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

I have a doubt: who controls anthropology at the AAA meetings? 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?

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.
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Anthropologies of the dangerous (?)

[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.   Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)?  Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities.  “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach.  But they also control what can be made public, how and when.  They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense.  We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.

Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends.  But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers.  From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act.  But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”).  They have also wanted to help.  Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II.  This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.  W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead.  That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996).   It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies.  And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.”  The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.

The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.”  This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia.  It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).

Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques.  Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements.  Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.

Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks.  The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct.  Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers.  We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek.  We now need to move a long conversation forward.

Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public  pp.  S23-S53

Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Generalizing to processes, general and particular

Over the past weeks, while teaching Ethnography of education, and in a discussion of research in educational linguistic, I was faced again with the perennial problem of the “generalization” of ethnographic research.  As the discipline encounters critics, and particularly when the critics are friendly and knowledgeable, what do we claim on the basis of a single case study (however multi-sited, with a large number of participants, etc.)?

In the class, a student had summarized my convoluted answers in a pithy way that captured one of the things I was trying to say: “anthropologists do not generalize to populations, they generalize to processes.”  She could have added that anthropologists do not predict the probability the a particular number will show up when rolling a dice; they analyze the structure of the dice (of the arm throwing the dice, the game within which the dice is being thrown, etc.).

We were discussing Holland and Eisenhart’s Educated in romance (1990), as well as Moffatt’s Coming of age in New Jersey (1989).  As happens regularly, there was much nervous giggle among graduate students a few years away from dorm life.  Not surprisingly, as the students practiced their budding methodological sophistication, comments started flying to the effect that “things are not like that any more,” “not in my college in California,” “this is about the South,” “in the 1980s.”  That one of the college in Holland and Eisenhart is a Black college remained silent.  I let things run for a while by emphasizing the probability that this track of critique could mention further possible differences in demographics, regionalization, etc.  I talked about elite colleges, community colleges, small private urban colleges “unranked” by US News and World Report (Posecznick 2010), etc.  Multiplying all this made sense, but I was caught: what do these ethnographic reports tell us, beyond a local, time-bound, story?

So, let’s say that the books are about processes, as well as the structure of the pieces involved in practicing (in Lave’s terms) everyday lives in these colleges?  Holland and Eisenhart actually are quite clear: the book is about the further gendering of adult careers as young women move into adulthood, enter into the work force, marry, etc.  Gendering is a process in which much more is involved than childhood memories of playing with dolls or trains.  The same must apply to young men in college.  And it must still apply, at least when young men and women are isolated and left to figure it (sex, gender, display of these, etc.) out, apparently “by themselves.”

Those who know about my work (in recent years) know where I would then go in a class on “education” (“much more is taught/learned/found out in college than skills so that research that solely focuses on college life in terms of the production of human capital is sorely limited”— and that this is a processual generalization ethnography can make and confirm).

Today, I also want to return to an earlier theme in my work.  “Gendering through co-ed life in college” is certainly not a universal process.  It is actually quite recent and far from something all, or even most, young men and women experience around the world at the turn of the 21st century.  I have been fascinated by Leigh Graham’s ongoing work on the romantic education young women in a strictly segregated college in Saudi Arabia give each other.  There the women can go for months without contact with men—except perhaps their brothers.  Boys are “everywhen,” in conversations and fantasies, but never in the flesh.

Reading reports like this, or considering the history of college life in the United States, makes one notice sub-processes that are hidden in plain sight in Educated in romance and the other ethnographies: there is something quite extra-ordinary (extra-vagant) about these gendering processes and the complexity of the mechanisms for the control of romance (gender, marriage, work identities, children, housing, etc.) as they are set, suffered, resisted, played with, etc.  Anthropological ethnography, because it emphasizes comparison, keeps demonstrating that the most general of processes (e.g. gendering) are always mediated by sub-processes most strictly referred to as “cultural” in the early Boasian sense Benedict wrote about as “islanding” (1932).

