NotSpeaking as communal achievement: emergence and termination shocks

Imagine a situation (from experience in a small town in Southern France):

Person A announces “I do not speak to person B” which, in French, might be reported by A to X, Y, or Z, as “On ne se parle pas.”  “On” here is an indefinite pronoun often used in French for “we.”  The declaration constitutes a community of A, B, X, Y, Z with the rule “A/B do not speak when they encounter each other.”  The rule is both description and prescription, or perhaps more precisely differentiated instruction about the meta-pragmatics of an interactional style.

NotSpeaking is a complex speech act, and a trigger for further speech acts.

NotSpeaking requires instruction since, everything else being the same, it is performed at a moment when the two could and should speak, as, say, when walking by each other in some parking lot.  In rural Southern France, at the turn of the 21st century, such moments start with an expression of acknowledgment that the encounter has started (smile, re-organization of the body, etc.), possibly preliminaries, then “la bise” (three “air kisses” on alternate side of the head with no body contact), and then either developments that might last very long, or else a brief comment about being in a hurry, leading to various closing statements about, say, “having aperitif before we leave.”  NotSpeaking, as speech event, involves turning away of the head at the time when the expression of acknowledgment should have appeared (or other bodily movements as, for example, turning away into a side street).  NotSpeaking ends after the two bodies have passed and return to their earlier state.

As Bourdieu explained in one of his best passages about ritual insults in the Mediterranean ([1972] 1977: pp. 10ff), Maussian gifts (of which NotSpeaking is a peculiar case)  do place obligations on both participants but the response is not automatic.  Much is involved.  For example, one or the other of the party might make an exaggerated display of greeting by directly looking at the other and saying something like “Bonjour!”, perhaps with a smile.  In this case, not NotSpeaking may actually be an insult, whether in intent or in subsequent assessment.   In any event, the field is very well organized indeed for what is definitively hard work!

In brief, NotSpeaking happens within what has also been called a “community of practice.”  But this is not the nice, cosy “community” of Wenger (1998).  It is a dark place as many, in the Summer of 2016, have found, whether in Paris, Nice or other such sites of interaction and political violence.  I prefer to us the work “polity” for the groups that emerge as someone or other starts doing something to others that what was not until then part of their “normal” but now becomes inescapable.  One cannot make war by oneself, and one cannot not respond to acts of war.  Anthropologists will have to think further about this.

One way to start is to wonder about the emergence of temporary polities when people become significant to each other (whether in love or war).  The question of emergence does lead to questions about beginnings and ends, as well as questions about participation.  NotSpeaking may start when one of the protagonists decides not to speak to the other the next time they met.  And it may be that this next time is when B finds out that A does not speak to him anymore—and that may be the “start” for B.  One could even look for the instructional moments when A asserts to B, in body movement if not in words, “I do not speak to you anymore” (or the reverse as these things do change).  Conversely, the actual performance of NotSpeaking can be said to start when the two notice each other and to end a few seconds later.  What is central to me here is that NotSpeaking is specific to particular persons at particular times and requires the setting up of the encounter as a NotSpeaking.   Not speaking to billions of strangers is not relevant here.  Only NotSpeaking to a non-stranger is relevant (whether the non-stranger is an erstwhile intimate, or an erstwhile total stranger).  NotSpeaking, at the turn of the 21st century, in Southern France, is a syntagm that inscribes something in history.

There may be a way of thinking about the emergence of a new polity in history (or the re-organization of an old polity) that I have never seen used in anthropology.  It would involved borrowing from physics what is called “termination shocks.”  I learned about those a while ago in an article in Discover Magazine about Voyager 1 entering interstellar space.  Termination shocks are ubiquitous (check you bathroom sink where you can make one by running water hard into it).  NotSpeaking, (making war, falling in love) similarly arises in the interaction between contradictory forces that makes something very real: a boundary marking different kinds of normal, and difficulties when crossing the boundary.  NotSpeaking catches people who may be hurt by it.  And then its effects fade into inter-communal space where the tiny drama can be safely ignored.

