Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

On studying “dynamic changes”

A quote for the day, from Boas:

In short, the method which we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present time.  We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.  (1940 [1920]: 285)

The genealogy of ethnomethodology in ethnography has sometimes been told to me as passing through Hymes and Labov to Malinowski.  I have been wondering about Boas, and found this quote.

I am reading this analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States).   I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense of any local polity of practice).

So, in the spirit of Lave and McDermott (2002), here is a draft rewrite of Boas’s quote:

In short, the method we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in a family (community, local polity) that may be observed at the time of the observation.  We refrain from the attempts to solve fundamental problems of the general correlations between social structure and individual behavior until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.

Boas challenged the “grand theorists” of humanity when they tried, for example, to correlate “economic life and family organization” (1963 [1911]: 168).  We must now challenge the waves of theorists, particularly in sociology and economics, when they relate generalize plausible correlations between type of condition (poverty, disability) and type of local organization.  Like Boas, we must ask for research demonstrating the actual linkages and, given our experience that these linkages will not be found, then provide the systematic ethnographic evidence that families (etc.) are not (any more) predictable in their local arrangements (than the “societies,” e.g. Kwakiutl, etc., that were used as units of analysis in late 19th century anthropology).

So, let’s read this quote analogically again:

A constant relation between loosely connected [aggregated for statistical analysis] or entirely disconnected aspects of culture is improbable when the differences between the activities are great and different groups of individuals participate in the activities involved.   (1963 [1911]: 167)

This may allow us to rephrase the critique of the “culture of poverty” (more on that soon).

[The initial quote also echoes the rationale for philology in the 19th century when some linguists decided to eschew grand theories of language and its origin in order to actually understand human languages as they were observable and changed.  This movement towards history did lead to Saussure and his relatively successful search for synchronic processes.  Similar movements by Boas’s students may have been premature. Hymes and his students generally think that Saussure was similarly premature.]

Life endings? Or: Ends of life?

Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human population will be zero.  Social reproduction is failing (though biological reproduction is OK given that most of the people have children and grandchildren, but none who want to or can live as their parents lived).  What is an anthropologist to do there?

This kind of demographic situation has happened all over Europe (and North America) over the past century as certain types of agriculture have proven unsustainable and as alternative economic activities have not taken over.  But while many anthropologists have lived in such villages, there is suprisingly little about what can happen when aging human beings face a situation where, as far as they can know, they are the last ones to occupy some space.  So, there is an opening for research there, but the questions remain: How should this research be framed?  What questions should be asked?

Inevitably, we, anthropologists, have to struggle with the vocabularies used by governmental agencies, by some of the literature in gerontology, and by anthropologists who often come to such a topic with similar political motivations.  The stance appears unimpeachable: the poor/weak/young/old/handicapped are disabled and “we,” that is, “the state” (the European Community in Bulgaria) should enact some program to help those who will be identified as needing help.  And anthropologists, at their best, “come to help”—as many fondly remember Margaret Mead’s manner throughout her carrier as an engaged anthropologist (McDermott 2000) .

But what should we do if we are to help?  Or, more precisely, given that what we mostly do is write, how should we write our texts so that they direct future action by people in various kinds of organization in more grounded and respectful fashion?  As anthropologists, we know that a significant critical literature has developed in reaction to mission-based action that focuses on the suffering people themselves.  Anthropologists wrote against “culture of poverty approaches.”  They now write in reaction to the spread of organizations, both “governmental” and “non-governmental,” and the programs they keep testing, implementing, enforcing, abandoning in this or that village, with this or that sub-category of the population.  In the process of this critique, we anthropologists have learned to distrust administrative vocabularies and metaphors common in policy fields, particularly when these are extended and transformed into what is called, in literary theory, a “conceit.”  When facing aging these vocabularies and metaphors are always about decay, failure to prevent decay, and impeding doom.  There are discussions of successful vs. failed aging, policies that can help successful aging, etc.  They are rarely about life.

In brief, we must be wary of conceits that start with lives ending in loneliness and grief, and then that develop into programs to be enacted by specialists trained to deal with the newly identified disabilities “with which” the people are now saddled.

What other metaphors should we offer? How should we guide those in policy who will develop these metaphors into extended conceits in law, regulations, mission statements, training programs, etc.?

Let’s start with the obvious.  All life forms start dying as they are conceived but this is not the end of life.

Putting it this way is, obviously, linguistic play.  To talk about the “end” of life is also to talk about the “purpose” of life, at least in philosophical and religious discourse.  But there is also a sociobiological discourse where the end of life has something to do with genetic reproduction.  One might interpret certain types of sociology as making of social reproduction the end of life.

