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.

References
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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Reply anthropology (?)

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 into, willy nilly: the more people say “I am (not) an applied anthropologist,” the more they affirm there is a such thing even when the object is to criticize IT.

But what were we to do? in the active practice of a particular critical discourse? in the second decade of the 21st century? within the confines of a State authorized institution dedicated, by statute, to “Applied Anthropology”?  I thought we would spend more time on alternate qualifiers.  Actually, we did not, much.  The fundamental issue, I guess we all agreed, is not a matter of qualification but one of whether there is anything to qualify.  In that sense at least, we all feared what Lave said we did do, and that is reification through questions about the classification of many different kind of actual research and publishing practices as, more or less, “marked anthropology” and thus NOT [unmarked] anthropology. [Ftn 1]

The fear of reification is not irrational, or matter of feelings or beliefs.  We all know that reification blinds, can lead us to make mistakes, can be used against us.  Reification puts us in a place that is no less real for being the cultural production of a time and population.  But we, as the kind of anthropologists who participate in a conference on “‘applying’ anthropology” cannot really NOT stay in this place we fear.  We must stand our ground (to develop the geographical metaphor) if only because acting on this fear could send us back (or be pushed back) into small ivory towers of irrelevance—and that would be ironic indeed since [applied] anthropology may have been, at times, a response to calls by students and others for relevance (engagement, etc.)!

But standing our ground does not mean that we cannot struggle towards some reconstruction, if not relocation.  To that end, I’d say we were giving examples of our practices over longer or shorter careers as professional anthropologists, and we were examining more carefully how these practices, as they are publicized, link with other practices both within and without the discipline.

Of course, reviewing old practices open the classic anthropological questions about happenings, history, myth, and politics.  We started with several retellings of the origin myth of the creation of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia.  Something happen in 1968.  This is part of the history of Columbia.  But what is done, at any retelling, in any particular place or time, is not self-evident and would probably require the kind of analysis George Bond conducted about the use of this ethnographic publications in the Parliament of Zambia (1990).  Still, the myth as I have heard it told many times is interesting for me as it is told about a form of conversation among students, faculty, and administrators.  There was a call (by students, “for relevance”).  And then, in some temporal process, there was a response.  So, I’d say there is much to Ray McDermott’s quip during the conference that what we were doing is “reply” anthropology.  I find it powerfully evocative of where we should go in analyzing our situations and contemporary practices in preparation for future responses to the various calls from inside and outside the discipline.  To apply (!) a theoretical argument I have been making, practical activity (to bring together Lave and Stanton Wortham on the topic), at any moment in temporality, should be approached as a statement replying to an earlier statement within an overall conversation with any number of participants, whether directly involved or simply, and powerfully, indirectly involved through the network links binding one setting (polity if not community) to others.

I will not attempt to trace all those who call me to respond whether I wish to respond or not (since refusal to respond in the terms of the call can be interpreted/accounted for/evaluated/further acted upon as a particular response).  In a future post, I will however give my sense of the calls to which the papers in the conference could be seen as replies.  Perhaps, in this manner, we can figure out what are some of the current practices that anthropologists engage in that might be classified, for certain purposes, as “applied anthropology.”

But I want to comment today on a (total social) fact: Applied Anthropology was reified institutionally a long time ago.  We have no choice but to face a fact we did not make.  Now, when confronted with such a total social fact, what has been called a “community of practice,” or, as I have suggested, a “polity” of practice (to emphasize the political aspects of what some have also called a “field”), one can run away.  One can attack it, from outside or from its periphery.  And one can move through it as I have from the time, 25 years ago, when I found myself attached to the programs and later have been made administratively responsible for it and found myself … organizing a conference to face doubts and possible transformations.

Footnote 1: For those unfamiliar with the semiological concept of “markedness,” the Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start. [Back to text]

Bond, George 1990 “Fieldnotes: Research in past occurrences.” in Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology.  Edited by R. Sanjek. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  pp. 273-289.

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Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics

Cultural anthropologists must appreciate the following job description, as local (in time and place) work of linguistic
artifacting?
artificiality?
artfulness?
arbitrary?

