On grades as statements: to whom?

Ray McDermott and Jean Lave once told me that they asked Rancière whether his writing influenced his teaching.  As they tell it, he looked surprised and answered something like “not at all!”  A reader of Successful Failure once asked me whether I still gave grades.  Besides stuttering, I said something like: “I am required to (by my university and New York State)” and/or “students would not accept my not giving them grades.”

Over my 40years+ at Teachers College ,I have also been part of several faculty-wide conversations about “grade inflation.”  These never went anywhere and, by now, I gather from various sources, only about three grades are given: A, A-, & B+.  Personally that is, mostly, what I do and it is not altogether different from distributing grades among A, B, & C, except that it limits, mostly again, student complaints.  And while I do not grade “on the curve,” I do get nervous when I find myself only giving A’s.

Now, of course, what is the point of giving differentiated grades?  More specifically, what difference does it make? to whom? and with what consequences?  Taking the “gift” of grade as a statement, who is the audience?

A grade is structurally in the position of the “assessment” moment in Mehan (and many others)’s model of the “lesson.”  The teacher sets a curriculum, asks students to do something related to “the class,” and then differentially assesses how well each individual students performs the task (“has learned” in the current authoritative language among accreditation agencies).  The grade then becomes a datum (actually just another word, in latin, for “gift”) to the student.  But a grade is also a gift to others besides the student—though not to everyone given various legal strictures about who may see a student’s grade (tracing who may see a grade when and for what purpose would actually be a way of revealing the structure of social reproduction).  These “others” may then legitimately mete various consequences that have nothing to do with the original class, e.g. they may give the student various privileges, including, at the high school, college or Masters level, admission to a further degree program.  Thus the grade that looks like a private communication between teacher and student, is also a coded statement to powers-that-be (admissions officers, funding agencies, accreditation bodies, etc.).  Which is why, of course, grades are a political issue and “grade inflation” a political problem (see also my post on Lake Wobegon).

What does all this have to do with “education”?  Little, I say, with many others.  In recent years, I have gotten to say that I translate my current designation as a “professor and advisor of graduate students” into a “masters of apprentices.”  In that perspective, I maintain that I give grades because I am required to do so but that they should only be taken as a statement about a progression and my potential willingness to work with the student as apprentice.  The grades I give are not about individual learning per se.  This “faction” (fact making that may constrain in some future) is easier to maintain at the doctoral level where it is actually the case that one receives a doctorate by accumulating grades but by demonstrating that one can be recommended for entry into a discipline or profession.  So, I’d say:

Code equivalent to a statement like:
A+ = “Wow!”
A = “You are at mastery at this stage.”
A- = “You are well on your way.”
B+ = “OK, but discipline yourself”
B = “You may be in the wrong career given your talents”

In the long run, my “real” assessment of a person work is the enthusiasm of my letters of recommendation whether for funding or professional positions.  And these letter never never mention grades since “Pass” is the only possible one at the final levels.

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On not defining

What is a book about when it is titled The elementary structures of kinship (Lévi-Strauss 1967 [1949])?  For about thirty years, and during my graduate years at the University of Chicago, it was about “elementary structures” and we debated endlessly what that might mean.  But I also took courses from David Schneider as he was elaborating his most famous book, A critique of the study of kinship (1984).  He taught us that Lévi-Strauss’ book, ostensibly about “kinship,” was actually about NO THING that could be studied cross-culturally.  Schneider’s book, as a version of the history of the near present often say, marked the end of the study of kinship in anthropology and the disappearance of the field as foundational to the discipline.

I thought about all this recently because I had to review an interesting paper for possible publication.  It discussed Schneider’s legacy but it also appeared to search for an alternate definition of kinship.  And so it tickled my dissatisfaction with anything that smacks of definitions, ideal-types, and other attempts to capture a “thing” that is also an abstraction, and to do so deductively.  The paper did make the point that the disappearance of “kinship” did not mark the end of anthropological work on marriage, sex and gender, relationships.  But it may be that, as the author argued, we do not quite know anymore how to classify this work if it is not “kinship.”

So, what are we to do?  I propose that we do not seek a definition or elaborate an ideal-type.