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Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact

Sagrada Familia pillars in the nave
I had always been fascinated by what I read about Antonio Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: a late 19th century Gothic church without flying buttresses! Culture! Structure! Transformation!

Finally, this summer, my wife and I were able actually to enter what Gaudi refers to as the “Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family.” As it approaches completion, it was recently dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI as a basilica, that is as a particularly sacred place for the Catholic Church.

I will leave aside for this current purpose the reality that the space is a powerful religious artifact, exactly as Gaudi intended.

I will just focus on the reality that, like all utterances, all acts, sequences, complex collective production, the basilica is a never-has-been-done-before. And it will never be done again, though it is also credited to have had much influence on later architecture.

“When” was uttered the statement that is the basilica is an interesting theoretical problem. Normal histories start with Gaudi taking over as main architect and re-designing what would have been a normal neo-gothic church. This happened in 1883 when the overall plans were drawn. What was proposed was immediately noticed as an innovation, a daring move many interpreted as a major mistake.
Continue reading Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact

Peirce on habit: another ancestor for normal anthropology?

Seth McCall, a student in my seminar on the production of culture, commented on Garfinkel by bringing in something Charles Sanders Peirce wrote about doubt.  It sounded as it could neatly balance Garfinkel on trust (1963).  One could argue that the very need to trust has to be related to the (ethno-)methodological suspicion that one should always doubt, even if one does not mention, at the time of the interaction, the doubt given the competing need not to stop the development of an interaction.  In brief, trust allows for the pragmatic (“let’s do this!”) without a call to the meta-pragmatic (who is “we” here? What is “this”?) even as this call is always ready to be activated as another form of “screwing around” (as all those who have tried to perform one of Garfinkel’s “experiments” have experienced).

So I went looking for Peirce paper. To my disappointment, but not necessarily surprise (given my prejudice regarding the implicit psychology of the pragmatists I have read), in this 1905 paper, Pierce has more to say about habit than about doubt:

The writer of this article has been led by much experience to believe that … every master in any department of experimental science has had his mind molded by his life in the laboratory to a degree that is little suspected. The experimentalist himself can hardly be fully aware of it, for the reason that the men whose intellects he really knows about are much like himself in this respect. With intellects of widely different training from his own, … he will never become inwardly intimate, be he on ever so familiar terms with them; for he and they are as oil and water, and though they be shaken up together, it is remarkable how quickly they will go their several mental ways, without having gained more than a faint flavor from the association. [411]

Belief is … a habit of mind essentially enduring for some time, and mostly (at least) unconscious; and like other habits, it is, (until it meets with some surprise that begins its dissolution), perfectly self-satisfied. [417]

There are versions of these comments in John Dewey’s Chapter 1 of Democracy and education (1966 [1916]), or in many of G. H. Mead’s lectures in Mind, self and society (1934).  Peirce echoes the overwhelming successful idea that “we” (each and everyone human being since the beginning of human times a few hundred thousand years ago) are “molded” by “life” “to a degree that is little suspected.”  This is the foundation of “culture and personality” in all forms of anthropology, including much that is critical of the specific sub-tradition known by this phrase.  It is the foundation of that Parsonian grand attempt for a “general theory of action” that grounds the social order in socialization. And, of course, it is the foundation of Bourdieu’s  habitus (and possibly also of Foucault depending on how one reads the passages on the panopticon in Discipline and Punish).

A case in point: I must not hint that Peirce, Parsons, Bourdieu, etc., play out their habitus but rather that they hurry through something they trust their audiences will not doubt as they develop what they really want to do: Peirce is criticizing philosophers, Parsons is concerned with the regulation of large scale societies, Bourdieu with the place of class privilege in political action. None of them care much about the psychology of habit, the self, or identity!

