Category Archives: on education, comprehensively

Posts developing the approach to education, understood as a comprehensive and ubiquitous activity of all human beings in all their settings, which I have been developing since 2005.

On the importance of reading footnotes

Those who know my work know that I am a great admirer of the historian Lawrence Cremin whom I happily coopt not only as an anthropologist, but also as an anthropologist ahead of his time even as he channeled the Boasian tradition he was taught at Columbia while a graduate student.

What I found this morning is a wonderfully clear critique not only of most definitions of education, including common ones from anthropologists, but, most impressively, of most definitions of “culture.”

This is the footnote:

Bailyn advances a definition of education as “the entire process by which culture transmits itself across the generations.” Yet, as Werner Jaeger made clear in the introduction to Paideia, until the word “culture” is clarified, such a definition remains obscure. “We are accustomed to use the word culture,” Jaeger noted, “not to describe the ideal which only the Hellenocentric world possesses, but in a much more trivial and general sense, to denote something inherent in every nation of the world, even the most primitive.” He was referring, of course, to the concept as developed by the social scientists-a usage he saw associated with “the positivist passion for reducing everything to the same terms.” By Bailyn’s definition, “education” is ultimately synonymous with “enculturation,” as that term is used by the anthropologists, notably Melville Herskovits. I myself am sympathetic to Jaeger’s insistence that true education implies the deliberate, self-conscious pursuit of certain intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic ideals, though I am perfectly ready to grant that nondeliberate influences are often, if not always, more powerful and pervasive and that the educational historian must be concerned with both. For a statement of a similar problem of definition that has long bedeviled literary historians, see Howard Mumford Jones, The Theory of American Literature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948), pp. 59-61 and passim. My reference to “the architecture of contemporary education” is taken from the lectures of my colleague Martin S. Dworkin in his course at Teachers College on “Education, Ideology, and Mass Communication.” (Cremin 1965: 75)

Note the attack on reductionism and enculturation; note “granting nondeliberate influences” as a kind of exception to “deliberate, self-conscious, pursuit” (aka, in my current vocabulary: practical meta-discursive work).

about Facteur ChevalNote also Cremin approving of a metaphor not be taken as “constructivist” but rather as a prefiguration of Latour’s ANT: the ‘architecture’ of education.  I am not sure what Cremin would have done of my added comment that the building, as an assemblage of rooms and corridors assembled on the basis of competing blue-prints with much cracks papered over would look more like the buildings that delighted Lévi-Strauss ([1962] 1966: 17): Cheval’s villa, or Mr. Wilmmick’s suburban villa as imagined by Charles Dickens (who must have seen versions of it!). And, among many others, a Texas version… Not to mention, from the ridiculous to the sublime, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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On thriving children and the hegemony of psychology

I always wonder about the way research on interaction gets reported in the media only (or about always) when it is conducted by psychologists.  Easy to chalk to “American individualism,” as institutionalized, and to its sub-forms like “culture of poverty,” or “child development.”

This time, my antennas were agitated by an interview in the University of Chicago glossy publication for alumni.  It is titled “Little scientists” with the descriptive subtitle “Think of children as pint-sized psychologists, says parenting expert Erica Reischer, AM’96, PhD’00.”

Not too surprisingly, the editors of the magazine chose, to illustrate, a picture of a child, writing in a notebook.  Many will notice that the child is a boy, white, with auburn hair, wearing a blue t-shirt.  I notice that he is by himself.  If there were a caption, it might be “the scientist at work”…

Irony aside, the underlying work is one I wish I could use when writing about family education.  The story starts with a common place: obedience class for dogs is really about training humans.  Having just been working on Jennifer Van Tiem’s chapter on horses and human (for our When is education), I know now how extensive the anthropological literature on animal/human interaction has become.  But, of course, the editor quotes Reischer for saying something about “teaching us how to think like a dog … so that [the dog] would learn positive behaviors.”

Note the emphasis on thinking for the human, behavior for the dog, and a causal link between separate entities.

On to children, analogically.

“What we really need … is pay attention to our children’s behavior”  (as if any human being could NOT pay attention) …. “[then] we can make choices about what we are going to do about [it]” (as if NEXT acts, in an improvised sequence, could ever be matters of choice under separate control).

