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While disputes surrounding the concept of culture reflect valid ideological disagreements, they are sometimes obscured by misunderstanding; not only is the term commonly used to signify vastly different concepts, but it is also frequently defined in vague and unclear terms (if explicitly defined at all). This research paper tries to clarify the notion by tracking its usage from its earliest applications to its place in contemporary anthropological discourse. First, the concept’s origins and evolution are examined, with a special focus on its development in American anthropology. The modern notion of culture as meanings and symbols is then investigated in depth. Finally, significant criticisms of the concept and responses to those criticisms are provided.
- The Evolution of the Concept of Culture
- Cultural Relativism
- Culture and the Individual
- The Contemporary Concept: Culture as Meanings and Symbols
- Culture as Meaning
- Culture as Symbolic Systems
- The Nature of Symbols
- The Pervasiveness of Symbols
- The Constitutive Power of Culture
- Methodological Implications
- Critiques of the Culture Concept
- Social Anthropology
- Postmodern Anthropology
Culture is one of the most complicated academic concepts now in use. It is defined and implemented in numerous and frequently contradictory ways, and there are considerable disagreements within academic disciplines regarding the fundamental nature of human social life and the appropriate method for studying it. For anthropologists, culture typically refers to symbolic systems of ideas, values, and shared understandings that give meaning and comprehension to the world for a certain group of people. While these systems, which provide the foundation for such fundamental concepts as food and kinship and even influence how individuals experience time, space, and other aspects of reality, may appear to their adherents to be natural and objective, they are, in fact, variable, socially accepted models. In order to find order and significance in a world devoid of both, humans must create their own models.
Ironically, just as the anthropological idea of culture has achieved enormous traction in popular culture and fields such as law and politics, it has come under fire from within the study of anthropology. Some anthropologists assert that the concept of culture oversimplifies and stereotypically treats entire societies as isolated and homogeneous, while downplaying individuality and diversity of thought. Others argue, however, that the notion has never involved such assumptions, and that culture is merely a useful method to consider the ideas and shared understandings that enable humans to comprehend their reality.
The Evolution of the Concept of Culture
Both the literal sense of cultivation (as in “of a crop”) and the metaphorical sense of self-improvement (the “cultivation of the mind”) are derived from the Latin term cultura, from which the English word culture derives. This phrase was frequently used in 18th-century England to describe to the improvement of one’s character through the refinement of judgment, taste, and intelligence; and, by extension, to those activities believed to express and maintain this sophistication (Williams, 1983). This basic connotation underlies the most prevalent popular use of the term today, which designates a specific segment of society (such as theater and art) as cultural to the exclusion of others.
The anthropological idea of culture entered the English language via a less direct route, first going through German as the philosophical concept kultur. Kultur was also derived from the concept of cultivation, but shortly thereafter began to evolve in opposition to the French term civilisation as the philosophical traditions of the two countries came into conflict. Civilization was associated with the French Enlightenment and the notion that civilization evolved from a primitive state characterized by ignorance and barbarism toward universal ideals in science, secularism, and rational thought. The “national character” of a people has come to be symbolized by the term Kultur, which has come to represent local and personal notions such as religion and tradition. In 1871, British anthropologist Edward Tylor blended parts of both notions to define culture as “that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other skills and practices acquired by man as a member of society” (as cited in Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952, p. 81). This is largely regarded as the first formal anthropological definition of the term, as it introduced the concept of culture as a taught, shared, and inclusive framework that encompasses practically every aspect of human social life.
Although Edward Tylor’s definition was innovative, it missed a crucial part of the original German notion that would later become a central aspect of the anthropological concept of culture. Tylor was a cultural evolutionist; he believed that, given sufficient time and favorable conditions, societies evolved toward increasingly superior forms. Consequently, he viewed 19th-century England to be the apex of human civilisation and all other societies (particularly those outside of Western Europe and North America) to be less evolved and fundamentally inferior. Franz Boas, a German-American scientist often considered as the creator of cultural anthropology, was one of the first to challenge the evolutionist perspective. Boas considered the concepts of cultural evolutionism to be unscientific, and he contested the fundamental premise that the prevalence of identical activities across nations inevitably indicates their shared evolutionary origin. He presented counterexamples in which substantially identical cultural institutions arose in various contexts for notably distinct reasons. Boas (1940/1995), using a historical and comparative methodology, contended that society did not follow a linear progression toward a single ideal form, but rather moved in many ways in response to fluid historical conditions.
