What is Culture?

Inevitably a “Cultural Anthropology” course needs to have some answer to the common question: What is Culture? In this 2020 class we read the first part of chapter 2, “Culture” in Kenneth Guest’s Essentials of Cultural Anthropology:

In the next class we finished the chapter and tried to apply the ideas to American Gun Culture. These materials were for Cultural Anthropology 2020. For a 2023 update, see Culture.

Guest begins this section with a quick account of the differences between how culture is often thought of in everyday life as compared to what anthropologists believe:

When people hear the word culture, they often think about the material goods or artistic forms produced by distinct groups of people–Chinese food, Middle Eastern music, Indian clothing, Greek architecture, African dances. Sometimes people assume that culture means elite art forms such as those displayed in museums, operas, or ballets. But for anthropologists, culture is much more: It encompasses people’s entire way of life. (Guest 2020, 35).

Discussion: What is Culture?

Guest detailed many different aspects of culture in this chapter. For discussion, I asked students to comparing Guest’s 2020 definition with E.B. Tylor’s definition in 1871.

Here’s Guest in 2020: “Culture is a system of knowledge, beliefs, patterns of behavior, artifacts, and institutions that are created, learned, shared, and contested by a group of people” (35).

Here’s Tylor in 1871: “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (from Primitive Culture, in Guest 2020, 42-43).

Has anything changed significantly in the past 150 years regarding the definition of culture?

Provocation: What is Culture?

A couple things to think about: If culture encompasses an entire way of life, then why do we need a separate idea of culture? Isn’t it just life? If the idea of culture hasn’t really changed too much in the last 150 years–and is still associated with “Primitive Culture”–is culture really an idea that anthropology wants to keep promoting?

Rough Transcript

We’re going to go over the concept of culture as Guest goes over it in his book. As we looked at it from the discussion board: What has happened over the past 150 years with the idea of culture? We’ll do the textbook overview, and then in the second part I’m going to tackle the material again, but I want to do it in a “why does this matter?” or “why should we care?” point of view. Basically, part one is going to be hopefully pretty straight up: What is culture, what’s happening? Then, part two will be going back over it with: Why should it matter, why should we care?

As I think about this, we’re in a Cultural Anthropology class. This is Kenneth Guest’s book and he’s jumping in to tell us what culture is. I put it that way because lots of people over the past 150 years, especially in anthropology, have tried to write the “what is culture?” chapter or “what is culture?” article or to try to explain culture. This is the 10,000th time that somebody has attempted to do this, and here’s Kenneth Guest in 2020 trying to do it. It’s his third edition. He’s already tried it a couple times in his earlier textbooks. I looked back to the second edition and his definition hasn’t changed from 2018. I didn’t go back to the first edition, but I assume it’s pretty much the same.

In part because when we compare these two definitions (these are both in your textbooks)–when we compare what E.B. Tylor was saying back in 1871 with what Guest is saying in 2000-something, the definitions are not that different, if you look at them. In fact, they at the very beginning of the definitions, they seem to be pretty much exactly the same: a system, a complex whole, knowledge, belief. Then Tylor lists out some things, but it’s not that much different in terms of the language.

Some of you noted that there are a couple differences here. One of them is the idea that culture is “contested.” That is probably not something that Tylor would have thought about. He would probably be more in the realm of culture is shared, but he wouldn’t have thought about it as being contested.

To be clear, probably that’s something that anthropologists only started thinking about in the last 20 or 30 years. There was a long period of emphasis on culture as being shared. The “contested” part is perhaps the newest part.

Some of you also noted that there’s a difference here between “habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Of course, we’ll give Tylor this, that he probably meant more like “humans.” Then, Guest’s emphasis is on a “group of people.” I think that’s perhaps changed a little bit. I’m not sure if I would make as much of it as some of you made of it. I think by “member of society,” probably Tylor also meant something like “group of people,” but it may be true that in recent years we’ve been more interested in understanding the group, instead of thinking about society per se. We think about what groupings are *within* what we might call a culture.

