The ultimate ignorant school master?

One of our doctoral students, Ms. Mako Miura, recently challenged me with a question I had never entertained. We were discussing Jean Lave’s model for learning through participation (1991). We were focusing on some of the examples Lave mentions that point to the asymmetry between those in the “peripheral” position and those in the “full” position. Prototypically, we have an apprentice, initially ignorant but granted the legitimacy to participate, and the master who granted this legitimacy and eventually gets the apprentice to “learn” through participation that which characterizes a particular “shop floor” (to index Garfinkel). I emphasized that Lave is building a “model” to help us through initial analyses of the “educational” (“instructional,” “learning”) aspects of the organization of any floor. And I proposed we approached the encounter between first time parents and their child as just such a floor where a very legitimate participant will be learning everything that already makes this particular “family” (to keep it simple): familial configuration, ethnic or regional particularities, language, “culture.”

As this point, Miura asked: “could we argue that, on this floor, it is the child who is at the center and the parents who are on the periphery as they will have to ‘learn’ parenting?”

I must say that, whenever I have taught Lave (& Wenger)’s book, I have never pondered whether we should also consider the possibility of a feedback learning whereas the apparently “full” person discovers what apprentices are like, how they are learning, and what these apprentices are doing with that. I do not think that Jean Lave (or Ray McDermott with whom I once participated with her in a joint seminar on “ignorance”) ever considered such a possibility. And yet, particularly if we approach the issue after reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster ([1987] 1999), as we did in the class, then the question is one we should take seriously.

The issue is a classic one in cultural anthropology, particularly in the Boasian traditions led by M. Mead and many others who build on what appears to be a common sense generalizations. Here is the way Geertz once put it:

One of the most significant facts about us is that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end up in the end having only lived one.” (1973, 45)

In other words related to ignorance and knowledge, one starts knowing nothing (but able to learn anything) and immediately gets taught in the language, styles, religion, etc., of one’s population, thereby limiting further and further what one can do with the rest of one’s life.  Cultural anthropology is, also, about the ongoing restriction on possibilities (and the powerful ones re-enforcing these restrictions).

I suspect any introductory class in cultural anthropology (and all related discipline) starts with a version of this and will include discussion of enculturation, socialization, the development of an identity, etc.

This is probably where I would start, if I had to teach such a class.

father changing an infant's diaper
Father and infant on an educational floor: who is teaching what to whom and how?

But, things are not so simple when one considers the “shop floor” where a child and their parents first stare at each other wondering what to do next. The parents may be quite articulate about their wonders.  They probably deliberate extensively with each other and with all the significant others with whom they are currently living or who directly impinge on their lives (parents, peers, the media, pediatricians). The infant may not be able to do much more than smile or cry but anyone who has been with a child, however young, has experienced the ongoing investigations that the child is doing (via , first, eyes, arm movements and such, and, soon, through various forms of vocalizations that turn into words). The child, we must assume, is not just “absorbing.” The child is also analyzing, exploring, testing, etc., and doing it more and more articulately as time passes (consider the 3 year-old who keeps asking ‘why?’). I am not proposing anything here about the child’s “consciousness.”  I am just suggesting that we should never assume what a lack of linguistic articulation might imply in relation to analysis, exploration, testing, etc.

One thing that is certain is that, along with anything else the child may be doing, they are arguably, imposing their will to live on bumbling parents and thereby teaching them (plural) how to deal with them (singular) while being totally ignorant of what it is that they are teaching.

The infant would thereby be the ultimate “ignorant schoolmaster”…

Food for thought for future anthropologists who will conduct research on early child development, the production of particular family styles, and such.

[this is also a message to you (EB, GR, MN) to push dis- (vision, hearing, mental) studies to take very seriously what is otherwise a pious cliche “teachers learn from their students” (as it certainly applies to me): what exactly is it that a blind/deaf/confusing/… person teach the most significant persons in their entourage (assemblage) through ongoing everyday interaction in routine activities? How do they do it and with what stuff? (The prototype that should guide any research in this line is Goodwin’s work on communication with a person with aphasia (2004))]


Geertz, Clifford   1973     The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goodwin, Charles   2004    “A Competent Speaker Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Aphasia.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14, 2:151-170.

Lave, Jean and E. Wenger   1991     Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, Jacques   [1987] 1999     The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation.. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Race Consciousness, Racism (and race?): Contradictions with consequences (culture!)

From the time when I played “les coboilles et les indiens,” 70 years ago, in the streets of small Southern village, I have experienced something, that is, precisely, a “thing” that stood in my way, that I could play with, or fear. This was called “America” by French politicians (etc) as well as five year old boys. “It” (its armies, myths, festivals) was awe-inspiring and also mysterious. After many years establishing myself as an anthropologists of ‘America,’ I would now say that that which still fascinates me is not exactly the kind of object archaeologist might find in some jungle. America, as any other culture I’d say, is more of a set of dilemmas and contradictions that move conversations-with-practical-consequences—and thus, through their consequences do make things that trigger more conversations and things.

Case in point: The recent conversations about what to do (“ask applicants,” “take into consideration,” and other speech acts) when involved in evaluating students for admission into elite colleges.

Like many in these colleges, I have been reading several documents all written by people born, raised, and schooled in the United States (natives?). I read the “Opinion” (certainly not a description of the actual speech act!) by that most bizarre (cross-culturally) of institutions: the Supreme Court of the United States. I read the Opinion, some of the concurring statements, some of the dissenting statements, and many editorials and such summarizing the Opinion and telling what it “really” meant. And so I am left contemplating the ongoing production/construction of a culture (America) that continues to fascinate me as an emergent, and now someone jaded, Franco-European(-American?).

These documents are ostensibly about, “race,” “race consciousness,” or “racism.” But I am never always sure which.  My own opinion (interpretation with no authority or general consequence), is that all “justices” agree that racism is bad and that something, that is some thing (act with consequences) needs be (not) done. They are all, in the very evidence of their writing, very much “conscious” or “race” but they do not agree on what kind of “race consciousness” is a good or bad thing.  Surprisingly to some observers, they do not seem to care much about “race,” as a concept, category or thing of any sort. And so, most people in the United States, particularly actors in the elite universities, are left to their own devices figuring out what do to next in their various responsibilities as faculty, minor administrator, etc., in one of these universities.