The Director of Enterprise Applications Service is responsible for application planning, development, testing, support and operations and project management of Teachers College’s application architecture and strategy. The Director of Enterprise Applications will forge sustainable relationships with IT directors in the business units and provide consultative support to the business units. This position will report to the Chief Information Officer and will interact across the academic and administrative technology services leveraging people, process, technology across the college by analyzing existing enterprise applications portfolio and define the road map for that portfolio as the college’s needs and opportunities change. This position will also be responsible for the college data warehouse and business intelligence environments.  (Retrieved from LinkedIn on February 18, 2015)

Whether the formal esthetics of this description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch perhaps following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of a time and place: 2015 in some global sphere.  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).

Reading this job description made me wonder about the form of the text.  Minimally, it would lead to examining the vocabulary (“application,” “sustainable,” “enterprise,” “Chief,” “data warehouse,” etc.) and adjectival phrases made up of nouns (“Enterprise Application Service,” “Chief Information Officer”).

And it made me wonder about a question anthropologists of neo-liberalism rarely address (if at all): what process produces such forms?  This is a different question than the one we (my faculty and student peers) debated in my graduate school days (1968-1972).  We wondered about the production of texts given a form (“structure”).  We (the students) reviewed hypotheses our faculty and their peer had developed.  Most of those now look wild, particularly when they are about the transformation of “deep” structures (matters of “competence”) into “surface” manifestations (matters of “performance”), as well as the analysis of the deep given accessible surfaces.  (And, of course, this remained the problematics in Bourdieu’s opus).

But we rarely discussed the question of the production of the form (whether this form reveals or hides something else) in a temporality that produces a new history.  The one exception may have been Milton Singer who, when teaching “Comparison of Cultures,” taught us about the Boasian interests in diffusion and what was not yet called “hybridity.”

Forty five years later, I am now interested in this question of the production of forms particularly when they make facts for a larger or smaller collectivity, and for whatever intent or purposes.  In time, something is made, and it is now available for people like me to observe and wonder about it.

So, once upon a time, a job description gets written in a particular form that must have currency among some people, but is unintelligible to many others (including me who has been trying to translate it).  Questions: who wrotes this job description? Where, when and for whom does it make sense? Could the form of this description be predictable on the basis of earlier job descriptions (as written 5, 10, 50 years ago)? Could we predict what the next form will be? In five years? Twenty years? A century?

I, of course, am quite sure that such forms, in all their factuality at a particular time, among particular people, could not have been predicted, and that we cannot predict what the next forms for such descriptions will be.  I am quite sure that these breaks in what has been taken as causality chains are not the product of the lack of information or “data.”  Breaks in the prediction chains are fundamental laws of human evolution. (See my For a defense of cultural anthropology as science)

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Is this what neoliberalism is all about?

In a recent post on whether this post is “mine,” I puzzled 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).

Is this what people who rant against “neoliberalism” intuit (even when they use the word simply as the kind of generalized insult where my generation used “capitalism”)?

Most people actually rant against a few politicians (Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet) and a few university professors (Hayek, Friedman, etc.) who, as it is told, destroyed an earlier world to the profit of a very few.  That professors might be so influential, or even so useful for whatever purpose, is flattering to one among them.  But there has to be more.

I have another history for neoliberalism in which the economic actually yields to the political in the never ending deliberations about what to do about the catastrophic consequences of earlier political deliberations.  Thus, greatly to caricature, the glorification of the “people” and its “nation” typical of the 19th century leads to the 20th century 30 Year War (1914-45) that starts with four Sovereigns and ends with a version of man-made global devastation human beings should work not to reproduce.

This is a fast summary of the history I learned, though I was not quite taught it in school: France, Germany and Great Britain had greatly misbehaved themselves and their sovereignty, that is the sovereignty of their people as it can be manipulated by local (“national”) forces, should be reigned in.  I continue to admire Jean Monet (and de Gaulle and Adenauer) for having started a political process that involved manipulating the economic to produce massive political change: the end of France (and Germany, etc.)!  Monet succeeded in getting French and German politicians to create the “European Coal and Steel Community,” a supranational organization to which was devolved a small piece of national sovereignty.  This would lead to the founding of the Common Market, more devolution, and then the European Community and the Euro.  Half-a-billion people now find themselves in an unprecented political entity: an empire with a huge bureaucracy of policy-makers, and no emperor!

Two points here: 1) in 1950, the general population did not care about coal and steel, few saw where it might lead, and there was no serious political opposition to the subsequent devolution of sovereignty—until recently; 2) this devolution opened new opportunities for many interests that may or may not have been hampered by national sovereignty—particularly multinational corporations that could now operate more broadly around Europe and then the globe by using supranational organizations and policies as weapons against national organization and their politics.  If this is correct, then Thatcher, General Motors, Apple did not produce a current order that was a political response to a political problem.

