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Monday, 5 September 2011


Painting: "Binding Culture" by Joseph Muchina. http://fineartamerica.com/featured/binding-culture-joseph-muchina.html


The debate: Culture plural or singular?. 2

The Boasian influence: 3

The cultural homogeneity and objectivity: a critique. 3

The crisis of representation: 3

The question of practice: 4


Culture (from Latin: cultura, meaning. "cultivation")is a term that has many different meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. However, the word "culture" is most commonly used in three basic senses:

· Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture

· An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning

· The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

The earliest anthropological use of "culture" was by E. B. TYLOR (1871), who defined it memorably as 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."

Tylor's formulation can still serve today to express anthropologists' views. First, culture comprises those human traits that are learned and learnable and are therefore passed on socially and mentally, rather than biologically. Second, culture is in some sense a "complex whole." Although hotly debated, the fundamental idea that all those "capabilities and habits" can and should be considered together is a powerful one. It means that vast areas of human life, spanning everything from techniques of food production to theories of the afterlife, have some coherence and a distinct logic that can be discovered by a single discipline.

The debate: Culture plural or singular?

The focus of anthropology is upon the diversity of ways in which human beings establish and live their social lives in groups, and it is from this diversity that the anthropological notion of culture, at least in the twentieth century, is derived. This idea of the plurality of culture contrasts with the idea of culture in the singular, an interpretation that began its development in eighteenth century European thought (see Williams 1983a), and became predominant in the nineteeth century. Framed through the social evolutionary thought linked to Western imperialism, culture in the singular assumed a universal scale of progress and the idea that as civilizations developed through time, so too did humankind become more creative and more rational, that is, people’s capacity for culture increased. The growth of culture and of rationality were thought to belong to the same process. In other words, human beings became more ‘cultivated’ as they progressed over time intellectually, spiritually and aesthetically.

It was Franz BOAS who championed the concept of culture, and with it the discipline of anthropology, to challenge the elaborate and influential late-nineteenth-century theories that attributed most human differences to RACE that is, biological inheritance. Anchored in the new science of biology by evolutionary ideas, they suggested that some races, when compared to northern Europeans, were more primitive and therefore more animal-like in bodily form, mental ability, and moral development.

Boas (1911) broke the evidently seamless simplicity of this theory by showing that bodily form was not linked to language nor to any of the matters we associate with culture. In addition, he challenged the assumption that other "races" were less moral or less intelligent than northern Europeans. Whereas Tylor had spoken of "culture" in the singular, on the assumption that all societies possessed a more or less advanced version of the same heritage, Boas wrote of plural "cultures" that were different and could not be measured against some supposed single standard of advancement. Moreover, he argued that the complex forms and patterns in human life, when investigated through FIELD-WORK, were so various that they could not arise from a uniform process of social or cultural EVOLUTION, or from biological or geographical causes, but were fruits of complex local historical causes that escape simplification.

In contrast, the modern anthropological stance, on the side of cultural relativism and in confrontation with racism (cf. Boas 1911), has been startlingly liberal in its insistence that culture must always be understood in the plural and judged only within its particular context.

The Boasian influence:

These ideas were later elaborated by his students, including Edward SAPIR, Alfred KROEBER, Margaret MEAD, and Ruth BENEDICT. They argued that although human beings everywhere possessed much the same biological heritage, human nature was so plastic that it could sustain kaleidoscopically different sets of values, institutions, and behaviors in different cultures. Margaret Mead, for example, spent a long career of fieldwork demonstrating how matters that might appear to be easily explained by human biology the experience of ADOLESCENCE, patterns of SOCIALIZATION, SEX roles in society vary so greatly that no simple natural scientific explanation could comprehend them. And Kroeber espoused the notion that culture is "superorganic," possessing a unique character within itself that goes beyond anything that could arise in the course of biological evolution.

Other Boasians devoted themselves to exploring the notion of culture within the bounds of anthropology. Benedict (1934a) argued that a culture was not simply a "planless hodgepodge" or an affair of "shreds and patches," as her older contemporary Robert LOWIE supposed. Rather, each culture "discarded elements which were incongruous, modified others to its purposes, and invented others that accorded with its taste" (p. 34). The result was a way of life arranged around a few aesthetic and intellectual principles that produced a unique Weltanschauung, a WORLDVIEW. These arguments contributed to setting an aspiration that is still very powerful today: the task of the anthropologist is not just to record a myriad of details about a people, but to demonstrate a deeper unity integrating different features of a culture. Running through her, and others', arguments were an aspiration to tolerance and a mutual informing and respect among societies.

The cultural homogeneity and objectivity: a critique

Although Boas was the most important force in introducing the idea of the plurality of historically conditioned cultures into anthropology, the discipline has not always followed his insistence that culture itself is an ongoing creative process through which people continually incorporate and transform new and foreign elements. A later version of anthropology being influenced by Functionalism and Structural – functionalism and later structuralism is that the notion of the aesthetic autonomies of cultures. The idea that culture refers to a systematically harmonized whole with each therefore comprising a shared and stable system of beliefs, knowledge, values, or sets of practices held sway for a very long time in anthropology. Thus this notion of the homogeneity of culture flourished and developed through many versions, but in the direction that assumed (unlike Boas) the fixity, coherence and boundedness of cultures. In what Fabian (1998:x–xi) refers to as this ‘classical modern concept’, a position of ‘ontological realism’ is assumed with respect to culture which understands tradition as something real, to be found outside the minds of individuals, and objectified in the form of a collection of objects, symbols, techniques, values, beliefs, practices and institutions that the individuals of a culture share. On the whole, however, we see that Boas‘s most important argument, that creative process, historical contingency, and learned, socially transmitted behaviour are not in conflict, has not been widely explored until fairly recently. We find instead that the notion of culture as a coherent, bounded, and stable system of shared beliefs and actions has been a powerful twentieth-century idea that has been very difficult to shift. As intimated above there were reasons for such neglect.

