McDermott & Varenne (1995). Culture “as” Disability.

McDermott, R., & Varenne, H. (1995). Culture “as” Disability. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 26(3), 324–348.

“It is the anthropologist’s ideal setting for making two strong points: the first, that we are arrogant to think we know better than people in other cultures, and the second, that we are foolish to not appreciate how much is known by others in their own terms. We can state the anthropological instinct directly: _Not only is our wisdom not total, there is yet much to be learned from others_.” (p 325)

“In the Country of the Blind, a One-eyed Man is confused and confusing. That is what it is like to be in another culture.” (p 325)

“There is a downside to the instinctive use of the term _culture_ as a container of coherence: The container leaks.” (p 325)

“… the coherence of a culture is crafted from the partial and mutually dependent knowledge of each person caught in the process and depends, in the long run, on the work they do together. Life in culture, Bakhtin (1984[1940]) reminds us, is polyphonous and multivocalic; it is made of the voices of many, each one brought to life and made significant by the others, only sometimes by being the same, more often by being different, more dramatically by being contradictory. … The coherence of culture is something many individuals, in multiple realities, manage to achieve together; it is never simply the property of individual persons.” (p 326)

“In every society, there are ways of being locked out. Race, gender, or beauty can serve as the dividing point as easily as being sighted or blind. In every society, it takes many people — both disablers and their disabled — to get that job done.” (p 327)

“… disabilities are approached best as a cultural fabrication …” (p 327)

“… it must be clear by now that this article is not about disabled persons. It is about the powers of culture to disable.” (p 327)

[“The Cultural Construction of Disability” (p 328)]

[Discussion of a community in Martha’s Vineyard of people with genetically-inherited deafness. –oki]

[“Making Disabilities in American Education” (p 330)]

“American education has numerous made-to-order general categories for describing children in trouble, for example: deprived, different, disadvantaged, at-risk, disabled.” (p 331)

“Despite the plethora of categories, none of them should please the anthropologist, for none of them guarantees a balance point between showing how bad things are in the lives of children who need our help and showing how the problem is a product of cultural arrangements — _a product of our own activities_ — as much as a product of isolated facts about the neurology, personality, language, or culture of any child.” (p 331)

“Culture, the great enabler, is disabling. … If there is anything people do naturally, it is that they live culturally, in groups, with goals, rules, expectations, abstractions, and untold complexities. Culture, as we say in our lectures, gives all we know and all the tools with which to learn more. Very nice, but every culture, we must acknowledge, also gives, often daily and eventually always, a blind side, a deaf ear, a learning problem, and a physical handicap. … [page break] … People also use established cultural forms to define those who do not work on the ‘right’ things, for the ‘right’ reason, or in the ‘right’ way.” (p 331-332)

“The cultural ascription of disability is an occasional and monumental event in most lives, and the members of our culture, at their worst and, horrors, at their most cultured, have been actively making the ascription of disability a constant event in the lives of an increasing number of persons.[4]” (p 332)

[Footnote 4 …]

“There are almost 30,000 words in English for describing a person (D’Andrade 1985). Most are organized into contrast pairs, usually one with a positive and one with a negative connotation. For every word praising a person as able, there is another pointing to an absence; so goes good and bad, beautiful and ugly, hearing and deaf, smart and dumb, literate and illiterate, and so on. What one side of the contrast pair gives, the other side takes away; where one person has a possession, another has a poverty, that is to say, not just an absence of something valued, but an identifiable absence, more visible and louder than any presence. These are rich resources for keeping some people always in trouble for explicitly not having what others explicitly have, good materials for a culture constantly acquiring, sorting, and institutionalizing those who, for some moment at least, cannot be what is desired and required.” (p 345)

[“Three Ways of Thinking about Culture and Disability” (p 333)]

[“The Deprivation Approach” (p 333)]

“… Bourdieu’s (1977) … His central concept, _habitus_, referred to early habitualization, but in the American context _habitus_ has been transformed into a theory of overwhelming early socialization. This leaves us with an account of persons unsusceptible to transformation through interaction, in short, persons with qualities that keep them succeeding, or not, depending upon their first steps through social structure. This is a roundabout way of escaping society and returning to individual persons as the proximate cause of their own failure.” (p 334)

