Short History of Alter

A brief history of Alter, by Henri-Jacques Stiker

  1. I do not start by defining Alter as a word, because the polysemy of this Latin term, deliberately chosen in during free discussions in the period between 1987-1988, near the “CTN” installed at that time in Vanves, it was wanted and necessary: it implied the connotation of ​​other, otherness, alteration, handicap, infirmity, marginality, the et cetera.

  1. Were we a band of indecisive, unable to take a decision on a concept? Were we, in addition, a group of heterogeneous researchers, who did not know what discipline they belonged to? Indeed, next to Alter we ended up putting “International Association for the History of …”. The “for” voluntarily left the door open to all those, whether sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, lawyers, or professionals, thought they could not do without historical depth, without being historians. History was like a connective tissue, but it did not impose a discipline, as Michel Foucault had taught us to be wary of.

  1. In this way, more on the fringes of the university circuit itself – which, at that time, still could not accommodate the multidisciplinary theme of disability – a movement was emerging demanding a rigorous research approach but open to interdisciplinarity. We immediately embraced the international dimension, especially as one of the founding members, Gary Woodill, was from Canada, and participated in the remarkable international conference that took place at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM) in 1988, under the leadership of Louis Avan, founder of the Brigitte Frybourg Laboratory.

  1. The academic tracks comprised interdisciplinary and inter-researchers, international and inter languages, inter temporalities and “inter concerns of the present”, and they all intersected in an excellent dynamic. The starting point were two days of programmatic studies, with Catherine Barral being the main linchpin of the event, as she has been in the whole history of Alter.

  1. The event was held on 10th and 11th June 1988. Pierre Laroque, creator of Social Security in 1945, was present; the papers were of high value, with, among others, Iain Davidson (Scotland), Georges Vigarello (EHESS) and Ole Elstrup Rasmussen (Denmark). It was calculated that fifty people took part to the event, and the proceedings of this very first seminar were collated!

  1. Even without having a specific place to meet, Alter, as an international society for the history of infirmities, deficiencies, maladjustments, handicaps …, has organised for more than ten years the so-called “Tuesdays of Alter”, sometimes in Street Delambre (currently called Agefiph), sometimes at the Inserm (rue de Tolbiac), sometimes even in a bistro (The Rally, boulevard Bourdon) and in a space offered by another association, where various personalities were invited to share the history of their personal journey.

  1. The list is long. I just mention some of them, being aware of forgetting many: Robert Castel, Marcel Gauchet, Roger Perron, Pierre-Henri Guerand, Claude Veil, Alain Corbin, Roland Assathiany, Jean-Pierre Peter, Aime Labregere, Jean-Francois Montès, Jacqueline Gateaux, Claude Faugeron, Claire Salomon-Bayet, Bernard Mottez, Patrice Pinell, Nadine Lefaucheur, Eric Plaisance, Claude Wacjman, Jacques Postel, Genevieve Paicheler, Monique Vial, Michel Chauviere, Claudine Herzlich, Robert Durand; Christine Rater-Garcette, Christian Sanchez, Thiéry Filiaut.

  1. When there was no external guest, one of the founders carried out the event: like François-Olivier Touati, Henri-Jacques Stiker, without forgetting researchers like Olivier Faure or Dominique Dessertine. The names mentioned show the scientific milieu of the Society, but this cannot make forget the members, sometimes the same but not only.

  1. As of 31st December 1992, the association counted 151 paying members, in July 1995 they were still 122, but then only 70 in 1997. To ensure a link between the participants of this network, as well as to provide updates on publications or scientific events about disability, the association published La brève d’Alter (News in brief from Alter) which was issued several times a year until the beginning of the 2000s.

  1. Alter participated in various other networks, such as the National Network of the History of Social Work, the Association for the History of Education and the Judicial Protection of Minors; The Committee on the History of Social Security; the CNAHES (National Conservatory for the History of Special Education), Mémoires-Vives-Center sociaux (Living memory – Social Centre). This network, endorsed by Alter, has been organising meetings until 1999, such as the one held on 29th May of that year at the Social Museum, and focussed on the theme of Classifications in history.

