The Social Facting of Education:

Durkheim's Legacy[ftn1]


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University

in Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27: 373-389. 1995.

Much has been made, over the past 20 years, of the inescapable grounding of all social scientific activity in ideological structures imposed on practitioners by, and revealed in, the very narrative and rhetorical tools at their disposal.


Much has been made, over the past 20 years, of the fact that all researchers, because of their long participations in particular groups, develop particular narrative and rhetorical styles that reveal their ideological position.

Both these statements attempt to capture something that all social science has to grapple with: when one looks at human action, one always recognizes it as in some way particular, rather than universal. Teaching is always teaching in a particular classroom in a particular school, it is never "simply teaching." Doing educational research is always doing it from within a particular tradition, or culture. The two statements however are not identical in terms of their implicit theory of the relation between actor and tradition. The latter constructs an encultured actor with a specific identity, the former constructs an organized landscape of institutions for generalized actors. Both do this construction through rhetorical tricks: in the former "activity reveals constraints;" in the latter "actors reveal themselves." In the former the constraints are externalized and the actor struggles with the world; in the later the constraints are internalized and the actor struggles with his self. In the former style, the one that I am adopting and defending in this paper, one writes that a person "teaches in America," that is with a particularly organized group of other persons caught in a social structure with positions such as Teacher, Student, Administrator, or Researcher. In the other style, the one that I criticize, one writes that a person who "is" an "American," or "French," also "is" a teacher or "becomes" an administrator.

The difference between the two styles is, of course, not merely stylistic. In the long run, a particular way of writing about the world, a way that makes it much easier to say certain things than others, constructs and reconstructs a world with particular limitations from which future generations of researchers will have a more and more difficult time escaping. It may be the case that, if one is indeed interested in the constitution of identities, that is specific selves with particular qualities, what I will refer here as the "pragmatist" (American) tradition opens paths into aspects of humanity that would otherwise have remained unexplored. On the other hand, if one is puzzled by institutions and their impact, one may, indeed, should feel oneself badly served by the concurrent closing of other paths into alternate aspects of the human experience. Take for example the classical question all research in educational process seems to ask, "why can't Johnny read?". There may be some justification in exploring why it is that Johnny, as an encultured self, is actively unable to read. There is however little justification for stopping there. Eventually one must also strive for a way to investigate under what conditions he is noticed as not reading, by whom, and for what purposes. This may even lead to a statement about what it is that Johnny actually does do with his being known as not knowing how to read. Many are struggling with versions of all this,[ftn2] but the normal models available for conducting research, writing results, and developing theory, remain severely limiting. We need to recapture other models and narrative forms that in fact were offered, and then dismissed, particularly where America dominates.[ftn3]

Durkheim: Provocation and Possibilities

My goal here is to recapture one non-pragmatist tradition that has remained underdeveloped in the United States. I will refer to this tradition as Durkheimian, to emphasize the source of its first coherent elaboration in the work of Emile Durkheim. It might also be referred to as "structuralist," to stress its transformation in the work of subsequent sociologists, linguists, and anthropologists, particularly in France, and to a certain extent, in the United States--albeit in a modified fashion that can easily be misinterpreted when read in America. The possibility of this misinterpretation, eventually, reveals the very process that a structuralist analysis can help understand. Durkheim has been read in the United States for 75 years and, depending on what one means by the word, he has been "understood." What he is saying is not radically foreign. New statements, whether appreciative or dismissive, can be made with his statements. What, actually, is made (has been made, and could not be made) with it, is the issue that I want to address. In other words, I am not quite interested here in correcting "understanding," or in offering my version of what Durkheim "really said." My task is not archaeological. It is rather a critique of what can be done, that is written--given the nature of intellectual practice--, with what he wrote.[ftn4] I want to emphasize those properties of his work that have not been used in the American conversation, or, if they have been used, have been used only as a rhetorical counterpoint to reaffirm the common sensicality of the pragmatist statements. Furthermore I want to show how these properties can help move certain recent development in anthropology of education, particularly those inspired by ethnomethodology and resistance theory.

Durkheim's work is often summarized through a difficult quote from a prescriptive book about method. Durkheim is struggling with stating what is the proper unit of study for sociological investigation. This is the "social fact" for which he gave the following formal definition:

A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint. (1982 [1895] 59)

In the French version, the phrase "way of acting" is rendered as une manière de faire, and not une manière d'agir: the social fact is, precisely, a way of "facting," of making something, and perhaps even constructing in the modern sense.[ftn5] The possible distinction between action (behavior) and "faction" (construction) is one that should be explored further. But what is really controversial in this passage, particularly in America is the adjective "external," particularly given the way Durkheim expands the definition:

[A social fact is a way of constructing] which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations. (1982 [1895] 59)

How can Durkheim talk about something that has "an existence of its own" independently from "individual manifestations"?

