Extra burdens in the search for new openings:

on the inevitability of cultural disabilities

Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University

[this is a response to Paul Grobstein's request for further comments on the paper Ray McDermott and I published as "Culture as Disability" (1995) on the occasion of Grobstein's republication of this paper on his site in the Spring of 2003)]


can there be a culture which does NOT disable/disadvantage ANYONE in it?

[question by Paul Grobstein]


Discontented with your present state, for reasons which threaten your unfortunate descendants with still greater discontent, you will perhaps wish it were in your power to go back; and this feeling should be a panegyric on your first ancestors, a criticism of your contemporaries, and a terror to the unfortunates who will come after you.
(Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality)


Grobstein’s question is more than fair and his guess as to the absolute answer is the only one possible: No, there cannot be any culture that does not disable at least some. All cultures place extra burdens on humanity that will slow all of us in one way or another.

This answer, of course, requires elaboration. I will do so here as much personally as academically–though of course this text is written within the enabling/disabling constraints of the academy–including those which, recently have allowed an apparently confessional mode to be used for certain rhetorical purposes. I will start with a comment from someone close to Ray McDermott and I. This comment has haunted me as quite apt, precisely because it was unexpected. After reading a draft of Successful Failure (1998), she said something like “This is really a very Catholic book!”. I had never thought about the emergent book this way. The book, as far as I was concerned, was just another attempt in trying to rewrite what we had been seeing in schools and other settings in the theoretical terms that made the most sense. Making the book a Catholic one was the last of our intentions and not simply because Ray McDermott and I have very different relationships with the Catholic Church. I would qualify McDermott’s relationship as, to put is mildly, conflictual–not too surprising for the child of Irish-Americans from New York City. By contrast, and somewhat surprising for an intellectual coming out of France, I attend mass every Sunday and some would label me “conservative.” But this brief recital of our genealogies does not settle anything: in what way might the comment be apt? What did it capture?

As I thought about it, I came up with three linked answers:

1.       The “culture as disability” approach affirms that culture is fundamentally human, and that culture is simultaneously enabling and disabling. Thus everything that will be produced by human beings will be inherently flawed–whatever the intentions of the main actors and their innocence. Old time Catholics will recognize this as a version of the doctrine of original sin. Others will find here echoes of Rousseau and even Marx.

2.       The “culture as disability” approach also suggests that there are steps that can be taken to relieve this or that extra burden. Close ethnographic research can identify these burdens, comparative research can suggest possibilities, and theoretical sophistication may help write the “(social) environmental impact statements” that we might ask every new policies to incorporate. In other words, religiously, humanity has been redeemed and there is hope.

3.      But the hope is eschatological, a matter of ultimates. In the mean time, human beings will continue to struggle under the extra burdens they place on each other. This would make the approach most distinct from those who followed Rousseau and Marx.

Whether Successful Failure (1998) is indeed “Catholic” in these terms is not for me to debate. That it might echo Catholic doctrines may be enabling or disabling. I take it as enabling–though I can well understand while many, say liberal Protestants in the American tradition, might consider it disabling. Footnote The above comments are mostly intended to provide an introduction to the organization of this response and to suggest how we may get to incorporate in our writings the reflexivity that many of us have been calling for.

First, it might be helpful briefly to summarize significant features of the “culture as disability” approach most relevant for this piece:         

1.       The “culture as disability” approach is particularly strong in turning our attention away from the make-up of persons to the factual constraints of settings constituted by collective action. An individual act, thus, is indeterminate until it is “adopted on the collective mode” Footnote – that is until it is noticed by other individuals as they deal with the original act for any number of purposes probably not related to the intention of the actor. This must apply to researchers, and more fatefully, to all those who have the authority to develop and implement policies;

2.       Precisely because the “culture as disability” approach does not focus on the make-up of persons it allows for noticing practical understandings by those who are more directly in contact with the constraining facticity of all institutions. The approach allows for the possibility that these local understandings can guide institutional reform or reconstitution in a more effective manner.

3.       Particular constituted institutions may be so enabling in certain ways that we will have to live with the ways in which they are disabling (the parable of the wheat and the chaff familiar to Christians).

In the explorations that follow I will use both trivial and fundamental examples to give some concreteness to the general conversation about the inevitability of cultural disabilities and its consequence for future action or, better, labor.


Original disability

In the paper “Culture as disability,” McDermott and I started a search for a radical understanding of disabilities as cultural products. We began with human conditions, some apparently pre-social (deafness and blindness) and other institutional (Learning Disability, reading), that are all arguably the condition of a small sample of any population. A thought experiment with a physical condition of all human beings would be more helpful here:

- Human beings cannot fly.

Unless of course they have access to airplanes and other flying machines that are the product of the enabling powers of earlier cultural and social developments. At which point the inability to fly can become a burden that limits the lives of some.

Even a cursory look at the history of aviation will show how dangerous it has been for humanity. It will also show how it has become an essential support to all our lives–particularly those who have found new possibilities for back and forth movement across the globe: Airplanes are not only the basic tools of the modern military, or global business, they are also what allows for hundreds of million to migrate while not losing touch with what should not be called any more their “old” country. More importantly for my argument here, none of these developments were predictable in the consequences of their consequences. Those who assembled and flew the first flying machines within a few years of each other all around the world immediately lost control of aviation. It ceased to be the matter of a few individuals making new marks on South Carolina beaches. Aviation became a collective endeavor that is now part of complex sets of interlocking institutions, what McDermott and I, following Durkheim, refer to as cultural facts organizing a new polity.

At the end of Successful Failure (1998), McDermott and I, after underlining the dangers of schooling’s obsession with success/failure, relate it to the constitution of meritocracy as the democratic alternative to aristocracy. Our concern is with the way meritocracy was operationalized as academic success measured and certified by examinations run by State controlled schools. This has confronted educators to a Faustian dilemma: In exchange for ever increased authority, funding, and expansion in their ranks, they have had to organize their activities in terms of the examinations that are now politically essential to the working of liberal democracies. I always found it wrenching that all critiques of schools end start and end with critiques of the way examinations are conducted (e.g. their lack of “fairness”). The more radical critique is Illich’s call to “de-school” society (1970) and ground democracy on something else than school-measured merit. I am not sure I would join such a call for the same reason that Illich’s call has not been picked up by any major political movement that I am aware: State controlled public schools remain the only means we can imagine to work towards greater equality and liberty. There is a matter of fundamental principle here, and also a matter of self-interest: Without the constituted (culturally-specific, arbitrary, hegemonic and altogether violent) need for examinations that are the prerequisites to entry into full adulthood, schools would return to what they were before the revolutions of the past two or three centuries: peripheral institutions of interest to a self-selected few. How many students would attend college if college degrees were not necessary for good jobs? How many colleges would remain open? Who would employ all the college professors who would then have been made superfluous?

Schooling has too long a history to even think of ‘blaming’ Rousseau, or Horace Mann, or Jules Ferry, for the schools of Europe, the United States, or France. But, as teachers who may also want to be educators, we must recognize that, as we ask for larger salaries, or better working condition, we participate in the disabling of those who learn with us. Becoming a reformer does not take anyone out of the factual loop maintained by the collective work of all involved: other teachers, parents, students, politicians, etc. Becoming aware, or feeling guilty, is not enough for, even as we get to understand in more analytic terms the ways through which a massive institution such as schooling may place extra burdens on some, if not all, we also get to understand how it continues to enable many, if not all, by providing them with the tools, if not the weapons, to escape other disabilities. It cannot be because they systematically misunderstood schooling that all the progressive and revolutionary forces of the past two centuries have built up the public school and its examinations even as evidence grew that the advantaged were finding ever more baroquely devious ways for preserving their advantage for their children. Footnote

The question of the possible understandings that researchers can reach under such conditions is key. All research in the sociology of science has demonstrated the full anchoring of scientific work within the conditions that allow for it. The phenomenon is completely circular: no culture, no science and no science no culture (or at least no method for transforming cultural possibilities using some of the most powerful means at the disposal of human beings). No schools, no researchers in schooling; no researchers and no easy means to argue for and control reform. To the extent that this statement is required by the reflexivity necessary of all human researchers on human processes, given that science is a human process, two possibilities can then be explored:

1.      passivity and withdrawal from an activity that cannot be conducted as it was rationalized initially in European history (if truth cannot be reached through science then we should stop disciplining ourselves in the ways science requires)

2.       active recasting of the research activity through facing its collective conditions

The first possibility has sometimes been couched as leading to a necessary ironic stance. I see in this withdrawal a form of fatalism that absolves people with significant privilege from the responsibility of seeking the more analytic understanding of conditions that is the rationale for the granting of the privilege. My choice is to pursue the second possibility, recast my research activities and keep on working.


Good works: Policy, research and theory, policy

What can be done? I will start with implemented policies that did alleviate cultural burdens; move on to research revealing how the best of mundane intentions can place new burdens; and close the section with an apology for research that is cognizant of its limits and possibilities as precisely human labor under significant burdens.

Let us start with a not so trivial case: Within the past twenty years, all sidewalks in the United States have been reconstructed–ostensibly to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to get on and off the sidewalks. A small amount of the total resources available to the United States were redirected to this task and, in New York City at least, it is all but complete. Steps in public settings were a matter of architectural tradition–the product of a long cultural arbitrary. Shifting to inclines probably does not place an extra burden on any one. Still, like any other cultural artifact, cuts in sidewalks are open to everyday interpretation: just watching crowds on Broadway for a few minutes will show that these cuts are extremely useful to anyone moving a wheeled object across the street: the movement of shopping carts, strollers, suitcases, etc. has been made much easier and the very large number of walkers pushing or pulling these should thank the activists who made the cuts politically necessary. There is a problem however: Bicycles are also wheeled objects and they are now the altogether controversial co-occupants of sidewalks. I believe there have not been many collisions between bicyclists and pedestrians that sent some to wheelchairs. But as some one feels a bicycle swoosh by from one’s back, one can also feel that one’s conditions in New York City has not only been lightened.

Garfinkel has recently reported on a more subtle case (2002: 212-216). Legally blind Helen has made herself a kitchen where she can cook and prepare dinner parties. The possible problems come from the sighted persons who enter her kitchen, move objects around and make things difficult for her again. Thus Helen’s instruction to all her guests at the beginning of her parties: “Please, stay out of my kitchen!” This is, of course, a breach in American etiquette: “helping” the hostess is a hard matter to not do in most part of the United States. But the point is broader: it has analytic, practical, and methodological implications.

Analytically, we must realize that extra burdens can be placed on people with the best of intentions. Extra burdens are not only produced by major institutions but even through the informal organization of fleeting interactions. Practically, the case suggests once again that some cultural burdens may be lightened by small and essentially cost-less shifts in particular settings. Other burdens may be harder to deal with and even to identify and this leads to the methodological issues I want to explore in more details. Before boy-scouts offer to ‘help’ a blind person cross the street, they should probably check whether this person does need the help, or whether the help will place further burdens. Similarly, we should question all new policies, and we should continually check again whether existing policies place unnecessary burdens. Above all, as researchers, we must worry how this questioning and checking will be conducted to insure minimal validity for any of the answers we might propose.

Trying to answer such question through academic research is laborious work. It is work to be performed carefully by people fully aware of their position at the intersection between State authorities and the persons caught by these State authorities. It has to be the case, precisely because of their close relationships, that teachers cannot fully hear students, principals teachers, and that heads of State Boards of Education cannot hear all those whom they only partially control. Over the past century, and “thanks” perhaps to enlightened missionaries, colonial administrators and other enforcers of general policies, the intermediary position of “researcher” emerged. Many of us find ourselves in this position–whatever our personal politics or the exact details of our relationship with centers of authority. But being placed in this position does not determine what we do: it sets the parameters within which and with which we struggle. An essential part of this struggle, and the one that justifies the position of researcher and our participation, is the struggle to find better ways to listen to those on whom extra burdens are placed and to report this convincingly to those in authority.

One central feature of the “culture as disability” approach is the postulate that participants “know” best the conditions of their lives and particularly those matters that burdens them most. More specifically, McDermott and I postulate that participants reveal in the details of their labor together, in the dance of their bodies and in the practical achievements of their joint histories, the constrained possibilities of the conditions they start up with and the conditions they leave each other with. In other words, we do not approach conditions as the causes of some effect on the participants, and even less as the causes of any limitation on their understanding of these conditions. This analytic process is typical of all theories of enculturation, socialization, or habitus. We think that they obscure the practical work of the participants–even though it is this work that recent theories have claimed to reveal. Rather we approach conditions as productive of work, continually renewed work that, at any moment, requires the recasting of one’s common sense. The usefulness of this approach can be suggested at any level of human interaction from the most immediate to the most “mediate” where “macro” processes are directly involved. It helps understand Garfinkel’s Helen; it equally help to understand the work of parents when children are born and grow up; and it help understand the complex work of all political actors on all sides of major conflicts whether the war in Irak or “globalization.”

