Educational Anthropology

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"The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” (Ruth Benedict; American anthropologist; 1887–1948.)
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed; it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead; American cultural anthropologist; 1901-1978.)


Anthropology is the scientific study of human beings and their many different cultures. Educational Anthropology is a way of examining educational systems from a cultural anthropologist point of view. A 10/21/08 Google search of the quoted expression "Educational Anthropology" produced nearly 75,000 hits.

The American anthropologist George Spindler was an early leader is applying ethnographic research methodology to the study of education. Quoting from a University of Pennsylvania website:

Ethnography is two things: (1) the fundamental research method of cultural anthropology, and (2) the written text produced to report ethnographic research results. Ethnography as method seeks to answer central anthropological questions concerning the ways of life of living human beings. Ethnographic questions generally concern the link between culture and behavior and/or how cultural processes develop over time. The data base for ethnographies is usually extensive description of the details of social life or cultural phenomena in a small number of cases.

Quoting from George Spindler's Education and Cultural Process: Anthropological Approaches. 2nd ed. (Waveland Press, 1987.)

My purpose as one of the founders of the field has been to give the anthropology of education a focus by defining our special area to be cultural transmission. I go further now by claiming that we are primarily concerned, as a discipline, with intentional intervention in the learning process... All societies intervene, literally interfere, with what children are learning at critical points throughout the entire development process. p. 3,from the preface.
Further, we see that aspect of cultural transmission in which we are most interested—education in the broad sense, schooling in the narrower sense—as a calculated intervention in the learning process". p 153 from Spindler's own chapter in the book.

Our informal and formal educational systems are human endeavors. In attempting to measure how well out educational systems are doing and to improve education, we often lose sight of the fact that education is about people, and no two people are the same. In such educational studies, it is important to keep in mind Albert Einstein's observation: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Thus, for example, it is relatively easyto count the number of computers in a school, and many schools brag abut being one-to-one laptop schools. This is an interesting, countable piece of information, but it says nothing about the quality of education that children in the school are receiving.

Applications to Computers in Education

Robert K. Logan is the author of a book The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age and The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture. Notice the word culture in the title. In the book, Logan presents the case that math, science, and the overall field of Information and Communication Technology are languages. That is, each of these disciplines has its own culture and methods/language of communication.

Many people have long agreed that math is a language. And, of course, the computer programming parts of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) make use of programming languages. People doing the rapid "by thumbs" keyboarding of text messages illustrates part of the communications culture that has arisen in ICT.

The work of Sherry Turkle illustrates using an anthropological approach to studying the culture of children learning about and using ICT. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a clinical psychologist. Born in New York City, she has focused her research on psychoanalysis and culture and on the psychology of people's relationship with technology, especially computer technology and computer addiction.
In The Second Self, Turkle uses mainly Jean Piaget's psychology discourse to discuss how children learn about computers and how this affects their minds.
In Life on the Screen, Turkle describes how assuming different personal identities in a Multi-User Dungeon may be therapeutic. As far as women and computers are concerned, Turkle points out women's "non-linear" approach to the technology, calling it "soft mastery" and "bricolage" (as opposed to the "hard mastery" of linear, abstract thinking and computer programming).
Turkle was formerly married to Seymour Paper, and together they wrote the influential paper "Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete."

Seymour Papert is one of the creators of the Logo programming language for children and a pioneer in the field of computers in education.

Herve Varenne

Herve Varenne is a cultural anthropologist who is a Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

You might wonder how cultural anthropology fits in with Information Age Education. One of the weaknesses in the discipline of education is the lack of a solid, well accepted theoretical foundation. Every person has their own insights into what constitutes a good education and how to improve our educational systems. Relatively few people have the depth and breadth of knowledge, and the inclination, to attempt to lay these foundations.

Here are three quotes from the year 2007 article by Varenne cited at the beginning of this section:

What might happen to our understanding of education if we, as researchers, systematically suspended our most common understandings of what is to count as education and, instead, trusted people to tell us what they do deliberately to transform each other and their conditions?
Remember, you may have more instruction than I have, but you are not more educated. (Varenne’s grandmother, who left school after the 6th grade, circa 1914, on the occasion of his PhD.)
Difficult Collective Deliberations: Anthropological Notes Toward a Theory of Education: The paper develops Cremin’s search for a broad “definition” of education and particularly his sense that education involves both effort and deliberation. Varenne argues that this sense can now be grounded in several developments in social and cultural theory including De Certeau’s critique of simple sociological determinism, Ranciere’s emphasis on the power of productive ignorance, Lave’s demonstration that all learning is a matter of social movement and transformation as allowed by social fields, and, particularly, Garfinkel’s affirmation that practical action involves finding out what is going on, and what can be done—that is, in a sense, all practical action involves continuing education, including, in our worlds, education about schooling and its claims to authority.
The great paradox of work on education by social scientists is that it is mostly about schools, the learning of skills, and dispositions. It is very rarely about families, college dorms, hospitals, and the like, and even more rarely about the routine instructions that people give each other as to what to do, or what not to do. This routine work that fills our journals rarely addresses the explanations that people propose for their past and proposed actions, or their analyses of current conditions. And so, work on education is, paradoxically, rarely about education.

Notice the emphasis on informal education—the things that we do not explicitly teach in school. Think about this in terms of what you and your acquaintances, your children and other children, and most other people know about information and communication technology. Unless you specialize in the field of computers, probably most of what you know has been gained outside of formal schooling. Moreover, think about how you help others to learn about ICT and how you learn from others.

Education is a human social endeavor. People learn well in informal, interactive, social environments. Think about that statement in terms of the one billion cell phones sold this past year, instant messaging, chat groups, the success of online computer games with millions of players, and the success of social networking systems.

Compare and contrast this type of education with formal schooling. Quoting once more from Varenne's 2007 article:

All educators, I dare generalize, know very well that schools are not the only educational institutions. Many even suspect that schools, as organized almost everywhere in the world, are not particularly good at educating—especially about what is most important in a person’s life, whether it be religion, political ideology, artistic identity, and all that makes the particular character of a person’s outlook on life. And yet almost all debates about “education” end up being debates about schooling and its travails.

Contribution by Harry Wolcott, November 2008

Anthropology and Education, a follow-up statement by Harry Wolcott (Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Education, University of Oregon).

If you want to understand what anthropologists usually do—even in educational settings—you need to understand that most of them are not involved in educational experiments or demonstration projects. As a matter of fact, you don’t ordinarily find anthropologists interfering in any way with how people conduct their daily affairs.

One critical aspect of anthropological study is that ordinarily it is done in natural settings, without control groups or treatments of any sort. And in those settings, the anthropologist usually, although not always, tries to be an inconspicuous observer, there either to participate or to observe, in order to find answers to such basic questions as: What is going on here? In terms of what?

Social scientists acknowledge that one could never provide a total and complete description in response to the challenge to describe “everything.” That sets the bar unreasonably high for those researchers today who feel an obligation to be of more service than mere chroniclers. Some of them become change agents—they intentionally set out to change things, to improve the human condition.

But to get back to the scope of education and anthropology, even of anthropology itself, we must look at what anthropologists have traditionally looked at in the past and how that perspective offers something that people may not recognize in their own everyday behavior.

That brings us to the study of culture, or cultural behavior, and if there is one single concept that embodies the anthropological perspective, it is in the idea of culture. So let me offer an example of what I mean by offering an anthropological perspective on education involving this idea of “culture”—that mysterious variable which permeates the work of most anthropologists.

For my example, I turn to the work of an esteemed anthropological elder, Ward H. Goodenough. His writing was of immense help to me when he unmasked culture to reveal it not as something we ever observe directly. It is instead something the anthropologist adds to his observations in order to frame behavior patterns actually observed. In Goodenough’s own words, culture is not there, waiting to be revealed; rather it is something that anthropologists attribute to human behavior in the settings in which they conduct their research (Goodenough 1976:5)

In an age when we are now all more or less aware of the term and circumstances of multiculturalism, we recognize that, as individuals, each of us is different. At the individual level, the concept of culture appears to overgeneralize similarities and to ignore those differences. We need only to recognize that some folks are sufficiently different that we regard the difference as being of a different order, thus culturally different from ourselves. To link this idea with the concept of culture as he had developed it earlier, Goodenough proposed that each of us develops a unique way of thinking, a personal culture, that he labeled a “propriospect.” The term refers to each individual’s highly subjective and personal view of the world (Goodenough 1981:98 [1971]), Anthropologist Goodenough reminded us that, in this view, we are all multicultural.

