Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998

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 various versions of Schneider’s writing about culture, I spotted on my bookshelves a book I had forgotten: Kluckhohn, Murray and Schneider’s Personality in nature, society and culture.  This collection of papers from the preceding decade was first published in 1948.  A second edition appeared in 1953. My copy is the thirteenth printing (dated 1971) of this edition.  All this must be a testament to its use as summary of a field.  This is not surprising given that the contributors include about everybody who was somebody then: R. Benedict, A. Davis, J. Dollard, E. Erikson, R. Havighurst, J. Henry, F. Kluckhohn, D. Lee, M. Mead, R. Merton, T. Parsons, H. Powdermaker, J. Whiting, and many others.  This is the moment of convergence that coopts Boasian anthropology  into the Parsonian scheme and transforms it into a simple concern with the shaping of personality.

In the book, there are papers on about everything that the editors classified as “determinants of personality formation”  (36 if the 46 papers).  That psychological anthropologists should worry about such “determinants” is probably what made me turn away from the field in graduate school and ever since.  It may also be what Holland and many others are fighting against when they write about multiplicities of emergent identities.

But I think there is something to learn by wondering how it made sense for so many of the most influential sociologists and anthropologists of the 1940s to teach with such authority about “determinants of personality” and the corollary impact of formed personality on future behavior.  I mention three papers.  Two may be stereotypical.  One stands outside.
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Wondering about authoring one’s self

While preparing a discussion of Holland on identity, figured worlds, agency, practice, I read a wonderful account of a doctor’s experience in pronouncing a patient dead:

One recent night I was asked to declare the death of a woman I had never met.

    “Ms. L. passed,” the nurse said. “Could you pronounce her?” …

    Declaring death is not technically hard but it is weird and sad and requires reams of paperwork. It is usually done by an intern, but my intern was busy so I said I would do it.

    The first time I declared a patient dead was nearly six years earlier. I had been a doctor for a few months when I was summoned overnight with a page that told me that my patient’s heart had stopped. When I got to his room I was out of breath and his nurse smiled at me and told me that there really wasn’t urgency; he wasn’t going anywhere. It was only when I walked into the room and saw my patient still and utterly silent, his tired family sitting around the bed, that I realized no one had ever told me precisely how to declare death. I wished I could come back later, but it didn’t seem right to leave him there, so I thumbed through my pocket-sized intern survival guide. The manual was alphabetized, and the discussion about declaring death came somewhere before a section on diabetes management. (“Pronouncing the patient dead.” Lamas, Daniela, New York Times, October 30, 2014)

This pronouncing is, of course, a major speech act.  It is also a subsequence in what Glaser and Strauss described as a “non-scheduled status passage” (1965).  The total organization of dying in the modern world (whenever that is) is clearly something that could trigger, in a cultural anthropologist, the emotions that lead Bourdieu and Passeron to write about “symbolic violence … as … imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” (1977 [1970]: 5).

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On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle”

By socializing the Cogito, Sartre only changes prison. From now on, the group and the epoch will make it its intemporal consciousness. … Descartes, who wished to provide a foundation for physics cut Man from Society. Sartre who pretends to provide the foundation for an anthropology, cuts his society from other societies. (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 249-50)

When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. (Geertz 1973 [1966]: 52)

These are two wonderful statements about the foundations of anthropology: what are we to do when we accept, as we have since Boas, that humanity in general, and human beings in the most particular of circumstances, are irreducibly different in the worlds they encounter and the worlds they make.  And, of course, these two statements are irreducible to each other though they respond to each other quite antagonistically.  Lévi-Strauss answers Sartre but also prefigures a critique of the still emerging anthropologies for which Geertz, building on Weber, remains the towering ancestor.  Geertz responded to Lévi-Strauss in similarly polemical style.

After a century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness which have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, we now have one which finds there the pure light of natural wisdom that shines in all alike. (Geertz 1973 [1967]: 359)

When looked at together, such exchanges can tell us about a (mutually and interactionally constituted) “collective conscience” about anthropology that brings back possible intuitions about, precisely, the collective into a matter of “becoming individual … under the guidance of cultural patterns,” that also produce “dispositions” (a word I found again Geertz also uses in several papers of the 1960s).

