'Total commitment' to a semiotic approach requires not doing away with the distinction between the practical as asymbolic distinction.
J. Boon (1979:98)

The Structure of Evaluation

The school, among other things, is one of the places where a modern industrial society performs some of the material tasks which assure the functioning of the whole. The school is a tool of material reproduction. Most optimistically, it may function as the producer of an "educated citizenry," a necessity in an industrial society. It may also function to withdraw producers from the labor market while freeing others (the "baby-sitting" function of the school). It may function to reproduce—in a particular manner—the class structure of modern societies. In any event, a school is essentially (1) a place where (2) adults interact intensively with (3) children. The school, as "place," must thus have a geographical base, a support system made up of both buildings and people. These supports allow the adults to concentrate directly on the children without being material encumbrances.

The work that the school produces is an extremelysmall part of the total work which Americans, as a whole, must perform to reproduce themselves. Somebody else must perform other work if the people in the school are to perform their own appointed tasks. In the school itself, only some of the people are in direct contact with the children. Others are there to provide close support to the teachers/children (e.g. custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, etc.). Still others are there to see that everybody performs his tasks adequately. Above all, a massive number of persons must work outside the school for the school to be what it is. Finally there must be mechanisms to regulate the distribution of the result of this other work back to the participants in the school. This is done through the salary that all adults receive. This salary itself is differentiated (not everybody makes the same amount).

As I mentioned earlier, the task of regulation is performed through processes known as "evaluation." I use this word also, though in a slightly altered form as I emphasize the social consequences of this particular organization of the distribution of a society's production. The Policies and Bylaws—the closest thing to a statement of the school organization we collected--did not present the categories of people holistically—as I just did—but linearly. The evaluating administrator is treated as if his sole raison d'etre resides in that there is something to be evaluated. The evaluated (e.g., a teacher) is essentially treated as an independent agent who might be prodded by his fears of a bad evaluation into producing more but who would continue to be whatever he is whether the evaluator was present or not.[ftn 1]

As for the "evaluatee," he is treated as a passive recipient whose presence is certainly necessary (in that without him and his needs there would be no need for someone to be evaluated for doing something to him), but who remains in the background in the conversation between evaluated and evaluator.

We must move beyond such a linear perspective. What we have here is a differentiated whole in which the various parts feedback on each other. There are many actual steps in the administration of evaluation: Teachers evaluate students, the principal evaluates the teachers, the superintendent evaluates principals, etc. This list could easily grow much longer but it has no structural value as such. The structure has to be found in the fact that, however many positions a particular school system may have evolved, nobody there will experience more than three. These three are (1) the position of the person who evaluates him (the evaluator), (2) his own position (the evaluated), and (3) the position of the persons on whom he operated and whose behavior will be evidence of the quality of his own work (the evaluatees). These three positions are interlocked: Wherever one may be placed, one is dependent upon the behavior of people in the other two positions

Even the evaluatee possesses a great deal of potential power. For example, as soon as a child gains the social competence that makes him conscious of what is happening to the person who evaluates him in the routine unfolding of the school's history, he will also become conscious that he can manipulate his own behavior and his evaluator's behavior by using the presence of his evaluator's evaluator as a lever on the former. A student can bargain an evaluation of his own behavior with a teacher by reminding the teacher that he, the teacher, is evaluated in terms of (for example) the teacher's,amount of "discipline problems" of which he, the student, may be one. Various strategies are possible, from requests for special treatment (e.g., "Don't report my misbehavior. Remember, my misbehavior is a proof of your incompetence.") to active attempts at destroying a teacher (e.g., possibly the student's treatment of Norman).

All evaluators are also "evaluateds." The participants can thus use the participation of their protagonists in another context as bargaining chips in the primary context of their interaction (however they may define these two). In other words, a principal/ teacher context, as one might define it if one only looks at the surface of the interaction, can always become, and always potentially is, a superintendent/ principal context. The latter may be activated by the teacher, or by the principal. The principal can be accused by a teacher of behaving for the benefit of the superintendent. The teacher may be accused by the principal of suggesting that the superintendent is involved. This can be done in principal/teacher inter-action or in still other contexts (e.g., teacher/ teacher as in T19, T20).