The justices and commentators do agree that racism is bad, but the issue, as argued, is not about philosophy, ideology, genetics and other sciences of the human body. It is about institutional consequences that have direct life-long consequences on people. It is about slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws, separate but equal schooling, limitations on voting, and such matters of state mandates. It is about what the State may allow or require of institutions and people in general. In that sense, it is about facts that constrain people (Durkheim), things with their separate agency (Latour), inevitable objects. That all these facts, things, objects, are man-made (human productions) do not make them less real. I will sometimes say that such constructions may in fact be more immediately real (to be lived and experienced) than matters like gravity or air-pressure, even if, or particularly if, they are so threatened as to continually need reconstructing.

And “race” is now something to be reconstructed in general and in the particularities of admission offices.

In very brief, the ongoing conversations start with a general agreement that America, in its State and mandates, constructed many very bad institutions in the past. It should continue to deconstruct these and construct some new ones. This is, and has been, an ongoing process. To appropriate something Lévi-Strauss once said in his usual pithy way: [America] tends to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come[s] to be combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 233). What Lévi-Strauss might have added was that this palace is continually being reconstructed—as everyone in the United States was reminded a few weeks ago.

But this reconstruction is not guided by any architect. The significant speakers/actors (the six justices of the Supreme Court who made a difference) just told any architect what NOT to build. All architects of future admission procedures will have to construct things in ongoing uncertainty without relying on any specific consensus, common sense, or tradition. The justices themselves, spectacularly, do not agree with what is exactly at stake. All use the word “race.” But only some wonder about what exactly, for this or any other purposes, is to be meant by the word. All, in their more consequential pro or con moments, appear to take it for granted. I suspect all of them might agree that the word is about a social construct of some sort, and not a thing of nature or a property of people (as it might have been in the 19th century and still lingering). The conversation is about what is to be constructed that is somehow related to race.  It will involve wondering about materials, institutional places, ecological impact on other constructions, and the imagined future use of the constructed things. On one side, six of justices agree that constructing anything with “race” is a bad thing, as it was in the past. On the other side, three justices agree that, when acting with institutional life-long consequences, those with authority may, or indeed must, make themselves “conscious” of race, using whatever definition they wish. All nine then tar each other, more or less explicitly, with “racism.”

So, what is racism at this moment in United States time: being institutionally “conscious” of race or being deliberately and institutionally NOT conscious of race? Is there anything that anthropology, through ethnography, can offer as part of an answer?

I’d say first that the very ongoing conversations demonstrate that about everyone in the United States is, practically, in their everyday life, “conscious of race.” What is less clear is what, in this everyday life of people with very different responsibilities (university presidents, interns helping sort applications), does this consciousness make happen? I suspect, given “America” that many will transform this into questions of states of mind, identity, or the like. But the Court, most interestingly for an observer, is not actually concerned with states of mind. It is concerned with the State and its statutes and mandates in the minute details of its work as it might be experienced in the everyday life of the people affected. In my own academic world, preliminary local conversations have raised such practical issues as: may an institution still ask applicants for admission to check any kind of box about race (in all its variants)? How can people be given preferential treatment on matters like financial aid? How might this preference be phrased and practically implemented by subsidiary administrators? All these are extremely concrete matters that are continually referred to “legal” since the institution does not want to be sued. All  the actors will remain “conscious of race” but that will remain a private matter. My kind of anthropologist will always look, after a cursory glance at the text of a mandate, at what the people will then do with the mandate. This anthropologist will expect that people will resist, play or, as one commentator said, actively “game the system.” As I like to say, it is by looking at such moments that one eventually discovers what is most consequential for a people—that is, for me, not so much “their” culture as the culture they cannot escape.



Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1962] 1966/2021     The savage mind/Wild thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street

Half a century ago, when I searched for a catchy title for the book building on my dissertation (1972), I came up up with Americans Together (1978). I am not sure what I then meant by “Americans”—though I am sure that, from the time when I proposed the research (in 1970), I had been looking for a “pattern” or “structure” as I interpreted Benedict, Lévi-Strauss, or Dumont, to have done. But I may also have accepted that the plural “AmericanS” somewhat referred to a plurality of individuals. And thus I fell to American (patterned) common sense.

As far as I can check, I never used the plural noun again, though I continued to use “American” as an adjective and “America” as a proper, always singular, noun—and I persist. And, now, after many years teaching Garfinkel, Latour, Lave, and those inspired by them, it came to me that I should have titled the book “Together in America” which would in fact had fit better the subtitle to the book: “Structured diversity in a Midwestern town.”

This subtitle directly stated the main ethnographic point of the book that, while Paw Paw, Michigan, (“Appleton” in the book) may appear indistinguishable from thousand of such towns, it was internally (as I am sure all other such towns are) extremely varied religiously, ideologically, generationally (and probably also by all the most commonly invoked 21st century categories of race, gender, ethnicity that also appeared in my fieldnotes). But, to me then and now, the more interesting internal variability was in the organization of settings where people came together and manipulated identity symbols (as we would currently say in anthropology). One example that made it into the book is the moment when “ethnic background” briefly emerged during a round of introductions when I first partied with a group of friends of my age (1978: Chapter 4). When narrating (!) my (lived?) experiences in Paw Paw, I like to embroider my travels through the town, on a Sunday, when I started (dressed in a suit and tie) at a Sunday School then service at the Methodist or Presbyterian church (where/when all men wore suits and tie), before driving to the apartment of friends (where I was told to take off my tie), and ending the day at a Catholic mass (where the congregation was dressed in everything from dirty blue jeans to fur coats). Depending on I am not sure what, I was sometime positioned as a high school exchange student, an awkward young male with a funny accent, a doctoral students at the University of Chicago, etc. (including other things I may not have been directly told, though I remember several attempts to test my “orientation”). Eventually I was also struck by the diversity of politico/economic interests as I explored the many governing board regulating this or that aspect of everyday. This was most salient perhaps in the school board when town’s people and farmers clashed over taxation, curriculum, etc. only apparently coming together for ritual performances (football games, graduation ceremonies, etc.).
Continue reading “While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street”

on pattern recognition by humans and machines

September 16, 2022

“Pattern recognition”: inevitable though fragile (and necessarily dis-…ing?) productions on which to base some future action—or not.

