Reconstructing Culture in Educational Research

Ray McDermott, Stanford University
Hervé Varenne, Teachers College, Columbia University


Innovations in educational ethnography. Edited by G. Spindler and L. Hammond, 3-31. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2006

The word of ambition at the present day is Culture.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1860)


The units, goals and logic of a cultural analysis are redefined and the results used to address three significant problems in American education: (1) high rates of school failure and their high profile ties to (2) gender and (3) race.  Each problem is taken up three times, once each in a psychological, sociological, and cultural analysis. The methodological implications of the three modes of inquiry are briefly considered before we end with a note on how a cultural analysis turns tables on the explanation and practice of schooling by highlighting not children but their adults—parents, teachers, therapists, policy makers, interpreters all, and even their ethnographers--as the source and nexus of school problems.

Table of Contents


I. Culture: From Past Cause to Current Challenge

II. Why Culture?

1. Desperately Seeking Units
2. The Goal of a Cultural Analysis
3. The Logic of a Cultural Analysis (beyond individual/social)

III.  Culture Applied

1. Failure's Failure (beyond success/failure)
2. Gender in the Distribution of Education (beyond male/female)
3. Race in the Distribution of Education (beyond white/black)

IV.  Culture Investigated

1. Categories, operations and correlations
2. New Categories
3. Cultural investigations of culture

V. Onward

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
-- Marya Angelou (1993)