In summary, the structure of evaluation can be visualized in the following two ways:

Each triangle represents a possible interaction between two people in different positions. The reciprocity is represented by the double-headed arrow. The representation handles the constant presence of a third person in all apparently diadic interactions, the person that is either "above" or "below" one of the persons in face-to-face contact. The above abstract structure can thus be realized either as:

1) (superintendent)
principal < > teacher
2) principal > teacher

The presence of the third person is what allows for reciprocity within a formal asymmetry. The weakness of the administrative model as representation of the structure of evaluation thus lies both in the splitting of the reciprocity and in the total ignoring of the third position.

All participants were not as cynical or manipulative as the structure of evaluation allowed them to be. Many students were naive. Most teachers disliked "politics," as they would refer to such manipulation. [ftn 2]It was "informal," dangerous and improper. It brought to the surface major properties of the total situation which remained illegitimate and indeed almost unutterable: They could not be talked about as such. Wherever the conflicts came from, the vocabulary that the participants had at their disposal was not adequate to bring to routine symbolic expression a reciprocal view of social interaction. Most participants could not in fact manipulate the power given them by the structure of evaluation.

The Production of Statements about Structure

The preceding pages have taken us away from our major interests as we have gone from the participants' expression to a search for the possible social pat-terns that organize their interaction beyond their perception of these patterns. I have talked about the "weakness" of the administrative model as representation. I have talked of the participants' confusion, of their blindness. This is a common direction for a sociological discourse to take. It would be easy to move on to say that these patterns are the social 'reality' which cultural patterns hide more or less effectively. The vocabulary of the real versus the ideal is always a tempting one, the ideal being what the participants tell the observer or each other, the real being what the observer--as the all powerful knower--has "observed." There have been vigorous reactions from various quarters against the validity of such distinctions. Many scholars `e.g. Dumont, 1977; Sahlins, 1976) have emphasized the ideological roots of the various materialist approaches that have claimed that they provide a direct route to the 'reality' of human interaction. It could easily be argued that the analysis of the structure of evaluation is nothing but a figment of my own imagination. It might not so much be an "objective" analysis, as a case of rhetorical manipulation through the vocabulary of the material and the objective. There is something to this. The question, however, is not to decide where 'reality' lies. It is to decide what may be the utility of the alternative statement: Is it useless because it is 'false' to the participants' perception? Could it be useful, in its very difference, if our purpose is other?

For a while, then, let us leave the arguments about .how statements are related to interaction and turn to the reality of this interaction. Let us look at what allows various people, or the same person at different times, to make different statements about the same initial event.

As we have seen, the daily life of the participants is anything but mechanical in its unfolding. People make mistakes, they grope for the right word, they worry about the kind of response they will get, etc. Above all, time passes. New contexts to the original event are continually being created. New people get involved, and new statements have to be made. There is always a gap between social stimulus and response. At the time of the response it is very likely that the stimulus has disappeared. The response, then, must be constructed, composed. Further-more, participants in joint symbolization, do not have full control. They must be continually involved in correcting activities through which they make the full statement correspond to its image.

The observer-analyst is in a similar, temporal relationship with his informants. They provide the be-ginning of his own story. They are the occasion of his own symbolic operations. They are the generators of an experience to which he must now respond. But his informants, whatever they may say as they act, do not control this response. He is "free" to do what-ever he may think useful with the suggestions they gave him. That is, he can make many different coherent statements starting from his observations--given that there are many different rules for coherence in a text of this sort. In the type of events I reported, it is possible to construct different texts that can be shown to be coherent with these initial events though these texts are not mutually coherent.

To the extent that all texts are coherent to the original event which called for its production, they are all 'true' to it. To the extent that many of the possible texts are not coherent to each other, a problem arises: How can both texts be possible? This necessarily puts one's own text into question and re-quires a new response that will deal with the apparent contradiction. This may seem like the kind of problem that only analysts have, but it is, in fact, the basic problem any human being has when he is confronted by another way of doing something that he has always done in a particular way. In fact, the school's rhetoric was rich enough in the various ways it expressed an event, that it was common to experience surprise at the use of one kind of text when another one was expected. It is in this spirit that we now briefly re-view texts about the school that participants, in my experience, never produced. This will help us see more clearly those features that characterize the texts they do produce.

