Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

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).


Anthropology IS an experimental science

One of my favorite quote from Geertz on anthropology as an experimental science:

The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious … because the analogy is false. … The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its deepest theoretical dilemma: how is such variation to be squared with the biological unity of the human species? But it is not, even metaphorically, experimental variation. (1973: 22) [more…]

By “favorite,” of course, I mean a statement so self-assured of its own common sensicality that it begs to be challenged.  So I thought about it again when, while preparing a class on ethnomethodology as “methodology” (in a methods class), I went back to Garfinkel’s recently published dissertation proposal (from 1949).  There he proposes to conduct experiments through which the construction of a social order might be observed.  The general model for these experiments is stated as:

Assuming Iσ, let there be meant a dyadic group made up of Aγ(x) c Bγ(x). When A is regarded by B (x)-wise, A’s treatment of B will be interpreted in such a way (x) by B as to encompass a change (x) in an element or elements (x) of B’s cognitive style, the change being of such a character (x) as to limit B’s alternatives of action (x) … [more …]

The technique to observe what B will do is simple:

To help us in “slowing up the process” of B’s interpretive activity, we shall use the device of cutting B off by facing him with incongruous material. (My emphasis. 2006: 206-7)

For the rest of his careers, Garfinkel kept imagining versions of the experiment he modeled in this passage.  The most famous (at least for teaching purposes—which is what I imagine I do in this blog) may be the following one:

Students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption. They were instructed to conduct themselves in a circumspect and polite fashion….

In nine of forty-nine cases students either refused to do the assignment (five cases) or the try was “unsuccessful” (four cases). (1967 [1964]: 47)  [more …]

The less obviously experimental of these observations range from following Agnes through her sex change operation (1967 Chapter 5) to the research on a blind woman organizing her kitchen so that she can cook by herself—only possible if no sighted person helps her (2002: 212ff).  The best set of such observations is the ensemble of research in conversational analysis.  Audio-taping and videotaping does exactly what Garfinkel called for: a slowing down of social interaction so that one can observe the actual building of a social order.

A half century of work in that experimental mode has produced an ensemble of findings about sociability that should be presented more succinctly, and, I dare say, celebrationally.  These findings (laws?) range from the generality of indexicality as the mechanism through which communication is anchored in the here and now, the principles of “trust” (a generalization of the generality of “passing” as another fundamental principle), the “etc.” principle (communication does not proceed through full knowledge of the situation—thereby disproving all forms of cognitivism), and so on and so forth.

One thing that work has not produced is a formalization of the conditions under which a particular social order (this one) comes about and transforms itself.  In other words ethnomethodology and conversational analysis are, fundamentally, a sociology of social ordering.  But there has never been an equivalent anthropology of historical culturing.

Which brings us back to ethnography as, arguably and contra-Geertz, an experiment in “slowing down processes” (or perhaps, in fact, “accelerating” the passing of time).  Boas and others (including Geertz in the above quote) intuited (and hypothesized) that human variability is a fundamental principle.  How would one demonstrate that?  For Boas et al, the answer was simple: by examining social orders in human groups widely separated and, perhaps even more powerfully, by examining social orders in neighboring groups.  Eventually, the more fine grained the analysis, the more one could demonstrate that the same tasks of survival can be performed in all sorts of ways.  For example, middle aged women in graduate school can prepare for an examination just as well siting on the floor in veils (or in blue jeans, sitting on chairs).

Iranian women studying

I tried to formalize this in an earlier blog entry.

But we still need to figure out how specific social orders arbitrary to the “needs” they may appear to fulfill actually do appear in history.  And so, we need to devise experiments that might it possible for us to witness the process.

For a defense of cultural anthropology as science

I have been thinking for some time about the de-institutionalization of what we might call “anthropological authority”: the authority to speak about humanity from the point of view of an evolving discipline that has developed over more than a century a powerful and distinct way to discover aspects of humanity that other ways of knowing do not bring out.

I thought this movement was a product of the evolution of American political activity where the tendency to “know-nothing” merges with the hyper-expertise of a narrow cadre of techno-engineers convinced that “data-driven” research will necessarily produce “evidence-based” policy and lead to the oft-predicted “end of history.”  Well, there is a French version of that evolution leading, in good French centralized fashion, to the erasure of anthropology from university undergraduate education.

That is a radical threat if ever there was one!  And it leads to people rising in passionate defense.  For example, look at the following:

In summary, the petitioners present the major achievements of anthropology over the past century as consisting of efforts

  1.   “to stimulate social reforms necessary for a fairer and more equitable redistribution of produced wealth” (Mauss and The gift);
  2.   [to found] “a new humanism based on a more universalist and egalitarian framework” (Lévi-Strauss and Race and history);
  3.   to oppose attempts to anachronise or exoticise ‘non-Western societies’ in order to comprehend them (Balandier);
  4.   to understand all human societies as equally valid and contemporary (on going).