Many critics in Europe do not think this is correct.  The more vociferous European critics of neoliberalism and globalization argue all this is the product of American imperialism (Zemmour 2014).  Whether the American generals and others who led all international meetings in the 1940s could foresee all this, may be besides the point.  The devolution of the national State to Supranational organizations (including, of course, the IMF, the World Bank, but also the ever multiplying “Non-Government Organizations,” big ones and small ones who now mediate much effort to make the world a better place) has been good to the United States (not to mention China, etc.).

It has also been good to the huge number of people who were able to move across the globe to fend for themselves whatever new difficulties they might encounter when they settled among more or less welcoming populations.  As one of this number, I appreciate the “freedom” (that is partial release from some constraints) that has allowed me to make a career and family in America.

So, I remain skeptical about any simple rant against neoliberalism that does not take into account the conditions within which its production has made sense.  Still, seventy-five years into what morphed, for much of the globe, into what might be called the post-nation-state era, the exact mechanisms of this era cannot just be imagined.  They must be investigated at the local levels dear to anthropologists.

What are the constraints (and possibilities) that ongoing cultural production of the devolved state, make real, concrete, and factual over future action?

In my locality, in an American College, I keep wondering—as I have been doing in several of these posts (4/18/2013, 4/23/2014).  Anthropology, some anthropologists like to say, was the handmaid of the national colonial State.  What if this State has faded? Who should support anthropology materially?  To be crass, who should pay for it and on what basis?  Is academic anthropology, after all, (intellectual) “property” (human capital) to be evaluated in the market place (for example on the basis of the willingness of young people to indebt themselves to pay tuition?)?  As I put it the first time I actively engaged with the issue does a College have a value? Or is it a price? (Varenne 2000)

Zemmour, Eric
2014     Le suicide français. Paris: Albin Michel.

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Is this blog “property”?

Is this blog “property”?  If so, whose? And who controls the answers to these questions (and the consequences thereto attached)?

Once upon a time (let’s say about three months ago), I thought the answers obvious enough: “in America,” this blog is “mine.” It is expression which I could transform it into property if I decided to commercialize it and/or sell it.  It all had to do with “freedom of expression” and particularly “academic freedom,” privileges granted by the Constitution to individuals.

And then I was taught about “work for hire laws.”  As summarized in a work for hire document written at the request of a corporation developing a “policy on intellectual property” (note the word “property,” not “knowledge”) the law says:

Under the Copyright Law, the copyright to a work created by a person in the course of his or her employment is Work for Hire, which belongs to the employer rather than to the individual creator.

I remembered reading something about this around issues of whistle blowing in large corporations, but never thought much about it, assuming that this was other people’s problems.

I was wrong.  The paragraph continue:

The law provides, therefore, that works created by faculty members in the course of their teaching and research, and works created by staff members in the course of their jobs, are the property of the College.

Note the “therefore.”  This blog is the property of the College, by law.

But not to worry:

It is traditional at this College and other colleges and universities, however, for books, articles and other scholarly writings by a faculty member to be deemed the property of the author, who is considered to be entitled to determine how the works are to be disseminated and to keep any income they produce. This tradition reflects the College’s commitment to encourage members of the community to write and to publish what they wish. In recognition of that longstanding practice, the College disclaims ownership of Traditional Works of Scholarship.

Over the past several weeks I have pushed and prodded the people involved in writing and re-writing all this, that is in transforming ideas into potentially authoritative texts for which they are being paid but which will never be considered “theirs” (deans, lawyers, other staff).  In the process (besides making myself somewhat obnoxious—and I apologize for unnecessary outbursts!) I got to think further about an issue I could not quite figure out.  Over the past years, many on the faculty have complained about the movement of the College towards a “corporate model.”  Two years ago, the controversy swirled about the College’s President sitting on the board of directors of a Large Multi-National Corporation.  But I was not quite sure whether this was a complaint about individuals or about something broader.

What is, interactionally, the “corporate model”–leaving aside the values, beliefs, interests, etc. of individuals who may benefit from it, or who may resist it?

