Culture is both a key concept and a contested concept in anthropology. Discuss

6 June 2016

Culture is both a key concept and a contested concept in anthropology. Discuss. I will be discussing how culture is used in anthropology, how it has seeped out into other fields of research and also its uses in normal everyday life. I will be looking at why this key concept has been and is still contested by some anthropologists. How it has created problems in the field and how we perceive people through the concept of culture.

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This done through the understanding of the definition of the word culture. Then I will show others who defend its uses and its importance to the creation and development of anthropology. That it is not a matter of the concept of culture but a matter of how it is interpreted and misused throughout the “classic” interpretation of the word. That it is merely a word to convey a set of abstract ideas together and to discard its use is not pragmatic as the word is unbounded. Culture is essentially how humans adapt to survive.

That is the very root of the concept of culture. From there it has developed at a pace that far exceeds biological change. It is something that is learned socially through knowledge and actions and most of it is implicit and invisible (Busse, 2013). The word in everyday life has taken on to mean the way a certain group of people live.

The word has also become a status holder, as now it has come to mean that someone with Culture is someone who is of higher class and lives a more refined, quality lifestyle. This is one of the reasons that will be touched upon why anthropologists wish to remove the word. When the word is taken into the realm of anthropology, it starts to get complicated. Multiple definitions are used and it is not universally agreed upon on which definition is to be used.

The use in anthropology has become a democratisation of elitist using it. This has become a problem for some anthropologists who say it starts to resemble essentialism in the sense that it is creating a clear cut comparisons between cultures (Busse, 2013). Anthropology has a key concept that underlines everything about it, and that concept is culture. Anthropologists are hesitant and are not unanimous when it comes to defining culture, yet it is undoubtedly the most key focus in all anthropological study (Abu-Lughod, 1991).

What it allows anthropologists to do is create the categories of self and other. Without the development of culture as a concept, othering would be done through the concept of race, which was how it was done in the past (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Using culture rather than race gives certain advantages. It allows for differences to be seen in a multiple sense rather than a binary way. Which in effect then allows for a hierarchy and relativizing different cultures into categories. But the most important advantage of culture is how it removes the differences from the natural and innate and removes the confines of thinking in only those terms (Abu-Lughod, 1991).

It has shown us that any set of traditions, rules or customs that are ingrained in a person who belongs to a certain culture can be unlearned and the individual can then learn a new set of rules that belong to another culture. Although the idea of culture is to steer away from the limited confines of race, there are still essentialistic tendencies that freezes differences that comes along with culture. In Said’s book Orientalism (1978), he discusses the differences between the orient and the occident as a clear cut geographic, racial and culturally different areas.

This discourse is so rigid in the way it speaks of the ‘people of the west’ and the ‘people of the East’ that it could be considered to be innate and has elements of essentialism (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Most discourses in the twentieth century now focus on culture not race. They are focused on the religions and languages that attribute to the difference in political aspects such as economic power and government of a country (Abu-Lughod, 1991). It is argued by L. Abu-Lughod (1991) that culture works in anthropological discourse in a way that categorises and separates, which then carries over a sense of hierarchy in their thinking. What she suggests is for anthropologists is to stray away from the use of culture and instead use the concept of ‘ethnographies of the particular’.

This issue was raised when the clear use of the self/other distinction within feminist and bi/multi-cultural anthropologists was brought up. Marilyn Strathern (1985) argued that feminists and anthropologists have different methods of organising knowledge and drawing boundaries within their practises, even though the common interest is in the differences. She notes that this is especially true when it comes to the ethnographer’s relationship to their current research matter.

The experiences of white middle-classed heterosexual women are different to those of more discriminated nature such as lesbians, African-American women and other minorities. This difference in the type of lives lead and experiences had gives the same topic a different perspective (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Which is why when assessing anthropologic writing, it is important to note that although ethnocentric views have been attempted to be avoided, it is often present in the form of self categorisation, and needs to be take into account.

Anthropologists have used culture as a tool for analysis in a very consistent and sophisticated fashion that shows how committed they are to the concept of culture. But even through the extensive use of culture, there have been concerns about how it still freezes differences in a way much alike to race. For example the concept of the ‘native’ is a term used by anthropologists that immediately others non-Western people (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Many anthropologists have argued that cultural theory has not only frozen differences but has also created cohesion where there may not be or does not need to be.