Some of you said: things have changed a lot over the last 150 years. Some of you said: This is pretty much the same. My feeling is that these definitions, they’re both similar. They’re both what we might think of as “laundry list” definitions. They include huge amounts of stuff, almost everything you might say. Guest’s language is more active, but to be honest neither of them are very inspiring as definitions.

We don’t necessarily need to have an inspiring definition of culture, but it’s not necessarily clear what this is supposed to do for us, or how this is supposed to change things. As we’ll be talking about, what has changed over the last 150 years is not necessarily so much the definition of culture within anthropology; what has changed is outside of anthropology. When Tylor was writing or when Boas was writing or when Ruth Benedict or Margaret Mead were writing, very few people used the word “culture” in the way that anthropologists were starting to use the word. What’s changed now is that you’ve all heard the word _culture_. You all have an idea about it. We use it a lot in terms that are not dissimilar to the way anthropologists might use it. So, certainly a lot has changed.

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If we look at these two definitions they’re not. I think that they’re not that dissimilar. So, Guest goes into some basics that we think of in anthropology that are probably true included in all introductory textbook definitions of culture the culture is learned and taught. This is crucial because culture is not something that we are born with it is not inherent in our genetics or in our biology and guess we’ll talk about that more in the next part of the chapter the culture is something we learn in the sense that we take it on board as members of society from our parents from our peers we learn most of it outside of a school setting by the time we get to school we already have most of our what we might consider our cultural learning we try to shape people once they’re in school, but most of what as culture is already done way before school ever starts. It’s certainly not going to change very much because of a few zoom classes. Culture is learned in the wider sense of being learned as members of society Guest also notes that culture is symbolic and material. This is important because some people want to limit culture to the just the thought realm what people think or what people believe. Some people also would want to limit culture to the art the material realm. The Guest mentions like clothing or artistic works. We want to be clear that it is both symbolic and material then he goes through a number of areas that I would just put under the heading that culture is patterned. He talks about norms how culture helps us with our ideas about what should be in society our values, which to me are pretty similar to the norms they’re different patterns for how we look at the world that we as humans are over built for being symbolic creatures for assigning meaning to various objects it’s very difficult for us to think about things without thinking about different symbolic meanings of them. For human beings a piece of something that is in a flag, for example, it’s not just a piece of cloth, but it represents a country or a group or a statement. There’s a very interesting section that I’d encourage you to read on mental maps where he talks about how culture provides us with this way of classifying the world and once we can classify the world in a certain way it helps us sort things out into categories, which may not have much to do with the natural world in fact, but once we start thinking about the world with these with this categorization we start sorting people or things into these categories and this will be important we talk later about ideas about biological race and how people have categorized the world and start to see this thing as existing when in fact there may be maybe very little physical differences that people base these classifications on. But the whole idea of a mental map or a schema for organizing the world is an interesting part of culture and I mean as part of this idea that culture is patterned now I want to go back here to what Guest talks about is shared yet contested. As we talked about this is probably one of the big differences between Tylor’s definition and Guest definition is the culture is shared it has shared across a group, but it is also something that people talk about that they debate Guest here says the culture is constantly changing. That is not something that perhaps Tylor would have emphasized culture is constantly changing. In some ways what culture does for us is it helps provide us a template for what we think is meaningful, but it provides us the template for things that we agree to disagree upon or that we agree to fight over and culture also provides us a outline for how we do those debates. What comes up for debate how it is contested and how those contests should be resolved are all part of. In fact, our cultural heritage one example of that might be the practice of veiling or head covering people get really intensely upset about these kinds of things. If we look at say the three major religions of Christianity Islam and Judaism all to, which have various degrees have involved head coverings and scars and prayer claws in some ways all three of these religions are agreeing that these ideas about who should be veiled. When and where and how much are hugely important things that they’re going to in some cases fight over. Culture is something that we that often points us to the things that we disagree on as much as it points to where we agree and those contests are going to play out over time they’re going to break down a lot around lines of depending on our society around lines of gender age race class things that we’ll talk about in the next in the next part of the course

