on being educated about cancer, death rates, and their statistical interpretation

Last week, I completed the first draft of what is to be the postface of the third volume of the Perspectives on Comprehensive Education Series I am co-editing with Ed Gordon.  It includes a few lines about the responsibility for journalists to build on their educative role.  They educate, whether they are aware of it or not, simply by providing information about the world we all inhabit.  I use the word ‘educate’ rather than ‘teach’ to distinguish between activities where one can check what those who read (watch, or whatever) might learn, and activities where there is no way to check.  Journalists make something available that is much more than “information” or even “opinion.”  Journalists make us discover what we might not know, and they organize a curriculum, as well as a pedagogy.  How might we get them to take this activity even more seriously than some of them already may do?

There is much evidence that journalists know about their educative role.  One example is a sub-story that accompanied a New York Times story about the difficulty of curing cancer, “Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer” (NYT, April 23, 2009).  The handle supposed to get our attention (I think) is the fact that modern medicine has been much more successful at dealing with heart disease than with cancer.  The basic “data” is a comparison of death rates and a spectacular table summarizing “Deaths from cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population [compared] to death rates from heart disease and stroke.”

What I found interesting was that the story was accompanied by a related story, “As Other Death Rates Fall, Cancer’s Scarcely Moves.”  This story was published as a box within the other story in the print version of the New York Times.  That story consisted of an explanation of what is meant by “death rate,” why the statistics are not “lying and hiding major advances,” why there might be “other explanations… for example … the competing cause-of-death hypothesis” and why there are no easy explanations.  This story is really not “news” but it is an essential educative expansion of the story by exploring the questions a reader might ask.  The story ends with links to related stories from the Times over the past few years that might be considered an expansion of the paper’s curriculum about cancer death rates.

Now, I do not know enough about the editing of newspapers to know how the basic story, and then the explanatory story, are scheduled or which story is to be expanded by an explanation.  It is not uncommon.  I would say I learned most of what I have gotten to know about “credit default swap” and other mysterious financial stuff from explanatory stories in the major media.

The interesting next question is how to encourage the media to expand this service.  In all sorts of ways, the development of the web has made it much easier for them to do this, as long as the stories remain available essentially for free.  One imagines, and this is a matter of both curriculum and pedagogy,  that they would link to some kind of “wiki.”  Given the doubts about wikis, the media and/or a university that might stand with it, one imagine a controlled wiki where information would be peer reviewed, then linking further to less controlled wikis, as well as an expanding web of links.  I am sure there are many other possibilities.

What I now want to find out easily is: how do statistics about death rates relate to statistics about causes of death?

Aaron Hung and the collective construction of videogame play

While reading Aaron Hung’s wonderful dissertation about the collective construction of video game play (2009), something struck me again: Conversational Analysis, and indeed ethnomethodology with which it is closely related, has not faced quite systematically with conversational drift in longer sequences.  Hung “unit of analysis” is something like two hours.  Much of the analysis is about the shifting of the interactional orders, including moments when the shifting is actually brought to the conversational surface as participants offer different interpretations (meta-discursive comments) about what happened “earlier” so that different things might happen “later.”  By choosing such a unit of analysis Hung takes himself out of classic CA to the extent that it is intent on demonstrating the making of orders and their reconstitution through various kinds of repairs under various kinds of stresses.  He is far from the first to look at longer sequences heavily marked for particular settings (e.g. classroom interaction, counseling interviews, medical examinations, etc.).  And much of the literature is about struggles to establish and maintain an order. But there is much less about the “failures” to maintain a particular order that eventually, and relatively seamlessly, lead to another order.

I have become fascinated by these events in which I see the best evidence we have for a separate human process that we might label “education” in the powerful sense of the word where it is not collapsed into either “schooling” or “learning.”  Such evolutionary drifting also has to be ubiquitous to explain what anthropologists have been talking about when they have written about culture as a process of patterning—what I now write about as “cultural production.”  I started pushing this in a 2004 address (Varenne and Cotter 2007) which I wrote when Ray McDermott, Jean Lave and I conducted a joint seminar on the “politics of ignorance.”  What remains exciting is the attempt to base a theory of sociability, that is “culturability,” on the facing of ongoing and ever renewed ignorance about what is the feature of a current environment that is likely to make the most difference in the immediate future.  This, of course, is but another take on classical Garfinkel but with the twist that my concern now is less with ordering and more with culturing as the process of the production of new arbitrary orders which, if I am right, must be a ubiquitous, ongoing process, at the most local of levels, as well as at the macro levels anthropologists have mostly been working at.