My question today: Are these the achievements we should celebrate at this time?  Are these the reasons anthropology should be kept as an undergraduate major in French universities?

I find striking that all these justifications are ideological and politically (and may be religiously) charged.  None claim “science.”  Is this the best we can do to affirm our contribution to those who make different political choices, or to those, particularly in the United States who are aggressively “non-political” (actually there is a version of that in France where a particular cadre of government officials, just below political appointees who come and go with governmental majorities, keep serving whoever has legitimate power.  They are “les hauts fonctionaires”)?

So, I’ll try my hand briefly at another kind of justification based on the contribution of anthropology to “basic science.”  Let’s start with Saussure as developed by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss.  Saussure, on the basis on a century of basic research in historical linguistics established that while any state of language builds on earlier states, one cannot predict the next state.  This is fundamentally related to the “arbitrariness” (non-rationality) of the means through which meaning is achieved.  Anthropological research, particularly in the Boasian traditions, has confirmed that is arbitrariness can be generalized to all forms of human behavior in history (religion, myth, political ideologies, etc.).  This, of course, is also the contribution of Lévi-Strauss in his major works (Totemism, Savage mind, etc.)—among many others.
While all particular historical forms are tied to earlier forms, and must also fulfill various kinds of biological, ecological, demographic, etc., needs, the exact means through which these needs are met are fundamentally “arbitrary” (or, in more recent formulations, “playful”).  All this is true “cross-culturally,” across historical periods, and, as we are now finding out, “cross-“ the various new forms of differentiation produced “internally” within the new global society.

All of this has been established through various forms of detailed ethnographic-like research (including historiography, philology, conversational analysis, etc.) and debated within a small set of social science disciplines.  It may even be written as a “law” that cannot be broken any more than the second law of thermodynamics:

Given any ordered social state (system, pattern, culture, …), this state will always re-order itself into any number of new states none of them being identical to any state ever produced in human history.

The consequences of this general knowledge should lead to a radical challenge of “evidence-based” research to the extent that it is founded on the sense that the evolution of human societies can be predicted and controlled.  That is, as I understand it in the world of school policy I know best, researchers design complex experiments to establish that ‘y’ is function of ‘x’ (z, etc. through complex statistical means) and that this is not a historical, arbitrary, relationship.  There is however no evidence that any such research, in the past, has led to the prediction of even minor changes in the future.  I do not know for example whether the sociologists who developed the framework for “value-added-teaching” ever confronted the possibility that teachers might strike over it, that administrators might dissemble about test results, that state administrations would discover means of subverting the processes, etc (or that we can not predict what will happen to all this when new local or national administrations are installed).  And yet any anthropologist of the past half-century (whether they invoked Boas, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, de Certeau, etc.) could have warned that such “play” would happen even if they could not predict what forms it would take.

Not accepting the “law” (however we may end up writing it) is placing oneself outside of science and too many of our colleagues are willing to do that.

As for us anthropologists (historians, sociologists, etc.) we must keep training students rigorously to explore implications, challenge, further specify our paradoxical laws.

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]

Patterns of culture in America

I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography as fundamental to any social science.

Thus I am tempted by a title that directly echoes Ruth Benedict (1959 [1934]) where “[PoC] in America” stands for the implicit “PoC [in human history]” where “in human history” could be said to be the “sub-title” of the Boasian call for acknowledging the local and historical aspects of any anchorings of human beings in particular times and places.  But, of course, I read Benedict’s title without the connotation that each pattern is a positive entity of some sort.  I would argue that what is sometimes labeled a “unit” in the book (e.g. in Boas’s introduction 1934) should be understood more as a “model” in Lévi-Strauss’s sense (or an “immortal fact” in Garfinkel’s sense).  But more on that some other time.

The important thing for me in my imagined title lies elsewhere.  It echoes another title by Boas “The interpretations of culture” (1938 [1911]: Chapter 10).  Note how both Boas and Benedict write of “culture,” in the singular.  They index “culture” as a general process and precisely not as an entity.  This is the way Lévi-Strauss always wrote, with culture as singular, and what radically distinguishes his work from Geertz who maintained a concern with “the interpretation of cultureS,” with “culture” in the plural.  Thus did Geertz reconstruct the substantive reality of, say, Java vs. Bali vs. Morocco while starting a deconstructing movement who taught us that we must also write “against culture” (Abu-Lugod 1991).