Most interesting is the metaphor of the scientist (a conceit, really) Reischer proposes and the editor uses as title for the piece: “Kids are doing experiments because they have to figure out how the people in their lives work. I sometimes say, ‘Pretend your kids are wearing little white lab coats, and carrying little lab notebooks, and making notes all day long about what works and what doesn’t work with you’.”  Now that could have developed into something Rancière or Garfinkel might have written as instructions to researchers (and parents): notice intelligence at work; notice the noticings and the improvisations on suggested themes given tools and affordances.

Except, of course, that the editor goes back to the atomistic, individualistic, narrative and the “secret sauce” [sic] to happy parenting: Learn how to manipulate your child like a trainer manipulates dogs.

Pavlov? Skinner?

I have not read Reischer’s book.  So I am not sure how close the magazine story comes to what she wrote, what she “believes,” or what she could be shown to do when face to face with her own children if we had videotapes of the interaction.  My experience with the editors of such magazines is that their priorities are not mine, and may not have been Reischer’s.  Public relation editors must translate for their audience: alumni who are mostly not scholars, but may be imagined to be most comfortable with stories about human interaction written in terms of causation between separately acting (free) individuals.

And yet, one might go back and rewrite the story, the book, and maybe even the research (though there many not have been any in this case) to show how the child is indeed, a “scientist” with (ethno-)methods for figuring out what happened in collaboration with (and thus in struggle with) parents as consociates as, together, they improvise the family that will have been.  One cannot be a scientist by oneself.  And researchers who specialize in individuals will never understand humanity (or why psychology is hegemonic in America).

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High tech creationism?

One of the many after effects of Trump’s election has been an altogether astonishing flowering of high fallutin exercises in cultural analysis.  I particular enjoy those who play with popularized (populist?) deconstructionism.  So, let’s join the (deep?) play.

Most of my own intellectual education has been plagued by the fundamental mis-readings of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss led by Derrida ([1967] 1978) and others.  In various ways if have tried to write against deconstructionism, sometimes specifically (1994),
and mostly by implication.  And yet, I have also felt party to many of these debates, particularly when they involve plays with “facts” and fiction, truth and relativism, history and narratives, and indeed the nature of reality (ontology?).

So, when the New York Times, as it regularly does, plays with “truth … that is always changing” (NYT, “How to fix the Met,” 3/1/2107) I could not resist tweeting and playing with the Times nemesis (and vice versa)—the author of the wonderfully truthy “truthful hyperbole.”

Sam AltmanWhat I then found out in another exercise in cultural analysis was worth more than a chuckle. It involves an extended metaphor on Silicon Valley idealistic and nihilistic ontology (as reflection on the nature of being, existence, and reality).  This one comes from one of these mythical young white men that can claim, as does his Wikipedia page, that “the total valuation of Y Combinator companies has surpassed $65 billions”(read on March 2017). This young man is Sam Altman and the piece was written by Tad Friend of the New Yorker (October 2016 issue).

A few sentences from this piece were picked up by multiple media outlet under such titles as “Tech billionaires think we live in the Matrix and have asked scientists to get us out” (CNBC, 10/7/2016) or “Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people, including Elon Musk and Bank of America, think that we live in a simulation of the real world” (Independent, 10/6/2016)

I found this thread after coming to a not clearly authored page where the writer wonders about such “bizarre events” as the mistake at the Oscars, this year’s Super Bowl, and, of course, Trump’s election.  So, he (I will caricature him as male, but I am not sure) wonders whether:

“we are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers. This idea was, I’m told, put forward first and most forcibly by the N.Y.U. philosopher David Chalmers: What is happening lately, he says, is support for the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation and that something has recently gone haywire within it. The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it. [Such events] makes no sense at all in the ‘real world’.

There may be not merely a glitch in the Matrix. There may be a Loki, a prankster, suddenly running it. After all, the same kind of thing seemed to happen on Election Day: the program was all set, and then some mischievous overlord – whether alien or artificial intelligence doesn’t matter – said, “Well, what if he did win? How would they react?” “You can’t do that to them,” the wiser, older Architect said. “Oh, c’mon,” the kid said. “It’ll be funny. Let’s see what they do!” And then it happened. We seem to be living within a kind of adolescent rebellion on the part of the controllers of the video game we’re trapped in, who are doing this for their strange idea of fun. ( 2/26/17)

As written by Ted Friend, the statement attributed to Sam Altman on “two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation” is a paraphrase rather than a quote, and is not the main point of the piece.  But it is the sentence that caught the eye of many journalists in the United States and England.  I guess, it is “fun news” (somewhere on the continuum towards “fake news”).

