Category Archives: Culturings

Comments that produce associations and properties for the identification of human beings in terms of race, gender, religion, etc.

Writing maps unto terrritories

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 in another language (Kalmar 2001; Velasquez 2014).  And it has to be under the same constraints as any attempts to give other people instructions (Garfinkel 2002: 92).

The fun part of the post was the quote from Borges, expanding on Lewis Carroll (thanks Wikipedia!), about a map that would have the scale of one mile to the mile and how this somehow relates to Google Maps altogether quixotic goal of mapping the whole earth: who knows that, eventually, we will be able to zoom to one foot by one foot…

There is, however, an alternative that has been tried and, mostly, succeeded: writing the one to one map onto the territory.  That is, for example, on May 20, 1785, the Congress of the United States Acted that [the territory would be divided] “into townships of 6 miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may by…. The lines shall be measured with a chain; … and exactly described on a plat” (Linklater, 2002: 73).   And then, a surveyor was sent to write the map, starting someplace in eastern Ohio. Thus one could look at the landscape to find out and tell where one was.  No need for a map when one knows that one is standing the corner of the 42nd street and the 8th avenue (Manhattan’s grid pattern was laid out soon after that which shaped the Western territories).

Before that, of course, from the Romans onward, empires and states have told the traveler (trader, army officers) how far they were from the capital.  The tire-making corporation Michelin is famous in France for its maps, and also for the ubiquitous markers telling tourists where they are and how to get to the next village.  Thereby, besides helping the German invading divisions at the beginning of the Second World War, Michelin helped write on the territory a landscape of villages and other places with visible boundaries and names that were not always “there” before and now “are always already there.”  This, of course, is what appears to be missing in Izani’s Laos: thus the need for making one’s own maps.

(So, could it be that grammars and dictionaries are, also, maps relieving us from the task of instructing each other how to find each other…: “check you GPS, man!”)

(Even more wildly: is Saussure’s “synchrony” one of the immortal, standing crap games (Garfinkel 2002) we cannot escape? Answer: Of course!)

Ima say suttin

Katy Steinmetz, a journalist for Time Magazine recent summarized “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time Magazine, September 9, 2013). Actually Steinmetz mostly mentions the kind of sociolinguists who like to make statements like:

the term “suttin” (a variant of something) has been associated with Boston-area tweets.

using methods such as:

researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed an automated tagger that can identify bits of tweetspeak that aren’t standard English, like “Ima” (which serves as a subject, verb and preposition to convey “I am going to”).

Personally, I would say that these methods will be more useful for a social history of the present than about linguistics.

That is, as far as I can see, both Chomsky and Labov would agree that “Ima” is a fully grammatical form of the English way to mark the future tense of the verb following: “Ima” is another way of doing “I’ll.”  Whether “Ima” derives historically from “I am going to” is interesting but has little to say about the current state of twittering English.  If it “takes” outside Twitter (and it may already have (ask Labov or his students)), new speakers will have to be told that there are now three forms of the future in English: “I shall,” “I will,” “Ima.”  And then, they will be told of the contextual “rules” that appear to govern which form to use when and with whom.

Those who know will have noticed that I have restated the (in-)famous Saussurian distinction between diachrony and synchrony—though with a twist.  The cultural question (to keep the word “social” for probabilistic statements about the recent past) is whether the new linguistic forms that continually appear–not only in Twitter, but every time someone speaks–will “take,” that is whether they will remain associated with a person, a small group, an activity, etc., or whether they will “be adopted in the collective mode” (paraphrase of something Lévi-Strauss once wrote to distinguish individual statements from myths in L’homme nu 1971: 560).

In other words, “Ima” (and the resistance against it) may become the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by a cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970]: 5)—unless it fails to impose itself.  In any event, the important thing about all this is the arbitrariness of the process that leads to “Ima,” its imposition (partially helped by the Time magazine article which taught people like me about the form), and its demise (as current users age out and new forms are developed).  As I have argued in other posts (9/6/2013, 9/30/2013), the future of cultural forms cannot be predicted by any analysis of the state of the present.  “Ima” is not simply “functional” in a world where statements are limited to 140 characters.  “Ill” would have worked as well.  So “Ima” is, in Boon’s terms “extra-vagant” (1999), a poetic (in Jakobson’s sense) play on grammatical/dialectal possibilities and constraints.