in anthropology Guest goes into a little bit of the history of the term culture. When Tylor was writing back in 1871 the predominant view was this idea of unilineal evolutionism the idea that all societies could be ranked on a scale from worst or most primitive savage backward up through the civilized the most developed this the idea. That there was a ladder of societies we see that idea emerging when we read, for example, the Nacirema that I’m sorry the Nacirema I should pronounce it as that the idea that there are people that are primitive or backwards as compared to our own civilized state. The idea of unalienable unilineal evolutionism was that everyone was going along the same path or the latter toward a predetermined outcome, which was a more civilized state or that people could become more civilized over time the importance of Franz Boas in the United States was that he rejected the idea of unilineal evolutionism and he came up with the idea of what he called or was ascribed in him historical particularism, which was the academic basis for anthropology in the united had been other anthropologists before Boas in the United States who were unilinear evolutionists and Boas has rejected that. He instead substituted what we know today as more probably we’d think of as cultural relativism or the idea that every culture needs to be judged by its own standards or makes sense from within. Not everyone is on the same pathway or on the same highway or the same road to development that each society has developed on its own in its own place. We need to understand and appreciate that also happened to a similar degree in the united kingdom in the UK with the idea of structural functionalism and I don’t want it to get too into this historical account, but structural functionalism basically proposes that for you could look at society and many anthropologists in the UK call themselves social anthropologists for this very reason that you could look at society and you could say well the kinship in this society has this certain pattern in this certain function. It has a role to play in this society. You could isolate the parts of an interlocked society. They would all work together to serve a function now again in some ways this is a rejection of the unilineal evolutionism because it forces us to consider each society on its own terms. It’s not very evolutionist evolutionists at all in this system societies are working mechanisms they don’t really change that much over time because each each society has its structure. The things that are in it function to a certain way. The important thing about this is not necessarily to learn these terms and to debate these old authors, but to realize that in both cases there was a rejection of this hierarchical model of culture that was before with Boas I mean before with Tylor and others

at the same time that anthropologists rejected the idea of unilineal evolutionism and instead proposed the idea of culture the idea of cultural relativism the idea of structural functionalism it led to some debates early on in anthropology, which really never got resolved there were they were intractable or they were things that people just kept going around and around about one of the debates. There’s a great picture of Ruth Benedict in there she wrote a book called patterns of culture, which was a best-selling book in the United States and around the world. In some ways it was what was said to translate Franz Boas’s ideas to a wider audience Boas was not the best author and Ruth Benedict started out as a poet as a writer. In some ways Boas recruited her to give his ideas and her own ideas a wider platform. This book _Patterns of Culture_ was a huge bestseller I’ve used it in Cultural Anthropology classes just to talk about the ways in which people saw the world and how benedict’s book really influenced changing those ideas. But one of the debates that benedict runs into in this book is if culture is talking about a whole or a group. It describes the norm or pattern of an entire society how then do we account for individual differences how do people take on board all of this cultural knowledge why do some people seem to be misfits in their own culture how does that even happen if culture is such a complete all-encompassing whole what then accounts for individual particularities in this setting. That was something that was really I mean people tried to answer that in various ways, but it was never it was never quite resolved turning another challenge in this comes up in the UK with structural functionalism, but it could also come up in US anthropology is if life is structured in such a way that all. These things are functioning then how do societies change why would they change if society is functioning in such a way that things are working well and structuring then how do people how do people change how do you account for just life itself how do you account for conflict or contestations this was very unclear how you got from how do you get from one structure to another was again a debate that never really got resolved within the idea of structural functionalism another huge issue as soon, as the idea of culture was introduced was where does one culture begin and another culture end. If we think of the world as we saw in the first chapter as humans are always interconnected then they’re always talking to each other sharing trading things around how can we say where one culture who. Some people would mark themselves off as a group, but for other people they wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be bounded in the same way that an anthropologist might think and what happens to people who move from one group to another. Again, how do you account for a society in which individuals or whole groups might have a lot of difference within them. I mean there were various ideas about this problem some people proposed the idea of subcultures, which were related to a larger culture in general started to get smaller and smaller and smaller to the point that now today sometimes you’ll hear about the heartwood college culture or the culture of students the culture of you. It’s it in general I think there’s been this idea of well we can only describe a very small element as a culture. But this is a was a huge debater I mean it was something that in some ways was never resolved is how do where one culture stops. The other one begins now when we go into class we’re going to read the second part of the chapter, which is what I call culture refined. We’re going to be talking about things like power, but we’re not just power we’re going to be talking about hegemony and structure and agency and all kinds of big words and big ideas and ever more sophisticated attempts to answer some of these debates. In anthropology since say the 1960s or 1970s and in part in response to some of these intractable debates the concept or the idea of anthropology gets more and more sophisticated or more and more in other words hard to understand the ideas get bigger the books get longer the complexity of the of understanding. These things seem to get more and more difficult to comprehend. As you go along in anthropology I think it will I don’t want to scare you off too much from the second part of this chapter there’s a lot of cool stuff in it, but at the same time I mean it shows you how much since in the last 30 40 or 50 years the idea of culture has become something that people have all these new words to talk about it, and especially the idea of how culture is connected to power, which is something that guests will be talking about throughout