I believe we now have a good set of ethnographies exploring various possibilities (Varenne 2008).  Hung pushes this at the most local of levels by showing how a young woman and use three young men to teach her how to play a video game first by finding herself necessary to their play (which required four players), and then by being shown multiply ignorant, eventually by discovering what it is that she had to manipulate, and then by getting at least some of the instruction she actually needed, thereby temporarily suspending “regular play,” and possibly then producing a still different order as the four started playing again with her as less incompetent.

It is only be pushing such ethnographies of everyday life that we can bring together the structural traditions ethnomethodology develops (Garfinkel 2002) with the Bakhtinian emphases on dialogical centrifugality.

on gender and “distracting associations” in America

Justice Ginsburg also discussed her career as an advocate, one that included six Supreme Court arguments and a role in shaping the language of the law. She helped introduce the term “gender discrimination” as a synonym for “sex discrimination,” she said, explaining that her secretary had proposed the idea while typing a brief to be submitted to male judges.

“ ‘The first association of those men with the word “sex” is not what you’re talking about,’ ” the secretary said, Justice Ginsburg recalled. “ ‘Why don’t you use a grammar-book term? Use gender. It has a neutral sound, and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ” (New York Times, April 12, 2009)

When I teach “gender” I make it a major point that the cultural transformation of sexual dimorphism into labels, cautionary tales, practices, rituals, etc., that is, precisely “associations” must mean that there must be an indefinite number of genders in any culture. Thus gender and sex are not homonyms within the same paradigm. The word “gender” as it had started to be used even before Ginsburg can refer to much more than “sex without ‘male’ fantasies about sexual activity.” For Ginsburg, and for American law as it is enforced by Congress and the Supreme Court, that is for American culture at its most hegemonic, there can be only two genders, like there kind be only two sexes. For those of us in anthropology who have been trying to model “America,” from David Schneider (1968) onwards, this makes complete sense. I have moved far from Schneider’s view of culture as purely as “system of symbols.” “Culture” is a matter of enforced historical constructions that become inevitable for those who encounter them (rather than a matter of enculturation), and it is an ongoing “immortal” process (Garfinkel 2002) constituted by the instructions people give each other about what to do next so that an order can be maintained. But Schneider was on to something for there is evidence that the American a-constituting order on the matter of sex should insist on the possibility of only two genders directly. This is the reality we all encounter when we enter the worlds ruled by America.

Given this reality, it makes sense that behavioral science research, when it attempts to demonstrate that it pay attention to “gender,” and particularly in “policy relevant” research—including research that might be quoted in the Supreme Court and might transform laws and regulations—, would be required to distinguish only two genders and assume that the respondents will respond in terms of their identity as imposed by those who first identified them as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth (or after a judicial process of re-naturalization as the other in cases of “sex change” surgery). As Schneider first noticed, this is a matter of genitalia, reinterpreted, if necessary, by biologists as experts in sexual dimorphism.

This makes American sense, and by almost any theory of culture, it makes no human sense to the extent that it erases a whole range of possibilities even as it further inscribes one possibility. Not only does it make it more difficult to understand “other cultures,” but it also makes it difficult to notice what happens in the areas ruled by America (mostly in the United States but also almost anywhere else in the world given the imperial reach of American hegemony). That point was made recently by educational researchers (Glasser and Smith 2008). By stratifying samples purely in terms of ‘gender’ (as polite ‘sex’), much differentiations is erased. Aspects of “queer theory” make the same point.

I would go further. The problem with moving from simple “gender” to “gender orientation” is that it reinstates sexuality as the core as if the main issue was the nature of sexual pleasure and the defense of the public affirmation of all types of means for achieving it. But the cultural transformation of sex into gender, as any other such transformations, is going to make something that will make much more than sex. It will introduce the arbitrary in all sorts of way. Think for example of the association of color and sex for American infants (blue vs. pink) and then for adult males. These classificatory associations are what culture is all about Lévi-Strauss taught us a long time ago. ‘Pink’ is not gendered, but sex is multiply and differentially gendered when it becomes associated with colors—or legal argumentation.

Glasser, Howard, and John P. Smith
2008 “On the vague meaning of ‘gender’ in education research: The problem, its sources, and recommendations for practice. Educational Researcher, 37, 6, 343-350.

on rewriting the history of one’s blogging

I have a question of etiquette (?) that is actually related to Gus Andrews’ research.  She noticed a formatting error in my post on ‘LOL’.  I had been lazy about fixing it up.  Now that she mentioned it in the comment, if I were to fix it, then aspect of the comment would not make sense.  What should I do?

