Over the past weeks, while teaching Ethnography of education, and in a discussion of research in educational linguistic, I was faced again with the perennial problem of the “generalization” of ethnographic research. As the discipline encounters critics, and particularly when the critics are friendly and knowledgeable, what do we claim on the basis of a single case study (however multi-sited, with a large number of participants, etc.)?
In the class, a student had summarized my convoluted answers in a pithy way that captured one of the things I was trying to say: “anthropologists do not generalize to populations, they generalize to processes.” She could have added that anthropologists do not predict the probability the a particular number will show up when rolling a dice; they analyze the structure of the dice (of the arm throwing the dice, the game within which the dice is being thrown, etc.).
We were discussing Holland and Eisenhart’s Educated in romance (1990), as well as Moffatt’s Coming of age in New Jersey (1989). As happens regularly, there was much nervous giggle among graduate students a few years away from dorm life. Not surprisingly, as the students practiced their budding methodological sophistication, comments started flying to the effect that “things are not like that any more,” “not in my college in California,” “this is about the South,” “in the 1980s.” That one of the college in Holland and Eisenhart is a Black college remained silent. I let things run for a while by emphasizing the probability that this track of critique could mention further possible differences in demographics, regionalization, etc. I talked about elite colleges, community colleges, small private urban colleges “unranked” by US News and World Report (Posecznick 2010), etc. Multiplying all this made sense, but I was caught: what do these ethnographic reports tell us, beyond a local, time-bound, story?
So, let’s say that the books are about processes, as well as the structure of the pieces involved in practicing (in Lave’s terms) everyday lives in these colleges? Holland and Eisenhart actually are quite clear: the book is about the further gendering of adult careers as young women move into adulthood, enter into the work force, marry, etc. Gendering is a process in which much more is involved than childhood memories of playing with dolls or trains. The same must apply to young men in college. And it must still apply, at least when young men and women are isolated and left to figure it (sex, gender, display of these, etc.) out, apparently “by themselves.”
Those who know about my work (in recent years) know where I would then go in a class on “education” (“much more is taught/learned/found out in college than skills so that research that solely focuses on college life in terms of the production of human capital is sorely limited”— and that this is a processual generalization ethnography can make and confirm).
Today, I also want to return to an earlier theme in my work. “Gendering through co-ed life in college” is certainly not a universal process. It is actually quite recent and far from something all, or even most, young men and women experience around the world at the turn of the 21st century. I have been fascinated by Leigh Graham’s ongoing work on the romantic education young women in a strictly segregated college in Saudi Arabia give each other. There the women can go for months without contact with men—except perhaps their brothers. Boys are “everywhen,” in conversations and fantasies, but never in the flesh.
Reading reports like this, or considering the history of college life in the United States, makes one notice sub-processes that are hidden in plain sight in Educated in romance and the other ethnographies: there is something quite extra-ordinary (extra-vagant) about these gendering processes and the complexity of the mechanisms for the control of romance (gender, marriage, work identities, children, housing, etc.) as they are set, suffered, resisted, played with, etc. Anthropological ethnography, because it emphasizes comparison, keeps demonstrating that the most general of processes (e.g. gendering) are always mediated by sub-processes most strictly referred to as “cultural” in the early Boasian sense Benedict wrote about as “islanding” (1932).
And so, Educated in romance is, also, about America at least at the end of the 20th century and ongoing.