beyond “conviction” as the product of social constructions

(social) constructions do not “convince” or “make it appear to” individuals; they are, just, that, objects, things, that individuals then must deal with in the setting where they encounter them.

This is a coda to my last post about the semiotic (interactional, conversational) aspects of all collective processes (including science, schooling, etc.).  Lim, in his answer to the exam question about Bourdieu’s response to Latour, quotes a statement about “how a fact takes on a quality which appears to place it beyond the scope of some kinds of sociological and historical explanation” and how a “laboratory is a system of literary inscription, an outcome of which is the occasional conviction of others that something is a fact” (Latour and Woolgar 1979: 105).

As Latour now would well know, this statement is possibly dangerous as written if one takes literally or seriously words like “appearance” or “conviction.”  This is the kind of writing that allows for the critique of much “constructivism” for assuming more or less explicitly that the product of “social constructions” is a mental state that will unnoticeably confuse the person now psychologically “convinced” that some (scientific, etc.) statement is indeed a “fact” (or any other relevant entity).  What Latour demonstrated elsewhere (Latour 1987: 14) is that a statement like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” has multiple lives as it moves from setting to setting.  For example, the statement’s social power will differ whether it is the first time the statement was produced at some unique moment in the past, or whether it is some other settings such as scholarly papers demonstrating or critiquing this statement, or conversations among scientists, and then in textbooks, or now in works in the sociology of science.  In his work, Latour has started giving some indication of what happens as a statement is “taken on the collective mode” (Lévi-Strauss 1969).  But this conversational process which, after a while, produces an intertextual web of multiple consequences, is one that must be traced ethnographically through the various settings within which the statement appears.  Above all one must not prejudge what will happen to the many human beings who will hear the statement and then incorporate it in their own practices.

A fun version of this, which is also a call for anthropological proposals, can be found in the Jorge Cham’s cartoon about “the science news cycle” (2009).

And, of course, this is what I am trying to do with Jill Koyama, Ray McDermott and Aaron Hung.

on approaching reality through signs: the responsibility of anthropology

that essential reality can only approached through signs and in conversations that challenge earlier representations, and thus on the possibility of science and the responsability of anthropology to explicate further how signs in conversation can dis/en-able.

One of the questions for the final exam in my class on “Technology and Culture” asks for a discussion of one of Bourdieu’s rant against “constructivism” particularly as it applies to the sociology of science.  Once, he singled Latour and Woolgar’s ethnography of a biological research lab for possibly “reducing scientific demonstrations to mere rhetorical exhibitions”  (1998 [1994]: 94).  Joseph Lim, one of the students in this June 2009 class, took this question on.  He started with Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra where the “sign replaces the real.”  Then, of course, science-as-sign ceases to be “real.”  Lim argues against this—as indeed one should for Baudrillard altogether misunderstands that signs are the only way for human beings to approach reality.  And then Bourdieu joins Baudrillard without noticing that, arguably, what Latour has been doing is putting analytic teeth in his own emphasis on, precisely, practice.

This made me think further about what Latour and, of course, Garfinkel before him, had done.  In a way they moved science (and all other “it’s” [things, epistemes?]) from the realm of platonic ideas to the realms of human practical productions that transform human conditions.  In this move they did not quite demonstrated that there may not be essences that human beings cannot directly apprehend.  Rather, they demonstrated that human beings, in their metaphorical cave, do not simply contemplate the shadows and wonder what they might be shadows “of.”  Human beings, always, work hard together to figure out what to do with their actual conditions in the cave.  In the process, they transform their cave and indeed their methods for figuring out the things that may be making shadows.  In this process, as Merleau-Ponty had understood (1969), (Saussurian) signs are the only, as well as the most powerful, tools at the disposal of human beings.  Signs never substitutes themselves to reality.  As anthropologists had to learn, though they did it early on, no human beings, together, has ever mistaken a prayer for successful hunt with a successful hunt.  So, I am quite sure, no scientist will ever mistake a statement of fact (a sign), or an argumentation that a fact is factual, with the fact itself (the experience the sign cannot quite capture).  Or, more precisely, in the collective conversations scientists have with each other (and this is to bring in the pragmatist correction to Saussurian structuralism), whether a statement of fact is to be taken as a fact “for all intent and purposes” will be a practical achievement that will last until it is demonstrated that the semiotic process was somehow invalid.

Methodologically, this means that, to access what we have found out our current representations do not quite catch, one does not proceed from deduction and definition to observation.  Rather, one proceed through another look at the practices that have led to any “it” (taken-for-granted-so-far) and the new skepticism about its “it-ness.”  “Perhaps,” we can imagine men discussing, “this is not the way to hunt this beast… Perhaps another set of hunting practices might be more successful and, by the way, do you notice that, this other set, might also allow us to ……”  Having looked carefully at the practices, one can then propose new statements of (practical) fact: “this process is (dis-)abling in these specific ways.”

