Legitimate central participation, work and learning in complex institutionalized scenes
Hervé Varenne
Teachers College, Columbia University

[unpublished text of presentation made at the American Anthropological Association meeting of the Fall 1999]

Parsons and Shils once opened their monumental effort to bring together all that had by then become the common sense of the behavioral sciences with a summary of where one had to start and what one had to deal with: action by actors in a situation of objects (1951: 54). Most significantly, they asserted that “each actor has a conception of what he wants, what he sees and how he intends to get what he wants from what he sees” (1951: 54). Later on they explain that the conception develops out of socializing experiences, what we might now talk about as “learning.” This, of course, begged the question of the learning process–though that might have appeared but a technical issue to Parsons and Shils. And it begged the broader question of the adequacy of an approach to joint action within social fields that starts with a knowledgeable actor learning. The most radical parts of Garfinkel’s confrontation with Parsonian theorizing demonstrated its limitations by arguing that the completion of a joint task must depend on the work all involved must do to prevent those actions that might prevent completion: The level of agreement, understanding, learned rules, etc., is unknowable and the most one can do is “trust” that such agreements, understandings, etc., do occur–often in the face of much evidence that all but the most mundane of tasks proceed in the absence of much agreement, understanding, etc. The intellectual “operations” we must perform to keep the conversation going do not require cognitive or emotional agreement but rather a system of more or less institutionalized (cultural) constraints to proceed “as if” and to reconstruct whatever just happened as ordinary for-all-future-intent-and-purposes. A theory of action should above all be about Work, not Knowledge.

I have gone back to this origin myth of our intellectual tradition to draw attention to the difficulty in escaping limiting conversations about “learning.” On the very principles that Garfinkel pointed at as they apply to (social) scientific discourse, most attempts to “redefine” a concept like “learning” must bring back the overall conversation into all-too-well-trodden territories that are most probably quite barren by now. Lave and Wenger (1991: 47-50) pointed out that even Vigotsky could be reinterpreted as outlining a theory of internalization but then proceeded to invoke Bourdieu and his notions of habitus without quite warning the reader that Bourdieu always defines habitus in terms of socialization in an altogether Parsonian fashion. The import of their work however lies in their recognition that actors must always begin participation in a social setting before they “know” the rules of the setting. This must apply to infants, children entering school, apprentices, etc. Above all, this must also apply to adults who never quite stay put in the positions they may have moved into after apprenticeship or schooling: parents become grandparents, junior faculty members become senior, the late middle-aged retire and move on to Florida). What Lave and Wenger call “peripheral participation” is probably our most common fate. But what is most important in their contribution is their understanding that participation may be more a matter of legitimacy than of knowledge and that can take us back to Garfinkel rather than Parsons.

Whether peripheral participation produces learning, and whether central participation requires knowledge is altogether a separate issue that we should not settle too early. One should wonder whether continued participation in any “community of practice” is dependent on, eventually, “learning” or whether it is dependent on the legitimating responses of the significant others within the community (including perhaps a new cohort of peripheral participants) that performs the shift in position. Lave, in a later statement (1993), shows that she is quite aware of the problem as she paraphrases McDermott about the need to talk about “changing participation in the culturally designed settings of everyday life” rather than “learning.” She accepts this but then transforms it into a redefinition of learning that is specifically intended to stand against any simple cognitive understanding (1993: 6). If we are to mean by “learning” the processes involved in a person moving from one position to another within a culturally framed social organization, and if we recognize the amount of work a crowd of others must perform in order for this movement to occur, then there is no problem with using the word “learning.” What is unclear is whether even as powerful a speaker as Lave has the power to transform the psychological conversation about “individuals learning” into a sociological conversation about shifting participation and political legitimacy. We are thus left with a paradox: The very concern with learning, that is (eventual) knowledge, reconstructs the individual and his constitution as the fundamental concern–thereby robbing us again of the insight that work is the prerequisite for action, not intentionality.