The problem, as I now see it, is starting with the socialized adult (man…) as “he” conduct “his” everyday life.  I always contrast this to Durkheim writing about the “constraints” (but not the determinants) of their life as the people find them.  Durkheim (Garfinkel, etc.) starts with people at work given an order that requires them to keep working. This starting point remains agnostic as to the role, if any, of previous experiences.  People working out any order may look “habituated” to foreigners (e.g. anthropologists of the most other) or critics (adolescents, revolutionaries, artists, professional skeptics) but there is no reason to assume that they have, as a infrastructural property of their selves, determinant personalities, identities, or what have you.

As I pondered Peirce on habit, I came to to wonder whether Ray McDermott and I should rephrase our conclusion in Successful Failure.  We wrote: “we [social scientists] must above all accept that to make it a better day for [any human being], the first and perhaps only step is to turn away from [them] and to trust [them] to work with us while we examine what all others, including ourselves, are doing around him.” (1998: 217)

We could now write that one must start, not with the apparently habituated adult, but with the suffering (or playing) body amazed at what it has to endure and indexing in the here and now where we should start our investigation of what others did, nor are now doing, to make this body suffer (and, in some happy cases, have fun or profit).

What has made Rancière so appealing to me (and McDermott, and many others) is that he does start with the puzzled body.  He asks us to notice what he calls the “intelligence” of the people, what Boas and those among his students who did not fall into the “culture and personality” trap wrote as “making sense.”  And this is what some of us planning a book currently titled “when is education?” want to explore further.

And then, to my delight and but not necessarily surprise (given what I also know of the pragmatists as one of the sources of what is most powerful in anthropology these days), I found something else from Peirce that will now be one of my favorite epigraphs.  It’s about, precisely, surprise:

In all the works on pedagogy that ever I read — and they have been many, big, and heavy — I don’t remember that any one has advocated a system of teaching by practical jokes, mostly cruel. That, however, describes the method of our great teacher, Experience. She says,

Open your mouth and shut your eyes
And I’ll give you something to make you wise;

and thereupon she keeps her promise, and seems to take her pay in the fun of tormenting us. (1903: CP 5.51 Cross-Ref:††)

A Google search suggests this is a famous quote and I am surprised (!) I had not seen it until a few days ago.  It will now be part of my personal canon as another way to introduce education as the deliberate work of dealing with surprises (“when  is education?” “all the time!”).

And it will also developed my wonderings about the centrality of ‘play’ in life–both fun play, deep play, and the many cruel jokes of our experiences.


Dewey, John      1966 [1916]     Democracy and Education New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold 1963 “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.” In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey. New York: The Ronald Press. pp. 187-238

Mead, George Herbert    1934 Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peirce, Charles      1905     “What pragmatism is.”     The Monist15:02:161-181.

Peirce, Charles      1931 [1903]     “Lecture II: The universal categories.” In The Collected Papers, Pp. 1686-1697. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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On anthropological impotence

Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016)

The American culture of the “culture of poverty” is alive and well. New York Times journalists still quote approvingly professors who tell them: “The poor lack two things: money and cognitive freedom.” And it appears that a major State actor, “the Obama administration,” relies on such experts for designing policies aimed at changing the behavior of those who do not act according to economic rationalism (e.g. do not save more for old age).

We, anthropologists in my network, know all this.  We see “governmentality” at its most hegemonic (though not necessarily unchallenged as the current presidential campaign suggests) when networked media, academia, and State reinforce each other’s common sense, make alternatives disappear, and more importantly, transform “understandings,” “representations,” (“ontologies”?) into action with massive consequences. “Poverty is a sickness” is not only a metaphor we live by (Basso 1980). It is also a conceit endlessly developed in discourse, policies, debates within the conceit, new discourses, regulations, requests for action by others subjected to them, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the journalist develop the report by saying that Shafir’s understanding

shifts the onus onto those with power over poor Americans — employers, government — not just to design their application forms, their business hours, their policies in a way that takes into account the restrictions poverty imposes, but also to shift real resources to where they would make the biggest difference.

