Culture & Our Babies

This is the comment page for a first attempt at understanding how anthropologists think about culture using Lavenda & Schultz chapter 8, “How Does the Concept of Culture Help Us?” and Meredith Small, “Our Babies, Ourselves,” originally in Natural History (1997). This discussion is part of the Hartwick Introduction to Anthropology 2016 course. For a 2022 update on Meredith Small, see this lecture:

Rough notes below and then Disqus comments.

Culture… as anti-concept or… as anthropology’s attempt to dislodge Western progressivist ideas

Orientation is reworking the Lavenda & Schultz chapter with two essays from Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Lavenda & Schultz:243) in Global Transformations:
“Anthropology and the Savage Slot”
“Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises”

There should be Lavenda & Schultz Chapter 7 ½

Chapter 7 ends with the Inka Empire, then Chapter 8 goes directly to the culture concept.
Meanwhile, centuries of trade, interaction, political empires rise & fall, cities, hunting techniques, ecosystems, transformation
Questioning Collapse (2009:10 and Lavenda & Schultz:337)
“most powerful and largest cities in the world”
500AD = Mexico, Italy, China
1000AD = Peru, Iraq, Central Asia
1500AD = China, India, Turkey
Northern Europe was mostly peripheral, perhaps even seen as a barbaric backwater [I’ve posted about this in a reprise of Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History].
Islamic Empire & the Reconquista [I cover this material more extensively at the beginning of Cultural Anthropology 2016]
Spanish & Portuguese Empires 1500s-1800s
British Empire

Anthropology emerges

Late 19th to early 20th century, during northern European empire-and-nation building
1st wave was Spanish & Portuguese colonies reshaping the world from 1500-1800
British & French Anthropology: external others
German: internal as “folklore” roots
US Anthropology: internal others and later the world

“The Savage Slot” (Lavenda & Schultz:243)

Why are they like that?
Prevalent ideas were of Biological or racial determinism and Environmental determinism
Organizing people into a hierarchy of races, hierarchy of social groups
Anthropology (eventually) says NO!
Human difference is due to

The Culture Concept, Part 1

Human behavior is patterned
“related cultural beliefs and practices show up repeatedly in different areas of social life” (Lavenda & Schultz:230)
Not random
Structured, or more than sum of individual behaviors
Patterns have to be understood on their own terms

The Culture Concept, Part 2

Those patterns are learned
Not determined by natural world either within human body or outside human body (although we never want to lose sight of these aspects or consider them as separate from culture)
Structuring through:
social transmission, “shared” (Lavenda & Schultz:230)
symbolic coding (Lavenda & Schultz:232)
some degree of human consciousness
“cannot help but see the world in symbolic categories” (Deacon in Lavenda & Schultz:233)
The idea of culture has been fruitful for shared arguments & analysis.


“no sharp boundaries separate mind from body, body from environment, individual from society, my ideas from our ideas” (Lavenda & Schultz:234)
No human “stripped of culture” (Geertz in Lavenda & Schultz:237; see also my post on Human Nature and Anthropology)
Coevolution (237)
Biocultural, and in transformed niche-constructed environments
Bourdieu’s idea of habitus (230)

Structure and Agency (Lavenda & Schultz:234)

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”
Karl Marx
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Cultural Relativism

Sympathetic understanding in its own terms (237)
Against ethnocentrism
“that one’s own way of life is natural or correct, indeed, the only true way of being fully human” (Lavenda & Schultz:237)
After all, be careful when judging other learned patterns of behavior
Become aware of “unsuspected possibilities” (Lavenda & Schultz:239)–invites tolerance
Means to understand, not necessarily approve

Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small

Parenting Practices
Gusii: “The Gusii mothers were appalled. . . . These American women, the Gusii concluded are clearly incompetent mothers” (LeVine:1).
Dutch: The “three Rs” (Harkness and Super:2)
Differences not just in far-away others
Against ethnocentric child-rearing

From ethnocentrism to ethnopediatrics: Major issues for parents

Holding, attention to crying, versus scheduling (Barr:4)
Feeding: How, when to wean (Dettwyler:5)
Sleep:: Co-sleeping: regulator of breathing (McKenna:6)
Child-rearing expresses & inculcates values

Holism and Biocultural

Humans born “neurologically unfinished” (4)
Heart rates and breathing are social from the beginning
Natural brain development during intense nurture
Anthropological holism questions nature/nurture dichotomy
No human nature outside of particular history and nurture
No baseline parenting pattern–long histories in diverse environments.

Importance of cultural sensitivity. But also consider issues of power and choice

I know I have helped residents broaden their views when their lectures on good mothering are replaced by such comments as ‘What a gorgeous baby! I can’t imagine how you manage both work and three others at home! (Tronick:3)

[I’ve posted thoughts about “Our Babies, Ourselves” as Childcare, Culture & Power]