A new general theory of action should start with the Other, not the Self. It should start with always reconstituted ignorance, not established knowledge.

I would like now to give a brief illustration of where this might take us based on my current research on the labor of childbirth (with Cotter, 1996). I tell this case in part to remind ourselves of the issues involved in making of “learning” a prerequisite to full authoritative participation in a complex scene. I tell the case in part also to argue that not much is gained by arguing that the participants learned anything even as they slightly shifted their position vis-a-vis each other. And I tell the case in part also to argue that while “learning” was neither prerequisite nor product of the interaction in any interesting sense for analytic purposes there are everywhere signs that the participants were continually using resources that were internal to themselves even as they were made public for various local purposes. Internalized knowledge might thus be replaced at the border of interaction as a tool for interactional work rather than as condition or product of this work.

The woman at the center of the childbirth scene, Lonnie, is in the middle of her third labor at the moment of the interaction of focus. During this scene, there is evidence that she and others present use three of her many statuses: She has gone through childbirth before, she is obviously prosperous, and she is a member of the medical professions. From these past experiences one could expect her to be “knowledgeable” both of the most formal aspects of hospital labors and of her particular ways of handling labor. There is much evidence that she does “know” all these things, particularly the fact that she is afraid of pain and will go to any lengths, including some quite dangerous to the baby, to get enough pain killers so that she cannot feel anything. Her husband “knows”about this, and yet we all know that his “knowledge” is problematic. Women have always told men that male knowledge of labor can only be quite limited for it is obviously not based on experience... And yet men, everywhere, do talk during the labor of women, and not simply in the brave new world of contemporary American child birth practices that require fathers to be present during the labor and delivery. All the father has to do here to demonstrate “knowledge” is comment (“breathe, breathe!” “This contraction was not as bad as the preceding one”) , refer back to earlier conversations and narratives, and otherwise operate as if he knew what it is like for his wife to have a child. But of course this display of knowledge will only be interactionally consequential to the extent that all participants act as if they accepted the validity of his statements.

For the purposes of this short piece, the most significant other is the anesthesiologist. He does not know mother or husband beyond what he has read in the chart and some of the first exchanges between they and he appear to frame a minimal set of mostly relevant facts that did not include something of radical importance: the mother’s history of lying to doctors to get more pain killers than she knew she should ask for. In other words, within a wide world of shared knowledge (on demographic and professional grounds) there is a major gap that makes everyone relatively peripheral to the most consequential of all acts that is now to be taken: whether or not to evaluate a pain report as legitimate enough to require added pain killers. I would argue that, at the onset no one knows what is going on and that most of the exchanges between the participants consist in attempts to re-introduce ignorance, or at least doubt about knowledge: the mother works at telling the anesthesiologist not to trust what he might expect from a woman, a third time mother who is also a doctor. The anesthesiologist works at telling the mother that he is not like the anesthesiologists she is talking about. And then Lonnie works at telling the anesthesiologist that she is actually in pain and needs more drug!

The explanation mark here is allowed by the fact that all this is told and taken as a joke on Lonnie . She sets the telling of the crucial piece of new information as joking narrative (“Listen, you want to hear about the C section?”). All settle in, laugh at the relevant moments, and encourage a tall tale about a woman who endangered herself and her child by lying to a “little Chinese fellow,” an anesthesiologist to whom she lied when he performed a crucial sensory test that she knew how to flunk. She is rewarded rewarded with a round of general laughter from all participants followed by a punch line first uttered by the anesthesiologist (“she is dangerous you know!”), briefly expanded by the husband (“she is dangerous because she'll keep asking for it!”), and further expanded by Lonnie (Fig. 1). Through this joke’s telling (Sacks 19??), all participants’ position shifted slightly, particularly that of the anesthesiologist who moved slightly closer to the center of the familial “community of practice.” In the process no one in the room acted simply in terms of their role expectations but rather in spite of them though within a setting that allowed for this kind of display.