But each could also be used as an instance of the “conscience individuelle” that Lévi-Strauss (as well as Garfinkel et al.) imply by, precisely, never quite making of its production the topic of their investigations.  Lévi-Strauss wants to free the human from those who, on the basis of their own social scientific research, would put the human, either in psychological or social prisons  He asserts that examining the ethnographic record in all its wealth of variation and difference should lead the social scientist in the reverse position: neither “natural” nor “cultural” prisons can hold people for long.

On a related tack, conversational analysts insist that one cannot reduce the movement of a conversation to the intentions or motivations of those made to be participant in this conversation.  I’d go so far as to say that all research into conversation reveals that all participants, however willing, must still doubt, seek, interpret, resist, what has just been said.  And then they must start over when they find out what was made with their statement.  Lévi-Strauss came close to saying this when he wrote, like Garfinkel later, his statement about driving on a highway where “small variations in the distance that separates [the objects/subjects that are all the cars/drivers] has the force of a mute command” (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 222).  That is, driving (standing in line, writing anthropology) in a cohort, and maintaining its order, is a matter of calls that are also responses.

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 may be useful for, I dare say, an applied anthropology confronting other collective representations.  But it will no take us where both Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel, in different but very related ways, want us to go: a science of the mechanisms that make possible human variability in orderings.  Given that human orderings do vary, and in the process transform the world to which one might want to reduce them, this variability, rather than its possible remains in individual brains, should be our object.


Geertz, Clifford “The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1966)

Geertz, Clifford “The cerebral savage.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1967)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966 (First published in 1962)

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On the collective production of “conscience collective”

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 and unfocused.  I am not sure where to send it.

Anyway, while following a new cohort of students struggle through Durkheim, Garfinkel, Latour, (and altogether doing well with them), I wondered about the ANT of “collective consciousness” and whether what I want to do with conceits may be an answer.  Specifically, “collective conscience/consciousness” is one of the more difficult concept in Durkheim (along with the related one of “collective representations”).  But concepts do not survive longs as ideas before transforming into conceits, that is overall guiding principle for subsequent discourse first in the work of an author and then, more importantly for our purpose, into conversations about the work among emerging and evolving assemblages (groups? communities? polities) explaining, using, critiquing, etc., the work and earlier statements in the conversation.  Thus Durkheim wrote about “l’ensemble des croyances et des sentiments communs à la moyenne des membres d’une même société … qui a sa vie propre” (De la division du travail social,  Chapter II, Section 1, 1930 [1893]: 46).  A century later, “it is a truth universally acknowledged …” that Durkheim said that, as the editors of Wikipedia put it,: “Collective conscious or collective conscience is the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society” (retrieved on October 10, 2014 from  Anyone who writes something like this (though not exactly: do not plagiarize! Do not quote Wikipedia!) passes their exam!  Note how Wikipedia, quoting another encyclopedia probably deriving from still earlier texts first collapse whatever Durkheim was writing about into “shared attitudes” and then affirms that attitudes cause solidarity.

I am not writing today to explain why I believe that this expansion on Durkheim is wrong, or unhelpful, indeed dangerous, for current students, but to wonder about the collective consciousness of “conscience collective” as an interactional event.  This is partly an expansion of my 1984 paper in the direction of making it more specifically interactional.

It is evident that Durkheim, like all of us, was writing against some other writers, trying to say something different to an audience of, in his case, students and policy makers in turn of the 20th century France.  His statements were then picked by his students and their students (Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, etc.) in France, by Radcliffe-Brown and others in England, by Parsons in the United States of the 1940s, by Latour (negatively) and by Garfinkel (positively) a century later.  Now, I write given Garfinkel (and indeed all the others that I read more or less critically at various points in my career).