Schneider was no historian of anthropological ideas and his polemical characterizations of many ancestral figures do not always point at what made them interesting.  He does not note, for example, that Lévi-Strauss, when writing about kinship or family (1956), did not write about essences but about “models” that are analytic products rather than representations, and only useful for purposes of experimentation on the analysis and validation of the analysis (1962 [1952]).  Models are built out of 1) recorded observational experience among a particular group (people and the field anthropologist co-participating with them) in order 2) to produce another form of practical experience among another group (the field anthropologist back at home among other anthropologists).

The best example of a model is that drawn by Jean Lave about learning as movement through a “community” on the basis of her experiences with tailors and in supermarkets.  This model opens all sorts of investigations into boundaries, gravity wells (under what conditions might one consider becoming a legitimate peripheral participants, e.g. apply to graduate school at the University of Chicago), chutes and ladders (blockages and bypasses in the movement out of peripheral positions), the ever receding “full” position, etc.

[A CAUTIONARY NOTE: neither Lévi-Strauss nor Lave wrote exactly in the terms I used o summarize what they taught me]

So what might we try to model when observing people “at home”?

Retrospectively, I think I was lucky to start my career in a department of “Home and Family Life” later to be renamed “Family and Community Education.”  It was embarrassing when mentioned at the American Anthropological Association meetings.  But it kept reminding me that, while kinship was NO THING, home and family, hearth and crib, kitchen and school, dating, divorce, menstruation and menopause, illness and death, all were issues for all human beings to face, as transformed in the myriad ways their ancestors frame for them.  As I started reading Bourdieu and many others on the reproduction of birth privilege in democracies famously organized to eradicate it, then I was more convinced than ever that “family” had to remain an irreducible concern, and all the more so as sociobiologists gained the favor they now have among journalists writing, for example, about why hypergamy remains a favored (guiltily preferred?) form of marriage for women.

Anthropologists of everyday life have no choice but to face home and family (hearth and lineage, residence and descent) in about all the very large scale political entities bringing together under their “governmentalities” billions of human beings (from Japan to the Americas, around the globe)—not to use the word “culture” and to emphasize issues of power that I have sometimes been accused, surprisingly for me, to ignore.  But facing home and family is not the same thing as defining “kinship.”  In the field one can start anywhere, e.g. with a woman in her late pregnancy, and trace with whom, where, sometimes when, how she will actually give birth, and with what consequences (to her child, other significant others, and perhaps others, far away, who may suffer because of the child’s privileges accruing with his birth here and then).

Latour has been telling anthropologists that their task is to trace what may also be a “viper’s tangle” to quote François Mauriac most famous novel  (rather than Geertz on webs of meaning).  I have been sympathetic to this call because it brings us back to the anthropological task of uncovering constraints and openings.  Most importantly, as I understand it (or at least as I teach it), this call is not for new definitions, and it discourages debates about essences.  A home is not a thing, but entering one’s kitchen is an experience to be modeled.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1969 [1940] The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1956 “The family.” In Man, culture and society. Edited by H. Shapiro. New York: Oxford University Press. 261-285.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962 [1952] “Social structure.” In Structural anthropology. Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books. 277-323.

Schneider, David 1984 A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.


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On education on Lake Wobegon

Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!”  Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )

Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.

And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:

Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)

The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are.  The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying.  As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998).  It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful.  It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.”  The label must apply only to a certain percentage.

The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.

The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.

“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight.  The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.

I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”).  In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable.  They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).

I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure.  As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality.  We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course).  We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 [1961]) on the relationship between individualism and racism.

This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture.  So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed.  McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon).  But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.

Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports.  I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions.  The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say.  But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time.  In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not.  And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.

What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?”  except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…).  Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production.  How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.


Dumont, Louis 1980 [1961] “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus

Koyama, Jill 2010 Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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On the limits of human rationality when confronted to human practical intelligence

The programmers at Google (mostly human, I will grant) have a problem: how to make their robot (car) make eye contact with non-robotic drivers so the robot does not get paralyzed at four way stops.

Actually, some humans (particularly of the French kind, at apéritif) are sure all humans must have this problem since it rationally impossible to determine who has priority when four cars approach together a four way stop.

Practically, of course, there is no problem: humans, in each case, make up a way to solve the “problem,” one four way stop at a time, using all their tools (eye contact, inching forward to assert right of way, withdrawal to avoid possible confrontation, etc.).

Anthropologically (in the broadest sense of finding out what humanity is all about), all this is about the tension between rationalism and pragmatism: do human beings act from rules or do they make it up as needed?