Two recent pieces in the New York Times triggered my anthropological imagination. The first is an enthusiastic review of recent developments in “Artificial Intelligence” (“We Need to Talk About How Good A.I. Is Getting,” Kevin Roose, Aug. 24, 2022). Would you believe that you can ask, in text, for a “Black-and-white vintage photograph of a 1920s mobster taking a selfie” and you get an image that makes sense, to an aging professor and apparently many others in 2022? Roose’s piece mentions in passing that AI generated representations could be politically problematic. They have already been. A day earlier, another piece had been published that gives a sense of what can happen next when AI is let loose. That piece was titled “Capitol Drops ‘Virtual Rapper’ FN Meka After Backlash Over Stereotypes.” The piece was about “a virtual ‘robot rapper’ powered partly by artificial intelligence, who boasts more than 10 million followers on TikTok” (Joe Coscarelli, Aug. 23, 2022). As some critics wrote the robot rapper is built on “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.”

In other words the critics recognized the image as that of a Black rapper and thereby accredited that the AI algorithms had indeed caught what in other AI contexts is called a “pattern.” This recognition confirms Roose’s evaluation about “how good A.I. is getting.” Whether this pattern should be used to produce something (not so) new is another thing altogether.

For this aging anthropologist, it all made me nostalgic for the moments, many years ago, when I first read Patterns of culture (Benedict 1934). I was caught in the wonder of what populations of humans beings could make with their world.  This wonder soon established that I would try my hand at patterning the life of people in “downstate Illinois.” I also read some critics of what one might imagine the Zuni or Kwakiutl to have experienced when Benedict was with them (An-Che 1937; Codere 1956). The critics, and many others since, prefigured the debate about patterning a rapper: one might be successful at sketching a pattern, but the pattern can, and maybe always will, caricature. The sketch will overstress certain matters, mask much, and so might mislead audiences. The critique made so much sense as it was generalized in the anthropology that then developed that the word “pattern” all but disappeared, as well as the word that, for a while, replaced it: “structure.”  In 1972 Geertz could still write, quoting Bateson and Mead, of the Balinese as “away” (1972: 413)—a pattern statement. But his concern was with “interpretation” not pattern.  Soon most of those he inspired focused on local experiences, and then on local struggles with whatever powers the people have to deal with. That these struggles might be patterned (that is that a pattern might be sketched), and that the patterning, including by the people involved, all but stopped being something to investigate—though this could change if anthropologists come to wonder how to investigate “systemic” matters (about race, gender, ideology, etc.).

Actually the word “pattern” is already essential in the enormously influential field involved in “pattern recognition.” The field is not quite new as it has been more than 30 years since David Cope started training a computer to recognize patterns in the music of Mozart or Bach so that it could produce new works that untrained listeners might identify as precisely by Mozart or Bach. What is going on here is, I believe, something anthropologists should keep returning to.

To escape the politics of the moment look at the picture of the mobster taking a selfie. Why would it be that the designers, and the journalists, and me (and probably many others) recognize it as just what was requested: a 1920 mobster? Maybe it is because it looks a little bit like Al Capone. Mobsters have of course been virtually virtually represented in similar ways in many movies of the past century. As I understand the AI process, machines watch movies (and representations in other media) and build patterns from these.  The machines conduct what was known as a “formal analysis” (Propp [1927] 1968) that is checked for its success, not on its coherence, but on its ability to produce a text (musical piece, picture) that humans can accept common sensically as just that they asked (a folk tale, a symphony, the picture of a mobster). But of course, human beings do similar tasks on a routine basis. Compare the person asking DALL-E 2 to produce a 1920 mobster to the teacher who asked students to come the next day “dressed as your ethnic identity.” The virtual computer (mother, grandfather, and child) produced this picture of a French man. It satisfied the requirement as the product was recognized as an instance of “French.” Besides recognition this product elicited laughter (and some discomfort). Virtual virtual musicians (i.e. live human beings) do this routinely and, if asked to play a song, say “Happy Brithday,” in the style of Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, they can produce something which will elicit a laughter of recognition and applause—as Nicole Pesce or Nahre Sol can illustrate. Indeed DALL-E 2 performances are also fun for the humans who attempt to make sense out of its non-sense.

Let’s go back to Benedict. As far as I can tell Benedict proceeded like its programmers make DALL-E 2 do: she read many Zuni (Kwakiutl, Japanese) myths, descriptions of rituals, accounts of institutions, and, on this basis, built a representation that those who knew the people somehow recognized as Zuni (Kwakiutl, Japanese), even if they disagreed about some detail or about the dangers of representation. But the problem is more general since it must concern the very status one gives to the “pattern,” its production and reproduction. At this point I usually mention the famous (in my generation) debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss on what we might now call the “ontology” of (social) structures. But one should also check Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of Propp (1960) in the context of Latour’s Garfinkelian new explorations of that which make “immortal facts” (patterns that will die as the participants disperse). Closer to home, check Koyama’s critique (2010) of Varenne and McDermott on “the School America builds” (1998).

There is much here to inspire apprentice (virtual virtual) anthropologists to explore new routes to represent perennial issues.


Benedict, Ruth   1934     Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Codere, Helen   1956    “The Amiable Side of Kwakiutl Life: The Potlatch and the Play Potlatch.” American Anthropologist, 58, 2: 334-351

Geertz, Clifford   1972     “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” in The interpretation of cultures.  New York: Basic Books. pp. 412-453.