all right pause there for a second and see what’s going on in the chat or if you want to unmute your mic this is the end of our part one where we’ve taken ourselves through the textbook up until now. So, any questions about what we’ve talked about so far, any comments

all right fun times. So, part two. In part two I’m going to start with a provocative question or I hope it’s provocative, which is we’re going to go back over this material. We’re going to wonder here after 150 years of living with this idea of culture if culture should still be part of our anthropological toolkit should it be something that we’re concerned with teaching and learning among anthropologists. Among the students and you might be thinking wait a second what are you talking about we’re in a Cultural Anthropology class and you’re going to tell me that culture might not be a useful thing to learn about. So, yes I’m going to be slightly provocative here to put it differently or to put it put it another way does it help us just think about this for a second if somebody is doing something that you don’t necessarily approve of or you might find a little bit weird if you say, “well, that’s their culture does that help people to better understand one another. This is something that you remember back in when Guest was defining anthropology back on page eight he said it was the study of human diversity, but it was also helping people to better understand one another to communicate and cooperate and do all those things that you said we needed to do to solve the problems or the issues that are confronting the human humanity in the future. So, put differently does it help us to say okay well that’s their culture. I’m just going to go with it or alternatively does that just make you angrier and you’re like well that’s not a that’s not a good thing to do. That’s the preface for what we’re going to be talking about is what is the usefulness of the idea or the concept of culture after 150 years that we’ve been living with it. A little bit of a tiny change in the PowerPoint we’re going to do some pink here. Then, the other slides will come back into view as we go over this material again. As I said, at the beginning when we compare these two definitions neither of them are very inspiring or exciting you don’t necessarily need to have an inspiring or exciting definition of culture after all this is a an academic study this is an academic class no one is expecting a massively entertaining things to happen, but I think that in some ways what Guest is does not help us understand is that in fact when this definition not necessarily Tylor’s definition, but perhaps how Boas used it was getting out there in the world it was seen as exciting and a very different or even revolutionary way to look at the world. What Boas and benedict and Margaret Mead did is they took this laundry list right they took this thing that was okay culture is everything it’s all these things. They made it do something they said well not only is this all these things. But this is the way we become human. It’s what explains why humans are different from each other. The who cares part of this was humongously important at the time. It’s probably humongously important now because what culture was deployed against was the racial or biological determinism of the time and some of you got at this in your comments on the discussion that you recognize that hey the culture is against the idea that these things that are human difference is somehow set by our race or by our biology. What anthropologists were saying, which was revolutionary at the time is that your capacities your human capacities your humanness was not determined by your race or by your genes or by your biology, but by this other stuff that we were going to call culture. This was again fairly revolutionary at the time it was also deployed against the idea of ethnocentrism or that our own society was the divine standard or the most advanced or the only the only way to be human or the only way to be civilized in the world was the one that the Europeans. The North Americans had invented. So, like Miner’s article its culture was deployed against these ideas of hierarchical ethnocentric categorizations of other people we can see this. There’s a couple of just going to give you a couple book covers there’s a book that came out it came out last year I think maybe two years ago by Charles king he’s not an anthropologist, but he glimpsed the importance of anthropology it’s called gods of the upper air. Then,. I don’t know If you can read that subtitle, but it’s important it says how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race sex and gender in the 20th century. This is about Boas it’s about Margaret Mead it’s about Ruth Benedict it’s also importantly about Zora Neale Hurston who was part of this circle, but had, but also went her own way and I contemplated assigning this book for the class I may assign it to my spring class on anthropology at work just because it’s the way people are rethinking the history of anthropology. What king is saying here is that hey at the time people thought of race sex and gender as biologically given. The circle of renegade anthropologists really helped us think differently about that. Then, there’s also this book that’s a title of essays Margaret Mead made me gay now that’s not true no one believes that don’t take that too literally. But the idea is that Margaret Mead in fighting against the idea of gender and sex as being biologically determined helped people to understand . There were different social possibilities for gender roles for ideas about sex. When and where and with whom you should have it. Again, don’t take this too literally it’s just the title of a collection of essays, but there was this I mean there was a time in which Margaret Mead was a household name in the United States. She was very controversial. She was seen as offering us a whole different possibility of how to organize our society. This was exciting stuff at the time for these the idea of renegade anthropologists now what happened to this in some ways the idea of culture became quite accepted in US society it wasn’t I mean there are there there’s still there’s still lots of racism. There’s still lots of people who don’t believe that your society can can be learned and changed. But in general people took this idea on board. However, they took it on board in this funny way when people talked about