If poverty is a sickness then … and then … so that… The progression to action is inexorable.  I’ll pick up just one issue and note the last phrase “make the biggest difference”: “those with power” can do things to the poor that will make a difference among the poor.

Cause -> intervention -> effect.


They did, we do, and then they will.

In this perspective, “poverty is a sickness” is also the first statement in a most powerful speech act that limit dissenting responses to “poverty is NOT a sickness” thereby maintaining “sickness” as the issue.

I point out this process of development of an idea into a conceit because of an apparent paradox in the New York Times story.  The paragraph quoting Shafir is followed by another that goes:

That understanding might act as a corrective for the belief that poor people are mostly to blame for their poverty.

I am not sure that talking about “lacking cognitive freedom” is not “blaming the victim.” But it remains a form of classification and identification of an individual shortcoming. Poverty remains what it has been: something to cure individuals from through targeted programs.  Michael Harrington said much the same thing in 1962. He may then have been optimistic that his pleas would find an echo in the Federal Government, as they did. He might now be depressed that half-a-century of targeted programs do not appear to have much of a dent.

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.
Continue reading On anthropological impotence

On the (mis-)use of anthropology

Sherente Village
(Nimuendajû 1942: 17)

Last week, I heard a most interesting paper by Oren Pizmony-Levy and Gita Steiner-Khamsi about, of all things, school reform in Denmark! It may seem strange that I resonated to such a topic.[Ftn 1] But it should not appear so: in graduate school, I also resonated to reading ethnographies of Ge people of Central Brazil! People over all the world do amazing things and “school reform” is one of them.

network represenation
an example of the representation of a network
using UCINET (White 1997)

Last week, I particularly resonated to the methodology. Nimuendajû, the great ethnographer of the Ge, in his time, modeled Šerente villages on the basis of his local observations. Pizmony-Levy and Steiner-Khamsi have found a way to make visible networks involved in the production of “school reform,”[Ftn 2] on the way I suspect to modeling how such reforms proceed. Their work is part of a broad movement in the social sciences, and anthropology in particular (at least in the networks who attempt to build on Jean Lave’s work as transforming social structural analyses). The goal is to trace movement and change (or return to the old normal) in position, and perhaps even in the field of positions within which people move (including school organization). The current consensus, backed by much ethnography, is that these changes do not “just happen” as effect following some cause. It proceeds through deliberate action by emergent polities. Nimuendajû did not have the tools needed to trace how the Šerente came to do something that could be modeled as he did. But these tools are now available.

More on this another time.

What surprised in me most Oren Pizmony-Levy and Gita Steiner-Khamsi’s paper was that the most quoted document in the network of people and institutions who performed “school reform” in Denmark was …. an ethnography, of a school, by Danish anthropologists!

Anthropology of education, actually applied for what appears positive change!
Continue reading On the (mis-)use of anthropology

“Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?)

Last Monday, Stanton Wortham gave a wonderful talk on his work in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  There he got to know a first generation of Mexicans moving to the town for all sorts of wonderful, deeply human, reasons and making something new with much that was old–including, most recently, the very history of a movement that is now involving a second generation while people keep arriving.

In his conclusion, Wortham used the phrase “contingent configuration of resources.” The phrase spoke to me as a particularly apt way to capture the general implications of what anthropologists notice in their field sites: something “contingent,” something “configured,” something that has to do with the ‘resources” people find as they make their life.  In my terms, as I expand on Wortham:

1) contingent: not necessary, not quite predictable on the basis of earlier experiences, arising here but not there, now but not then, not reducible to rational functionality, arbitrary, made-up for the occasion, artifactual if not artificial;

2) configured: arranged, making a figure through the relationships between the parts that make something else that may then constrain further arrangement as the new gets coopted into the figure;

3) resources: a deceptively simple terms that include not only the material (ecology, economics) but also the symbolic, the interactional, the institutional and the political, and also the psychological, not to mention … chance.