Geertz, Clifford   1972     “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” in The interpretation of cultures.  New York: Basic Books. pp. 412-453.

Koyama , Jill   2010    Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Li An-Che   1937    “Zuñi: Some Observations and Queries.” American Anthropologist, 39, 1: 62-76

Propp, Vladimir   [1927] 1968     Morphology of the folktale. Tr. by L. Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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on the grounds of instruction into grammaticality

… scholars and other shamans might be as puzzled as two senior professors when they read the title of an edited volume by de Oliveira et al.  It goes: Multiliteracies in English as an additional language classrooms (2021).  As members of the audience addressed by this volume, they wondered whether there was a typo someplace, whether the title was ungrammatical or proof of bad editing, whether it was an attempt to Joycean play or a form of Jabberwocky.

Then a less senior professor pointed out that “English as an additional language” is to be treated as a package as it is the current proper way to say what used to be said as “English as a second language.” Thus the title should be parsed as “Multiliteracies in EAL classrooms” and is thus fully grammatical. It is also indexes that the authors are up to date in expected academic education research writing about the topic. The whole thing is normal and orderly and it allows for two senior professors to be shown ignorant and in need of an EAL teacher. And it also allows for a suspicion that they were being somewhat disorderly and in need of instruction into the appropriate.

Given that the two professors pride themselves on their work on literacy, language, culture, power, etc., they could not just stand corrected. They also had to wonder what exactly is grammatical in English and how it is established. If, as someone quipped a long time ago, a “language” is a dialect with an army—as well as schools of education, school teachers and other institutions in charge of publicizing the proper or normal (orthography, word order, pronominal usage, etc.), then one may wonder how this army exactly does its work of ordering the normal when so many keep disordering it. If, as another great man once said “here comes everybody,” what will they do when they arrive?

So, I write:
“Ignorant education research one university faculty member blog writer says…” that he expects this string of nouns to be taken as acceptable, proper, normal (as well as pedantic) and does convey that “one writer of blogs who is member of the faculty of a university famous for its research is also ignorant …” I keep seeing such strings in the titles of articles in the New York Times, as well as in scholarly publications. Stringing nouns for titles must thus be considered “grammatical” in English. However, it is essential to note that it is not grammatical in the other “language” I “know” well: in French where, for example, “faculty member” must be rendered as “membre de la faculté” (and NOT as “faculté membre”). It is also essential to note that people with decades of speaking English (one who got to it as an “additional” language, and one for whom it has been the only one) can be puzzled by such strings.

I am interested in this brief moment in my life because it can be used as another occasion to wonder about what is most general about all languages, and all ways of speaking any language. To do this I like to go back to first principles and then work my way back to the reality that, one more time, I was told I was ignorant of one special aspect of English.

My first encounter with the search for such principles occurred when I read (and re-read) Saussure’s famous book on “general” linguistics. “General” is the key word here and indexes that the book will not say much about any particular language but will outline what should be true of all human languages (as it might have been put until recently) or, better, what should be true of the grounds of all human speaking to each other (but not necessarily of other ‘speakings’-or ‘writings’ for that matter–if one wants to use the verb “to speak” for communication among animals or plants). In brief, Saussure proposed that all human speaking involves:

. arbitrary conventions

. maintained by contracts among some consociates

. about the relationship between

– an object (signified) and

– words (signifiers) produced by the vocal box of the human body
. organised as strings (“syntagms”)
. where each item can be transmuted among others (“paradigms”)

In other words that can only capture aspects of the experience of reading Saussure: when I stroke a furry animal with claws lounging on my lap, I report that I am “petting” a “cat” that can also be, in other conventions supported by a different contract, a “chat” (billee, nwamba, and many other sounds that may work here but not there). This should be “general” and thus is to be criticized when it does not handle all the cases one encounters. The critique can end either with a complete rejection (as most linguists and others do with Saussure) or with a reconstruction (as I do here).

Let’s start with petting the cat: it cannot quite be said anymore that the petting or the cat are objects. I take them to be experiences. Furthermore, these experiences can be reported not only through the vocal box, but also though the hands and face, in pictures, in music, etc. It can also be reported in various ways (“styles,” “register”) from the more prosaic (“the cat ate the mouse”) to the more poetic:

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires. (Beaudelaire)

This poetic register reveals and constructs (conventional/arbitrary paradigmatic) associations (between cats, lovers, and scientists) as well as allow for high intellectual play (e.g. by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss 1962)—not to mentions popular musicals (Cats!). All this may have been packed into Saussure’s paradigms, but that is not enough.

Whether there are any cats in Cats is an irrelevant question as long as all signs in the play use conventions that signal catiness (for example “cat-face,” or yellow slanted eyes)–at least according to Anglo-American conventions about catiness.eyes from poster for the musical Cats

In all cases however, the very possibility of play with the conventions involve well established, and well defended, conventions. For example, when with others speaking in “English” then “the cate ate the mouse” and “the mouse ate the cat” report on very different experiences. In French, “le chat a mangé la souris” keeps the word order but adds gender to both animals.

As Saussure, a historical linguist, well knew, there is no way of predicting how human beings will report seeing cats eating mice—except that they will find a way as long as they practically acknowledge that only this way works at this moment for these people. Saussure wrote about this practical acknowledgment using the word “contract”—most probably quoting Rousseau and thereby establishing that his general linguistics is about social, rather than cognitive, processes. And then he left it at that.

But this, again, is clearly not enough and the experience that triggered this post can help move beyond “contract” (or “social construction”). Someone who has worked for many decades with the “contract,” someone who “speaks English” having learned it as an additional language (or not), can still be told that he is ignorant, be disciplined for the ignorance—and then be somewhat unhappy about it all. How is this to be dealt with, in general?

