"A dilemma for American middle class families: deconstructing privilege, reconstructing merit"

Lecture given at Emory University Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life on September 14, 2000


Hervé Varenne,

Teachers College, Columbia University


A presentation in several titles

My goal here is to give you a sense of what has interested me over the years, in a somewhat anachronistic, reconstructed way that ties work that I did a long time ago with work that I am still conducting and work that I have been proposing.

I start with a story I wish I had had the chance to make into a real ethnographic case.

A long while ago, I was standing at the back of a hotel room at one AAA meeting in a position that allowed me a view of both the center of the room and the bathroom the door to which was open. At the center of the room a small party was going on, organized by a student who had been conducting fieldwork in a middle class school. She had invited one of her star-informants to come to the meeting to see what the anthropological tribe looked like. The informant had been driven to Washington by her mother, and the two of them were now in the bathroom, one sitting on the edge of the bathtub, the other standing engaged in an earnest conversation. No joking, no anger, just business: some piece of mail had come from a college the girl had applied to and something had to be done about it urgently.

I did not have a tape recorder, and I was in no position to ask the participants any question, but I had the sense that I had just watched something that summarized what continue to fascinate me about anthropology: I was attending a series of nested rituals.

I was also observing something that was theatrically marked as NOT intended for the local public's observation: I was eavesdropping on a "private" conversation. And I was fascinated by the contrasting displays.

These rituals and stagings--in their alternating openness to certain types of public gazes--were more or less loosely integrated (depending on one's orientation). More importantly for my purposes here, in all sorts of ways, these rituals accomplished practically, that is reproduced, major social structural features of America (and I use this word advisedly, and with full awareness of the trap I am falling into). And they did this in a unique, idiosyncratic and utterly irreproducible fashion, that is they subtly transformed the experience of America that any participant might have and thereby opened the way for further historical transformation.

For those of you who remember the issues that concerned anthropologists in the fading years of the Parsonian model for human action, I was doing what remains one of my main interests: challenging the apparently simple distinction between the social (behavior, what people do) and the cultural (symbols, what people say).

I am also using this story to introduce a methodological choice that derived from my interpretation of what emerged in the 1980s as "a concern with practice," discourse and text, hegemonic re-presentation (with the post-modern hyphen) and de-construction (definitively with the hyphen!--in order to index also the interest in "social construction of reality" that has been coexisting with the interest in deconstruction). For me, as I discovered the work of the sociolinguists, discourse analysts, ethnomethodologists, as well as the work of the "social cognitivists" (for lack of a better word to index Michael Cole and his students), it made complete sense that a concern with "text" (what I had learned earlier as a concern with language as prototype for culture) had to imply a concern with the ethnographic details of interactional displays, including not only the semantic stream ("language") but also, and most importantly, and most relevant to traditional anthropological concerns, with the full staging of the semantic stream.

Thus the narrowness of the focus of the story also illustrates the scale of my recent work.

Given this introduction, I can now justify the title for this talk that is only partially about anthropological theory, only partially about methodology in the narrow sense and very much about a "native" concern, that is a concern of the polity within which modern anthropology has always moved: privilege.

Anthropologists, over the past 20 years particularly, have been conducting an extensive self-examination pointing to each other how the discipline has always been involved in the local concerns of the polity that gives it a place. Thus the discipline can be seen as a tool of colonialism (and the struggle against it--to be fair), post-colonialism (and the struggles for new forms of independence), etc.

I am personally convinced that we cannot escape--and indeed should not try to escape what is really a duty to contribute to the constitution of our polity in its contemporary concerns. I am, in any event continually reminded of this responsibility because of my personal professional location within a school of education, now in a program in anthropology of education and applied anthropology, but initially in a program in "family and community education" where our mission, was to address practical questions and our students continually reminded us, in their practice, that they were not in it quite for the research. I am surrounded by colleagues passionately concerned with policy issues, that is with action in the political sphere.

Specifically, this means addressing the questions that attract most of my students to my classes: what is the American family really like? What are the issues that someone concerned with family life in the United States should be aware of? Where are we all going? My answer is not to deconstruct but rather to suggest how to construct--given the theoretical and methodological framework I will now leave somewhat implicit.

To give you a sense of what I mean here, I will mention another title for this talked that I toyed with briefly. It is heavily jargonistic and it would have precisely not flawn very well at Teachers College because it seems to hide the political concern and emphasizes concerns that appear purely theoretical or methodological.

"American discursive practices of privilege among the prosperous in the United States: display, interpretation, consequences."

There would have been some irony here, since I am talking here about displays that most involve hiding! Still, this title would have done some of the theoretical things I have already done by pointing at my concerns with discourse, display, and interpretation through re-presentation. It would also have indexed my strong interest in contrasting America (as culture, that is system of institutional consequentialities) from the United States as a space where America is in fact not only hegemonic, but also sovereign). Finally it would have pointed at something hidden in the other title and hinted at in this one: my interest in "consequentiality" as a means of analyzing the features of a social scene that are most likely to be of structural import.

Both titles, of course focus on a central political concern of Americans (those who most directly work to practically accomplish America) for constructing, that is "constituting" (to play by bringing together the usual and ethomethodological senses of the word "constitution") in their institutions and through their everyday life "a more perfect union" that is, among other goals, one where the privileges of birth and prosperity would be most fully mitigated (if not abolished).

The title I eventually chose does do something that the more technical one did not do: it speaks of a dilemma, a word I am using here to index some kind of practical awareness of the contradictions inherent in America by people who have to make their lives in the United States.

My sense remains that this remains a dilemma not only at the national level of sovereign institutions--as it was in the 1940s when Gunnar Myrdal wrote about the American Dilemma (1944)--, but also, and of most concerns with us here, at the level of the everyday life of all, and particularly the most properous, "middle class," persons that have concerned me most.

As many have noticed, the discourse of class is very uncomfortable to many in America. It is not so much that they are unaware of the possibility that class (or race, gender, etc.) privilege is "real" but that this aware must be phrased negatively: privilege of social birth (including privilege of race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) is the reality that must NOT be. Ensuring that all privilege is based on biological birth (personal, inner merit) is the reality that MUST be (this in fact would have to be stated more carefully given the concerns with discounting physical handicaps).

In this context, we must clarify what is the goal of anthropological analyses of America addressed to American audiences. I propose that we do not announce it as showing how they are wrong (or "exploding myths," deconstructing, critically analyzing, un-covering, raising consciousness...) but rather as giving better accounts of the mechanisms that constitute this particular "wrongness," including how it is made into a "wrong," how it is reproduced as a wrong, and how the mechanisms that make it into a wrong actually reproduce it. In many ways, it is not the case that we must reveal that class is real and that institutions must be designed to mitigate class. There is no news here: all American founding parents, prophets and social scientists have done so with, arguably, little success. It is the case I have been exploring that the very method of the "concern with class" that has driven policy and research unwittingly (I hope!) reproduce this American dilemma.

I have always been struck by Louis Dumont's work on individualism and democracy at the ideological level, particularly his seminal paper on American racism. I am more and more interested in the workings of individualism at the most local level, in interviews with middle class people denying the relevance of class, but even more in the everyday stagings of moments like the one with which I started, particularly in the moments when major decisions about schooling are made.

This is the context that made me also toy with another title that will give you a sense of where I am now taking you

A corrective to Schneider's American Kinship: sketch of a chapter on extended kin, dynasties and hidden lineages among the American middle classes

For me, Schneider's ([1968] 1980) remain the most consistent analysis of the core cultural logic of American kinship. To the unitiated, it can also conspire to hide essential processes of production and reproduction that are intimately connected with the practical accomplishments of "sex" and "love" in America.

To talk about reproduction across the generations as a practical matter is, of course, to index Bourdieu's work showing how modern democracies use an individualistic discourse of individualism (merit as measured by the schools) to reproduce class distinctions--among other mechanisms of course.

What Bourdieu has done, in other words, is argue successfully that the realities that must NOT be have themselves to be reproduced in ever new guises given the evolution of institutions (for example the development of mass schooling over the past half-century).

Where I differ from Bourdieu is in the identification of the mechanism through which this reproduction, or better, repair, reconstruction, reconstitution, proceeds. He continues to talk about the habitus that prevents people from protesting their conditions, thereby threatening to collapse socio-cultural processes into psychological processes in a possibly unwitting reconstruction of the Parsonian theory of action that I have tried to free myself from. (Varenne 1998)

The people of the United States, in the details of their practices show that they are not the victim of an habitus. Rather they inhabit objective structures (including discursive ones) that it may make sense for them to use, resist, exploit, in their own practices. They are not misunderstanding their situation when, on the one hand, they fight for an educational system where individual merit is rewarded, and when they protest politically when they fear that merit will not be rewarded, and when, on the other hand and at the same time, they struggle with each other to give their children an extra chance. My goal here is to find a way of analyzing these two movements as aspects of each other--rather than as belonging to different realms ("myth" vs. "reality," "what they say" vs. what they do" type distinctions).

To get back to the case with which I started, what I remember finding wonderful was the dramatic reversal through which something that might be considered secondary as far as social structural reproduction was concerned--that is the display of a teenage girl as uniquely interesting as subject of her life, and worthy of study in her own right--was staged as central, while what might be considered central--that is admission to a college ensuring the local production of privilege--was staged on the periphery, in the place where impurities are eliminated from the body (to play structural games and index Mary Douglas): class is sh...! This reminded me of my wonder at the ritual deemphasis of the SATs (held on Saturday mornings in unceremonial times) and the overemphasis of graduation ceremonies.

It also points at something that I have only begun to study in detail: that is the familial mechanisms through which families, using their practical understanding of their conditions and resources, that is of what limits them and what could allow them to be different from what they might appear fated to be, actually construct a future for themselves and their children--particularly through their housing and schooling choices (which often amount to the same thing).

One of the relevant literature is quite clear on this point though it has not had quite the impact on anthropological studies of the American family that it should have: families "educate," that is they are intimately involved in the educational processes which, among many other things, do contribute to the reproduction of classes in the United States "in spite of" democratic strictures, and also through the use of these very democratic strictures. I have reviewed the arguments elsewhere (Varenne 1997) and want to close these by sketching some possibilities that would be the focus of my future research on American families.

If it makes sense to assume that one's present social position is the product of familial processes in the preceding generation, it also makes sense to assume that this process is a recursive one, linking many generations together. Thus, in an American context one must wonder whether genealogical amnesia is not simply a social product of "the weakening of familial bonds" itself a product of "modern industrial capitalism" but rather a paradoxical practice allowing for the reconstitution of individualism as the encompassing value. Thus one should investigate more seriously extended kin networks, dynasties and perhaps even underground lineages that may not be available directly through observation and interviewing--in the same way as a bathroom encounter etween mother and daughter might not be available.

On this basis, Prof. George Bond, also of Teachers College, and myself have been planning a proposal into the "longue duree" of American kinship where we would try to trace the movement of four sets of kin arriving in the United States at different moments in its history, inserting themselves and being inserted at different places, and then moving on reproducing and transforming themselves, even as some of them "forget" where they come from. We thought about Africans and Irish arriving in the US in the first half of the 19th century, contrasted to Jews and Japanese arriving 75 years later. This project has been somewhat difficult to fund, partially because it does not fit easily into any of the contemporary developments in anthropological theory, and partially because the techniques to be used are hard to specify exactly. But we do hope that we could thereby specify further how America does reproduce itself, even as it helps and hinders many of the people in the United States in the local construction of their own lives.

    [note that this version is slightly different from the lecture as delivered]

September 16, 2000