Let’s start with Durkheim’s own expansion of what may be a “definition”:

“la conscience collective ou commune … n’a pas pour substrat un organe unique; elle est diffuse … diffuse dans toute l’étendue de la société; mais elle n’en a pas moins des caractères spécifiques qui en font une réalité distincte. En effet, elle est indépendante des conditions particulières où les individus se trouvent placés; ils passent, et elle reste. … Elle ne change pas à chaque génération, mais elle relie au contraire les unes aux autres les générations successives. Elle est donc tout autre chose que les consciences particulières, quoiqu’elle ne soit réalisée que chez les individus. (De la division du travail social,  Chapter II, Section 1, 1930 [189?]: 46) Collective or common conscience does not have a unique organic support; it is diffuse … through the spread of society; but it still has specific characteristics that give a distinct reality.  It is independent of the particular conditions within which individuals find themselves placed; they go and it stays. … It does not change with each generation.  It is thus something other that the particular consciences even though it realized among the individuals (my translation.  See Simpson’s translation 1933: 79-80)


Let’s focus on: “Les individus passent et elle reste.”  This is what Garfinkel also wrote about traffic flow on a California highway: individual drivers that enter and then leave arising cohorts of drivers, the cohort stays.  The cohort is an “immortal fact” (Garfinkel 2002).  What about “collective conscience”?

From that perspective, what Durkheim might have “meant,” or how what he meant was “the product of his time,” is not the issue.  The issue is the characteristics of the conversations within which his texts were “next” statements (in Conversational Analysis term) within an ongoing conversation that Durkheim did not start.  The current issue concerns using his texts for further statements, long after his death.  Of course, conversations require participants but participation (whether one is recruited, accepted, tolerated, etc.) can only happen to the extent that the participant takes into account the characteristics of the conversation.  They need not agree, or even know much about it, as individuals, but they ignore its mechanisms at the peril of their continued participation.

“Conscience collective” can be taken as an attempt by Durkheim to “say” something “next” that is now the occasion for further statements like: emergent collectivities (made up for a few moments or for centuries) also produce, along with the material means of their production and reproduction, multi-authored texts through the usual processes of encouragement, assessment, policing, correcting, etc. that are well documented by ethnomethodological research for such things as service lines, gender displays, etc.  That is, what might be deemed in psychological terms, matter of morality (conscience) or cognition (consciousness, representation) is a matter of the symbolic forms used, at any particular time, by collective forces to police, amplify and silence individual voices.

So, we must continue to look for the interactional mechanisms (including people, institutions, objects, etc.) that produce discursive and meta-discursive statements with consequences, and particularly when “next” statements “repair” the conversation back to where it “should” be (for example, in Euro-America, bring it back to the freedom of the individual).

If I were to suggest a correction to the Wikipedia entry on “collective consciousness,” I would write something like “solidarity (social order) is partially produced by conversations about what should or should not be done, what should or should not sanctioned; a social order is also a moral order is also something to which the individuals who are caught within the conversation will have moral or emotional reactions–particularly when they see resistance to the order, whether that of others or, more powerfully, their own.” (See also Boas on “The emotional associations of primitives” [1911] 1938) This is probably too long and jargonistic, and I have no doubt that the editors of Wikipedia (an invisible collective force if ever there was one!) would “correct” it back to what is universally known about Durkheim: that he wrote about “beliefs individuals share with other individuals”…

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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!)

Anthropologies of the dangerous (?)

[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.   Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)?  Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities.  “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach.  But they also control what can be made public, how and when.  They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense.  We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.

Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends.  But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers.  From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act.  But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”).  They have also wanted to help.  Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II.  This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.  W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead.  That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996).   It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies.  And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.”  The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.

The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.”  This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia.  It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).

Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques.  Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements.  Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.

Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks.  The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct.  Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers.  We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek.  We now need to move a long conversation forward.

Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public  pp.  S23-S53

Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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The message “this is therapy,” with a horse

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 to study collective action and its productions, that is “social facts.”  Last week, Jennifer Van Tiem brilliantly defended a path-making dissertation that appears to fit within contemporary research on “human-animal communication,” but is actually about what can happens when two or three humans and one horse do something together, for example “therapy,” that neither humans nor horse would do by themselves.

The same week, I read something in Discover Magazine (my quick source for news from the hard sciences and what seeps of the social sciences into such a popular magazine) that should make all Durkheimians feel vindicated.  In an interview with Bonnie Bassler (June 2014 issue), the Princeton biologist explains how she established (think Latour) that bacteria, these most simple of life forms, tell each other that “I am here” (as well as “who are you?”) .  When the bacteria find out that they have something the biologists now call (metaphorically) a “quorum,” then they change state and produce something that will be experienced, by an outsider, as different from what this outsider might have experienced before (together, some bacteria become luminescent, others produce a film in an animal’s lung that might create life threatening problems, etc.).