These are serious questions, and we must continue to struggle with restating a definition that Durkheim himself presents as temporary. Still, he is pointing us in a particular direction that we might want to follow for a while before we make the blanket statement that, after all, there is nothing to society but individuals. On the one hand, he is asking us to notice all the signs that suggest that individuals are not the highest level of organization in the evolution of life. In the same manner as an individual is not "simply a collection cells" but rather an entity of a new, different order, there is good reason to think that a "society" is also such an entity with particular properties that may not be deduced by examining the constitution and behavior of the units that make it up. On the other hand, Durkheim is also asking us to look at individual behavior as constrained, which is different from determined. Indeed in his detailed discussion on how to understand the relationship between an actual suicide and the rate of suicide (1951 [1897] Book III), Durkheim repeatedly emphasizes that the rate, as such, cannot push any particular person to commit suicide. The rate of suicide is not internalized, and so it is not driven by the social constitution of individuals. The rate of suicide, or, more exactly, the rate of the particular kinds of suicides typical of a particular kind of society, is constraining on all participants even if they, personally, will never consider suicide. One could in fact go further than Durkheim did on this matter by suggesting that suicide is differently constraining depending on one's position within the social system: a coroner will experience, that is be constrained by, the suicide rate, differently from a priest, differently from a bus driver. Educationally, the Durkheimian tradition asks us, for example, to think of a classroom less as a bunch of individuals of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and learning disabilities, and more as a system of teachers and students--not to mention administrators, curriculum designers, politicians, educational researchers, etc.. The tradition also asks us to approach any individual within a particular performance of Classroom less as a "student" or "teacher" with specified identities (including role definitions and particular qualities in the performance of the role, i.e. whether one is a "good" or "bad" student or teacher), and more as a struggle with identifications that are continually being recollectivized.[ftn6]

Asking such questions in the context of educational research can help us move away from an ungrounded critique of the definition of the social fact, and recapture something that is in fact alive, though sometimes in hidden ways in contemporary conversations, for example, in certain readings of classical texts by Garfinkel (1967), in McDermott's attempts to develop a theory of "collusion" in educational encounters (1983), in Willis' discussion of "resistance" (1977), etc. Some of these developments often presented themselves as developments within the pragmatic traditions, and as reactions against what passed as a sociological tradition supposedly developing Durkheim's work. Thus, Garfinkel quotes Schultz (who quoted Dewey) against Parsons (who sometimes quotes Durkheim). Constrastively, Dewey, for example in an early paper on the reflex arc (1973 [1896]), or G.H. Mead in his discussion of the "conversation of gestures" (1934) are arguably coming much closer to a structural understanding of human interaction than some of their students and followers ever did. In recent years, someone like Mehan, through a critique of Bourdieu's possibly unwitting cultural determinism, and from the point of view of someone interested in "constitutive practices," has in fact started quoting Durkheim in a positive manner not found in the United States for many years (1991). My goal here is not to tar writers in one tradition as American (and misguiding), and others as structuralists ("French"? and enlightening). Rather it is to analyze contrastively two analytic logic to draw the lines that lead, and constrain, authors in particular directions.[ftn7]

In this perspective, we can look briefly at a few pages from the first chapter of Dewey's Democracy and Education ([1916] 1966). They can serve to summarize the major properties of the pragmatic tradition, or culture.[ftn8] In these pages, Dewey is summarizing what he understands to be the current state of knowledge about what constitutes society and about the relationship of the individual to society. It is both a philosophical and social scientific statement.

Society [...] may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge--a common understanding. [...] The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions--like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

Consensus demands communication.([1916] 1966: 4-5)

Indeed, as it is developed, it is also an anthropological statement:

[When a child] really shares or participates in the common activity ... his original impulse is modified. He not merely acts in a way agreeing with the actions of others, but, in so acting, the same ideas and emotions are aroused in him that animate the others. A tribe, let us say is warlike... ([1916] 1966: 13-14).

This is followed by a parable illustrating how the children of a warlike tribe become warlike themselves. For a while there a reader finds himself with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, Erik Erikson and Jules Henry, not to mention Oscar Lewis.

Given Dewey's concern with grounding individual consciousness in particular, rather than universal, human conditions, we would be justified in thinking of his work as making explicit the philosophical underpinning of classical Boasian anthropology. In brief, the argument grounds cultural distinctiveness in


with other individuals. We are here in the domain of what Bourdieu--whom, in certain quarters of modern cultural anthropology, it appears more sexy to quote than Dewey or G.H. Mead--has called the habitus,[ftn9] the "disposition inculcated in the earliest years of life and constantly reinforced by calls to order from the group, that is to say, from the aggregate of the individuals endowed with the same dispositions, to whom each is linked by his dispositions and interests" ([1972] 1977: 14-15). As some have begun noticing, such a statement ends up being radically deterministic of the constitution of the self and of what he can do in the concrete settings of his life.

