Culture Matters

Culture Doesn’t Matter

by Jason Antrosio

Even though anthropology textbooks and courses promote the idea of culture, there is one title the culture-promoting textbooks cannot use: Culture Matters. Culture Matters is the title of an edited volume published in 2000. Titling an anthropology textbook Culture Matters would give the game away. Culture is now a ubiquitous term outside of anthropology, where it is often put to pernicious use (see Doubling-Down on Culture and David Brooks is a Cultural Problem).

The Scene of Culture Matters

Culture Matters was the result of a conference sponsored by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, the Huntington who brought us The Clash of Civilizations. Out of 24 pieces discussing how much culture matters, there are exactly three anthropologists.

The subtitle of Culture Matters is “how values shape human progress.” The thesis is nicely summarized in a particularly obnoxious piece by David Brooks written shortly after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake:

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them. (Brooks 2010, The underlying tragedy)

Brooks was simply cribbing from things Harrison had said long before the earthquake. Michel-Rolph Trouillot had already pointed out and tried to refute this false narrativge. “Culture Matters echoes arguments that Harrison makes elsewhere about Nicaragua and notably Haiti–where he was a USAID official–and the woes of which he blames on ‘Vodoo politics’ and ‘the imprint of African culture'” (Global Transformations 2003:144; see Haiti’s Nightmare and the Lessons of History from 1994 and The Headline I Wish We Were Reading: Anthropology Changed Everything for an update).

Samuel Martinez correctly faulted Brooks for “attacking Haiti precisely at its culture, the one area where it is generally understood to be ‘rich'” (“Tough love,” hold the love and see also David Brooks: Worse than Pat Robertson?). However, Martinez and others went apoplectic in a way that really only resonated with the anthropological community. Somewhat ironically, one of the most effective rebuttals came from the old master of Caribbean studies, Sidney Mintz: “The inescapable truth is that ‘the world’ never forgave Haiti for its revolution, because the slaves freed themselves” (Whitewashing Haiti’s History). However, just like in Culture Matters, none of the anthropological critique got heard at the same volume as the original pronouncements.

The anthropologists in Culture Matters

The three anthropologists in Culture Matters were shoehorned into a single section titled “The Anthropological Debate,” a section guaranteed to remain irrelevant to the overall scope of the project–let’s put the anthropologists over here and let them debate among themselves. First came Robert B. Edgerton, who was happy to recap his Sick Societies: “There has been no perfect society and no ideal adaptation–only degrees of imperfection” (2000:138).

The counterpoint to Edgerton, and the only openly skeptical voice in this collection, is Richard Shweder. Shweder called himself “one of the heretics at this revival meeting” (2000:161). Shweder delivered a rousing defense of cultural relativism. His chapter was the only one in the volume to then get reactions printed from three of the conference participants, who accuse Shweder of being an elitist intent on imprisoning others in underdevelopment. Shweder did get to print his own response to the three reactions, concluding with a stirring statement: “I fully confess to rejecting the idea that the only or very best way to be dignified, decent, rational, and fully human is to live the life of a North American or a northern European” (2000:176).

On not going for the jugular

Shweder is correct, and his reaction is certainly understandable. However, to phrase this in terms of a classic defense of cultural relativism left him open to backlash. Harrison accused him of “a kind of anthropological imperialism that would encase cultures in permafrost” (xxvii). Shweder also missed the chance to go for the jugular and question a central premise from Harrison. “It is, for example, the cultural contrast between Western Europe and Latin America that I believe chiefly explains the success of the Marshall Plan and the failure of the Alliance for Progress” (xxxii).

Leaving aside the issue of how much Latin American history is intertwined with the history of Western Europe (note the word Latin), and leaving aside that the question of Marshall Plan success versus Alliance failure is actually much more complicated than this characterization, the simple fact is that comparing the Marshall Plan to the Alliance for Progress is like comparing a sit-down meal to circus peanuts. Never, ever, in the whole history of development initiatives has anything been done on the scale of the Marshall Plan, and the Marshall Plan was carried out in countries that had recently been at full productive capacity, industrial war machines. To take one example, Italy, with a population of 47million people in 1950, received 1.2 billion dollars in a four-year period from 1948-1951 (Wikipedia, Marshall Plan), or about $25/person. This can be compared to Colombia, which was supposed to be a “showcase” for the Alliance. Expenditure figures are more difficult to ascertain, but a generous back-of-the-envelope calculation would be about $108million spent in the early 1960s (with a large part of that in loans, not grants), for a 1960 population of about 15.5million people, or about $7/person (see From the Alliance for Progress to Plan Colombia).

