on researching autism as “cultural fact”

on modeling “autism” as a cultural fact, that is as an enabling and disabling resource for all those who cannot escape it, whether as “child with autism,” parent or teacher of such a child, administrator of a school with special education classrooms, or as policy maker devising new regulations about how to deal with all the above.

There is a cliche in the sentiment that one of the best part in being a professor is being faced by great students challenging one’s pet ideas.  But a cliche can also be true as I experienced again when Juliette de Wolfe, at the end of a seminar, told me that she was anxious about using one of my favorite conceits.  For close to 20 years, McDermott and I have been writing about such matters as learning disabilities as “cultural facts.” De Wolfe, who is starting a project on the processes for the identification of autism, and who had used the phrase in her proposal, was worried that she was caught in something, that was “static.”

On the spot, my answers were weak and not convincing–certainly they were not convincing to me as I thought about them later.  I had mumbled something about the adjective “static” being possibly an attribute of a research analysis, not of a concept that could be used in any number of ways, that emphasizing “change” is much easier said than done, and that those that claim that they do not want to be “static” mostly produce analyses that end up extremely static.  Had I not been interrupted, I probably could have gone on in this defensive/offensive mode without quite answering a very proper concern about the very justification for social science research, particularly in its anthropological version.

McDermott and I devised the phrase (“cultural fact”) to index our roots in Durkheimian sociology (as reinterpreted by Garfinkel) and in American cultural anthropology and pragmatism.  Earlier I had pointed de Wolfe to the pages in Successful failure (1998) where McDermott and I developed the phrase “cultural fact” we had introduced earlier (McDermott & Varenne 1995).  But these passages are not enough.

To stay with de Wolfe’s concern, let’s say that we are interested in children who are having a difficult life and particularly with those who have, or are caught with, something now labeled “autism,” something that was discovered-as-such in America and in the 1940s.  It is something that was fully institutionalized starting in the 1970s.  Autism may be some thing that has always been there in humanity, though until recently this thing may have been labeled something else, or institutionalized differently.  Just putting the issue this way should make it clear that I am taking here the classical cultural anthropological stance (Benedict 1934).  I make the noticing of autism as a thing with specific personal, interactional, and political consequences, a historical event.  In other words I place autism “in its historical context,” or, more jargonistically, I “historicize” autism.

All this is well and good, but it actually must leave our apprentices in confusion.  What are future anthropologists to do next, after we have historicized autism, or any one of its sub-practices (e.g. the meetings where a child gets officially labeled)?  What is the point of historicizing something?  Actually how do we know that we have actually historicized “it” or that we have conspired in reconstituting something that should never have been constituted in the first place?

I argue that our duty, as anthropologists, is to provide future practitioners (parents, teachers, etc.) with a more systematic account of the constraints which they will not be able to escape.  This, I think, is what Durkheim meant when he wrote of social facts as “imposing themselves,” or what Latour now means when he writes about objects as having “agency.”  What easily disappears in these statements as they have been taken for more than a century is that these are statements about the future rather than the past, or even the present.  As McDermott and I put it “Culture is not a past cause to a current self.  Culture is the current challenge to possible future selves” (2006:8).  As I would put it today, technically, a cultural fact is a model for the set of (dis-)abling properties of the present that make a difference in some future.  The task of the cultural analyst is to discern these properties and report on them in a way that makes sense to at least some of the practitioners.

Thus the task for de Wolfe, as she starts observing teachers and students in an “autistic classroom,” is to build a model of those matters that make a difference as the people she meets build a life together and, in the process, instruct her as to what actually does make a difference.

This is what I advise her to do because this is what all those who care for the children need from an anthropologist: a different account of their experiences that may provide them with new resources for the future they will make with each other.

And we should not worry if this account looks to some as a “synchronic” account.  The account, if it is well done, will of course be synchronic in the Saussurian sense.  Others can write about the history of autism and trace its diachronic evolution.  But history, however interesting, is not quite useful because human evolution, including its cultural (linguistic) evolution is not a rational process in the narrow sense.

6 thoughts on “on researching autism as “cultural fact””

  1. Is this analogous to Ludwik Fleck’s The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact? His writing came before Kuhn and Latour but uses a similar line of argument about how a scientific fact is created. He uses a historical (diachronic) analysis of syphilis and how the definition and conceptualization of the disease evolved over time and often reflected the values of the society at the time.

  2. I do not know Fleck’s work, but it sounds right. In terms of precursors, I really like A. Kaplan’s The Conduct of Inquiry (1964) who provides a possibly more thorough presentation of science as a “community [of practice]” endeavor than Kuhn does.

  3. I’m starting a project on “giftedness” and am curious about the possibilities and limitations of approaching it as a “cultural fact”. The critical approach I’m most familiar with — following Bourdieu and Passeron’s work in 1970s France — is interested in showing how labeling certain students (or professors) as “gifted” obscures and legitimates the work of social reproduction. “Giftedness”, it can be said, sustains the illusion that certain students succeed because of their “natural talent”, while the non-gifted fail, or succeed less, simply because they lack “the knack” — that certain je ne sais quoi, which comes from genetics, or the gods, or both. A good Bourdieusian sociology of giftedness would show that the talents of the so-called gifted are in fact socially, not naturally, endowed: the gifted tend to come from prosperous families and they tend to practice their gifts in domains that are recognized as legitimate (i.e., in schools and not on the streets; in algebra and not in hip-hop, etc.).

