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Everyday Constitutional Assessments and Their Relevance to Formal Assessments

by Hervé Varenne - 2014

Background: In anthropology and related disciplines, the term “assessment” refers to the everyday activities of ordinary people as they figure out what to do next given what others have just done. The assessments, in turn, constitute what is happening, whether in encounters between policeman and person in the street, or classroom lesson, or joking about a teacher, or giving birth in a hospital, blogging, etc.

Findings: This review article briefly summarizes the major findings in such research and its roots in American pragmatic thought.

Conclusion: The article then suggest how to apply this form of analysis to long historical conversations about the foundations of democracy, the assessment of what building a democracy must entail, particularly as it relates to an educated citizenry, and then to the ongoing assessments of whether goals are being met and what reforms may be needed (e.g. “No Child Left Behind,”) continuing with further assessments that constitute new realities that will be subjected to further assessments in the political sphere.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…

I believe in . . . a great . . . principle of natural law . . . which proves the absolute right of every human being . . . to an education; and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of the education are provided for all. (Horace Mann 1846/1957, pg. 63)

Anthropologists love origin myths that, as Malinowski once said, provide a charter for social life. That is, statements about “self-evident truths” and “absolute rights” provide the justification for the ensuing constitutive texts that make a new world for all concerned. A myth that charters or constitutes, and I now move far from the usual theories of myths, is also a statement in a conversation. These are conversations that start before the myth is adopted “in the collective mode” as Lévi-Strauss once put it. It is an assessment of earlier statements now being challenged. And it is the beginning of further conversations that may be all the longer that the myth is more powerful in constituting a social life for larger populations. These conversations about social order involve what I have called “collective deliberations” (Varenne, 2007) and make meta-ideological, or metacultural, discourses.

The texts that first constituted America do not say much about education. But soon, in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the United States, people deliberated about public schools and everything they entailed, starting with taxation, and continuing, over the centuries, to architecture (the color of school buses!), curriculum and pedagogy, and, of course, how to assess whether schools actually produced what it keeps promising. I am not sure when people started to discuss the assessment of individual students’ learning in school. I believe Edward L. Thorndike is given some precedence and preeminence on these matters. But the concern with assessing individuals is arguably here, in the origin myths themselves. For, if people are created equal, how should the powers that wrote the myths and keep them alive deal with inequality? (1)

The conference (2) for which this paper was prepared was another occasion for us, university professors, to participate in the continuing deliberation about how to expand our major origin myth into reformed institutions. I want to do so by exploring these deliberations as, precisely, conversations during which we make utterances that assess older utterances (whether “texts,” declarations, regulations, etc.) by taking them into account even as we seek to move the deliberations in new directions. For me to do so in this context, I need to take you back briefly to charter texts in my discipline—or at least in the discipline as I practice it.

In my scholarly world, in the border lands between anthropology and sociology, the word assessment may have first appeared in a paper by Harvey Sacks in which, building on Goffman and Garfinkel, he discussed what is involved, interactionally, when we meet people we have never met and must fit in our lives. In his “Notes on Police Assessment of Moral Character,” Sacks generalizes what all policemen do when they walks their beat: (2)

If, in American society, it is the case that the inferences as to moral character which particular appearances may warrant is a matter of central concern, then: We expect that there are specialized methods for producing from the appearances persons present such inferences as to moral character as can warrant the propriety of particular treatments of the persons observed. (Sacks 1965/1972, p. 281)

In this paper, Sacks was trying to sketch the methods all people use to figure out, or assess, who a person is, what this person is doing, what this person may be doing in the future, and what should be done about it (if anything). He started with the reality that, in everyday practice, all this must be done on the basis of a publicized display (through body movement, speech in any of its modalities, tests and experiments, etc.). In this perspective, whether the assessment correctly captures what is “behind” the display (what the person assessed knows or means) is much less important than the consequences. These consequences include the possibly very hard work that the assessed person may have to perform to convince whoever is meting the consequences that the assessment was incorrect or that it should lead to different consequences.

In many of the sub-traditions within all the social sciences, the realization that the collective assessment of publicized behavior could help reopen many classical questions led to a powerful recasting of much research. Anthropologists and sociologists concerned with schooling, for example, began research on the ongoing assessments of each other that adults and children perform together in the school classrooms and offices (Erickson, 1982; McDermott, 1976, 1978; Mehan, 1979; Varenne, 1983).

Figure 1. Mehan 1979: 53


One of the first examples of this kind of research was Mehan’s Learning Lessons (Figure 1). Mehan formalized the obvious: Much of schooling is about answering questions to which the questioner already knows the answer because the point is assessing whether the student knows something. The important thing here is that it is the third move in a sequence Question/Answer/Assessment that determines whether this sequence is about school or about something else. At other times, the assessment of the pair “Question/Answer” must be something totally different because what is then at issue is something else altogether. It is a theme to which I will return: the significance of the present in the future, in what somebody is going to say, next.

Given this, new forms of research could be pursued, including the assessment by students of their teacher’s performance, or the assessment by students of each other’s performances. James Mullooly (2003) and Mullooly and Varenne (2006), for example, tell of a lesson where, as a comment on the teacher’s gestures, one student repeats the gesture in such a way as to give the equivalent of “the finger.” Other students then assess this as “a joke” (they laugh while looking at each other) while the teacher who directly faces the students assesses it as “nothing” (she proceeds with her lesson without losing a beat).

The relevance of such research is commonsensical in my version of anthropology, but it can be challenged. At a recent meeting of the Gordon Commission, the discussant to the longer version of this paper criticized the work as making overly broad generalizations on the basis of “anecdotes.” What I just did of course, is mention three such anecdotes:

● a policeman on the beat sixty years ago;

● a teacher forty years ago; and

● four students fifteen years ago.