The problem for humanists, and also cultural anthropologists as well as my favorite sociologists, is that social and biological reproduction does not end life, at least not for human beings, and particularly not in the past centuries as life expectancy is much longer than needed for reproduction.  As people see their children and often grandchildren settle into adult lives, they still have to construct a life—though obviously in different conditions than they did when they were born, or when their children were born, etc.  Cultural production never ceases perhaps because it is not a task to complete and even perhaps because it is not an “end” of life (that it is not a functional requirement of life) but rather an aspect of what Jakobson once labeled the “poetic” function of life.

So I encourage Lisa Le Fevre to approach the village in Bulgaria as a place that is fully alive, though a lot of people are sick, some die, some worry about burying those who died, some worry about abandoned houses, others try to figure out what to do with the programs that appear and disappear in the name of “helping” them.  The ends of each of this life arise out of the ongoing and never quite routine conditions that do require a live response even if, as one of what used to be five ladies I know in a hamlet in Southern France, she finds herself, one day, half paralyzed with a stroke that leaves her on her kitchen floors for many hours, waiting for her niece to come, discover her, and for the wonderful French health care system to place her in a long-term facility where, for the past 10 months, she has had to make a new life for herself.

There never will be a really “good day” for her, and the four remaining ladies, each in their separate houses (this village is well within the Mediterranean culture area) wondering about their extended kin spread out over the globe.  And yet all will keep trying to make it a “good day” like the children who appear in McDermott’s work (Hood, McDermott and Cole 1980), or the elderly Jews in Myerhoff’s wonderful Number our days (1978).

Value Added Deep Play

Geertz’s “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight” (1972) is justly famous and yet its central argument, that the Balinese, sometimes, play “deeply’ in such a way as possibly to endanger their status, has had surprisingly little impact.  Maybe it is because it is set in a mysterious island far, far away.  Maybe it is because “we” do not bet on cockfights.  Maybe it is because, though quite a few of “us” play more or less deeply in Las Vegas and other such venues, “our” institutions, dominant ideologies, etc., do not play much and frown on any play dangerous enough to risk our health or well-being.  Quite the reverse indeed as “we” pride ourselves on ever more detailed protective regulation of what must be done while “at play” (in play grounds, riding cycles, etc.).  But, of course, we, personally and as implicated by more or less enlightened leaders do “deep play”–though not necessarily in ways so labeled.

Sherry Ortner is one of the few who worked at expanding what Geertz must have meant.  She presented a study (1999) of Sherpas helping people climb the Everest and other Himalayan mountains as a study of, precisely, deep play given the well-known dangers involved in such endeavors.  But Sherpas, and the rich people who hire them to make it possible for them to reach the summit, may still be dismissed as exotic people living at the edge of our safety nets and of only passing interest.  And yet we, social scientists, should pay attention.

A few years ago, I got interested in deep play as something potentially central to culture theory in anthropology.  I was working with Mary Cotter analyzing a moment in a woman’s hospital labor when she tells as a joke about an earlier labor when she, a physician herself, had lied to an anesthesiologist about pain she was not feeling to get more pain killers, thereby endangering her and her child (Cotter 1996; Varenne and Cotter 2007).  Everyone present, anesthesiologist, husband, nurse, researcher, laughed.  The joke was certainly “play” in the usual sense.  Was her earlier lie also a gamble, deep play?

In a forthcoming paper in the Educational Researcher, Jill Koyama and I propose we answer this question positively and expand the relevance of “(deep) play” to include all acts, by an individual or a polity through its leaders, that threaten their status or the status of some of the people the act involves.  In our perspective, it does not matter what the motivation of the actor (gambler) may be, or the type of rewards the act might produce, or its initial cost.  What would matter is the level of uncertainty about the act producing what it is supposed to produce and the severity of the effects, should the act not produce what was hoped for.  It has made sense to think about the activity of traders of Wall Street as, also, gambling.  What about the activity of politicians and other regulators when act to, in what would be their term most probably, “generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways” (from the introductory paragraph of the report A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983)?

In this perspective, the decision by the New York City Department of Education to publish the names of individual teachers and their score, is a prime example of very deep play by policy makers and the politicians who accepted their recommendations.  Who made the decision is actually unclear, but it was forcefully defended by Mayor Bloomberg.  There is no evidence, “data based” or otherwise, that such a publication will achieve what reformers wish to achieve.  There is much debate about the validity of the figures.  But, somewhere, a decision in uncertainty was taken.  It involved ten of thousands who, willy nilly, are caught in its consequences and for whom the act might transform status in what Garfinkel once referred to, chillingly, as “successful degradation ceremonies” (1956).