The bacterial communication phenomenon that we study is called quorum sensing, which is a process that allows bacteria to communicate using secreted chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers. This process enables a population of bacteria to collectively regulate gene expression and, therefore, behavior. In quorum sensing, bacteria assess their population density by detecting the concentration of a particular autoinducer, which is correlated with cell density. This “census-taking” enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. In general, processes controlled by quorum sensing are ones that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but become effective when undertaken by the group. For example, quorum sensing controls bioluminescence, secretion of virulence factors, sporulation, and conjugation. Thus, quorum sensing is a mechanism that allows bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms. (my emphasis . Bassler, retrieved on May 19, 2014)

Note that the bacteria themselves do not change as far as what we might now call the “affordances” of their biology.  It is this biology itself that allows from a transformation that, yet, cannot happen apart from the quorum.

My readers will recognize here a perennial theme in my work.  So I will not develop this further, except to react to one of Van Tiem’s critique of much of the work of the conversational analysts which, I do teach, revolutionized not only linguistics but also all the social sciences.  They did reveal how human beings coordinate their activities, particularly when they do it through natural languages and in direct interaction.  The focus on adjacency pairs, indexicality, ongoing assessment (feedback), etc., was a major breakthrough.  But, as Van Tiem argues, much of this research is based on propositional language and thus not very helpful when the interlocutor is a … horse (or the human cannot speak Goodwin 195).  Humans, of course, do not only speak.  They also point and qualify with fingers, eyes, heads, etc..  Horses do not have fingers they can use, but they also have ears as well as tails that can serve to point, qualify, and otherwise make something that responds to an earlier movement as well as possibly triggers further movements.

But the issue is not the affordances of peculiar biological bodies and how they can be used to maintain sequentiality within a conversation and thereby the conversation itself.  The issue concerns the organization of the particular conversation itself as this kind of conversation, rather than another one. (With thanks to Juliette de Wolfe (2013) who insisted on separating the peculiarities of the autistic body from the particularities of the institutionalization of autism)

The issue concerns what can happen when bodies, given their affordances, find themselves in a “quorum.”  This, I would say is the issue about which Durkheim started us wondering when he pondered stabilities and variations in suicide rates (1897).  In the process he gave us all a problem a version of which is implied in Bateson’s concern with the message “this is play.”  Ethnographically, the issue may be best exemplified in a related message Sacks investigated “this is a joke.”  The issue is that “this is a play” (or “a joke,” “a classroom,” etc.) frames a long (“length” is, of course, another problem) sequence within which everything must (be made to) fit the ‘play’ frame.  Every statement or move must (be made to) “make sense” (McDermott 1976), “be suitable” as Boas would say.  Every statement must fit but it does not have to index, in its own performative organization, the frame.  Indeed whether a statement fits (or not) is controlled by the quorum (a.k.a cohort, staff, congregation, set of consociates, endogenous population, plenum, etc.), rather than by the individual speaker.  The quorum can overrule the individual  about the consequence of the statement.  Van Tiem quoted Garfinkel’s wonderful experiment with the message “this is therapy” (1967: 79ff).  The experiment was so set up as to lead people to act as if random answers made sense thereby actually making the answers sensible and the whole event “therapy” (actually, in this case, “research into therapy”).

Van Tiem is exploring the message (“this is therapy”) when one of those who staff the therapy is horse.  A horse is anything but random in its responses.  But there is no strict way to access its motivations (though human participants routinely discuss them and thereby make statements-about-the-horse’s-motivations one aspect of this therapy).  This, for our purposes is good since the trick here is precisely not to speculate about individual motivations but to figure out how the quorum is maintaining its particular frame—whatever any individual’s motivations, or lack thereof.