Note, for example, that “Ima” marks first person redundantly in a least three ways: through 1) leaving the “I” in, 2) capitalized, 3) with the first person “(a)m” form of the verb (check what McDermott and I wrote about Maxine Hong Kingston tale of her difficulty reading “I” aloud 1998: Introduction).  And may thereby signal the continued relevance of “individualism” as the field for hegemonic pratices.

Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science

[a follow up on yesterday’s blog entry]

Thanks to Beau Bettinger who sent me the following link (to something in the New York Times, no less) to a review of research entitled: Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity

The research quoted is “experimental” in just the way Geertz imagined all experimental research proceeded (1973: 22): given a constant (making decisions about alternatives) various conditions (prosperity/poverty) appear to make a difference thereby leading to an inference about the processes at work (cognitive overload).  Nothing about this research makes sense, whether the concepts, the operationalization, the tests, or the inference. (And we will have to continue criticizing every one of these steps in this kind of research.)

Q: So what does an anthropology grounded in Boas/Garfinkel propose instead?

A: Any versions of what the powerful team Michael Cole once assembled proposed and conducted.

Jean Lave, a constitutive member of this team, has recently (2011) given a wonderful account of the steps she took, in the 1970s, to respond to Cole’s challenges.  For several years, she re-designed alternate means of observing the activities of tailors.  Again and again she revised what she had to do in her next field trip.  And so she revealed matters, conditions, practices, that cognitive psychologists could not have imagined, that would resist conceptualization, and that, precisely, could not be transformed into a (correlational) theory–in the “grounded theory” sense.  The point was to “make work visible” in the felicitous title of recent book edited by Whalen and Szymanski (2011).  And, in the process, she also revealed constraints and possibilities in the very practical activity of conducting ethnographic research.

To do all this, 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.

I have been gratified, over the years, by the number of research projects by students in our programs in anthropology at Teachers College, who have imagined such situations and revealed some possibilities of life in disability, immigration, poverty, that could not quite be imagined.  For example, to mention only one among many, when Juliette de Wolfe (2013) spent a year following “autism warriors” she did not just “make available to us answers [to our deepest questions about humanity] that other shepherds, guarding other sheep in other valleys have given” (Geertz 1973: 30).  She helped us answer deep questions about producing local and historically specific social orders when faced with dis-abling condition (that includes not only their children’s autism but a whole slew of other matters ostensibly involved in helping child and parent).

 

Islanding assemblages of haecceities

I am finishing a draft of a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on conceits and autism.  It ends with my current favorite Garfinkelian conceit: driving down the highway of life with an immortal cohort.  In the paper where he talks about immortality and highways, he writes that “immortal is a metaphor for … an “assemblage of haecceities” (2002: 92).  Ray McDermott to whom I had sent an earlier draft underlined the last word and wrote “explain?”.   It made me acknowledge to myself that I could not quite explain the word though I knew it had to do with the latin for ‘this’ and was related to everything Garfinkel has written about indexicality.  So I searched Wikipedia (no shame!).  The first indexes in the entry are to Duns Scotus and Peirce.  Then comes the references to Garfinkel with a quote from Rawls “Haecceities is one of the many words that Garfinkel has adopted over the years to indicate the importance of the infinite contingencies in both situations and practices” (2003).  So, simply (?) put, changing the clothes of a tantruming child in a public park is, always and necessarily, a unique act that has never occurred and will never recur.  There will never be another time when this child will be changed by this mother in this park in front of these onlookers.  There will never be another time when this Rosa will say “I could read it!” in this reading group (McDermott passim).  There will never be another time when some Mexican migrants develop this glossary (Kalmar 2001).

So what is the point of reporting this?  As Kalmar reminded us when he lectured at Teachers College in the Spring 2012, the Camden glossaries are unique, but they are also an instance of what many other people (missionaries, linguists, etc.) did when faced with another language they had to learn as they attempted to survive in that moment.

So, this is another musing about ethnographic methodology and its usefulness in, precisely, this political moment in the history of anthropology and its relationship to the State.

But, as I half day dreamed about the quote (which I may initially have chosen because it included the work ‘metaphor’ which was then the key word in the evolving paper), I noticed that Garfinkel wrote about “assemblage” and wondered whether this is the recently famous word.  Did he get it from Latour? from Rawls (who would have gotten it from Deleuze)?  Anyway, it fits.  This event is made up of these matters (people, things, etc.) immortalized into “??????.”