The crisis of representation:

In the 1960s there was a move away from the earlier emphasis upon culture as customary or patterned behaviour, to a stress upon culture as idea systems, or structures of symbolic meaning. Each culture was understood in this later view to consist of a shared system of mental representations. As David Schneider saw it, culture consists ‘of elements which are defined and differentiated in a particular society as representing reality—the total reality of life within which human beings live and die’ (1976:206). In this view culture is not just shared, it is intersubjectively shared (cf. D’Andrade 1984). Culture, as a conceptual structure made up of representations of reality, was understood to orient,

direct, organize action in systems by providing each with its own logic. Culture gave purpose to the social system, and ensured its equilibrium. Behaviour out of sync with the system’s cultural valuations was said to be abnormal, deviant, dysfunctional, with the implication being that it was aculturally, or anticulturally, driven. It took some time for this powerful law-and-order (as Fabian dubs it) concept of culture to be seriously questioned.

However, over the past couple of decades anthropology has increasingly been involved in a crisis over its representational theories of meaning, and at the same time expressing deep regret over its former misdirected scientific hopes—those as envisioned by our more sociologically oriented masters, who used the natural sciences as the yardstick for judging our own success. What is particularly being called into account is the understanding of cultural (collective) representations as a template for social action, with its related unfortunate effect—all those anthropological portrayals of cultural dopes who act unconsciously in accordance to underlying structures of shared symbolic meaning. The world of meaning, as Roy Wagner insists (1986, 1991), cannot articulate with a natural science format, which must by the very nature of its task (of objectification) ignore, mystify, disdain, doubt personal invention and concrete imagination. Wagner, one of the most persuasive in his critique of the idea of shared, stable systems of collective representations, suggests that cultural meanings are not constituted of the signs of conventional reference, but instead ‘live a constant flux of continual re-creation’. He goes on to say that ‘the core of culture is…a coherent flow of images and analogies, that cannot be communicated directly from mind to mind, but only elicited, adumbrated, depicted’ (Wagner 1986:129).

Any fieldworker who has worked carefully with the telling and learning of myths, or the performance of rituals, should recognize the wisdom of Wagner’s insight into the poetics, creativity, individuality, inconsistencies, contradictions of such cultural processes (also see Dell Hymes (1981) on the poetics of the American North West Coast telling of myths, and Overing (1990) on the tropes and performance of Amazonian myths). As Ingold says (1994b:330, his italics), ‘what we do not find are neatly bounded and mutually exclusive bodies of thought and custom, perfectly shared by all who subscribe to them, and in which their lives and works are fully encapsulated’. What we do find can be much more challenging, and, as one antidote to the treatment of culture through the lens of representational theories of meaning and other grand theory, many anthropologists today are focusing upon the dialogics and poetics of everyday behaviour. In so doing the primary concern is with living, experiencing, thinking, affectively engaged human beings who follow (in varying degrees and a myriad of manners) particular lifeways. It is antagonistic toward all those attempts to create ‘objective’ abstract structures that have the effect of dismissing much of what the rest of the world has to say.

The question of practice:

There is much, it would seem, that representational theorists omit in the experiencing of culture (also see Ingold 1994b). First, while it is meaning systems that is their primary concern, it is cogent to stress that these systems are creations of the anthropologist, and not of the people who supposedly ‘follow’ them. The usual claim is that, for the people, the ‘system’ and the mental representations that comprise it are unconsciously followed. Thus the meaning-creating, speaking, socially occupied person (whether from Chicago, Italy or Timbuktu) is omitted. As too is all practice in which he or she engages, and this by definition since the symbolist view of culture excludes behaviour.

What, we may ask, is the relation between meaning and practice? between mind and body? concept and performance? The present trend is to oppose the representational view of the body as a passive instrument, and thus time and again we find in today’s literature across a range of disciplines—in anthropology (e.g. Wagner 1986, 1991; Fabian 1983, 1998; Ingold 1994b), cognitive psychology (e.g. Shanon 1993), philosophy (e.g. Meløe 1988a, 1988b) and culture theory (e.g. de Certeau 1997)—the plea to recognize embodied meaning, that is, to wed concept and practice, the perceiving with the acting agent. We might say that there is no such thing as ‘a culture’, or rather that ‘culture should

not be a noun, but a verb: “to culture”, or “culturing”’ (Overing 1998; also see Friedman 1994:206). As Ingold notes (1994b:330, his italics), ‘it might be more realistic…to say that people live culturally rather than they live in cultures’. For most people around the world, culturing is an endless and ever ongoing, overt activity, which ill fits the social scientist’s categories. From the Amazonian perspective culture time and again refers to the skills for action, which conjoin (independent) thinking and a sensual life, that individuals have, mould and use to live a particular human life. However, to reunite the body, the sensual, acting, feeling, emotive aspects of self, with the thinking, language-knowing self creates havoc with most modernist versions of culture. As should only be expected, debates today on the implications of a more phenomenological approach to culture for the future development of anthropology have a certain edge, a passion and often a political as well as academic challenge to them.

Further reading:

Rapport, N. and Overing, J. (2000). Key concepts in Social and Cultural anthropology, London: Routledge

Barfield, T. (1997). The Dictionary of Anthropology, Oxford: Blackwell

The sage encyclopedia of Anthropology. (These books are available in the E-book section of the department)

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