There seems to be a kind of convergence in my online life around the concept of culture: a FaceBook conversation with Levi Bryant, a post and discussion on Neuroanthropology, which was reposted to Synthetic_Zero and has generated some discussion there as well. All this makes me think it’s time I revisit the concept. Long followers will know that I’ve posted about “culture” before as I’ve played with the idea and tried to explore its various limits and liminalities. I can’t say that I’ve solved any of the long standing problems that have plagued anthropologists for decades, if not the entirety of the field, but I have my thoughts, and thoughts are worth sharing.
First, a little background. What’s wrong with the concept of culture? Lots of things. Since the founding of the discipline, anthropologists have debated the definition of “culture.” In 1871, Edward Tylor gave us his famous “everything and the kitchen sink” definition: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” From there the concept proliferated, and, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn published a “critical review” of different conceptions of culture in which they listed 164 unique definitions of the term. This predates many of the more recent significant definitions – Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Geertz’s webs of signification, Rappaport’s culture as ecology, and so on – so the field has only become more cluttered in the intervening years. This has led to empirical issues since the methodology and analytic methods one uses to examine culture depend largely on how it is defined. As a result, a lot of anthropology is incommensurable simply because different anthropologists have studied different things under the name of culture.
It’s possible to say that all of these different concepts of culture are right in some way and that culture is simply impossible to define. As a result, like so many visually impaired people inspecting an elephant, we can only grasp it impressionistically based on the particular definition we use at any given time. That might be okay for managing the methodological concerns, however, there’s an additional problem. The issue with “culture” is not just that it’s hard to define, it’s that those definitions have serious implications for the people we study. Culture, as it has been defined in the past, has made it possible to exoticize others, and has been used as a tool in the colonial expansion of the West to justify our occupation of their lands (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture” and “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” – the latter demonstrates that these ways of thinking about culture are still in use today). Add to that the recent criticism of “black culture” (or “Islamic culture”) – which , admittedly, are not used by any anthropologists that I am aware of – and you can begin to see how problematic concepts of culture can be if not thought out.
With all of that in mind, what are my thoughts on culture? First, I’m not sure it’s necessary to define it entirely. That we have different conceptions of culture is not necessarily detrimental to anthropological practice – we’ve gone this long without having a universally accepted definition, so I’m sure we’ll be able to continue for a while. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though, even if it is what I really think. As I’ve shown above, definitions do matter – they have methodological and analytical implications, as well as political ones – so agnosticism isn’t really a viable solution.
I would argue that we get away from a lot of the problems mentioned above by avoiding concepts of culture as a thing – either form or content. Lende’s definition of culture as warped spaces gets dangerously close to this. I would also say that it’s better on the whole to avoid complex metaphors and analogies. Again, Lende’s analogy of culture with Einstein’s relativity offers a good example. The problem is that analogies and metaphors only go so far – our lives are not literally warped by culture – and so, for analytical purposes they can become troublesome (I can imagine some anthropologist of the future trying to measure the warping of life around culture). It’s possible that metaphors are good for trying to communicate the idea to a broader audience that doesn’t have a knowledge of the century-long debate around the concept. However, even in those cases, I think simple and direct definitions are better whenever possible so as to avoid further confusion as much as possible.*
My own preference, then, is to think of culture as a process – the process of interacting and engaging with others including non-humans, the process of building relationships. And for this, I think Anna Tsing’s definition of “friction” is a good starting point (and here I think it was unfair of Lende to relegate Tsing to the “Newtonian” camp simply because she uses a concept from Newtonian physics to name her approach): “…the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.” It is through this process of interacting across difference that many of the things we define as “cultural” (art, artifacts, rituals, styles, values, norms, beliefs, etc.) are produced. Culture is therefore an act of production. As a result, we can’t talk about “a culture”, we can only talk about the processes of interaction and the kinds of things and relationships that the process produces.
I think this avoids many of the political problems associated with the concept because by definition, anyone who is commenting on a culture is part of the cultural process, and they too are implicated in any critique. When Bill O’Reilly decries “black culture” or the “culture of poverty” his actions can (must) be seen as part of the process the produces those effects, and, therefore, partially responsible for their persistence over time. Methodologically and analytically, it means we must focus on the interactive processes and their products. What exactly is produced through the process of modeling environmental systems? What kinds of artifacts, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of knowledge or values, etc.? I’m not sure this idea is any easier to convey to the broader public, but it isn’t so complex that most people couldn’t understand it with some assistance.
That’s my current take on the topic. I can’t say that I won’t change my mind in the future, and I’m not suggesting that all anthropologists should use this definition exclusively. I’m only suggesting that this is a useful way to think about culture for me in my practice. There’s a lot of room for other possible conceptions, and I think the most important thing is that we continually pay attention and continually work on building a better understanding of culture and the way social processes work.
*I think there is one way in which the relativity metaphor might be useful, but Lende doesn’t explore it much. That is the idea of relativity versus relativism, which Bruno Latour hints at in Reassembling the Social. Relativism says that we all exist in different, incommensurable worlds, and that, as a result, we cannot judge others based on our own standards. That’s the extreme form, at least, but all of the lesser forms depend on this assumption for their basis. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, suggests that we all come from different starting points, different points of observation. In order to converge, we have to understand those different starting points, and work out how bring our different observations together. I think something like this, rather than relativism, would be a useful framework for anthropology.