Importantly, Boas maintained that individuals experience reality differently depending on the cultural context in which they are nurtured; he stated that “the seeing eye is the organ of tradition” (1940/1995). This resulted in the conclusion that a community’s ideals and practices could only be comprehended in relation to how its members experienced and envisioned their reality (1889). Boas reasoned that if cultural patterns of perception and evaluation were the result of socialization, then their adherence must be based on emotions and unconscious attachment rather than rational or practical evaluations of their value or efficacy. Therefore, he decided that any attempt to rank or compare the customs of other communities would be absurd.
Cultural evolutionists erred by considering their own culturally developed concepts and perceptions to be universally applicable and uniquely valid. Boas used the analysis of voice sounds as an example of why this is a dangerous activity. A person inexperienced with the sounds employed in a specific language will frequently perceive those sounds differently than a native speaker, for example, by failing to distinguish between two sounds that are functionally equivalent in his or her own language. The Japanese language, for instance, does not differentiate between the English /r/ and /1/ sounds, and unless exposed to English at a young age, native Japanese speakers tend to wrongly regard those sounds as identical. This tendency led to an unpleasant (though hilarious) incident in which early cultural evolutionists misunderstood the speech sounds of an indigenous American language and deemed it inferior due to what they erroneously perceived to be the absence of a stable phonemic system.
According to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf’s “linguistic relativity hypothesis,” the principle of relativism extends to linguistic meaning systems. Sapir and Whorf believed that the language a person speaks affects not only their ability to communicate, but also how they perceive what would otherwise appear to be fundamental components of reality. Thus, Sapir concluded that learning a language is equivalent to learning the “world.” Whorf drew on his expertise as a fire teacher to demonstrate how the connotation of a word like empty could cause individuals to behave irresponsibly around spent gasoline drums containing hazardous fumes. Subsequent research in this subject has revealed language implications on aspects such as color vision and spatial orientation, as well as on moral reasoning and other types of decision making. Whorf observed that the majority of linguistic categories are “covert,” or existing below conscious awareness; anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952) concluded that all cultural knowledge consists of both conscious and unconscious categories that “screen and distort” one’s conception of reality.
Although language analysis may provide the clearest example of relativism in action, the idea appears to apply to a wide variety of cultural phenomena. Not only do views, attitudes, and values vary significantly from one society to the next, but comparative study has demonstrated that people of different cultural groups can also have diverse emotional and physiological responses to stimuli. Many Americans, for instance, would feel disgust and possibly even nausea at the mere prospect of consuming live grubs. However, in many other communities, insects are regarded tasty, whilst the intake of onions and mushrooms is deemed repulsive.
As a result of this relativistic aspect, the concept of culture has been challenged for what is viewed as its role in undermining efforts to construct objective and universally binding principles for moral human action. Moreover, if it is illegitimate to compare distinct beliefs and behaviors, and if everything from nausea to the essence of existence is experienced via the lens of culture, then it becomes extremely challenging to argue in favor of objective, universal moral truth. However, as other theorists have argued, this does not necessarily imply that moral ideas are impossible. It simply means that in order for normative assertions to make meaning, they must be based on commonly held beliefs about the world. As with differing conceptions of the nature and significance of reality, the fact that conceptions of moral truth are unavoidably local and specific does not imply that they are irrational, invalid, or untenable.
Culture and the Individual
An important question in anthropology is whether culture reflects its own level of analysis or whether it can be explained in terms of the thoughts and behaviors of individuals. Alfred Kroeber (1917), an eminent anthropologist and the first of Franz Boas’s several PhD students, believed that it was only a matter of time before culture established a “second level” once it was identified as a “distinctive product of men living in societies.” Kroeber referred to this tier as the superorganic. According to this perspective, the conduct of individuals combines to form a system governed by its own set of rules. In light of the fact that cultural phenomena are emergent aspects of this system, they demand their own degree of explanation. Thus, Kroeber claimed, anthropologists need not be concerned with individuals when dealing with culture; in fact, disregarding individuals could result in more comprehensive analysis.