Actually, it may be “fake news” that Sam Altman, or any of the other billionaires mentioned, actually “believe,” in the strong sense of the verb, that we are living in a Matrix-like simulation, whether run by wise aliens or trickster adolescents.  No sane person would believe that, would they?  Maybe Altman was just burnishing his image as not only a monument to successful greed but also as Silicon Valley seer and (pop) philosopher.  America has produced many such billionaire seers.  Altman will not be the last.

What is more interesting to me is that Altman is channeling a long and very real strain in Western philosophy: the idealism most extremely stated by Bishop George Berkeley in the early 18th century.  Most analysis of the Matrix movies prefer to mention Descartes (Plato, etc.) but Cartesian doubt was about epistemology (how to we know?) rather than ontology (how is ‘is’?).  In the 20th century, the early Derrida proposed a new version of classical ontological idealism when he wrote that, and I paraphrase, “there is no center that can escape the play of discourses” (1967: 411).  All is discourse (language).  There are no “hors-textes” (outside text) that might take us away from language.  Popularized, this late 20th century idealism can be developed in further texts affirming that we cannot be sure that an experience of snow falling outside a writer’s window has not been “written” by some very clever programmer and fed directly into some imperceptible artificial reality goggle: the Matrix.  Reality IS a text, written in mysterious algorithms.

There is of course no way to, rationally, disprove this hypothesis since the very arguments against it could have been written by the clever programmer.  The hypothesis seems to me equivalent to the biblical creationism that estimates the age of the universe at something like 6000 years: all the evidence that it is older (dinosaurs, echos of the Big Bang) could easily have been written by God into what only looks like a record of earlier events.

Now, of course, there are other ontologies that are well captured by Saussure’s wonderful, and easy to mistranslate, diagram about the segmentation of continuums ([1915] 1966: 112). Saussure on segmentation of realityThere, the wavy lines are an attempt to capture the mystery that language imperfectly reveals as it works at representing this mystery using the vagaries of human affordances (vocal box, faces and arms, etc. Not to mention a peculiar brain).  If any of this was “designed” it was not by an efficiency expert.  As Merleau-Ponty once said, and I paraphrase and expand, “meaning is in the silence between the words” ([1969] 1973: 43).  Mystery is not empty.  Stuff (good and bad) happens.  Or, as another wise man put it:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet to Horatio Hamlet (1.5.167-8) ).



Derrida, Jacques   1967 [1978]    Writing and difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

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

Saussure, Ferdinand de   1966 [1915]     Course in General Linguistics. Tr. by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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On educating a democratic public, democratically

Soon after Lawrence Cremin published Public education (1976), I gushed about the book to a senior colleague.  He did not like any aspect of the book because, as I remember he put it, Cremin made of education a form of “brain-washing.”  My colleague claimed Paulo Freire and, I guess, an alternate view of what it means to educate, democratically.

I must say I was astonished.  My take then, and I have not changed my mind, was that Cremin asks something surprising from us who are given the task to design education for the public.  He asks us to pay attention to what people are doing, in the streets and alleys of the world, far from the halls where pedagogy and curriculum are discussed.

I was astonished that my colleague had not noticed that Cremin was asking us to look at the crowds around us and was criticizing the John Dewey of Democracy and education ([1916] 1966) for not imagining any other educational institution than than the State sponsored school.  I could see how a very unsympathetic critic might notice that Dewey, as a philosopher who also read the psychologies and social sciences of his time, was quite sure as to what to teach the masses settling in the United States that they should learn to participate in an American democracy.  By Chapter 7, Dewey, unapologetically, claims an aim, a “Good Aim.”  In brief, in language Teachers College still uses (though we might wonder about mention of a “social ideal” and the measurement of “the worth of a form of social life”):

Since education is a social process, and there are many kinds of societies, a criterion for educational criticism … implies a particular social ideal. The two points selected by which to measure the worth of a form of social life are the extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups. An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets us barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder. (p. 99)

It is probably the case that Cremin would not have disagreed with this.  Cremin’s concern was with Dewey’s next step, when he gets to assume that the institution of desirable education is the public school.  I was then starting my career in a department soon to be named “Family and Community Education,” that Cremin had been instrumental in creating and which he strongly supported.  With Hope Leichter, Paul Byers, Ray McDermott, we had to wonder about what might count as education in families and communities.  I do not remember us wondering much about who might control this education, assess the worth of the design, or worry that the education parents given their children, each other, friends and consociates, might not be desirable.