  1. In parallel with these quarterly Tuesday meetings and the work of its members, the association opened – or tried to open – research sites, such as one on a dictionary of history and critique of “disability” that has never seen the light because the task was well ahead the forces available, but which nevertheless resulted in the publication of a small book: Fragments for a history, notions and actors, published by the Centre Technique National D’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Handicap et les Inadaptations (CTNERHI – National Technical Centre for Studies and Research on Disability and Maladjustment) and partially funded by the Foundation de France thanks to our friend Nancy Brétenbach, in 1996. The contributions of Monique Vial, Bernard Mottez and Jean-Louis Korpès, among others, were remarkable. We did not count the friendly but animated meetings in preparation which were held most of the time at the house of Françoise Mandelbaum, on Rue National!

  1. Very soon after the creation of Alter, study days began. On 31st March 1990, at the Association française contre les myopathies (AFM), mostly under the direction of Olivier Faure, began the examination of the period between 1880-1914, titled Nouvelles catégorisations des assistés (New categorisations of assisted individuals), which saw the collaboration of Colette Bec, Jean-François Montès, François Ewald, Olivier Faure, Dominique Dessertine, Jacqueline Roca, Monique Vial. The proceedings appeared in Social Work Research Papers No. 19/1990.

  1. Another research site has also remained undeveloped, the one of the protection of archives. For this purpose, François-Olivier Touati organised a study day at the Musée des Hôpitaux de Paris which was a real discovery, focussing on iconographic sources (4th April 1992). This study was followed by another excursion on the sources and archives of the history of infirmity, organised by Françoise Mandelbaum-Reiner, Michel Royant and François-Olivier Touati on 20th January 1990, at the AFM in Place de Rungis.

  1. This topic was followed up by a meeting at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme of the University of Angers, where the history of social action archives were deposited, before they were, finally, located in Pierrefitte, in collaboration with the CNAHES, and thanks to in particular Françoise Tétard. During one of those study days, one has also to be remembered, during which Nazi propaganda films on the elimination of the mentally handicapped were projected, films that Françoise Tétard managed to retrieve from the archives of the Invalides.

  1. During the 1990s, a major project was initiated: a three-day conference titled Does Disability Have a Story? Associations and the State in the social construction of disability in the twentieth century. It was held at the National Institute of Youth and Popular Education in Marly-le-Roi from Thursday 12th to Saturday 14th January 1995. The historians who valued the work of Alter and with whom we had relationships, such as Michelle Perrot, Alain Corbin, Antoine Prost, encouraged and sustained us, and made themselves available to chair certain sessions. The public remained very loyal until Saturday night! This great adventure terminated with a reception organised on 9th November 2000 to celebrate the publication, by the University Presses of Rennes, of the proceedings of the conference in 1995, under the title The institution of the handicap, the role of associations XIXth-XXth centuries (under the direction of Catherine Barral, Florence Paterson, Henri-Jacques Stiker, Michel Chauviere).

  1. At the beginning of the first decade of 2000s, several factors intervened to modify the trajectory of the Association created in 1988. The active members like the associates decreased mostly for lack of time and resources, or because they took on new projects, such as the creation and animation of GIFFOCH (International Francophone Group for Training in Disability Classifications), with which Alter signed a collaboration agreement.

  1. The good relations with the CTNERHI, where some of Alter’s members worked, deteriorated because of the unfortunate management of this institution. It was then considered, given the loss of speed and the disappearance of the publication carried out by the CTN, to launch a new journal: scientific, European, multidisciplinary and bilingual. This project, which was very successful, mobilised the energies of the Association, which became essentially the founder and owner of the magazine. On the same direction, but with less and more diversified historical concerns, study days began again, this time in close relationship with the magazine, which led to refund the association otherwise.