A Variety of Discourses

The generalized [EVENT] to which the participants, and we as analysts, have to respond to, in the present instance, consists in the altogether scandalous intractability of tensions that persisted between the adults in the school. Everyone felt that they were continually making efforts in good faith to resolve the tensions. But success eluded them. What happened? What could be done?

1) The Participants' Response: Once the passion-ate response to the scandal had passed, once the anger, sadness or outrage had also passed, what the actors tried to accomplish was to separate completely what was considered to be the source of the tension (all matters concerning evaluation) from normal, routine, interaction. This led to the complex ritualization of evaluation procedures that transformed them into special events, held at special times and in a special form. This also led, in the writing of the administrative regulations, to the separation of the evaluation function from the productive function. The fact that the tensions did not lead to disintegration was considered evidence of the essential success of the school in separating what had to be separated. The lingering tension was treated as "noise" in the system.

2) A Marxist Inspired Response: One can also focus on this "noise" and see in it the signal of an irreducible structure, awareness of which becomes buried in the school's own response. It could be argued, but only by an outsider, that the reciprocity of the interaction between evaluator, evaluated, and evaluatee in a complex meritocracy cannot be broken. The tension is not the epiphenomenal result of a bad organization of the various roles within a bureaucracy. Rather, it is the structured product of an organization which places people in situations where their economic interests profoundly differ and where the persons in the other roles in fact control the subject's own economic survival thereby alienating him from his labor. There is a profound "contradiction" which could be brought to surface symbolization. Such symbolization would be extremely foreign to the participants even though it could be said to be "truer" to, i.e. more coherent with, their experience of meritocratic economic rewarding than their own symbolic discourse. The demonstration of this greater coherence would involve demonstrating how the distinctive features of this alternate symbolic discourse happens to highlight those features of the socio-economic situation which are the most powerful organizers of this situation.

3) A Structural-Functionalist Response: This might be less foreign to the participants. It would involve analyzing the school into "constitutive" groups—both formally and informally defined--which together, and in an integrated and systematically regulated fashion, perform the labor of the school. The participants appeared at times to think of the school in this manner.

The Policies and Bylaws, for example, looks like a blueprint for the division of labor in the school: It appears to define groups and their respective functions within a unit. The tension and conflicts could now be seen as evidence, either that the system is not as well integrated as it appears to be, or that Sheffield is in a period of transition. It might be pointed out, for example, that the heavy bureaucratic organization of this school is modeled on something designed for much larger schools. As for the "informal" groups such as the cliques, they might either be considered irrelevant, or as constituting the "real," though underground, social structure through which the labor of the school is "in fact" divided. Depending on the way such a discourse is continued, it could remain parallel to the participants' own discourse or it could become quite foreign. In the matters of the postulated units, and of their relationships, the understanding of the whole would be of central importance in differentiating the discourses. In a strict structural-functional sense, the whole must definitively and practically cone first. In a system based on Durkheimian organic solidarity, the parts which make up that whole are necessarily oriented to this whole, and the individual unit can only be understood in terms of its place within the whole. Thus, the parts cannot be described separately in terms of the characteristics which they would possess if separated from each other. It is this holistic stance that is missing in the participants' analysis of their situation. They normally talk in terms of specialized groups differentiated in their inner substance. The symbolically constituted whole which they construct is made up of the various pieces. These retain their individuality as they interact. Thus, the Policies and Bylaws spends no time talking of the school as a whole but describes, at great length, the separate character of the rather miscellaneous pieces which it lists. It is as if it is assumed that each person, by doing his prescribed "thing," will contribute to the life of the school. There is no attempt at formalizing how each position contributes to the functioning of the other positions. It is not that people do not help each other, nor that they are unaware that they do help. It is rather that helping behavior is classified as belonging to another area of behavior treated as antithetical to the material labor of the school.

The Gift of the School

Whether one wants to look at the relationship between the adults in terms of infrastructural contradictions or functional feedback mechanisms, it is certain that there are, here, constraints to behavior from which the participants cannot escape by simply refusing to highlight them symbolically. They directly experience the contradictions. They conduct the negotiations. It is also certain that the participants do not conceive symbolically of the school in a way that is quite compatible with either a dialectical or holistic view of the school.