Wortham presented his study through the career of an Italian plumber meeting a Mexican entertainer in Acapulco, wooing her, accepting the suggestion of one of her kin that she might have a hard time by her Mexican self in Pennsylvania, and moving her two sisters with him after marrying her.  They are followed by brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, sleeping on sofas in basement, and then opening shops, restaurants, and otherwise establishing themselves economically even as they married, raised children (and, I suspect, fought among themselves, and made other kinds of mistakes that made life even more difficult).

This is the anthropological “anecdote” at its best: apparently a single case, involving hundreds of human beings linked with each other in very concrete ways, and unique at the level of detail characteristic of ethnographic research and essential to anthropology.  This is not a controlled experiment but an occasion that reveals fundamental processes among human beings (Varenne 2014, 2015).

As those who know my work will see coming, I heard the phrase “contingent configuration of resources” as a more precise way of talking about what the word “culture” should index—unless it is that this is the way I have always understood “culture” though I may never have used the phrase.
Continue reading “Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?)

Index of posts related to anthropoligical theorizing

on anthropological theorizing

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    Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016) The American culture of the “culture of poverty”…
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  • A quote (from Boas) for another day (June 1, 2012)
    So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph. Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time…
  • On studying “dynamic changes” (May 26, 2012)
    I am reading this quote from Boas analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States). I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense…
  • Life endings? Or: Ends of life? (May 12, 2012)
    Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human…
  • Value Added Deep Play (March 3, 2012)
    The publishing of individual teachers scores by New York City is a research boon as it allows us to test various analytic methods that will allow for understanding more systematically the networks of authority and power in which we are all caught, and particularly the relationship of motivation to act…
  • On the (pre-)judicial brain (November 23, 2011)
    At the simplest level, the point of having a “judicial” brain is precisely to control and repair what the pre-judicial brain may attempt to do, or has done. The judicial brain might say “drive home” and then leave the pre-judicial one to do the driving. At night, in Riverside Park,…
  • Tequila and Mel Gibson’s brain (October 3, 2011)
    What Eagleman never considers is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another. Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War. But he does not ask: What let to this war? Why should spotting planes be important…

Main Index of topics I have addressed

Policy? or Politics?

Could the hegemony of “policy” be coming to an end?

For many years state officials, “private” foundations, benevolent billionaires, academia and a certain elite media have been telling everyone else what is what in “education”.  (For one sense of this set look at Brill’s 2010 story in  the New York Times magazine).  In the world of academia where I live, this will have been the decade of “data-driven” “policy” “studies.”  We keep being told, repeatedly, such “narratives” (stories? fiction?) as:

In Rhode Island schools, a multidisciplinary effort helps teachers to quickly understand what skills their students have already grasped and which subjects need more attention. In Houston, a regional alliance has noticed signs of students going off-track on higher-level math skills and acted to intervene.

What do these stories have in common? Success here derives from access to data, or big data as it’s sometimes called. The examples above come from the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit effort driving education outcomes through hard numbers.
(GovTech November 2014, retrieved in December 2015)

What interests me here, of course, is the hint of an “actor-network” of local schools and a corporation “e.Republic, Inc.” “The nation’s only smart media and research company focused exclusively on public sector innovation for state and local government and education” (retrieved in December 2015)

One problem with just sketching an actor-network (an excellent thing to do) is that it can end with an altogether static map and little sense of the movements through it, or the temporalities that assemble and then sometimes dissemble the network.

So, recently, I have tried to write about such networks as acting (and revealing themselves) through crowded conversations (deliberations).  I am experimenting with generalizing conversational analyses (somewhat like Latour generalized ethnomethodology when he moved from looking at the production of knowledge in short interactions among a few people (Garfinkel et al. 1981;  Goodwin 1995), to looking at a laboratory (Latour 1979), to looking at the scientific enterprise as a whole (Latour 1987).