In contrast Durkheim writes sentences like:

Morals is not simply a system of habits. It is a system of commandments." ([1925] 1974: 27)

Note the shift in vocabulary from "values" to "morals." Note the specific rejection of the notion of "habit." Note the emphasis on external controls. This is the core of a long discussion of discipline and of the need to bend the will to legitimate authority:

Man is made to live in a particular environment that is always limited however large it may in fact be; and the ensemble of the acts which make life has the goal of adapting ourselves to this environment or adapting it to ourselves... To live is to put ourselves in harmony with the physical world which surrounds us, with the social world of which we are members. Both of them, however vast they may be, are limited. The ends which we normally have to seek are thus equally specified, and we cannot free ourselves from this limit, without placing ourselves at war with nature. ([1925] 1974: 42)[ftn10]

Culture, as a result of a historical evolution, has less to do with the habits we acquire than with the houses we inhabit. "Particular environments," however institutionalized and hegemonic, do not determine, they constrain, and they may in fact prod human negativity to resistance, deconstruction, resistance to resistance, and an eventual reproductive transformation grounded in history.

Durkheim as Educational Researcher

It is well known that Dewey was deeply concerned with education throughout his life, both as a practitioner and as a philosopher, and that he is deeply implicated, through ambiguously so,[ftn11] in the institutional development of American education. It is less well known that Durkheim was also actively implicated in the development of the French educational system and that he conducted extensive research in educational processes. Indeed, Durkheim received his first academic appointment in 1887 to a position in "social science and pedagogy." Throughout his life, first in Bordeaux, and then Paris, he taught two major courses a year, one on aspects of sociological theory, and one on "pedagogy." The later course focussed, over the years on moral education, intelligence, psychology of education, and the history of educational thought in Europe. In both of these endeavors, he was conscious that his was a political task that would provide the intellectual (scientific and thus, for him as a man of the 19th century, eventually authoritative) foundation for the institutional shaping of France into the socialist, lay, country that its history made it inevitable it would become--though not without the active work of individuals like himself.

Durkheim published only a few short articles on education during his life. These are collected in Education and sociology ([1922] 1977). The other works (L'Education morale, [1925] 1974; L'Evolution pédagogique in France, [1938] 1969) are edited versions of lecture which he always wrote in full. The first of these books, L'Education morale, is the text of a course taught by Durkheim in 1902-3. There are two main parts: the first establishes the foundation of a scientific approach to a practical social question--the proper understanding of what is to be meant by moral education with the stress on moral and scientific. Science implies rationality (against religion)--the postulate that the world is fully intelligible to human beings. He then explores the distinction between le bien and le devoir--what one values because it is good vs. what it is one's duty to do whether one likes it or not. He demonstrates that they are both aspects of the same thing: the recognition, both positive and negative, that we are part of something greater than ourselves, something that has special properties different from those that we have as individuals. The second part of the book is more directly didactic. It uses a somewhat antiquated child psychology, and little could be saved from it. Most interesting here is the ideological foundation for the classical French educational system.[ftn12] Here, again, Durkheim speaks of the need to make intelligible (rationally) what is our condition (being part of something larger and other) to which we have duties even though it is not universally rational. Durkheim is probably most radical, within French ideology, when he insists on the recognition of a reality that is rationally intelligible even when it is not rationally organized itself.[ftn13]

The second of these books, L'Evolution pédagogique in France, is a history of secondary education from early Christian communities in the IIIrd and IVth centuries, through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, the Jesuit colleges, and the first lay public schools of the XIXth century. This is Durkheim's one specifically empirical study of a body of evidence. As such it throws a light on the more theoretical statements, and might make them less misleading. Durkheim wrote this analysis in 1904-1905 with an explicit political goal within the context of contemporary France: He wanted to contribute to the elaboration of a major reform in high school organization and curricula that would best reflect what a modern, socialist, lay, France was to be. For him, this reform would have the best chance of achieving this if it followed a scientific understanding of social process. The book itself takes the form of a history that is also the tracing of an evolution that little by little revealed, and constructed, an essence that now needed to be perfected. It is about change and resistance to change, inevitability and specific, willful, action. The chapters on the Jesuits are particularly interesting. He interprets their action, or better, their "faction," what they made, as fundamentally, and deliberately, resistant to the main orientation of their day. They were counter-reforming, though less against the Protestant alternative than against the humanist challenge of the 16th century. In order to do bend the Renaissance's interest in Greek and Roman antiquities as corrective to the power of the Church in earlier centuries, they coopted it:

To use paganism to glorify and propagate christian morality, was [...] a rather difficult task: still, the Jesuits were confident enough to attempt it and succeed. In order to do that one had to transform the ancient world; one had to show the authors of Antiquity [...] in such a way as to leave in the shadows what made them true pagans, and all that made them men of a particular city, or of a particular time, in order to highlight the ways in which they were simply men, men of all times and all countries. (1938: 287)

They went so far as, for a long while, forbidding the study of French in their French schools, thereby pushing what we might now call 'the culture of their students' out of the school. The students, of course, resisted, and produced the kind of intellectual work that could only be reintegrated into a Jesuit curriculum after it had lost its contemporaneity and, having become a "classic," could then be eviscerated. This resistance of the Jesuits to the anti-religious movements of their contemporaries, in turn justified the revolutionary activities that established a lay secondary school system which the French Republican State still had specifically to strengthen.