Nevertheless, the participants' representations are more than figments of the imagination. They are an aspect of their experience, the other major aspect of relevance being the infrastructural constraints. This makes it necessary to look at how the two systems of constraints are organized so that both their function-al needs are satisfied. As I have mentioned, the distinction between the two "systems" is an artificial one. In action, there is no problem: Any single act is both meaningful and practically useful. The exercise we have just gone through must be considered to be an hermeneutic one. It is not the end point of the analysis.

In other words, the participants act practically according to the infrastructural constraints and, at the same time, convince themselves that they are doing so in a culturally appropriate manner. They act complementarily, but they do it in such a way that they can represent this complementary activity as the result of independent action and not as a step in a wider cybernetic system. To understand how this can be done, there is a discourse, a point of view for analysis that can be very helpful. It is a discourse about social relations that is rarely used systematic-ally to account for the organization of social behavior in complex societies but possesses some striking characteristics of direct relevance. The discourse is the one that has evolved out of Mauss' essay The Gift (1967) around the idea that social life can be understood in terms of exchange cycles in which the necessity of gift giving both separates the social group into smaller groups, and then ties them together in patterns of mutual dependence.

Lévi-Strauss built his alliance theory on it. Recently, in "The Sociology of Primitive Exchange" (1972), Sahlins has offered an intriguing approach to typologies of social relations from the point of view of the style of exchange which obtains between two protagonists. There are many types of exchanges, he argues, and each type has different consequences as far as the associated form of solidarity is concerned. Exchanges range from the altruistic "gift" where no reciprocity is expected:

A> B

to pure "exchange" where reciprocity and equality of value in the objects exchanged is of paramount importance:

A <> B

to "negative reciprocity,"the "unsociable extreme," where each participant is looking to maximize utility at the other's expense as in barter, haggling or theft:


Not only is haggling a common form of human activity, it is also one that is well organized with its own set of constraints. It may not seem worth mentioning that it takes two to haggle, but this is enough to remind us that haggling is social action. For the haggling relationship to persist, there must be mechanisms that preserve the subsistence of the hagglers and must insure them a certain amount of power and resources. What makes us common sensically doubt the validity of equating haggling with giving is that, in the former, the "giver" is more or less violently pressured into something which he would not do freely or willingly. In the process the positive emotional feelings which we associate with free giving are destroyed. In fact, as Mauss saw, there is no such thing as a "free" gift—all giving puts the receiver at a disadvantage that can only be alleviated by a return gift. Giving is always a violent act. The difference between giving and haggling may thus lie solely in the fact that, in "giving" the violence is ritually buried as the expectation of a return is not directly mentioned while, in "haggling," this violence is rhetorically marked.

People in the school rarely talked about their activity in terms of gifts, reciprocity or solidarity. There were times when they could approach such a conceptualization of their activity. This was done in an interesting manner which makes a "gift" discourse illuminating. It will be remembered that jobs are rhetorically "owned" by those who perform them. In other words, a job is something that someone does to someone else. A gift is also always a personal act "done to" someone else. Of course, none of those who hold jobs in the school "give away" their labor. They sell it for a specified price. Indeed the characteristics of a "job" (by contrast to other activities) is that its return is a salary. Furthermore, a salary is negotiated. None of the adults rely on the implicit understanding that, for their gift, they can expect some return gift in the future. They want to know exactly what this "gift" will be and, every year, they are involved in renegotiating it. The negotiations are almost always acrimonious, each side taking the stance that its needs are greater, and expecting the other side to "give" more. [ftn 3] In practice both traditions and common sense temper this dispute. It remains that, in relation to Sahlins' typology, salary negotiations are best characterized as "haggling"—what he refers to as the "unsociable extreme."

Sahlins's typology thus allows us to think about the school in "gift" terms. If haggling is a form of gift giving (or, perhaps more accurately of gift taking), then there is a lot of exchange, however negative, in the school. What we have is a situation where a stage is set—symbolically and rhetorically—for haggling on practical matters. In the process, the concrete labor of the school gets performed and reciprocities are balanced. Everybody does his share, gets it, and renegotiates it. It is also done in such an appropriate manner that nobody has to confront the fact that the regulation of the total system escapes personal, independent control. One can be part of a whole and never have to confront the fact. This analysis can be strengthened by looking at the few instances where the setting is changed to allow for the expression of explicit "giving."

