Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? for Intro to Anthropology 2018 there were two readings on culture:

  • Lavenda and Schultz chapter 8, “How Does the Concept of Culture Help Us?”
  • “Our Babies, Ourselves” by Meredith Small in Natural History(1997)

For a 2021 update, see this YouTube lecture:


The concept of culture is perhaps the biggest contribution of anthropology to the understanding of human life. However, it is impossible to understand the importance of culture without understanding the context in which it was introduced, in comparison to the then-prevalent explanations for human behavior. This class introduced culture as anthropology’s attempt to fight ideas of “unilineal evolutionism” (Lavenda & Schultz, 180). Or, we can best see culture as an anti-concept, introduced against racist biological determinism.

For my orientation to the concept of culture, I reworked the Lavenda and Schultz chapter while drawing on two essays from Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Global Transformations: “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” (mentioned in Lavenda & Schultz, 251) together with “Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises.”

There should be Lavenda & Schultz Chapter 7 ½

Chapter 7 of Lavenda and Schultz ends with the Inka Empire, and then Chapter 8 goes directly to the culture concept.
Meanwhile, there were centuries of trade, interaction, political empires rise and fall, cities rose and fell, hunting and gathering techniques developed, ecosystems were transformed.
In Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (2009, 10 in Lavenda & Schultz, 353) we see that the “most powerful and largest cities in the world” would have been:

  • 500AD = Mexico, Italy, China
  • 1000AD = Peru, Iraq, Central Asia
  • 1500AD = China, India, Turkey

During all this time, 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

For those living in the Iberian Peninsula, the most important events of 1492 were the fall of the Kingdom of Granada, effectively expelling Muslims from Spain, as well as the expulsion of the Jews (I cover this material more extensively at the beginning of Cultural Anthropology 2016).

As the Spanish Reconquista concluded, it was at the same time Columbus stumbled onto the Americas. The world was reshaped from 1500-1800 by the Portuguese and Spanish trading empires, then by the British and French Empires

Anthropology Emerges

Anthropology emerged in the late 19th to early 20th century, during northern European empire-and-nation building. We should not forget the first wave of Spanish & Portuguese colonies reshaping the world from 1500-1800, at a time when there was no academic anthropology. British and French Anthropology emerged, studying people who were in their colonies. In Germany, since they had no overseas empire, there was a study of internal peasant others as “folklore” roots. US Anthropology would first study internal others, the Native Americans, and later go on to dominate world anthropology.

“The Savage Slot” (Lavenda & Schultz, 251)

Anthropology emerged, crudely, to answer the question of “Why are they like that?” The prevalent ideas were of Biological or racial determinism and Environmental determinism. These ideas organizing people into a hierarchy of races, or a hierarchy of social groups.

Anthropology (eventually) said NO! Human difference is due to CULTURE.

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, 238)
Our behavior is not random, but structured. It is more than the sum of individual behaviors. These patterns have to be understood on their own terms.

The Culture Concept, Part 2

Those patterns are learned. They are 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).

The structuring comes through social transmission–culture is “shared” (Lavenda & Schultz, 238) and often involves symbolic coding (Lavenda & Schultz, 240). This requires some degree of human consciousness, for in some ways humans “cannot help but see the world in symbolic categories” (Deacon in Lavenda & Schultz, 241)


Holism is an idea that “no sharp boundaries separate mind from body, body from environment, individual from society, my ideas from our ideas” (Lavenda & Schultz, 242). There is no such thing as a natural human “stripped of culture” (Geertz in Lavenda & Schultz, 245). Rather, we are always in coevolution; a biocultural process within transformed niche-constructed environments. This can also be seen in Bourdieu’s idea of habitus (238)

“Our Babies, Ourselves” by Meredith Small

I used this article to illustrate some of the perhaps overly heady and wordy ideas above. This article deals with parenting practices and shows how different they can be around the world. One of the main points is to stand against ethnocentric child-rearing, and it features sections by anthropologists on

  • Holding, attention to crying, versus scheduling (Barr, 4)
  • Feeding: How, when to wean (Dettwyler, 5)
  • Sleep and how co-sleeping can regulate breathing (McKenna, 6)

A main point is that child-rearing expresses and inculcates values (I’ve posted thoughts about “Our Babies, Ourselves” as Childcare, Culture & Power).

Holism and Biocultural

The biggest take away from the article is that humans are born “neurologically unfinished” (Small, 4). Our heart rates and breathing are social from the beginning, and our natural brain development takes place during a period of intense nurture. Anthropological holism therefore questions any nature/nurture dichotomy. There is no human nature outside of particular history and nurture. There is no baseline parenting pattern apart from our long histories occupying diverse environments.

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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