Anthropologists have learned in recent years that a historical perspective, far from weakening their disciplinary tasks, enriches them. Indeed, we might read Durkheim's history as a series of ethnographic sketches about the organization of education at various periods in European history that focusses on tensions and resulting transformations within a massive evolutionary line. There is something French about France, but it is always challenged from within and never completed as it becomes aware of its limitations. Thus, Durkheim can find in the early Middle Ages, when the Church controlled all institutions, the signs of a concern for non-religious elements as constitutive of education. This is what would flower 1,500 years later in the schools of the Third Republic. Still, the story Durkheim's tell is one of struggle between a more intellectual Irish Church that nurtured humanistic impulses, and the Benedictine order who saw them as dangerous to Church authority. But the eventual victory of the Benedictine was a Phyrric one as they in fact absorbed the intellectualist impulses of the Irish monks. In the process of such historical writing, and whatever may be the accuracy of the history as history, Durkheim's method is revealed and we may understand better general statements that may appear contradictory or simply ungrounded postulates:

None of the educational systems were in any way arbitrary; if any one has survived, it is not because it was the product of human aberration, but because it was the result of specific social states and in harmony with them; and if it changed, it is because society itself changed. (1938 :16)

This apparently deterministic statement is followed by a discussion of change and its grounding in specific historical conditions: "the new institutions that are needed cannot be constructed a priori by imagination" (1938: 17). Things do not move in a linear fashion; they must be deliberately manipulated to construct something that is both in harmony with the modern world, the France that actually exists, and, eventually, in evolution over it; contemporary France is given to fashions and fads; one must move away to recapture what is central and must still be constructed in the future.

Having understood that the essence of Durkheim's method, when applied to empirical situations is historical and constructive, rather than mechanically deterministic, there is less danger in looking in some more details at his more theoretical statements, particularly his most general paper where he gives a definition of education from a sociological point of view. The paper "Education, its nature and its role" was first written for a dictionary published in 1911 by Buisson. Durkheim writes:

Education is the action exercised by adult generations on those who are not yet ready for social life. The goal of education it to arouse and to develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual and moral states required of him both by the polity in its ensemble and by the special environment to which he is specifically destined. ([1922] 1977: 51)

When such statements are read as ideological calls for a system that will convince each child to become exactly what his birth fated him to achieve, they seem to place Durkheim within a conservative tradition that no enlightened American concerned with helping each child develop to his utmost and become whatever he wants could countenance. In his time, of course, Durkheim was not taken by most of the political forces of his time as a conservative at all. He was however concerned with grounding the action of the State as it struggled with many threatening forces. In the first decade of the 20th century, the France that a historian like Weber (1976) can now describe as somehow completed, was still being constructed, and it was not yet clear that the construction would hold. Indeed, 30 years later, under the shock of a major military defeat, the alternative that Durkheim fought against was briefly reinstitutionalized. In 1905 the "classical" school of the Third Republic was anything but classical. It was in process.

Rather than dismissing Durkheim's definition for political incorrectness, and particularly because we, like him, are indeed interested in political institutionalization, let us examine it as an attempt to summarize a set of empirical observations that we cannot quite wish away. These observations and arguments are based, as has already been mentioned, on the irreducible variability in educational systems, and in the fact that one can see, in any particular one, both the traces of what came earlier and, if one has the perspective, the seeds of what was to come. This insistence is a leitmotif that Durkheim continually picks up. He is always most critical of theories that abstracts the human being from all societies: "Man is a man only to the extent that he lives in society" (1922 [1977]: 55). This of course is but an early statement of what Geertz once stated as "Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men" (1973: 49). Given a premise that is now well grounded in observation, how are we to talk about education in a manner that does not contravene the fundamental sociability of human beings?

