My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

Given a setting that may be “quite an experience,” how might one write a research question to investigate the participants’ experience

My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

I have written about participants’ “experience” of moments, settings, scenes, such as–say–a seminar when first and second year doctoral students in anthropology present their work and discuss it in front of program faculty.  At Teachers College, what is known as “The Colloquium” is famous among all who participate, or have participated, as “quite an experience.”

The faculty like to tell students, during discussions of difficult passages in Durkheim, Marx, or Weber, to imagine how this or that point might apply to, precisely, this colloquium in which they are participating.  Now, how would one phrase a research question about the colloquium to address the possibility, attested by anecdotal reports in bars and corridors, that it is indeed “quite an experience?”

A good student might ask “how do students (faculty) experience the colloquium?”  and then spend a lot of time writing about the room, the demographics (gender/age/ethnicity/etc.) of student and faculty, the biographies of some, the rules spelled out by the faculty, etc.  At the end of the presentation of all this information, a faculty member might ask: what does this information tell us about the students’ experience?  Another one might quip that it depends on what you mean by ‘experience’ and how the question is asked–given that there might be at least two not quite commensurable ways of understanding ‘experience’, asking research questions about it, and then using particular techniques to answer the question. Still another might ask what the distinction is.

Very briefly, what might wonder what are the matters that trigger an experience, a wonder that might be phrased as “what do participants experience in the colloquium?” with answers such as “some participants evaluate performance, other participants are evaluated.”

One might also wonder what is the personal experience of the colloquium, a wonder that might be phrased in the same way but with answers of the type “some are anxious, some are bored, some are angry” leading to questions differentiating participants with answers such as “more women are anxious than men” which of course would be misleading given that in recent years there have been very few men among the students while all faculty are men.  So we would be led to divide the participants further, adding other categories (such as race, age, citizenship status, etc.).

The possibility of confusion has a long history.  So, when I teach anthropological methods, I always start with the last two pages of Malinowski’s classic introduction to The Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961 [1922]).  Malinowski starts with a  list of everything an ethnographer should collect:

1. The organization of the tribe, and the anatomy of its culture must be recorded in firm, clear outline. The method of concrete, statistical documentation is the means through which such an outline has to be given.
2. Within this frame, the imponderabilia of actual life, and the type of behavior have to be filled in. They have to be collected through minute, detailed observations, in the form of some sort of ethnographic diary, made possible by close contact with native life.
3. A collection of ethnographic statements, characteristic narratives, typical utterances, items of folk-lore and magical formulae has to be given as a corpus inscriptionum, as documents
(1961 [1922]: 24)

This is a list the Foucault of The Order of Things (1970 [1966]) would appreciate in the wonderful arbitrariness of its distinctions.  But Malinowski then proceeds to tell us that all this is only a step towards “The final goal [which] is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (1961 [1922]: 25).  This phrase has had a famous history in Geertz’s discussion (1976) which led him to the skepticism of the end of his career when he despaired of anthropologists ever getting at this “point of view” which he understood as a personal, though public, matter.  He had pushed Weber (not to mention Margaret Mead and most second generation Boasians) into an impasse.  Almost by definition, particularly given our current understanding of the limits of linguistic or symbolic expression, personal experiences are unreachable.

I agree with this and it is one of the reasons why I have more and more systematically presented my work as not concerned with something that psychologists may still struggle to get at, but which I am convinced no extent ethnographic technique can reach.  But I do not agree with my “post-modernist” peers on what is to follow for anthropology.  Malinowski, like Boas, and then many others in sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, ethnomethodology, and indeed anthropology, have kept telling us that there are other matters of human activity that are reachable.  Moreover, precisely because of what we have learned about the historical consequences of public symbolic expression, we have no choice but to pay very close attention to such expression, as it unfolds in time and space—and to challenge each other to ever greater rigor.

To summarize, provocatively perhaps, “my” experiences of the colloquium are not “m’I” experiences.  That is any experience one might plausibly attach to Hervé Varenne’s “self” (in G. H. Mead’s sense) or “identity” (in what I take to be the most common sense of the term these days), are at best “interpretations,” classifications into a culture or discourse.  M’I experiences are un-speakable and so, as McDermott and Varenne have said, we should turn aside and look for what others do to ‘I’.

[This is something of a development on my December 28, 2010, post]

2 thoughts on “My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium”

  1. I really enjoyed your blog entry! And it made a lot of sense with the class we just had yesterday on Mead.

    Your entry talked about the Argonauts and my favorite paragraph of this piece is:

    “I knew well that the best remedy for this was was to collect concrete data, and accordingly I took a village census, wrote down genealogies, drew up plans and collected the terms of kinship. But all this remained dead material, which led me to no further into the understanding of real native mentality and behavior, since I could neither procure a good native interpretation of any of these items, nor get what could be called the hand of tribal life” (5).

    How much do we know about anyone’s experience even if we “situate” them? Or should I just say “reported experience”?

  2. In reflecting on this philosophical moment, allow me to shift the conversation to a cautionary, meta-level of philosophical and pragmatic concern. I wholeheartedly agree with the position which calls into question what can be known and under what circumstances; I respect the notion that we can both actively engage in the productive study of the social world without making claims to knowledge of internal states. But this position may quickly slide over into the extreme post-modern argument that everything we do is more reflective of our own positions than that of those we study – that we can know nothing but our own reflections on our representations of the other.

    Thus, although I do understand that even ‘situating’ the agent in context is not enough to capture his/her ‘experience,’ we have to be clear that we are capturing something worthy of study through ethnographic methods. In the works of Varenne, McDermott and many others, the emphasis shifts from internal states (which are always arrived at through a sort of logical mimesis) to the concrete, observable conditions and consequences of the social world that we all inhabit.

    This is particularly important because while we may be willing to debate the nature of knowledge, there are others who are too busy shaping the common-sensical, formally acknowledged, and consequential knowledge to bother with debate. So this touches on the previous entry about the validity of assessment and the claims of methodological authority across disciplines. For example, a student in my ANT100 class captured the entire debate through his summary of ethnography as a method “that is just opinion” compared to the “rigorous quantitative methodologies” of other disciplines. Of course in many ways schooling is more about assessment than learning, and this student’s perception demonstrates why it is that policy-makers are more likely to turn to psychologists and quantitative sociologists for models of such assessment. Although our philosophical debate is intellectually productive and (in my humble opinion) more accurately describes the world around us, it also cedes our disciplinary authority to others who have no problem in laying claim to Truth. We must balance sensitivity to the limitations of what we can know, but without ceding ground to other scholars who believe their Science has no limitations. (Wow, look at all the military, battle-ground metaphors that snuck into my comment).

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