Au-dessus des classes, au-dessus des groupes et des activites particularisees, il regne un pouvoir cohesif qui fait une communaute d'un agregat d'in dividus et qui cree la possibilite meme de la production et de la subsistance collective.Ce pouvoir est la langue et la langue seule.[ftn 1]
E. Benveniste (1974: 94-5)

Beyond Ethnology

Let us begin with an excerpt from the fieldnotes:

Text 1

Jane Staffer related a story about an incident that had occurred last year. She said that a student, Dick Laughlin, had been standing outside her art classroom. This student's girlfriend was in her class and he was hanging around the door disturbing some of the students. She asked him to leave and he said to her, "Screw you. "Jane reported the incident to Mr. Ervin [the assistant principal] who spoke to the student. Jane told me that the student was let off without any punishment. Mr. Ervin explained to her that the student apologized for saying it, explaining that he was very tired and irritated because he had been up the night before watching a football game on television. It seems that this student is a jock.

This is a report of another report told by Staffer about an event which none of the field workers observed personally. Staffer's report[ftn2] is an account to an interested audience (the fieldworker) about whom Staffer did not know much except that she wanted to know "what happens in the school. "Staffer chose from among everything that was happening at the time of the incident (whether the subject of her class, the movements of the other students, her personal mood, etc.) what was "really" happening.[ftn3] How did she do this?

First, Staffer chose to report only some of the incidents that accompanied the important one to her. Without evidence as to what she left out, we can not say much about this at present. Her interpretative activity also involved her choice of words, the way she labeled the participants and their actions. It further involved the moral she drew for the benefit of the fieldworker, what participants often called the "meaning" of the incident.

At the most formal level, that is the level of an ethologist observing the movements of the organisms involved totally from the outside, and particularly without any consideration to the content of the linguistic interactions, the event could be reported as involving three main protagonists in conflict over the control of a group of other members of the species. The first protagonist (Jane Staffer) attempted to engage the total attention of all those other people. The second protagonist (Dick Laughlin) came and redirected the attention of some of those people towards himself. Staffer talked to him. He talked back [with an obscenity as she told it ("screw you") or an ethnic slur ("you dirty Jew")--conflicting accounts were circulated later]. She talked again and he went to talk to the third protagonist. This man (Lloyd Ervin) made the boy talk, and then let him go.

This is the incident as it could be told in as uninterpreted a way as possible, "objectively," so to speak. In fact, to the extent that I am using words, I have interpreted the incident. Objectivity "in use" --not the reconstructed, ideal objectivity of positivism--is never anything more than intersubjectivity, that is, a certain way of dealing with the world that a certain community, the society of scientists, accepts. What I did was to rewrite T1, replacing all abstract nouns and verbs (student, ask, punishment) with more concrete terms (woman, talk, go). This way of telling the incident, though it would be understandable to the participants who were knowledgeable about the "scientific method," was very rarely used.

In fact, the participants were not simply unequal in an observationally derived and objectively grounded pecking order. They were not simply "human beings" or "persons" "interacting. "The participants and their acts were named and differentiated:

  1. the woman was said to be a "teacher" and the situation was "her" "class";
  2. as such she was "entitled" to demand attention from a group of persons referred to as "students";
  3. the boy-as-student was not "allowed" to challenge this demand for attention
    though he was not a member of the teacher's class (other adults could redirect the
    attention of students in classes);
  4. the teacher expected the third protagonist, a member of the "administration," to
    reward negatively, punish, the student because of his act. However, she could not
    do the rewarding herself;
  5. the man did consider it his duty to punish the boy. But he did not do it
    mechanically. He had to take into account other events in the personal history of
    the challenger.

The participants have different rights and duties, places which are "theirs" at certain times, privileges which should not be infringed upon, and so on and so forth. They organize into different sorts of people.

Most of this was not entered into the fieldnotes literally. Some of what appears in T1 may not have surfaced explicitly during the original conversation. It is all part of a generalized knowledge that Staffer could assume the fieldworker shared, that the fieldworker knew she had, and that an American reader of this work could probably also be relied upon to possess. But such sharing does not mean that we can move on. That all this should be shared is precisely what is problematic, particularly when we realize how much more is assumed.