So, my title could not be “Pattern (in the singular) of cultures (in the plural) in America.”  This would be a fall into the misguided traditions that have tried to replace the metaphor of “melting pot” with the metaphor of “mosaic.”  Whatever the value of a now venerable critique of the first metaphor starting with Glazer and Moynihan’s famous Beyond the melting pot (1963), it ignores two realities: first, it ignores the hegemonic power of the ensemble of institutions and practices that derive from the state apparatus in the United States (including all three branches of government, from the federal to most local levels, as well as the “non-governmental” agencies such as the national media, the universities, etc.).  I remain convinced that this organized ensemble (historically produced, etc.) counts as a “culture” in Boas’ sense since it provides the most powerful constraints on the lives of all people in the United States (whether “native,” “immigrants,” “aliens, etc.) and indeed around the world.  Second, the critique of the melting pot ignores the ongoing production of new arbitrary, historically grounded, practical—that is cultural patterns built out of the materials provided by a “culture” that is also a most concrete environment.  Staying caught within the “multi-cultural” model for complex societies also lead one to assume that the culturing of America can only proceed along the lines of ethnic descent, thereby keeping alive the worst of the traditions of “culture” we inherit from the 19th century.

Let me give two examples of the matters that would concern me: Mexican men finding ways to survive working in Korean groceries in New York City (ongoing research by Karen Velasquez), and women in Queens organizing themselves to deal with the autism of their children (ongoing research by Juliette de Wolfe).  That the people mutually constituting a local pattern may only number a few dozens, and that what they build will be unique and temporary, is not an issue.  Actually, the “unit” in the second case brings together hundred of thousands of people (if not millions), though in an indirect fashion.

In their work, Velasquez and de Wolfe carefully document the ongoing work of the people to adapt themselves to the specific conditions they face.  In the Boasian tradition (as rewritten by Garfinkel and Latour), they eschew simple causal links (migration, the etiology of “natural” condition, neo-liberalism, or what have you) to document not only the effort of the people (and thus celebrate them) but also the conditions that they face—and thus teach us something about our own conditions and how to bring them out into meta-cultural discourse.  That is, ethnography reveals not only the imagination of human beings but also the conditions which, at a certain time, are the most consequential in their lives.  Neither imagination nor consequential conditions are imaginable by a priori theorizing.  This is the general statement that drives a century old tradition that it is now our task to reconstitute as the pre-eminent route to understanding humanity as it develops.

pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty

The shanty is black within and without … A black woman sits on a log, with half-a-dozen small specimens of humanity about her, and of all shades of black, brown, and yellow… ‘Where is your husband?’ … ‘Dunno, missis, don’t care, he may go to de debbil for I know and cares.’” (E. B. Emery Letters from the South, on the Social Intellectual and Moral Condition of the Colored People (Boston, 1880: 9-10) – as quoted by E. F. Frazier 1966 [1939]: 256)

Thus opens Chapter XVII of one of the most powerful book of the 20th century—as far as family and poverty policy is concerned at least..  Frazier uses here a classic anthropological rhetorical trick many anthropologists continue to use (and which I try to discourage among my students): He quotes a long extract from some text to introduce (illustrate? prove? enlighten?) some analytic statement.  At the end of the paragraph following the quote, Frazier tells us “of course, such cases … are not typical” (1966 [1939]: 257).  So why start in this manner a chapter discussing uncertain statistics about “illegitimacy among Negroes”?  And why should it appear directly after the statement possibly most quoted by people like Moynihan who, twenty years later, expanded on Frazier to make a “Case for National Action’ “to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it ro raise and support is members as do other families” (Moynihan 1967 [1965]: 93)? Frazier had written: “Family desertion among Negroes in cities appears, then, to be one of the inevitable consequences of the impact of urban life on the simple family organization and folk culture which the Negro has evolved in the rural South”  (1966 [1939]: 255)I went back to Frazier and then Moynihan as Ray McDermott and I have been discussing the roots of the “culture of poverty” argument and the failure of the anthropological critique of this argument to have the long term impact we were sure, when we were in graduate school in the early 70s, it would have.  In the late 70s and 80s, it was almost too easy to teach the critique.  To students, it was simple, Frazier and Moynihan were “racist” and that settled that.  Students were often surprised to learn that Frazier was one of the first PhD’s granted by the University of Chicago to Blacks.  But learning this did not change much.

What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters from the South) whose book must have moved Frazier.  Like her, they sought and brought out the most pathetic of experiences to justify any analysis of the “roots of the problem” (as Moynihan calls them).  It made sense because, as I imagine their political contexts, Emery’s letters, like Frazier’s book (and the dissertation on which it was based), like Moynihan’s Report, are attempts to convince policy makers (from activist women in Boston, to the Congress in Washington) that “we must do something.”