The “failures” of the Alliance for Progress are really from a genuine lack of political will and resource commitment. That nothing on a Marshall Plan scale was ever done for developing countries is confirmed by Lauchlin Currie, the author of the first-ever World Bank mission study in Colombia, who in 1967 suggested that a truly comprehensive approach be implemented in three pilot countries–one in Latin America, one in Africa, and one in Southeast Asia–to prove development could be accomplished, and then use the estimates from those pilot countries to come up with a price tag that would be a Marshall Plan for the world (Currie, Obstacles to Development, p.139). Obviously this never happened.

It’s really too ridiculous that a fuzzy-headed cultural anthropologist like me has to do the math and take to task the collection of supposedly hard-nosed economists, political scientists, sociologists, and business consultants. It is not the “cultural contrast” that explains the Marshall Plan versus the Alliance for Progress: it’s the money. (Fortunately, at least on issues of race in the U.S., some sociologists have done the math on money to figure out that much of the difference between white and black trajectories can be attributed to differences in net wealth. It’s not culture, it’s net worth. See Black Wealth / White Wealth or Being Black, Living in the Red; also see content section Racism and biological anthropology and for an update on the average white/black wealth gap, Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.)

Weisner’s Hidden Critique

Wedged between Edgerton and Shweder is a chapter by Thomas Weisner, “Culture, Childhood, and Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Weisner is a hidden gem of critique, providing a counterpoint to statements like the crazy mischaracterization Brooks makes about Haitian parenting:

Given the cultural importance, personal intimacy, and ambivalence that attach to parenting and child rearing, why focus on changing the values and practices of children’s cultural careers that families both defend and are struggling to change? Indeed, I have to wonder why those interested in achieving economic development and new forms of civic life displace our attention by focusing on the details of how parents should raise their children.

Families could be helped so much more easily through the provision of the means to establish basic and universally desired social supports and thereby the wherewithal to achieve meaningful daily routines of family life. . . . there certainly is reason to provide a foundation that establishes any culture’s ability to provide well-being for children: the basic social supports of security, stability, health, and resources that permit families to achieve for their children a sustainable daily routine in their community that meets their goals. That is progress. (2000:155)

In this respect, Weisner’s critique–let’s get off the high-horse of values and provide real resources and options–is very much in line with what Lila Abu-Lughod concludes as an alternative to non-interventionist cultural relativism, pleading for

what I do believe should be a universal human right–the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday rights of having enough to eat, having homes for their families in which to live and thrive, having ways to make decent livings so their children can grow, and having the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good life, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized. . . .

Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow–or veil–of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world. Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives. (Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?, 787, 789)

The problem is not exactly whether culture matters–of course patterns of learned behavior are important–but using them as an explanation for success or failure economically, or for explaining particular political regimes, is extremely problematic.

Is David Brook’s Reassessing?

The point about culture seems to be slowly dawning on David Brooks, who reassessed Huntington in 2011:

In retrospect, I’d say that Huntington committed the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is, he ascribed to traits qualities that are actually determined by context. . . . It now appears that people in these nations, like people in all nations, have multiple authentic selves. In some circumstances, one set of identities manifests itself, but when those circumstances change, other equally authentic identities and desires get activated. . . .

I’d say Huntington was also wrong in the way he defined culture. . . . Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people. (Brooks 2011, Huntington’s Clash Revisited)

Without getting into these universal aspirations, I’ll just see the positive and say that Brooks is telling us we need a much more dynamic view of cultural potential. Now Brooks should revisit that Haiti column. As Brazil (featured in a corner-iconic picture on Culture Matters as example of impoverishment) surges into an economic powerhouse, it may turn out African-influenced religions aren’t so bad for economic success. After all, economic success may come from working hard and know-how, but it can also come from luck, geographic accident, pillage, and ruthless exploitation. Culture can be a wonderful justification for economic success, especially when covering over exploitation.

Can the title Culture Matters return? The people at the blog at the blog titled Culture Matters seem to think it is OK. Perhaps things are different in Australia. I maintain we need to defend the concept and idea that learned patterns of behavior matter, but loudly abandon culture terminology, to the point of showing how often culture doesn’t matter.

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  • If it’s money, and not culture, as you claim, doesn’t culture play a part in the economic development of a society, or is Mariano Grondona and Ronald Inglehart and the World Values Survey wrong in their assertions and implication? If culture does have a direct influence on a society’s economic beliefs and institutions, then culture is still at the root of a society’s legal/political environment, right?