And so, Garfinkel to the rescue: speaking is not only a matter of having learned a language and then using it mechanically and thoughtlessly, it is a matter of continual work with, and against, one’s consociates. Speaking is always social (interactional, communal, political). Speaking is not simply a matter of encoding experience, and then trying to reconstruct an experience on the basis of what one has heard about someone else’s experience (generally referred to as “decoding”), it is also a matter of checking around what the other humans involved are doing. Starting with Jakobson wondering, already, about pronominal use ([1957] 1990), noticing this social work has, or course, been the task of what is now known as “sociolinguistics” and “conversational analysis.” “Knowing” a “language” is never enough for speaking. As Ofelia Garcia (2014) may have been the first to codify, the very idea of A language in multilingual settings hides the reality of the work of settling on a form associated with one language for part of a utterance or conversation when the others might be settling on another form. So she wrote about “translanguaging.” If one adds to all this the possibility of multiple registers used alternatively within some conversation, the complexity of “speaking with” must involve a continual process of construction, correction, instruction, assertion of authority to correct and instruct, resistance to correction that will be more or less successful and reveal power differentials in meting consequences.

The last sentence is an initial attempt to get back to “general” linguistics, and particularly that of Saussure’s. What Saussure (and before him Rousseau) failed to develop is what Garfinkel said in so many different ways: drawing and maintaining a contract is necessary hard word but having to renegotiate every aspects of the contract would lead to paralysis. Take this fragment from Joyce’s Finnegan’s wake about (I think) “idendifin[ing] the individuone in … regattable oxeter (Joyce, J. Finnegan’s wake 1939: I.3.81). It may be fun, but would not work well in everyday life when reporting who is coming towards you…
it is essential for reports of cats eating mice that the audience does not question what a cat might be, whether it was a male of female cat, an old one or a young one, ETC. And yet of course, the contractual normal and orderly is actually fragile and in need of continuing instructional work. To restate Saussure, the “langue” (A language) is that which contractual work is attempting to maintain even as it is threatened by the “parole” (play, resistance, etc.)

And so, I would now rewrite the earlier summary of Saussure to say that speaking always involve:

. arbitrary conventions

. developed by ongoing ordering work among some consociates

. about the relationship between

the (“lived”) experience of the world and

– performances founded on the affordances of the human body (vocal chords, hands, faces, brains, etc.)
. organized as strings in time
. where each item can be transmuted among others thereby allowing for multiplying relationships and compounding the work of (dis-)ordering conventions

And now to play, if I say, “never was there ever a cat so clever as magical mister Mistoffelees” I am not just saying something, in English, about a cat, I am also indexing at least two poets (T.S. Eliot and W. Lloyd Weber), my own education into both high and middle-brow poetry, and most probably my ignorance (or yours) of much that can also be triggered by the statement: I “knew” that Mephistopheles is a name for the Devil, but just “learned” (thanks Wikipedia!) that the name is based on a German demon, based on a Greek construction, who appears most famously (before T.S. Eliot) in Goethe’s Faust (itself a retelling of an older legend). I suspect some would also find in the statement about a magical cat an index to European domination of current popular culture while Lévi-Strauss—as he did once with Santa Claus ([1952] 1993)—would start jumping around the world looking for other associative conventions between cats and …


García, O. and L. Wei 2014 Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave Macmillan.

and C. Lévi-Strauss 1962 . “« Les Chats » de Charles Baudelaire,” In L’Homme: tome 2 n°1. pp. 5-21.

Jakobson, R. [1957] 1990 “Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb., in On Language. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Russian Language Project. pp. 386-392.

Lévi-Strauss , C [1952] 1993 “Father Christmas executed,” in Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51.

de Oliveira et al., eds 2021 Multiliteracies in English as an Additional Language Classrooms Methods, Approaches, and Lessons. The University of Miami School of Education and Human Development Series.

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Experiencing life and constructing a local “next”

If a “lived experience” is one that one has, personally, experienced, then I have never experienced COVID (the virus). I have experienced Corona (the cultural epoch) but, to the extent that I have never been sick from the virus, and have not even ever tested positive (so far?), then the virus is something I only know through conversational and textual means: I have talked a lot about it with many people. I have read a lot about it. And I have written about it. I have experienced the pressure to explain myself when (not) wearing a mask. In contrast, these past few months I (lived) experienced open heart surgery or, more precisely, the weeks leading up to it, and the recuperation after it: anesthesia does make it impossible to experience the surgery itself!

Various authorities requested that I be tested and this has happened such a number of times that I have lost count. Those requests (actually orders) concern, in my analysis, Corona as cultural fact. As for the virus, I’d say that my experience is, at most, “vicarious” or, in jargon, “entextualized.” I do know people who had close relatives who died. I do know people who were seriously sickened. I also know people who tested positive and showed (“experienced”?) no symptoms. But this “knowledge” is conversational—that is I was told about these cases but did not have to deal with them personally
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“Lived experience”: mind and words

In recent years, students have heard me wince when they talk about “lived experienced.” “Could there be ‘dead experiences’?” I quipped. But they persisted as they are well aware of the terms one must use to pass as a well-educated participant in current academic intellectual life.

For a full philosophical argument that is said to have inspired Derrida, Ricoeur and Latour, see Bachelard on fire (1949) or closets (in [1957] 1964).
Still, perhaps I am wrong in dismissing something that appeared late in my career. Maybe it is about the mystery that, after eating a banana (living the experience of pealing a banana, putting it in my mouth, chewing it, wondering whether it is under ripe or over ripe, etc.) I can talk about the eating (as I am doing now) but cannot actually tell anyone who has never eaten a banana what it tastes like. Try explaining the difference between blue and green to someone who is color blind, or the difference between velvet and silk (or the various types of silk) to someone who has never touched any of them.

During the “culture is text” Derrida moment in my anthropological career, I ranted against those who appeared to say that all is words, that there is no “center” behind the words, and so on. When eating the banana we are not eating the word even if the word is all we have to communicate with other human beings about the eating.  There is something about the world that is not constructed (at least not by the experiencing human who had nothing to do with a construction).