Much of this process has recently been talked about in terms of “negotiations” and “strategies.” There is however a danger here if these terms redirect our attention towards the intentionality of the participants as the source for the organization of their interaction. Even as we wonder about what each person might have intended to achieve, we must recognize that the organization of the overall task is NOT open for negotiation. Cotter, for example, in her writing on this labor (1996), shows that the laboring woman’s position as an altogether ignorant woman within a world of (mostly male) people–was continually reconstructed and never specifically challenged. It would indeed appear easier to lie and pretend than to question the grounds of common sensicality in such a setting. Still, the continual reconstruction proceeded through a multiplicity of small moves around the script line that, together, and in terms much better accounted for by theories of feedback than by theories of learning, had the effect of achieving the hospital birth of the child. Every one of the moves is taken within a world of objects fully inscribed in the architecture of the hospital and delivery room, in the requirements of the machines, and of the divisions of this labor into a multiplicity of roles variously institutionalized through administrative regulations and local custom. Any dispute about painkillers must thus take into full accounts the machine logic of the epidural and its impact on the human body, the bureaucratic logic that distributes authority for the delivery of the epidural, and the familial logic that allows the husband to speak for his wife.

It is possible that, at the moment of the joke’s telling, Lonnie is intentionally negotiating some more epidural but not too much, her husband is negotiating to warn the anesthesiologist, and the anesthesiologist is keeping his own counsel, negotiating the wisdom of his decision not to give Lonnie more drug, and all this on the basis of their knowledge of what is involved here, including the extent of “play” within the parameters of the system. To talk of negotiation has at least the advantage to point us at the work all are performing in uncertainty and also in some fear that things might not be quite what they seem at the core (and not only at the periphery). No one can be quite sure as to what any one else is going to do next, even as every one assumes that all will stay within the framework of a labor common sense that is not itself a topic of conversation. Trouble is lurking at every turn here and one could argue that much of the talk points at trouble, both in the sense that it attempts to alleviate trouble or prevent it and in the all important sense that it might produce trouble either at the time or later on (as was the case with the talk Lonnie used to lie during her previous labor). There is in fact little talk that is purely directed at moving the labor along. All that has already been “said” in the historical development of what are now the routine procedures that are so profoundly inscribed that they might be treated like rails for a train. In this mechanical sense, the less activity by any of the participants, the better and there is really no room for a focused challenge to the grounds of the routine activities. They are always already there–except that, continually, something happens that re-opens the future.

Uncertainty in work (labor) points at ignorance rather than knowledge so that what might be called “foregrounded activity” (like a narrative about earlier labors) could be approached as a teaching activity that produces a learning–that is a move from one position to another. This new position may either allow all to trust again that everything is happening according to the authoritative scrip or, and more likely, opens a new occasion for uncertainty in the audience. In turn, this may or may not allow for further questioning depending on the authority given to any particular person to transform this new ignorance into an interactional event. After all, I believe we have all experienced moments when continued participation in a complex event becomes more and more puzzling as it proceeds as if we were the only one not to have a clue as to what is actually happening! And so I suggests that we read Lave and Wenger's discussion of "legitimate peripheral participation" as the prototype of any person's position within a complex institutionalized scene. There is every reason to think that the people at the core of any "community of practice" are systematically at equal loss about what to do next (particularly but not solely with the latest newcomers!). Not only is it the case that the position of any person in relation to other persons within the community is never fully institutionalized, it must also be the case that little by little the very grounds that have organized a community (sub-culture, culture, etc.) are continually changing, and the more often that they are smaller. In fact, if we think of the labor of a woman in a hospital as involving the setting-up of a short term sub-community of practice, then we can argue that much of the interaction must have involved setting the particular set of understandings (taken-for-granted patterns of interaction), stretching their limits, teaching them to newcomers, etc. After all, as teachers, we all know that "each class is different." We must seek to understand the processes that make these differences possible as determinedly as we have sought to understand the processes that keep things stable. To do this we must replace uncertainty, if not ignorance, at the core of the human experience.