Edward Sapir (1917), a student of Boas and one of the founders of linguistic anthropology, criticized the superorganic as reflecting “a social determinism amounting to religion.” Sapir argued that the idea regarded culture too much like a thing or a concrete entity, as opposed to an abstract concept, and allowed little room for individuals to behave according to their own free will. Sapir was also critical of the influential theories of Ruth Benedict (1934), an additional student of Boas who pushed the concept of civilizations as highly interwoven, “personality-laden” wholes. Benedict famously stated in a survey of three indigenous people from Melanesia and North America that each might be characterized by a certain personality type (the Dobu of Papua New Guinea, for example, were defined as “paranoid schizophrenic”). Famously, Sapir told his pupils that a culture cannot be “paranoid” in response to this attempt to apply psychological words to characterize entire cultures.
Sapir’s own thesis, outlined in a 1924 essay titled “Culture, Genuine and False,” viewed culture as the peculiar attitudes and methods of living that gave a people their unique position in the world. According to Sapir, a “genuine” culture is a harmonic, balanced, and healthy “spiritual organism.” Nonetheless, while this did necessitate a substantial degree of integration, a genuine culture was not merely “efficient”; that is, humans could not exist as simple gears in a machine. According to Sapir, culture and the individual are inseparable, as culture cannot sustain itself without individuals as “nuclei” and individuals cannot generate culture from nothing. Sapir’s solution and attempt to reconcile the contradictions he perceived in Benedict and others were fundamentally humanistic: The individual discovers a “mastery”—a profession that expresses his or her distinct particular skill while also being congruent with the will and desires of the other community members. Sapir was cautious to note, however, that the terms “culture” and “individual” could only be identified from an anthropologist’s perspective, as the individual himself could not cognitively detect such a distinction. The more humanistic aspects of Sapir’s theory were never widely accepted, but his thoughts on the relationship between culture and the individual foreshadowed numerous critiques present in “postmodern” anthropological theory (see “Criticisms of the Culture Concept”)
The Contemporary Concept: Culture as Meanings and Symbols
Later, some referred to Edward Tylor’s 1871 definition of culture as the “everything-is-culture” definition, as it encompassed not just knowledge, belief, and values, but also customs and conduct, as well as the miscellaneous category “other capabilities.” In the early 20th century, Franz Boas and his pupils gave the notion a more scientific appearance and included the key element of cultural relativism. The belief in the power of sorcery, for example, was culture, as was the ritual dance performed by the sorcerer and possibly even the artifacts made for the rite. Margaret Mead, a student of Boas and one of the most renowned cultural anthropologists in history, utilized a concept of culture that relied on the notion of a “complex of behavior.”
As part of a landmark work on the notion of culture, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) were among the first to advocate excluding conduct from the concept of culture. Their conclusion was founded on the realization that human cognition and behavior is also influenced by causes other than culture. The issue with treating a specific conduct as part of culture was that it implied that the behavior belonged to or was a unique product of culture, while neglecting the important psychological, social, biological, and material components that also influence action. As with the other components, culture could not incorporate behavior because, as Kroeber and Kluckhohn pointed out, culture itself was a “pattern or design” abstracted from observable behavior — something that gave behavior meaning.
However, this concept does not imply that culture is identical to politics, economics, or any other aspect of human social life. Due to the fact that culture is not conduct but rather the beliefs and ideas that give behavior meaning, culture is a vital component of practically every area of social-scientific investigation. Even behaviors that look on the surface to be solely economic or political in nature, for example, are incomprehensible without a grasp of the specific cultural forms that make the contexts in which they occur reasonable and meaningful (see Sewell, 2005).
The contemporary concept of culture, then, focuses not only on behavior and artifacts as such, but also on what that behavior means and what those artifacts symbolize. For David Schneider (1868), an American anthropologist who helped found the approach known as “symbolic anthropology,” this meant that even behavioral norms should be excluded from cultural analysis. Schneider defined culture as a set of “definitions, premises, postulates, presumptions, propositions, and perceptions about the nature of the universe and man’s place in it” (p. 202), explaining that while “norms tell the actor how to play the scene, culture tells the actor how the scene is set and what it all means” (p. 203).