All this is common sense (or should be) but it leaves anthropology with a perennial problem. If anthropology, as I would argue has something to do with exploring what it is like to be human among humans (and everything else) by actually living and reporting on humans (“participant observation”), then one has to wonder about the relationship between “life” and “reports on life.” One of the classical version of all this presents anthropology as concerned with “what life means to some people.” The most principled version of this might be Geertz’s. But he could not escape the dilemma so that he ended his career in something I sometimes teach as a form of depression about the very possibility of anthropology. As he put it in one of his later paper:

Are we, in describing symbol uses, describing perceptions, sentiments, outlooks, experiences? And in what sense? What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (1976:235)

These are rhetorical questions since Geertz was always really passionate about “mind,” “point of view,” “sentiment,” and indeed “experiences”—words that were common in the mid to late 20th century. These, I’d say is what is now summarized as “lived experiences.”

But the question remains: how are anthropologists to go from “lived experience” (ours or that of other people) to not only the final text of an ethnography but to the very conduct of the (participant) observation. What are anthropologists to look at if they are fully aware of the ineffability of the experience of life.

Say that you (me) are an anthropologist who has read about Branson, Missouri, and, on the occasion of a trip across the United States decides to stop there to find out what it’s all about. Given my personal (lived experience?) association of Branson with Dolly Parton, This association was “true” for me, but otherwise false as Branson became “Branson” before Parton and the “Stampede” performance did not include anything about Parton which could be a case of false advertisement.
and finding out that there was something called the “Dolly Parton Stampede” with a show I could attend, then I drove into the still empty parking lot of the building and started walking around, passing by garbage cans, utility hookups, stables, before approaching the main entrance those who paid to attend would use and which might be the first moment in their own lived experience of the event.

As I walked the parking lot, I realized that I was doing what I have always done: start observing a setting from the “back” to the “front,” from what constructing participants (janitors, engineers, accountants) do to that participants in the intended audience (those who pay) will be shepherded to see, hear, and, in the case of the Stampede (which is organized as a dinner/spectacle) taste–as well as smell given the participation of horses. So, the night I attended, I estimated the size of the audience (a few hundreds filling the venue) and some demographic signs. Given Corona, I looked for masks (a few per hundreds unmasked), the number of phenotypically Black persons (even fewer). I marveled at the number of American flags (and at the absence of many other symbols all the more noticeable as a brief scene about people in the Plains before the European appeared particularly carefully written not to trigger any political response).

The anthropological question is: what can I say about the lived experience of anybody in the audience? What of the man on my left: no partner and two young daughters? What would the daughters remember? What of the retired couple on my right? Any phenomenologist would have to agree that each of these five people experienced something different—even though it was triggered at the moment by exactly the same performance. The phenomenologist might also note that the anthropologist’s “lived experience” of the event may be one of the more bizarre as I suspect very few people in the audience are writing analytic blogs of their experience (though there may have been writing in twits and Facebook posts).

My answer, of course, and it has remained constant through my half century of research, writing and teaching, is that I can say something about this performance (the flags, horses, bad jokes) and some of what make it possible (people who serve the food and take out the garbage). But I cannot say anything about what it is like, for anybody, to live that which others have built for one to experience. And I will never trust someone who tells me that they can tell me what they lived—even when they have lived it. I have never been worried about the answer I give to Geertz’s questions: knowing “words” (institutions, dependencies, affordances, etc.) is not only all we can do but is also essential.

On all this, I generally assign the first part of Merleau-Ponty’s Prose of the world ([1969] 1973) that concludes with the quip: “meaning is not in the words but between the words.”
Which is why I will not tell what was my own “lived experience” of Dolly Parton’s Stampede (though perhaps readers of this post will imagine it for me).



Bachelard, Gaston  1949     La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard.

Bachelard, Gaston   [1957] 1964     The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1976 “‘From the native’s point of view’: On the nature of anthropological understanding.” in Meaning in anthropology. Edited by K. Basso and H. Selby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 221-237.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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Local controls of mask (not) wearing

Nurse to other nurses (in a health care setting where nurses and patients must wear masks, but where the “office” staff, also nurses, do not consistently do);

“I do not put my mask on when I get into a store and it is not crowded. If it is crowded, then I put it on”

The other nurses gave their own stories, and moved on to other topics.

Vignette #1

As many have noted one can sort areas in the United States in terms of the ratio of masked/unmasked—whatever the local governor’s mandates. And, as mentioned everywhere, these mandates vary a lot from state to state, and from nation to nation.

I have written earlier about governor’s mandates in constituting the Corona epoch as a cultural fact (for some people) that local action by these people must take into account, whatever their opinion of the wisdom of the mandate. I will today focus further of this local action in settings where there are no immediate representative from the State to enforce mandates (or where governors have relinquished control).

That there are many such settings is well-established and regularly mentioned by epidemiologists wondering about the movement of the virus even in the most governor restricted areas. In my experience, such settings involve family gatherings, shops, offices, church services. In New York State, it is well known that people in New York City are much more likely to wear masks even after the mandates have been lifted while people “upstate” were more likely NOT to wear their masks, even when the mandates were on. Even in New York City, the people from mid-Manhattan may experience different constraints from people in the Bronx.
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Ordering,Disciplining and Schooling

[with thanks to Miranda Hansen-Hunt whose research on disciplining schools triggered this post]

PROPOSITION: That the problem with schooling is not that it evaluates learning. The problem is that it records this evaluation for all to check as the School, with full State sanction, grants degrees “with all the privileges thereto attached.”

In his Learning lessons (1979), Mehan made several foundational contributions to the anthropology of schooling. The book did not just summarize a historical state —as earlier ethnographies had done when they, for example, brought out class stratification in small town high schools (Hollingshead 1949). Mehan noticed something that appeared to typify schooling.  He noticed this in “classrooms” and particularly in moments in called “learning lessons.” He dared model this feature and, in so doing, he offered a way to understand the ongoing constitution of what, at about the same time, Foucault characterized as an “epoch.”

As many have noticed, Foucault ([1975] 1978) did not specify in any detail what would be the mechanisms that maintain and develop those features that characterize the epoch, recursively, over decades if not centuries, catching in its web a larger and larger fraction of the world population.  Foucault hypothesized that the people of our epoch lived in a “panopticon” and internalized the fear of wardens, even when wardens were not visible.