What exactly is the word to be used?  (Suspense!)

I was working on the paper when, last week, I taught one of my favorite pieces from one of our disciplinary grandmothers: Ruth Benedict’s “Configurations of culture in North America” (1932).  Note that ‘configuration’ is pluralized, not ‘culture’ (Benedict is a Boasian, not a Geertzian).  What struck me this time is her use of the unusual gerund “islanding” to evoke the historical reality that differentiation (say in death rituals–her main examples) is not based on geographical isolation (see also Louis Dumont on the ideological differentiations between France and Germany in the 19th century (1994 [1991])).   Burying a close relative among the Zuñi requires different displays than it requires among the Cheyenne.  We were taught in graduate school to ridicule Benedict from tagging the first set of displays as “Apollonian” while the others would be “Dionysian” and to suggest that these ??? somehow “explained” the displays as if they were psychological causes.  I now read these labels as temporary heuristics that may have helped at the time establish the unique this-ness of a historical moment in the plains and high plateaus of a continent when human beings lived side by side, pushed and pulled each other, faced new conditions (e.g. the horse), and assembled themselves and their practices into some immortal thing (configuration, culture, pattern, epoch, system, [your word for a historically produced, powerfully enforced, differentiated and differentiating unique thing]).

Now, I have complained elsewhere that Garfinkel does not have an explicit theory of culture, unless, as I suggest, facing immortal assembling of haecceities is precisely such a theory–which is my point.

Thus, our scientific task is more akin to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).

[See also an earlier post on the Boasian revolt against classifications by function and causes]

constructing the gender of human bodies, literally

In the epoch of the clinic (as per Foucault, and not to challenge readers by writing about “Euro-American culture”) many human beings (we) have learned a lot about the peculiarities of sexual dimorphism (“males” without male genitalia; “females” with same; other chromosomal oddities, etc.) compounded by the mysteries concerning the origin and experiences of sexual attraction (not to mention sexual practices).  How this knowledge became facts in textbooks, the media, the law, and how it spread across miscellaneous populations, is a problem for historians.  Who knows what about all this, practically, at this particular moment in the life of a polity submitted to the regime of the clinic, is a problem for sociologists and anthropologists.  A version of the problem concerns the tracing of what is being done about it and what challenges are then faced given the possibilities that the epoch of the clinic have opened.

This brings me to the surgeons who perform “sex change” operations (search Google for “gender change” operations and find out all references are to “sex change”–another proof of Schneider’s conjecture about American kinship, 1980 [1968]).  It brings me particularly to one set of surgeons who, sometimes in the 1960s, performed the operation on “Agnes” who was made famous by Garfinkel (1967: Chapter V), and particularly on a few lines in a few notes about post-operative issues:

Immediately postoperatively, [Agnes] developed bilateral thrombophlebitis of the legs, cystitis, contracture of the urethral meatus, and despite the plastic mold which was inserted into the vagina at the time of surgery, a tendency for the vagina outlet to contract. She also required postoperatively several minor surgical procedures for modification of these complications and also to trim the former scrotal tissue to make the external labia appear more normal. Despite the plastic mold, the newly-made vagina canal had a tendency to close and heal, which required intermittent manipulations of the mold and daily dilatations. Not only were all of these conditions painful or otherwise uncomfortable but also, although minor, since they were frequent, they produced increasing worry that the surgical procedure would not end up with the desired result of a normal functioning and appearing set of female genitalia. Although these distressing conditions were carefully (and ultimately successfully) treated, at the time that she was well enough to go home these complications were still not fully resolved (Footnote 6)

 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).  Historically, sculpting the live body (including all forms of plastic and reconstructive surgery), would not be possible in the absence of a host of well-organized people in hospitals, universities, government offices, etc.  And yet, at the moment of the surgery, the body as live object or thing (in Latour’s sense) resists.  Internal mechanisms attempt to heal what any number of cells, glands, and primitive parts of the brain, might interpret as a “wound” to be “healed” by any means necessary–if cells had access to meta-communicational discourses (remember that various parts of the body communicate with each other through many different channels).  Surgeons and nurses are well aware of this and organize themselves to resist the resistance as they use the body’s affordances “against” themselves, so to speak.