In other words: can I rewrite my own history to erase an error that was noticed, thereby making someone else’s post puzzling or even “incorrect”?

[I just did make the correction]

an education into Ritalin for college success

I am an altogether avid reader of Discover, a magazine about “Science, Technology, and The Future.” I find something interesting in almost every issue. Sometimes it is a bit of new knowledge interesting for its own sake. Often it is because it provides a brief glimpse of the actual doing of science, and thus help think further about the anthropology of science, and also anthropology as a science. Quite regularly, in recent years, it gives me a sense of a journalistic discourse about matters at the edge of science and politics–particularly, on the one hand in the common articles about ecology, global warming, etc., and, on the other hand, on human evolution and sociobiology,

In the April 2009 issue I found in passing a little of Americana directly related to my arguments about the uncontrolled education of the officially ignorant. In an article on “Building a better brain” (the title is not ironic, and gives a sense of the editorial attitude towards the story) that discusses about the great things “mind-altering drugs” might do for humanity, they write:

In a study published last year in Pharmacotherapy, researchers at the University of Maryland found that of 1,208 college students, 18 percent took ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall even though the drugs had not been prescribed. You might think the college students were taking stimulants mostly to party, but that is not what the researchers found. The students were taking the stimulants mainly to help with studying. (Baker, 2009)

The story is written in the “brave new world” discourse of enhanced possibilities (“Think of millions of workers in India or China cognitively enhanced with neuropharmaceuticals. Will the United States be able to compete?”). The original study took the opposite tack. The paper ended with warnings to physicians and parents about “overuse and/or diversion of stimulant drug” (Arria, Caldeira, O’Grady, Johnson, & Wish, 2008, p. 266).

Neither wondered about is my perennial question (Varenne 2008, 2009): where do the students find out about these drugs? What sort of conversations do they have about them? To whom do they talk about it? That is, how do they educate themselves about these drugs? What is the place of the race for school of success in these discussions?

The last matter is particularly intriguing. For those who have done the work to inform themselves about off-label use of these drugs, how to take them, when, etc., including the possibility that it will improve their test scores, then the total event is another aspect of the battle of the mediocre middle-class against the probability that others are likely to do better on pure merit. As with steroids in sports, it is a matter of getting the edge. In other words, it is possible that taking these drugs is part of a larger conversation about succeeding in school that older adolescents and young adults must be having among themselves and with their parents (and about which we altogether have little detailed research).

Given this ongoing education about school success, then it is probable that the call from the authors of the article for “more parent education” that consists purely of listing the “risks” of taking these drugs is altogether pathetic. The risks of NOT taking them, for some students, may be higher, and they will not trust the People of the School, and all the less that they must also know that, for all intent and purposes, taking these drugs is cheating at School.

‘LOL’: on the construction of a cultural fact

Mar 11, 2009 09:20:41 AM, &&&&&&@aol.com wrote:

What does “lol” or “l.o.l.” mean?


On the


Those are the 3 most common ways to say you think something is drop dead funny

The questioning message was prompted by an exchange between Professor and Wife as they disputed what ‘LOL’ stood for. For wife, this was obvious: “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Lots of Love’.” Professor was quite sure that it stood for “Laugh out Loud.” So Daughter-in-Law was asked for instruction.

Her answer is unambiguous, but a professor cannot let matters stand. Who says that ‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’? Does Daughter-in-Law settle the matter? Or is it ‘everybody’ these days? Was wife ‘ignorant’? Or simply not very powerful on this matter? And what is ‘LOL’ made up of, in any event? What are the contexts in which it appeared and in which the dominant mode of interpretation appeared?

I got to wonder about this as I was teaching Jakobson on “Linguistics and poetics” (1960), and the following is a take on his model. ‘LOL’ is code for ‘Laugh out loud’ which itself is, to simplify, a signifier for at least two possible mental images (“laughing” and “loud”). It is also heavily marked for electronic messaging by particularly kinds of people. In that sense writing ‘LOL’; participates in constituting the context for the message either as electronic message or as about electronic messaging. It also constitutes the addresser as someone who “thinks that something is drop dead funny.” And it is built as a kind of play (poetry) with possibilities within English orthography. It is also particularly useful given the technical constraints of electronic personal communication (a matter of the support for the means of contact between people). And finally, it is a metalingual commentary on what was said before.