Mehan did not just hypothesized and interpreted.  As a good ethnographer, he went where and when inmates (students) and wardens (teachers) actually meet in that school setting that looks most like a panopticon, that the classroom where students cannot ever quite escape the gaze of their teachers.  As Mehan looked, he found something worth pondering: the continual asking of questions by the teacher, questions to which the teacher actually knew the answer. The questions were oriented towards something else than a request for information. They were intended to check whether the student knew the answer. This could be modeled as a ‘Q’uestion/’A’nswer/’E’valuation sequence. The “third” step in this sequence establishes the sequence as a particular kind of interactional, indeed political, sequence among many others (http://localhost/class/common/various/what_time.html). This “lesson” is the specific moment when people not only “learn” that which they did not know (the official account of the grand goals of schooling) but when they are also assessed, and eventually certified (through degrees and the like) as “knowing.”

In the book, Mehan also made a further essential distinction between “structure”—the state that is modeled— and “structuring”— the work of continually producing, or constituting that which can then be modeled as “the structure.” Outside of a small set of ethnomethodologists of education, it was not noticed that this emphasis on the work of structuring or establishing a particular order solved the question of “reproduction” without calling upon hypothetical entities such as a “habitus” that might be produced by a “panopticon.” Every time a teacher evaluates an answer as “good,” or a university president grants a degree “with all privileges thereto attached,” then schooling gets reconstituted as what it is to be for all involved (whether they accept it or not, or even if they are aware at any level of what is going on).

What Mehan did not quite do is explore systematically what happens next when local (classroom) QAE sequences are placed in the broader sequence when an overall ‘E’ (e.g. an end of term grade) is used as evidence for other purposes than checking a  “knowing.” As McDermott insisted, a learning lesson is not just a moment constituting schooling-as-it-is, it is also a moment when all struggle against this schooling (for example in attempts to NOT get caught NOT knowing). In a classroom all are hard a work making it, hopefully, a good day, or life, in a well-ordered world.  But all are also aware that the work might turn out to make a bad day, or a bad life. McDermott and I expanded this in our Successful failure (1998) as we focused on what happens after the structuring of the lesson when any evaluation is inscribed in the records of a student’s overall performance.

Apologists for public schooling continue to hope that well-designed examinations of prior learning can be occasions for a change in the social position of the student from “not knowing” to “knowing.” This is what is supposed to happen in the well organized “community of practice” as erstwhile peripheral participants move into fuller participation. But, unhappily, it can too often be documented that the examination leads to replacing the student in an earlier position as it appears to establish that “this student will never learn.” This can then justify all sorts of redirection (for example identifying the student as with some “disability” requiring “special education”). Again and again one can document that such overall evaluations often precede particular QAE sequences so that a “knowing” is not noticed, while a “not knowing” is dismissed as irrelevant (McDermott 1983; Varenne & McDermott 1998: Chapters 4 and 5).

Given all this ethnographic evidence, anthropologists of schooling must now going beyond adding to this evidence. Like Mehan did, they must also attempt a more formal analysis that will reveal the systemic (structural) features that produce this evidence—particularly given the efforts of so many (from teachers to policy makers to reformers) to establish something else. Re-thinking “discipline” as it is used by Foucault, might help us here. Discipline (and possibly punishment) is what constitute the consequences of local evaluations as some other thing than just confirming a learning. For example, establishing that a student knows how to read a clock is not the same thing as promoting (or demoting) the child into a new status. Consider the fate of an anthropologist noted for his critique of the Success/Failure aspect of schooling. Consider that, when challenged by a sympathetic reader, he had to acknowledge that he continues to give grades while, adding, as a kind of defense that NOT giving grades would be sanctioned (disciplined) both by his institution and by many of his students. Consider his analytic delight (?) when, several years later, he found out that his institution had been disciplined by the Federal Government of the United States of America for, precisely, being delinquent in recording grades leading the local “compliance officer” to threaten all faculty with disciplinary consequences if grades were not reported…  Disciplining is ongoing work as wardens keep finding out that inmates are not quite doing what they should.
To simplify, “teaching” many be the task of “teachers” but disciplining is the task of others I will call, with a somewhat ironic bow to Foucault, “wardens.” In a school there are those who teach, and there are those who watch—from assistant principals to record keepers to the wonderfully named “compliance officers,” and many others, including other students, parents, “community members,” who may participate in telling a teacher “No!”. Garfinkel put all this in his usual pungent fashion when modeling the constitution of ‘service lines’ (for example in a post-office): “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257). It is important that, for Garfinkel, the issue is not that the participants “know” how to line up but that, at every moment every participant is checking whether the lining up is done in a way that does not require explicit discipline (which is a form of discipline) or whether the need-to-be-disciplined behavior may actually not be disciplined for any number of justifications. In the cases that most interested Garfinkel “those-who-watch” may just be “everyday persons” with no particular authority except the one they give themselves to observe and discipline. In schools (and elsewhere) there also are people with specific authority to mete consequences (reward or punish) that may affect a whole life trajectory.

This disciplining could be modeled as:
‘W’atcher (warden) -> ‘B’ehavior by the watched -> ‘D’iscipline as meted by watcher of someone else with authority.

In the world of schooling, this model can be used to understand not only what happens in a classroom, but also, what happens in the relationship between teachers (as disciplined) and administrators who are tasked to tell teachers “No!” And as administrators know well, they themselves can be disciplined and very often are by people further up the bureaucratic hierarchy, as well, in the United States by the vagaries of School Boards who very regularly fire Superintendents as well as insist that this or that book be removed from school libraries and such.

I look forward to research in the anthropology of schooling that documents further how “discipline” actually work and, in the process, re-constitute what may now be labeled “systemic” processes (those that used to be called matters of “social structure”)—that is processes that bring together people into a particularly ordered “epoch” (“culture”?).


