Index of posts related to anthropoligical theorizing

on anthropological theorizing

  • on maintaining order in difficult spaces (December 2, 2015)
    After 40+ years of American Anthropological Association meetings, I cannot pretend that they are not familiar.  I registered  in the same booths the association has used for many years.  And as I walked I recognized sounds, topics, physical styles, rhythms. My own rhythms, by now, are anything but not familiar. …
  • On not defining (October 28, 2015)
    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…
  • On the arbitrary and the contingent (June 21, 2015)
    I should probably say something like: any event lived with (inescapable condition arising in temporality) can be approached both as: 1) A contingency requiring repair, if not change in orderings. and as 2) An ordered step within a scripted sequence.
  • What about these schools in Port-au-Prince? (June 2, 2015)
    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…
  • Crossing the street in Port-au-Prince (May 28, 2015)
    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 !
  • Instruction, uncertainty, and meta-pragmatic repairing in medical education (April 29, 2015)
    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 some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015 (April 2, 2015)
    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…
  • Reply anthropology (?) (March 17, 2015)
    After the end of the February 26, 2015 conference on “‘Applying’ anthropology,” Jean Lave wondered whether we had not “reified” applied anthropology by discussing what became, discursively, an “it” that stood against another “it” (unmarked, regular, academic, ivory tower anthropology). Reification is of course the trap all critical discourses fall…
  • Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics (February 20, 2015)
    Whether this job description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of 2015. I suspect Teachers College has never had a “Director of Enterprise Applications Service” and that it will never have another one (as classifications and procedures change).
  • Is this what neoliberalism is all about? (January 12, 2015)
    Is the apparent devolution by the “Sovereign” (people, nation, state) of some of its political controls onto alternate “non-governmental” agencies, such as Corporations instituting "Policies" over their “Employees” (rather than laws over their citizens) what “neoliberalism” is all about?
  • The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998 (November 19, 2014)
    Ray McDermott and I were discussing, in our usual meandering way, the possible roots of Dorothy Holland’s work and what may or may not fairly be described as “psychological anthropology.”  We wondered about d’Andrade and Romney, their relationship to the Parsonians and Boasians.  As we veered into sorting out the…
  • Wondering about authoring one’s self (November 8, 2014)
    I fear that my saying anything about Daniela, as a person, might lead some in my audiences to assume that what I said about her could be used as an explanation for her fate, or justification for meting consequences that would transform her fate.
  • On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle” (November 5, 2014)
    So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc...,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time. Interpreting local knowledge…
  • On the collective production of “conscience collective” (October 26, 2014)
    Those who read this blog regularly may remember that I have been writing a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on the conceits of autism [Life endings? Or: Ends of life? and Islanding assemblages of haecceities].  I have been kind of stuck with this paper that may have grown too long…
  • Writing maps unto terrritories (September 27, 2014)
    Thanks to Michael Scroggins for telling us about the post by Izani about “Charting territories without maps.” Drawing one’s own maps to tell others how to get to one has to be related to Kalmar’s (and Velasquez’s) account of people making their own glossaries to help in getting to speak…
  • Anthropologies of the dangerous (?) (May 22, 2014)
    [my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014] There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.  …
  • The message “this is therapy,” with a horse (May 19, 2014)
    Our regretted colleague, George Bond, insisted that our doctoral students start their apprenticeship with us by struggling with Durkheim’s Rules, and particularly with the argument that, when individual human beings come together, what they do is other than what they could do by themselves, and that special tools are needed…
  • where bias can hide (February 4, 2014)
    Bias, a point of view, a starting point and an angle of attack, is essential: how else would we chose what to look at?
  • Generalizing to processes, general and particular (November 26, 2013)
    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…
  • Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science (October 1, 2013)
    One does need to imagine situations, to be shared together by the observer and the observed (i.e. ethnographic participant observation), that will reveal the kind of work, its conditions and constraints, that we cannot imagine but that we suspect, for good theoretical work, is taking place.
  • Anthropology IS an experimental science (September 30, 2013)
    One of my favorite quote from Geertz on anthropology as an experimental science: The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious ... because the analogy is false. ... The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its…
  • For a defense of cultural anthropology as science (September 6, 2013)
    Given any ordered social state (system, pattern, culture, ...), this state will always re-order itself into any number of new states none of them being identical to any state ever produced in human history. A scientific "law" derived from anthropological research?
  • Islanding assemblages of haecceities (February 26, 2013)
    Thus, our scientific task is more aking to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).
  • constructing the gender of human bodies, literally (October 22, 2012)
    Sculpting new genitalia into a human body may be the ultimate in the (social) construction of new realities, the making of cyborgs, and the radical embodiment of a cultural arbitrary (in the service, some say, of making visible the 'true nature' of the subject body).
  • Patterns of culture in America (June 14, 2012)
    I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography…
  • pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty (June 8, 2012)
    What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters…
  • A quote (from Boas) for another day (June 1, 2012)
    So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph. Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time…
  • On studying “dynamic changes” (May 26, 2012)
    I am reading this quote from Boas analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States). I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense…
  • Life endings? Or: Ends of life? (May 12, 2012)
    Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human…
  • Value Added Deep Play (March 3, 2012)
    The publishing of individual teachers scores by New York City is a research boon as it allows us to test various analytic methods that will allow for understanding more systematically the networks of authority and power in which we are all caught, and particularly the relationship of motivation to act…
  • On the (pre-)judicial brain (November 23, 2011)
    At the simplest level, the point of having a “judicial” brain is precisely to control and repair what the pre-judicial brain may attempt to do, or has done. The judicial brain might say “drive home” and then leave the pre-judicial one to do the driving. At night, in Riverside Park,…
  • Tequila and Mel Gibson’s brain (October 3, 2011)
    What Eagleman never considers is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another. Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War. But he does not ask: What let to this war? Why should spotting planes be important…

