
Thirdly, I mindmapped all my ideas and concepts in Thebrain, a terrific tool allowing me to link any ideas with documents ad hoc via a tag system. Therefore, I can access any piece of information needed within a few clicks .
Lastly, I still needed a powerful tool allowing me to thoroughly analyse the relationships and interplay between a large spectrum of social actors.  

Presenting Fichoz

Fichoz was originally developed by a group of French, Spanish and Chilean historians as part of a research project on the political and administrative structures of the Spanish Monarchy (PAPE group). It was later extended to other historical fields as part of the research programs of the LARHRA's Pole Méthode (CNRS / University of Lyon, France) . I’m very glad and lucky to collaborate with its main developer Jean Pierre Dedieu, without whom my project would have been quite different and certainly less ambitious.

Fichoz is a database system for the global storage of social history data. Social must be understood in its broadest meaning: all kind of data referring to or bearing over interactions between persons, between persons and corporations, between corporations, between persons and the artefacts they produce, between persons and their natural surroundings, between artefacts and artefacts. In my case, the relational matrix is simplified for I do not use artefacts in storing data. My main concern is about men and networks, even though the use of cultural objects is quite relevant in my study.

Transforming a source into data, storing and retrieving 

We split records into actions, so that each record should correspond to one action and each field to one descriptive dimension of the action. An action can be described under five dimensions: who (actor), what (predicate), when, where, and significantly with whom.

 1. Name of the first actor in a relationship pair (empty in case of non-relational actions): With whom? Martin Abega in the example whose biography can easily be accessed.
2. Id of the first actor: an actor can be named differently according to different sources.
3. Class of relationship between the first and the second actor. Here “opposition” is a generic relationship. It also can be more specific according to researchers needs.
4 Id of the second actor.
5. Name of the second actor in a relationship pair, or of the unique actor in non-relational actions: Who? Robert Maurage in the example. All kinds of actions, interactions, artefacts related to him can be displayed in a click.
6. Action or relationship: What?
7. Initial date and final date (When?)
8. Place of action (Where?) 9. Source: Every piece of digitized records can be retrieved to get the full information in its context if needed.
10. Remarks and contextual notes

Every piece of the split data must be self-sufficient, and must refer to one easy-to-identify concept. Historical matters demand that the implicit information carried by the fact that various information are mentioned within the same documentary set be preserved, as quite important a clue to reconstruct social reality from partial sources.

In order to be relevant, retrieving is all about flexibility. Because of the uncertainties inherent to any research, a researcher must be able to access the data he is handling from whatever angle he thinks fit, which means that starting from any part of the database, he must be able to reach any information stored in any other part.

Enhancing stored data 

Through permanent coding, the enhancement process is to make explicit an information which in the source remains sometimes implicit, embedded as it is in its context. In this example, all Chefs de canton and groupement can be accessed through the code CCISTA

 On-the-way" coding is quite different. It marks actors, actions, documents or places, that is anyone of the elements which compose the database, after criteria decided upon by the user in function of the demands of the research he is presently carrying on. It makes possible an easy access to complex sets of data, and provides markers to create classes which did not previously exist in the data.  In this example, we have pinned down some of the civil servants in Yaounde the vote of the Loi-cadre Deferre in December 1956. We have labelled the group as “FonctYa

Combining enhanced data and questioning the database         

Running under Filemaker, queries can be on natural language as well as on permanent coding  or “on-the-way coding”

Example of political ambivalence:
 We question political ambiguity amongst Cameroonian chiefs in Nyong and Sanaga. We look after all the chiefs who were close to the nationalist movement at one point but also signed in the BDC, a prebendary administrative political party. We get these names after crossing these three factors in the query : CCIS** as permanent coding, UPC and BDC as on-the-way coding.

A prosopographical and comparative approach can be undertaken at this point to see if there are others common factors. It appears that the three of them were once civil servants in Yaoundé (using On-the way coding “FonctYa<1957” as defined above). However, our hypothesis  these chiefs might belong to the same traditional association (The kolo beti to be named) proved to be invalid. Only Abega was a member.  Moreover, as we may predict, they were all close to the catholic circles of Louis Paul Aujoulat, a central political French figure in Cameroon with many ministerial portfolios in Paris.

 The next step is to trace down the very particular moment they got close to the UPC. At this point, individual trajectories differ. If we look closely at Belinga biography, for instance, it appears that he was a member in 1955 of the nationalist school teacher union just before the riots in May 1955. But he has distanced himself from the nationalist movement as soon as he has got close to the Union Tribale Bantou led by the bulu politician Charles Assalé, a former Upéciste who allied Ahmadou Ahidjo and became his prime minister in 1960.

Unsurprisingly, individual strategies for capital building led these chiefs to conservative political positions.  On the contrary, when it comes to their nationalist drift, environmental factors and structuring events (may 1955) - combined with the structure of personal networks (catholicism opposed to trade unioning) - seem to be prevalent over basic sociology and show cases of political ambivalence.

Processing the database

Processing the resulting data to extract scientific conclusions means rearranging them once more, in a way which cannot be the object of any previous agreement. This impossibility derives from an essential characteristic of research. No researcher knows beforehand which process will be the most efficient at extracting new knowledge from the data. He proceeds through attempts and failures. We conclude a research database must be equipped with all that is necessary to store, retrieve and enhance data. Not properly to process them. It must nevertheless be able to export them easily to any downstream processing package. A huge variety of packages for analyzing data are now at the researcher's disposal, from the most classical datasheets such as Excel® or OpenOffice®, up to more sophisticated tools such as Pajek® for network analysis, Orange canvas® for statistical analysis, Atlas.ti® for marking texts with beacons and for conceptual analysis, Arcgis® or Cartes&Données® for cartography.  Data can be transferred to any of them from the database in question of minutes. The researcher recovers a capacity of really exploring, really investigating the word he is studying without more limits than his own creativity. Computing makes "qualitative" studies possible[1]

In this example, crossing African zone of coffee farming with subversive activities of the Armée de libération nationale Kamerunaise in 1960 strongly suggests the issue of land was a major factor in the launching of the uprising in the Bamileke area years before. In this respect, it can be compared in some way to the Mau Mau movement in Kenya.

[1] A global introduction to Fichoz , Dedieu Jean-Pierre, <>


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