Foucault, Michel [1975] 1978 Discipline and punish.
Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Hollingshead, A.B.   1949     Elmtown’s Youth: The Impact of Social Class on Adolescents.. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

McDermott, R. P. and Henry Tylbor   1983     “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text: 3,3: 277-297

Mehan, Hugh   1979     Learning Lessons. MA: Harvard University Press.

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Getting caught

I do not remember when I started writing about people getting “caught by” when putting into words what I would have written earlier as “participating in.” When anthropologists observe some people in some setting (family dinner, school classroom, hospital recovery room), they do observe people “participating”–to the extent that all the people are somehow responding to what others are doing there and then. In many cases, anthropologists add that that to which people are responding is “their” culture often without considering whether the possessive form is appropriate. It is clear to me to no “culture” is the possession of anyone and that it is taking a huge step to say that the nice lady one is observing swaddling her baby is responsible for the manner in which she is swaddling the baby (or the color of the blanket, the style of folding, the song she may be singing, etc.)—whether this lady lives on the island once known as manaháhtaan in 1400 or 2000. I once wrote a paper (1984) to counter the misleading tendency of many anthropologists of my generation, following Geertz, to write “the Manhattanites, ‘they’…” and that “they are like [that interpretation].” I was particularly sensitive to this as I was critiqued for writing about “Americans” when it was getting clearer to me everyday (and was mostly reflected in my writing) that I was writing about people “in” America—that is, as I put it later people who participate in American institutions to the extent that they have no choice but to respond to what the institution requires (for example, teachers must give tests and grades to “students,” many of whom may be “foreign,” if not “aliens”).

I do not recall exactly when I started writing about people being “caught by” America as a preliminary step to “participating.” In my current autobiographical memory, I’d say that it happened when I started to ponder systematically Jean Lave’s version of the “community of practice.” I take it to be a model (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense) of social structuring that is a major transformation of the always static earlier modeling of “social structures” (or “systems”). Lave’s models a field within which people move between two positions (from “peripheral” to “full”). Leaving aside what all this implies for “learning” (as she, and McDermott, were mostly concerned with), this must make one think about movement through (rather than “participating in” or “socializing to”), what is important to me now is that the model implies that we also pay attention to other movements. When teaching Lave, I always start with the movement from [outside] into the “peripheral” position.In an early paper ([1947] 1953) David Schneider tells the story of some drafted men, assembled from many backgrounds for “basic training,” transforming themselves into an army unit a process that included reclassifying some of them as “not for the army.” This movement is essential for any “community” (“congregation” would be better) must recruit people from those who are not yet peripheral, but may have been seeking entry (or are conscripted into it). I thus imagine an “accretion” disk of potential peripheral members who might get attracted until, in some case, they pass what astronomers call the “event horizon” after which they can no longer escape the gravity well of the constituted community (though some may not make it to the “legitimate” “periphery” for their will always be illegitimate ones).

When teaching this I tell the story of my circling America, and then falling into it. I remember playing cowboys and Indians as a 6 year old in a small Southern French village. I remember being awed by 1960 Buicks. I remember trying to transcribe Blowing in the Wind. Like all Europeans after the end of WWII, I was experiencing the gravitational pull of America though most did not take the step that eventually caught me. I like to say that I crossed this event horizon the day I entered the American consulate in Marseille (as everyone called it though its official name was “United States Consulate”). There, I was told what I needed to do to get the student visa which would allow me to attend the University of Chicago. Arguably, entering the consulate was the moment when America morphed, in my life, from fantasy to actuality. I had to respond to local agents of something huge and shadowy that, like millions before and after me, I could no longer escape. Many have attempted such an escape after being caught. The Mormons tried moving to Utah. People from from China, or Jewish enclaves in Europe, attempted to build neighborhood institutions that might partially protect one’s children from America. In all cases, the very attempt to escape constituted what America is becoming—and all the more so when their attempts at escape were noticed by others also caught.

I thought about all this again as I entered, literally, a massive hospital in the above mentioned island for complex tests “prescribed” by fully authorized agents of this institution. Actually, “getting tested” is a step well into the gravity well of medical institutionalization. I got caught earlier, when symptoms (some peculiarities on a routine test) were transformed into a particularity (the “diagnosis” that determines treatment).After decades of adulthood, I certainly “know” what was going to happen but this knowledge does not actually say much about what I actually had to respond to as I went through the door, got my temperature taken by a guard, was directly by another guard to an office where I was “registered” before being taken to another part of the hospital where I was, after being handed over to people who took me to a bed, told me to undress, hooked me to various machine, and told me to wait. At that moment nothing strictly “medical” had yet happened but a second major boundaries had been crossed when I moved from being allowed to seek an office by myself to having to be accompanied to the next. This boundary marked entry into another “community” of some practice that systematically removed the signs of my various statues as I became the pure body on which some authorized person(s) would operate after the body ha been anesthetized and thus stripped of its last status–consciousness. Much has been written about this loss of status but much less about what is actually a movement through more and more specialized statuses (“what kind of health insurance do you have?” as the first agent asked me) as others fell by the way size (university professor)—as well as the movement back until one eventually walks out the door of the building.

Detailing, step by step, the various interactional patterns (who can talk about what how; how a body is decorated by whom; who can touch which part of a body how; who has authority to alter this or that procedure; etc.) is a task for future ethnographers who eschew the tendency to jump too fast to “interpretation.” For another take on the multiplicity of “communities” in a large hospital see an earlier post.And the first thing to accept is that at no moment is participation in a particular status-setting interaction are the patterns either one’s own or escapable. They are what they are for all involved at the moment and even small improvisations on the pattern (for example, joking about a detail) constitute the setting as patterned. Take what may be the “least interesting” moment in the movement through hospital testing: registration. It is a 5 minutes event between patient-in-process and institutional agent during which “verification” is performed culminating with the printing of labels and the transition to the first medical setting. The labels are actually an essential event as they become an extension of the verified body as various parts (for example blood) gets moved into various distant settings in parallel (and for inscription in the body/patient/person’s history with future institutions including not only hospitals but also insurance companies, etc.).

And so “being caught” is the best metaphor I can currently come up with for the whole thing.


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

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