And so, Educated in romance is, also, about America at least at the end of the 20th century and ongoing.

Further preliminary notes on re-presenting anthropology

Our students will conduct what I imagine as the fourth generation of our collective work. They, I am quite sure, will face the now classic dilemmas of participation: does addressing current concerns, often when funded by agents of the dominant States, lead to simple cooptation? Or is it withdrawal that ends up conspiring with dominant representations that will proceed in our absence?

The new contexts of anthropology as a discipline, at the global level of the professional organization, and at the local levels of the Programs in Anthropology at Teachers College,  require a re-presentation, that is a new presentation, to their public of what anthropologists do.  As Goffman taught us, as well as generations of anthropologists and sociologists, such  “presentations of self” in the everyday lives of our practices, will have a feedback effect on these very practices.  Resisting these transformations may be honorable but it may also be counter-productive.  Alternative presentations preserve the fundamental contributions of the discipline to the world and indeed allow for the reconstitutions of these contributions in an otherwise hostile environment.  This post develops an earlier one: “Potential student to TC anthropologists: what is anthropology good for?

In general, anthropologists have been at the forefront of the argumentation that, precisely, “selves,” including disciplines, are the difficult, temporary and temporal, products of complex social and historical processes that are revealed in the very struggles to produce and control these selves.  This kind of argumentation allowed for a continuing renewal of the peculiar contribution of anthropology to political (and policy) debates, starting with the representations of the then-often-labeled “primitives” by the first generations of scholars in England, France, and the United States.  That the research that produced these representations was often commissioned by colonial administrations in their service does not mean that their contributions was not 1) quite different from what other disciplines produced; 2) often challenging to usual representations; and 3) foundations on which subsequent work could be built, even as the people who commission our work remain involved, more or less directly in State matters.  The same things can be said about the second generation of work by anthropologists as they began to address systematically what they noticed in the then-often-labeled “under-developed” worlds, from Japan to Indonesia to Africa, the Americas, etc, in the contexts of debates about development, independence from colonial powers, the constitution of new states and international agencies (United Nations, World Bank, International Money Fund).  The same struggles characterize the third generation of work by anthropologists when they focused their attention, as they did not have much choice to do, on the United States and other now often labeled “neo-liberal,” “global,” “etc.” worlds.  The attention of our publics shifted to matters of poverty, social stratification, mental health, disability, etc., and anthropologists entered the conversations.  Often, again, their work was coopted by State concerns and again, often, their work stood as challenges to the more politically acceptable representations.

Our students will conduct what I imagine as the fourth generation of our collective work.  They, I am quite sure, will face the now classic dilemmas of participation: does addressing current concerns, often when funded by agents of the dominant States, lead to simple cooptation? Or is it withdrawal that ends up conspiring with dominant representations that will proceed in our absence?  As I see it, at Teachers College, for the past 50 years, anthropologists have chosen the risks of cooptation over the risks of absence.  In the process all have challenged, in one way or another, the more usual representations.  They have addressed drug policies, the contexts and impacts of HIV, bilingual education, the implicatures of school assessments, the complexities of literacy programs, among other matters often developed by our students.  We intend to continue this work.  We just need to re-present this work given the evolution of the positions and concerns of the States that attempt to control us.  Matters that we thought settled have to be addressed again (for example our relationships to applied sociobiology–see my “Taking on (socio-)biologists“).  Other matters need to be addressed differently (for example our relationships to fellow social sciences–see my “Where do (psycho/socio)- metricians fit?“).  And, I am sure, new matters are emerging that will only become obvious in retrospects.

Our work is cut out for us.

Taking on (socio-)biologists

Did the human beings who moved into the plains of Russia where they had to survive on milk did so because of wanderlust (?)? Were they pushed out by people with better weapons and military tactics? What sort of kinship systems did they produce? What political, religious, and moral systems did they develop? Actually, we may have some information about this by looking, precisely, at the texts that some of these people left us 5,000 or 6,000 later in the Avesta and the Rigveda.

