Oct 21-22: 2nd Conference on Anthropology and Education | Anthropology and Education | International & Transcultural Studies

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In the Department of International & Transcultural Studies

Past Announcements

2nd conference on anthropology and education

Beyond learning: Design and innovation in the production of the new normal

Teachers College, Columbia University

October 21st-22nd, 2016

The first Teachers College conference on Anthropology and Education highlighted the power of the anthropological take on “culture” for the development of theory and practice in schools of education. From Lawrence Cremin remaining impressed with the late Boasian courses he took as he developed as a historian, to the success of multicultural education and counseling, “culture” has remained a central concern of professional educators. In the same period, anthropologists became more and more suspicious about their earlier formulations, whether they had built on the Boasian or Weberian traditions. Anthropologists came to doubt “culture”!

How are we to translate these doubts? And how do we do this without abandoning what remains powerful in the original acknowledgement that the human world, like the physical world as a matter of fact, is not imaginable by any particular human beings, however well-schooled in analytic thinking. When the first generation of anthropologists, in the United States, England, or France, came back to their academic homes they brought back a message that current anthropologists keep bringing back: the human world is richer in possibilities than we, in academia, the professional schools, and the public, can imagine. Anthropologists these days do not report from people presented as far away in time, space, technology. Nowadays most anthropologists report on people they met just around the corner from the academy, in the streets and neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, Palo Alto, Beijing, Lagos. From these streets anthropologists and ethnographers now report that people everywhere are always actively involved in designing (imagining, producing, constructing) their everyday lives, moment to moment, year to year. Now, as then, what people can do is describable, but never quite imaginable.

All recent work in anthropology acknowledges that such designs are not a matter of individual will. They are always produced with many others, some close-by, others far away, and many of them dead. They are also produced with objects, institutions, “things” with particular properties or affordances that are both extremely constraining and always open to what Lévi-Strauss called “bricolage.” In the process, temporary “normals” arise in the history of an individual with intimate others, the small communities or polities they make, and the large institutions that control, directly or indirectly, their local lives. Common sense, (normal) anthropology has taught that culture has to do with what is so normal among a population that many within it may not notice its arbitrariness and local grounding - except perhaps when directly confronted by some “other.” The “normal” can be as powerful as it is artificial. And yet the normal is also fragile and temporary, and requires from those who may profit from it, continual repair. The normal is always threatened from all sides, by accidents, innovations, transformations in conditions, and, of course, its own arbitrariness.

Normal anthropology has taught that this blindness to the normal has to do with, precisely, what is taught and learned through socialization, enculturation, and what becomes what many have called “their habitus.” And most, outside anthropology, appear to have learned this lesson so well as to have it become the very habitus of many of the professions and the public who became aware of “culture” as something to pay attention to, whether in schools, counseling sessions, medical interaction, etc.

In this conference, we wish to explore what a “new normal” anthropology might contribute. This anthropology takes many forms but generally refuses the idea that “culture” is a causative agent of either individual selves (personalities, identities) or social orders. Evidence from around the world, and from institutions, now suggest that the normal always is a problem in need of further activity, effort. The normal may also be an opportunity for the appearance of new forms that may or may not get institutionalized, but may require transformation in the other institutions that are attempting to maintain their dominance (hegemony).


Conference Organizers: Juliette de Wolfe, PhD and Herve Varenne, PhD

Contact Juliette de Wolfe at jld2158@tc.columbia.edu with any questions.