American Culture and the School. A Case Study


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University

Originally published in The Anthropological Study of Education, ed. by C. Calhoun and F.A.J. Ianni, 227-237. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

Editors' Note: How is it that people come to learn the rules of their culture? How do schools present these rules, and how do they work out the interface between a cultural ideology and rules which may violate it but, nonetheless, operate in the school as well as outside? These are prominent questions which Herve Varenne, an assistant professor of home and family life at Teachers College, Columbia University, raises, and for which he begins the analysis of possible answers. Varenne presents specific data from a suburban American high school (gathered as part of the study discussed in more general terms by Calhoun and Ianni in the preceeding paper) and uses it to illustrate the processes of definition, categorization, and mediation operative in culture and school.


The following is a short report on research I am presently conducting on cultural behavior within an American high school and the relationship of the principles underlying this behavior with only the superficially unrelated principles which underlie the very concept of "school" and formal school organization in American culture. This research is a continuation and deepening of work which I began a few years ago when I became interested in developing a new statement of American culture that would be more systematic and holistic than the previous attempts (Mead 1965; Brogan 1944; Gorer 1948; etc.).' I feel that it has become possible to do so because of the great theoretical advances which have been made in recent years in the study of symbolic systems. Most relevant to my attempt are the works of Schneider (1968, 1969), Dumont (1970), and Levi-Strauss (19641971).

I shall not here go extensively into the theoretical justification for studying symbol systems structurally. Let it just be said that, beyond the philosophical issues which structuralism justifiably raises, the main import of the approach is methodological. Structuralism, I believe, will offer to cultural anthropologists a way out from the serious methodological critique which emphasizes that their work is impressionistic, personal, unreliable, and altogether "unscientific." One of the problems lies in the fact that the reader cannot follow the researcher's ion, journey from his data to his formal presentation of his interpretation of them. The data, plus the logic used, must become more readily available; and it is because of the great methodological advance made by Uvi-Strauss in his Mythologiques (1964-1971) that there is much less that we have to accept from him "on faith," as it were, and much more that we can follow step by step, myth by myth, "text" by "text."

My own research differs greatly from his insofar as it involves "participant" observation, field notes, and their transcription and transformation to protect the informants. The "on faith" part of the process has not been completely eliminated. Levi-Strauss has often been criticized for his "presence" in his summaries of the myths he uses. My problems on this aspect are greater since the original field notes are not readily available and the original situation is forever lost. The only true advantage of a presentation of the discussion involving, first, a long "text" summary of a field situation in as much of its phenomenological wealth as possible, and then a step-by-step investigation, first of the structure of the text in itself and then in the context of other such texts, lies in the fact that at least the logic of the argument has become available to the reader. This is something which I hope to begin to demonstrate here.

Before going further, I want to comment briefly on the position 1 take here on the subject of seeing culture as a "system of symbols." The concept of symbol is usually defined along the following lines which I borrow from Schneider: "A symbol is something which stands for something else, or some things else, where there is no necessary or intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes" (1968:1).

The typical example involves the word "dog" in English, the word chien in French, and the animal. The problem with this definition is that it seems to imply that the "meaning" of the symbol lies in the "something else," i.e. that to understand an aspect of a cultural system, one has to understand first aspects of other systems, usually the biological or physiological system. First, while it is easy to find an "outside" correspondent for a symbol like the word "dog," it is so difficult to find one for the symbols like "God" or "individualism" that often these symbols are left aside as impervious to scientific analysis. The real problem comes from the fact that this process of finding a correspondent to a symbol in "something else" is that it violates the principle that the cultural system is a system sui generis and that everything which happens within it must be explained by aspects of this system. And, indeed, empirical studies of classification systems have shown that our system of arranging dogs, colors, philosophical concepts, or deities is idiosyncratic to us and certainly not universal; the meaning of the word "dog" is thus not given by referring it to the animal, but rather by showing that it derives from the distinction that we make between certain domestic animals on the basis of such things as retractable or nonretractable claws, shape of the body, ability to climb trees, typical habits, "psychology," etc.

