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Index of posts related to anthropoligical theorizing

Index of posts on anthropological theorizing

  • Saussure, thought, bodies and expression (September 22, 2021)
    September 20, 2021 Last week, I introduced students to the short passage in Saussure on “linguistic value” ([1915] 1966: 111-122 ). The high point of this passage is the illustration of the segmentation of thought. I had always dismissed the easy and common critique for the apparent mentalism of the…
  • Modeling acting bureaucracies (August 16, 2021)
    Balzac was one of the first writers to make bureaucracy the subject of serious fiction, notably ..., where he takes the un-Kafkaesque delight in its lumbering procedures. As he shows in these bureaucratic dramas which are still enlightening today, the monster was not so much malevolent as driven by almost…
  • A coda on Corona and governmentality (July 11, 2021)
    A while ago I mused about the ending of the Corona epoch. Many parts of the world are now in transition towards this ending. As usual various governments, and subgovernments, are moving in different ways. Some remove various mandates, keep others, and make it necessary for the governed to figure…
  • Chimpanzees, culture, diffusion (and ode to joy?) (May 27, 2021)
    This post was triggered by something in the New York Times about “Julia,” a chimpanzee in a sanctuary in Zambia so named by the observing humans. The humans noticed her sticking blades of grass in her ears and this being adopted by other chimpanzees in the same sanctuary, and then…
  • Constructing the virus and the defense against it in the Corona epoch (March 10, 2021)
    On March 5 2020, I left New York City headed for California. I was to give a series of lectures along the way. I had recently read about a virus that was agitating the media. My university announced that “nonessential events ... would be cancelled.” Three days later I did…
  • On fishes, water, and consciousness (March 1, 2021)
    It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. (Kluckhohn 1949: 11). If we describe a community as an ecological system we describe it not as the members of that community themselves think of it. They are ignorant of a science of ecology. (Redfield 1960: 32) Could it…
  • Motivations as causes? (September 3, 2020)
    Six months into Corona, I “decided” to get tested for the virus I label 'C19.' I had no symptoms but, off the top of my head, I’d say that I was “motivated” by: 1) curiosity about the various steps in the process. 2) my employer’s mandate that I be tested…
  • More on culturing Corona (July 23, 2020)
    For many weeks, I was struck by the extent to which media like the New York Times, or governors like Cuomo, justified authoritative acts through a form of what my generation of anthropologists called “functionalism.” They kept telling us that the new order or regulation was the best, and sometime…
  • on “Corona” (April 14, 2020)
    Again, C19 may kill you, Corona closes restaurant. (March 28, 2020) So, what is “Corona”? In my younger days, I might have meant it as the word (Saussurian signifier) pointing to an object (Saussurian signified). This may still be common sense, even after the “ontological turn” in anthropology which, as…
  • Corona as culture (April 8, 2020)
    Corona is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over COVID-19. In a way, Corona substitutes itself to COVID-19, in another way Corona uses and transforms COVID-19 to realize a synthesis of a higher order. The above is a translation of the best two sentences about culture and humanity ever…
  • on “Hervé Varenne” as object with properties and affordances (January 25, 2020)
    This is going to get complex fast, and will take several posts. This is also a development on my last post (1/3/2020) and on earlier others ("On Identity"). It is also a development on matters discussed in the coda “On collaboration” to Educating in Life (2019) as well as a…
  • A warning to apprentice anthropologists: on “identity” in the New York Times (January 3, 2020)
    The New York Times is a major adult education institution in the United States. Mostly it educates implicitly but, quite regularly, it gives mini-lectures, in the style of encyclopedia entries. On December 15th, Max Fisher posed the question “What is national identity?” And then he made authoritative statements like a…
  • On the danger of “indigenous” as an adjective (October 29, 2019)
    While looking at archives from my childhood, I found what may be my first “ethnographic” text. It is a few paragraphs, written 60 years ago, when I was 11. It was a kind of school report of the type “what did you do last summer?” I had been on a…
  • Who imagines nations? (October 7, 2019)
    I remain surprised by the continuing success of Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities ([1983] 1991). When it is was first brought to my attention I thought that there was not much there since, “everybody knew, or should know” that something like “nationalism” was a cultural construction, appearing at a certain point…
  • on communities with communities (October 1, 2019)
