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.

or:

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

  • High tech creationism? (March 17, 2017)
    One of the many after effects of Trump’s election has been an altogether astonishing flowering of high fallutin exercises in cultural analysis.  I particular enjoy those who play with popularized (populist?) deconstructionism.  So, let’s join the (deep?) play. Most of my own intellectual education has been plagued by the fundamental…
  • Wondering about the feral (December 6, 2016)
    Michael Scroggins, in one of drafts of the dissertation he will soon defend, brought out something I do not remember any anthropologist ever mentioned: we all easily use the distinction wild/domesticated.  But we do not write about the feral. (I count on Scroggins to tell me more about his sources...).…
  • What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus? (November 7, 2016)
    A few times over the past week, I had to face the reality that Lévi-Strauss is mostly summarized as being concerned with Man rather than human beings, with deep Human Nature rather than the messiness of culture (Geertz [1967] 1973).  Lévi-Strauss, it would seem, is just another Cartesian. I must…
  • Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding? (October 31, 2016)
    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973). Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in…
  • Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact (August 8, 2016)
    To paraphrase from my favorite quote from Lévi-Strauss on culture (1969 [1947]: 4), the Sagrada Familia stands as “a synthesis of a new order,” only possible because “culture ... uses [nature].” I take this to say, of the Sagrada Familia to exemplifies, that reality is not constructed as much as…
  • Peirce on habit: another ancestor for normal anthropology? (April 12, 2016)
    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 it suffer (and, in…
  • On anthropological impotence (March 11, 2016)
    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”…
  • On the (mis-)use of anthropology (February 22, 2016)
    (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…
  • “Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?) (February 11, 2016)
    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…
  • on maintaining order in difficult spaces (December 2, 2015)
    After 40+ years of American Anthropological Association meetings, I cannot pretend that they are not familiar.  I registered  in the same booths the association has used for many years.  And as I walked I recognized sounds, topics, physical styles, rhythms. My own rhythms, by now, are anything but not familiar. …
  • On not defining (October 28, 2015)
    What is a book about when it is titled The elementary structures of kinship (Lévi-Strauss 1967 [1949])?  For about thirty years, and during my graduate years at the University of Chicago, it was about “elementary structures” and we debated endlessly what that might mean.  But I also took courses from…
  • On the arbitrary and the contingent (June 21, 2015)
    I should probably say something like: any event lived with (inescapable condition arising in temporality) can be approached both as: 1) A contingency requiring repair, if not change in orderings. and as 2) An ordered step within a scripted sequence.
  • What about these schools in Port-au-Prince? (June 2, 2015)
    This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools? The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks. There are about one school every other block. There are at…
  • Crossing the street in Port-au-Prince (May 28, 2015)
    So what do people do at major intersections when several avenue intersect with none of the external help one might expect? They proceed, with care I am sure !
  • Instruction, uncertainty, and meta-pragmatic repairing in medical education (April 29, 2015)
    At some point in their career, people who are moving towards being acknowledged as Mds enter what is known there as a “clerkship” where they will be, for the first time, authorized to care for a patient, under the gaze of doctors and nurses with various experiences and authority. So…
  • What some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015 (April 2, 2015)
    In the first few minutes of the conference, Ray McDermott put it this way: “when someone says stupid or mean things about kids, I want them to know I will be at their door the next day.” This, he said, is “reply anthropology.” Replace “kid” with “mothers,” “haitian farmers,” or…
  • Reply anthropology (?) (March 17, 2015)
    After the end of the February 26, 2015 conference on “‘Applying’ anthropology,” Jean Lave wondered whether we had not “reified” applied anthropology by discussing what became, discursively, an “it” that stood against another “it” (unmarked, regular, academic, ivory tower anthropology). Reification is of course the trap all critical discourses fall…
  • Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics (February 20, 2015)
    Whether this job description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of 2015. I suspect Teachers College has never had a “Director of Enterprise Applications Service” and that it will never have another one (as classifications and procedures change).
  • Is this what neoliberalism is all about? (January 12, 2015)
    Is the apparent devolution by the “Sovereign” (people, nation, state) of some of its political controls onto alternate “non-governmental” agencies, such as Corporations instituting "Policies" over their “Employees” (rather than laws over their citizens) what “neoliberalism” is all about?
  • The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998 (November 19, 2014)
    Ray McDermott and I were discussing, in our usual meandering way, the possible roots of Dorothy Holland’s work and what may or may not fairly be described as “psychological anthropology.”  We wondered about d’Andrade and Romney, their relationship to the Parsonians and Boasians.  As we veered into sorting out the…
  • Wondering about authoring one’s self (November 8, 2014)
    I fear that my saying anything about Daniela, as a person, might lead some in my audiences to assume that what I said about her could be used as an explanation for her fate, or justification for meting consequences that would transform her fate.
  • On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle” (November 5, 2014)
    So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc...,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time. Interpreting local knowledge…
  • On the collective production of “conscience collective” (October 26, 2014)
    Those who read this blog regularly may remember that I have been writing a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on the conceits of autism [Life endings? Or: Ends of life? and Islanding assemblages of haecceities].  I have been kind of stuck with this paper that may have grown too long…
  • Writing maps unto terrritories (September 27, 2014)
    Thanks to Michael Scroggins for telling us about the post by Izani about “Charting territories without maps.” Drawing one’s own maps to tell others how to get to one has to be related to Kalmar’s (and Velasquez’s) account of people making their own glossaries to help in getting to speak…
  • Anthropologies of the dangerous (?) (May 22, 2014)
    [my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014] There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.  …
  • The message “this is therapy,” with a horse (May 19, 2014)
    Our regretted colleague, George Bond, insisted that our doctoral students start their apprenticeship with us by struggling with Durkheim’s Rules, and particularly with the argument that, when individual human beings come together, what they do is other than what they could do by themselves, and that special tools are needed…
  • where bias can hide (February 4, 2014)
    Bias, a point of view, a starting point and an angle of attack, is essential: how else would we chose what to look at?
  • Generalizing to processes, general and particular (November 26, 2013)
    Over the past weeks, while teaching Ethnography of education, and in a discussion of research in educational linguistic, I was faced again with the perennial problem of the “generalization” of ethnographic research.  As the discipline encounters critics, and particularly when the critics are friendly and knowledgeable, what do we claim…
  • Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science (October 1, 2013)
    One does need to imagine situations, to be shared together by the observer and the observed (i.e. ethnographic participant observation), that will reveal the kind of work, its conditions and constraints, that we cannot imagine but that we suspect, for good theoretical work, is taking place.
  • Anthropology IS an experimental science (September 30, 2013)
    One of my favorite quote from Geertz on anthropology as an experimental science: The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious ... because the analogy is false. ... The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its…
  • For a defense of cultural anthropology as science (September 6, 2013)
    Given any ordered social state (system, pattern, culture, ...), this state will always re-order itself into any number of new states none of them being identical to any state ever produced in human history. A scientific "law" derived from anthropological research?
  • Islanding assemblages of haecceities (February 26, 2013)
    Thus, our scientific task is more aking to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).
  • constructing the gender of human bodies, literally (October 22, 2012)
    Sculpting new genitalia into a human body may be the ultimate in the (social) construction of new realities, the making of cyborgs, and the radical embodiment of a cultural arbitrary (in the service, some say, of making visible the 'true nature' of the subject body).
  • Patterns of culture in America (June 14, 2012)
    I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography…
  • pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty (June 8, 2012)
    What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters…
  • 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
      nurses
      secretaries
  •  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:

THIS POST

References

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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on maintaining order in difficult spaces

After 40+ years of American Anthropological Association meetings, I cannot pretend that they are not familiar.  I registered  in the same booths the association has used for many years.  And as I walked I recognized sounds, topics, physical styles, rhythms.

My own rhythms, by now, are anything but not familiar.  As I mentioned before (), I play “session roulette”: I open a door to a session room without checking printed title, sit down at the back, and listen.  I continue to recommend this to students as a way to, one hopes, making serendipity work.  Sometimes I stay.  but, mostly, I leave as it sounds all too familiar, including phrases and jargon that would surely appear strange to perhaps every human being on the planet—except perhaps professional anthropologists (“this post-neo-liberal moment”?!?!!).  “Ontology” has replaced “post-modernism” which had replaced. … and …., but pretentious obfuscation of limited ethnography remains.  The tribal order remains even as name tags get bigger (they are now the size of small bibs!), last name are obscured and American communal individualism gets reproduced in symbolic practices even as the multiple hierarchies that move people in and out of anthropology remain (as any one concerned with job applications well knows).

So, it is all very familiar, though it is not difficult for a cultural anthropologist to feel, see, and tell how all this is strange, wild, wonderfully extravagant and altogether awful—as well as thoroughly organized through our collective work.  It should take but a fast blink for any of “us” to see this as powerfully as anyone of our many “them’s” may also see it.

This bring me to my puzzle for November 2015: how do “we” maintain this particular order over so many years in a physical space that felt to me not particularly suited to the work of maintaining the order?  This year in Denver, like they were in Montreal, two or three years ago, the Meetings were held in a large convention hall.  The usual space the Meetings occupy have been “too small” leading to a sense of crowding.  This year the space was enormous and the people so spread out that, despite some effort, the people remained spread out and the space appeared, mostly empty, with large areas of empty spaces, deserts, at peripheries that were anything but distant.