We observed very few instances of personal gift giving between the adults, even around major holidays. None of the major labor of the school is performed through gifts (by contrast, for example, to what Malinowski writes of the economic organization of Trobriand daily life with its circulation of agricultural products in complex exchange cycles). However, the total labor of the school can itself, in certain ideological contexts be considered as something that can, and is, positively given by the adults to the children.

Children are expected to produce something in response to the teachers' activity, and there is roam for much haggling here. Yet, the children's activity is not, as such, of direct use to the teachers (except in the very passive sense that, in the absence of children, there would be no need for teachers). Thus, it is easy for the adults to conceive of their action in relation to children in terms of a gift to them, a "pure gift" where, as Sahlins writes, "the counter [obligation) is not stipulated by time, quantity or quality" (1972: 194). This is what is directly suggested in this phrase of the "Educational Philosophy" (a document widely circulated in the school) [ftn 4]

Text 29a

"We shall do our utmost... to help each student develop his potentialities to the fullest extent so that he may became a productive member of our democratic society."

A kind of generalized reciprocity is expected in the second part of the sentence but it is not conceived as something which the children will do to the school or any person within it. The school itself is not expecting anything.

Sahlins interprets this type of gift as the "solidary" extreme in the spectrum of reciprocities. The way the school deals with its generalized gifts, how-ever, adds a paradoxical twist to Sahlins' general statement, and casts doubt on the optimistic bent of his phrase. Leaving aside our scepticism about the exact relevance of documents like the "Educational Philosophy," it must be noticed that the structure of such a gift has the peculiar characteristic of being dependent on the absence of reciprocity. A gift is "free" or "pure" only to the extent that the receiver does not give something back (and has not violently asked for it). The purest gift, in this context is the anonymous one. The gift of the school is precisely such a gift. No giver is specified ("We shall do..."). By contrast, the receiver is singularly personalized ("to help each child"). In other words, it may well be that haggling and free giving are not so far removed from each other. The only difference between them is the marking, positive or negative, of the movement of each actor towards the other. The structure, two separate and substantive entities entering into (i.e., creating, building something that was not there before) a temporary relationship which does not create a necessary lien on future relation-ships, remains the same. Indeed, it is probably not a matter of chance if statements about the interaction of people are either couched in terms of a gratuitous gift (as is done in documents like the "Philosophy") or in terms of egotistical haggling (as in salary negotiations). In both cases, the units are left in-dependent, outside of a system which they may or may not create. The person is treated as separate from the labor which he decides to perform and, thus, from the other persons who perform a complementary labor (which they may, at any point, decide not to per-form, leaving one stranded).

It is tempting to speculate on the settings which transform what might have been treated as a free gift into one where haggling comes to the fore. The more immediately important the potential gift may be to the receiver (as salaries are), the more likely it is that this receiver will not rely on the good will of the giver. The more ceremonial the setting, the more this good will will be emphasized. But utatever is actually performed, neither the fundamental semiotic structure of separation, substantialization and social creation, nor the practical structure of material survival is subverted. Indeed, we may talk of but one practico-semiotic structure, a cultural structure.


1) Indeed, some participants would argue that an "evaluated" would do whatever he is supposed to do better in a situation of independence. Students, and some educators, liked to argue that they would learn "better" if learning was not tied to a possible evaluation. back to text

2) The students in Sheffield seen to have been rather unconscious of this power. It may be because their parents' class position was higher than the teachers'. The students were thus implicitly protected by the fear many teachers had of the parents: A teacher who failed a student could expect a rough time from the parents. He certainly could not fail too many students without causing groups of parents to put pressure on the administration. This attitude was so pervasive that it did not have to be stated. In other, "tougher," schools the students may have both the need and the courage to negotiate directly with a teacher. In any event the issue is not whether pressure is actually exercised. It has to do with the presence of a lever.back to text

3) It is common, in American talk, to refer to negotiations and other such discussions as "give and take" sessions. "To give," in this context, generally is to to give "up," "in," or "away," always with the connotation of defeat: The gift is the tribute to the victor. back to text

4) See p. 283, 292 for further excerpts and discussion.back to text