Thirty years later, I was introduced to the work of Jacques Rancière who, in many ways, is a scorched earth critique of philosophers-with-an-aim, particularly philosophers of education.  Rancière starts with the Plato of the Meno.  He sides with the various shoe makers whom generations of philosophers have used as example of people who should not be involved in what we know call “knowledge production,” and even less in the teaching of this expert knowledge.  Rancière keeps asking philosophers to pay attention to, and respect, shoe makers

Rancière’s work, like Cremin, is very congenial to the generations of anthropologists who have tried to tell other social scientists and philosophers that all human being produce knowledge, pass on knowledge, transform other forms of knowledge they may encounter and, of course, make different value choices about aims, and are ready to fight for these.

Rancière is also writing about “democracy and education,” but from the point of view of a radical democrat,  Rancière’s hero is a teacher who refused to teach his expertise because he believed teaching what one knows will always be a form of “stultification,” brain-washing—particularly if the “learner” is assessed as having (not) learned just what she was supposed to learn not only as knowledge or skills but also as dispositions (beliefs, attitudes, values).

And so, whether one deplored or celebrated what happened last week, we, as the philosophers of education we cannot help but be, must ask ourselves: what is our business.  Is it convincing or is it allowing people to make up their mind?  And what are we to do with people who do not make the choices we make?

As we ponder the questions, we must face the fact that philosophers cannot control people, even when they are very influential on matters of state authority.  That, I’d say, is what a century of anthropological research has demonstrated.  Radical democracy may be the human condition.

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on parents challenging schooling

Those who follow my work know that I look for evidence (empirical? evidential?) that Bourdieu’s hypothesis about habitus driving (mis-)consciousness is wrong as written. In this search, I prefer detailed ethnographic evidence (the kind sociologists dismiss as “anecdotal”). But descriptive statistics have their place as evidence opening routes for further exploration.

So, I am thankful to my colleagues Oren Pizmony-Levy and Nancy Green Saraisky for their report of a national survey they conducted on who opts out of standardized testing and why (Who opts out and why, August 2016). The media, particularly in New York State has been reporting on something that is often presented as new: parents (mostly prosperous) refusing to have their children take some high-stake tests. This may be a cultural innovation, either because more parents are doing it, because they have found out that opting out is actually possible, or because the media started paying attention, or for other political reasons. Historical research is needed. I would also relate this movement with other movements of parents organizing to do something those with official pedagogical authority (in Bourdieu’s phrase) wish they did not do. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and others found out that their efforts to rein in charter schools would fail as parents, mostly inner city parent financially struggling, found a way to stop the reining in. At about the same time, other parents, many recent immigrants from China, many who could not speak English, appear to have stopped another movement by those with authority to change the admission requirements to the most academic public high schools. Elsewhere in New York City, other parents organize to home school their children, while others compete mercilessly to enrol their children in astronomically expensive pre-schools.

Whether all this is good for the children, for their parents, for the State, or for humanity is something else altogether. In any events, parents keep demonstrating that there are ways to resist the school-as-is, or the school-as-some-want-it, even as they participate in the evolution of schooling into un-imaginable forms.

Bourdieu and other structural-functionalists who keep Talcott Parsons alive might mark all this as a failure of early socialization into the practical acceptance of pedagogical authority. It could be that the schools have failed at reproducing whatever made Western schooling so successful for so many years and across the world. We may have a failure in maintaining homeostasis!

But it could also be that reproduction will always fail however determined the efforts to keep alive what was. It could be that (social) life will always be about constituting the heretofore unimaginable.

And so, as I like to say, we need a theory of culture that starts with the impossibility of cultural reproduction and sets aside concerns with enculturation. Instead, we need to pays close attention to the ongoing efforts both to preserve and innovate (Varenne 2007, 2011).