And now, unsurprisingly, a slow motion drama is unfolding.  This drama, like the Balinese cockfight, is taking place in the public square, and so will many of the status changes that will result as the main bet, as well as many of the side bets that are also being made, is followed by its consequences.  Political careers will be made and lost.  Administrators will be fired while others will move up.  Unions might be reinvigorated, or not.  One can hope that the shame as much as half of the teachers of New York City are experiencing this month as they are publicly labeled “below average” will be short lived (though one can imagine the psychological scars some will bear as journalists and parents berate them).

It may seem insensitive for social scientists to watch the unfolding of the drama as evidence for refining our understanding of social processes.  And yet it is our duty to do such.  Publishing individual scores, whatever good might come of it, is, also a full scale experiment which would probably never have been allowed to proceed if it had been proposed as “research.”  University review boards are very vigilant about the extent to which individuals might be harmed by research, even unwittingly or in indirect ways.  But, of course, policy acts are not systematically reviewed for the harm they might cause.  Perhaps they could not be or political decisions could not be taken in a timely fashion.  But the issue remains and as social scientists who advise policy makers, we must pay attention and play our analytic role.  The publishing of the scores is a research boon as it allows us to test various analytic methods (as Koyama and I are doing) that will allow for understanding more systematically the networks of authority and power in which we are all caught, and particularly the relationship of motivation to act to social consequences.  In this effort we might do worse than facing the extent to which social life is, also, (deep) play, and then making suggestions to policy makers about what is most probably a fundamental feature of humanity.

On the (pre-)judicial brain

The brain, we are told, acts first, thinks later–literally, by a factor of milliseconds.  That is, according to the kind of research David Eagleman summarizes in his Incognito: The secret lives of the brain (Pantheon, 2011), initial neural responses are faster than “conscious” ones.  This is the kind of research which, as I mused about earlier, confirms methodological individualists’ understandings.

That the brain should be so swift to act is actually essential to our surviving such tasks as, to pick up a recently evolved challenge to human survival, driving a car down a highway.  It is also problematic given that initial responses are easily correlated with various “biases.”  Brain researchers are getting quite good at devising subtle experiments to show how these biases might operate, at the millisecond level, even when the finalized act is non-biased (or biased in the correct direction).  I particularly “liked” (because of its extra-vagance) the experiment that depended on the trajectories of mouse movements towards “White people liking ‘Black People’” (Wojnowicz, Ferguson, Dale, and Spivey 2009).

All this could be used to confirm perennial working hypotheses about the relationship between strongly “learned” responses (probably because they happened repeatedly in early life) and later pre-judicial acts.  Such hypotheses have made sense to many Boasian “culture and personality” anthropologists, to sociologists and others following Bourdieu, and to a host of others over the past century.  In this perspective, the “judicial” brain literally does not, and indeed cannot, know what the larger brain gets the body to do.

For the critics among us, there is work to do here to challenge the neuroscientists on the implication of their altogether wild experiments.  At the simplest level, the point of having a “judicial” brain is precisely to control and repair what the pre-judicial brain may attempt to do, or has done.  The judicial brain might say “drive home” and then leave the pre-judicial one to do the driving.  At night, in Riverside Park, a white man’s pre-judicial brain may tighten muscles at the sight of young black man walking towards him, and it is probable that the black man will notice this tightening and this may produce a pre-judicial triggering of “racism.”  As they move away, each man may feel stressed and unhappy and actually review the encounter with their judicial brain—and then even perhaps blog about it.

But this last classic example raises an issue that neuro-scientific work appears very specifically to ignore: what are the implications of pre-judicial brain activity for routine social interaction?  Take driving down a highway.  Neuro-science tells us that we cannot describe in detail the sequence of muscular acts necessary to change lanes.  What it does not consider is that the first act when changing lane is figuring out whether there is another car in that lane and, if there is, whether one should accelerate or break before starting the change, and whether one should change an initial decision given what the other car is now doing as it noticed what we are doing.  Garfinkel (2002: 92-93) has made much of such joint activities across many bodies assembled on the highway that are required for the necessarily always emergent and yet “immortal” ordering of “driving down the highway.”

All sociologists working at the level of the “adjacency pairs” (and I include here interactional and conversational analysts, ethnomethodologists, etc.) should be the first to confront the neuroscientists since they work at very similar time scales but with radically different understandings of the units needed to analyze the same overall act at the next time scale when the act is concluded.  Other sociologists and anthropologists will have an easier time since we are almost always working with “consciousness.”   After all, our task is not to explain the tightening of muscles or the flashes of stress and anger black and white men passing each other may experience, but rather the evolution of the machineries (vocabularies, discourses, practices, laws, etc.) which make identify human beings as different from each other (from 19th century slavery, to early 20th segregation , to late 20th century civil rights and various kinds of resistances to it to any of these classificatory assemblages.