Culture as Meaning
The importance placed on meaning in the modern concept of culture—not only for the anthropologist attempting to understand social life, but for the individual who lives it—is perhaps best accounted for in the writings of Clifford Geertz, whose influential ideas helped to redefine the discipline of anthropology in the late 20th century. Geertz (1973a) observed that humans are “unfinished animals,” set apart not just by our ability to learn, but by the astounding amount that we must learn in order to be able to function at the most basic level. Geertz attributed this to the fact that cultural evolution and biological evolution overlapped by millions of years in the phylogenetic development of the species, such that the human brain became utterly dependent on inherited systems of meaning. While our biological “hardware” might furnish us with basic capabilities, we must be socialized into specific social systems in order to use them. We cannot, for instance, simply speak; we must learn to speak English or Japanese or some other highly particular linguistic form. This accounts for the high degree of variability seen across human societies. As Geertz put it, “We all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end having lived only one” (p. 45), since the gap between what biology dictates and what we need to know in order to survive can only be filled with highly particular cultural forms. Without culture, then, humans would not revert to some basic and primary hunter-gatherer form, but would instead be “monstrosities” unable to accomplish even the simplest tasks (1973a, p. 49).
Culture as Symbolic Systems
A central feature of the contemporary concept of culture is the emphasis placed on symbols. More than just providing the means to express and transmit cultural knowledge from person to person and generation to generation, symbols are seen as essential to the building of that knowledge in the first place. Anthropologists now tend to regard culture itself as a collection of symbolic systems, where the construction of cultural models and concepts relies on the unique properties of symbolic representation.
The Nature of Symbols
According to David Schneider (1968), a symbol is “anything that stands for something else.” The idea is that this “something else,” called the symbol’s referent, is not logically deducible from any characteristic of the symbol itself, but is associated with it purely on the basis of an agreement made by a social group. The word dog, for instance, really has nothing to do with the actual thing that speakers of English call a dog, but the connection is made because a group (the speakers of English) has agreed that a particular symbol (the word dog) will stand for a particular referent (the domesticated descendants of the Asian red wolf). At first glance, this might seem unremarkable. But as Clifford Geertz (1973a) pointed out, while there are many instances in nature of “patterns for processes”—such as when a duckling learns a set of behaviors by imprinting on his mother, or when DNA issues “instructions” on how to build certain tissues—the capacity to represent objects and occurrences as they are is exceedingly rare, and probably unique to humans. Symbolic representation allows the users of symbolic systems to make reference to and reflect on things that are not actually present at the time, converting them into ideas that can be analyzed, manipulated, and combined with other such concepts in the medium of abstract thought.
Furthermore, symbolic reference involves much more than merely matching a word or other symbol to its counterpart in the “real world” of objects. In a famous example, Edward Sapir illustrated that when someone uses the word house in the general sense, they do not think of any one house, but of any and all houses that have ever existed or could possibly exist, as well as the set of collective beliefs, attitudes, and judgments associated with that class of objects. This is what is called a concept. Conceptual thought opens the door to the imaginative and productive capacities of the mind, allowing humans to do such extraordinary things as wonder about our place in the world, reflect on things that could have happened, but didn’t, and then lie about all of it. Closely related to the ability to lie is the ability to form conceptions of things pregnant with collective attitudes and value judgments that far exceed the natural or objective characteristics of the referents themselves. As French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1912/1995) emphasized in his landmark treatise on religion, symbols allow groups to focus their collective mental energy on concretized representations of social phenomena and give tangible expression to bundles of emotions and attitudes that might otherwise remain ineffable. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) phrased it: “Men begin as men . . . precisely when they experience the world as a concept (symbolically)” (p. 142). It is for this reason that symbols are seen as the building blocks of culture.
The Pervasiveness of Symbols
Language is the most highly developed symbolic system, and the most common form in which cultural meanings are expressed. As the foremost means of “cutting up” the world into sensible and meaningful categories, language is virtually impossible to distinguish from culture, and it’s not surprising that the idiosyncrasies of its particular forms can have a powerful impact on how its speakers perceive reality (see earlier section, “Cultural Relativism”). But words are far from the only type of symbols used by humans. Clifford Geertz (1973b) regarded any “object, act, event, quality, or relation” as a potential symbol, and as it turns out, human social life is replete with organized systems of them. Geertz held up religion as a prototypical example, where acts, artifacts, relationships, and even people serve to symbolize the abstract concept of the supernatural and the beliefs and values associated with it (1973b). Religion also offers examples of what Roy D’Andrade (1984) would later call the directive and evocative functions of symbolic systems, as it serves to guide and motivate action by, as Geertz (1973b) put it, forming an idea of what the world is like and “clothing” that idea in such an “aura of factuality” as to make it seem self-evident.
