Véronique Hertrich, Research director
working on the “Demography, gender and societies” team. She co-runs the “Conjugality, parenthood and gender” key project.
What trajectory led you to INED?
As soon as I started university it became clear to me that demography would be a good way of reconciling scientific rigour—the “safeguard” offered by figures—and the social questions I was interested in. So after completing my undergraduate degree in sociology and ethnology at Strasbourg, I decided to pursue my studies at IDUP, the demographic institute of the University of Paris I. The plan was for a professional master’s degree to lead me to the job market. But my graduate internship changed things: I had the extraordinary opportunity of living for two months in a village in Mali, a village that INED researchers were studying. I came back determined to continue in this path, was awarded a PhD scholarship and immediately returned to Mali and began running in-depth surveys in a handful of villages there. My plan was to get a picture of demographic dynamics but also changes in family life in a population that classic indicators were too quick—in my opinion—to rank as highly traditional. After being hosted at INED as a PhD student, I was hired as a junior researcher. And I’m still here, as a research director now, after a few temporary breakaways, notably to the CEPED (Centre Population et Développement) in Paris and the University of Montreal.
What do you do at the Institute?
I work primarily on sub-Saharan Africa, on family dynamics, marriage, gender. I use large databases, surveys and censuses to do comparative studies; for example, to retrace the rise in marriage age found throughout African countries since the 1950s. But I also value and conduct small-scale surveys, which allow for “zooming in” on a particular population, taking into account various types of social logic, emerging dynamics, and observing what large surveys leave in the shadows. I continue to work on the Bwa villages where I did my thesis—it’s been 25 years now. I return there every five years to oversee the collecting of new data in connection with a new census and renewed surveys and interview campaigns. Seen from afar, changes on the African continent seem to occur in cities only; the impression is that in the rural zones of the Sahel nothing moves. But detailed observation over the long term can offer a different perspective. For example, my colleague Marie Lesclingand and I have analysed the rise in migration by young country girls who leave to work in the city as domestic helpers before getting married. This phenomenon, quite widespread in West Africa, has considerable impact on their subsequent relation to the village: they marry later in life, the marriages are not as likely to be arranged ones, and they acquire and mark out a new ability to negotiate their place in the family and conjugal circle. The experience of migrating is perceived as a source of learning and emancipation. The project thus offers a different view of these young women migrants, who are too often seen as merely vulnerable. One of our main lines of research now concerns the family environment of children. In sub-Saharan Africa, children do not all live exclusively with their biological parents; other adults help take care of them. To what degree does this variable family supervision have an effect on the child’s life and future; i.e., chances of survival, going to school, being listed in the civil registry? These are examples of the questions we are interested in. We have of course developed partnerships with our Malian colleagues, notably the statistics institute. We also share our results with the villagers by setting up local-language audio-visual screenings. As is the case for most of my colleagues, research is only one part of my activity. Teaching, organizing scientific study days, being involved in international networks, setting up collective structures, publishing, developing partnerships are all part of the researcher activity “package.” For example, I coordinated the 2005 International Population Conference in Tours—a challenge and an extraordinary adventure that was: organizing things so that 2,000 researchers from throughout the world could spend a week together debating world demographic issues! More recently I created INED’s Pôles Suds methodological research group, to federate research and stimulate exchange on Southern countries.
As you see it, what is specific about INED?
INED’s strong point is to have remained a human-sized research institute. Everyone here is fully present, invested and accessible, and this generates a very strong culture and dynamic. There is also a very strong spirit of openness, especially with the policy for hosting young researchers, PhD students and scientists from abroad.