Category Archives: proposing research

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

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

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

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

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

Q:“What are your questions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Someone responds: “xxxxx xxxxxx”

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

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

A visit from Gus Andrews is always refreshing and invigorating as we explore some of the intellectual links in our mutual networks.  So, last Wednesday, February 12, we talked, among other things, about the efforts of the organization where she works (she will have to provide the link…) to convince people around the world to use encryption to communicate in ways that, perhaps, governments and other cannot listen in.  One of the problem is that it is hard to identify who are these people and, when members of plausible audiences are identified, convince them that this encryption is the solution to a problem many do not know they have.  Some already use VPN (whatever that is, and however it works–it will advertise my ignorance here) and tell representatives of the institution that this works well enough for their purposes.

Now, this is a classic problem in adult education when potential teachees cannot be caught and wittingly or not, transformed into students whose knowledge can then be assessed.  It is of course also a problem in the mandatory public education of children and young adults in schools and colleges.  But there it is more a matter of sub-rosa resistance.  Adults may listen to experts and accept being taught by them but expertise, as such, is rarely enough.  One can coerce adults to take mandated courses in various forms of what used to be called “re-education” (safe driving, sexual harassment, etc.) but state coercion can only go so far.  There actually is an academic field of “adult education” in schools of education where courses with titles like “How adults learn are” taught.  I am not specifically in that field but, of course, most of what I, along with many my students of the past decade or more (including Gus Andrews, of course), have been concerned with.

Mostly, though, we have been concerned with collective self-education when adults seek new knowledge and devise new ways to gain it.  This is what Jacotot’s students did when they taught themselves French by reading a French-Flemish version of Fenelon’s Telemaque.  What Gus’s institution is trying to accomplish is more akin to what experts upon experts keep trying to accomplish when they tell whoever will listen that one should not smoke, eat more vegetables, devise stronger passwords, etc…

The questions that came to my mind later in the day of Gus’ visit concerned the experts’ ignorance about a whole range of issues:

  •   From the exact location of the people to teach: how are “we” to find them? Where should we look?
  • to the extent to people prior knowledge and or experience with the experts’ expertise;
  • to the exact nature of the ignorance the experts’ teaching might alleviate;
  • And so on and so forth.

The big issue is that experts are not always (mostly?) not aware of their own ignorance about all these matters and are more likely to blame (or patronize) the people for the inability to listen to the expert and learn from them.  In medicine, this produces a whole literature on “patient resistance.  In field of adult education, it produces much discussion of the properties of adult and their learning.

We need to convince the world of experts, and particularly those who fund research, that they need to find out about their own ignorance and its consequences—particularly when what the experts have to offer is ostensibly valuable.

Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science

[a follow up on yesterday’s blog entry]

Thanks to Beau Bettinger who sent me the following link (to something in the New York Times, no less) to a review of research entitled: Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity

The research quoted is “experimental” in just the way Geertz imagined all experimental research proceeded (1973: 22): given a constant (making decisions about alternatives) various conditions (prosperity/poverty) appear to make a difference thereby leading to an inference about the processes at work (cognitive overload).  Nothing about this research makes sense, whether the concepts, the operationalization, the tests, or the inference. (And we will have to continue criticizing every one of these steps in this kind of research.)

Q: So what does an anthropology grounded in Boas/Garfinkel propose instead?

A: Any versions of what the powerful team Michael Cole once assembled proposed and conducted.

Jean Lave, a constitutive member of this team, has recently (2011) given a wonderful account of the steps she took, in the 1970s, to respond to Cole’s challenges.  For several years, she re-designed alternate means of observing the activities of tailors.  Again and again she revised what she had to do in her next field trip.  And so she revealed matters, conditions, practices, that cognitive psychologists could not have imagined, that would resist conceptualization, and that, precisely, could not be transformed into a (correlational) theory–in the “grounded theory” sense.  The point was to “make work visible” in the felicitous title of recent book edited by Whalen and Szymanski (2011).  And, in the process, she also revealed constraints and possibilities in the very practical activity of conducting ethnographic research.

To do all this, 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.

I have been gratified, over the years, by the number of research projects by students in our programs in anthropology at Teachers College, who have imagined such situations and revealed some possibilities of life in disability, immigration, poverty, that could not quite be imagined.  For example, to mention only one among many, when Juliette de Wolfe (2013) spent a year following “autism warriors” she did not just “make available to us answers [to our deepest questions about humanity] that other shepherds, guarding other sheep in other valleys have given” (Geertz 1973: 30).  She helped us answer deep questions about producing local and historically specific social orders when faced with dis-abling condition (that includes not only their children’s autism but a whole slew of other matters ostensibly involved in helping child and parent).


a call for exploring everyday science education

Today, I continue my experiments in drafting introductions to research proposals.  The text below was written at the suggestion of Professor Peter Coleman of Teachers College, who asked me to write a brief (“people are busy”) statement summarizing my interests to colleagues, mostly scientists in the environmental sciences, in the hope that some might be interested in collaborating.  I am developing here asides I have made about everyday science education in my recent work (2009, 2010).

So, and I quote:

How new scientific knowledge enters the public sphere is something we still know little about-systematically and scientifically. The issue is all the more pressing when this knowledge has immediate political implications-as most forms of scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has had. In physics (relativity theory, atomic bombs, nuclear power), medicine (in vitro fertilization, stem cell research), environmental science (global warming), etc., about all scientific developments have been translated out ofthe scientific polities within which they initially came to make sense, and into broader polities where they remain vigorously debated. Most importantly, as debates have evolved, scientific work has itself been affected. The limits on the use of stem cells, or the investigations into the e-mails of climate scientists, are but the most glaring of an ongoing systemic process of re-appropriation, some would say resistance, of science by non-science.