Symbolic systems can become so engrained in a community’s understanding of the world that they become difficult to spot. Kinship systems, for instance, appeared for a very long time (even to anthropologists) to be deeply rooted in biology. But David Schneider (1968) argued that there is nothing about shared ancestry or genetic relatedness that necessarily leads to a recognition of the rights, duties, and responsibilities associated with cultural systems of kinship. Numerous kin classifications, in fact, ignore that criterion completely. Schneider concluded that biological relatedness is a symbol just like any other, arbitrarily designated to denote shared identity and mutual responsibility among social groups.
The Constitutive Power of Culture
The very act of perceiving an object or event in the world as being a type of something (e.g., perceiving a certain creature as a dog, the clasping of hands as a prayer, or the meeting of lips as a kiss) entails the symbolic interpretation and generalization of a specific, concrete event. Because symbols represent concepts rather than just things as they exist in the world, almost everything humans perceive is at least partially constituted by collective representations and interpretation. But the power of culture is such that, in many cases, symbols do not attach to any referent at all, and instead actually create the objects or events to which they refer. Philosopher John Searle (1969) referred to this as the capacity to enact constitutive rules. In statements like “when a player crosses the goal line, he scores a touchdown” or “the candidate who receives the plurality of votes in the general election becomes president,” constitutive rules actually create the categories of touchdown and president. Societies are built upon intricate systems of these constitutive rules, which generally take the form “x counts as y in context c.” While usually thought of by the members of the community as natural or even commonsensical, these rules are entirely a matter of social agreement. The idea that one owns a house or car or any other piece of property, for instance, is based on the collective belief that transferring something called “money” to an institution called a “bank” entitles one to special rights over some material thing. Most often, others will not even question those rights. But when someone does seek to violate the agreement through force, such as by stealing a car or invading a home, it is understood that people in uniforms with guns will (hopefully) show up to stop them. Those uniformed enforcers of social consensus will only do so, however, insofar as they agree to obey the orders of an imaginary chain of authority that runs all the way to the president of the United States, whose power comes not from any physical or mental capacity of his, but from the collective agreement that he is to have such authority. Thus, personal property—like civil government or American football—relies on a complex, ordered hierarchy of constitutive rules and social facts that have no basis in material reality.
These institutions reflect a more basic property of symbolic representation: The meaning of cultural units tends to be layered upon many other orders of meaning. Something as simple as reading this sentence, for instance, plays upon such varied levels of conventional meaning as the denotation of speech sounds by individual letters, the definitions of words and groups of words, the grammatical rules that operate at the sentence level, and matters of tone and style conveyed by the structure of the paper as a whole.
The centrality of meanings and symbols in contemporary concepts of culture poses challenges for the study of social life. To begin with, there really is no such thing as a symbol per se, although almost anything can function as one. Symbolism is not an inherent quality of any word or sign, but rather a product of interpretation and consensus. Nor is the meaning of a symbol rigidly determined even by the force of collective agreement. As a number of theorists have argued, the interpretation of symbols relies on complex and often emotionally charged processes in the mind of the interpreter, which it must call upon a broad range of preexisting schemas, scripts, and tacit understandings in order to make any sense at all. Consider the following short description of a sequence of events: “Roger went to the restaurant/The waiter was unfriendly/Roger left a small tip.” In their work on artificial intelligence, Schank and Abelson (1977) showed how little sense such a sequence makes without detailed prior knowledge of what normally happens at a restaurant, what is expected of a waiter, and what is communicated in the complex practice of tipping.
For Clifford Geertz (1973c), the ambiguity and polysemy of the subject matter of anthropology meant that cultures could not be explained, but instead could only be interpreted through a process he called “thick description.” To truly grasp the meaning and significance of a belief or action, Geertz argued, one must first acquire a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural context in which it occurs. Drawing on literary theory, Geertz suggested that culture must be “read” like a text—a text that, from the anthropologist’s point of view, is “foreign and faded,” full of abbreviations, omissions, and contradictions, and written not by anyone’s pen but by sporadic instances of socially meaningful behavior.
Critiques of the Culture Concept
While culture has long been the central object of inquiry in American anthropology (hence the term cultural anthropology), scholars in the British social-anthropological tradition have historically been skeptical of culture, and have instead framed their investigations around the concept of society. In social anthropology, society refers to a complex web of social relationships and systematized patterns of behaviors and ideologies known as institutions (e.g., the military, primitive magic, the nuclear family, or the National Football League). Social anthropologists compare institutions across different societies in order to ascertain their “function.” They are particularly interested in “latent” functions: those consequences of institutionalized behavior of which the actors are unaware, but which nevertheless work to motivate the very existence of the institution. The functionalist approach rests on the assumption that particular types of institutions, such as kinship or government, are motivated by the same basic factors and oriented toward the same basic ends in all human societies in which they are present. Underneath their superficial differences, the various cultural manifestations of these institutions are seen as essentially similar, like species belonging to the same genus.