More than a century ago, this is a tension that must have haunted Durkheim and led him to give a full course on it (“Pragmatisme et sociologie.” Cours dispensé à La Sorbonne en 1913-1914).

As I understand it, Durkheim granted pragmatism what it said about the ongoing constitution of humanity and its local and temporary truths (culture) but returned to scientific rationalism as the ground for saying that, precisely, pragmatism (cultural anthropology, ethnomethodology, etc.) must be granted primacy when the goal is systematic understanding. Affirming that, on the basis of a century of research, it is more likely that human beings “make it up” rather than they follow rules learned earlier, is an act of scientific rationalism. (The development of scientific rationalism being by this very research a historical product of attempts to deal with new conditions from the ‘0’ to the printing press to the … robot car!)

Where does that leave the Google programmers?

And how are we to talk about the many who, soon I suspect, will want to prevent error-prone, “irrational” if not criminal humans from driving now that rationality (in the guise of Google programmers) has triumphed?

The first question is a question about communication theory that it will a lot of fun to ponder and discuss.  The robot car is also an ethnomethodological experiment to delve more deeply into the conduct of everyday practical life on the highways of life (hint to doctoral students: there are many dissertations here).  But first the programmers will have not to blame humans for not following the letter of the law…

Which leads to the second question and the probable development of new forms of arbitrary forms enforced by new forms of arbitrary powers-that-be.  Among these:

. Insurance companies keen to lessen their losses (“bonuses” for people who let their cars drive);

. Advocacy groups for a safer world free from “bad” drivers (get ready for much moralizing);

. State agents reacting to the others and developing authoritative regulations for what is to count as bad (if not now illegal) driving.

. Lawyers, …………….

Along with all this, imagine the many forms of resistance.  Imagine what will happen when resistance gets institutionalized.  Imagine the resulting rules, regulations, customs that transform what happened earlier and become, for a population, that which is the real they must now deal with (see for examples the multiplication of the responses to global warming across the globe)…  Negotiating the institutionalization of robots will not be a rational process, but one more akin to driving through a four way stop, and, for a few seconds, making a uniquely adequate and multiply arbitrary immortal social fact (culture).

Coda to my earlier post about non-robotic driving in Haiti: Dany Laferrière on his friend driving a new Jeep in Port-au-Prince (1997: 171-72)


Laferrière, Dany 1997 Pays sans chapeau. Montréal: Lanctôt Editeur


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On the arbitrary and the contingent

While writing my last post on intelligence in the streets of Port-au-Prince, I tried to distinguish the contingent (e.g. an earthquake) from the arbitrary (e.g. a language like Creole, or making international help travel through NGOs).  I was attempting to distinguish the accidental (temporality or diachrony) the systematic (history as epochs in synchrony).  And put myself into an interesting theoretical bind.

It looked simple: On January 12, 2010 there was earthquake in Port-au-Prince.  Everyone had to do something that they did not have to do the day before.  “Everyone” is a very large crowd of people caught up with Haiti.  This includes “Haitians,” non-Haitians concerned with Haiti in an ongoing manner (e.g NGO staff, journalists), and those who became concerned with Haiti as calls for help were answered by people around the world.  The earthquake was, literally, a stone thrown in a lake, rippling far an wide but altogether NOT part of the lake, its shores and shoals.  The earthquake was contingent.

By contrast, all the means used by the people to deal with the earthquake were arbitrary (according to my understanding of the term).  The linguistics means (using Creole, French, English, etc.), were arbitrary to the needs of human communication.  The procedural means used to organize what happened next were similarly arbitrary to the needs of organizing emergency responses—for example the broad use of NGOs to channel much of the international help (rather than, for example, the government, religious or commercial institutions, etc.), or the manipulation of “celebrity status” (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) to establish authority, etc..

But… a movement of the earth would not be quite “the Haiti earthquake” if … Haiti, as the arbitrary product of the history of Europe and Africa, had not existed as precisely such an entity as it was in January 2010.  The toll of the earthquake is only partially the product of its force or location.  It has much more to do with housing type, governmental regulations about housing, the complex economics of building, and a tangled network reaching across the planet and across at least two centuries.  The earthquake toll, thus, is the product of human activity, and thus of the multiply arbitrary world human beings make for themselves or, more exactly, for other human beings possibly far removed in time and space.  A stark case in point: the introduction of a South Asian strain of cholera in a country free from any cholera for at least a century (Katz 2013: Chapter 11).