[“The Difference Approach” (p 334)]

“In explanations of school failure, this account maintains that children from a minority cultural background mixed with teachers from a more dominant cultural background suffer enough miscommunication and alienation to give up on school, this despite the fact that they are, at least potentially, fully capable.” (p 335)

[“The Culture-as-Disability Approach” (p 336)]

“This approach takes up the possibility that every culture, as an historically evolved pattern of institutions, teaches people what to aspire to and hope for and marks off those who are to be noticed, handled, mistreated, and remediated as falling short. Cultures offer a wealth of positions for human beings to inhabit. Each position requires that the person inhabiting it must possess, and must be _known as possessing_, particular qualities that symbolize, and thereby constitute, the reality of their position _to others_.” (p 336)

“On what grounds could experts have assumed that the complex worlds of individuals in multiple relationships with each other would stand still enough to be characterized by simplified accounts of either their culture, their cognition, or the ties between whatever culture and cognition are taken to be? One version of the grounds for simplicity is that such theorizing is part of wider-scale institutional and political agendas, in particular, that it has been handy for the governments of modern, ideologically rationalistic, class-divided, industrial, and information-based states to isolate individuals as units of analysis and to record the workings of their minds for public scrutiny and control.” (p 337)

“Competence is a fabrication, a mock-up, and people caught in America work hard to take their place in any hierarchy of competence displays.” (p 337)

“We might just as well say that culture fashions problems for us and, from the same sources, expects us to construct solutions.” (p 338)

[“Examples of the Acquisition of Persons by Culturally Fabricated Disabilities” (p 338)]

“‘The world’s definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one’s family, friends, or lovers — to say nothing of one’s children — to live according to the world’s definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.’ –James Baldwin, _The Evidence of Things Not Seen_, 1985” (p 338)

[“Learning Disabilities (LDs): The Case of Adam, Adam, Adam, and Adam” (p 338)]

“… school performance has become an exaggerated part of established political arrangements, and by pitting all against all in a race for measurable academic achievement on arbitrary tasks, school has become a primary site for the reproduction of inequality in access to resources.” (p 339)

“We use the term culture for the arrangements that allow so many people to be involved in Adam’s being LD, for it emphasizes that, whatever problems Adam may have in his head, whether due originally to genetic or early socialization oddities, these would have had a different impact on his relationships with others if the culture that he inhabits did not focus so relentlessly on individual success and failure.” (p 340)

[“The Illiterate: The Case of Exterminating Literacy” (p 341)]

“The circumstances of the application of the term _illiteracy_ to persons then and now have been intensely political more than pedagogical or remedial (Donald 1983; Smith 1986).” (p 342)

“If we could appreciate what they can do, we might find a way to use their skills on a difficult paper-and-pencil test. To maximize their participation and to make the best use of their pest-control subculture, we hired exterminators who had passed their tests to teach those who had not. Yes, we have a culture, and so do they. The best way to initiate them to our test-taking culture, the reasoning goes, is on their own terms.” (p 342)

“For every disability and difference brought to the fore, there is a cultural, and invisible, order that is the background. … they subverted the ritualized meritocracy that had everyone thinking they were different, or less than different. … they subverted a system that claimed that ‘knowing how to take the test’ is irrelevant to the testing itself.” (p 343)

“Test literacy, on the contrary, is designed to acquire failures, that is, to identify and document illiterates …” (p 344)

[“Conclusion” (p 344)]

“An analysis of the cultural construction of institutional occasions for the creation and display of various disabilities — deafness, learning disabilities, and illiteracy — reveals not broken persons but identifications neatly tuned to the workings of institutions serving political and economic ends through formal educational means.” (p 344)

Selected references

  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and his world (Vol. 341). Indiana University Press.
  • Baldwin, J. (1985). The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Reissued Edition. Macmillan.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge university press.
  • D’Andrade, R. G. (1985). Character terms and cultural models. Directions in cognitive anthropology, 321-343.
  • Donald, J. (1983). How illiteracy became a problem (and literacy stopped being one). Journal of Education, 35-52.
  • Smith, D. (1986). The anthropology of literacy acquisition. The acquisition of literacy: Ethnographic perspectives. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Wells, H. G. (1979). Selected Short Stories. Baltimore: Penguin


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