Talk and Real Talk: The Voices of Silence and the Voices of Power in American Family Life

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

If we are to understand how American culture is made relevant in the lives of those who live in the shadow of the United States, we must start with an approach to the concept of culture that preserves what it is that continues to make it indispensable to anthropologists, and many others as well. The approach I find most useful as a startingpoint is one proposed by Boon: " 'Culture' pertains to operations which render complex human phenomena communicable" (1973:227).That is, culture is an activity that human beings perform on what is given to them in the course of their lives: biological needs, ecological imperatives, social structural constraints, historical remnants, and, last but not least, the language of their contemporaries and coparticipants in everyday life scenes.

This article is an exploration of the perspectives opened by such an approach. To do this, I examine some instances when a variety of speakers construct new discourses over the words of their contemporaries and, in the process, reproduce what we have been taught to recognize as "America." By the same token, this article is an exploration of a new way of talking about people in the United States that does not reduce their multifaceted activities into "Americanism."

The methodological challenge lies in the displaying of cultural operations in the historical process of their occurrence. We need to catch human beings in the act of operating on the world, or, in the more popular, though easily misleading vocabulary of the Geertzian tradition, we catch them "interpreting." The challenge is not any more to look at "interpretations," that is, at texts distanced from everyday life that are clearly marked for symbolic elaboration. It is rather to look in detail at texts that are not distanced and that are not marked for "interpretation," but that are still produced by human beings and should thus display the signs of the cultural process. The challenge is to start with texts of everyday life and only later investigate how these relate to texts of philosophical commentary. (Varenne, 369-370)

About the Author

Hervé Varenne is Professor of Anthropology and Education in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies Teachers College and in the Anthropology and Education Program at Columbia University. 

His fields of research include but are not limited to: culture theory and structural semiotics, Anthropology and education, discourse and conversational analysis, ethnomethodology, and American culture in and outside of the U.S.

"Over my 40 years at Teachers College, I have been associated with two main programs. For about 20 years, I was on the faculty of the now closed Department of Family and Community Education. There I sponsored several dozen Ed.D. dissertations. For the past 20 years, I have been associated with the programs in anthropology and have been sponsoring mainly Ph.D. dissertations, though I have continue to sponsor a smaller number of Ed.Ds. Over all my career I have sponsored, and been on the committee of, many dissertations for students from departments outside of my primary affiliations. I have worked with students from Music Education, Special Education, Nursing Education, Curriculum and Teaching, Language, International Education, etc. This is something which I find gratifying and will continue." (Hervé Varenne,

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