In other words, in a much safer way than so many millions have had to do over the past year, we, anthropologists, also attempted to produce a familiar order in an altogether strange-so-far physical (if not administrative, economic, and political) setting not necessarily convenient for this production.

The latest of the dissertations I recommend on such matters is Sunonda Samaddar’s (2015) on people from Sylhet, Bangladesh in Hamtrack (an enclave within the boundaries of Detroit).  There, as everywhere, children grow up, go to school, dream of love, marry, buy and sell property around the globe … and face the many impossibilities of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage!  I mention the last matter to lead a reader to what is not familiar about the evolving life-histories of the Sylhettis in Hamtrack.  For me, this is not simply about a “sub-culture” but rather about the not so impossible, though often difficult, efforts to make the strange (Detroit) familiar (somewhat like Sylhet), though perhaps in ways that could not be achieved in Sylhet.  For Hamtrack can actually be more rather than less Sylthetti than Sylhet!  Like Michele Verma earlier (2008), Samaddar traces moments in the present that are the “next” (in a conversational analysis sense) in a long conversation about making Sylhet familiar (including in Sylhet itself as it own place in the Indian subcontinent keeps changing).  In that conversation, among other things, the people from Sylhet and their children reveal, also, the (im-)possibilities of America in the United States (for example the use of multi-cultural education in school to enforce Muslim religiosity on reluctant children).

As for the anthropologists in Denver, they may have been most successful at producing their strange order during the debate about the boycott of Israeli universitities.  The act may be “mostly symbolic” (as I was told while being lobbied), it may be (non-)violent; it may have been a mask for darker possibilities (from which some supporters specifically shied away–thereby making them accountable).  But it was also an orderly organization of more than 1,500 bodies, together, speaking against and, mostly, for the resolution to boycott.  The total (social) fact was anything but “symbolic”: it was what anthropologists, as a collectivity of consociates do—even in the midst of (post-neo-liberal-mass society [choose your qualifier]) space.  It was altogether very familiar (for someone who started his participation during the various debates about the Vietnam War).

For the professional anthropologist: This is a problem in the relationship of ecology to culture as ongoing interactional pattern of bodies interacting and symbolizing this pattern (to add my jargon).

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On grades as statements: to whom?

Ray McDermott and Jean Lave once told me that they asked Rancière whether his writing influenced his teaching.  As they tell it, he looked surprised and answered something like “not at all!”  A reader of Successful Failure once asked me whether I still gave grades.  Besides stuttering, I said something like: “I am required to (by my university and New York State)” and/or “students would not accept my not giving them grades.”

Over my 40years+ at Teachers College ,I have also been part of several faculty-wide conversations about “grade inflation.”  These never went anywhere and, by now, I gather from various sources, only about three grades are given: A, A-, & B+.  Personally that is, mostly, what I do and it is not altogether different from distributing grades among A, B, & C, except that it limits, mostly again, student complaints.  And while I do not grade “on the curve,” I do get nervous when I find myself only giving A’s.

Now, of course, what is the point of giving differentiated grades?  More specifically, what difference does it make? to whom? and with what consequences?  Taking the “gift” of grade as a statement, who is the audience?

A grade is structurally in the position of the “assessment” moment in Mehan (and many others)’s model of the “lesson.”  The teacher sets a curriculum, asks students to do something related to “the class,” and then differentially assesses how well each individual students performs the task (“has learned” in the current authoritative language among accreditation agencies).  The grade then becomes a datum (actually just another word, in latin, for “gift”) to the student.  But a grade is also a gift to others besides the student—though not to everyone given various legal strictures about who may see a student’s grade (tracing who may see a grade when and for what purpose would actually be a way of revealing the structure of social reproduction).  These “others” may then legitimately mete various consequences that have nothing to do with the original class, e.g. they may give the student various privileges, including, at the high school, college or Masters level, admission to a further degree program.  Thus the grade that looks like a private communication between teacher and student, is also a coded statement to powers-that-be (admissions officers, funding agencies, accreditation bodies, etc.).  Which is why, of course, grades are a political issue and “grade inflation” a political problem (see also my post on Lake Wobegon).

What does all this have to do with “education”?  Little, I say, with many others.  In recent years, I have gotten to say that I translate my current designation as a “professor and advisor of graduate students” into a “masters of apprentices.”  In that perspective, I maintain that I give grades because I am required to do so but that they should only be taken as a statement about a progression and my potential willingness to work with the student as apprentice.  The grades I give are not about individual learning per se.  This “faction” (fact making that may constrain in some future) is easier to maintain at the doctoral level where it is actually the case that one receives a doctorate by accumulating grades but by demonstrating that one can be recommended for entry into a discipline or profession.  So, I’d say:

Code equivalent to a statement like:
A+ = “Wow!”
A = “You are at mastery at this stage.”
A- = “You are well on your way.”
B+ = “OK, but discipline yourself”
B = “You may be in the wrong career given your talents”

In the long run, my “real” assessment of a person work is the enthusiasm of my letters of recommendation whether for funding or professional positions.  And these letter never never mention grades since “Pass” is the only possible one at the final levels.