The Individual in the Society vs. the Society in the Individual

To set Geertz by Durkheim is another way to stress the relatedness of the pragmatist and structuralist traditions. Both are founded on the same kinds of analytic insight--that humanity is fundamentally social, and thus cultural--, and both have similar moral, that is, political goals--to ground a proper democracy on scientific bases, and also to foster it, institutionally and in the persons that will live, and reconstruct it. I referred earlier to Dewey's sketch of what we can now call cultural variation, and I have stressed how central this variation also is to Durkheim's thinking. Indeed, Durkheim may go further given an understanding of variability based on social complexity that is somewhat missing in Dewey. In a society where labor is divided, life conditions are necessarily different for people fated, through birth or other accidents, to enter society in particular positions. In a modern society, the poor and the rich are in fundamental, organic, interdependence upon each other. They do not, however, live in quite the same world. The difference between the structuralist and pragmatist traditions arise when the time comes to make the next statement: does the fact that the poor and the rich live in different worlds mean that they are different in their very selves, in their identities? And, further, is it the case that sociability among the rich or the poor is dependent on similarity, if not consensus, among those who make up the rich and the poor? Do the poor have a culture, a culture "of" poverty?

Anthropologists of education are now quite aware of the illegitimacy of any reference to cultures of poverty. What is not so easy is to find theories of culture that do not reproduce the bind Oscar Lewis placed anthropologists in by adopting the most powerful theories of culture of the 40s and 50s as they were presented in the works of Erik Erikson (1970 [1950]). They were theories that explicitly tried to bring together Boas with Freud to explain processes of enculturation and learning that were presented as fundamental. Lewis, of course, applied these theories in the kind of human contexts that G.H. Mead or Ruth Benedict had not considered when they talked about internalization or the transformation of the individual. But neither Mead nor Benedict had specifically warned against such a use. The other Mead, Margaret, once talked about cross-cultural comparison as the equivalent of experimentation in the other behavioral sciences. Even if the analogy does now quite work, it must the case that what happens in the South Bronx is relevant to what happens in Samoa, and that a theory of culture that does not work in the South Bronx cannot either work in Samoa, even if it allows for such powerful statements as these sentence from Berger and Luckman:

The world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these. (1967: 19-20)

The world of everyday life, for Durkheim, could never be said to originate in the thought and action of "members" because it is irreducibly external to any individual or plurality. It is always already there when one enters it, as a child, or as an adult in a new position. After one has entered, inevitably, becomes a member, or, if one follows my restatement of Durkheimian insights, an occupant, if not a squatter, that is one that is constrained but not determined by the particular position the struggle he engages in achieves for him. Whether one then becomes, in Dewey's phrases "a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure" ([1916] 1966: 14) is an open question that Durkheim addresses but never completely settles. He addresses it above all in his long discussions of discipline as something destined to mold the individual in a particular fashion. Individuals must adapt by habituating themselves. But the source of the habit is never their very selves and there is a suggestion that a properly educated person somewhat stands apart from total allegiance to something that he should also criticize. Durkheim insists heavily that, when talking about discipline, that is about the entry of human beings into their particular world, one is talking about rules imposed by institutions (religion, science, etc.) historically constructed by the group as legitimate. One is not talking about habits:

By definition, habits are forces interior to the individual. [...] On the contrary, a rule is, in its very essence, something external to the individual. We can only conceive of if only as an order, or at least an imperative suggestion, that comes from outside. [...] A rule is not simply a habitual way of acting, it is a manner of acting that we are not free to change as we please. It is, to the very extent that it is a rule, not subjected to our will. There is something that resists us, that is greater than we are, that imposes itself on us, that constrains us. (1974 [1925]: 24ª25)

A rule is authoritative. It resists us. For Durkheim, to the extent that he was justifying a utopian state, it appears that it is always the duty of the person to bend his will to the rules of the well constituted group. As an advisor to struggling politicians, he also knew that individuals can, and sometimes must resist their social conditions. What is theoretically interesting here is the systematic construction of the person as wilful, resistant, and never radically "habituated" to his position. The implication is not simply that human beings can change, or that their enculturation is never complete, or that learning is a life long process. The implication is that the social world is made of historically constituted positions through which persons move and differently resist.

Resistance and Operations

Resistance, rather than socialization, is key to a rewriting of Durkheimian insights that will move us ahead. As such "resistance" is not a Durkheimian concept, certainly not as it is understood in Willis's instant classic on working class youths (1977). A more sensitive analysis, such as the one by Comaroff (1985), may proceed with frequent bows to Lévi-Strauss and Bourdieu (often critically) without exploring further the historical roots of a view of action as practical, local, and productive of new conditions. Durkheim himself talks about society resisting us, not us resisting society. He is worried about the resistance the traditionalist forces in France exerted against what he considered the inevitable evolution of the country into a lay state based on scientific rationality. He feared the resistance of the individual will against the necessary disciplinary activities of teachers (and by implications policemen) when those are exercised in the name of a fully legitimate authority. He was not systematically engaged in rooting out all hegemonies. He appears quite convinced that there are proper hegemonic state practices and that these should be defended against improper resistance. There is certainly no evidence that he would glorify adolescents that refuse a public education specifically designed to make them active citizens at particular positions within a complex society that needs their labor. The mythical teachers of the Third Republic did not countenance such nonsense and there was little of it in their school. He would probably talk of people cursing teachers, disrupting classrooms, and dropping out, as symptoms of something pathological at work. The pathology would however be a social pathology, not an individual one. It would be the sign of the need to investigate how particular instances of institutions were not operating in such a fashion as to require the kind of disordering resistance that someone like Willis documents.