Policy? or Politics?

Could the hegemony of “policy” be coming to an end?

For many years state officials, “private” foundations, benevolent billionaires, academia and a certain elite media have been telling everyone else what is what in “education”.  (For one sense of this set look at Brill’s 2010 story in  the New York Times magazine).  In the world of academia where I live, this will have been the decade of “data-driven” “policy” “studies.”  We keep being told, repeatedly, such “narratives” (stories? fiction?) as:

In Rhode Island schools, a multidisciplinary effort helps teachers to quickly understand what skills their students have already grasped and which subjects need more attention. In Houston, a regional alliance has noticed signs of students going off-track on higher-level math skills and acted to intervene.

What do these stories have in common? Success here derives from access to data, or big data as it’s sometimes called. The examples above come from the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit effort driving education outcomes through hard numbers.
(GovTech November 2014, retrieved in December 2015)

What interests me here, of course, is the hint of an “actor-network” of local schools and a corporation “e.Republic, Inc.” “The nation’s only smart media and research company focused exclusively on public sector innovation for state and local government and education” (retrieved in December 2015)

One problem with just sketching an actor-network (an excellent thing to do) is that it can end with an altogether static map and little sense of the movements through it, or the temporalities that assemble and then sometimes dissemble the network.

So, recently, I have tried to write about such networks as acting (and revealing themselves) through crowded conversations (deliberations).  I am experimenting with generalizing conversational analyses (somewhat like Latour generalized ethnomethodology when he moved from looking at the production of knowledge in short interactions among a few people (Garfinkel et al. 1981;  Goodwin 1995), to looking at a laboratory (Latour 1979), to looking at the scientific enterprise as a whole (Latour 1987).

And so, once upon a time, we had Senator Kennedy and President Bush (as symbolic leaders) producing “No child left behind” after very long conversations that started at least 20 to 30 years earlier –unless it is 200 years (Varenne 2007, 2011).

And then, a few years later, President Obama and Arnie Duncan, his secretary of education, started new conversations which, among other things,  privileged “data-driven policy.”  I am necessarily wrong in suggesting that they are those who literally started these long-turn taking sequences that were disrupted last years.  But they can stand as markers of a new sequence with somewhat different participants and discursive order as the original metaphor (a child is like a sponge) developed into practical conceit (regulations, the attendant bureaucracies, the texts to be produced among the various actors, etc.).

And then, starting last year most visibly, parents, teachers’ unions and others, organized their own networks and, in altogether short order, led the withdrawal or watering down of policies about the “common core” and its measurements, not to mention “value-added teacher evaluation.”

Whether presidents and senators really start conversations is less an issue than the reality that they are heard as “having spoken” in a voice others speakers will use as their authority to speak/act.  Through various methods I associate with ethnography, even if they appear quite distant (Green forthcoming), one can follow statements, responses, amplifications, controversies, re-statements, etc. and one should then be able to specify more exactly how the conversational coherence actually gets maintained including the mechanisms that establish certain speak/actors as “legitimate participants” and others as not so legitimate.