One answer lies in taking seriously what I was told again and again when I objected: “Herve! This is the law! There is no choice here!”  the College is a corporation, no different from Apple or Google (in another generation one might have written “no different from General Motors”)! You are an employee!”  And I was reminded that all my emails (all that I receive from colleagues, students, etc.) are archived at the College (actually, they are physically on Google servers) and may be read at the discretion to the College.

The corporate model, then, has to do with the reality (non-negotiable) that my personal life, as employee, is largely at the discretion of the College.  Technically, in recent anthropological jargon, the College is a Latourian agent who (to quote from above) “deems,” “considers,” “encourages,” “disclaims.”  The College (speech) acts.  All this is controlled, allowed and enforced by “the law of the land,” that is by the College’s Sovereign who grants Corporations certain privileges.  That is, the Law does not require that my blog be deemed property of the Corporation.  The Corporation may disclaim.  But the Corporation is now the Active Subject that speaks through internal policies, sub-regulations, etc.  The Sovereign (State, nation, people) has stepped back.  A preamble may state that a “policy” regulates rights:

This copyright policy retains and reasserts the rights of faculty members for books, monographs, articles, and similar works as delineated in the policy statement.

Politics (the protection of expression and academic freedom) has been devolved to policy.  State actors yield to corporate management.  We are more fully than I thought in the world of the “Non Governmental Agency” (and, of course, the word “agent” has to be taken in all its many meanings) with its specific properties (affordances).  This world has been coopting broader and broader areas of everyday intervention around world.  For example, in my world, what used to be considered major decisions about, for example, the control of public schooling has been devolved to various corporate bodies with various, more or less delineated, right to participate, authority to regulate and mete sanctions.  I wrote about this when the teacher education programs at TC had to yield to NCATE (and produce a lot of “work-for-hire” intellectual property) (Varenne 2007).  I was fascinated by report from Steven Brill in the New York Times about the web that has been entangling the aftermaths of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The report was about the wonderfully awfully named “Race to Top” program.

So, one might answer the questions about property, ownership, and control of my expression, with a quip: the Benevolent Billionaire Barons of the 21st century!  This, of course is too simple as it does not specify the mechanisms that makes this blog “deemed” my own by Teachers College (and I thank the Corporation for its generosity).

More on that another day.

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When the young teach the young, what is the emerging order? Where are the controls? How would we find out?

A while ago, I found a way to keep my sanity at the AAA meetings: play “session roulette.”  I recommend it.  The rules are simple: walk down any corridor and, without paying attention to any signs about the title of the session, or the timing of presentations, enter the room, seat at the back, listen for a while, and then leave before frustration or boredom overwhelm.  Playing this (not very deep) game, I made wonderful discoveries: Chuck Goodwin reporting on a conversation with his aphasic father about importing California oranges to Florida (“No!”), hot disputes around the “Eve hypothesis” (one of the rare times I actually heard anthropologists passionately argue with each other during a session!), or, this year, wonderfully detailed accounts of “liturgical dancing” around the world (I actually stayed for the whole session: I could imagine myself as Marcel Mauss reading ethnographies of ritual performances!).

But mostly, I listen to the courageous efforts of young women and men (mostly women actually) who tell other young women and men (same caveat) “giving” a paper.  I am sure the association someplace has the statistics about the relative seniority of presenters.  My altogether not random sense is that they are mostly at the very beginning of their career.  Since I have the privilege to teach quite a few of the presenters, I experience the pressure all actors (stakeholders, those entangled in this web, or caught by the spider) are under: individuals have to build up their curriculum vitae, professors must advise them to present early and often, professional associations (journals, etc.) must provide the opportunities for public displays.

In the best of all worlds, there is nothing wrong about the young presenting themselves in the public that they hope will be theirs for years to come.  Apprentices must be given the occasions to display their craft beyond the boundaries of their workshops, and in the relative safety of “meetings” where little is immediately at stake (unless a potential employer is in the audience).  Apprentices cannot reach mastery unless they can practice on the public stages even before they have become, in skill and formal status, “full” participants.  The old must give the young the opportunity to teach each other—and they can, also, worry about the curriculum.

One problem with all this, if there is one, does not only lie in the paradoxical teaching that the young give each other.  I’ll return to this later.  The problem also lies in the practical reality that Anthropology (the association, journals, professors, etc.) is indeed caught in the ancient School injunction: “Publish or Perish.”  Actually, not to perish one must publish earlier and more often than peers.  And so, in Lave and McDermott’s term, Anthropology must “alienate” the intellectual labor of the apprentices to the political economies of (higher) education as it builds and reproduces its labor forces and their places with larger competitions for survival.  I wrote something in that vain elsewhere (“On Entry into Anthropological Publics” 2003).