Once again, one is entitled to refuse the political agenda that is never far from Durkheim's writing.[ftn14] Still, we must pay close attention to a theoretical process, a method of analysis really, that both, on the one hand, assumes that individuals are never fully socialized, and are absolutely free to resist, and, on the other hand, contrastively emphasizes that individuals are never free to start something radically new out of nothing. Human beings are never "creative"--if we think of the word in the biblical sense where a transcendent God "creates" the world out of nothing. Neither are they determined or purely reproductive. Rather, they are always at work constructing something somewhat different from that which they experience. The best development of this aspect of Durkheim's thinking that he himself did not quite develop is probably Lévi-Strauss's discussion of bricolage ([1962] 1966) as now further developed by someone like Comaroff (1985). Again, Lévi-Strauss did not talk about bricolage as a form of resistance.[ftn15] But the implication is there: if a myth-maker can always, physically and logically, take a piece from a myth and incorporate it into another myth to make something different that could not be predicted from examining the original piece, it must be because he is precisely not determined by, or fully encultured into the social conditions of his birth or adulthood.

What is important here is that this is a general process. Resistance is not simply something that is done by people in various peripheries (class, ethnic, gender, etc.) against an hegemonic center. It is something in which people that can be analytically placed in the center are also engaged in, and perhaps all the more vigorously that they have more to lose. In a Durkheimian perspective, of course, the culture of the center--that is the particular organization of the institutions that constitute it as central to a periphery--is not the culture "of" the people in the center. There is no culture of the rich any more than there is a culture of the poor. All are at work with and against conditions that resist them. It can be argued, for example, that America, as a specific culture, is distinguished by the institutionalization of public schooling understood as embodiment of a particular understanding of social relations that is given a narrative incarnation in texts ranging from the Bill of Rights, to Dewey's Democracy and Education. The United States is also distinguished by the continually renewed development of private schools that challenge the wisdom of the public school and resist particular instanciations: thus the Catholics resisted the Protestants in the enormous sacrifices they made to develop their own educational system. Thus Evangelicals protest secular humanism, and, perhaps, the affluent middle class now resist the working class and the poor. When a President of the United States that presents himself as a supporter of public education sends his daughter to a private school, it is analytically limiting to assume that he must simply be acting as a "member of his culture." It would much more powerful to understand him and his wife as struggling if not resisting with the specific conditions they encountered when they moved to Washington, D.C., that is as doing something slightly different than what they might have been expected to do.

This is not the place to go much further in exploring the possibilities opened by a view of action in society that liberates the actor from the responsibility of carrying its organization in his own psychical constitution. It may be useful however to stress another property of the theory that is most radically at odds with the pragmatic tradition, and may still be alive in it as people who feel comfortable with it push the limits. For Dewey, we saw earlier, "men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common" (1916: 4). This is a fundamental statement, and we find versions of it everywhere, including in authors who are not regularly placed within the tradition. In this view, consensus is central to communication, interaction, and thus sociability, and consensus is about similarities in meanings, that is quite exact agreement in the referential power of signs or symbols. If a symbol has the same meaning for two individuals, then they can communicate. Otherwise they will misunderstand each other, and, under certain conditions, move to hurt each other.

The best critique of this position may be found in the work of someone who has moved the pragmatic tradition in the most interesting direction. Garfinkel specifically builds upon the work of Alfred Schutz who was himself directly influenced by Dewey and G.H. Mead. Indeed Garfinkel's central concern with the grounding of everyday activity in face to face situations can be seen as an attempt directly to confront Mead's discussion of the conversation of gestures as central to the human experience. Mead however moves immediately from sketching the conversation as a social situation to a long discussion about the ways this conversations shapes a self who internalizes the position of the other. Schutz himself writes about an "I" who is "biographically constituted" and interprets his experiences with others ([1953] 1962). Garfinkel, on the other hand, backs up to wonder about the exact mechanisms that make conversation possible in the first place. Clearly his central problem is not experience as such, though his methodology might in fact lead us to a better understanding of the phenomenology of social life. Given his starting point in a traditional concern with knowledge and common understandings, what is particularly interesting is the evidence of a struggle in his writing to explicitly confront these central symbols.