    For some reason, my anthropological imagination, these past months, has circled around renewed wonder about that reality indexed by words like “community” (polity, unum, cohort, congregation, plenum, etc.). This was first triggered as I tried to distance myself temporarily from what was bringing me to the neurological intensive care unit…
  • End of community (August 26, 2019)
    I ended my last post with a sentence about the “body two Others-to-each-other constructed.” In parenthesis I suggested this body might be a ‘community’ or ‘polity’. Usually, I resist the word “community,” and insist on ‘polity’ for analytic reasons. But, in this case, I will start with ‘community’, first because…
  • On leaning on an absent Other (July 22, 2019)
    Today [July 9, 2019]] is one of these exceptional days in Aumage with almost steady rain, interspaced with rumbling thunder and sometimes a patch of blue sky. There are always two or three of those among the many bright dry summer days that are what one expects of the region.…
  • What am I to do with “”memes”“ (January 30, 2018)
    Should anthropologists pay attention to “memetics” and see if any of it may be useful? Have those in that field reached the point Benedict got to when she insisted that a borrowed bit would be both transformed and transformative as it got borrowed—thereby her concern with “configurations” and “culture”? Or…
  • on authority, arising, sequentially (November 27, 2017)
    I paraphrase one of my favorite Garfinkel quotes as “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 257). The implied scene is familiar: a post office, a line, someone who enters and does not get to the “end” of the line. Maybe that person is somehow handicapped, a child,…
  • On culture, free speech, and America (October 31, 2017)
    Once upon a time culture was everything, even the kitchen sink (Tylor [1871] 1958). And then culture became a “value-concept” (Weber [1897] 1994) or a “system of symbols” (Schneider 1980). And then the word all but disappeared from serious theorizing, to be replaced by words like “epoch,” “episteme,” habitus, paradigm,…
  • This is ‘NOT play’ (April 25, 2017)
    NOT play does not have rules. It is about making rules, and then not following them whether for resistance of the assertion of power. This is serious.
  • On the importance of reading footnotes (April 17, 2017)
    Those who know my work know that I am a great admirer of the historian Lawrence Cremin whom I happily coopt not only as an anthropologist, but also as an anthropologist ahead of his time even as he channeled the Boasian tradition he was taught at Columbia while a graduate…
  • Wondering about the feral (December 6, 2016)
    Michael Scroggins, in one of drafts of the dissertation he will soon defend, brought out something I do not remember any anthropologist ever mentioned: we all easily use the distinction wild/domesticated.  But we do not write about the feral. (I count on Scroggins to tell me more about his sources...).…
  • What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus? (November 7, 2016)
    A few times over the past week, I had to face the reality that Lévi-Strauss is mostly summarized as being concerned with Man rather than human beings, with deep Human Nature rather than the messiness of culture (Geertz [1967] 1973).  Lévi-Strauss, it would seem, is just another Cartesian. I must…
  • Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding? (October 31, 2016)
    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973). Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in…
  • Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact (August 8, 2016)
    To paraphrase from my favorite quote from Lévi-Strauss on culture (1969 [1947]: 4), the Sagrada Familia stands as “a synthesis of a new order,” only possible because “culture ... uses [nature].” I take this to say, of the Sagrada Familia to exemplifies, that reality is not constructed as much as…
  • Peirce on habit: another ancestor for normal anthropology? (April 12, 2016)
    One must start, not with the apparently habituated adult, but with the suffering (or playing) body amazed at what it has to endure and indexing in the here and now where we should start our investigation of what others did, nor are now doing, to make it suffer (and, in…
  • On anthropological impotence (March 11, 2016)
    Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016) The American culture of the “culture of poverty”…
  • On the (mis-)use of anthropology (February 22, 2016)
    (Nimuendajû 1942: 17)Last week, I heard a most interesting paper by Oren Pizmony-Levy and Gita Steiner-Khamsi about, of all things, school reform in Denmark! It may seem strange that I resonated to such a topic.[Ftn 1] But it should not appear so: in graduate school, I also resonated to reading…
  • “Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?) (February 11, 2016)
    Last Monday, Stanton Wortham gave a wonderful talk on his work in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  There he got to know a first generation of Mexicans moving to the town for all sorts of wonderful, deeply human, reasons and making something new with much that was old–including, most recently, the very history…
  • 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…