Two of my favorite students, Michael Scroggins and (Dr.) Gus Andrews, have been manning (peopling? personing?) the defenses of cultural anthropology against Razib Khan (who “has an academic background in the biological sciences and has worked in software”).  One of Khan’s blog is published under the banner of Discover magazine, the popular science magazine I subscribe to (and which I have quoted in my blog).

Khan once wrote that “I want to aid in spreading the message [cultural anthropology] should be extirpated from the academy” (in bold no less).  Scroggins countered with a broad side against Khan now countered by Khan (and the exchanges continue).  Most of the commenters to Khan’s reply support him against “the anthropologists” except for Andrews who has joined the defense.  Not surprisingly, the issue has been simplified to a question of “believing,” or not, in genetic determinism.  Scroggins more subtle arguments about the production of knowledge have been, mostly, left aside–and particularly the production of anthropological knowledge which, perhaps like the production of biological knowledge, might be left to anthropologists (why not claim the scientific autonomy that is generally granted to the other sciences?).

I have been encouraging my students to engage the (socio-)biologists like Boas did more than a century ago.  Most of our publics are now hostile (including in the social sciences), and many of our colleagues have retreated unhelpfully from modernity into (literary) critical ivory towers.  Particularly to the extent that we might want to influence policy, quite like other scientists have done, then we must be on the offensive.  But how? With what weapons?

When I was in graduate school the University of Chicago, from 1968 to 1972, we laughed when we heard that some of our faculty, when conducting fielwork in the 1930s or 1940s, had been asked to take with them calipers and other anthropometric tools used by the first Boasians to counter the dominant socio-biological theories of the late 19th century.  We were told that none of them ever used these tools. I, personally, have never held them in my hands.  By our advisers’ graduate student times, the arguments had been won and we, a generation later, did not have to become experts in biological theory.

We were wrong.

And we dismissed, with superior shrugs, the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The new synthesis (1975).  Marshall Sahlins did tackle it (1976) but some of us thought that it was not even worth the effort.  Sociobiology would die of its own.

We were naive, as well as wrong.

And then we went foolish when some of us took literally the metaphor “culture is text.” This metaphor could be used to focus our attention to the detail of semiotic processes, to the very practical act of “writing” (composing, producing) a career, to the production of culture and, indeed, its historical evolution from inescapable pasts to unpredictable futures.  Texts, when they are inscribed in history, are anything but abstractions.  Take the moment when a few human beings became lactose tolerant and spread this tolerance across northern Europe and, later, the Americas.  This development in the history of humanity, granting for the moment the underlying genetic biology, is a significant challenge to any of the disciplines concerned with what makes homo sapiens different.  It implies that biological evolution of the species has not stopped; and it suggests that some events in human history can impact this evolution in unimaginable ways.  Who could have predicted, 10,000 years ago, that the bunch of probably quite sick people who had to drink milk would be so successful, 10,000 years later, that they would impose their language (heavily transformed on the basis of linguistic processes) onto about all human beings over the globe?

Archeologists will have to weigh in.  Did the human beings who moved into the plains of Russia where they had to survive on milk did so because of wanderlust (?)? Were they pushed out by people with better weapons and military tactics?  What sort of kinship systems did they produce?  What political, religious, and moral systems did they develop?  Actually, we may have some information about this by looking, precisely, at the texts that some of these people left us 5,000 or 6,000 later in the Avesta and the Rigveda.