This missionary urge still moves students, like it moves policy makers, and blinds them to the dangers of unanalyzed pathos—particularly when it becomes the opening statement in a long chain of “if/then” argumentation: if the women had seven husbands (“small speciments … of all shades”) then there is something wrong with her; if there is something wrong with her it is because of her social conditions (cue here any version of socialization theory you prefer); given that there is something wrong with her, simply changing social conditions will not be enough to prevent her children from being wrong in the same way as she is wrong; thus, “we” must create programs to help her; but first we must diagnose what exactly is wrong with her… [TO MY READERS: if someone would try their hand at transforming this progression into the kind of cartoon Latour drew for the double helix, I would be most thankful!)

This argumentation can produce volumes of “research,” both fundamental and applied, and policies upon reformed policies along with endless “empirical research” providing “evidence based” suggestions about what “really works.”  But what if there is nothing wrong with the woman Emery met?  What if her very survival through many men, pregnancies, labors and deliveries, childhood diseases and death, etc., suggest complex strategies involving many people and many modes of acting?  I am thinking here of Scheper-Hughes’s portrayal of Brazilian women (1992) and of her acknowledgment of the process that led them her pathos (leading to the urge to help) to understanding.  The women were suffering but there is nothing wrong with them and we should not burden them with our pathos.  We do not need to develop complex diagnostic tools, and the accompanying enormous bureaucracy, to help the women.  As far as the kind of diseases that afflicted many of the children of the Brazilian women, clean water was all that was needed.

The best anthropological response to the culture of poverty argumentation was the accumulation of stories of survival, including the production of local patterns.  I am thinking here of Carol Stack’s justly famous All our kin.  But, as we found out, these stories are not enough.  They get dismissed as “anecdotes,” “just so stories,” and altogether irrelevant to “the problem.”  At worst, anthropologists can be accused to undermine policies.  One of our student, Karen Velasquez, told me of her dismay when she was accuse of insensitivity to the plight of Mexican migrants in New York City, when she told the wonderful story of a mono-lingual Mexican man learning how to read bar codes in order to stock shelves in a Korean grocery.

In other words, it is not enough to publish alternate “letters from the South” (like Gundaker has done, 1998).  We must also justify again why tales of “suitable” adaptation to difficult ecological conditions (to expand on Boas as Michael Scroggins and I have done recently) are necessary for interventions that are sensitive to local conditions unimaginable in their detail.  The point of careful ethnography is not only to tell “what other shepherds have said” (Geertz 1973) but, more importantly, when the work is conducted in our own valleys, to help those who would help so that they do not make things even more difficult.

A quote (from Boas) for another day

(with thanks to Michael Scroggins who alerted me to this short paper on “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” 1887)

“In human culture … like causes produce like effects.” We cannot agree with [this statement of Professor Mason] In his enumeration … [he] omitted [one] which overthrows the whole system: unlike causes produce like effects.  It is of very rare occurrence that the existence of like causes for similar inventions can be proved … On the contrary, the development of similar ethnological phenomena from unlike causes is far more probable … (Boas 1887: 485)

I will leave it to Michael Scroggins the opportunity to introduce the punch line of the paragraph, and, possibly, of Boas’ overall legacy.  I will just use this quote develop the footnote in my post of May 26th when I mentioned Saussure.

Given the early date, we might say that this statement about causation and “ethnological phenomenon” is more postulate than finding.  But Boas states here what guided his subsequent research, teaching and institution building.  Over the course of his career and that of his students, the value of the postulate was abundantly demonstrated—and then it was all but forgotten when Parsons et al. started the education of some of the most powerful voices among the next generation of anthropologists (Geertz being the pre-eminent voice here of course).

I just want to note here that the value of Boas’ postulate had already been demonstrated quite thoroughly about another “ethnological phenomenon”: language as spoken by any particular group of human beings.  Nineteenth century philology (who could have been called “historical linguistics”) had already shown that, when looking at any linguistic form, one can always trace it back to its history, and even plausibly reconstruct language families all linked to some ancestral language.  But one cannot do the reverse—that is predict the future drift of any language.  One might be able to predict plausible alternatives given a past (thus Saussure “predicted” Hittite).  But, after at least two centuries of attempts at finding them, no causal laws of language change had been found—and they still not have been found, whe.  One could make the same argument about Chomsky and the continuing search for “deep,” neurological structures.  Even if these were found through various retrospective techniques, there is no evidence that one could, prospectively, imagine actual languages, and their changes, from the deep structure.  All one will be able to say is that human languages are … human!  But Chomky and MRI’s will not be able to explain the conditions that led to the change, in English political speech for example, from “the person, he …” to “the person, he or she …”  Chomsky could not have predicted Hittite.

So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph.  Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time was had by all!).  Nor could they predict the next “turn” (song, popular singer, genre) in the indirect conversation between Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.