Hervé Varenne has written a book that many readers will find difficult. Some may find it mystifying. Others may find it tedious. What all readers will discover, if they stick with it, is a new way of thinking about what goes on in schools, or for that matter, factories, hospitals, boy scout camps, or neighborhood taverns - anywhere that human beings interact.
This is an ethnography of a school. a "privileged" high school in a north-eastern community that serves as a bedroom for executive and professional people who strive and achieve in the nearby metalopolis. The school has no black or hispanic students. Most current school ethnographies are about confronations, conflicts, mutual adaptations between mainstream and minorities. This is an important subject and the amelioration, if not solution, of the problems in teaching and learning cast up by these conflicts is essential to our national health. But Varenne is not studying what most other ethnogrpahers of the school have studied, and not merely because Sheffield High School lacks blacks and hispanics.
The high school is seen by most observers as either a microcosm of the larger society and culture or as a shelter for a separate adoloscent society with its own values, norms and language. A social structure, with concretized properties in the form of roles, statuses, power centers and hierarchies, andabove all, cliques, emerges early in the analysis and is firmed up by observations as it proceeds.
It is very human to create order where there is disorder, certainly where there is uncertainty, and structure where there is seemingly amorphous flow and process. We structure where there is seemingly amorphous flow and process. We create a world in order to deal with it. Our cognitive capacities are limited. We process information to simplify and concretize it.
When we attempt, as social "scientists" to observe and make sense of complex social exchanges we reduce ambiguity to specificity and process to structure. Thousands, or millions of events occur during our periods of observation. We "record" these events with notebooks and pens, tape recorders and films. Later we analyze our collected "data." We are sure that we are better off today, with our new technology, than our predecessors were who were armed only with the notebook and pen. But in our analyses we often replicate what we would do without the gadgets. We ignore the events and deal only with the outlines we had already begun to form soon after we arrived on the scene.
Varenne is no less human than the rest of us. He too searches for order and specificity. But he searches for it in the fluid exchanges of signification in everyday life, in this instance, in a school. He is not so interested in membership in groups, or the definition of their boundaries, as he is in symbols in discourse, in reference to self and others in the flow of events. He is interested in discourse as rhetoric. He wants to discover how people, as actors in social scenes within settings such as the school, use discourse to manipulate each other. This manipulation has consequences in the forming of alliances and the definition of distances that result in what appear to be power "structures," roles, and statuses. Most of us study these consequences, not the process of manipulation itself.
In the study of process, Varenne plays close attention not only to what people say, but also to how they say it, and in what contexts. The result is sometimes tedious for the reader, until he gets caught up in the experience of discovery. It may seem tedious because Varenne wants to show us that he is not merely intuiting. He demonstrates the bases for his interpretations, thereby hoping to escape the kinds of criticisms directed at others who work semiotically with symbols and signs.
When the reader does get caught up in discovery he learns that social life is not exactly what it seems to be. Everything that is said or done has more than one level of significance. Somehow human beings, though simplifiers, do manage to "get" these signifitions at their various levels and act accordingly. There is order to human social life but it is not, as Varenne sees it, so much the order of social structures as the ordering of communication.
It is through attempts such as Varenne's to go beneath the surface of social life that we will achieve understanding of what we are and do. This volume is a contribution, still emergent rather than finalized, to a developing conception of social observation and interpretation. This volume is also a contribution to the ethnography of schooling. Some of us have worked for years in schools, and though our context of study is bounded by purpose and place we find it literally too complex to study. Too much happens, even in a single classroom, to observe, record, or interpret. The pressure to simplify and overconcretize is great. Varenne's work provides us with a new avenue to understanding what is "going on" and helps us to avoid premature structuring.
And finally, this volume is a contribution to understanding "American Culture" - a euphemism for a complex flow of symbols and signs within a social system that is loosely bounded. Varenne's previous book, Americans Together hints at the development that is taking place in his view of social life. American School Language shapes and implements this view further. It is worthy of your serious attention.