At the end, a block of marble, under Michelangelo’s hammers, yields a new David and “we” humans may say that we have won against the world and built a new reality.  But the marble, in its peculiar affordances, remains: what about the missing hormones?  The marble crumbles and museums curators fret.  Wounds heal; surgeons worry; they manipulate and dilate.

So, in effect, can “we” (those who care about such matters) tell David from the marble, Agnes from her body, the raw from the cooked?


Garfinkel, Harold 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schneider, David 1980 American kinship: A cultural account.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  [first published in 1968]

Moral order, moralizing, and making it a bad day (the American way)

In my earlier post about some of my experiences at the 2010 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, I talked about the elevators with a parenthesis about students from our programs at Teachers College.  I am now opening the parenthesis to develop something that came to me when listening to the paper by Linda Lin.  Right after listening to her paper, I introduced the session Gus Andrews and Sarah Wessler organized and that they titled “The dark side of legitimate peripheral participation.”  The continuity was striking.  Of course, I liked a title that evoked both Jean Lave and Darth Vader making it a bad day for a galaxy, far, far away (that is the galaxy right around the corner from Teachers College (Columbia University)–if not Teachers College itself.

Darth Vader is my addition, extra-vagantly.  Students have to be more sober and they were.  One cannot take lightly investigations into the ways through which cultures disable.  Andrews, Hung, Kabat, Wessler, wrote about “degradation ceremonies” some “successful” (Garfinkel 1956), some failed, some joking, some even possible restorative of a broader order.  The later is actually an optimistic, if not extra-vagant twist on the pessimism easily triggered by Garkinkel or Lave.  Children yell at each other and call each other names that are direct commentary on their status within the polity.  They can even yell at adults with authority over them, and call them name—all while playing video-games and making it a good day all around.  I have been fascinated by the relationship between play and culture and this is something we will have to pursue.

Linda Lin’s was the darkest of the papers I heard that morning.  She provided another instance of moments she has written about elsewhere (2007): moments in the life of the people in an institution dedicated to helping people talk about race and racism when they themselves do talk about race, and get into serious trouble.  Regularly, their own talk about racism escalates into conflict, hurt feelings, resignations from the institution.  As she showed, conflict while discussing race is extremely orderly given American categories and rhetorical or performative forms.  It is also so painful that one understands why race talk should be so rare.  Touching hot stoves and getting burned is so orderly a process that its consequences can be predicted.  Given this kind of orderliness, it is not surprising that we try not to touch hot stoves, and teach our children not to do so.  It is similarly understandable that I should not want to engage in race talk, and that I should find Lin’s work so daring.

In this paper, Linda Lin also stressed something else that is equally daring.  She argues that one central mechanism in the production of conflict and pain during planned and institutionalized race talk is the moralizing that is an integral part of this talk.  When such talk is indeed planned within an institution, it is generally introduced as something “we” should do because it is the good thing to do.  The introduction develops into how bad it is not to have such talk.  And so on.  Linda Lin, interestingly, was attempting to distinguish moralizing from what sociologists, from Durkheim to Garfinkel, have written as the moral implications of social ordering.  Social ordering produces morality, and thus (this actually is an empirical generalization) breaks in social orders produce calls to moral accountability.  These calls can then take the form of a moralizing that can itself lead to further and more serious breaches (in a process related to what Bateson called “schismogenesis”).

Linda Lin, building on my work with Ray McDermott, dares to write about “America” as a label for the conditions that, in our work, make bad days for people caught within the gravity of the galaxy (I am hereby trying a new metaphor to add gravity to the metaphors about networks and webs we have been using).  America can be fun.  American can be great.  But America, as a field for politics from the most global to the most local, also has a dark side.  And all the papers explored this dark side even if, at times, the darkness is only a temporary tension as the social orders of fun and games is re-established.

All this fits well with my insistence about ongoing practical awareness of social orderings (as against still too common cultural anthropological bromides about culture being shared and unconscious, and as against the usual uses of the concept of habitus).

[For further readings about all this, see “Culture as disability” (McDermott and Varenne 1995) and Successful failure (Varenne and McDermott 1998)]

on researching autism as “cultural fact”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Hung and the collective construction of videogame play

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

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

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

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

on gender and “distracting associations” in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

References
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.