A symbol is, thus, nothing else than a part of a total structure of communication, a unit as defined in contrast to other units of the same level. The work of a cultural anthropologist thus resides in identifying the elements (symbols) of the system, in determining their context - what other symbols the original symbol is related to and how - in exploring small systems first and then larger ones, and so on until the researcher has reached the level in which he is interested.


The case study under consideration is a somewhat lengthy description of one period of the Sociology V class of Mr. Charles Taylor, eleventh and twelfth grade teacher at Sheffield High School.

Taylor is around thirty-five. He has an M.A. in sociology from a large state university and is presently in the process of working on his dissertation. He has a neatly trimmed beard, wears his hair slightly longer than most teachers in the school, and his clothes have a stylish mod cut that make him stand out as he walks the corridor without directly threatening the rather conservative teacher dress code that is considered appropriate in the wealthy white suburb. Taylor is a vocal proponent of the concept of "individualized instruction" by which a student is allowed to progress in any subject at his own speed according to his ability. He is one of the favorite teachers of the progressive principal, and, with his support, Taylor has taken over the chairmanship of the social studies program in the school and has transformed the curriculum almost radically in a way that is considered exemplary by many teachers and administrators, not only in the school system, but also in the neighboring school systems which maintain close relationships with Sheffield.

Sociology V is open to anybody in the high school who has completed four years of history and sociology. In practice, of the twenty-nine students, all are seniors except for two juniors who are considered exceptionally brilliant by all their teachers and who will indeed graduate at the end of the year. Most of the seniors in the class are also the type of students that have received early acceptance from such universities as Harvard or Princeton on the basis of their total performance in the school. Many of them can be found in the "advanced" classes of departments in the school that have not yet been "individualized" in the proper sense.

The curriculum of Sociology V consists mostly of the review of current sociological problems in the United States with a little consideration given to international problems that interest the United States most directly. Many periods are given to reading about the subject; the work asked from the students is mostly reports on specific points, some of which are presented and discussed in class. The period I am now going to describe was devoted to the discussion of one of those reports. The report had to do with the controversy that was agitating a nearby community: a planning board had decided that a lowincome housing project ought to be built there, and groups of residents were up in arms in an attempt to prevent the project from being built.

At the beginning of the period, Taylor asked one student to come to the front and lead the discussion. He himself went to the back of the room where he spent the rest of the period observing what was going on and rarely intervening except to remind the leader that he should not monopolize the discussion too much and be certain that all students, even the most shy, could speak at one point. The leader started the discussion with an opening statement using rather strong words against the project and in favor of the right of people to live with people they like and, thus, to refuse to admit people in their community whom they wouldn't like. One or two approving voices were heared until a long-haired, rather sloppily dressed student, whom I knew had been accepted by Harvard, started arguing that the opposition to the project was not a matter of private freedom, but of racism, and that it was unconstitutional to prevent anybody from buying or renting property wherever he wanted. The discussion continued in this vein for the fifty minutes, dominated mostly by five or six students, with two or three on each side of the controversy. From time to time other students succeeded in placing a word, but this was rather rare. The atmosphere was often riotous as several students were talking at the same time. Tempers flared several times, and nasty comments were sometimes exchanged between two individuals. Then the bell rang. The discussion stopped at once. Conversations of the usual type between small groups of individuals began immediately, and the students walked out of the room. Taylor thanked the leader of the discussion and then walked out himself.

Later, two further comments were made to me about that class. First, two students who had remained rather quiet during the period came to me and asked "What side are you on?" They explained to me that all discussions in that class turned out to be basically the same. The class divides itself in two groups, the "liberals" and the "conservatives," and the students line themselves up in the same way on all issues. Later, Taylor, the teacher, explained to me that he thought it good that students speak up about such problems in order to build up their confidence in themselves and their ability to verbalize their opinions. He said, however, that students were often disturbed by such discussions and that he tried to minimize the negative effect that those discussions have by not discussing the personal aspect of the exchanges afterwards.