How the these assemblages influence the struggles within brains as persons ad-judicate each others pre-judicial movements, and change this adjudication as they find out what others have done, or what consequences they are drawing, should remain an open question that will not be answered by experiments that segregate human beings from human beings, and their pre-judicial movements from the delayed judicial ones.


Garfinkel, H. (2002).  Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism .  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wojnowicz, M. T., Ferguson, M. J., Dale, R., & Spivey, M. J. (2009). The self-organization of explicit attitudes. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02448.x

Tequila and Mel Gibson’s brain

As cohorts of doctoral students in anthropology at Teachers College know well, the second Thursday of the first year colloquium is dedicated to pondering “social facts” and rules for studying them.  What those students do not know at this point, and will struggle against throughout the session, is that they were set up to reveal a social fact: that the major points to be made are about the same points that were made the year before, and the year before that, going back to my first participation in the colloquium in a time that now appears to me “immemorial” (actually probably in the Fall 1991).  Specifically, the students will resist separating the social from the individual in the name of the individual (with due apologies to individual differences in the manner of this resistance).

They are of course in very good company.

Ah! The individual! The mind! The brain!

The same week, I read a somewhat popularized book by David Eagleman, a “neuroscientist.”  In his Incognito: The secret lives of the brain (Pantheon, 2011), he summarizes what excites people in his discipline.  I picked up the book after reading a summary of its argument: much that happens in the brain far below “consciousness.”  As Eagleman notes in his appreciative comments on Freud, this is not an original statement as such.  His point is that there is now a large body of experimental evidence that this is so.  Eagleman reviews evidence mostly from the fields of motion, perception, moral judgement, etc.  He does not review evidence from his colleagues concerned with language processing but this work would point in the same direction.  Driving a car, recognizing a face, making a value judgment, in the real time of everyday life (as it can be modeled in experiments) depends on processes that can be measured to happen on a scale much shorter than is required when any one of these matters are brought to consciousness.  This is also true of both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic processes we use when speaking.

And then he starts a major chapter by discussing Mel Gibson.

In an infamous incident in 2006, the actor is arrested for drunken driving.  As he is, he makes a violently antisemitic rant against the arresting officer.  In the following days he issues two apologies stating (through his publicist) “Please know from my hear that I am not an anti-Semite.  I am not a bigot” (Aug 12, 2006 – CBS News video).  Which is the “real” Gibson?  Elsewhere in the book, Eagleman reports on a study (Wojnowicz, Ferguson, Dale & Spivey 2009) involving moving a computer cursor:

Imagine that you start with your cursor positioned at the bottom of the screen, and in the upper corners of the screen you have buttons labeled “like” and “dislike”. Then a word appears in the middle (say, the name of a religion), and you are instructed to move the mouse as quickly as you can to your answer about whether you like or dislike people of that creed. What you don’t realize is that the exact trajectory of your mouse movement is being recorded-every position at every moment. By analyzing the path your mouse I raveled, researchers can detect whether your motor system started moving toward one button before other cognitive systems kicked into gear and drove it toward the other response. So, for example, even if you answered “like” for a particular religion, it may be that your trajectory drifted slightly toward the “dislike” button before it got back on track for the more socially appropriate response. (Eagleman 2011: 60-61)

What Eagleman never considers (and neither did the authors of the research) is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another.  This also characterizes all his discussions of morality.  Actually it also characterizes his discussions of apparently purely cognitive tasks.  Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War.  But he does not ask: What led to this war? Why should spotting planes be important (and why might it not have been important during the First World War?

Now, of course, asking such questions led Durkheim to consider the possibility of “social facts.”  Asking similar questions leads recent sociologists and anthropologists claiming Durkheim as an ancestor to ponder the mechanisms for establishing that this is disapproved, or for enforcing the disapproval (policemen, anti-defamation leagues, etc.).  In Gibson’s case one might also ponder where the alcohol comes from (when, how, through whom did Tequila enter Hollywood?).  And, of course, how did antisemitism become something to sanction when the reverse had been true for so many centuries?

But, a keen doctoral student might ask, is it not the case that neuroscience confirms Bourdieu (and Parsons, etc.) on the foundations of sociability and the reproduction of social patterns?

More on that another day…

Wojnowicz, M. T., Ferguson, M. J., Dale, R., & Spivey, M. J. (2009). The self-organization of explicit attitudes. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02448.x