But what moved me to write this had to do with the possible emergence of new discursive orders for what is to be considered anthropology for future anthropologists, and the controls for the maintenance of this order.  Who is going to tell whom “Stop screwing around with anthropology!” (The readers of this blog should recognize who I am paraphrasing…)  Whether for good or for bad (I am playing “ethnographer of cultural production” here, not aging white male), most apprentices to the task of making anthropology public to itself will only hear, in their first public outings, each other (and altogether gentle “discussants”—mostly).    In this process, not surprisingly, new conventions for presentation, honorifics, usual phrases, etc., will emerge—sometimes through deliberate instruction (“your paper does not address power, gender,…”); and at other times through many other forms well worth investigating.  Other conventions will fade away (“social structure” is not an entry in the 2014 program).  The exact description of this emerging (or already well established) order awaits detailed ethnographies of the manipulation of discursive possibilities (possibly starting with a content analysis of the Program, a formal analysis of selected presentation, etc.).

But I have a doubt an ethnographic of public presentations might not settle: who is in charge here?  Is there a spider at the center of this web of meaning?  Where are, as far as the discipline as object in history is concerned, the collective (not individual, of course) controls?  Are they now in the hands of the apprentices?  Or are they hidden, perhaps through symbolic manipulations of status displays (the shift to first names on tags, the almost universal disappearance of neckties on men, and other methods that hide differentiations of who can establish that this is anthropology)?  How might we answer these questions, ethnographically, given the kind of theoretical approaches I advocate?

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The sequencing of research questions in ethnographic research: before, during, and after

1) Before (at home, in the ivory tower)

University professors, faced with students planning research, will, at some point, ask:

Q:“What are your questions?”

As a generation of research has demonstrated, all questions (given a setting, authority pattern, etc.) place the person addressed in a box that severely constrains the immediate future.  In the ivory tower, at research proposal relevant times, the question is not one to which the professor knows the answer (this is not elementary school!).  But the professor will hold the student accountable to a rhetorical shape for the proper answer to the question.  The student (the professor hopes!) can produce an answer in the appropriate genre even though the student should also expect that almost any answer will be in some way “wrong” (during a possibly very long sequence of revisions, rewritings, etc.):

A: “What time is it?” or “How do the the So’n’Sos” view time, temporality and history?” (Given a proposal for research on “History and temporality among the So’n’Sos” or “The metapragmatics of time among the So’n’Sos”)

This “research” question is then assessed in terms of the literature and methodologies.

E: Interesting! Have your read Geertz’s  “Time, Person and Conduct in Bali”? What techniques will you use?

So, within the ivory tower, the research question is the second statement within a prescribed sequence that will repeat itself many times.

However, in all the social sciences (and I suspect this would apply to psychology too, if not to ethology and all sciences of communication), the “research question” can also be the first move in the interaction with the people about whom one is to say something (aka “the informants,” or “the natives,” or “the research population” or …) to the inhabitants of the ivory tower (or the masters of these inhabitants).  So:

2) During (away from home, in the field), it might appear common sense to proceed as follows:

Q: Researcher asks: “What time is it?”

A: Someone responds: “xxxxx xxxxxx”

E:“Interesting!” as Researcher writes down the answer as data

This may even be the required sequence in some disciplines–as it was in some version of early anthropology when the researcher was, for example, expected to bring back to the ivory tower a local kinship vocabulary according to the “genealogical method” which required the researcher to get the person asked who was his “actual” “biological” “mother” no matter whether the person cared about this at all.

But other anthropologists, particularly those of the radical ethnographic persuasion, whether inspired by Boas, Garfinkel, or any one else, fear a research sequence that starts with a question.  The trick, in radical ethnography, is not for the people to tell us what we want to know (answer our questions) but for people to tell us what we should know about them.  For example, as Clifford Hill reports, whether October 15 is the day ‘before’ or ‘after’ October 14 is something about which different groups of human beings have given different answers.  This, as Garfinkel once wrote, is discoverable but not imaginable with the methodological consequence that the discovery cannot proceed through the asking of a “research question” since a question, implies an act of imagination and coerces types of answers.