Contrastively, Creole (as the product of the French slave trade, revolutions both in France and Haiti), is something that keeps happening to the island along with French, Spanish, and now English, etc.  An arbitrary act (and in humanity all acts are arbitrary) is also always a contingent event wherever and whenever it occurs: just ask those who came to help and found out that they had to get translators; just ask the Haitians who taught themselves Brazilian (or any number of other languages) in order to trade with United Nations soldiers!

So, I should probably say something like: no event is in itself contingent or arbitrary.  Any event that cannot be escaped in the temporality of the sequences within which one is made to participate  must be approached both as:
.  A contingency requiring repair, if not change in orderings.
and as
.  An ordered step within a scripted sequence.

That is: my teaching for six days last month in Port-au-Prince can be analyzed both as:

.  An event that multiply interrupted my life (and that of my family), the life of the students, that of others I met there, and probably of still others about whom I know little.  My teaching was a contingency in all these lives. We discovered what had to be done that none of us ever had to do before in quite this way.   And then we improvised, on various themes, listening to each others take, instructing, correcting, and transforming each others.

and as

.  Just the kind of event that the historical moment (epoch, culture) has kept producing in the relations between America and Haiti: an American foundation providing funds for individuals to help people in Haiti.  My teaching was, also, a scripted sequence.

This is temporarily adequate, as long as it remains clear that the response to the contingent is a struggle with all means available, not simply the application of a rule.  I will explore this in more detail in a further post.


Katz, Jonathan 2013 The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

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“Communities of intelligence” in the streets of Port-au-Prince

While preparing the class I taught  at the Faculté d’Ethnologie of the Université d’État de Haiti, I stumbled again on one of those sentences that make Rancière so powerful:

Language does not unite people. On the contrary it is the arbitrariness of language that makes them try to communicate by forcing them to translate—but also puts them in a community of intelligence. (Rancière [1987] 1999 : 58)

Haiti, of course, is famous for a creole forged by the need to translate what others from around the world, often with the worst of motivations, were saying and then to do whatever new conditions might allow (a successful war against a colonial power), or require (a devastating earthquake).  Living together in such conditions will put people in a “community of intelligence”—and will keep them there, at work, for a creole forged by contingent circumstances will itself become a language, Creole, that is arbitrary by its very nature as a language and so cannot unite people as it forces them, again, to try and communicate, try and survive in the new conditions of which it is now a part.

I thought about all this when reading Jonathan Katz’s passionate account of the 2010 earthquake and of the many blunders of the “international community” who ostensibly “came to help” but may have made things much worse (Katz 2013).  Much of what he had to say about the famous (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) and the less famous politicians, policy makers, staff of NGOs, confirmed what I started learning through Scott Freeman’s dissertation on the role of NGOs in the non-development of Haiti’s rural population.  This, I learned, is now a theme in the anthropology of NGOs and their environmental impact.

One passage in Katz’s book struck me particularly.  It has to do with the figures generally quoted by the “international community” regarding unemployment in Haiti.  As Katz say, most of what Haitian actually do does not count as employment.  Graphically, who in this photograph is employed? (besides the photographer)

food vendor in Haiti
Photo by Hervé Varenne

At least four of the seven people visible are clearly active making something (it is not clear what the others are doing).  Everything is orderly.  The garbage is bagged, debris is piled, the tires are stacked.  In the background, there is what appears like a repurposed state school into an “Institut Superieur” and/or a “Centre de Formation Appliquee.”  Even the advertisement of what may be an expensive mattress required extensive work to put it there.  Putting it here, in a not very prosperous neighborhood, is an act of multiple arbitrariness: Who put it there? Who is the intended audience? What do the people in the photograph make of it?

Looking at the picture made me think of Kiran Jayaram’s dissertation (Columbia 2014) on Haitian migrants to Santo Domingo: determined intelligence in the worst of conditions when physical survival is immediately at stake.

About all the streets of Port-au-Prince I drove through are lined by such stands as in the photograph.  Are they classified as “small businesses” rather than “employment” in certain statistics? The important thing is that the stands are there, with the people who put them up, and the people who use them, together at work.  Katz reports that they reappeared in the first days that followed the earthquake even as the people were actively digging for survivors, and then reconstructing—when they were not hindered by efforts to help that create more catastrophic conditions, and more moments for the convening of “communities of intelligence.”