Main Index of topics I have addressed

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 ‘Lost’ as educator

There is a part of me that is half-ashamed in the pleasure I take in such shows as the TV series Lost.  It is of course gratifying to know that many people do.  More interesting is the discovery of what so many of these people are doing with the show.  Let me join them.

I will leave to a student the task of tracing the full extent of what people are actually doing with Lost.  Given its success, I am sure someone has started doing this.  So I will give this student one more issue to trace: Lost can also be explored as a site for education.  I build here on a journalistic piece written for the web site of Christianity Today.  I will do so to highlight the educational aspect of the show and how its fits with what I have been writing about in recent years (2008, 2009).

This piece (posted 5/18/2009) is written by Tyler Charles, a freelance writer.  He mentions some of what people are doing with Lost as they investigate the scientific, literary, philosophical and religious hints the show gives.  Charles lists the books and philosophers mentioned, the major philosophical issued revealed, as well as other matters.  He does not mention anyone exploring the political aspects of the show and yet, particularly in the first season, a major issue was the nature of leadership and the organization of government (“Who made you the leader, Jack?”, “A leader can’t lead until he knows where he is going.” – Episode 5).  Actually, this issue has been reopened with the (divine?) appointing of Locke as leader by “the island.”  I suspect some people are also exploring this since it can open conversations about the very grounding of democracy.

Charles reports that people are following these leads.  They seek to find out more about the physics of time travel and electromagnetism, or what might make John Locke or David Hume important enough persons to have characters named after them.  Of course, there is a wiki site where one can start exploring all this:

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière (who still does not have a character named after him on Lost…) brought out of obscurity a, until now, minor figure of the French Revolution, Joseph Jacotot.  Rancière recounts how Jacotot demonstrated, to his satisfaction at least, that any one, particularly someone who did NOT know the subject matter, could “teach” this matter.  Even more challenging he argued that all the material they needed was one book, Télémaque written by Fénelon.  It was not because the book was a source of universal wisdom but because, to say all this more carefully:

anyone (not quite a teacher) can produce a situation
…… where someone else (not quite a student) can learn
………. what this person must have the will to learn, and that,

given this will,

…… anything (and not necessarily Télémaque)

………. can start this person on the way to find out for herself what she wants to know.

This actually might be the basis for a Lost episode.  Unless it is the point of the whole show where everyone has to figure out, again, what to do next given what has happened to them in the past.

In that perspective, Lost (like probably Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) is becoming a Télémaque for a generation of people using it as a departure to teach themselves about physics, religion, human relationships, etc., not to mention of course many aspects of what used to be called “literary criticism,” and would now fall under the purview of “popular culture studies.”

The question, for a faculty at Teachers College, of Columbia University, is: when someone teaches herself anything, does she “learn” it?  Does one know something if no one has certified that she does?

on researching autism as “cultural fact”

There is a cliche in the sentiment that one of the best part in being a professor is being faced by great students challenging one’s pet ideas.  But a cliche can also be true as I experienced again when Juliette de Wolfe, at the end of a seminar, told me that she was anxious about using one of my favorite conceits.  For close to 20 years, McDermott and I have been writing about such matters as learning disabilities as “cultural facts.” De Wolfe, who is starting a project on the processes for the identification of autism, and who had used the phrase in her proposal, was worried that she was caught in something, that was “static.”

On the spot, my answers were weak and not convincing–certainly they were not convincing to me as I thought about them later.  I had mumbled something about the adjective “static” being possibly an attribute of a research analysis, not of a concept that could be used in any number of ways, that emphasizing “change” is much easier said than done, and that those that claim that they do not want to be “static” mostly produce analyses that end up extremely static.  Had I not been interrupted, I probably could have gone on in this defensive/offensive mode without quite answering a very proper concern about the very justification for social science research, particularly in its anthropological version.

McDermott and I devised the phrase (“cultural fact”) to index our roots in Durkheimian sociology (as reinterpreted by Garfinkel) and in American cultural anthropology and pragmatism.  Earlier I had pointed de Wolfe to the pages in Successful failure (1998) where McDermott and I developed the phrase “cultural fact” we had introduced earlier (McDermott & Varenne 1995).  But these passages are not enough.

To stay with de Wolfe’s concern, let’s say that we are interested in children who are having a difficult life and particularly with those who have, or are caught with, something now labeled “autism,” something that was discovered-as-such in America and in the 1940s.  It is something that was fully institutionalized starting in the 1970s.  Autism may be some thing that has always been there in humanity, though until recently this thing may have been labeled something else, or institutionalized differently.  Just putting the issue this way should make it clear that I am taking here the classical cultural anthropological stance (Benedict 1934).  I make the noticing of autism as a thing with specific personal, interactional, and political consequences, a historical event.  In other words I place autism “in its historical context,” or, more jargonistically, I “historicize” autism.