Much research has hinted how this might be done.  Bacteria do it through various molecules.  How do human beings do it with horses? Van Tiem brings back to relevance Paul Byers work on biological rhythms.  Goodwin has written about gaze,  Garfinkel about ongoing instruction.  But maybe we can also learn from bacteria, or least take heart that we have been onto something worth pursuing.

where bias can hide

Check this editorial Scientific Pride and Prejudice by Michael Suk-young Chwe

Anthropology is not mentioned (which may be a good thing).  We, of course, know about bias in observation and analysis, we are getting to know how science is actually produced, and we can criticize.  But we must go further than Chwe. We cannot simply end with bias.  Bias, a point of view, a starting point and an angle of attack, is essential: how else would we chose what to look at?  Then, we must trust the communities of our practice to point out what we should also have looked at, redundantly.  Of course, we also know that polities can develop common blinders (more or less powerfully enforced).  But, we can hope, that future polities will show what these common blinders have been, from new points of view, new angles of attack, new biases.

In any event, it is nice to read a clear a cogent, well-written, clear, critique of scientism hiding behind methodological hocus-pocus! (And I do love Jane Austen!)

Generalizing to processes, general and particular

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 on the basis of a single case study (however multi-sited, with a large number of participants, etc.)?

In the class, a student had summarized my convoluted answers in a pithy way that captured one of the things I was trying to say: “anthropologists do not generalize to populations, they generalize to processes.”  She could have added that anthropologists do not predict the probability the a particular number will show up when rolling a dice; they analyze the structure of the dice (of the arm throwing the dice, the game within which the dice is being thrown, etc.).

We were discussing Holland and Eisenhart’s Educated in romance (1990), as well as Moffatt’s Coming of age in New Jersey (1989).  As happens regularly, there was much nervous giggle among graduate students a few years away from dorm life.  Not surprisingly, as the students practiced their budding methodological sophistication, comments started flying to the effect that “things are not like that any more,” “not in my college in California,” “this is about the South,” “in the 1980s.”  That one of the college in Holland and Eisenhart is a Black college remained silent.  I let things run for a while by emphasizing the probability that this track of critique could mention further possible differences in demographics, regionalization, etc.  I talked about elite colleges, community colleges, small private urban colleges “unranked” by US News and World Report (Posecznick 2010), etc.  Multiplying all this made sense, but I was caught: what do these ethnographic reports tell us, beyond a local, time-bound, story?

So, let’s say that the books are about processes, as well as the structure of the pieces involved in practicing (in Lave’s terms) everyday lives in these colleges?  Holland and Eisenhart actually are quite clear: the book is about the further gendering of adult careers as young women move into adulthood, enter into the work force, marry, etc.  Gendering is a process in which much more is involved than childhood memories of playing with dolls or trains.  The same must apply to young men in college.  And it must still apply, at least when young men and women are isolated and left to figure it (sex, gender, display of these, etc.) out, apparently “by themselves.”

Those who know about my work (in recent years) know where I would then go in a class on “education” (“much more is taught/learned/found out in college than skills so that research that solely focuses on college life in terms of the production of human capital is sorely limited”— and that this is a processual generalization ethnography can make and confirm).

Today, I also want to return to an earlier theme in my work.  “Gendering through co-ed life in college” is certainly not a universal process.  It is actually quite recent and far from something all, or even most, young men and women experience around the world at the turn of the 21st century.  I have been fascinated by Leigh Graham’s ongoing work on the romantic education young women in a strictly segregated college in Saudi Arabia give each other.  There the women can go for months without contact with men—except perhaps their brothers.  Boys are “everywhen,” in conversations and fantasies, but never in the flesh.

Reading reports like this, or considering the history of college life in the United States, makes one notice sub-processes that are hidden in plain sight in Educated in romance and the other ethnographies: there is something quite extra-ordinary (extra-vagant) about these gendering processes and the complexity of the mechanisms for the control of romance (gender, marriage, work identities, children, housing, etc.) as they are set, suffered, resisted, played with, etc.  Anthropological ethnography, because it emphasizes comparison, keeps demonstrating that the most general of processes (e.g. gendering) are always mediated by sub-processes most strictly referred to as “cultural” in the early Boasian sense Benedict wrote about as “islanding” (1932).

And so, Educated in romance is, also, about America at least at the end of the 20th century and ongoing.

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).