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On not defining

What is a book about when it is titled The elementary structures of kinship (Lévi-Strauss 1967 [1949])?  For about thirty years, and during my graduate years at the University of Chicago, it was about “elementary structures” and we debated endlessly what that might mean.  But I also took courses from David Schneider as he was elaborating his most famous book, A critique of the study of kinship (1984).  He taught us that Lévi-Strauss’ book, ostensibly about “kinship,” was actually about NO THING that could be studied cross-culturally.  Schneider’s book, as a version of the history of the near present often say, marked the end of the study of kinship in anthropology and the disappearance of the field as foundational to the discipline.

I thought about all this recently because I had to review an interesting paper for possible publication.  It discussed Schneider’s legacy but it also appeared to search for an alternate definition of kinship.  And so it tickled my dissatisfaction with anything that smacks of definitions, ideal-types, and other attempts to capture a “thing” that is also an abstraction, and to do so deductively.  The paper did make the point that the disappearance of “kinship” did not mark the end of anthropological work on marriage, sex and gender, relationships.  But it may be that, as the author argued, we do not quite know anymore how to classify this work if it is not “kinship.”

So, what are we to do?  I propose that we do not seek a definition or elaborate an ideal-type.

Schneider was no historian of anthropological ideas and his polemical characterizations of many ancestral figures do not always point at what made them interesting.  He does not note, for example, that Lévi-Strauss, when writing about kinship or family (1956), did not write about essences but about “models” that are analytic products rather than representations, and only useful for purposes of experimentation on the analysis and validation of the analysis (1962 [1952]).  Models are built out of 1) recorded observational experience among a particular group (people and the field anthropologist co-participating with them) in order 2) to produce another form of practical experience among another group (the field anthropologist back at home among other anthropologists).

The best example of a model is that drawn by Jean Lave about learning as movement through a “community” on the basis of her experiences with tailors and in supermarkets.  This model opens all sorts of investigations into boundaries, gravity wells (under what conditions might one consider becoming a legitimate peripheral participants, e.g. apply to graduate school at the University of Chicago), chutes and ladders (blockages and bypasses in the movement out of peripheral positions), the ever receding “full” position, etc.

[A CAUTIONARY NOTE: neither Lévi-Strauss nor Lave wrote exactly in the terms I used o summarize what they taught me]

So what might we try to model when observing people “at home”?

Retrospectively, I think I was lucky to start my career in a department of “Home and Family Life” later to be renamed “Family and Community Education.”  It was embarrassing when mentioned at the American Anthropological Association meetings.  But it kept reminding me that, while kinship was NO THING, home and family, hearth and crib, kitchen and school, dating, divorce, menstruation and menopause, illness and death, all were issues for all human beings to face, as transformed in the myriad ways their ancestors frame for them.  As I started reading Bourdieu and many others on the reproduction of birth privilege in democracies famously organized to eradicate it, then I was more convinced than ever that “family” had to remain an irreducible concern, and all the more so as sociobiologists gained the favor they now have among journalists writing, for example, about why hypergamy remains a favored (guiltily preferred?) form of marriage for women.

Anthropologists of everyday life have no choice but to face home and family (hearth and lineage, residence and descent) in about all the very large scale political entities bringing together under their “governmentalities” billions of human beings (from Japan to the Americas, around the globe)—not to use the word “culture” and to emphasize issues of power that I have sometimes been accused, surprisingly for me, to ignore.  But facing home and family is not the same thing as defining “kinship.”  In the field one can start anywhere, e.g. with a woman in her late pregnancy, and trace with whom, where, sometimes when, how she will actually give birth, and with what consequences (to her child, other significant others, and perhaps others, far away, who may suffer because of the child’s privileges accruing with his birth here and then).

Latour has been telling anthropologists that their task is to trace what may also be a “viper’s tangle” to quote François Mauriac most famous novel  (rather than Geertz on webs of meaning).  I have been sympathetic to this call because it brings us back to the anthropological task of uncovering constraints and openings.  Most importantly, as I understand it (or at least as I teach it), this call is not for new definitions, and it discourages debates about essences.  A home is not a thing, but entering one’s kitchen is an experience to be modeled.

References

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1969 [1940] The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1956 “The family.” In Man, culture and society. Edited by H. Shapiro. New York: Oxford University Press. 261-285.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962 [1952] “Social structure.” In Structural anthropology. Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books. 277-323.

Schneider, David 1984 A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

 

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