We do need to take the (socio-)biologists very seriously.  I suggest we not do so as political adversaries or on ideological grounds.  This has not worked.  It will not work.  And it would not have worked for Boas if he had not taken the (socio-)biologists with their own tools, with a deep knowledge of their discipline, as well as of the disciplines that would demonstrate the limits of their attempts to deal with human behavior from their perspective.  Which is why, I believe, Boas insisted that anthropologists also understand archeology (history), linguistics (semiotics), and evolutionary biology.  Of course, he insisted that we take on (socio-)biologists through ethnography, that is through the demonstration that what is most distinctive about humanity is not that, for example, we are driven by sexual instincts to mate and reproduce, but that, as Lévi-Strauss summarized, human beings distinguish between parallel and cross-cousins.  Move forward and wonder how the New York Metropolitan area, in the 1990s, would produce both Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift?

Then we can move the conversations with the audiences of (socio-)biologists from the realm of biological abstractions to the realm of, precisely, those facts that are both glaringly human and inexplicable, in their actual detail, in biological terms.  Not that biology is not involved, but that, as Lévi-Strauss once wrote, it has been transformed into something else plausibly labeled “culture” about which (socio-)biologists can say as little as we can say about their field.

Potential student to TC anthropologists: what is anthropology good for?

Today, I am trying something new–at least for me in my place [role?] as agent of a degree granting university dependent on student tuition to survive.  We are told to “involve students” in our deliberation about the future of the university, or of our niche (node?) within its network (web?).  So I am trying “crowd sourcing” the revisions we want to make to the general introduction of the anthropology programs at Teachers College, Columbia University, that are currently available on the web, and of the current description of the Masters programs .

The goal is to attract more students to our Masters programs.  Whatever my intellectual and political doubts about the wisdom of this evolution, disciplinary research based departments and programs are getting caught in a (neoliberal?) world (ecology?) where their survival is dependent on the tuition paid by people who are not apprenticed into the research communities (polities?) of their disciplines, but are still interested in that discipline as such.  In clear, the Doctoral Programs in Anthropology need more Masters students who have been admitted as students in anthropology (and not another program at Columbia).  We are not currently very successful at attracting these students.  Other programs at Teachers College are good at it.  There may be a “market” we are not “tapping” into.  One of the reasons may be the packaging.

So we are trying two things.  One is re-writing the general statements about the place of anthropology at Teachers College.  The other is advertising some of our strengths by proposing to students that they “specialize” in “Ethnographic Analysis,” “Global Education,” or “Leveraging Informal Education.”  Such specializations have been successful in attracting students to other programs as they seem to give a more concrete form to the general labels.

So I am asking for your help.  Check the current draft for a general introduction, and then following the links to the Masters Programs and then the specializations: “Ethnographic Analysis,” “Global Education,” “Leveraging Informal Education.”

And then, please, comment, make suggestions for edits, editorialize.

Actually, the whole exercise is multiply interesting.  What, after all, is anthropology good for?  The American Anthropological Association itself is aware that this is an issue that we can not discuss solely among ourselves, in ever more abstract ways.  The question is of concern when people outside anthropology ask it as a preliminary step towards possibly entering its worlds, or deciding whether to follow what it suggests be done in the policy realm, (or funding it).  So, what should faculty in small programs in anthropology located in a professional school say?  What is anthropology, in 200 words?  Compare and contrast two answers from the American Anthropological Association: 1) the classical one as it appears on the main site for the association, and 2) a new version being tested.

So, we are trying our hand at composing 200 word statements about Anthropology And Education and Applied Anthropology that, we hope, are more sensitive to our current environment.  But, perhaps, you may be more in tune with this environment than I may be.  So try you hand also: what is the field in which you are moving towards fuller participation good for? It is not quite an exam question, but it is one you may be asked by representatives of the institutions where you are trying to be employed (or one you may have to answer when applying for research funding).

[and I hope you enjoy the mixed metaphors, and the implied conceit (more on that later)]

My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

Given a setting that may be “quite an experience,” how might one write a research question to investigate the participants’ experience

My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

I have written about participants’ “experience” of moments, settings, scenes, such as–say–a seminar when first and second year doctoral students in anthropology present their work and discuss it in front of program faculty.  At Teachers College, what is known as “The Colloquium” is famous among all who participate, or have participated, as “quite an experience.”

