So, what is my phenomenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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