To the extent that the Professor teaches this kind of ethnography, what should Professor ask students planning research?  Perhaps something like: “What do you postulate we may need to learn about population X?”  The student would answer in a declarative sense: “Time and its fixing must be a problem with them as it is for everyone.”  The professor would then assess whether there is some evidence (literature, etc.) that this is a plausible postulate and that the methods and techniques are likely to tell us something we do not already know about the fixing of time (as well as the “Plan B” if it turns out that the postulate was not tenable).

3) After (back home, in the ivory tower)

Q (by Professor): “What do you plan on teaching us?”

A (by student): This is what I learned: a Hausa old man told me “this is why you, Westerners are screwed up: you think the whole world is looking at your!  Among us, everyone is looking in the same direction.” (as I remember an anecdote told by Clifford Hill when presenting research on spatial and temporal deixis that demonstrated that a question about “the day after tomorrow” does not have a universal answer).

E (by professor): How did you learn that? (Checking for the adequacy of the ethnography and the plausibility of the student’s statement)

[Note that this is part of my emerging concern with temporality (syntagms, conceits, sequencing, conversational turns, etc.) and asymetry in culture theory]

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The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998

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 various versions of Schneider’s writing about culture, I spotted on my bookshelves a book I had forgotten: Kluckhohn, Murray and Schneider’s Personality in nature, society and culture.  This collection of papers from the preceding decade was first published in 1948.  A second edition appeared in 1953. My copy is the thirteenth printing (dated 1971) of this edition.  All this must be a testament to its use as summary of a field.  This is not surprising given that the contributors include about everybody who was somebody then: R. Benedict, A. Davis, J. Dollard, E. Erikson, R. Havighurst, J. Henry, F. Kluckhohn, D. Lee, M. Mead, R. Merton, T. Parsons, H. Powdermaker, J. Whiting, and many others.  This is the moment of convergence that coopts Boasian anthropology  into the Parsonian scheme and transforms it into a simple concern with the shaping of personality.

In the book, there are papers on about everything that the editors classified as “determinants of personality formation”  (36 if the 46 papers).  That psychological anthropologists should worry about such “determinants” is probably what made me turn away from the field in graduate school and ever since.  It may also be what Holland and many others are fighting against when they write about multiplicities of emergent identities.

But I think there is something to learn by wondering how it made sense for so many of the most influential sociologists and anthropologists of the 1940s to teach with such authority about “determinants of personality” and the corollary impact of formed personality on future behavior.  I mention three papers.  Two may be stereotypical.  One stands outside.

The latter case is the paper by David Schneider.  The paper surprised me as it revealed something of his early career that he never talked about, as I remember it, when I took classes from him.  It is a paper about the emergence of a “community of practice” (as we might now write of it) as a bunch of young men find themselves together for the first time for military training and organize themselves in such a way that those who claim disability move from being sympathesized with to being ostracized.  Schneider describes this as a social process with experiential implications which he does not write about.  Garfinkel may have liked it when both he and Schneider were students at Harvard in the late 1940s.

Garfinkel must have hated most of the other two papers. One is by Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist.  She wrote about “The channeling of Negro Aggression by the cultural process.”  The other paper is by Bingham Dai, a psychiatrist, who wrote about “Some problems of personality development among Negro children.”  Here are instances of the argumentation:

The cultural process continues to change with resulting changes in behavior. Just as the completely loyal and faithful slave disappeared, so the meek, unaggressive, and humble Negro, the “good nigger” type, is declining in numbers. In the rural South, and elsewhere too, the tendency of Negro young people (in their teens and twenties) is to refuse to assume the unaggressive role. The passing of the “good nigger” from the scene does not entail a civil war, as did the passing of the faithful slave. But it does indicate a psychological revolution. Today, … equally significant cultural changes are taking place. The Negro is participating now in a very different kind of cultural process from that which he underwent fifty years ago. (Powdermaker 1953 [1943]: 606)

The personality problems that are more or less peculiar to Negro children are closely associated with the peculiar social status that their elders are socially and legally compelled to occupy in this society and the peculiar evaluations of skin color, hair texture, and other physical features that are imposed upon them by the White majority. … Each of these cultural situations is apt to leave its indelible imprint on the personality of the Negro child. (Dai 1953 [1946]: 552)

There are subtle differences in the two arguments.  Powdermaker may be translatable into Holland.  Dai probably could not.  But both papers are recognizable as versions of the arguments that made “culture of poverty” plausible to the extent that it addressed not only poverty as a matter of social structure, but also poor people as persons or subjects.  Fifty years later, vocabularies have changed; references to behaviors the reader is supposed to recognize as “what happens over there,” points at other matters; but the organization of the argument remains: culture makes personalities that produce behaviors.