Before she told T1, Staffer had introduced the story. The fieldworker reported these comments by writing that, for Staffer, the point of the story was to illustrate the fact that "teachers who have problems with discipline are not backed by the administration. "At the end, the fieldworker wrote that Staffer was "infuriated because she felt she deserved more respect as a teacher. "It seems that this was what made the story worth telling. Staffer did not question the idea that she was a teacher, that Dick Laughlin was a student, or that Ervin was the assistant principal in charge of discipline. This was an accepted background to a more interesting discussion which involved the implications of a particular instance of interaction between types of people. It then becomes relevant that Dick Laughlin is a "jock. "But this has to be explicitly marked.

To concentrate solely on this second level of interpretation would be a mistake. Staffer did also point out--albeit implicitly--that Dick Laughlin was a student and Ervin an assistant principal. Analytically, these categories are as problematic as the moral Staffer drew from the incident. We must also realize that there is an inflexible order in the progression of the argument: "To be backed by the administration" is a relevant matter because the speaker is a "teacher" and not simply a woman. The making of the story is dependent on two transformations:

  1. [HUMAN BEING] rewrite as/student/, /teacher/ or /administrator/
  2. [INSTANCE OF MANNER OF DISCIPLINING] rewrite as /instance of type of relationship/

The original experience has all but disappeared. Maybe, it never properly existed for Staffer except in the reconstructed manner which we have been discussing. This could lead one to doubt the general validity of Staffer's remarks. We can assume that they are true, or at least meaningful, for her. Are they also true and meaningful for other people in the school? How much of her speech is her idiosyncratic speech? Is it only she who is speaking or is it the school that is speaking through her?

As we just saw, Staffer seems to have taken the first transformative step more "unconsciously" than she did the second. She assumed some knowledge and supplied only some information. It seems that, in a situation such as the one in which the story was told, the meanings of the words student, teacher, administration, respect, discipline, etc., are not problematic. That the event could mean something else was not problematic either. What it meant was what was problematic: The "fact" that the administration did not back the teachers was not so widely accepted or recognized. Only a few teachers reacted in precisely this manner to acts of the administration, and even fewer students challenged teachers' rights in such an
aggressive manner.

In any event, Staffer assumed that the fieldworker would know certain things and would not know others. She had confidence in an external system of signification that could be relied upon to communicate a piece of information which she could not assume the fieldworker possessed. This system included labels for persons. It also included the concepts of "support," "backing," "respect," etc. And it included the possibility that an administration would not support teachers or that students would not respect teachers. In other words, the very statement of conflict is an aspect of the school discourse. Her statement is not original in most respects. She did not individually invent the parameters of the statements she used to describe this conflict. Her only "freedom" was in using such statements to deal with this particular conflict. Another teacher might not have taken the same course of action though he would understand what Staffer was doing and could manipulate the discourse.

This is a complex matter. To go further let us look at another text.


Text 2

Mr. Ervin noted that at the state meeting (of assistant principals) they had discussed individualized instruction, accountability, and a few other important topics. Mr. Ervin then noted that from the county meetings he has attended, he has realized that each assistant principal has a different role in his high school. He noted that the assistant principal in a neighboring system spends more than half of his time observing teachers. He compared this to Sheffield where he never observes teachers in their classrooms. Each situation is unique, he said, "the principal at that school thinks that you must watch teachers in order to make them produce and, therefore, the assistant principal must spend a good deal of time in the classroom watching teachers. "Mr. Ervin told me that he thinks this is not a good idea, and that you can't make teachers produce by watching closely over them.

T2 is not the telling of an incident. It is a reconstruction of many different incidents in a generalizing context. In a way, when Ervin talks of the varying role of assistant principals, he is talking at the same level as Staffer did when she talked about her lack of support. In such speech the speaker distances himself. He has observed and is drawing general conclusions that are phrased in the active present. The stance is that of the detached observer who has had a particular experience. Teachers and assistant principals can talk this way, but it is not as such that they do so. The statement is informed by the situation of the speaker, but he now stands outside of it.

T2 differs from T1 in that it issues from the person who was identified earlier as the assistant principal, a member of the administration. It is about possible ways the administration can use to deal with teachers. As in T1 we have the use of a distinction between two types of human beings with different rights and duties. We saw how different these two types were with regards to dealing with a third type of human being. Here we see that "the human beings called teachers" (from now on they will be referred to as "the teachers" in here) are expected to "produce," and the "the human beings called the administration" (from now on "the administration") are expected to do whatever is necessary to make the teachers actually produce. In other words the administration is there to prod and check and may do so with whatever technique it thinks best.