As concepts, culture and society are not necessarily incompatible, and have been viewed by some as closely related and even complementary. But for several generations of social anthropologists, culture was something of a taboo term. A. R. Radcliffe-Browne, one of the discipline’s founders, insisted that the concept of culture erroneously treated abstract ideas as real and concrete, and was too broad a concept to be useful in the study of social life. He claimed that society, on the other hand, was the proper object of anthropology, since societies were bounded and concrete, and social structure was embodied in directly observable social behavior. Eventually, however, social anthropologists recognized that no attempt to study social relationships could be successful without consideration of the cultural beliefs and values associated with them. Oxford anthropologist John Beattie (1964) identified this as the primary reason that Radcliffe-Browne’s limited conception of social anthropology as “comparative sociology” never fully caught on: The behavior of people in society cannot be understood without reference to what social relationships mean to those who participate in them.
Still, a number of social anthropologists remain reluctant to refer to the semiotic dimension of social life as culture. Adam Kuper (1999) argued that it is more legitimate to analyze religious beliefs, arts, and other institutions as separate domains than as “bound together in a single bundle labeled culture” (p. 245). But as William Sewell (2005) observed, and as Ruth Benedict (1934) noted before him, basic beliefs and symbolic representations of the world tend to cut across the lines that sociologists would use to carve up the social sphere, reaching across institutions, linguistic communities, age-groups, and even religions to span entire societies. This suggests that any attempt to approach such beliefs as though they were miscellaneous qualities of separate institutions risks completely missing the presence of a single, pervasive cultural theme. The more or less unquestioned belief in the sanctity of human life in modern society, for instance, affects almost every conceivable institution, from industrial development and urban planning to the cultivation of food and medicinal testing. To effectively treat such an idea as a product of any one institution would thus be a significant analytical mistake.
In recent years, some of the strongest criticisms of the culture concept have come from within the discipline of cultural anthropology itself. Adherents of a loosely defined movement known as “postmodern anthropology” (also variably referred to as postcultural, poststructural, and reflexive anthropology) have questioned the very usefulness and validity of culture as an abstract concept. Often associated with a 1986 collection of essays edited by James Clifford and George Marcus called Writing Culture, the movement can be viewed an extension of the theories of Clifford Geertz—particularly his use of literary theory and his emphasis on the importance of context. Michael Silverstein (2005) identified the “symbols and meaning-ism” that Geertz helped usher in as the point at which anthropology became a hermeneutic and interpretive project rather than an observational science. But for those affiliated with the Writing Culture movement, Geertz stopped short of the inevitable conclusion of his argument—that the description or “interpretation” of a culture is as much a reflection of the point of view of the anthropologist as it is of the culture itself. From this perspective, the anthropologist does not simply record facts about others’ ways of life; instead, she actually creates (or at least coconstructs) the culture as she describes it. This is obviously very troubling for the credibility of anthropological knowledge, and it becomes especially problematic when, as was traditionally the case, the anthropologist is a member of a dominant society granted unilateral authority to depict the beliefs and practices of a subjugated population. Critics point to this unequal power dynamic as at least partially to blame for misguided attempts to capture complex realities using false dichotomies like “savage vs. civilized,” “rational vs. irrational,” or “individualist vs. collectivist.”
This “reflexive” critique is linked to an older, more basic criticism in anthropology, suggesting that culture is a tool for the preservation of existing systems of power and oppression. Proponents of this view argue that by ascribing too much importance to tradition, the concept of culture legitimates the domination and mistreatment of traditionally powerless segments of societies. A frequently cited example is the disadvantaged place that women are perceived as occupying in traditionally patriarchal societies. Others have argued, however, that the perception of inequality and discrimination in other cultures is prone to error, since it often fails to take into account the subtle cultural mechanisms that redistribute power and shape social relationships. And while there certainly are cases where the idea of culture is misused to justify atrocities, this does not explain why the concept should be rejected as an analytical tool.