The faculty like to tell students, during discussions of difficult passages in Durkheim, Marx, or Weber, to imagine how this or that point might apply to, precisely, this colloquium in which they are participating.  Now, how would one phrase a research question about the colloquium to address the possibility, attested by anecdotal reports in bars and corridors, that it is indeed “quite an experience?”

A good student might ask “how do students (faculty) experience the colloquium?”  and then spend a lot of time writing about the room, the demographics (gender/age/ethnicity/etc.) of student and faculty, the biographies of some, the rules spelled out by the faculty, etc.  At the end of the presentation of all this information, a faculty member might ask: what does this information tell us about the students’ experience?  Another one might quip that it depends on what you mean by ‘experience’ and how the question is asked–given that there might be at least two not quite commensurable ways of understanding ‘experience’, asking research questions about it, and then using particular techniques to answer the question. Still another might ask what the distinction is.

Very briefly, what might wonder what are the matters that trigger an experience, a wonder that might be phrased as “what do participants experience in the colloquium?” with answers such as “some participants evaluate performance, other participants are evaluated.”

One might also wonder what is the personal experience of the colloquium, a wonder that might be phrased in the same way but with answers of the type “some are anxious, some are bored, some are angry” leading to questions differentiating participants with answers such as “more women are anxious than men” which of course would be misleading given that in recent years there have been very few men among the students while all faculty are men.  So we would be led to divide the participants further, adding other categories (such as race, age, citizenship status, etc.).

The possibility of confusion has a long history.  So, when I teach anthropological methods, I always start with the last two pages of Malinowski’s classic introduction to The Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961 [1922]).  Malinowski starts with a  list of everything an ethnographer should collect:

1. The organization of the tribe, and the anatomy of its culture must be recorded in firm, clear outline. The method of concrete, statistical documentation is the means through which such an outline has to be given.
2. Within this frame, the imponderabilia of actual life, and the type of behavior have to be filled in. They have to be collected through minute, detailed observations, in the form of some sort of ethnographic diary, made possible by close contact with native life.
3. A collection of ethnographic statements, characteristic narratives, typical utterances, items of folk-lore and magical formulae has to be given as a corpus inscriptionum, as documents
(1961 [1922]: 24)

This is a list the Foucault of The Order of Things (1970 [1966]) would appreciate in the wonderful arbitrariness of its distinctions.  But Malinowski then proceeds to tell us that all this is only a step towards “The final goal [which] is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (1961 [1922]: 25).  This phrase has had a famous history in Geertz’s discussion (1976) which led him to the skepticism of the end of his career when he despaired of anthropologists ever getting at this “point of view” which he understood as a personal, though public, matter.  He had pushed Weber (not to mention Margaret Mead and most second generation Boasians) into an impasse.  Almost by definition, particularly given our current understanding of the limits of linguistic or symbolic expression, personal experiences are unreachable.

I agree with this and it is one of the reasons why I have more and more systematically presented my work as not concerned with something that psychologists may still struggle to get at, but which I am convinced no extent ethnographic technique can reach.  But I do not agree with my “post-modernist” peers on what is to follow for anthropology.  Malinowski, like Boas, and then many others in sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, ethnomethodology, and indeed anthropology, have kept telling us that there are other matters of human activity that are reachable.  Moreover, precisely because of what we have learned about the historical consequences of public symbolic expression, we have no choice but to pay very close attention to such expression, as it unfolds in time and space—and to challenge each other to ever greater rigor.

To summarize, provocatively perhaps, “my” experiences of the colloquium are not “m’I” experiences.  That is any experience one might plausibly attach to Hervé Varenne’s “self” (in G. H. Mead’s sense) or “identity” (in what I take to be the most common sense of the term these days), are at best “interpretations,” classifications into a culture or discourse.  M’I experiences are un-speakable and so, as McDermott and Varenne have said, we should turn aside and look for what others do to ‘I’.