My sense of the “policy” conversations is that, for many years, they were quite closed to many who expressed doubts about “data,” “evaluation,” “evidence-based reform,” whether in academia (altogether a small set in various disciplines), in government or the public.  I love to quote Arnie Duncan’s attempting to close participation:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents Friday that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” (Washington Post, November 16 2013 retrieved in December 2015)

“White suburban moms” saw through such attempts to make them subservient to the experts who authoritatively assess their child as mediocre.  Within a year they were refusing to have their children tested and a year later state politicians folded.  The expert participants in the policy conversations, including the State agent who give them legitimacy, appear to have been caught flat-footed.  How could they let this happen?

I’d say that many of them appear not to have noticed (induced méconnaissance?) that the hegemony of policy was a political act within a broader conversation and that the preservation of this hegemony required political rather than data resources.  The policy actors discounted that “the people” (to simplify greatly) would educate (in my sense) themselves about their new conditions and then speak/act with a panoply of weapons and resources that mostly did not include “data.”

And so:

Today is an historic day for public education in New York State.

This morning I was able to stand at the White House with …  leaders as President Obama signed legislation that bars the federal government from mandating the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and the use of the Common Core standards.

Later this afternoon, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force issued its report. In essence, the task force report urges a fundamental reset of education policy …  (from a December 2015 report to his troops from Michael Mulgrew, head to the United Federation of Teachers)

Discounting “the people” and politics is something which, as Rancière reminded us many times, certain types of intellectual elites keep doing whether it was the old-style French marxists of the 1960s (Rancière 1974 [2011]) or the graduates and professors of Research One Universities, their Think Tanks and benevolent billionaire funders.

Politics will not be abolished.  People will educate themselves.  What happens next will sometimes be frightful.  I will side with the anthropological romanticism that delights in temporary “solutions” (cultures) that always surprise.


Garfinkel, H. et al. (1981) “The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11, 2:131-158.

Goodwin, C. (1996) “Transparent vision.” in Interaction and Grammar. Edited by E. Ochs, E. Schegloff and S. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 370-404.

Green Saraisky, N. (Forthcoming). Analyzing public discourse: Using media content analysis to understand the
policy process. Current Issues in Comparative Education.

Latour, B. [all references]

Rancière, J. (2011) Althusser’s lesson. Tr. by E. Battista. New York: Continuum. (First published in 1974)

Varenne, H. [all references]


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An actor-network of consequential consociates: applying anthropology to one’s personal case

In this post, I am doing something somewhat different from the usual.  I am maintaining the order I think I have established (at least as I look at it, retrospectively): this is an experiment in anthropological theorizing and teaching.  But I am delving further into parts of my life that I have not brought out.

So here it goes: applied medical anthropology

A few years ago, my wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as “myelofibrosis” (who may not know it under that name might be a topic for another post as the exact name can be consequential—see below).  The “official” diagnosis was made, not surprisingly by an oncologist, the acknowledged, state approved, expert who can transform speech (this is myelofibrosis) into not simply an act, but a sequence of new moves a particular set of others, from the patient, to her family, to insurance companies, must now make. [This would be easy to model as a special case of entry into a particular kind of polity of practice.]

The oncologist told us, as I remember it four years later, something like: “People live with this for 15 years or more … You are likely to die of something else … It will change your everyday life as you will now have to schedule regular medical visits.”  I remember she was altogether good at telling us something that we knew, and much that we did not know: we had certainly never heard of this cancer or of its treatment.  Of course we went to the Internet and learned what we could, talked to her further, and settled into what I am experimenting in calling, for various theoretical reasons, a “new normal.”  Actually, what we learned was not extremely bad news for people entering in their 70s.  The oncologist then (and I will keep emphasizing conversational and interactional temporality) tried a drug that would alleviate the symptoms of a cancer that affects the production by the bone marrow of red blood cells: profound anemia and the attendants limits on mobility.

Susan’s body, in its thinginess and peculiarities, was leading us to various particular disabilities that can be mitigated or expanded depending (de Wolfe 2014).

So, this was actually a good time for us to adopt the car culture of suburbia.  The long walks in Manhattan to which we were accustomed would not have been possible anymore.  We escaped one disability.

Things were relatively stable for a few years.  We had educated ourselves in still another polity of practice.  We evolved a new adaptation to the now extent conditions given our resources and consociates.  This was now our new normal, the culture we could not quite escape (though we tried some bricolage with it).

