Culture from Dobu until our times

Culture: Giving Meaning to Human Lives?

This is the comment page for two readings:

  • “Dobu” (chapter 5, pp.130-172) in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture
  • Welsch & Vivanco, chapter 2, “Culture: Giving Meaning to Human Lives” (22-40)

for Hartwick College students in Cultural Anthropology 2016

Rough notes below and then Disqus comments follow.

Delightful Dobuans


Can we trust Benedict’s account?

Bronislaw Malinowski, Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Ruth Benedict
Is this about the private lives of anthropologists?
“Set in early 1930s colonial New Guinea, Nell Stone (the Mead surrogate) and her anthropologist husband Schuyler Fenwick or Fen (Fortune) are fleeing a difficult field site. Emotionally and physically exhausted after studying the ‘bloodthirsty’ and warlike Mumbanyo” (Paul Shankman, The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria).

What was the Dobuan situation?

The Dobuans are known to all the white recruiters as easy marks in the area. Risking hunger at home, they sign up readily for indentured labour; being used to9 course and scanty fare, the rations they receive as work boys do not cause mutiny among them. (Benedict 1934:130)

[I’ve posted about this at When culture starts looking like race: Dobu and why reifications matter.]

Culture and Anthropology–Inside and Out

From Welsch & Vivanco, slide on Many Theories of Culture
See Table 2.1 for prominent anthropological theories of culture. Elements that they all share:
Culture is learned.
Culture uses symbols.
Cultures are dynamic, always adapting and changing.
Culture is integrated with daily experience.
Culture shapes everybody’s life.
Culture is shared.
Understanding culture involves overcoming ethnocentrism.

Inside anthropology

Against idea that only the civilized & cultured have culture: Everyone has culture!
Against determinisms: Culture is dynamic, changing
Increasing sophistication of ideas and arguments about culture
Post-structuralism (Welsch & Vivanco:25)

Outside anthropology

Ethnic groups have culture, powerful don’t (Welsch & Vivanco:28)
Culture determines, static, ahistorical
Culture means things that aren’t economic, aren’t political (also happens within anthropology)
“Culture” becomes the polite way to talk about race
Easy-going cultural relativism
Along with huge backlash against idea of “overcoming ethnocentrism” (Welsch & Vivanco:28)

Defining culture in this book (Welsch & Vivanco:29)

“Culture consists of the collective processes that make the artificial seem natural”
Seems to be an unacknowledged debt to Pierre Bourdieu and habitus
“The habitus, the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations . . .
“the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such”
(Outline of a Theory of Practice, 78)
Doxa: Giving Meaning
[Image from Bourdieu (Outline:168) I posted about this at Culture, Culture, Everywhere]

Thinking Culture in this Class

Means describing what gets “taken for granted” (seen as natural or given, the “universe of the undiscussed” or undisputed), and how that process occurs
Hint, look for power
How this can be different over time and between different groups (both within & between societies)


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