[This is something of a development on my December 28, 2010, post]

So, what is my phenomenon?

This is an initial attempt to state simply (I hope) where I am placing my expertise: “Education into matters of major life crises.” “Major life crises” becomes the index to phenomena that have the property of breaking the routine and, I postulate, triggering what I call “education” (figuring out constraints, possibilities, and constituting futures given conditions and bricolage). If ‘totemism’ revealed itself to hide a very general human process of constituting paradigmatic correlations among what Western classifiers had conceived as separate “domains,” then autism may reveal itself as just another case of the “world” (the body, ecology, social structure, symbolization, etc.) imposing itself on our consciousness and requiring a transformation in our ongoing practices.

One corollary of the systematic doubt about the epistemological status of any “it” for social science inquiry, is that it makes it hard to state simply what a project is “about.” There are at least two aspects to this corollary.  Both are matters of practice, but within different polities (communities).

I may return to the first of these polities.  For now, to those outside our immediate field of disciplinary practice, we say that our project is about the “it” of their concern.  Foundations, policy makers, informants, etc., can be told that we are studying “autism in Queens” or “adolescent health in Harlem.”  We are not dissembling when we say this, even as we proceed on the basis of the critique of the status of the phenomenon such statements transform into objects.  Actually, it is only because we proceed in term of the critique that we can actually contribute to our ethical/political responsibilities outside our own practice.

So, when we study ‘autism’ (as we say to those whom we thereby place outside our disciplinary polity), we start with any practices that are matter of factly relevant to some practices that are usually packaged as aspects of autism, but we do not limit ourselves to these, nor do we necessarily weigh practices the way they are usually weighed.

The preceding paragraphs are a summary of my previous two posts (On Following Indexes… , Recapturing Phenomena).  But neither addressed something that has become more salient as I have mentioned in various settings that I am directing research on “autism, health, and information technologies” as one project, or “settings for education in Harlem” (not to mention the dissertations I am sponsoring on indigeneity in Vancouver child welfare, women seminary in Iran, Bangladeshi in Detroit, political representation in Belfast, etc.).  How could all these matters be addressed together?  Throughout my career at Teachers College, I have greatly enjoyed working with students on what can also appear as a very miscellaneous multiplicity of topics.  But when I approach someone with a request for support, then I find myself challenged: What is my field of expertise?  “Anthropology” in most professional or policy setting is not much of an answer, or one that might lead to polite redirection to those who fund “anthropology.”  By grounding myself at Teachers College, I accept the responsibility to contribute to the understanding of issues of importance to the more encompassing of our polities (and not only national ones).  Which is this issue (some ‘it’)?  It is not easy to be convincing when I claim expertise about social processes of human everyday life even as I refute the reality of any of the ‘it’s around which expert authority is usually organized.

Trying to take this into account, here is part of the message I recently sent to the “Director of Sponsored Programs” at Teachers College.  I wrote:

my working group has received two small grants (one from the Provost Investment Fund, and one from Google) to explore aspects of informal education about matters of major life crises (autism, adolescent health, information technologies) when people have to figure out who has authority, expertise, resources, and then corral their understanding to organize their future.

(Note that I am making us a “working group” for TC purposes since the Center is not approved…) .

This is an initial attempt to state simply (I hope) where I am placing my expertise: “Education into matters of major life crises.”  “Major life crises” becomes the index to phenomena that have the property of breaking the routine and, I postulate, triggering what I call “education” (figuring out constraints, possibilities, and constituting futures given conditions and bricolage).  If ‘totemism’ revealed itself to hide a very general human process of constituting paradigmatic correlations among what Western classifiers had conceived as separate “domains,” then autism may reveal itself as just another case of the “world” (the body, ecology, social structure, symbolization, etc.) imposing itself on our consciousness and requiring a transformation in our ongoing practices.