The issue is often presented as a struggle between the knowledgeable and the ignorant, and the solution as a matter of the knowledgeable teaching the ignorant through some kind of “educational” program–or perhaps just controlling the import of the obdurate ignorant through political marginalization. Such assumptions represent, at best, a naive understanding of educational processes and, at worst, a great danger for the future of scientific work as its authority over the production of knowledge for policy is eroded. Education, for all those who think most deeply about it, is never a simple matter of the transfer of information bits from one unit (generally modeled as an individual person) to another. But it is only recently that we had access to robust theoretical foundations for the systematic investigation of alternative models. This foundation has begun to produce preliminary empirical research illustrating the reality of collective educational processes that had remain relatively hidden to regular inquiry. These developments should allow us better to trace, and perhaps even simulate, what can happen when the temporary consensus of a polity on a topic (e.g., that the earth is warming and that this warming is the result of human industrial activity) is presented to other polities (national governments, local communities, families) as matter requiring action (carbon taxes, recycling regulations, changes in thermostat settings).

On the basis of this recent research, I am convinced that the overall process is best understood as a process of deliberations within and across polities, and thus as an interactional process leading to a temporary consensus about what to do next. I gloss this process as “education” and specify it as a set ofspeech acts (noticing, seeking, asking, instructing, convincing, trying out, evaluating, etc.) that always involve a multiplicity of people linked to each other in complex ways. In this perspective education is not a matter of transfer but a matter of recasting, or perhaps more exactly re-placing, what can appear as a bit of knowledge (or, more exactly again, knowledge with consequences since we are not talking here solely about a cognitive matter but a practical matter for future practices). In this perspective, a new scientific consensus about the world is a challenge to other forms of consensus and a trigger for new educative activities by the various groups caught in the challenge.

Much research is needed on all this.  I am interested in collaborating with others to explore these processes.  More information about the work I refer to is available at:

on designing new methods for needs assessment

This blog will take a somewhat different tack as I try to think through how to fund the work of the still unapproved Center I inaugurated a year ago.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the difficulty of intellectual work that takes into account what we have taught ourselves about the properties of all work, is that every aspect of this work must take into account its multiples conditions.  Simply put, we must speak (write, perform, etc.) differently to different audiences without losing the core of what we are trying to say.  Some might consider this shaping of one’s statements as forms of dissimulation, selling out, if not hypocrisy or outright lying.  But we know, as Sacks put it, that “everyone must lie”–which, of course, is not to be taken as a moral statement but as a statement of the human condition, and thus of the intellectual condition as well, particularly when ones steps out of solipsitic ivory towers.

So, I was looking at the web site of the W. K. Foundation, and particularly at the list of the grants it has recently awarded.  None of the first 40 or 50 I looked at have anything to do with anthropological research, or indeed with research of any kind–at least in terms of their purpose statement.  Typical is a statement that states:

strengthen the capacity of low-income pregnant and parenting women to improve
their birth outcomes and optimize the health and development of their children by supporting a planning process to develop specific interventions, implementation strategies, and evaluation plans


educate providers about how to best address the physical and psychosocial needs
of overweight/obese children, adolescents, and their families and increase their access to current, culturally-sensitive, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and management modalities by …

I chose this one because Sarah’s professional experience might make her credible as the designer of programs aimed at “parenting women” or “providers [of services] to families.”  I suspect we might also find Kellogg funding programs relating to autism.  Our issue is whether we can fit our work under such a statement?

The problem is not simply that I, as potential Principal Investigator, do not have a credible professional experience in the design or delivery of services.  Some of us have this experience.  The issue is how to remain true to our sense that much of these programs are based on faulty understanding, and thus research, on the issues the programs are aimed at alleviating–and still claim that we could help.

So can we say that we are proposing something that will be based on a sounder understanding of the conditions people are facing?  Could we say something like:

“It is common sense that service delivery must be responsive to familial or community needs.  What is difficult in this statement concerns the assessment of these needs.  How do we, as expert outsiders, get to know these needs?  Census figures about the rate of a condition (e.g. obesity) look like a good place to start.  But they do not tell us much about the social and cultural settings that are likely involved in the rate.  Surveys, focus groups and other such techniques may offer a glimpse into the actual settings of the condition of concern, but, at their best, they only produce reports of what happens in the settings, reports often framed by questions imagined by the investigator.  Ethnographers have claimed that they can provide more ecologically valid accounts of life in the settings of context.  We agree with this but are aware of one further limitation.  Any account of the “culture” of a community or family is inadequate if it ends with a list of traits, customs, and procedures, that are then presented as an indefinitely long present.  Recognition that human beings are always involved in transforming their most local conditions, wily nilly often as the conditions around them change, must be a fundamental investigatory principle.  We need new methods for assessing community characteristics and needs, as well as the impact of a service on the people served as they are being served–particularly if it is successful enough to produce the kind of cultural change hoped for.

Our goal then is to use the setting up of a model [health] [autism] educational center in [TBA] founded in a new form of communal need assessment both before and during the first years of the center.  This assessment will be based on the now well-documented reality that people, everywhere, and on an ongoing fashion, face the uncertainty of their conditions, particularly when these are directly impacted by a major life event [such as XXX], by investigating, analyzing, discussing, deciding what is to be known and what is to be taught, and then develop the methods to move forwards–methods that can include services offered by expert outsiders, or resistance to these services.  In our words, people always educate themselves, and service delivery must bring out the work that the people do.  Identifying conditions is one step but is not sufficient when people keep transforming these conditions.  Finding the methods they use to do so is essential.”

I have drafted a longer draft of this elsewhere.