    This critique is not a difficult one to make, it seems to me. Gifted education in the United States is the whitest, wealthiest, least-populated field of education. That prosperous families mobilize their capital to have their children identified as gifted (at the expense of the less-prosperous, who don’t have the same resources to have their children identified) is par for the course — and everybody knows it; which is to say, there is no “mystification” here that the sociologist has to labor to expose. The actors themselves (parents, educators, the testing industry) are aware of the social reproduction at work. Consider, for example, this article that appeared a couple of weeks ago on the most-emailed list in the NYTimes, about the money spent on prepping bourgeois kindergarden-aged kids for testing into the city’s public gifted education programs : http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/nyregion/21testprep.html?_r=1&em=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1258824331-sOH31kbxvtiPxbGmlRb

    If the Bourdieusian critique seems obvious and common-sensical, what other critical, defamiliarizing approaches might be taken towards a study of “giftedness” (assuming that “giftedness” remains a viable object for sociological analysis, of which I’m not necessarily convinced). It srikes me that, on first glance, researching giftedness as “social fact” would have to take account of the apparatus in which children come to be identified as gifted: the schools, the testing industry, the parent-activists, the psychologists who theorize giftedness, the law-makers who write gifted education into legislation, etc.. This approach wouldn’t look at the children themselves who, we might assume, are just like other children — they only happen to be caught in the web of giftedness (as opposed to, say, being caught in the web of autism [though the overlaps — asberger’s? — would be interesting to trace]). But are these children really the same as other children? What are we positing as the similarity between all children?

    My hunch is that there are “differences that make a difference”, between gifted and non-gifted kids, asberger’s and non-asberger’s, Down’s and non-Down’s, that aren’t the result or manifestation of “being caught” in a web of identification — and we anthropologists may be better suited than theologians or geneticists to understand these differences. In the case of giftedness, consider the way people with certain “gifts” (What else should we call them? I am referring to extraordinary language, math, or musical ability) talk about their experience of the world; and consider the way they position themselves in relation to it in their practice of everyday life. Might we infer (for that’s all we can do, and maybe that’s going too far) that their consciousness is markedly different from someone who doesn’t present such abilities? Can we talk about a consciousness particular to those with “gifts” (or an “asberger’s consciousness”, or a “Down’s consciousness”) that isn’t the “mystified consciousness” of social reproduction (Bourdieu); or that isn’t only the consciousness that results from “being caught” in webs of identification? Or, here’s another way of posing it (maybe less problematic in that it doesn’t invoke that troublesome concept “consciousness”): might we understand giftedness in terms of human “diversity” — in the way, say, Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture understands diversity; that is, not as ethnic diversity, but as a diversity of orientations towards the social world?

    This would require making an analytic distinction between, on one hand, “giftedness” (or “asberger’s”, or “Down’s”) as a label or social identity, and on the other hand, “having a gift” as a “form of life” (or “being-in-the-world”, or “culture”). Obviously this distinction is relative and not absolute: you can’t have lives without labels, and you can’t have labels without lives. Given this, is there a way to take account of “labeling” (of the gifted, of the autistic, of Down syndrome) while also taking account of what’s relatively distinct about the life being labeled? By analyzing the network that labels the life, do we miss out on the life (Maybe this is another way of asking Juliette’s question about “staticness”)? What “difference” is left to “celebrate”, a la Benedict?

  4. Peter Kurie raises an interesting point that concerned McDermott and I when we wrote the paper on “culture as disability” (1995). Deafness, blindness, etc., are physical properties. In our book (1998), we spent a lot of energy critiquing many forms of “constructivism” when they appear to collapse the materiality of the world. Our analyses cannot devolve into idealism. Some people cannot see, and others bang their heads against walls. Latour has faced this most vocally, and we made the same point. The issue is not “sensitivity to light (or sound)” but, as I would now put it, the sequencing of the product of this sensitivity with the activities of the people around us, our “consociates” (Plath 1980). Thus, deafness might be a gift for someone working in a very noisy (from a usual human point of “hearing”) environment, including, for example, working at sea before radios when ship to ship communication had to be visual. The same might be true of Asperger’s syndrome for people who must accomplish repetitively routine tasks while avoiding the empathy that might lead to mistakes (screeners at airport security?). And so on.

    Now the difficulty about coming to “giftedness” initially from the American web (more than a matter of definition or identification as we all agree) is that I cannot figure out what might be the “it” (such as sensitivity to light) that the web (spider?) built upon, extra-vagantly. Initially, giftedness might have had to do with intelligence testing. But we can be quite sure that this is already a secondary construction, particularly as it gets sequenced within conversation about merit. The more recent conversations to expand Giftedness (capitalized to index a cultural fact) to include non-cognitive exceptional performances make things even more vague, while at the same time refocusing attention on individual properties. McDermott recent papers on the evolution of the notion of “genius” are relevant here.

    Recasting giftedness as a matter of giving (rather than having received through genetics or environment) is another thing altogether. Shifting to “giftingness” is a daring step and I have no idea where it would lead. Any ideas?

  5. As Editor of Ethos, the Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, I have enjoyed reading this. It converges in interesting ways with our recent issue on Rethnking Autism, Rethinking Anthropology (March 2010), a focused issue that collects the works of scholars in diverse fields exploring challenges and unique predispositions of those with autism. The issue aims to advance understanding of the socio-cultural dimensions of autistic orientations to life. In this collection the idea that “Culture is the current challenge to possible future selves” emerges forcefullyas scholars outline contemporary “cultural facts” of autism in the very act of transforming them.

  6. The same might be true of Asperger’s syndrome for people who must accomplish repetitively routine tasks while avoiding the empathy

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