It will be remembered that, in Garfinkel's classic collection of articles in Studies in ethnomethodology, the first two chapters are organized around the account of the same experiment consisting of a transcript of a conversation and comments from a participant about what a reader might need to know that was not made explicit in the conversation. The set up is classic in the pragmatist tradition and it is discussed in some detail by Schutz ([1932] 1964). Only direct face-to-face interaction can insure a full understanding of what those who are directly "we" to each other are doing together. Otherwise something is missing that must be provided in a secondary step. The earlier telling of this experiment is included as Chapter II in the book. It was originally published in 1964. As it was in Dewey's 1916 statement, "common" is central here, and it is with the implications of this word that Garfinkel is struggling. What is it that people have in common when they act together unproblematically? What is a common understanding? In attempting to answer these questions Garfinkel resists simply saying that participants "share" meanings. Rather, referring to Schutz, he writes that "for the conduct of his everyday affairs the person assumes, assumes the other person assumes as well, and assumes that as he assumes it the other person, the other person assumes it of him, that a relationship of undoubted correspondence is the sanctioned relationship between the actual appearances of an object and the intended object that appears in a particular way." (1967: 50). This points the way to another discussion about "trust" but fundamentally preserve a focus on the state of mind of the actors.

The later piece, reworked as an introduction for the volume goes further, by centering on the impossibility of specifying fully the "knowledge" apparently implicit in the original conversation. Then, in a major leap, Garfinkel goes beyond the vague reference to "assuming" and "trust." Against all cognitivist or interpretive traditions of analysis that postulate sharing (commonality) as the foundation of sociability, he writes:

Suppose we drop the assumption that in order to describe a usage as a feature of a community of understandings we must at the outset know what the substantive common understanding consist of. [...] By dropping such a theory of signs we drop as well, thereby, the possibility that an invoked shared agreement on substantive matters explains a usage.

If these notions are dropped, then what the parties talked about could not be distinguished from how the parties were speaking. "Shared agreement" refers to various social methods for accomplishing the member's recognition that something was said-according-to-a-rule and not the demonstrable matching of a substantive matters. The appropriate image of a common understanding is therefore an operation rather than a common intersection of overlapping sets. (1967: 29-30; my emphasis)

Concerted action is an operation that makes (facts) something for all implicated actors. By shifting the focus from the content of the understanding to the operations performed by actors when they get in contact, Garfinkel moves our attention from the constitution of the self ('me') to the conditions that the self ('I') must operate with. Methodologically, this means that we do not have to worry overly anymore about reconstructing what the participants "meant" during the interaction as long as we can specify the operations that they performed and the objects that they made for each other, and perhaps also for contemporaries that they never meet, and for successors that may not even be born. While Garfinkel does not go that far, we are now close to what Lévi-Strauss's bricolage--that is the recognition that the fundamental human act is making relatively new products with old stuff. It may be that such work can end with a group of human beings looking very much alike--particularly if they are all working with the same historical left-over stuff--, but this appearance of commonality should always be suspected of being an epiphenomenon of the observer's stance. The fundamental human situation is not really the utopian I-Thou fusion. It is the situation made up of a genitally male human being successfully passing as a female--the spectacular case Garfinkel discusses so brilliantly (1967). The human condition consists of the work one must do with what finds on one's path. In the process a particular position is constituted, to the extent that others participate in, accept and legitimize, knowingly or not (again "knowing" is no longer central here), this constitution.

The ethnomethodological tradition, however, is distinguished more by demonstrations of how objects are jointly constructed (Garfinkel 1981; Goodwin in press) than by explorations of the sources of the objects that people use, and the impact of the objects they construct. The thereness of complex social facts, for example, the set of practices one must use to establish one's gender, constructed by multitudes over hundreds of years is something that is more often assumed than it is confronted. In educational research it still appears more in keeping with a constructionist stance to demonstrate how an individual child is made into a "failure" than it is to trace how the success/failure pattern has become so completely institutionalized in modern Education. There have been calls for such a broadening of the perspective of researchers (Mehan 1991), and some have misunderstood the ways in which work like that of McDermott's (1979, 1978) in fact emphasizes the constituent presence in local performance of patterns that are not in fact locally produced. As Garfinkel put it in other words, "what members are doing in their inquiries is always somebody else's business" (1967: 15). The social frame to our actions is always external to any particular participant's behavior (but not to humanity). What we do is always potentially everyone else's business.

I am closing with a bow to the most powerful text in ethnomethodology both as a recognition of the value of the pragmatic critique of simplistic understanding of social structuralisms, and as a warning against those--and they are many--who are using Garfinkel to revive a concern with the constitution of the self that will always distract us from the concern we must have with the conditions of the self. The best in the modern work that grounds itself in Sacks, Bateson, Garfinkel, and others like them who urge to look, and then look again, and then continue looking, is clear in its understanding that the "frame"--whether it is a question routine, a classroom, a school, "Education" as an institution--is best approached as a historically produced practical condition. The "conversation of gesture" about which G.H. Mead wrote, is not the result of a local negotiation between two separate individuals dealing strategically with each other and establishing a consensus both will now share. Whether they do or not is besides the anthropological point--to the extent that anthropology is not social psychology. A local conversation, a local classroom, a local school, a local culture, is always, first, and foremost what we must call with Durkheim, a Social Fact.