When the arbitrary occurs (earthquake, food distributed here but not there, diseases imported, new languages added to the mix, etc.) human beings will get together and translate.  It is time to pay attention and bring out intelligence over disfunction, achievement over failure, heroic bricolage over engineering deficiencies.

Publicizing this work has to be the way to counter “culture of poverty” approaches to the plight of people in dire condition, whether in Haiti or elsewhere.


Katz, Jonathan 2013 The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Rancière, Jacques 199 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (First published in 1987)

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What about these schools in Port-au-Prince?

For students looking for a dissertation topic in anthropology and education: what about all these schools in Port-au-Prince?

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools?  The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks.  There are about one school every other block.  There are at least as many on the parallel Avenue Christophe and, I found out many many more in the neighborhood southwest of the hotel where I was driven.  This area is but a small area of the city and so I have no sense of what is happening, school-wise, in the rest of the city.

A few of these schools are clearly marked as governmental like the Lycee Dessalines.  Others are linked to a church.  But many more do not appear to be either and they are the ones that fascinate me: who attends? Who organizes? Who set curriculum and pedagogies? Who funds? Who teaches? How are the teachers recruited?  When were they set up? How many are being set up?  How many fail?  How do the students pay? What do the alumni do? Etc.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

When need ethnographies of something that should blur further the useless distinction between formal and informal education.  These are schools.  They must be formal but not quite in the same manner as state school in Euro-America must be.  They are also the product of an informal process as various entrepreneurs, and people with little access to government schools, come together they “do school” for purposes that may have little to do with “education”–as one’s skepticism makes one imagine.

While shopping for some souvenir to bring back, I had a brief conversation with a young man in charge of the store.  He spoke quite good English (but no French).  I asked him where he had learned.  He gave me the name of a non-governmental school, affirmed he had learned English in three months and that was all he needed from that school.  This made a good story I could not “verify” but it hints at processes that are more akin to those that interest Rancière than to those that interest Bourdieu: if one is to run a tourist business, learning English is essential.  This is an intelligence working at education in an altogether “informal” manner, even if it briefly involved a “formal” step (though I am very curious about the pedagogy used in the school!).

Note that someone I met mentioned the number of people in Port-au-Prince that could converse in Portuguese and other languages brought into Haiti by the United Nations.  How did they do it?

These, of course, are all very poor people who have lived throughout their lives in the most difficult conditions imaginable (very weak governments, misguided help from NGOs and the “international community,” an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, more misguided help further blurring the lines of governmentality).

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

So we need more ethnographies.  And we need ethnographies from other parts of the world if, as I suspect, Haiti is not unique.  Jessica Garber, for example, is doing a pilot project in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia, where she was told there may be thirty “international schools” (for a population of two millions)!  I once heard a fascinating paper on “Crazy English” in China.  I am sure there are many other examples of the ways human beings around the world are taking their conditions and producing instructional “techniques” (in Mauss’ sense) never before seen by humanity.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

They will help us construct further an anthropology of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  My hope, as some of the students I have worked with closely know, is not to stop the analysis with a simple call to “globalisation” or “neo-liberalism.”  Labeling epochs by attaching labels to them does do much.  Moralizing about greed, the will to power, or desperation does not do much either.  We must discipline our own motivations so that we can report on what human beings can do.  It will remain the pride of anthropology that it will illustrate what can happen locally when certain forms of governmentality and national sovereignty morph, and thus limit the temptation to over-generalize.

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Crossing the street in Port-au-Prince

One thing I discovered does not happen in Port-au-Prince: traffic paralysis. How can this be given the about total absence of the traffic flow signs, lights, etc.?  Without these, one is told in Europe and the United States, cars and people cannot move in dense cities.  But they can, in Port-au-Prince!

It’s certainly not the case the traffic (cars, motorbikes, pedestrians) is light.  Quite the contrary, it may be more dense, per street area, than anywhere I have been.  The streets around my hotel were narrow, with small sidewalks on which cars park.  The layout is mostly on a grid with many crossings, and only two or three traffic lights in the about 100 square blocks I got to know.  Driving, turning, walking, all involve constantly checking what everyone else is doing who might prevent you from continuing (if not hit you).  To add to the challenge matters are major pot-holes, missing sewer grates, piles of gravel, etc.

aerial view of carrefour
Google Earth image

So what do people do at major intersections when several avenue intersect with none of the external help one might expect?