And so, approaching science (schooling, etc.) in a semiotic (interactional, conversational) way is not to critique the standing of science as a particular form of human knowledge, and probably a privileged one for certain human purposes.  It is, on the contrary, to participate in its further development as, precisely, “science.”  My favorite example is to be found in Jane Goodall  work on chimpanzees: By highlighting certain semiotic processes (men looking at males and privileging their activity), and then by shifting these (as a woman looking at females), our collectivity (polity, community of practice) was led to a more scientific view of chimpanzee social structure.

Thus the responsibility of anthropologists is to demonstrate just how signs-in-particular-conversation proceed, and to do so in such a way that scientists in other fields find their work useful for their own.

experimenting with formats for the representation of anthropological analyses

First attempts at representing graphically our work on schooling in America

First, I want to thank Dr. Aaron Chia-Yuan Hung for all his help with the visualisations.  Without his imagination in translating my often inchoate ideas, not much of this would be happening.

The experiment in representation that I introduced in my June 11th entry is taking us in several directions.  We are

  • summarizing the links between settings, moments, and people, implied or explored in Jill Koyama’s dissertation, for example:
    • a private corporation lobbying Congress to ensure that for-profit entities can provide “Supplemental Education Services”;
    • principals and teachers facing an error made by the New York City Department of Education that identified them as a “School in Need of Improvement.”
  • Finding possible graphic means to represent the links, for example”
  • populating the Web of NCLB Consequences (and sub-webs)

What has been interesting so far is that the exercise is obliging me

  • to be much more specific than the ‘paper’ format allows
  • to face up to the need to imagine linkages for which we do not have good ethnographic evidence (these, when mentioned, are really Requests for Research)
  • to push the evidence that each moment/setting is itself
    • a web
    • a source for further indications (indexes) of un-imagined linkages (this could be the most useful aspect of all this)

This raises a whole set of new analytic problems which I will address in another post.

on experimenting with anthropological representation

In 1972, Geertz asked “what is it that we, anthropologists, do?”.  He answered, provocatively but not quite rhetorically: “we write.”  Actually, he said more in this vein which I summarize,
1) The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse … In so doing he turns it from a passing event into an account … which can be reconsulted (1973: 19)
2) We inscribe … only that small part of which our informants can lead us into understanding (1973: 20)

I interpret this, anachronistically to everything we know about the tradition of symbolic and interpretive anthropology with which he is now associated, as an introduction to the ethno-methodology of all (educational) search to discover what is going on and what can be done with.  Technically, as (ethno-)anthropologists, we transcribe carefully documented interaction, through audio or video tape if we can, through detailed field notes if we cannot.  And then we pay close attention to everything we can see on this record to figure out, through the activity of the people and only through this activity, how a particular sequence might make sense in the world that the people had made (if not in ours).  Geertz, famously, analogized this task to that of a literary critic. But, in one text at least he specified that he thought of the critics task to explicate what an author might have indexed that a modern reader might not get: “you [cannot] know what a catcher’s mitt is if you don’t know what baseball is” (1976: 221).

Following such leads to find out how people constitute the world they must then deal with, has been magnificently productive for our understanding of face to face interaction among small groups.  From telephone conversations, to the telling of jokes (Sacks 1974), to the discovery of pulsars (Garfinkel and Livingston 1981), we have been able to move significantly further in the anthropological task.

But it has been much more difficult to follow this program with larger emerging units in which it seems evident that interactions in Setting A are somehow linked to conversations in Setting C through the interactions in Setting B.

For example, school based research can easily argue that some troubles a principal may have with teachers and students is directly related to directives from the superintendent’s office which was only passing on directives from the State or the Federal Government.  In other words, the principal and the immediate significant others in a school, indicate through their speech and acts what is it that they cannot escape, what they are making locally with this, and where we, as anthropologists might go to trace where what-they-cannot-escape comes from.

In recent years, Latour has become famous for insisting that social scientists work at tracing these connections.  He writes about “networks” and how his Actor-Network (non-) Theory might be useful (Latour 2005).  But he does not give much guidance as to how this might get done, that is as to how we might systematically inscribe and then identify the links and then inscribe the identified links as suggested by the participants, and in such a way that our critics can identify errors or omissions.

This is why I found Jill Koyama’s dissertation.  Not only did she dare make New York City her unit of analysis, she began tracing systematically the linkages on matters of providing “supplemental educational services” across many settings.  The next question, for me, then became, how might we represent these linkages.

As a starting point, I am reverting to the “web” metaphor, Geertz borrows from Weber (1973 ).  It is cozy metaphor about being “suspended” which I am turning more ominous by writing that we are “caught in webs of (practically consequential and enacted) meaning.”

spider web

And then I am pushing the metaphor by actually “suspending” people-in-their-moments in the hope that it can allow us to see the proposed connections and then plan further research on this basis.  Here is what this might look like.

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

comments about education, its settings and agents, triggered by a New York Times story about cancer death rates.

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

On the drifting of interactional orders during a longish sequence of videogame play among four players, as reported by Aaron Hung

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

on the relationship between “sex” and “gender” in American law and politics, as distinguished from what it might be in cultural anthropology

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

College students using Ritalin to increase their test scores and the implication of this practice as an education for class (re-)production

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, &&&&&& 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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