All this is well and good, but it actually must leave our apprentices in confusion.  What are future anthropologists to do next, after we have historicized autism, or any one of its sub-practices (e.g. the meetings where a child gets officially labeled)?  What is the point of historicizing something?  Actually how do we know that we have actually historicized “it” or that we have conspired in reconstituting something that should never have been constituted in the first place?

I argue that our duty, as anthropologists, is to provide future practitioners (parents, teachers, etc.) with a more systematic account of the constraints which they will not be able to escape.  This, I think, is what Durkheim meant when he wrote of social facts as “imposing themselves,” or what Latour now means when he writes about objects as having “agency.”  What easily disappears in these statements as they have been taken for more than a century is that these are statements about the future rather than the past, or even the present.  As McDermott and I put it “Culture is not a past cause to a current self.  Culture is the current challenge to possible future selves” (2006:8).  As I would put it today, technically, a cultural fact is a model for the set of (dis-)abling properties of the present that make a difference in some future.  The task of the cultural analyst is to discern these properties and report on them in a way that makes sense to at least some of the practitioners.

Thus the task for de Wolfe, as she starts observing teachers and students in an “autistic classroom,” is to build a model of those matters that make a difference as the people she meets build a life together and, in the process, instruct her as to what actually does make a difference.

This is what I advise her to do because this is what all those who care for the children need from an anthropologist: a different account of their experiences that may provide them with new resources for the future they will make with each other.

And we should not worry if this account looks to some as a “synchronic” account.  The account, if it is well done, will of course be synchronic in the Saussurian sense.  Others can write about the history of autism and trace its diachronic evolution.  But history, however interesting, is not quite useful because human evolution, including its cultural (linguistic) evolution is not a rational process in the narrow sense.

given arbitrariness, then instruction…

Professor fiddles with computer in full view of about 30 graduate students.  Complains audibly that he can’t get rid of something on the screen.  One student (or more) suggests clicking on what seems the offending screen overlay.  Professor clicks there, and then clicks somewhat wildly on various options.  Apparent success.  The overlay shrinks.  But now the cursor is wrong.  A(nother? Or more) student suggests something like “click on the ‘x’ in the upper right corner.  Professor complies and is satisfied with the result.  Professor then uses the sequence he has thereby ended as an example of “distributed cognition.”

And now I, the professor expands on this discussion in the context of the class discussion about arbitrariness and culture.  As we move from identifying the properties of a social field (culture, semiotic system, etc.) to acting within this field, the essential question then becomes: how do human beings deal with the arbitrariness of their world, including the ongoing evolution of new forms of arbitrariness.  This, for a social scientist is an empirical question.  For an anthropologist inspired by conversational analysis, this is also one that must be answered through examining closely instances when, arguably, people face arbitrariness in the midst of a collectivity.  Thus the exemplary usefulness of the above example.

Living with computers and other such technologies involves facing on-going changes in the acts needed to accomplish simple tasks.  Depending on much, this can be exciting or annoying.  During a lecture, using a now unfamiliar computer, the latter is probably the most usual personal response (from watching myself and others as the carefully prepared presentation collapses more or less completely).  The issue, in the context of a lecture on arbitrariness, is that in all cases, the act that will resolve the matter and get the computer to do what one expects, cannot be simply predicted.  Familiarity with stylistic choices by software developers (e.g. Windows vs. Macs) can suggest where to look for the solution.  But one soon discovers that familiarity can lead to dead ends (e.g. the version one is now confronting may be newer or older than the one one is used to and the sequence one has used, does not work).

In cultural anthropology and related field, the usual next step is to invoke the need to “learn” the particular encoding of the task.  This is OK as far as it goes but actually does not specify how this is to happen.  “Learning” is also the search for the instructions that will teach them.  But instructing is not a trivial task, as Garfinkel has shown (2002).

And so, in the instance above, we have an “in-situ” instructional sequence.  But it should lead to more to questions about the collective organization of the sequence than on what the professor learned (which is probably going soon to be an irrelevant bit to knowledge given probably changes in the software).


(Lots of Love?
Laughing out Loud?
Who decides? [the power question]
How does one find out? [the educational question])