None of this is very surprising and searching for intellectual antecedents is mostly a scholarly activity.  Why I mention this again in the context of an attempt by some psychological anthropologists to restate the argument, has to do with my own search to specify better what makes it so hard to escape what I now consider Durkheim was quite right in naming a “conscience collective”–in the moral rather than cognitive sense.  For Dai, Powdermaker (along with Clark, Lewis, and many other in sociology, psychology and anthropology) moved America, as a political collectivity, for the best (Brown vs. Board of Education), the good (Sesame Street) and the not so good (much of the policies building on Moynihan’s report).  The argumentation moved many anthropologists in a conversational process that moved many to critique (Leacock, Stack, etc.) but keeps bringing utterances (any form of publication, from teaching to article or book) back to the determinants of personality through the controlling question: “but why did Gyanumaya,climb the wall?”(Holland et al. 1998: 9-11)


Dai, B. “Some problems of personality development among Negro children.” in Personality in nature, society, and culture. Edited by Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 545-566. 1953. (First published in 1946)

Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., D. Skinner and C. Cain 1998 Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray Personality in nature, society and culture. Second Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (First published in 1948)

Powdermaker, H. “The channeling of Negro Aggression by the cultural process.” in Personality in nature, society, and culture. Edited by Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 597-608. 1953. (First published in 1943)

Schneider, D. “Social dynamics of physical disability in Army basic training.” in Personality in nature, society and culture. Edited by C. Kluckhohn and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 386-397. 1953. (First published in 1947)

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Wondering about authoring one’s self

While preparing a discussion of Holland on identity, figured worlds, agency, practice, I read a wonderful account of a doctor’s experience in pronouncing a patient dead:

One recent night I was asked to declare the death of a woman I had never met.

    “Ms. L. passed,” the nurse said. “Could you pronounce her?” …

    Declaring death is not technically hard but it is weird and sad and requires reams of paperwork. It is usually done by an intern, but my intern was busy so I said I would do it.

    The first time I declared a patient dead was nearly six years earlier. I had been a doctor for a few months when I was summoned overnight with a page that told me that my patient’s heart had stopped. When I got to his room I was out of breath and his nurse smiled at me and told me that there really wasn’t urgency; he wasn’t going anywhere. It was only when I walked into the room and saw my patient still and utterly silent, his tired family sitting around the bed, that I realized no one had ever told me precisely how to declare death. I wished I could come back later, but it didn’t seem right to leave him there, so I thumbed through my pocket-sized intern survival guide. The manual was alphabetized, and the discussion about declaring death came somewhere before a section on diabetes management. (“Pronouncing the patient dead.” Lamas, Daniela, New York Times, October 30, 2014)

This pronouncing is, of course, a major speech act.  It is also a subsequence in what Glaser and Strauss described as a “non-scheduled status passage” (1965).  The total organization of dying in the modern world (whenever that is) is clearly something that could trigger, in a cultural anthropologist, the emotions that lead Bourdieu and Passeron to write about “symbolic violence … as … imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” (1977 [1970]: 5).

This pronouncing must be, for the doctor commanded to do it, an experience that transforms as she moves from the periphery (say, in medical school), to first time in full position, to experienced old-timer. It is an everyday practice that must have implication for the self or identity (or whatever) of the individual who does the pronouncing under the gaze of all sorts of professionals and others with all sorts of rights and privileges on the body who is being moved from life to death by processes many of which have little of the “natural.”  This would of course apply to anthropologists moving from apprenticeship in graduate school to the writing of papers on doctors pronouncing someone dead, to preparing graduate discussions about all this.

Now, for Holland I guess, the central issue is Dr. Daniela Lamas’ authoring of her life in dialogue with all the people “Daniela” (as Holland would write) may encounter as she pronounces a patient dead, or as she imagines it, later, at home, or while writing a piece for the New York Times, or reading what still other people (51 as of November 6th, 2014) said in the responses published by the Times.

Holland frames the issue as involving as (possibly straw) argument between the “culturalists” and the “constructivists.”  My concern of course, is in the argument between the Weberians (and the culture and personality version of Boasian cultural anthropology) and the Durkheimians (including Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel).  For those interested in my concern, check my two latest posts (“On the collective production of ‘conscience collective’,” “On the production of ‘conscience individuelle'”).