culture it became like they used to talk about race or what some people have called race light. It was like well we used to say this, but now we’re saying that. It became a swapping of words and ideas a euphemism a more polite way of speaking about things than people might have had in the past. You would say you would say well the Muslims they aren’t they aren’t savages, but that’s just it’s Muslim culture, which makes them do the things they do or you might say well Blacks aren’t naturally poor they’re not biologically that way, but African-American culture the culture of poverty is an idea that some anthropologists talked about. It’s a cultural thing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be that different or you might say well it’s not true that Mexicans are naturally hard working, but it’s Mexican culture to work hard and do those. It could have it can have these positive attributes or negative attributes, but it doesn’t it doesn’t necessarily change how people were thinking about the world it just made it more polite. That’s what happened in the popular sphere in the universities in the colleges in academia culture gave anthropologists something to teach something to study. If anybody said well what are you doing over there we’d say hey we study culture that’s what we do. You can see this is a little bit different than being a renegade anthropologist the renegade anthropologists were out there wasn’t an academic sphere to be in they. But the new anthropologists the people who got trained they needed to teach they needed jobs they could you can’t very they’re very ill paid to be a renegade anthropologist there can only be a few of them. If you want to be an academic discipline. You need to have more respectability and culture gives you that and I said well we’re the ones if political scientists study politics and economists study the economy we study culture. I think that in some ways it also became well we don’t just we study other cultures. We gave sociologists study Europe and American societies, but we’re going to go out and study those people who are out there the other cultures. For Ruth Benedict for Franz Boas for Margaret Mead most of these early case studies in anthropology were of peoples who were outside of the West who were relatively isolated. We talked about this in the first classes last week as this became the stereotype of anthropology that we studied people who were outside of the mainstream. There were very good reasons to do. That there was a lot of ethnocentrism toward those groups, but it led to a slot for anthropology that they study we studied all these strange people. In the process of this if you remember what was exciting about culture when Boas and benedict and mead were deploying it was that it was against some of the it was they were renegades they were deploying it against some of the prevalent ideas at the time whereas as things went on it became much less of a oh we’re fighting against those ideas and much more of some thing that you studied that was out there. It became difficult to that was part of the problem that’s why we got into so many intractable debates because everybody’s like well where is this thing you call culture and who has it and where does it come from and how does it do this. That because once you start talking about it as in some ways the idea that everyone becomes human in a particular way that’s a big idea, but once you start trying to define well here’s this group or that group then you’re talking about something that that’s very different much more noun like rather than the process of culture, which is what we had hoped to be talking about at the beginning. When we think about what happened in the world is. That there was a divergence between what was happening in the academic sphere. The popular sphere. As we’ll talk about on with these big words and things like hegemony and power structure and agency in academia things got much more sophisticated harder to understand whereas in the popular sphere people were talking about culture all the time. Again, they would talk about well the in the culture of the Mexican culture will go back to that’s why they’re so hard working it’s part of their culture they grow up that way. That was said that becomes a catch-all for explaining how things are in the world. When that happens people used culture to basically stop talking about power relationships or inequality or some historical interconnection between people. If you say, “well, Mexicans are hard working because of their culture it doesn’t tell you about how Mexicans were incorporated and inserted into the US society, as the manual laborers and farm hands. That was something that people were that was the only thing. They were allowed to do. People would use culture well let’s take another example if you say, “well, Blacks aren’t naturally poor it’s the culture if you explain it by culture then you’re overlooking the historical inequalities and interconnections of society and you don’t have to be you don’t have to be uncomfortable. Because, in fact,. You can say well that’s just their culture. That’s everybody has their own culture. We don’t need to worry about how there is inequality both within and between other cultures. That’s what we talked about is the Nacirema still a useful article to read. Because, in fact, the Nacirema tells us about ethnocentrism, but it doesn’t say anything about historical connections between the Nacirema society. The Native Americans it doesn’t say anything about the way in which there was a power relationship between and within American society. It doesn’t it doesn’t have much much historical material at all. Culture became a way in which people outside of anthropology were able to avoid issues that anthropologists were trying to talk about, but because there was this divergence between what was happening in the universities and in anthropological textbooks, and especially in anthropological research it was difficult to bridge this gap. So, anthropologists became over time over the last 20 years I think anthropology is becoming increasingly alarmed at the way people use culture in order to not talk about power and Guest in this textbook tries to link culture always to power that will be a theme throughout the textbook and in each chapter, but in some ways we might say that battle is difficult to get back, or we may have already lost that fight, because people used culture in this way.