Clifford said that anthropological field-workers in an attempt to enable their own authority on the knowledge of the subject matter, created a coherent cultural other and the interpretation of self and other (Clifford, 1988:112). Abu-Lughod has brought up some methods of contesting “culture”. These methods are techniques that have been in use in anthropological circles today by those who also agree with the concept of writing against culture. (Abu-Lughod, 1991). One method is the theoretical discussion of anthropologists.

This is one of the means by which anthropologists engage one another, making it a great way to contest culture. The use of the terms discourse and practise in discussions are good indicators of anthropologists steering away from culture. As long as discourse and practise are kept safe from being changed into just other terms for culture, and are used as intended, they will allow for a social analysis without the presumed coherence that the concept of culture has came with (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Another method of contesting culture is to change the topics that anthropologists address. The subject matter and their problems can be reworked so that the use of culture is not required.

The questions need to be more focused on the history and connections between the community and the anthropologist. The useless feature of these techniques is how it brings out the similarities between all societies. When the discourse is much more in-depth and personal instead of a generalisation, it becomes less culture and more about people which should be the main focus in any anthropological study.

Brumann contests the idea that culture should be written off, and argues that the negative connotations are not problems with
the concept itself but associated with the ways that culture is used in ways that are less common than the critics of culture in anthropology assume (Brumann, 1999). There does not seem to be a difference in the way culture is defined between classic texts and modern ones. Yet there seems to be a significant difference in the way it is interpreted by “classic” and modern cultural anthropologists. Culture was simply a synonym to convey the word people in early ethnographies.

Yet the word culture being linked to words such as the ‘native’ which has lead to the harsh degree of us and othering, has led to the word also being dragged down as a tool that is limiting and encouraging essentialistic views. Brumann then suggests that it is not the word that is the problem, but the intent in which the user uses the word.

A good example would be the use of the word race. Race being a concept that was completely unfounded and outdated, it has been in a way tabooed from use in scientific text, hindering physical anthropologists, who would wish to use the word in a non-racist way that best assists their descriptions of human biodiversity (Keita & Kittles, 1997).

Brumann find that culture, given its misuse in the past and present, is not comparable to the way race was used and does not deserve a similar treatment. He believes that if the meaning that those anthropologists who wish to be rid of the concept of culture gave it is discarded, and the word is used to its best intended meaning, in its most optimal way, then there would be no problem with the word (Brumann, 1999).

Culture although being a noun, is not something that is there like a physical object. It is a set of abstract or arbitrary aggregate that come together to be identified as a culture (Brumann, 1999). Not unlike how for example, how a set of individual trees, streams and animals come to form a forest. Cultures are not bound by natural boundaries as it is a concept of many ideas coming together and so are only bounded by people (Brumann, 1999). I have discussed the importance of the concept of culture in the world we live in and the field of anthropology.

There are those who believe that culture should be a concept that is hindering anthropology and we have no need for it anymore. There are those who defend its uses, saying that it is not the concept that fails, but the people who misunderstood the interpretation of culture gave the impression that culture is something to be avoided.

That when it is used in the way it was meant, it is a tool that cannot be replaced by another word as it has become to ingrained in our understanding of the world and societies. I believe that the concept itself is not the issue, but there are concerns that need addressing such as the use of self and other that leaks into ethnographies. Also with the need for having to gain knowledge of the “whole’ culture and not smaller niches within the community.

But culture as a whole is a concept that has allowed us to remove ourselves from the days of thinking in terms of race. It has allowed for societies to be more accepting of others as culture is something of value. It is a concept that I believe if used in the optimal way as Brumman puts it, can be a tool for aiding anthropology and less in hindering it.

References
Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. 1991. Writing against Culture. Edited by R. G. Fox, Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research. Brumann, Christoph. 1999. Writing for culture: why a successful concept should not be discarded. Current Anthropology 40. Busse, Mark. 2013. Anthropology 203 Lectures. University of Auckland. Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twenthieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Boston: Harvard College. Keita, Kittles. 1997. The persistance of racial thinking and the myth of racial divergence. American Anthropologist 99:534-44. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. Michigan: Pantheon Books.

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