But that leaves the question of what anthropologists can say about Daniela, as a particular person, at any particular moment of her life, as she meets other particular persons.  Personally (!?!), I, and will continue to, eschew saying anything about her.  One the one hand, I do not know her, and could not possible know her even if I interviewed her, or followed her around for days.  This is partly a methodological issue, and partly a theoretical one.  On the other hand, I fear that my saying anything about her, 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.  This is partly a theoretical/methodological issue, and also a moral one in fields approaching “application” with policy implications, particularly in a culture (collective conscience, etc., in my terms) that imagines the world as being made up of individuals with inalienable rights…  I thus feel (?!?) multiply uncomfortable when Holland writes about Karla, Susan, Natalie, Gyanumaya, Debra, and all the other many women (and a few men) who appear again and again in the book.

And yet of course, since Boas started teaching at Columbia (or G. H. Mead at Chicago), his students in American universities have wondered about Karla, Susan, etc…  My personal goal will remain to throw a more determined focus on the historical (arbitrary, etc.) conditions within which Karla, Susan, etc., find themselves, while still noticing that Karla and all others are not determined in their particular responses to particular conditions at particular times: irreducible improvisation on given themes that, often, make new conditions for future Karlas.


Barney Glaser, and Anselm Strauss 1965 “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage.” American Journal of Sociology 71: 48-59.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron 1977 [1970] Reproduction in education, society and culture. Tr. By R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., D. Skinner and C. Cain 1998 Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle”

By socializing the Cogito, Sartre only changes prison. From now on, the group and the epoch will make it its intemporal consciousness. … Descartes, who wished to provide a foundation for physics cut Man from Society. Sartre who pretends to provide the foundation for an anthropology, cuts his society from other societies. (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 249-50)

When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. (Geertz 1973 [1966]: 52)

These are two wonderful statements about the foundations of anthropology: what are we to do when we accept, as we have since Boas, that humanity in general, and human beings in the most particular of circumstances, are irreducibly different in the worlds they encounter and the worlds they make.  And, of course, these two statements are irreducible to each other though they respond to each other quite antagonistically.  Lévi-Strauss answers Sartre but also prefigures a critique of the still emerging anthropologies for which Geertz, building on Weber, remains the towering ancestor.  Geertz responded to Lévi-Strauss in similarly polemical style.

After a century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness which have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, we now have one which finds there the pure light of natural wisdom that shines in all alike. (Geertz 1973 [1967]: 359)

When looked at together, such exchanges can tell us about a (mutually and interactionally constituted) “collective conscience” about anthropology that brings back possible intuitions about, precisely, the collective into a matter of “becoming individual … under the guidance of cultural patterns,” that also produce “dispositions” (a word I found again Geertz also uses in several papers of the 1960s).

But each could also be used as an instance of the “conscience individuelle” that Lévi-Strauss (as well as Garfinkel et al.) imply by, precisely, never quite making of its production the topic of their investigations.  Lévi-Strauss wants to free the human from those who, on the basis of their own social scientific research, would put the human, either in psychological or social prisons  He asserts that examining the ethnographic record in all its wealth of variation and difference should lead the social scientist in the reverse position: neither “natural” nor “cultural” prisons can hold people for long.

On a related tack, conversational analysts insist that one cannot reduce the movement of a conversation to the intentions or motivations of those made to be participant in this conversation.  I’d go so far as to say that all research into conversation reveals that all participants, however willing, must still doubt, seek, interpret, resist, what has just bee said.  And then they must start over when they find out what was made with their statement.  Lévi-Strauss came close to saying this when he wrote, like Garfinkel later, his statement about driving on a highway where “small variations in the distance that separates [the objects/subjects that are all the cars/drivers] has the force of a mute command” (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 222).  That is, driving (standing in line, writing anthropology) in a cohort, and maintaining its order, is a matter of calls that are also responses.

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 may be useful for, I dare say, an applied anthropology confronting other collective representations.  But it will no take us where both Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel, in different but very related ways, want us to go: a science of the mechanisms that make possible human variability in orderings.  Given that human orderings do vary, and in the process transform the world to which one might want to reduce them, this variability, rather than its possible remains in individual brains, should be our object.


References

Geertz, Clifford “The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1966)

Geertz, Clifford “The cerebral savage.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1967)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966 (First published in 1962)

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