The concept of propriospect examines and illuminates how and why each of us is unique but not so unique from other members of the our own group, only more or less unique from those in other groups, yet not totally unique either, as we are all members of the human family. His point is that each of us can recognize how those with whom we interact daily are competent in various aspects of our own culture (i.e., what language we use, when and how to prepare what we eat) and, if only to acknowledge that other humans are free to do things differently, there can be ways other than how we do things. Certainly, some humans achieve sufficient competence to participate in a second and perhaps even a third major culture in addition to their culture of orientation, but if they do, as Goodenough explains, that does not require surrendering competence in one’s first culture.

For a parallel example, consider the natural language of children who effortlessly seem to achieve competence in the language of those about them (without formal instruction) but in the course of their lives may achieve competence in a second and perhaps even a third language and/or different dialects of their first language. The concept of propriospect allows how this occurs, with the realization that everyone is to some extent, multilingual and, therefore, by extension (because language is an element of culture) multiticultural a well. We recognize that there are those who consciously seek, or may suddenly need, to achieve competence in different culture (such as the urgency felt by the offspring of newly arrived immigrants) who need quickly to acquire at least some competence in a new and strange culture if they are successfully to interact in their new setting.

Goodenough’s notion that we are all multicultural was introduced in that article that appeared in 1976 when educators were trying to gain a perspective of their own on the nature of some newly recognized “multicultural “classrooms (p. 4). His perspective offered educators a different way of looking not only at the students in their classrooms but at their fellow humans as well—reminding that each of us has a slightly different and at best only partial notion of his or her own culture—how each of us has come to fit things together, and that differences among humans are differences of degree, not of kind. (For further discussion, see Wolcott 1991; 2003:139-144). Thus every teacher has a multicultural classroom; it is not just a few who bear the burden.

That also gets at the underlying belief of anthropologists: that there are common problems to be addressed by all humans, their solutions labeled as “cultural universals,” as we once called them. Nonetheless, we recognize there are infinite differences that inspire and perpetuate the endless culture-specific focus of most anthropologists. Seeking universals among humans is the basis for the whole comparative enterprise. And that is the perspective anthropology has always been poised to offer. Its source has nothing to do with schools, it is in the solutions that the members of one’s immediate group have found for resolving the mutual problems they recognize in coping with life itself, beginning with problems of shared speech. Although the term itself does not seem to have caught on, the concept undergirding propriospect (and its parallel term in language studies: idiolect), the idea that each of us lives with his or her own unique way to interpret what is going on, seems to me to be an excellent example of how anthropologists contribute to the work of educators through the concepts they employ.

In addition, there are infinite ways that anthropologists contribute to education through their studies of cultural acquisition and transmission in their culture-specific inquiries. These are what George Spindler describes in his opening quotes above, studying not only what goes on in schools, but looking at everything else that humans (must) learn in the course of their maturation, and how formal schooling can be viewed as an interruption, even an intervention, in this learning process. Anthropologists have their own unique way of looking at things, and those engaged in the anthropology of education have, for the most part, been consciously working toward that objective, especially in the period since the 1950s, when anthropology and education came of age.

To learn more about current work in “anthropology and education, I suggest you look at a recent issue of the Anthropology and Education Quarterly. If you are totally unfamiliar with anthropology, you might benefit from reading Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, first published in 1927, to see how it all began. And then familiarize yourself with the content of almost any introductory text in cultural anthropology to learn how most anthropologists go about their work in modern time and settings. Should the idea of propriospect intrigue you, here are some references you may find of interest:

References for Harry Wolcott's article Culture, Language, and Society. 2nd ed. 1981. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings. [Based on an Addison-Wesley Module Publication first published in 1971.]

Goodenough, Ward H. Multiculturalism as the Normal Human Experience. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 1976: 7(2) 4-7.

Wolcott, Harry F. Propriospect and the Acquisition of Culture. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 1991: 22(3) 251-273.

Wolcott, Harry F. A Kwakiutl Village and School. Updated ed. 2003. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira.