Let us try to analyze this case study in some detail. We have seen, among other things, that:

  2. INDIVIDUALIZED INSTRUCTION does NOT seem to make MUCH DIFFERENCE in terms of which students belong to the most advanced grades.
  3. Substantive differences of opinion exist among students.
  4. One side of a discussion is defended in terms of the RIGHT OF PEOPLE TO CHOOSE THEIR FRIENDS. The other side in terms of the RIGHT OF PEOPLE TO DO WHAT THEY WANT.
  5. To verbalize substantive differences draws out hostility which is considered bad.
  6. To emphasize the right of choosing one's friends and thus excluding others is "conservative"; to emphasize the right to do what one wants outside or beyond any social group is "liberal" if not radical.

A set of interrelated questions can now be asked:


The next methodological step in a full-blown investigation would be to present another text from the field notes telling of another situation where some of the elements we isolated are present. This could be curriculum discussions about the value of individualized instruction or verbal exchanges at an informal meeting of a clique, just as well as it could be another classroom situation. Lack of space will, of course, prevent us from following the complete unfolding of the structure as it should properly be done. Let us go back, then, to an "on faith" approach and investigate how we could answer the questions we asked.

"Individualized instruction," we are told, is the process by which children in a classroom are no longer treated as part of a group, but as individuals. It is assumed by proponents of that system that "traditional instruction" is based on a model by which instruction is passed from the teacher to the class as a whole with the responsibility falling on the child for internalizing that instruction. This is considered inadequate insofar as it does not take into consideration the fact that each child is a unique system that may have different interests or capacities. Individualized instruction is, thus, a refusal to assign a priori social, intellectual, or psychological characteristics to a certain person. For people of this tendency, assignment of characteristics can only be made through an in-depth analysis of each case.

It is interesting to note here that "individualized instruction" as a slogan is rather closely identified, on the one hand, with a small clique among the teachers as well as with "permissiveness" in discipline matters, lessening of the overall quality of education in the school, and political liberalism. Some people will identify the clique with the ideology. In fact, teachers partisan to individualized instruction may be politically conservative, and some very liberal teachers may not be accepted among the ranks of the modernists. Thus, even though there is a clear logical continuity between the political position which emphasizes the right of individuals to live wherever they want and their right to be taught at their own speed, a person may not feel uncomfortable standing on different sides of the issue depending on the substantive area on which an ideological choice must be made. Empirical reasons for special choices ranged from pragmatism, "things work better this way," to social considerations. For example, it appeared to be difficult for an older, female teacher who was very liberal in her politics and practiced something very much akin to individualized instruction to come out publicly as a partisan of this technique because the clique that was vocal in its partisanship was composed mainly of younger male teachers.

The preceding discussion can shed light on our next question: Is the opposition between groups considered to be "liberal" or "conservative" to be understood as deriving solely from cultural definitions of the social world? In other words, do both conservative and liberal cliques in the school consider their world to be divided in such groups BY DEFINITION? This would, of course, go against the view the liberals have of themselves as considering only the characteristics of individuals in their interrelationship with them, and as refusing to lump individuals into predefined social groups. So, could we find another theory that would account for the fact that there ARE liberals and conservatives in the school, and that there are group differences in the face of the fact that at least one of those groups refuses to define its world on such terms. The other plausible hypothesis is that the division of the school into groups is not based on a definition of the social world, but rather that it derives from the properties of other systems of human behavior, the social system in particular. Symbolic identification would then be derived from contradictory aspects of a single ideological definition. Let us see how this would work.

The school records about individual children are organized alphabetically, according to the spelling of the last name of the children. In recent years even communication between the administration, faculty, and children has been arranged in the same way as "home rooms" have been assigned, also according to alphabetical position. All informants consider the alphabet a totally "artificial" means of classification, insofar as it is agreed that it does not imply anything as to the personality of the child. And the fact that it is a mare convenient manner of handling a large population is seen as a valid consideration only in such situations when the personality of the child is not involved. There is no conservative/ liberal split on the subject: both place the same values and limitations on the alphabet. The relevance of this discussion to our analysis is that it implies a generally accepted differentiation between two aspects of a human being: (1) a human being is a self-sufficient unit within the total universe of the species, i.e. it possesses a reality in itself beyond its relationship to any other human beings; (2) this biological uniqueness within a species is considered irrelevant to the reality of the being as a human which is defined in psychological terms. On the one hand, a human being is a biologically defined organism which can be dealt with in complete disregard for its psychological reality since all such organisms are similar. On the other hand, a human being is also a psychologically defined individual who cannot be treated in terms of his belonging to a social group because each individual is unique.

