Idea of Culture

For the idea of culture, we read the first of three parts of chapter 8, “Studying Culture” (186-200) in Through the Lens of Anthropology. The previous class had been about what had come before the idea of culture, or Race & Culture. The next class continued by talking about Enculturation.

Idea of Culture

For the idea of culture, we turn to chapter 8 of Muckle, González, and Camp. However, the reason we so much needed to insert a “chapter 7.5” is because about 500 years ago there’s enormous diversity and complexity of societies around the world. Then, these places that were not very important to global history became global empires. They set up global trade networks, new hierarchies, and transform the people that they would encounter. Of course, the people they would encounter talk back and transform the Europeans as well. [This period] shaped how the modern world would be established and developed. But when people looked at that world, the explanations for why people were different, and why people had developed different political and economic systems, and different ideas, and why people were unequal, the explanations that the Europeans and North Americans promulgated were ones that tried to root those differences in the natural world: the biology of the people who contain these characteristics, or the geography of the place in which they had developed.

When anthropology came out with the idea of culture, it was taking a word which had already existed. The idea of culture had already been an idea, but it corresponded more to the idea of “high culture”: people who go to museums and are “cultured.” Or to the idea of agriculture. People who can drink wine and participate in those highfalutin areas. What anthropology did is take this word, which wasn’t very much in use at the time, and used it to say _culture_ is what determines human difference. What they were trying to do is to speak against the hierarchies that had been developed and naturalized by race or by social group, or we might call ethnic group. When culture is launched into the world by anthropologists, it is not so much that it was an amazing idea on its own or what it contained, but a lot of it was important because of what it spoke _against_. It talked against these kinds of ideas that were prevalent at the time about what determined human differences.
Culture is a hugely important concept in anthropology. It’s perhaps the one concept that anthropology has given the world, more than any other, but sometimes its importance is lost if we don’t understand how people once thought about the world and why people were different from each other.

When I use the term culture as an _anti-concept_ along with many of the ideas that I’m going to be talking about . . . I’m borrowing heavily from one of my mentors, the Haitian anthropologist and scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who’s one of the smartest people that I have ever met. He wrote two amazing essays, one of which is very well known in anthropology called “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” and the other called “_Adieu_ Culture: A New Duty Arises.” In “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” Trouillot describes how anthropology as a discipline got assigned to study all the people outside of Europe. When other academic disciplines like economics and political science and sociology developed, they were basically concentrating on the Europeans and the [White] North Americans, but anthropology got assigned to everybody “out there.” Trouillot argues that anthropology got assigned to a slot, a mental space in European ideas that was about why people were the way they were, outside of the other academic disciplines. . . .

Trouillot divides the culture concept into two parts, which in some ways correspond to what Muckle, González, and Camp call the “parts of culture.”

The first part of the culture concept is quite simple. They’re both easy ideas, but again their importance is that as compared to what people believed before. The first part is that human behavior is shared and patterned. We make sense of our behavior in comparison to others. We develop patterns, which are shared in different times and places. So, Muckle, González, and Camp say culture contains the ideas of how we think–what sorts of things that we’re thinking about and how we are communicating those ideas. Our behavior, what we do is influenced by our culture, and importantly what we make or what we produce. As they put it, “what we have.”

So, our ideas about the world and our behavior becomes part of how we produce food, or other things, like the desks and chairs you’re sitting in right now. That’s called material culture, as we’ve seen from archaeology, and then that influences our behavior and our ideas about the world as we come into a space. We are very convinced that we should all sit in our own individual chairs and that our legs should be hanging down from our knees. In other societies we wouldn’t need these chairs and desks: we would have grown up being able to squat and sit for a couple hours. We’d be fine just sitting there on our heels. I sometimes ask people to squat for a while, but it’s too hard for me, it’s too painful, because we’re not brought up in that society. Our material culture, what we have and make, has a feedback loop with our behavior, and our ideas about the world and our patterns of how we live. That’s part one.

The second part is crucially important: the patterns and sharing are learned. They are learned, but not necessarily from school. In fact, most people around the world haven’t gone to, and traditionally didn’t have, formal schooling. We soak patterns up from the time that we are babies. That we would feel completely comfortable squatting for two hours if we had been raised in that society. We learn how to do these things. That means that they are not _determined_ by the natural world. . . . That’s not to say that the world out there isn’t important or that our biology isn’t important. It’s that our biology, genetics, skeletons, tongues, or larynx are not determining the language we’ll speak or the ideas that we’ll have. Of course, biology is important, but it doesn’t determine our behavior and thoughts. [Likewise, we are not determined by] the world that is outside, or what we call the natural environment.

We learn how to be a particular human in a cultural way. How we learn this is through a process that is called enculturation or socialization. A lot of this comes from our caregivers, often our parents, or whoever happens to be giving us care, our elders. It also happens through our peers, how we talk to each other, and our siblings, and the people around us have a lot to do with how we think and behave.

We will be talking in the next class about the enculturation process and an article called “Our Babies, Ourselves.”

Culture involves symbols. We use language. . . . We think about what we’re doing. Often much of culture works without us thinking about it. We do things like sit down and hold our pen in a certain way without ever bringing it to consciousness. However, we also think about things. We use symbols to stand for thoughts and ideas, to communicate things in the world. Anthropologists insist that culture is learned. That it shapes human behavior. So, we need to be careful about imposing our own cultural norms, our own learned symbols, our own patterns of behavior on others. . . . One of the early anthropologists, Ruth Benedict, I think this would have been in the 1920s and 1930s when people were really revving up on trying to make the world unsafe for human difference, insisted that anthropology’s purpose was to make the world safe for human differences. To speak against the hierarchies and militarized transformations that had happened in the past and were indeed happening at that time. Culture became a crucial way in which anthropology tried to introduce a different way of thinking about human differences, human behavior, and human patterns.