Sudbury Schools

A key aspect of Information Age Education is that it gives more power to the learner. Some schools attempt to do this. The Sudbury school provides an example. Quoting from a Wikipedia article:

The Sudbury model of democratic education is named after the school that pioneered it — Sudbury Valley School. Since it was founded in 1968, the Framingham, Massachusetts school has been a source of inspiration for dozens of schools and institutions, and there are currently over 40 Sudbury schools around the world.
Certain facets of the model separate it from other democratic schools and free schools, although there are evident similarities. One central defining aspect is the non-compulsory nature of the model and the equal, nonjudgmental treatment of all activities (within the bounds of school rules regarding behavior and conduct) which results in a great de-emphasis of classes and other activities normally emphasized for their educational value. This attitude stems from the basic belief of the educational model, that every individual learns what they need to know through life and that there is no need to try and design a curriculum that will prepare a young person for adult life. Another facet that often separates Sudbury model schools from other democratic schools is the limitation—or total absence—of parental involvement in the administration of Sudbury schools. Sudbury schools are run by a democratic School Meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally. Lastly, Sudbury schools do not arbitrarily separate the students into age-groups, emphasizing free age-mixing as a powerful tool for learning and development in all ages.
A central tenet of the Sudbury model of education is that each student should be free to to use her/his time as s/he wishes, not subject to any special curricula. The model contradicts the idea that there is one set curriculum that everyone should learn in order to become a successful adult. Believing there are many ways for students to learn, and not judging individual choices of subject matter, students are free to design their course of study from day to day. Sudbury Model schools do not believe in the idea, used in some progressive schools, of having students design a curriculum for themselves. Instead, proponents of the Sudbury Model hold that learning happens naturally, and requires no advanced planning or "end point" for the learner at all.
Classes and other planned activities are always voluntary and optional, and may be led by staff or students. Many students may choose never to take a class. The word "class," which is used within many Sudbury model communities, may be misleading—some advocates of the model hold that the term "spontaneous interest group" is more accurate. Often, areas of the school are designated for a particular use, such as an art room, a music room, or a library. Although most areas would normally be free for any students to use, some items or activities may require a student to have completed a certification process to demonstrate their ability to use the item safely. Most of the schools have several certifications, such as to use a sewing machine or wood-working equipment.

The Sudbury model of education is student-centered and designed to empower students. Students in such a school learn to take an increasing level of responsibility for how they use their own time. They gain knowledge and skill in taking a significant level of responsibility for their own education. If this approach to education interests you, you will likely enjoy reading the short (free) book:

Moursund, D.G. (June 2008). Becoming More Responsible for Your Education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Access at

This book was written mainly for students in their early teens.


Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Ethnography is a genre of writing that uses fieldwork to provide a descriptive study of human societies. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. … Many cultural anthropologists consider ethnography the essence of the discipline.

The following reference is for the full text of a substantial ERIC article.

Anderson, Gary L. (1989). Critical Ethnography in Education: Origins, Current Status, and New Directions. Retrieved 10/28/08:

Quoting the abstract:

The development of critical ethnography in education is traced, and the central epistemological and methodological issues in the practice of critical ethnography are discussed. Some of the directions the field appears to be taking are considered. Critical ethnography in education began in the late 1960's and early 1970's, with roots in the interpretist movements of anthropology and sociology. By the early 1980's, ethnographic methods and critical theory and critical feminism were well-entrenched among a small segment of American educational researchers. Subfields in which critical ethnography has been used include: (1) student subcultures; (2) curriculum; (3) administration and policy; (4) teacher education; (5) comparative education; (6) gender; and (7) vocational education.


Anderson, Gary L. (1989). Critical Ethnography in Education: Origins, Current Status, and New Directions. Retrieved 10/28/08:

CAE (n.d.). Council on Anthropology and Education. Retrieved 10/21/08: Quoting from the website:

The Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) is a section of the American Anthropological Association that was founded in 1968 to advance and stimulate scholarship on schooling in social and cultural contexts and on human learning both inside and outside of schools. CAE members receive the quarterly journal, Anthropology and Education Quarterly.

Glen, David (11/30/2010). Anthropologists debate whether 'science' is part of their mission. Retrieved 1/20/2011 from Quoting from the document:

Is anthropology a science? Is it a coherent discipline at all?
Those questions are as old as the field itself. They were taken up by Franz Boas in a 1904 lecture and by Clifford Geertz in a 2002 essay.

Pinker, Steven (February 2003). Steven Pinker chalks it up to the blank slate. TED video. Retrieved 7/10/09: Quoting from the website:

Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate argues that all humans are born with some innate traits. Here, Pinker talks about his thesis, and why some people found it incredibly upsetting.

Wolcott, Harry F. Ethnography: A way of seeing. 2nd e3d. 2008. Altamira Press.

Harry Wolcott discusses the fundamental nature of ethnographic studies, offering important suggestions on improving and deepening research practices for both novice and expert researchers.

Varenne, Herve (2007). Alternative anthropological perspectives on education framework. Teachers College Record 2007. 109: 7. Retrieved 6/23/09:

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