And so, once upon a time, we had Senator Kennedy and President Bush (as symbolic leaders) producing “No child left behind” after very long conversations that started at least 20 to 30 years earlier –unless it is 200 years (Varenne 2007, 2011).

And then, a few years later, President Obama and Arnie Duncan, his secretary of education, started new conversations which, among other things,  privileged “data-driven policy.”  I am necessarily wrong in suggesting that they are those who literally started these long-turn taking sequences that were disrupted last years.  But they can stand as markers of a new sequence with somewhat different participants and discursive order as the original metaphor (a child is like a sponge) developed into practical conceit (regulations, the attendant bureaucracies, the texts to be produced among the various actors, etc.).
Continue reading Policy? or Politics?

An actor-network of consequential consociates: applying anthropology to one’s personal case

In this post, I am doing something somewhat different from the usual.  I am maintaining the order I think I have established (at least as I look at it, retrospectively): this is an experiment in anthropological theorizing and teaching.  But I am delving further into parts of my life that I have not brought out.

So here it goes: applied medical anthropology

A few years ago, my wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as “myelofibrosis” (who may not know it under that name might be a topic for another post as the exact name can be consequential—see below).  The “official” diagnosis was made, not surprisingly by an oncologist, the acknowledged, state approved, expert who can transform speech (this is myelofibrosis) into not simply an act, but a sequence of new moves a particular set of others, from the patient, to her family, to insurance companies, must now make. [This would be easy to model as a special case of entry into a particular kind of polity of practice.]

The oncologist told us, as I remember it four years later, something like: “People live with this for 15 years or more … You are likely to die of something else … It will change your everyday life as you will now have to schedule regular medical visits.”  I remember she was altogether good at telling us something that we knew, and much that we did not know: we had certainly never heard of this cancer or of its treatment.  Of course we went to the Internet and learned what we could, talked to her further, and settled into what I am experimenting in calling, for various theoretical reasons, a “new normal.”  Actually, what we learned was not extremely bad news for people entering in their 70s.  The oncologist then (and I will keep emphasizing conversational and interactional temporality) tried a drug that would alleviate the symptoms of a cancer that affects the production by the bone marrow of red blood cells: profound anemia and the attendants limits on mobility.

Susan’s body, in its thinginess and peculiarities, was leading us to various particular disabilities that can be mitigated or expanded depending (de Wolfe 2014).

So, this was actually a good time for us to adopt the car culture of suburbia.  The long walks in Manhattan to which we were accustomed would not have been possible anymore.  We escaped one disability.

Things were relatively stable for a few years.  We had educated ourselves in still another polity of practice.  We evolved a new adaptation to the now extent conditions given our resources and consociates.  This was now our new normal, the culture we could not quite escape (though we tried some bricolage with it).

At that point I would have described our “actor-network” as consisting of:

  •     a general practitioner
  •     a clinic with a staff of
    •    oncologists
  •  a   mail order pharmacy
  • a radiology center

That is, ethnographically, these were the people with whom we had to talk in order to maintain the syntagmatic order of the treatment.  Each of the person (but not any) could authoritatively tell us when to show up for an appointment, what tests or drugs to take and when.  This question could be asked here but not there.  This act could be performed here but not there, before but not after this other act, etc. [one should also be able to model this syntagm.]

At that point further actor nodes in the network remained as faint indexes mostly buried in the conversations with the interlocutors we mostly had to address.  We did receive reports from the insurance company about what it was paying the doctors, how much it reimbursed for tests and drugs.  While reading these we were amazed (guilty? thankful for the opportunity?) at the cost of the primary drug: $1,600 a shot, every six weeks.

But cost and attendant controls was not part of the syntagmatic order of the treatment as we experienced it so far.

And then something happened.

In my other life, as long-term employee of Teachers College, I know that insurance companies are big players in constraining what we can do.  Every few years, we are told of long conversations TC has with the various major companies.  We are told about the final proposals and why TC might shift, as it did starting in January 2015, from United Health Care to Aetna.  The cost of these conversations are barely indexed though I have a good sense that it is not trivial, either from TC or the companies: staff time and compensation, consultants, lawyers, writers of glossy presentations, etc.