What Jakobson’s model does not quite do is allow us easily to explore the matters of control over most of these matters. Saying “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’” is a matter of metalinguistics that leaves open the grounds for the legitimacy of the statement or its power over future conversations. This is where we need to call on the pragmatist tradition. We need to find a way to add a third dimension to Jakobson’s model, perhaps in the following fashion:

The “factors” might be:


The “functions” might be:

————————————————– Controller

The “functions” might be:

————————————————– (Policy)

I am not quite sure about all this, and particularly not about the words in parenthesis. Furthermore I am trying to fit all this within the graphic representation Jakobson proposed, and this may not be the most fruitful way to proceed.

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given arbitrariness, then instruction…

Professor fiddles with computer in full view of about 30 graduate students.  Complains audibly that he can’t get rid of something on the screen.  One student (or more) suggests clicking on what seems the offending screen overlay.  Professor clicks there, and then clicks somewhat wildly on various options.  Apparent success.  The overlay shrinks.  But now the cursor is wrong.  A(nother? Or more) student suggests something like “click on the ‘x’ in the upper right corner.  Professor complies and is satisfied with the result.  Professor then uses the sequence he has thereby ended as an example of “distributed cognition.”

And now I, the professor expands on this discussion in the context of the class discussion about arbitrariness and culture.  As we move from identifying the properties of a social field (culture, semiotic system, etc.) to acting within this field, the essential question then becomes: how do human beings deal with the arbitrariness of their world, including the ongoing evolution of new forms of arbitrariness.  This, for a social scientist is an empirical question.  For an anthropologist inspired by conversational analysis, this is also one that must be answered through examining closely instances when, arguably, people face arbitrariness in the midst of a collectivity.  Thus the exemplary usefulness of the above example.

Living with computers and other such technologies involves facing on-going changes in the acts needed to accomplish simple tasks.  Depending on much, this can be exciting or annoying.  During a lecture, using a now unfamiliar computer, the latter is probably the most usual personal response (from watching myself and others as the carefully prepared presentation collapses more or less completely).  The issue, in the context of a lecture on arbitrariness, is that in all cases, the act that will resolve the matter and get the computer to do what one expects, cannot be simply predicted.  Familiarity with stylistic choices by software developers (e.g. Windows vs. Macs) can suggest where to look for the solution.  But one soon discovers that familiarity can lead to dead ends (e.g. the version one is now confronting may be newer or older than the one one is used to and the sequence one has used, does not work).

In cultural anthropology and related field, the usual next step is to invoke the need to “learn” the particular encoding of the task.  This is OK as far as it goes but actually does not specify how this is to happen.  “Learning” is also the search for the instructions that will teach them.  But instructing is not a trivial task, as Garfinkel has shown (2002).

And so, in the instance above, we have an “in-situ” instructional sequence.  But it should lead to more to questions about the collective organization of the sequence than on what the professor learned (which is probably going soon to be an irrelevant bit to knowledge given probably changes in the software).


(Lots of Love?
Laughing out Loud?
Who decides? [the power question]
How does one find out? [the educational question])

more on arbitrariness

I am experimenting here with a blog that would relate to a class I am currently teaching.  This Spring 2009, I am teaching Communication and Culture.  It will mostly consist of thoughts than came to me after finishing a lecture.  It is often the case that, while walking home, I wonder whether this or that point needed to be made more systematically.

For example, after the class on Saussure, and partially in response to a question about change and education, it came to me again that, at this point, it is what he started when emphasizing the arbitrariness of the sign is most relevant to the future of anthropological theory about culture and education, along with what he had to say about syntagms.  Of course, I take arbitrariness much beyond where Saussure stopped, and will include all matters of classification (including the classification of human beings) as well as matters of processes (e.g. schooling as a means of socialization into participation).  By direct implication, this means that arbitrariness unfolds in time and involves a possibly very large number of persons.  It also implies that the very arbitrariness of the process will reveal itself continually to participants and so that they will have to keep telling each other what to do next (or what they should have done, etc.).  This then directly ties to the major concern of ethnomethodology with ordering as an ongoing process.

This has to be particularly the case given that even a well-ordered event (say a joke, a class, a ceremony or ritual), that is a syntagm of parts having to be performed in “just this way” to work so that the working is not noticed (i.e. “grammatical according to native intuition”), will take time and be distributed along many participants, including many who know much about what is happening.

Thus the ongoing possibility of trouble and mistakes, as well as fun and change through mis-takes (Klemp, N., McDermott, R., Raley, J., Thibeault, M., Powell K. & Levitin, D.J. 2008).

Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist