an auto-biographical note on my concern with language, discourse, conversation, as means to observe (and hopefully) model cultural production

For some reason, the association the Boasian made between culture and language in all its form, from phonology to myth, struck me in graduate school as particularly interesting. Reading Lévi-Strauss' take on Jakobson and Saussure, provided an inkling for the theoretical grounding of what, even in Lévi-Strauss, remained an altogether wild hypothesis. At the same time, as I started reading Derrida, Foucault, Geertz, I got convinced that the way forward did not proceed through a recasting of cultural anthropology as a form of literary criticism. If culture was "text," we should instead look at all forms of cultural inscription through the tools of the linguist or philologist. The way forward would not be through "interpretation," but though very close readings of the texts as performed in everyday life. These readings would then reveal the characteristics that might be particularly powerful at framing the particular in culture. This, I thought was what Lévi-Strauss had in mind though Jakobsonian linguistics, particularly in its Prague version, was probably not where one should stay.

Given this sense of where to go, and as I begun working on my second research project, in a New Jersey high school, I started reading the sociolinguists (Hymes, etc.) who had not been part of my graduate education. I got particularly interested in pronominal usage as a means of producing --rather than simply expressing-- some of the most significant cleavages within the school (Varenne: 1978; 1983). I argued against the apparent sociological determinism of some interpretations the relationship between pronominal usage and social structure (Varenne: 1984)

This early work may now perhaps classify as a form of "discourse analysis," though, at the time, the distinction between conversational and discourse analyses had not solidified. Again, I moved to the more technical, rather than interpretive, direction. This took me to reading with great interest the strict conversational analysts (Sacks, etc.). I started my collaboration with Clifford Hill. Again we argued against simple forms of social determination in language use whether by sociologists like Bernstein, or by linguists by Labov (Hill & Varenne: 1981)

This led to my third major research project. This consisted in an analysis of a brief sequence of familial conversation (Varenne: 1992). This took me closest to the concerns of conversational analysts, though my main concern remained on the issues of cultural production that have been much more central to anthropology than to theoretical linguists.

By that time, my work had been heavily influenced by what I have learned from Ray McDermott with whom I had started an ongoing collaboration and who introduced me to ethnomethodology. As we worked on issues of family literacy (McDermott, Goldman & Varenne: 1984; 1986), and then on issues of the cultural production of disabilities (McDermott & Varenne: 1995), culminating in our book Successful Failure (Varenne & McDermott: 1998), I continued working in terms of a form of discourse analysis that is profoundly inspired by conversational analysis and ethnomethodology but also builds a theory of culture that accounts for the disabling constraints placed on sensitive, even "artful," local practices. ( McDermott & Varenne: 2006)

This has led me to push further what, in conversation may account for the evolution of cultural forms. This started with an interest in conversational play ( Mullooly & Varenne: 2006a; Varenne & Cotter: 2006b), and is developing into an interest in the temporal unfolding of distributed syntagms and the implications of meta-discursive practices ( Varenne: 2007).

While all the courses I teach address these issues in one way or another, the course that address them most directly is ITSF 5003, Communication, Culture, Education.