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NotSpeaking as communal achievement: emergence and termination shocks

Imagine a situation (from experience in a small town in Southern France):

Person A announces “I do not speak to person B” which, in French, might be reported by A to X, Y, or Z, as “On ne se parle pas.”  “On” here is an indefinite pronoun often used in French for “we.”  The declaration constitutes a community of A, B, X, Y, Z with the rule “A/B do not speak when they encounter each other.”  The rule is both description and prescription, or perhaps more precisely differentiated instruction about the meta-pragmatics of an interactional style.

NotSpeaking is a complex speech act, and a trigger for further speech acts.

NotSpeaking requires instruction since, everything else being the same, it is performed at a moment when the two could and should speak, as, say, when walking by each other in some parking lot.  In rural Southern France, at the turn of the 21st century, such moments start with an expression of acknowledgment that the encounter has started (smile, re-organization of the body, etc.), possibly preliminaries, then “la bise” (three “air kisses” on alternate side of the head with no body contact), and then either developments that might last very long, or else a brief comment about being in a hurry, leading to various closing statements about, say, “having aperitif before we leave.”  NotSpeaking, as speech event, involves turning away of the head at the time when the expression of acknowledgment should have appeared (or other bodily movements as, for example, turning away into a side street).  NotSpeaking ends after the two bodies have passed and return to their earlier state.

As Bourdieu explained in one of his best passages about ritual insults in the Mediterranean ([1972] 1977: pp. 10ff), Maussian gifts (of which NotSpeaking is a peculiar case)  do place obligations on both participants but the response is not automatic.  Much is involved.  For example, one or the other of the party might make an exaggerated display of greeting by directly looking at the other and saying something like “Bonjour!”, perhaps with a smile.  In this case, not NotSpeaking may actually be an insult, whether in intent or in subsequent assessment.   In any event, the field is very well organized indeed for what is definitively hard work!

In brief, NotSpeaking happens within what has also been called a “community of practice.”  But this is not the nice, cosy “community” of Wenger (1998).  It is a dark place as many, in the Summer of 2016, have found, whether in Paris, Nice or other such sites of interaction and political violence.  I prefer to us the work “polity” for the groups that emerge as someone or other starts doing something to others that what was not until then part of their “normal” but now becomes inescapable.  One cannot make war by oneself, and one cannot not respond to acts of war.  Anthropologists will have to think further about this.

One way to start is to wonder about the emergence of temporary polities when people become significant to each other (whether in love or war).  The question of emergence does lead to questions about beginnings and ends, as well as questions about participation.  NotSpeaking may start when one of the protagonists decides not to speak to the other the next time they met.  And it may be that this next time is when B finds out that A does not speak to him anymore—and that may be the “start” for B.  One could even look for the instructional moments when A asserts to B, in body movement if not in words, “I do not speak to you anymore” (or the reverse as these things do change).  Conversely, the actual performance of NotSpeaking can be said to start when the two notice each other and to end a few seconds later.  What is central to me here is that NotSpeaking is specific to particular persons at particular times and requires the setting up of the encounter as a NotSpeaking.   Not speaking to billions of strangers is not relevant here.  Only NotSpeaking to a non-stranger is relevant (whether the non-stranger is an erstwhile intimate, or an erstwhile total stranger).  NotSpeaking, at the turn of the 21st century, in Southern France, is a syntagm that inscribes something in history.

There may be a way of thinking about the emergence of a new polity in history (or the re-organization of an old polity) that I have never seen used in anthropology.  It would involved borrowing from physics what is called “termination shocks.”  I learned about those a while ago in an article in Discover Magazine about Voyager 1 entering interstellar space.  Termination shocks are ubiquitous (check you bathroom sink where you can make one by running water hard into it).  NotSpeaking, (making war, falling in love) similarly arises in the interaction between contradictory forces that makes something very real: a boundary marking different kinds of normal, and difficulties when crossing the boundary.  NotSpeaking catches people who may be hurt by it.  And then its effects fade into inter-communal space where the tiny drama can be safely ignored.