Actually, of course, this concern with ongoing assessment of what has just happened is a profound philosophical question at the core of the American pragmatist traditions. Meaning, as George Herbert Mead once put is not in the gesture of an individual, nor in the response, but rather in the third act when the two preceding moves are assessed as being this, or that, or something else. The formal versions of all this are to be found in Pierce, particularly when he writes about “interpretants.” As he wrote, the final interpretant in any interaction is its effect in the future of the lives of the participants:

suppose I awake in the morning before my wife, and that afterwards she wakes up and inquires, "What sort of a day is it?" This is a sign, whose Object, as expressed, is the weather at that time, but whose Dynamical Object is the impression which I have presumably derived from peeping between the window-curtains. Whose Interpretant, as expressed, is the quality of the weather, but whose Dynamical Interpretant, is my answering her question. But beyond that, there is a third Interpretant. . . . The Dynamical Interpretant is the actual effect that it has upon me, its interpreter. But the Significance of it, the Ultimate, or Final, Interpretant is . . . what effect its answer will have as to her plans for the ensuing day. (Peirce, 1909, emphasis added)

In other words, assessments are everywhere, in the everyday life of everybody, at home and in the streets, in classrooms and doctors’ offices, when the stakes are low, and they are high. They are a fundamental aspect of all communication as a process in time.

Note again, that the focus here is not on the past (where the answers come from—archaeologically), or the present (how the answer makes sense given its context—structurally). The focus is on the future: what the answer triggers (among whom, for how long, etc.).

What does all this have to do with school assessments and their politics?

Horace Mann assessed limitations in the political democracy of his time. One hundred years later, Dewey assessed the movement towards the public school as “inevitable”:

To leave everything to nature was to negate the very idea of education. . . . Any effective pursuit of the new educative ideal required the support of the state. The movement for the democratic idea inevitably became a movement for publicly conducted and administered schools. (John Dewey, 1916/1944, p. 93)

Another century of controversies passed and another major act of state intervention was passed. As Ted Kennedy once put it:

Five years ago, Congress and President Bush made a bold and historic promise. We pledged in the No Child Left Behind Act that the federal government would do all in its power to guarantee every child in America, regardless of race, economic background, language or disability, the opportunity to get a world-class education. (Edward M. Kennedy, 2007)

We are now experiencing its future as we participate in the assessment of this Act. Now, we know that NCLB has become something that produces statements like “value-added models” that are, technically, in my analysis today, interpretants of NCLB (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Value added model as published in the New York Times (March 6, 2011)


Figure 3. Part of a teacher’s report card (used by permission).


These models produce more specific statements like the report a teacher in the Bronx received in 2013 (Figure 3). But this, of course, is not the end either—and certainly not in his life as teacher, union representative, husband, father, etc. And so, not surprisingly, new interpretations have arisen that are themselves being assessed by others, including by top agents of the state.

In conclusion, I argue that we must abandon the vain hope that, through any technical or other means, we could discover the final assessment of a student, or teacher, that would close all conversations about the future of this student or teacher. There is something naïve in Arnie Duncan’s exasperation, in the fall of 2013, with parents who refuse the possibly totally fair assessment of their child. Of course, these parents will protest and depending on the mood of the country, a secretary of education can be made to resign. At the very local level of the individual child other means will be discovered by resourceful parents to hide the possible lack of brilliance of their child when the truly high-stake assessments take place.

The point is the hope that we will find other ways to confront inequalities that do not pass through the particular kinds of assessments that we are now caught up with. There have to be other ways.


1. For more on this fundamental dilemma in all modern democracies, see Louis Dumont on caste and racism (1961/1980).

2. This conference on the Future of Assessment in Education” was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on February 12–13, 2012.


Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1916)

Dumont, L. (1980). Caste, racism and 'stratification': Reflections of a social anthropologist. In M. Sainsbury (Trans.), Homo Hierarchicus (Rev. ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1961)

Erickson, F. (1982). The counselor as gatekeeper: Social interaction in interviews. New York: Academic Press.

Kennedy, E. (2007, March 26). No retreat on school reform. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/25/AR2007032500910.html

Mann, H. (1957). The republic and the school: On the education of free men (L. Cremin, Ed.). New York: Teachers College Press (Original work published 1846)

McDermott, R. (1976). Doing the social order: Some ethnographic advances from communicational analysis and ethnomethodology. Reviews in Anthropology, 3, 160–175.

McDermott, R (1978). The social organization of behavior: Interactional approaches. Annual Reviews of Anthropology, 7, 321–345.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Mullooly, J. (2003). Work, play and consequences: What counts in a successful middle school (Doctoral dissertation). Columbia University, New York.

Mullooly, J., & Varenne, H. (2006). Playing with pedagogical authority. In J. Pace & A. Hemmings (Eds.), Classroom authority: Theory, research, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Peirce, C. (1909). Letter to William James, CP 8.314.

Sacks, H. (1972). Notes on police assessment of moral character. In D. Sudnow (Ed.), Studies in social interaction. New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1965)

Varenne, H. (1983). American school language: The rhetorical structuring of daily life in a suburban high school. New York: Irvington Publishers.

Varenne, H. (2007). Difficult collective deliberations: Anthropological notes toward a theory of education. Teachers College Record, 109(7), 1559–1587.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 11, 2014, p. 1-8
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17627, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:52:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Hervé Varenne
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    HERVÉ VARENNE is Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. A cultural anthropologist, his major interests center on the processes that produce particular conditions for human beings in history, and their consequences. He is the author, with Ray McDermott, of Successful Failure (Westview, 1998). Since then, he has written extensively about education, taken comprehensively, as the motor of cultural production and has edited three volumes in cooperation with Edmund W. Gordon.
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