    • Hi Bob, thank you for the comment. Undoubtedly there are lots of linkages of culture, power, economics, and inequality. That’s really the point of this, not necessarily to claim that one is primary or a root cause, because there are plenty of cases in which the legal-political environment is imposed upon rather than a manifestation of culture. What I am objecting to is the claim that Latin American development projects didn’t work–in comparison to the Marshall Plan–because of Latin “culture,” based on the simple fact that the Marshall Plan was many more dollars per capita than any development plan has ever been. It is also fairly easy to empirically verify that different countries, and particular geographic regions within countries, go through economic booms and busts without ever having much in the way of cultural change. A great example is Brazil, which is a prominent fixture on the Culture Matters cover, and was a perennial favorite for berating about their backward culture. But now Brazil is #6 or #7 largest economy in the world, and while certainly there have been changes, it’s hard to believe that from 2000-2012 there’s been some huge cultural change.

      • Bob Huddleston

        Sorry it has taken this long to respond. I’m a slow learner with this Disqus thing (very little contact up to this point).

        To your knowledge has anyone ever been able to disaggregate culture enough, and quantify those elements in any meaningful way that would possibly allow for controlling for the economic resource allocation variable like you refer to in your comparison of the Marshall Plan to the Latin American development projects?

        • Hi Bob, no need for apologies, thank you for re-visiting! Of course there are many people who think they can disaggregate culture and then control for other elements. However, for me the fundamental issue is that terms like culture, economy, and politics are all abstractions we use to describe societies in ongoing transformation–they can’t be disaggregated because they are always in mutual influence. For a more recent example, see David Brooks is a cultural problem. Certainly David Brooks wants to believe that culture is a “root” issue that is separate from economics and politics, but that doesn’t mean we should let him get away with it!

          • Bob Huddleston

            Jason, your reply leads me to infer that you believe it is impossible to disaggregate the components of culture in any meaningful (useful) way. Is that correct. I understand that culture, by nature, is immensely multivariate and dynamic, but call me a dreamer, I’m still hoping we’ll eventually see the development of Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory one of these days. It appeals to my desire to find patterns, categories, explanations, etc.

            Whether “culture” is a “root issue” or not, isn’t it possible that there are in fact some components of culture that can be accounted for and show, at least for now, some meaningful correlative or causative relationship to some social (including economic and political) phenomena? If it’s being attempted and failing, that’s fine, and that’s the way this whole academia thing is supposed to work, but I don’t know that I’d “pooh-pooh” the whole idea as misguided. Not that I think you’ve gone that far. Skepticism and criticism aren’t the same thing, and I understand that. Are you familiar with Grondona’s work, and if so, what are your thoughts on what he *appeared* to have come up with in terms of his attempts to disaggregate culture and on Inglehart’s testing of Grondona’s ideas in the World Values Survey?

            Regarding the use of “abstractions” can’t the same thing be said for other umbrella concepts, like “Human Rights”, for example, as that term/concept is dynamic and subjective, and trying to disaggregate that term and quantify and measure human rights can’t be done because it’s influenced by societies and cultures and individuals differently and is always in flux?

            Oh, and thank you for the reply. I’m fascinated by this topic specifically based on a grad class in human rights I took last year by the prolific taskmaster, Dr. Dursun Peksen.

          • Hi Bob, I certainly understand your desire to find patterns, categories, and explanations. We all do! It’s a very human trait. However, I would recommend checking out Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work like Fooled by Randomness and I’ve recently discussed his take on Black Swan Anthropology.

            That’s not to say disaggregated explanations are impossible–of course they are what we all strive for. However, we have to check and double-check against getting fooled into thinking we see patterns and explanation when what we have is post-hoc story telling.

            My plea is simply for greater precision, rather than blanket explanations like “their culture.” And that applies especially to explanations which blame culture when there is a more obvious economic or resource-based explanation.

            As for human rights, we are there too dealing with abstractions from real situations, especially when they are packaged as indices. Again, not that there is no use in such attempts, but just need to be very careful about how we get from one data point to a number to an overall conclusion.


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  • María Santo Brown

    I’m agree with Shweder, the progress is not living the american life style, thousands of drug addicts, using cars unnecessarily, spreading tons of carbon in the air like you doing, America have a huge economical crisis and you should think that maybe is because your consumer culture, -also by sending all the factories to China searching get lower production cost-. Many American people doesn’t want to get dirty their hands in a factory, they want solve everything in front a brand-new flat-screen computer. I’m not against America -my grand father was American- but I’ve seen how your culture has change in a wrong way. The current American lifestyle does not mean better quality of life, but we could take some parameters in the context of economic social and cultural rights, trying to keep the identity of each community 🙂

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