Category Archives: Culturings

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

Aaron Hung and the collective construction of videogame play

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

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

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

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

on gender and “distracting associations” in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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