As all postulate, the case that participants will reveal their conditions in the extra work that must perform, cannot be proven. Footnote As suggested by Garfinkel’s work on Helen, Agnes, and others on whom extra burdens were placed, trusting informants does allow for a richer understanding of human work–including the labor of inductive research into human activity. Above all the postulate obliges researchers to start with a position of ignorance even as they trust that that which they seek to know is in fact knowable. Briefly, McDermott and I argue for ethnography as the most likely method to help policy makers and other agents of the State notice the possibly unnecessary burdens they may place on those in their care. There are two main justifications for ethnography in this context:

1.      It is the best method to discover what are the conditions of a population when we have good reason to suspect that these conditions are not those expected by most researchers and those they report to on the basis of earlier statements possibly transformed into full-blown “discourses” in Foucault’s sense.

2.       It is a method that is specifically built on the recognition of the socially constituted and inevitable asymmetry between observer and observed. The goal is not to reveal ‘truth’ to an abstracted audience but precisely to make visible what is invisible to a particular audience. This audience is precisely not the participants (for it is them who revealed their conditions to the researcher). The audience must be those who, through accidents of history, become responsible for the participants as they report to their academic peers, colonial administrators, school officials, physicians, etc.. Footnote

While anthropology demonstrated a long time ago that “local knowledge”–that is the common sense of other human beings-- is not directly accessible to deduction from premisses, work from ethnomethodology is demonstrating something similar for the common sense not only of those in other positions than observers and other authoritative persons, but also of the observers themselves when they are not in the observing positions (thus the apparent blindness of most sociologists to constraints on their own everyday life).

In other words, extra burdening is available to those who, unwittingly perhaps, enforce them not so much “for the asking” but for the “observing people making sense of conditions not of their own choosing.”


The eschaton: Struggling with utopia

On the optimistic side, the theory of “culture as (dis-)ability” does not require that participants mis-understand or be blind to their conditions. On the contrary it takes them as the best source of information about these conditions. Something that is not specifically noticed, constituted authoritatively, and then enforced, is not a burden on anyone: not being able to fly, dyslexia, etc., only recently became significant burdens limiting one’s career possibilities within a polity. People are not deaf, blind, or LD, where these terms have no currency. This is why I prefer to talk in terms of added burdens (“handicaps”) rather than in terms of disabilities: in horse racing horses are handicapped specifically and authoritatively for specific goals. Practically, this means increasing the weight carried by some horses and not others. Arbitrary differences are thereby made up and those who carry them must make do. When we say that there is no blindness where the term has no currency we mean, more technically, that inability to see as most other human beings see only becomes a disability if it produces relatively increased burdens on the course of a life. Burdens that afflict all equally, say the weight of the atmosphere on our shoulders, are not disabilities.

If extra burdens are the product of particular forms of constitutive differentiations within a population, then it is conceivable that a continual scanning for these might allow for reconstitution after a more or less arduous political process (from personal shifts, to local legislation and on to other large scale change). I discussed earlier some of the methodological issues inherent in such systematic scanning. The drama here comes from the fact that this scanning may reveal some of the uncovered burdens to be all but inevitable correlates of something that so many derive so much ability from that removing the burden comes at too high a price. This does not remove the responsibility of all agents of the State, including researchers, to imagine possibilities and work at re-constituting conditions even if they suspect that this task will only be completed in eschatological times. My take on “culture as disability” suggests that the reformist task will never be complete–if only because the reform will become policy, will escape the intentions and understandings of those who promulgated it, and will be used by others for predictably unpredictable achievements. Personally, I fear utopias most even as I yearn for them: the worst of humanity may have come when some have attempted to reshape the world according to any of the many magnificent utopias human cultures have produced.

This is not a call for rest. In the everyday life of one’s research there is really no question: we must search for that which burdens, evaluate to the best of our current theoretical understanding how any institution may lighten the burden it has placed on people whom we should identify. This, inevitably, is a task addressed to those with the authority to reconstitute our world, including other researchers as we challenge each other to find better ways to learn from the world and propose new theoretical statements in a cycle that will not end.




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November 17th, 2003