They proceed — with care I am sure !  Even a New Yorker like myself can remain intimidated.  I guess the “rules” are simple: it can be done, there are gaps between cars and motorcycles, do not hesitate or change your mind, others will interpret a movement and act accordingly (people will zip behind you if it appears clear that you are moving; they will zip in front of you in the space you have not yet reached–unless of course something is coming in the other direction to which you should also pay attention).

crossing a carrefour
Photo by Herve Varenne

Check the man on the photo. Everyone is moving. Note how he strides confidently towards the space that will soon be freed by the passing car. “Knowing the rules” will not help him.  There is no time to plan when everything is moving fast.  You have to keep crossing streets that are not quite the same at the middle of your crossing as they were at the beginning.  And yet, several million times a day, people in Port-au-Prince do it!  After several hours of walking and being driven around, I did not see an accident.  They must happen, and there is probably statistics showing that the rate of injury is higher here than elsewhere (at least I hypothesize it may be).  But modern life with cars, motorcycles, large number of pedestrians in narrow streets proceed in an altogether orderly manner.

Of course, those who read this blog should know where I am going: the next time I teach Garfinkel on driving in California, I will talk about doing it in Port-au-Prince: that is the challenge for sociology.  How do people do what they can be seen as doing in difficult, scary, life-threatening situations: they check around for what others are doing, and they do it!  At times, they even stop and wave one across!

Those who follow this post will not be surprised by the preceding paragraph.  But, mostly, when teaching Garfinkel, I leave aside “bioanthropology” (the new moniker for “Biological Anthropology”?) and sociobiology, as well as, more problematically, cultural anthropology.

So what would a sociobiologist say about crossing the street in Port-au-Prince? The urge to survive?  The need to take risks to survive?  What would our selfish genes say?

More interesting are the less theoretical sociologists and social anthropologists who might want to write about the economics (neo-liberalism?) or politics (neo-colonialism? failed state? misguided NGOs?) responsible for the absence of traffic lights at the very ceremonial center of Port-au-Prince.  True enough.  But is this the end?

Is there any place for a cultural analysis?  To the extent that the ensemble of the proximate “causes” for the conditions that make this kind of traffic pattern what individuals must struggle with now, are unique and may not last long (I saw a few newly installed traffic signals in the say 100 traffic corners I experienced), then the situation is “cultural” (historical, a matter of partial diffusion, borrowing, and refusal to borrow).  But I would like more: is the traffic pattern also “arbitrary” in the sense that it is not a product of functional adaptation, but also of some kind of collective imagination?   Are traffic lights necessary? Or are they the product of an evolutionary conceit about orderliness, separation of functions, etc.?

To answer such question, one could check what is happening in Holland.  Traffic lights can disappear.

crossing the street in Holland

Photo by Jerry Michalski.

And so, it seems that trafficking is not only a matter of instruction into not getting killed here and now.  It is also a matter of complex deliberations…

Haiti may be ahead!

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Instruction, uncertainty, and meta-pragmatic repairing in medical education

When I teach Lave and Wenger’s (1991) altogether brief introduction to “legitimate peripheral participation,” I do not teach it as a theory of learning but as a model for social structuring in Lévi-Strauss’s sense (1962 [1952]).  But Lévi-Strauss was seeking to model a moment in the organization of a people while Lave, in a major development, seeks to model movement through social structurings when everyone and everything involved in the movement constitute this structuring as it will be available for the future.  By an implication that remains to be developed, Lave also opened the way for a modeling of culture change.

In brief, for those who do not know the background to this approach, Lave asks us to move from imagining participation in any position as dependent on earlier learning to imagining this participation itself as producing some personal learning.  Thereby she argues that a personal movement into a position is dependent on mechanisms other than learning (or socialization/enculturation).  These are the mechanisms that make the initial positioning “legitimate” and authorize the acknowledgment of movement.  Wondering about legitimacy and authorization leads to searches for the interactional, political forces that establish legitimate participation, authorize certain forms of leaning, and thus of course, refuse participation, does not acknowledge learning, etc.

