Culture: possibilities and consequences

An introduction to anthropology and education 
for anthropologists and educators


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University



"We may perhaps best define [the aims of anthropological research] as the attempt to understand the steps by which [humanity] has come to be what [it] is, biologically, psychologically and culturally" (Boas 1940 [1932]: 243).

Anthropology and education, I insist throughout this work, is not to be taken as a backwater subfield, concerned only with a marginal issue in the discipline. Its issues are the core anthropological issues: how humanity transforms itself over time, how these transformations become the concrete ecology of humanity, and thereby how earlier transformations of humanity constrain what can be made at the very same time as it opens new possibilities for further transformations. [ftn]

To focus on humanity requires that we pay attention to biological, geographical, psychological and cultural matters. In this list culture is last but not least for culture transforms biology, geography and psychology As Lévi-Strauss would insist, this does not mean that those three are abolished but that, everywhere, human beings act in terms of the cultural transformations of their biology, geography and psychology (1949: 0). Human beings do not ever copulate simply: they have sex, make love, and always within the context of marriage–constituted rules distinguishing proper from improper copulation. Such affirmations, by now, are easier to make than to understand in their implications. To do so, a good place to start is with the very fact that human beings, as a biological species, have a history: they have changed themselves without changing much of their genetic endowment. Without some attempt to trace this history, generalizations about humanity, biological, sociobiologically, or psychologically, must remain banal.

Boas,[ftn] of course, used "history" and "evolution" in a peculiar manner that remains the foundation of much anthropology, because it is the only manner that remains tenable given all observations of the ethnographical, archeological and history records. Humanity does not transform itself automatically through the play of historical "laws," be they Darwinian, Marxist, functionalist, or from any other tradition asserting that particular circumstances or patterns must move history in particular directions. History, thus, debunks necessity: next steps are never fully predictable. But history, also, asserts the implacable concreteness of the conditions earlier generation of human beings have made for later ones. History is construction, not creation.

One of the most interesting thing about Boas is that he, unflinchingly, started with biology and, immediately moved away: human beings, like every other animal, must reproduce but human reproduction is not solely a biological process, it must be a cultural process since the issue is not only to carry over a genetic package from one generation to the next, but also a whole body of knowledge and practices that is precisely not encoded in genes. To make things more complex, in complex societies--and all societies are relatively complex on this matter--, the knowledge to be transmitted is organized by the organization of the constituting groups. As recent cognitive psychologists have demonstrated knowledge is "distributed" among people with the implication that the transmission of culture is not a purely psychological process: the various positions to be occupied have themselves to be reproduced, and this brings us back to the meaning of "reproduction" through education that Bourdieu focuses us upon.[ftn]

Boas is useful here because of his insistence on diversity decoupled from necessity. If human diversity is not grounded in genetics or geography, that it if it is not determined by in-human processes, then it must be grounded in historical processes that eventually transform humanity in the contexts that it has made and that must now be reproduced. This historical process is precisely not predictable. This is where Boas, of course, distinguishes himself from Marx. Boas would have agreed that "men distinguish themselves when they produce their means of production." He might even have agreed about the importance of "contradictions" as one of the motors of cultural change. But he spent his whole life debunking any attempts to reconstruct an evolutionary line for human history.

What remains relatively unelucidated, at least for a contemporary reader, is the exact process of history, and this must lead us back to education (rather than enculturation or socialization). Here, I suspect, is where I depart furthest from the traditions that have placed culture, as historical happenstance with consequences, at the center of their concerns. Culture, for those who followed Boas, as for those who followed Weber, or those who now follow Bourdieu, often became another mechanism limiting not only action but consciousness itself. "It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water" once wrote Kluckhohn (1949: 11). To the same effect, Bourdieu and Passeron wrote : "In any given social formation, the dominant [educational system] is able to set up the dominant [pedagogic work] as [the work of schooling] without those who exercise it or those who undergo it ever ceasing to misrecognize its dependence on the power relations making up the social formation in which it is carried on" (my emphasis. [1977] 1970: 67). Bourdieu and Passeron do stress education, and political power. But they also talk about misunderstanding grounded in early enculturation in ways that are not so remote from those we all inherit from the other traditions in cultural studies.

Bourdieu, in fact, did not go far enough. Culture is, also, a political process, that is it indexes various processes through which human beings, within their groups and across their groups, dispute the conditions they find themselves in, make history for each other, and thereby change the conditions later human beings will find. The issue here is not the accuracy of the analysis on which the disputes may have sprung, or the rationality of the solutions proposed, or the efficiency of the process leading to temporary resolution. The issue is, rather, that, everywhere, human beings are actively involved in the processes that change their conditions. Human evolution is not on automatic. The same is true of human reproduction both biological and cultural: incest rules have parallels in the rules that establish who babies talk to, when they are talk to, about what topics and with what consequences. Anthropologists would do well, then, to understand the development of humanity, across the generation and within a person, less as enculturation and more as education. They would do well to ponder Cremin's definition of education as

the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities,[...]. This definition obviously projects inquiry [...] to a host of individuals and institutions that educate - parents, peers, siblings, and friends, as well as families, churches, synagogues, libraries, museums, settlement houses, and factories. And it clearly focuses attention on the relationships among the several educative institutions and on the effects of one institution's efforts on those of another. (1978: 701).

I would add that "education" must in fact include the development of the institutions and their mutual organization. In this sense, education is a collective project with individual implications.

This, of course, is not to deny that there is much that we do not know about our conditions as human beings. It is, rather, to assert that what we do not know is potentially knowable in such a way that it can have an impact on our collective history. The kind of anthropological research that is sometimes associated with colonialism, positivism, modernity, that is with a particular total cultural environment, has, in its development, shaped this very culture (if only by adding new concepts of "culture" to the one the 19th century bequeated the next one!) and will change it further. Research is educational because it is cultural. Research is cultural because it is cultural. Indeed if we dare follow Lévi-Strauss's wildest statements, research ("the science of the concrete") is culture at work through the dual activity of the engineer and the bricoleur (1966 [1962]). Like human beings everywhere we must confront our environment with all the tools at our disposal, and we must challenge each other as we do so. It is in this spirit that I now discuss half a century of work in anthropology of education.

The problem

October 2000