At that point I would have described our “actor-network” as consisting of:

  •     a general practitioner
  •     a clinic with a staff of
    •    oncologists
  •  a   mail order pharmacy
  • a radiology center

That is, ethnographically, these were the people with whom we had to talk in order to maintain the syntagmatic order of the treatment.  Each of the person (but not any) could authoritatively tell us when to show up for an appointment, what tests or drugs to take and when.  This question could be asked here but not there.  This act could be performed here but not there, before but not after this other act, etc. [one should also be able to model this syntagm.]

At that point further actor nodes in the network remained as faint indexes mostly buried in the conversations with the interlocutors we mostly had to address.  We did receive reports from the insurance company about what it was paying the doctors, how much it reimbursed for tests and drugs.  While reading these we were amazed (guilty? thankful for the opportunity?) at the cost of the primary drug: $1,600 a shot, every six weeks.

But cost and attendant controls was not part of the syntagmatic order of the treatment as we experienced it so far.

And then something happened.

In my other life, as long-term employee of Teachers College, I know that insurance companies are big players in constraining what we can do.  Every few years, we are told of long conversations TC has with the various major companies.  We are told about the final proposals and why TC might shift, as it did starting in January 2015, from United Health Care to Aetna.  The cost of these conversations are barely indexed though I have a good sense that it is not trivial, either from TC or the companies: staff time and compensation, consultants, lawyers, writers of glossy presentations, etc.

Anyway, the shift by my “employer” (the term is consequential here) brought to my practical attention the insurance company as we registered on new web sites, a new mail-order pharmacy, new styles of reports, and we continually checked and re-checked that the various doctors that were part of my wife’s actor-network were also “in network” (consequential category in American insurance).

I thought this would only be a minor annoyance and that we would return to the “old” (2014) new normal.

This was not to be.

Aetna told us (clinic, oncologists, Susan and I) that the drug, Aranesp, that had worked at maintaining Susan’s condition for three years was:
a)     experimental for her disease
b)    experimental drugs were not covered by Aetna’s contract with “the employer”
Aetna told us, emphatically, repeatedly, after a variety of appeals by various actors, “NO MORE PAYMENT FOR THIS!” Through this speech act Aetna revealed itself as an inescapable interlocutor in the ongoing conversation.  The expanded text of Aetna’s statement repeatedly indexed two different other worlds:
a) it challenged, successfully, medical practical authority (Aetna did not attack its legitimacy but its everyday consequentiality: what is not reimbursed will not be used)
b) it challenge me to, perhaps, challenge TC about a not so minor detail in the contract it has signed with Aetna (and may or may not have allowed it to undercut United Health Care)

I will not go through the many conversational turns that led, after three anxious weeks to Susan starting a new, and altogether experimental treatment (since we will not know for several months whether it will work) at the (reimbursed after full consultation and authorization) cost of … $11,000 a month (not to mention added visits to the oncologist, more costly tests, a blood transfusion)!!!  (I cannot help but believe that Aetna, as a monstrous network of actors with conflicting authority, confused itself: the outcome is altogether … surprising!)

Who knows that Aetna may be correct in its act and is practicing medicine better than our oncologist (though Aetna is careful, I think, never to shapes its speech as an instruction to “do that”).  But, for now, here is our expanded actor-network of consociates who make a difference:

  •     [the one listed above is still very much active]
  •     various parts of Aetna:
    • the doctor(s) who categorized Aranesp as “experimental-for-this-purpose” and the other doctors who discussed our oncologist’s recommendation (she told us how one of them told her to not get so involved in the case! She was not happy!)
    • the staff members of the clinic who have to check the why’s and wherefore’s of each step, repeatedly, with the staff member of Aetna.  The number of phone calls, waits on hold, recalls, faxes, etc. is astonishing.
    •  Susan multiple calls to clinic, hospital, Aetna special pharmacy.
    •  various parts of Teachers College

There are many anthropological points but, to emphasize my usual themes:

  • these are not matters of social structure (à la Parsons) or modern governmentality (à la Foucault) nor even neo-liberalism.  There are matters of structuring through interlocking conversations that transform the field even as they seek the production of temporary (immortal) new normals.
  • in these conversations everyone “screws around” (Garfinkel) even as they all play deeply with matters of life and death (Varenne & Cotter ).
  • ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, and actor-network-theory (that expands on the other fields) are the most useful starting framework but they are not sufficient
  •  screwing around and playing deeply will always produce something extra-vagant (Boon ) that is not predictable on the basis of efficient rationality.
  • each moment in the evolution of the normal-for-some-now (“culture”) makes sense as a syntagm in a local order.  But this syntagm is always at the edge of catastrophic collapse that leads, in temporality, to

A)  instructions “do NOT screw around! Stay in line! Do what your doctor tells you to do”

B)  efforts to bricolage one’s way out of the order and thus:



de Wolfe, Juliette   2014    Parents of children with autism: An ethnography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varenne, Hervé and Mimi Cotter   2006
“Dr. Mom? Conversational Play and the Submergence of Professional Status in Childbirth.” Human Studies 29:41668.

