Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

Reply anthropology (?)

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 into, willy nilly: the more people say “I am (not) an applied anthropologist,” the more they affirm there is a such thing even when the object is to criticize IT.

But what were we to do? in the active practice of a particular critical discourse? in the second decade of the 21st century? within the confines of a State authorized institution dedicated, by statute, to “Applied Anthropology”?  I thought we would spend more time on alternate qualifiers.  Actually, we did not, much.  The fundamental issue, I guess we all agreed, is not a matter of qualification but one of whether there is anything to qualify.  In that sense at least, we all feared what Lave said we did do, and that is reification through questions about the classification of many different kind of actual research and publishing practices as, more or less, “marked anthropology” and thus NOT [unmarked] anthropology. [Ftn 1]

The fear of reification is not irrational, or matter of feelings or beliefs.  We all know that reification blinds, can lead us to make mistakes, can be used against us.  Reification puts us in a place that is no less real for being the cultural production of a time and population.  But we, as the kind of anthropologists who participate in a conference on “‘applying’ anthropology” cannot really NOT stay in this place we fear.  We must stand our ground (to develop the geographical metaphor) if only because acting on this fear could send us back (or be pushed back) into small ivory towers of irrelevance—and that would be ironic indeed since [applied] anthropology may have been, at times, a response to calls by students and others for relevance (engagement, etc.)!

But standing our ground does not mean that we cannot struggle towards some reconstruction, if not relocation.  To that end, I’d say we were giving examples of our practices over longer or shorter careers as professional anthropologists, and we were examining more carefully how these practices, as they are publicized, link with other practices both within and without the discipline.
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Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics

Cultural anthropologists must appreciate the following job description, as local (in time and place) work of linguistic

The Director of Enterprise Applications Service is responsible for application planning, development, testing, support and operations and project management of Teachers College’s application architecture and strategy. The Director of Enterprise Applications will forge sustainable relationships with IT directors in the business units and provide consultative support to the business units. This position will report to the Chief Information Officer and will interact across the academic and administrative technology services leveraging people, process, technology across the college by analyzing existing enterprise applications portfolio and define the road map for that portfolio as the college’s needs and opportunities change. This position will also be responsible for the college data warehouse and business intelligence environments.  (Retrieved from LinkedIn on February 18, 2015)

Whether the formal esthetics of this description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch perhaps following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of a time and place: 2015 in some global sphere.  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).

Reading this job description made me wonder about the form of the text.  Minimally, it would lead to examining the vocabulary (“application,” “sustainable,” “enterprise,” “Chief,” “data warehouse,” etc.) and adjectival phrases made up of nouns (“Enterprise Application Service,” “Chief Information Officer”).

And it made me wonder about a question anthropologists of neo-liberalism rarely address (if at all): what process produces such forms?  This is a different question than the one we (my faculty and student peers) debated in my graduate school days (1968-1972).  We wondered about the production of texts given a form (“structure”).  We (the students) reviewed hypotheses our faculty and their peer had developed.  Most of those now look wild, particularly when they are about the transformation of “deep” structures (matters of “competence”) into “surface” manifestations (matters of “performance”), as well as the analysis of the deep given accessible surfaces.  (And, of course, this remained the problematics in Bourdieu’s opus).

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Is this what neoliberalism is all about?

In a recent post on whether this post is “mine,” I puzzled 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).

Is this what people who rant against “neoliberalism” intuit (even when they use the word simply as the kind of generalized insult where my generation used “capitalism”)?

Most people actually rant against a few politicians (Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet) and a few university professors (Hayek, Friedman, etc.) who, as it is told, destroyed an earlier world to the profit of a very few.  That professors might be so influential, or even so useful for whatever purpose, is flattering to one among them.  But there has to be more.

I have another history for neoliberalism in which the economic actually yields to the political in the never ending deliberations about what to do about the catastrophic consequences of earlier political deliberations.  Thus, greatly to caricature, the glorification of the “people” and its “nation” typical of the 19th century leads to the 20th century 30 Year War (1914-45) that starts with four Sovereigns and ends with a version of man-made global devastation human beings should work not to reproduce.

This is a fast summary of the history I learned, though I was not quite taught it in school: France, Germany and Great Britain had greatly misbehaved themselves and their sovereignty, that is the sovereignty of their people as it can be manipulated by local (“national”) forces, should be reigned in.  I continue to admire Jean Monet (and de Gaulle and Adenauer) for having started a political process that involved manipulating the economic to produce massive political change: the end of France (and Germany, etc.)!  Monet succeeded in getting French and German politicians to create the “European Coal and Steel Community,” a supranational organization to which was devolved a small piece of national sovereignty.  This would lead to the founding of the Common Market, more devolution, and then the European Community and the Euro.  Half-a-billion people now find themselves in an unprecented political entity: an empire with a huge bureaucracy of policy-makers, and no emperor!

Two points here: 1) in 1950, the general population did not care about coal and steel, few saw where it might lead, and there was no serious political opposition to the subsequent devolution of sovereignty—until recently; 2) this devolution opened new opportunities for many interests that may or may not have been hampered by national sovereignty—particularly multinational corporations that could now operate more broadly around Europe and then the globe by using supranational organizations and policies as weapons against national organization and their politics.  If this is correct, then Thatcher, General Motors, Apple did not produce a current order that was a political response to a political problem.

Many critics in Europe do not think this is correct.  The more vociferous European critics of neoliberalism and globalization argue all this is the product of American imperialism (Zemmour 2014).  Whether the American generals and others who led all international meetings in the 1940s could foresee all this, may be besides the point.  The devolution of the national State to Supranational organizations (including, of course, the IMF, the World Bank, but also the ever multiplying “Non-Government Organizations,” big ones and small ones who now mediate much effort to make the world a better place) has been good to the United States (not to mention China, etc.).

It has also been good to the huge number of people who were able to move across the globe to fend for themselves whatever new difficulties they might encounter when they settled among more or less welcoming populations.  As one of this number, I appreciate the “freedom” (that is partial release from some constraints) that has allowed me to make a career and family in America.

So, I remain skeptical about any simple rant against neoliberalism that does not take into account the conditions within which its production has made sense.  Still, seventy-five years into what morphed, for much of the globe, into what might be called the post-nation-state era, the exact mechanisms of this era cannot just be imagined.  They must be investigated at the local levels dear to anthropologists.

What are the constraints (and possibilities) that ongoing cultural production of the devolved state, make real, concrete, and factual over future action?

In my locality, in an American College, I keep wondering—as I have been doing in several of these posts (4/18/2013, 4/23/2014).  Anthropology, some anthropologists like to say, was the handmaid of the national colonial State.  What if this State has faded? Who should support anthropology materially?  To be crass, who should pay for it and on what basis?  Is academic anthropology, after all, (intellectual) “property” (human capital) to be evaluated in the market place (for example on the basis of the willingness of young people to indebt themselves to pay tuition?)?  As I put it the first time I actively engaged with the issue does a College have a value? Or is it a price? (Varenne 2000)

Zemmour, Eric
2014     Le suicide français. Paris: Albin Michel.

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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.