Anyway, the shift by my “employer” (the term is consequential here) brought to my practical attention the insurance company as we registered on new web sites, a new mail-order pharmacy, new styles of reports, and we continually checked and re-checked that the various doctors that were part of my wife’s actor-network were also “in network” (consequential category in American insurance).

I thought this would only be a minor annoyance and that we would return to the “old” (2014) new normal.

This was not to be.

Aetna told us (clinic, oncologists, Susan and I) that the drug, Aranesp, that had worked at maintaining Susan’s condition for three years was:
a)     experimental for her disease
b)    experimental drugs were not covered by Aetna’s contract with “the employer”
Aetna told us, emphatically, repeatedly, after a variety of appeals by various actors, “NO MORE PAYMENT FOR THIS!” Through this speech act Aetna revealed itself as an inescapable interlocutor in the ongoing conversation.  The expanded text of Aetna’s statement repeatedly indexed two different other worlds:
a) it challenged, successfully, medical practical authority (Aetna did not attack its legitimacy but its everyday consequentiality: what is not reimbursed will not be used)
b) it challenge me to, perhaps, challenge TC about a not so minor detail in the contract it has signed with Aetna (and may or may not have allowed it to undercut United Health Care)

I will not go through the many conversational turns that led, after three anxious weeks to Susan starting a new, and altogether experimental treatment (since we will not know for several months whether it will work) at the (reimbursed after full consultation and authorization) cost of … $11,000 a month (not to mention added visits to the oncologist, more costly tests, a blood transfusion)!!!  (I cannot help but believe that Aetna, as a monstrous network of actors with conflicting authority, confused itself: the outcome is altogether … surprising!)

Who knows that Aetna may be correct in its act and is practicing medicine better than our oncologist (though Aetna is careful, I think, never to shapes its speech as an instruction to “do that”).  But, for now, here is our expanded actor-network of consociates who make a difference:

  •     [the one listed above is still very much active]
  •     various parts of Aetna:
    • the doctor(s) who categorized Aranesp as “experimental-for-this-purpose” and the other doctors who discussed our oncologist’s recommendation (she told us how one of them told her to not get so involved in the case! She was not happy!)
    • the staff members of the clinic who have to check the why’s and wherefore’s of each step, repeatedly, with the staff member of Aetna.  The number of phone calls, waits on hold, recalls, faxes, etc. is astonishing.
    •  Susan multiple calls to clinic, hospital, Aetna special pharmacy.
    •  various parts of Teachers College

There are many anthropological points but, to emphasize my usual themes:

  • these are not matters of social structure (à la Parsons) or modern governmentality (à la Foucault) nor even neo-liberalism.  There are matters of structuring through interlocking conversations that transform the field even as they seek the production of temporary (immortal) new normals.
  • in these conversations everyone “screws around” (Garfinkel) even as they all play deeply with matters of life and death (Varenne & Cotter ).
  • ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, and actor-network-theory (that expands on the other fields) are the most useful starting framework but they are not sufficient
  •  screwing around and playing deeply will always produce something extra-vagant (Boon ) that is not predictable on the basis of efficient rationality.
  • each moment in the evolution of the normal-for-some-now (“culture”) makes sense as a syntagm in a local order.  But this syntagm is always at the edge of catastrophic collapse that leads, in temporality, to

A)  instructions “do NOT screw around! Stay in line! Do what your doctor tells you to do”

B)  efforts to bricolage one’s way out of the order and thus:



de Wolfe, Juliette   2014    Parents of children with autism: An ethnography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varenne, Hervé and Mimi Cotter   2006
“Dr. Mom? Conversational Play and the Submergence of Professional Status in Childbirth.” Human Studies 29:41668.

[here is the list of the most common references I use. Many of these are implicitly indexed in this post]

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