O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
-- Sir Walter Scott

This project is at its very early stages.  It mostly consist of various experiments at ethnographic representation of large scale schooling processes that involve the ongoing activity of tens of thousands of people in different positions.

We hope that this will provide a more systematic way of talking about "The School America builds"--as Varenne and McDermott have been doing (1998, and passim),   It is an attempt to address the challenge Koyama (2008) set to them when she pointed out that "America," in their work, was not analyzed anywhere to the level of ethnographic detail as was their work on classroom and other such settings.  In her work, she started this process of carefully tracing the connections that make single utterances or actions "sensible," and we continue it here.

The work is grounded in ethnomethodology with the major caveat that, as anthropologists, we are concerned with the historicity of "immortal facts" (culture) as well as their (syntagmatic and indexical) temporal unfolding and constitution.  The work is also inspired by Latour's expansion of ethnomethodological concerns (2005) from local settings to the network of settings that may constitute the large scale processes with which the social sciences must also be concerned.  What we are attempting to trace may be what he calls a "network." Mostly, we talk about the temporal linking of settings as constituting a "web." 

graphic evocation

By talking of webs, we index our ties to an intellectual tradition of work in anthropology generally associated with Geertz and before him Schultz and Weber.  Geertz wrote of human beings as "suspended in webs of significance he himself as spun" (Geertz 1973:5).  We extend this famous metaphor, although not in the direction Geertz took it. For Geertz a concern with significance (meaning) led to a position that makes of anthropology an "interpretive" science.  We take the web (or network) metaphor as a challenge to trace the linkages, if not look for the spider.  Anthropology is the science which explores how human beings get "caught" ("suspended," darkly) in these webs--and thereby continue to separate culture from individual volition or constitution.

Some anthropologists may want to stop at interpretion.  But anthropologists will be most useful when they produce better representations of linkages and their consequences which others, in their own settings (valleys), having to take care of other matters (taking care of their sheep), cannot quite make but which they might find helpful.

Or so we hope.

The problem, relatively simply stated, is to relate

This is the classic problem of the relationship between the "macro" (events directly affecting millions of people) and the "micro" (when only a few are directly affected).

for example:

  1. NCLB regulations (e.g. a 2009 "guidance" document), as written by the Federal Department of Education,
  2. to moment to moment interaction in a classroom (e.g. a reading lesson as analyzed by McDermott), or a planning meeting with principal and teachers, or any other setting where people face each other directly and try to make the best of they are given.

    graphic evocation

Many would first attempt to summarize the relationship in a flow chart of the flow of authority and responsibility. Let us focus for example on "Supplemental educational services" (SES) that will be the case study for this exercise.   As an entity, they are the direct product of federal legislation that, in every possible sense of the term, "constituted" a new world for practical activity by a host of (institutional) agents:

We are not concerned with this kind of analysis--except perhaps as data for what particular persons may have to produce in particular settings.  Our goal is to try and trace the interactions made possible or necessary by any of the (speech) acts that have been accomplished by oneself or, mostly, others and to which one must respond, practically and in local face to face moments.  We consider this a temporal, conversational process that eventually produces the historical (cultural) state in which we find ourselves and which we call the "American School."

This analytic process includes, in brief:

  1. Tracing conversations through the indexical markers which, in any conversation, points at other conversations;
    1. A brief development of this in my blog
    2. An experiment in tracing a network of indexes in a journalistic report
  2. Specifying the constraints these other conversations place on any particular conversation through sets of utterances marked as responses.  That is one moves from an indexical statement to ongoing production.
  3. Noticing, not only when such an ongoing production does what the local conversation is supposed to accomplish, but also the various "plays" and forms of bricolage that the participants may engage in.  This might include "having fun" as well as various forms of "deep play" (lying, corruption, etc.) that might lead to status degradation.
  4. Concluding with analytic (policy?) statements about the manner in which the conversation enable and disable all those caught in the web.

Let us now explore all this in more details