The problem with this definition of human reality is that it says nothing about social organization, about the fact, indeed acknowledged by all informants, that cooperation between human beings is necessary for them to survive. But there is no abstract model for such interaction except the alphabet, which is also considered the least suitable because of its artificiality. On the other hand, one is told that total reliance on individualism would lead to a destruction of society, chaos, or the like. It was, for example, argued by the students that the alphabetically organized home rooms were not effective because the students were not with their friends and that they couldn't care less about the students who were lumped together with them on the basis of their last name. It was thus decided that for certain occasions home rooms would be reorganized on the basis of choice after an election, so that friends would be with friends to the largest extent possible - ad hoc groups with no substance created for a particular purpose by a bunch of "individuals."

We could show now in great detail how the whole social organization of the school can only be explained in terms of ad hoc groups based on a common decision to share certain types of activities of services. The native word for these groups is "cliques" pronounced with a short "i" by the students in the school. These groups rarely develop a strong identity. It is very difficult to draw empirical boundaries for them because a fair amount of communication takes place between cliques coupled with the fact that there are no marked rituals of interaction where belonging to a clique would be stressed or reinforced. Similarly membership is not set a priori by any rule even when an individual can be most easily typified because of his exterior appearance or his participating in a marked activity such as athletics. A person with all the social attributes necessary to be considered a "jock" may decide to relate mostly with the "freaks" because he will say he is "really a freak." Somebody who has never made the athletic teams may say that he is "a jock at heart," even though he sports long hair and wears dirty jeans regularly. Cliques are based on mutual acceptance and membership is considered to depend on life-style choices rather than on ascribed social roles. Thus, the opposition jocks/freaks, like the opposition liberal/conservative, is not based on a necessary opposition between jocks and freaks, or between liberals and conservatives.

The process of informal organization of students and teachers within the school thus consists of, first, the creation of a small group through chance and/or psychologically defined life-style choices. Then, it becomes necessary to identify the cliques for communication about them to exist. For this symbols are borrowed from the outside, the national media, for example. These become accepted as representing more or less adequately the group they refer to. Thus one should not try to understand jocks or liberals in Sheffield by looking at abstract definitions of jockishness or liberalism that one could postulate to exist in the larger American culture. The definition of the notions can only be derived from the actions and beliefs of the appropriate cliques in Sheffield, and thus one cannot expect the definition to be the same either synchronically from one locality in the United States to another or diachronically from one period in American history to another. Indeed, since "liberalism" is not a coherent whole but rather a label for a clique, it is possible for one person to be both "conservative" and "liberal" at the same time on different issues. This simply means that the pattern of behavior which the "liberal" clique of Sheffield exhibits is not the same as that of the more influential clique which controls the mass media and the intelligensia.

There is nothing intrinsically liberal about stressing the rights of individuals as abstract units versus the stressing of the rights of individuals after they have formed their groups of cliques. And if we could relate individualized instruction and the rights of individuals as abstract units with liberalism, it is because it appears that generally it is the same people in the administration and faculty of the school who hold these positions. What remains the same among all teachers and all students and thus provides the basic cultural model that is necessary for Americans to communicate among themselves, and uhich a foreigner or a cultural anthropologist can recognize as "typically American," is the belief that human society is based on the voluntary association of human beings whose social reality is grounded in psychology.