Much of this formulation sprung from an interest in apprenticeships and it has been found to be a very useful way of approaching traditional problems generally phrased as matters of socialization into positions—for example the movement that transforms a medical student into a physician.  But there is still a need for more exact accounts of movements that might help us develop further properties of the model.

Given all this, I am thankful to Dr. Yan-Di Chang and her dissertation about a moment in the education of physicians in Taiwan.  At some point in their career, people who are moving towards being acknowledged as Mds enter what is known there as a “clerkship” where they will be, for the first time, authorized to care for a patient, under the gaze of doctors and nurses with various experiences and authority.  So what happens during various stages within this clerkship?

Dr. Chang has a good sense of what makes ethnography worthwhile and also infuriating: there is a long chapter in the dissertation about orientation day when the new clerks are told, among many, many, many things … where the bathrooms are!  Do we really need this level of detail?  Yes, if we are not going to gloss over the difficulties involved in movement across the virtual spaces of social structure.  Yes, if we are going to highlight how much work it is not only to be a “peripheral” participant but also to be the fuller participants who have the responsibility to teach what they can never be quite sure the students do not know.  The people who plan the orientation, and those who actually perform it, are faced with the “instruction manual” problem discussed by Garfinkel (2002: Chapter 6): we, the instructors, know that they, the inductees, will need instruction, we can imagine what they will need, but we cannot be sure.  So the actual moment of interaction is difficult for all, and open for much deliberation, including self-reflective deliberation by the instructors about how to do it the next time.

Dr. Chang then proceeds through several other moments when all these matters become salient.  There is the encounter with one’s first patient and how to balance his care with one’s personal life while knowing that one might make mistakes, while knowing that one should ask for advice but not necessarily from whom, while being told that one has made a mistake one had not noticed, and all the while knowing that a person well-being, if not life, is at stake.  Moving into the position of “physician” re-arranges a small crowd!

Dr. Chang then takes us into a more detailed, almost conversational analytic, look at another salient moment in the life of the whole polity: the senior doctor’s rounds when a few students (including both beginners and some more advanced) have to present a case to the doctor, in the presence of fellow students, as well as other more seasoned personnel.  Everyone is participating legitimately.  The hierarchies are multiply indexed discursively and practically, particularly by the balance between questioning, proposing answers, redirecting and sometimes actual instructing.  But the detail of the conversation reveal again and again that noone is following a script.  Everyone has to handle multiple uncertainties that cannot be resolved simply by following rules or applying knowledge.

Everyone is indeed in movement, re-constituting hierarchies which, as Dr. Chang illustrates in a later chapter are themselves subject to meta-pragmatic deliberation among the most legitimate and fullest of participants.  There the questions keep arising: how do we best prepare future doctors? Could we produce “happy doctors”?  These are the conversations that must have guided medical education as it shifted though various models in the history of Taiwan.  And they are the conversations that will participate in transforming it.

The detail in Dr. Chang’s dissertation made me think in a somewhat inchoate fashion about the interactional consequences of the instruction manual problem.  At any moment in an asymmetrical interaction (and perhaps all interactions are) one must wonder what it is that the other person does (not) know.  But, of course, this wonder cannot be settled in any definite fashion.  In any event there would be no time.  Conversational analysis has clearly demonstrated the extent of “repairs” in face to face interaction.  It is as if all conversation occurred in what, to play on Vigotsky, one might call a zone of “proximal ignorance” where all participants have to play with first, what they can make each other pass as knowing (that is they authorize each other’s participation), and, second, what some must instruct others who have exhibited allowable ignorance at this moment and about this (that is, at other moments, a display of ignorance about this might lead to status degradation).

What Dr. Chang, building on other work, illustrates again is that this is not simply a moment to moment matter that must proceed under meta-pragmatic discursive awareness (as classical theories of cultural learning have assumed).  It is also a process taking place in longer sequences where meta-pragmatic discursive awareness is very much involved.  In the day to day matter of moving students into the position of physicians experiential difficulties abound: a future doctor must find out where the bathroom are, must face her first patient along with experienced nurses, must explain her actions to other doctors.  At every moment further deliberations must occur to develop, repair, redirect what has happened before.  And these deliberations may, or may not, make moving medical students into physicians a smoother process for all involved.

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What some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015

In my last post, I argued that “Applied Anthropology” is, to all of us anthropologists, a total social fact, a “thing”—both in Mauss’s and Latour’s senses.

