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Fieldwork and Tropicality in French Indochina: Reflections on Pierre Gourou's Les Paysans Du Delta Tonkinois, 1936

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This paper examines the fieldwork undertaken by the distinguished French geographer Pierre Gourou (1900–99) in the Tonkin Delta (Red River Delta) of northern Vietnam in the 1920s and 1930s, and his wider configuration of “the tropical world” as a distinct space of knowledge and radical otherness. Gourou's fieldwork endeavours in French Indochina are interpreted in the light of recent work on “tropicality”: the idea that “the tropics” need to be understood as a western cultural construction and colonising discourse that essentialised the hot, wet regions of the world, and exalted the temperate world over its tropical counterpart. The paper focuses on Gourou's monumental 1936 study Les paysans du delta tonkinois, √©tude de g√©ographie humaine. It is argued that in this study, and his later comparative work on the tropics, Gourou elaborated a distinct geographical variant of tropicality, but one that, ultimately, reinforced the essentialist logic and momentum of this discourse. Particular attention is paid to the geographical ideas, fieldwork techniques and discursive strategies that Gourou used in his 1936 study, and the French colonial context in which he worked. The article shows how Gourou appealed to western reason and science as tools of study, identified overpopulation as the key problem facing the Tonkin Delta, and suggested that colonial practices of modernisation had a limited place and ineffectual role in the rice plains of the region.
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Keywords: French Indochina; Pierre Gourou; Tonkin Delta; colonialism; fieldwork; tropicality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK

Publication date: 2003-07-01

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