We can now fit the perceived danger of disagreement within this intellectual structure. Society, we have seen, is not a natural process for my informants; it must be built out of recalcitrant units which are not made with an inherent capacity to fit within a social structure. Interpersonal relationships are problematical, and when they exist, as within a clique, they are based on similarities rather than differences. A clique is not a team; its organization is not oriented towards a goal for the realization of which each unit contributes something. Everybody participates equally within a clique, and he contributes the same things. Thus, difference is tantamount to destruction of the clique and will trigger the tendency on the part of other members to reject the differing individual unless, of course, that individual has already left the clique. The larger the scale, the more dangerous for the individual is this expression of real difference. At the level of the clique, at the time of an interaction, there is rarely much of a problem because the boundaries between outside and inside the situation are fairly clear and differences are rarely aired. In larger situations, like the classroom, several cliques meet on a neutral ground that the teacher may then define as a clique in itself, a small community. When this teacher then sets up a discussion, the level of stress goes up. Differences will be expressed since they do exist. The situation is altogether an artificial one, but stress will be high since, given the definition of the situation, those differences should not exist.

IV.      The preceding is, of course, all too brief to do complete justice to the complexity of the definitions involved. It was only intended to be an illustration of a type of analysis that can be brought to bear on behavior in a school. But what could be the relevance of such an analysis for educators, one could ask. This relevance may not be directly apparent especially since the data we used seems so commonsensical as to render any attempt at scientific treatment almost silly. Other people will argue that what is needed is not a study of beliefs which can be shown to be scientifically wrong, as those beliefs we discussed can indeed be shown to be, but rather of "real realities" in which more people must be made to believe. Those are supposedly the proper subjects to study for someone who wants to call himself a scientist. Let us comment briefly on these attitudes

Cultural phenomena are "real realities" of their own particular order, and the fact that their properties are not so blaring as those of other systems of human behavior makes it more urgent that they should be explored systematically. On the other hand, a good cultural analysis must go beyond the perception of its culture which any individual within it may have. Cultural anthropology may be the science of the commonsensical; it is not common sense.

Once common sense has been accepted as a valid subject for science, what can we say is the use of this science for people who are interested in applied situations, as educators are? The failure of many programs based on the analysis of situations by social scientists or psychologists is often explained by reference to the complexity of human behavior. This complexity exists, to be sure; but the failure of the human sciences until now has been the failure to take into account that complexity and the attempt to reduce behavior to a few single components on which it would then be easier to act. A successful human science will be one which will take into account the fact that it is only at the level of analysis that one can distinguish between the biological, the social, and the cultural. Real behavior is one, and applied programs work at that level. Thus, these programs must take into account all aspects of behavior, particularly the fact that the program itself will be subjected to analysis on the part of the people to which it is applied, and that this analysis will be based on the common sense of the people - on their culture. If a program is perceived as going against a certain aspect of this culture, it will probably be rejected or transformed into something possibly quite different from what it was intended to be. Willy-nilly, it will be made to fit the model of the world the natives have, and the designers of programs must take this into account if they ever want to succeed.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to believe that a native social scientist has a sufficient knowledge of his culture to prevent that from happening. He has little knowledge of the actual theoretical working of a cultural system; furthermore, the symbols which a native will stress may not be those which another native of the same culture would stress or understand. Within a certain community, a "liberal" American may not at all understand a "conservative" one because he will not see clearly where the significant difference lies. As we saw earlier, the difference probably has nothing to do with politics, but rather with certain social and cultural consequences of the definition of society as being composed of a bunch of individuals. The usefulness of the works of a cultural anthropologist is thus double. On the one hand, he can explain the locus and the theoretical property of the cultural system in any society or situation. On the other, he can give a more adequate description of an actual cultural situation.


1944 The American character. New York: Vintage Books.

1970 Homo hierarchicus. Translated by M. Sainsbury. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

1948 The American people. New York: W.W. Norton.

1964-1971 Mythologiques. Paris: Plon.

1965 And keep your powder dry. New York: William Morrow. (Originally published 1942.)

1968 American kinship: a cultural account. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall.
1969 "Kinship, nationality and religion in American culture: toward a definition of kinship," in Forms of symbolic action. Edited by V. Turner. Proceedings of the 1969 Annual Spring meeting of the American Ethnological Association. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

1972 Individualism, community and love in a small midwestern town. Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.