In other words, for those to whom this will make sense, I am generalizing Garfinkel’s concern with disruptions, not only as a tool that reveal what people do to maintain an order, but also as the ongoing possibility that order will not be maintained.  We all work hard at driving down a highway so that we can leave it unscathed.  But accidents do occur.  What happens next?

recapturing phenomena

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product. Thus, understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word) within which it was first real, and then un-real. The second, embedded argument allows for the rest of the book: the conversation was about some “thing,” (phenomenon? experiences? practices?) that remains.

This is the second in a series of reflections about ethnographic methodology given theoretical critiques of the initial constructing of the ‘it” which we investigate. In the first, I mused about what to do when we come to doubt that this “it” might be a place (the Trobriand Islands, County Clare in Ireland). If we are not sure that there are places “there”, then where do we go? Geertz summarized this doubt, but then appeared to suggest that the solution was in substituting what might be most charitably labeled an ideal-type as the ‘object’—for example “colonialism.” But Lévi-Strauss had already obliquely shown the dangers involved in that step when he wrote about “totemism” (1963 [1962]) at a time when anthropologists had come to doubt whether totemism was any kind of “it.”

I remembered the book as I advised Jeff Schiffer in his struggles with “indigeneity.” Undoubtely, there are many people in Canada and elsewhere around the world who are quite sure this indigeneity is an “it” of some sort. And, to this extent, indigeneity is an “it” of precisely that sort: it is an object around which political conversations are organized, institutions as reconstituted, careers are made. But that sort of what I have called “cultural facts” are awkward matters to investigate. The question being: how do I know I am looking at what I am interested in investigating? Is this (a regulatory text about ways of properly referring to some people) and instance of that (indigeneity)?

This is the problem Lévi-Strauss addresses in the first two chapters of Totemism. He starts with a provocative sentence in the context of much that interests students in anthropology:

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. (1963 [1962]: 1)

Initially, students come with interests like “identity,” “nationalism,” “autism,” “indigeneity.” They immediately bump into the problem of “definition” and Max Weber is not much of a help. Lévi-Strauss might be more of a help but this is not quite obvious at first sight since he compares his topic to something that has been so discredited as an object that even the phenomenal symptoms appear to have vanished. Nationalism, autism, indigeneity have not been so discredited (yet?), but the method requires that we suspend belief.

If we do, suspecting that the verisimilitude of these objects is the product of what Lévi-Strauss calls “cultural conditions,” what do we do next? Following Lévi-Strauss’s argument could be a starting point.

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product so that understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word). The embedded argument that allows for the rest of the book is that the conversation was about something, that is about some phenomena, that remains.

The first chapter is, essentially, a review of the literature that destroyed (we would now say “deconstructed”) the idea that there was some institution that coalesced 1) a social element; 2) a psychological element; 3) a ritual element (Lévi-Strauss’s summary of Rivers 1963 [1962]: 8).

The second chapter is a reconstruction starting with a postulate: “certain phenomena, arbitrarily group and ill analyzed … [are] nevertheless worthy of interest (1963 [1962]: 15). The rest of the chapter is an introduction to what became known as a peculiar form of structural methodology which has proven to be altogether a dead end (at least to the extent that about no one in anthropology used it as Lévi-Strauss proposed it).

What remains is Lévi-Strauss’s insistence that there was some phenomenon some where, and that the ethnographic activities that inscribed this phenomenon in observations, field notes, and field reports, were not purely the product of a culturally produced hallucination as bad post-modernism sometimes made it appear. People have been seen associating animals with groups of people. Whether this association is “totemism” or not must not make us doubt our senses radically. But it must refocus our reporting. Sports team in the United States, like political parties, are often named after animals (Marlins, Tigers, Panthers, Lions, Eagles, Bears, etc., as well as donkeys or elephants), and much ritual behavior builds up around these identifications. Where these activities are totemism should not the issue anymore. The issue should be how these identification arise, how they are reconstituted in everyday practice, by whom.