The concept of "production" is interesting. Production is something which an observer can recognize in the actions of another person. By implication at least, it can be measured. It can be more, or less, it can be increased or decreased. Production is about concrete matters. Its concreteness is reaffirmed by the mention of discrete, countable acts which are evidence that certain people produce. With no prodding from the interviewer the assistant principal then gave an example of what a "good teacher" does that indicates that he produces:

Text 3

He then said that this was not a problem in Sheffield because the teachers seem to be doing quite well. He said that this year's new teachers are the best crop in years. He then mentioned especially Fritz Wong, the music teacher. He said that Mr.Wong starts class at 7: 45 and even has boys coming to class then to sing and this is extraordinary. Mr.Ervin explained that in hiring new teachers, they "hire the best person for the job."

Text 4

Then, Foster [the principal] leaves the teachers' lounge and on our way back to his office we talk about William Lyons. Foster says that he thinks very highly of Lyons. "He is loud and boisterous, etc., but you know, he has never had any problem with the kids. But he really makes them work. I don't think he could be an innovator but he's always ahead. He always tells the teachers things are not so bad as they think they are. He is as good a teacher as we have."

The second remark was made to us by the principal about another teacher. From these two remarks we can get some initial ideas about the characteristics of a "good" teacher. Such a teacher makes the students come early to class, he makes them work. He never has any "problems" with them. He is also "always ahead" and he contributes to the morale of other teachers.

From the point of view of the administration, it would seem that a teacher has a double responsibility: to the children and to his fellow teachers. This responsibility is of the same nature with different modalities. He must make the kids work, and he must make them behave. He also must work--and behave. We come back to the modalities later. Let us now consider the implication of these two texts for the notion of "production. "Necessarily, if a good teacher "produces," teaching has aspects of a production. Teaching is also a job ("the best person for the job"). It is work. "Work" is such an act as coming early to school. It is work for both teacher and student. A teacher is someone who performs certain acts. A good teacher is one who does more of these acts.

This is not all. The principal referred to "innovation. "His remarks require that we modify and make more complex what we just said about work. "To be an innovator" is not exactly the same thing as "to come early to school. "The principal also says: "he tells the teachers things are not so bad. "The implications of this "bad" would not seem to be quite the same as the implications of the assistant principal's "good" in a "good teacher. "A "good" teacher is one who does things, but things themselves can be "good" or "bad. "In other words, things, acts, can be evaluated for certain qualities which they may possess. Innovation would seem to be, in the quote we are considering, one of those qualities.

An Analytic Note

We started by asking questions about the obvious. We moved on to highlight the practical distinctions and identifications which the people make. In the process we saw that the obvious is not obvious. People reveal the organization of their semiotic environment more through the distinctions and identifications they make than through the literal statements which they seem to be making. We are less interested in wondering whether the Sheffield administration was really supporting its teachers, than in questioning the symbolic means which make of the former something that the participants can wonder about, and which help them to know when they are, indeed, wondering about it. We have not moved very far but, already, we have a feel for the complexity of these means. We have also realized that, to sort out what a teacher "is," is not a matter of finding a definition. It is rather a matter of finding the system of connotations within which the symbol "teacher" fits. What can happen when the symbol is used? The next two chapters are dedicated to answering this question.



1) Above the classes, above the specialized groups and activities, there exists a cohesive power which transforms an aggregate of individuals into a community. This power creates the very possiblity of collective production and survival.This power is language and only language.back to text

2)I will not deal at this time with the creativity of the fieldworker when she wrote down what had been told her verbally.However, the fieldworker came from a similar background to Staffer's, and we may assume that the categories and style used by the writer are very close to those Staffer would herself have used.back to text

3) Of course, we have to assume 1) that those things Staffer said were happening did happen, 2) that she was not "lying," and 3) that she had not been the victim of an hallucination.We have testimony from other participants that something like what Staffer was talking about did happen, though this fact, in itself, is not an absolute proof.The only thing that can be said is that all those involved were convinced that something had happened.This is an observation of us, as researchers, and though this still cannot be considered absolute, we have reached the point where scientists become natives of their own system and must accept, within limits, that the observations of their fellow scientists are for all intent and purposes "true," that is, as Kaplan would say, that they are "uncontaminated by any factors except those common to all observers" (1966:128).back to text