Footnote 1

Acknowledgements: This paper may have had its genesis in a conversation Ray Ray McDermott and I had, walking down Amsterdam Avenue near Teachers College. I was complaining about his call for a close reading of G.H. Mead whom I considered too dangerous an author to be put in the hands of an American audience. We went back to the source, we conducted a joint seminar with a group of supportive students. Together, we resisted, and I am truly grateful for this resistance, and for that of the many others with whom I have also talked about the usefulness of Durkheim. I also want to thank Richard Blot who organized the session at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in the fall 1990, where an early version of this paper was first read.

Footnote 2

See for example the struggles of the authors of papers in a recent edited volume on minority education (Jacob and Jordan 1993).

Footnote 3

When talking about "America"--as I explained elsewhere (1986) and develop here--I am not talking about Americans. I am talking about a pattern revealed in artifacts and institutions, a pattern dominant in the United States and extremely powerful, through often radically contested, in the rest of the human world.

Footnote 4

My argument is convergent with one used by Joseph (1992) in article on readings, that is writings by Bloomfield and Chomsky, about Saussure.

Footnote 5

"Manière de faire" may be a dead metaphor in French. It may still be one that it would be worth while to try and bring back to life as a guide to research.

Footnote 6

Rizzo-Tolk and Varenne explored this way of understanding school failure (failure in school, failure of a school) in an analysis of a lesson in an alternative urban school where objective "success" gets systematically interpreted as failure, and failure makes no difference given the overall identification of the school as a school for "drop-outs" (1992). In other words, this school is so organized by its place within the structure of schools in New York City, that students who are overwhelmingly evaluated as failing, whatever their "objective" qualities, in fact move through, graduate, and, with some frequency, go on to college. The implication, of course, is that a concept like "objective success," outside of a context of interpretation, is not useful.

Footnote 7

Given the context of this paper in a collection of paper dominated by the most insightful voices in pragmatism, my critique does emphasize the limitations of this particular tradition. Rhetorically, it builds up the Durkheimian, structuralist, tradition. Louis Dumont has recently published (1991) a perceptive critique of this tradition, as he tried to explain to a French audience the wisdom about a German understanding of the constitution of the self in culture which, of course, prefigures American pragmatism and cultural anthropology.

Footnote 8

My approach here is not historical . It is closer to that of Louis Dumont sketching the major lines of a cultural system in order to contrast it to another one with different properties. It develops Boon's exploration of the contrasts and relationships between the semiologies/semiotics of Pierce and Saussure, leading to a joint discussion of Lévi-Strauss and Geertz in the context of an understanding of pragmatism "branded" as "a significantly American, continued resistance to any simple, particularistic empiricism yet mistrust of Continental schools or rationalism or idealism" (1982: 138). Like Boon, I see something profoundly particular in its development between the original pragmatist philosophers, Boasian cultural anthropology and its transformation into symbolic anthropology, symbolic interactionism, and Parsonian theories of culture.

Footnote 9

Durkheim himself used the word in his lectures on education at the turn of the century ([1938] 1969: 37). He also wrote extensively about habituation which he defines in terms very close to Bourdieu's ([1925] 1974: 24-25)--and indeed to those used in the pragmatist traditions (e.g. Dewey [1916] 1966: Chap. IV).

Footnote 10

When a French edition of a work from Durkheim is cited, the translations are mine. Otherwise, the English quote is from the cited translation.

Footnote 11

The extent to which actual schools in the United States are in fact embodiment of what Dewey meant as a philosopher remains a burning issue as the controversy started by Cremin's classical work indicates (1961).

Footnote 12

Durkheim, of course, of one of the central authors who gave the ideological grounding for the educational system that turned "peasants into Frenchmen" (Weber 1976), and constituted the "French modern" (Rabinow 1989).

Footnote 13

This rationality, thus, is not Cartesian, logical rationality. Durkheim makes this point repeatedly as he criticizes traditional French Cartesianism for its postulate that everything can be understood through a process of analysis into the simplest constituent parts. Society, for Durkheim, is irreducibly complex, and thus not accessible to simple logical analysis. A specific science is necessary to understand its working.

Footnote 14

This refusal must however be more systematically grounded than it has recently been in the many studies that stop with a demonstration that some practices are hegemonic and some are resistant. What next

Footnote 15

In France however, there is good reason to argue that bricolage, typically a working class activity by people with limited resources is precisely a form of resistance to a certain kind of industrial

Information about this server and copyright notice.

Hervé Varenne
Box 115
Teachers College, Columbia University
Last revision: 3/14/96