How do we get out from culture?

A reader sent this dilemma regarding the use of “gang culture”:

Dear Jason,
I am an anthropologist now working as an appellate court public defender. It’s crucial to challenge the lazy use of the concept of culture in gang cases where prosecutors purport to prove (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) that an individual gang member had a “specific intent” (a particular mental state) based on “gang culture and habits,” that is “what gang members do.”

I have been unsuccessfully looking back through my anthropology books for a good quote (a paragraph even) that makes the general point that individuals are not cultural automatons, but interact with “culture” instrumentally such that any particular individual in a particular situation could act against (or, better, not in accord with) a valid cultural stereotype. For example, even if it’s a valid generalization that gang members present in the background at a gang crime provide “backup” for the principal actors, the fact that a specific gang member was present at a specific gang crime does not “prove” the gang member was acting as backup (in accord with the valid generalization), as opposed to just standing there (maybe even wishing the crime wasn’t happening!).

This dilemma captured the essence of what I was trying to teach in Cultural Anthropology 2016. What do we do when the anthropological concept of culture–launched as an anti-deterministic, anti-racist, and anti-hierarchizing device–is used to precisely justify prosecution and imprisonment?

Gang Culture: The Paper Topic

I made this an option for a paper topic on “gang culture” in two parts:

Part 1: How did we get here? Is the idea of “gang culture,” now used as an aid in attempts to prosecute and convict people who have not committed a crime, already inherent as a possible reading of Ruth Benedict’s ideas about culture? To what degree is this a misreading?

Part 2: How do we get out? Are there passages from Benedict or Trouillot which might help us navigate this dilemma? Would they be convincing in the courtroom? How can an anthropologist effectively argue against the idea of “gang culture”?

Can Pierre Bourdieu help on Gang Culture?

For better or worse, I keep thinking about Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice. But the only passage that jumps to mind is:

Because the habitus is an endless capacity to engender products–thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions–whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production, the conditioned and conditional freedom it secures is as remote from a creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from a simple mechanical reproduction of the initial conditionings. (1977:95)

That is just not going to fly in the courtroom. Maybe there’s something better in the film about Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology is a Martial Art: “I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use if for unfair attacks.”

Updates on Gang Culture

  • 2017: I am saddened to hear of the passing of a great practicing anthropologist, Michael Agar (1945-2017).
    Agar had a lot to say about these practical issues. With reference to the issues here, I am particularly intrigued by this line in the Anthropology News memoriam: Agar “left behind a manuscript that shifts the problem of ‘culture’ to ‘Culture’ as a solution.” This manuscript, titled “Culture: How to Make It Work In A World Of Hybrids” is currently available at Ethknoworks – Michael Agar in the upper-left column.
  • This post has a lot of great reflections in the Disqus comment stream below. Feel free to browse and add! One particular recommendation is a book by Alex A.G. Taub Working With High Risk Youth: The Case of Curtis Jones. And check Taub’s comment below.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Gang Culture, Courtroom Anthropology: How do we get out from culture?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 26 September 2013. Revised 22 September 2017.

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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