Culture: possibilities and consequences


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University

The problem


In the preceding introduction, I have made a case for approaching anthropology and education from a broad perspective best expressed in Cremin's definition (1978: 701) : In both cases the emphasis must be on "deliberation" and "effort." Education, that is life, is about patterns and transformations, that is both about structures and about the discourses and shifting conditions that contest them, reconstruct them and, always but never quite predictably, transform them. Education is about the labor of all involved as they make themselves with people and tools not of their own making.[ftn]

It is now time to translate these considerations into some of the concepts organizing the field. These concepts can be divided into concepts concerned with "reproduction" and those concerned with "culturation."


Reproduction has two sides to it.

  1. The first is the set of research most closely associated with anthropology of education: research into "enculturation" ("how does one become a member of a culture"), the impact of culture on learning and consciousness, and the interactional difficulties that can arise when "people from different cultures" interact, with particularly devastating effect when the difficulties occur in certain settings.
  2. The second is a set of research that some might associate with the sociology of education but that anthropologists cannot in fact ignore: the reproduction of the institutions, and the social distinctions that go with them, as well as of the membership in these institutions, that, together, constitute a society. The overwhelming evidence that all groups (occupational, class, ethnic, etc.) reproduce their co-organization and their membership across the generations, and that this reproduction involve specific activities, implicates education.


What I term "culturation" does not have quite the same place within anthropology of education. That human beings organized themselves into "cultures" has mostly be taken for granted, except perhaps by those who have taken upon themselves the task of deconstructing "culture." Even those must recognize that human conditions do not remain stable because, precisely, of the activity of human beings. Thus theories of reproduction that are not at the same time theories of the lack of reproduction, that is theories of cultural change cannot stand. We must account for the fact that people, everywhere and everywhen, in every conditions, transform themselves, personally, in their local groups in interaction with their most significant others, in the institutions within which they interact and in the most global of groups where they have to respond to what their most insignificant others still do that they cannot ignore. What I would cover under the term "culturation" would cover two styles of research

  1. historical research most often conducted by historians (Cremin 1961, 1970-1988) but sometimes by sociologists (Durkheim 1969 [1938]). When read in cultural terms, this body of work demonstrates the difficulties that any causal explanations of change encounter.
  2. ethnographic research of local schools or other institutions handling external mandates to "change" (Muncey & McQuillan 1996). The point here is to emphasize how, even the strongest of external pushes for change can be reconstructed locally and taken into unpredictable and above all uncontrollable directions. We probably need more ethnographies of such moments at the level of the school (thus producing what is now called "school cultures"), of the class as small polity institutionalizing itself through a year, or even of the class session (as Varenne tried to do, 1998: Chapter 8).

A possible future to work for

We should not have to go back to Marx and Boas to reclaim history and thereby culture for anthropology. Whatever errors we can now spot in the formulations they used in some of their writings and that of their students and followers, we cannot ignore that human-made (artificial) conditions for future human beings are concrete facts of the same order as gravity and sexualized reproduction. And we should not have to go back to Sartre and other philosophers of freedom to reclaim culture, and thereby history. Human beings are never satisfied with their conditions, they have always strived to transform them, and, to a large extent, they have succeeded. This overall framework is not difficult. Using it to guide investigation for understanding (the "deliberation" aspect of Cremin's statement) is what requires much intellectual labor ("effort"). Understanding where we have been through a review of the literature is necessary, in this perspective, to get a better sense of our historical conditions and some of their properties. But conditions, however internalized, authoritative or hegemonic, are not destiny.

The remainder of this piece is made up, first, of a review of the literature in anthropology and education, second, of an expansion of the theoretical comments made so far to establish what would be gained by recapturing "culture" for analytic understanding, and, third, of a sketch of a theory of action based less on people sharing acquired knowledge and more on people searching for each other in ignorance and uncertainty.

The first generations

November 2000