so going back to the question of part two should culture still be part of our anthropological toolkit I along with guests. I think many anthropologists would say I mean it’s still very important to understand the idea of the concept of culture the idea of being of learned behavior of shared yet contested of the way in which coulter helps us with their I mean helps creates our mental maps our norms and values all of those things are very important to understand, especially as compared to some of the still trending ideas of biological and racial determinism sure we need the ideal concept of culture, but when you think about how people use culture outside the word is used all the time. It’s it is often problematic it’s often used in a problematic way or in other words it may not help people better understand one another if someone is doing something that you consider to be weird or terrible and you say, “well, that’s just their culture somebody else I think is likely to say well that culture sucks man I don’t like that culture at all. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve used a the old-fashioned way you might call racial ideas or the new fashion cultural ideas unless you’re helping people to explain what’s going on you’re not necessarily helping people better understand one another simply by deploying or throwing out the term culture. I want to in the next class I think I’ve warned you about this in an email, but I want to delve into something that the Guest starts off the chapter with. Then, ends the chapter with in the “Thinking like an anthropologist.” The question is, when we think about “American gun culture,” that’s what Guest describes what we’re going to be looking at, does it help us to understand or analyze if we’re interested in stemming gun violence? Would the term “American gun culture,” help us do that? Does it help in our analysis of what’s going on, or is it one of those places that the word becomes problematic and overused? I’ll leave that open for a discussion point, something that is very interesting to me at various times.