In that perspective, Lévi-Strauss’s conclusion that “totems are good to think, not to eat” (1963 [1962]: 89) makes sense—though I would not put it that way unless we take “thinking” as it has been developed by Michael Cole and his followers as a social process of distributed conversation.

In this perspective, “autism,” like all labels for organizing mental properties, is a bunching of activities. And so is indigeneity, nationalism, learning and, of course, education.

[still more to come…]

On following indexes as ethnographic methodology

Ethnography, like most (all?) scientific methods, must initially proceed on the postulate that there is, over there, some “it” to write about.  All critiques of ethnography have succeeded in demonstrating that, for human phenomena at least, this postulate cannot stand.  Anthropologists, as Geertz put it, do not study villages, they study “in” villages (1973: 22).  The new question that has not been answered: what do they do when they arrive in a village, if they are not going to study “it”?  Geertz suggests they might study “colonial domination” but does not quite explain what that might be. I suspect Geertz would say this is an ideal-type (Weber 1949: 89-95). Parsons might say it is a “formal category.” In either case, the anthropologist is just as much as a loss as when Malinowski or Boas told her to record “everything.”

I venture to say that most anthropologists of the past half-century have, uncomfortably, proceeded “as if” there were some there there, and I have often proceeded in such a matter—or let students proceed as if they would find objects to write about.

We have to find a clear way of stating what one is to do in the absence of a postulated ‘it’.  Many have argued for what they call “multi-sited” ethnographies which, I think, it intended to account for ethnographic activities when the ethnographer moves from one setting to the next in an attempt to … do what?  I have not been convinced.  First, there is the danger that one is led back to the initial problem: what is a “site” that there can be several?  Second, there is the matter of the selection of the sites.  Does one make this selection on the sense that there is a population of sites from which one select a sample?  How else might one proceed?

Working with students this past academic year, planning various research projects, and continuing to think about webs/networks, polities, etc., has re-opened this question with some urgency.  At this moment, I am exploring the following in an expansion of Garfinkel as compounded by Latour.  The fundamental methodological principle is: trust the people to tell you what makes them make differences in their lives and that of others.  The people, too, are trying to figure ‘it’ out, and, in the process ‘constitute’ it.  All we have to do is follow them.  This, of course, is not easy since the constraints on their methods (getting their work acknowledged as relevant to the task in such a way that the task is accomplished) are not those under which we operate (getting work acknowledged as ‘social science research’).  So:

  1. start with a salient phenomenon in some population (cohort). That is, start with a local (national) topic of conversation among the population. The more contentious this conversation, the better for our purposes.
    1. NCLB, indigeneity, autism would be such phenomena (to mention ongoing work by Jill Koyama, Jeff Schiffer, Juliette de Wolfe). These are salient in the United States or Canada. They generate a lot of talk. And that talk is easy to find in many setting.
      1. Do not attempt to define, say, “autism” or “indigeneity.” The participants, in their talk might make it look as if it is an ‘it’. You can remain agnostic while accepting that the practices in which the participants engage are very real and produce concrete consequences.
      2. Do not attempt to define the setting either. Again, the people will tell you its boundaries and reach through their own practices.
    2. Postulating a web means that one can start anywhere convenient.
  2. The danger is to take this starting point as THE core point. To prevent this, it may be best to start with a setting “obviously” peripheral
  3. listen carefully for indexical sequences (e.g. “We are doing this against our better judgement because they make us do it.”)
    1. these sequences are going to be included within larger conversations and will include many indexes to the current conversation and cohort, as well as to other conversations and cohorts.
    2. again, the more contentious the conversation, the more likely it is that linked matters will be indexed.
    3. the indexical sequences need not be verbal though one can start with the verbal as it may be easiest to access
  4. follow the indexes to the next convenient setting/moment
  5. repeat until exhausted (or a year has passed—though the temporality of such a search needs also to be addressed).

More to come.