Culture as Anti-Concept in Anthropology

We read the first of three parts of chapter 8, “Studying Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology and discussed culture as anti-concept in 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.

Culture as Anti-Concept in Anthropology

To understand how culture functions as an anti-concept in anthropology, we must first grasp the historical context of its development. About 500 years ago, there was enormous diversity and complexity among societies worldwide. Then, certain regions that were not previously central to global history became global empires. These empires established global trade networks and new hierarchies, transforming the people they encountered. Of course, this transformation was reciprocal–the encountered peoples also influenced and changed the Europeans.

This period shaped how the modern world would be established and developed. When people observed this world, they sought explanations for human differences in political systems, economic structures, and ideas. The explanations promulgated by Europeans and North Americans often attempted to root these differences in the natural world, either in the biology of people or in the geography of their homelands.

Anthropology’s Redefinition of Culture

When anthropology introduced culture as an anti-concept, it was repurposing an existing word. Previously, “culture” primarily referred to “high culture”: the realm of museums, fine wines, and sophisticated tastes. Anthropology took this underutilized term and redefined it to explain human differences.

The importance of this redefinition lies not so much in what it proposed, but in what it opposed. As an anti-concept in anthropology, culture spoke against the prevalent hierarchical ideas of the time that attributed human differences to race or ethnic group. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a brilliant Haitian anthropologist, argued in his essays “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” and “Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises,” that anthropology was assigned to study all people outside of Europe, while other academic disciplines like economics, political science, and sociology focused on Europeans and White North Americans.

Trouillot’s concept of the “Savage Slot” refers to the mental space in European thought that was reserved for the “Other”–those societies deemed primitive or uncivilized. Anthropology, in its early days, was often tasked with studying and explaining these “savage” societies, reinforcing the very hierarchies it sought to challenge. The development of culture as an anti-concept in anthropology was a response to this problematic legacy.

The Two Parts of Culture

Trouillot divides the culture concept into two key parts, which help explain how it functions as an anti-concept in anthropology:

  1. Human behavior is shared and patterned. We make sense of our behavior in comparison to others, developing patterns shared across time and place. Culture encompasses:
    • How we think and communicate ideas
    • Our behavior
    • What we produce (material culture)

    These elements form a feedback loop. For example, the chairs and desks we use influence our behavior and ideas about proper seating, which in turn shapes our physical abilities and comfort levels.

  2. These patterns are learned, not determined by the natural world. This is crucial to understanding culture as an anti-concept in anthropology–while biology and environment are important, they do not determine our behavior, thoughts, or the language we speak. We learn to be particular humans in cultural ways through a process called enculturation or socialization.

Symbols & Conscious Thought in Culture

Culture involves symbols, particularly language, which are integral to how we learn and transmit cultural knowledge. While much of culture operates below the level of consciousness, we also use symbols to consciously represent thoughts and ideas. This symbolic aspect allows us to communicate complex concepts and reflect on our behaviors and beliefs.

The use of symbols in culture is not just an additional feature, but a fundamental aspect of how culture functions and perpetuates itself. Symbols allow us to abstract, categorize, and manipulate ideas, which in turn shapes our understanding of the world and our place in it. This ability to create and use symbols enables the transmission of complex cultural knowledge across generations and the rapid adaptation to new environments and situations.

The Importance of Cultural Relativism

Understanding culture as an anti-concept in anthropology leads to an important principle: cultural relativism. We must be careful about imposing our own cultural norms, learned symbols, and patterns of behavior on others. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued in the 1920s and 1930s, anthropology’s purpose was “to make the world safe for human differences.” This stance was particularly significant given the global context of the time, when many forces were working to make the world unsafe for human difference.

Culture as an Anti-Concept: Challenging Determinism

The power of culture as an anti-concept in anthropology lies not just in what it proposes, but in what it opposes–biological or geographical determinism. By insisting that human differences are learned and culturally shaped, anthropology introduced a new way of thinking about human behavior and diversity.

As an anti-concept, culture functions to dismantle and challenge prevailing notions of human difference. It opposes the idea that some societies are inherently superior or more advanced than others. Instead, it posits that all human societies have complex systems of meaning and behavior that are adapted to their specific contexts. This perspective shifts the focus from ranking cultures to understanding them on their own terms.

Recap: Culture as Anti-Concept in Anthropology

We read the first of three parts of chapter 8, “Studying Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology and discussed culture as anti-concept in 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.

Related

Attempting to explain the anthropological concept of culture has been a key component of this website. Other examples include:


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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