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Index of posts related to anthropoligical theorizing

on anthropological theorizing

  • This is ‘NOT play’ (April 25, 2017)
    NOT play does not have rules. It is about making rules, and then not following them whether for resistance of the assertion of power. This is serious.
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    This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools? The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks. There are about one school every other block. There are at…
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  • What some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015 (April 2, 2015)
    In the first few minutes of the conference, Ray McDermott put it this way: “when someone says stupid or mean things about kids, I want them to know I will be at their door the next day.” This, he said, is “reply anthropology.” Replace “kid” with “mothers,” “haitian farmers,” or…
  • Reply anthropology (?) (March 17, 2015)
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  • Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics (February 20, 2015)
    Whether this job description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of 2015. I suspect Teachers College has never had a “Director of Enterprise Applications Service” and that it will never have another one (as classifications and procedures change).
  • Is this what neoliberalism is all about? (January 12, 2015)
    Is the apparent devolution by the “Sovereign” (people, nation, state) of some of its political controls onto alternate “non-governmental” agencies, such as Corporations instituting "Policies" over their “Employees” (rather than laws over their citizens) what “neoliberalism” is all about?
  • The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998 (November 19, 2014)
    Ray McDermott and I were discussing, in our usual meandering way, the possible roots of Dorothy Holland’s work and what may or may not fairly be described as “psychological anthropology.”  We wondered about d’Andrade and Romney, their relationship to the Parsonians and Boasians.  As we veered into sorting out the…
  • Wondering about authoring one’s self (November 8, 2014)
    I fear that my saying anything about Daniela, as a person, might lead some in my audiences to assume that what I said about her could be used as an explanation for her fate, or justification for meting consequences that would transform her fate.
  • On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle” (November 5, 2014)
    So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc...,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time. Interpreting local knowledge…
  • On the collective production of “conscience collective” (October 26, 2014)
    Those who read this blog regularly may remember that I have been writing a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on the conceits of autism [Life endings? Or: Ends of life? and Islanding assemblages of haecceities].  I have been kind of stuck with this paper that may have grown too long…
  • Writing maps unto terrritories (September 27, 2014)
    Thanks to Michael Scroggins for telling us about the post by Izani about “Charting territories without maps.” Drawing one’s own maps to tell others how to get to one has to be related to Kalmar’s (and Velasquez’s) account of people making their own glossaries to help in getting to speak…
  • Anthropologies of the dangerous (?) (May 22, 2014)
    [my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014] There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.  …
  • The message “this is therapy,” with a horse (May 19, 2014)
    Our regretted colleague, George Bond, insisted that our doctoral students start their apprenticeship with us by struggling with Durkheim’s Rules, and particularly with the argument that, when individual human beings come together, what they do is other than what they could do by themselves, and that special tools are needed…
  • where bias can hide (February 4, 2014)
    Bias, a point of view, a starting point and an angle of attack, is essential: how else would we chose what to look at?
  • Generalizing to processes, general and particular (November 26, 2013)
    Over the past weeks, while teaching Ethnography of education, and in a discussion of research in educational linguistic, I was faced again with the perennial problem of the “generalization” of ethnographic research.  As the discipline encounters critics, and particularly when the critics are friendly and knowledgeable, what do we claim…
  • Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science (October 1, 2013)
    One does need to imagine situations, to be shared together by the observer and the observed (i.e. ethnographic participant observation), that will reveal the kind of work, its conditions and constraints, that we cannot imagine but that we suspect, for good theoretical work, is taking place.
  • Anthropology IS an experimental science (September 30, 2013)
    One of my favorite quote from Geertz on anthropology as an experimental science: The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious ... because the analogy is false. ... The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its…
  • For a defense of cultural anthropology as science (September 6, 2013)
    Given any ordered social state (system, pattern, culture, ...), this state will always re-order itself into any number of new states none of them being identical to any state ever produced in human history. A scientific "law" derived from anthropological research?
  • Islanding assemblages of haecceities (February 26, 2013)
    Thus, our scientific task is more aking to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).
  • constructing the gender of human bodies, literally (October 22, 2012)
    Sculpting new genitalia into a human body may be the ultimate in the (social) construction of new realities, the making of cyborgs, and the radical embodiment of a cultural arbitrary (in the service, some say, of making visible the 'true nature' of the subject body).
  • Patterns of culture in America (June 14, 2012)
    I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography…
  • pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty (June 8, 2012)
    What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters…
  • A quote (from Boas) for another day (June 1, 2012)
    So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph. Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time…
  • On studying “dynamic changes” (May 26, 2012)
    I am reading this quote from Boas analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States). I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense…
  • Life endings? Or: Ends of life? (May 12, 2012)
    Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human…
  • Value Added Deep Play (March 3, 2012)
    The publishing of individual teachers scores by New York City is a research boon as it allows us to test various analytic methods that will allow for understanding more systematically the networks of authority and power in which we are all caught, and particularly the relationship of motivation to act…
  • On the (pre-)judicial brain (November 23, 2011)
    At the simplest level, the point of having a “judicial” brain is precisely to control and repair what the pre-judicial brain may attempt to do, or has done. The judicial brain might say “drive home” and then leave the pre-judicial one to do the driving. At night, in Riverside Park,…
  • Tequila and Mel Gibson’s brain (October 3, 2011)
    What Eagleman never considers is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another. Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War. But he does not ask: What let to this war? Why should spotting planes be important…

Main Index of topics I have addressed

An actor-network of consequential consociates: applying anthropology to one’s personal case

In this post, I am doing something somewhat different from the usual.  I am maintaining the order I think I have established (at least as I look at it, retrospectively): this is an experiment in anthropological theorizing and teaching.  But I am delving further into parts of my life that I have not brought out.

So here it goes: applied medical anthropology

A few years ago, my wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as “myelofibrosis” (who may not know it under that name might be a topic for another post as the exact name can be consequential—see below).  The “official” diagnosis was made, not surprisingly by an oncologist, the acknowledged, state approved, expert who can transform speech (this is myelofibrosis) into not simply an act, but a sequence of new moves a particular set of others, from the patient, to her family, to insurance companies, must now make. [This would be easy to model as a special case of entry into a particular kind of polity of practice.]

The oncologist told us, as I remember it four years later, something like: “People live with this for 15 years or more … You are likely to die of something else … It will change your everyday life as you will now have to schedule regular medical visits.”  I remember she was altogether good at telling us something that we knew, and much that we did not know: we had certainly never heard of this cancer or of its treatment.  Of course we went to the Internet and learned what we could, talked to her further, and settled into what I am experimenting in calling, for various theoretical reasons, a “new normal.”  Actually, what we learned was not extremely bad news for people entering in their 70s.  The oncologist then (and I will keep emphasizing conversational and interactional temporality) tried a drug that would alleviate the symptoms of a cancer that affects the production by the bone marrow of red blood cells: profound anemia and the attendants limits on mobility.

Susan’s body, in its thinginess and peculiarities, was leading us to various particular disabilities that can be mitigated or expanded depending (de Wolfe 2014).

So, this was actually a good time for us to adopt the car culture of suburbia.  The long walks in Manhattan to which we were accustomed would not have been possible anymore.  We escaped one disability.

Things were relatively stable for a few years.  We had educated ourselves in still another polity of practice.  We evolved a new adaptation to the now extent conditions given our resources and consociates.  This was now our new normal, the culture we could not quite escape (though we tried some bricolage with it).

At that point I would have described our “actor-network” as consisting of:

  •     a general practitioner
  •     a clinic with a staff of
    •    oncologists
  •  a   mail order pharmacy
  • a radiology center

That is, ethnographically, these were the people with whom we had to talk in order to maintain the syntagmatic order of the treatment.  Each of the person (but not any) could authoritatively tell us when to show up for an appointment, what tests or drugs to take and when.  This question could be asked here but not there.  This act could be performed here but not there, before but not after this other act, etc. [one should also be able to model this syntagm.]

At that point further actor nodes in the network remained as faint indexes mostly buried in the conversations with the interlocutors we mostly had to address.  We did receive reports from the insurance company about what it was paying the doctors, how much it reimbursed for tests and drugs.  While reading these we were amazed (guilty? thankful for the opportunity?) at the cost of the primary drug: $1,600 a shot, every six weeks.

But cost and attendant controls was not part of the syntagmatic order of the treatment as we experienced it so far.

And then something happened.

In my other life, as long-term employee of Teachers College, I know that insurance companies are big players in constraining what we can do.  Every few years, we are told of long conversations TC has with the various major companies.  We are told about the final proposals and why TC might shift, as it did starting in January 2015, from United Health Care to Aetna.  The cost of these conversations are barely indexed though I have a good sense that it is not trivial, either from TC or the companies: staff time and compensation, consultants, lawyers, writers of glossy presentations, etc.

Anyway, the shift by my “employer” (the term is consequential here) brought to my practical attention the insurance company as we registered on new web sites, a new mail-order pharmacy, new styles of reports, and we continually checked and re-checked that the various doctors that were part of my wife’s actor-network were also “in network” (consequential category in American insurance).

I thought this would only be a minor annoyance and that we would return to the “old” (2014) new normal.

This was not to be.

Aetna told us (clinic, oncologists, Susan and I) that the drug, Aranesp, that had worked at maintaining Susan’s condition for three years was:
a)     experimental for her disease
b)    experimental drugs were not covered by Aetna’s contract with “the employer”
Aetna told us, emphatically, repeatedly, after a variety of appeals by various actors, “NO MORE PAYMENT FOR THIS!” Through this speech act Aetna revealed itself as an inescapable interlocutor in the ongoing conversation.  The expanded text of Aetna’s statement repeatedly indexed two different other worlds:
a) it challenged, successfully, medical practical authority (Aetna did not attack its legitimacy but its everyday consequentiality: what is not reimbursed will not be used)
b) it challenge me to, perhaps, challenge TC about a not so minor detail in the contract it has signed with Aetna (and may or may not have allowed it to undercut United Health Care)

I will not go through the many conversational turns that led, after three anxious weeks to Susan starting a new, and altogether experimental treatment (since we will not know for several months whether it will work) at the (reimbursed after full consultation and authorization) cost of … $11,000 a month (not to mention added visits to the oncologist, more costly tests, a blood transfusion)!!!  (I cannot help but believe that Aetna, as a monstrous network of actors with conflicting authority, confused itself: the outcome is altogether … surprising!)

Who knows that Aetna may be correct in its act and is practicing medicine better than our oncologist (though Aetna is careful, I think, never to shapes its speech as an instruction to “do that”).  But, for now, here is our expanded actor-network of consociates who make a difference:

  •     [the one listed above is still very much active]
  •     various parts of Aetna:
    • the doctor(s) who categorized Aranesp as “experimental-for-this-purpose” and the other doctors who discussed our oncologist’s recommendation (she told us how one of them told her to not get so involved in the case! She was not happy!)
    • the staff members of the clinic who have to check the why’s and wherefore’s of each step, repeatedly, with the staff member of Aetna.  The number of phone calls, waits on hold, recalls, faxes, etc. is astonishing.
    •  Susan multiple calls to clinic, hospital, Aetna special pharmacy.
    •  various parts of Teachers College

There are many anthropological points but, to emphasize my usual themes:

  • these are not matters of social structure (à la Parsons) or modern governmentality (à la Foucault) nor even neo-liberalism.  There are matters of structuring through interlocking conversations that transform the field even as they seek the production of temporary (immortal) new normals.
  • in these conversations everyone “screws around” (Garfinkel) even as they all play deeply with matters of life and death (Varenne & Cotter ).
  • ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, and actor-network-theory (that expands on the other fields) are the most useful starting framework but they are not sufficient
  •  screwing around and playing deeply will always produce something extra-vagant (Boon ) that is not predictable on the basis of efficient rationality.
  • each moment in the evolution of the normal-for-some-now (“culture”) makes sense as a syntagm in a local order.  But this syntagm is always at the edge of catastrophic collapse that leads, in temporality, to

A)  instructions “do NOT screw around! Stay in line! Do what your doctor tells you to do”

B)  efforts to bricolage one’s way out of the order and thus:



de Wolfe, Juliette   2014    Parents of children with autism: An ethnography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varenne, Hervé and Mimi Cotter   2006
“Dr. Mom? Conversational Play and the Submergence of Professional Status in Childbirth.” Human Studies 29:41668.

[here is the list of the most common references I use. Many of these are implicitly indexed in this post]

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On education on Lake Wobegon

Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!”  Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )

Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.

And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:

Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)

The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are.  The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying.  As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998).  It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful.  It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.”  The label must apply only to a certain percentage.

The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.

The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.

“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight.  The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.

I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”).  In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable.  They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).

I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure.  As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality.  We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course).  We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 [1961]) on the relationship between individualism and racism.

This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture.  So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed.  McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon).  But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.

Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports.  I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions.  The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say.  But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time.  In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not.  And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.

What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?”  except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…).  Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production.  How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.


Dumont, Louis 1980 [1961] “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus

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


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