Another dimension of the postmodern critique takes specific aim at the practice of referring to a culture or to cultures in the plural. Some feel that this use—which is often traced, somewhat controversially, to the theories of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead—oversimplifies and stereotypes other societies, erroneously treating entire communities as uniform, isolated, and unchanging while downplaying diversity and internal disagreement. This implication is ever more frequently seen in popular usage, where terms like Japanese culture imply a universally shared, unquestioned, and totaling “way of life.” And while integration is not necessarily synonymous with cultural determinism, Benedict (1934), for her part, did little to dispel that interpretation in asserting that the individual “is the little creature of his culture. . . . Its habits are his habits, its beliefs his beliefs” (pp. 2–3). In response, critics like Clifford and Marcus (1986) stressed the importance of individual agency and “resistance” to cultural norms, pointing out that cultures are not bounded, homogeneous, or “pure.” Instead, culture is contested, contradictory, and only loosely integrated, constantly subject to change both from within and without. Postmodernists note that cultures have always been hybridized and permeable, but that this has become increasingly so in recent decades in the face of globalization and capitalist expansion. As Clifford and Marcus (1986) observed, difference is now routinely found next door and familiarity at the end of the earth, suggesting that received notions of culture are not only mistaken, but also irrelevant.
Others maintain, however, that the concept of culture has never implied uniformity, and that no serious anthropologist ever viewed individuals as mindless automatons totally controlled by a self-contained and unchanging cultural system. They argue that culture has always been an abstraction; that is, culture does not represent a “thing” that exists in the world as such, but is instead separated by way of observation and logical inference from the context of real-world actions and utterances in which it is embedded. Alfred Kroeber (1952) defended the practice of speaking of cultures in the plural on this basis, anticipating contemporary critiques in pointing out that one could speak at the same time of a Tokyo or a Japanese or an East Asian culture without implying that any of them represented a homogeneous or totalizing way of life. More recently, Marshall Sahlins (1999) has asserted that the concept of culture critiqued by postmodern anthropologists is a myth. Sahlins does argue that cultural communities can have boundaries, but that these boundaries, rather than being barriers to the flow of people, goods, or ideas, represent conscious designations of identity and inclusion made by the members of the community themselves.
Regarding the uniformity and homogeneity of cultural knowledge, anthropologist Richard Shweder (2003) has argued that culture never implied the passive acceptance of received beliefs and practices or the absence of dispute or debate. Shweder points out that every culture has experts and novices, but that such unequal distribution of knowledge does not mean that anyone is more or less a member of that culture. As one of the chief proponents of the resurgent interdisciplinary field of “cultural psychology,” Shweder has helped demonstrate that basic psychological processes such as selfhood and emotion, rather than being products of deep structural similarity, are rooted in culturally specific modes of understanding (Shweder & Bourne, 1984). Such findings have provided some of the driving force behind the growing influence of the concept of culture in the field of social psychology (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; et al).
Whether prior theories or particular uses of the term carried misguided implications or not, anthropologists continue to recognize culture as an indispensible consideration in the analysis of human social life. As theorists from nearly every area of study surveyed in this research paper have agreed, shared cultural knowledge is absolutely essential for individuals to function in a way that is recognizably human (see Geertz, 1973a, 1973b, 1973c; Whorf, 1956; Beattie, 1964; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Sewell, 2005; Sahlins, 1976). Clifford Geertz referred to a gap that exists between our species’ innate biological predispositions and what humans must know in order to survive and function— a gap that could only be filled with highly particular systems of beliefs, values, and representations expressed and transmitted through symbols.
Even those most critical of the concept tend to recognize the centrality and pervasiveness of culture. Culture represents the shared ideas that define and give meaning to objects, events, and relationships in our world and the collective representations that create and maintain social institutions. This is true even of those domains of human activity appearing to follow their own logic and obeying their set of rules and principles. Renato Rosaldo (1989), whose work was also included among the 1986 collection of essays that kindled the postmodern anthropological movement, wrote as follows:
Culture … refers broadly to the forms through which people make sense of their lives … It does not inhabit a set-aside domain as does politics or economics. From the pirouettes of classical ballet to the most brute of brute facts, all human conduct is culturally mediated. Culture encompasses the everyday and the esoteric, the mundane and the elevated, the ridiculous and the sublime. Neither high nor low, culture is all-pervasive. (p. 26)
Thus, the concept of culture, in one way or another, is likely to remain of central concern to the discipline of anthropology for the foreseeable future.
- Beattie, J. (1964). Other cultures: Aims, methods, and achievements in social anthropology. NewYork: The Free Press.
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