[here is the list of the most common references I use. Many of these are implicitly indexed in this post]

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on maintaining order in difficult spaces

After 40+ years of American Anthropological Association meetings, I cannot pretend that they are not familiar.  I registered  in the same booths the association has used for many years.  And as I walked I recognized sounds, topics, physical styles, rhythms.

My own rhythms, by now, are anything but not familiar.  As I mentioned before (), I play “session roulette”: I open a door to a session room without checking printed title, sit down at the back, and listen.  I continue to recommend this to students as a way to, one hopes, making serendipity work.  Sometimes I stay.  but, mostly, I leave as it sounds all too familiar, including phrases and jargon that would surely appear strange to perhaps every human being on the planet—except perhaps professional anthropologists (“this post-neo-liberal moment”?!?!!).  “Ontology” has replaced “post-modernism” which had replaced. … and …., but pretentious obfuscation of limited ethnography remains.  The tribal order remains even as name tags get bigger (they are now the size of small bibs!), last name are obscured and American communal individualism gets reproduced in symbolic practices even as the multiple hierarchies that move people in and out of anthropology remain (as any one concerned with job applications well knows).

So, it is all very familiar, though it is not difficult for a cultural anthropologist to feel, see, and tell how all this is strange, wild, wonderfully extravagant and altogether awful—as well as thoroughly organized through our collective work.  It should take but a fast blink for any of “us” to see this as powerfully as anyone of our many “them’s” may also see it.

This bring me to my puzzle for November 2015: how do “we” maintain this particular order over so many years in a physical space that felt to me not particularly suited to the work of maintaining the order?  This year in Denver, like they were in Montreal, two or three years ago, the Meetings were held in a large convention hall.  The usual space the Meetings occupy have been “too small” leading to a sense of crowding.  This year the space was enormous and the people so spread out that, despite some effort, the people remained spread out and the space appeared, mostly empty, with large areas of empty spaces, deserts, at peripheries that were anything but distant.

In other words, in a much safer way than so many millions have had to do over the past year, we, anthropologists, also attempted to produce a familiar order in an altogether strange-so-far physical (if not administrative, economic, and political) setting not necessarily convenient for this production.

The latest of the dissertations I recommend on such matters is Sunonda Samaddar’s (2015) on people from Sylhet, Bangladesh in Hamtrack (an enclave within the boundaries of Detroit).  There, as everywhere, children grow up, go to school, dream of love, marry, buy and sell property around the globe … and face the many impossibilities of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage!  I mention the last matter to lead a reader to what is not familiar about the evolving life-histories of the Sylhettis in Hamtrack.  For me, this is not simply about a “sub-culture” but rather about the not so impossible, though often difficult, efforts to make the strange (Detroit) familiar (somewhat like Sylhet), though perhaps in ways that could not be achieved in Sylhet.  For Hamtrack can actually be more rather than less Sylthetti than Sylhet!  Like Michele Verma earlier (2008), Samaddar traces moments in the present that are the “next” (in a conversational analysis sense) in a long conversation about making Sylhet familiar (including in Sylhet itself as it own place in the Indian subcontinent keeps changing).  In that conversation, among other things, the people from Sylhet and their children reveal, also, the (im-)possibilities of America in the United States (for example the use of multi-cultural education in school to enforce Muslim religiosity on reluctant children).

As for the anthropologists in Denver, they may have been most successful at producing their strange order during the debate about the boycott of Israeli universitities.  The act may be “mostly symbolic” (as I was told while being lobbied), it may be (non-)violent; it may have been a mask for darker possibilities (from which some supporters specifically shied away–thereby making them accountable).  But it was also an orderly organization of more than 1,500 bodies, together, speaking against and, mostly, for the resolution to boycott.  The total (social) fact was anything but “symbolic”: it was what anthropologists, as a collectivity of consociates do—even in the midst of (post-neo-liberal-mass society [choose your qualifier]) space.  It was altogether very familiar (for someone who started his participation during the various debates about the Vietnam War).

For the professional anthropologist: This is a problem in the relationship of ecology to culture as ongoing interactional pattern of bodies interacting and symbolizing this pattern (to add my jargon).

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