But that does not tell us much about the actual practices of anthropologists who find themselves caught by this thing facted in a long history. So, today, I wonder about what was done, one Thursday in February 2015, in New York City, in a classroom of a Columbia building. Then and there, a bunch of anthropologists told each other what they do. What did they say?

In the first few minutes of the conference, Ray McDermott put it this way: “when someone says stupid or mean things about kids, I want them to know I will be at their door the next day.” This, he said, is “reply anthropology.” Replace “kid” with “mothers,” “haitian farmers,” or whomever is talked about in stupid ways, and variations on this presentation of self were made. Some argued that McDermott was simply saying, colorfully, what may have been the presentation of anthropology by Boas in the United States, Mauss in France, Malinowski in England, and many others: when someone says stupid, or at least mis-informed things, about human beings, anthropologists will notice, shudder, bring out obscure, and often actively obscured, practices through painstaking observation. They argue among themselves on how to interpret the observation and what observations to conduct next. Then anthropologists reply. And now, they examine the replies to their replies as others continue to mis-represent their work and, more significantly, the work of the people about whom the conversations are held.

On that Thursday, the replies, and the replies to the replies, took many forms. Those who replied did it from the variety of positions in which they find themselves given the vicissitudes of their careers. Paige West talked to us about the work she has been conducting, somewhat under the academic radar, with colleagues in Papua New Guinea culminating with her “co-founding … the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in PNG for Papua New Guineans.” Terrence D’Altroy and Brian Boyd talked about the extra-archaeological work needed to allow for the doing of archaeology in complex contemporary conditions. Scott Freeman told us about Haitian farmers have been doing. And he showed how this work keeps being obscured by the constraints under which local NGOs must operate. I’d say that West, D’Altroy, Boyd, Freeman, Oliveira, Baines, Hudson, that is “we,” anthropologists, were replying to what others had been saying. We asked our others, mostly from outside anthropology, to look further at the people whom they want to help, and particularly to consider the exuberance of the people’s activity around professional or state-sponsored activity. That is, to the extent that there we were saying something useful to our professional audiences, we were saying it because of what we have learned about the social conditions of all human activity, including professional activity. And, by analyzing the conditions of our work reflexively, we were also developing anthropological theory.

Jean Lave generalized all this by telling of her experience building an institution within another institution: a Ph.D. program in Social and Culture Studies in Education within a School of Education within a university priding itself on its international status as a research university. Her experience as an anthropologist willing to build new institutions within old ones is one the participants in the conference recognized: as conversations with colleagues proceed, we are told either that we are not anthropological enough (next statements by anthropologists in research positions) or that we are too anthropological (next statements by colleagues in the professional school).

I hope that the conference will help us turn the tables: 1) replying to those whose work obscures human activity is what anthropology does, and 2) replying effectively requires more anthropology.

First, as anthropologists, we go where people work and learn about it through that work. These days, many people work in and around (N)GOs particularly when these involve dangerous matters in their lives. How they work, and how this work is organized, is a core issue in anthropology. As Lave reminded us, quoting Gramsci, we must assume that, among the people there are “organic intellectuals,” and thus complex organizational processes producing their position, its local authority and discursive forms. Giving new accounts of all these complex processes, including the relationship among all intellectuals (organic or not), is a profoundly theoretical task.

Second. Facing the ethno-methodology of everyday work in professional settings requires more rather than less anthropology. Professional activity of the non-organic kind, that is the activity of professors and other professionals, whether working with/in or with/out (N)GOs, is also everyday activity that requires the kind of practical intelligence which allows all involved to recognize that this (that we are doing or see being done) is just what “we do.” But all work on such activity, in any setting, including the work of “scientists” (Kaplan on “logic-in-use” 1964; Latour on science 1987) and other licensed professionals (Wieder 1974), has demonstrated that the formal problematics of the activity (as it may be stated in mission statements, flow charts, program descriptions, etc.) is but an aspect of the activity itself that can easily obscure other aspects of the practice, whether the practioners are “aware” or not of the gap between what we are known as doing and what we just did. Bringing out the possibly contradictory constraints of that gap is what anthropology offers. Workers in schools, hospitals, development agencies, government offices, etc. should require that more anthropology, at its most disciplined.

Kaplan, Abraham
1964 The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Co.
Latour, Bruno
1987 Science in action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist