“Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?)

Last Monday, Stanton Wortham gave a wonderful talk on his work in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  There he got to know a first generation of Mexicans moving to the town for all sorts of wonderful, deeply human, reasons and making something new with much that was old–including, most recently, the very history of a movement that is now involving a second generation while people keep arriving.

In his conclusion, Wortham used the phrase “contingent configuration of resources.” The phrase spoke to me as a particularly apt way to capture the general implications of what anthropologists notice in their field sites: something “contingent,” something “configured,” something that has to do with the ‘resources” people find as they make their life.  In my terms, as I expand on Wortham:

1) contingent: not necessary, not quite predictable on the basis of earlier experiences, arising here but not there, now but not then, not reducible to rational functionality, arbitrary, made-up for the occasion, artifactual if not artificial;

2) configured: arranged, making a figure through the relationships between the parts that make something else that may then constrain further arrangement as the new gets coopted into the figure;

3) resources: a deceptively simple terms that include not only the material (ecology, economics) but also the symbolic, the interactional, the institutional and the political, and also the psychological, not to mention … chance.

Wortham presented his study through the career of an Italian plumber meeting a Mexican entertainer in Acapulco, wooing her, accepting the suggestion of one of her kin that she might have a hard time by her Mexican self in Pennsylvania, and moving her two sisters with him after marrying her.  They are followed by brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, sleeping on sofas in basement, and then opening shops, restaurants, and otherwise establishing themselves economically even as they married, raised children (and, I suspect, fought among themselves, and made other kinds of mistakes that made life even more difficult).

This is the anthropological “anecdote” at its best: apparently a single case, involving hundreds of human beings linked with each other in very concrete ways, and unique at the level of detail characteristic of ethnographic research and essential to anthropology.  This is not a controlled experiment but an occasion that reveals fundamental processes among human beings (Varenne 2014, 2015).

As those who know my work will see coming, I heard the phrase “contingent configuration of resources” as a more precise way of talking about what the word “culture” should index—unless it is that this is the way I have always understood “culture” though I may never have used the phrase.

But when I thought about this in the midst of the other contingent problems with which I had to deal, what struck me as a challenge is whether “contingent configuration of resources” could also be a wonderful way of talking about what Saussure was trying to capture when he talked about the synchronic aspect of language: la langue.  I always mention, when teaching Saussure, was that he was above all a historical linguist concerned with language as it changes and struck by the contingencies of expression.  Thus he argues for a “general” linguistics that would be a social science about contracts given various affordances (Saussure [1915] 1983).  He did not mention political power, authority, etc., but it is implied.

I got to think that presenting language as “contingent configuration of resources” might finally succeed in taking Saussurian linguistics and its descendants out of the realm of cognition and the brain, and even out of the abstract “social” that is depending on socialization and early childhood experiences (as Latour has been suggesting we should).

As both phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty [1969] 1973) and conversational analysts have taught us, the difficult human problem about language (in its complex affordances) is that it is the central tool for expression and never quite allows for it.  It is fundamental that one cannot describe the experience of tasting a banana, or the sound of a note, or the color of the sky, or seeing “scientifically” what is at the bottom of the sea (Goodwin 1995).  But there are many occasion when one must try and tell what one feels towards another person, or what one needs, or what one wants to protest, or what one has learned. This, I think, is what Saussure was trying to express when he wrote about la parole—with the symbolic means available to him at the turn of the 20th century that he borrowed for the occasion.  Every speech act is contingent in all its aspects even as it is caught in a configuration of other speech acts and makes use of all available (or even made up for the moment) resources.  In this perspective, deixis, metapor, poetry, paradigmatic associations and syntagmatic chains are all resources for expression given a contingent moment of habits, people, and things.  The affordances and defenses of any of these resources may be so deeply inscribed as to appear “natural” to any generation but we, anthropologists and linguist keep showing that is not so, even as we must also say that it is not under individual (or even communal) control, even as we must also say that people always try to gain control and, sometimes, succeed.  Sometimes we vanquish language, but always only for a time.


Goodwin, Charles   1995     “Seeing in Depth.” Social Studies of
25: 237-274.

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

Saussure, Ferdinand de [1915] 1983 Course in General Linguistics. Tr. by R. Harris. Peru, IL: Carus Publishing Company.


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