The Culture Concept

The culture concept — which overtime has been contrasted, combined, and entangled with the related concepts of society, personality, identity, symbolism and practice — weaves together the history and core philosophical and methodological debates of anthropology as a discipline. Yet, today the concept that lies at the center of what anthropology is and does is fragmented and contested, as anthropologists have taken on the challenges put forth by postmodernity to cope with contradiction, borderlessness, constant flux, and the impacts of anthropological and historical biases, such as sexism, orientalism, and othering. This has left some anthropologists reaching back to science to find stability and others plunging into a realm of interpretation and description, while a new generation of anthropologists formed within this milieu must find space to make a discipline, whose central subject is disputed, both relevant and professional.

The 12th century Anglo-Norman word culture was derived from the Latin word cultura, meaning the cultivation of land (Beldo 2010:144, OED Online n.d.). As colleges and universities spread through Europe in the 16th century, culture came to mean the cultivation of people through education (OED Online n.d.). The culture concept came to mean a quality of the upper class that indicated refinement in taste, judgement and intellect through the 18th century leading up to the Industrial Revolution (Beldo 2010:145). European contact with other peoples through the rise of imperialism produced the need to discuss a collective customs of a people (OED Online n.d.). In the 19th century, French philosophers used the term civilisation to encompass the religion, economy, politics, morals and technology that distinguished the West from contemporary “primitive” cultures (Kuper 1999:30). After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the German word kultur was positioned in opposition to the French concept of civilisation (31).  While civilisation was conceptualized as transnational, German kultur was expressed as the nationalistic and individual achievement through the cultivation of intellectual, religious and artistic pursuits (31). In 1871, Edward Burnett Tylor used elements of both civilisation and kultur, to create the first formal anthropological definition of culture: “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1). Tylor’s definition — one of the most widely cited definitions of culture in anthropology — became the seed for anthropological deliberation for the next century.

What is Culture?

Tylor’s oft cited definition holds only a small glimpse of Tylor’s larger perspective on culture (Moore 2012:5-6). Tylor viewed culture as universally similar across time and space because he saw the human mind as universally similar (7). Tylor’s American contemporary, Lewis Morgan, also viewed culture as linked to the human mind (21) as it progressed through universal stages from savagery to barbarism to civilization (23).

In contrast, German-American Franz Boas’s theory of historical particularism, argued that cultures were integrated wholes shaped by historical processes rather than by the universal coherence of the human mind (Moore 2012: 39). Boas’s perspective shaped the work of many of his students, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber distinguished culture from society by arguing that, while society exists in any social population including animals, culture was the learned patterns of behavior transmitted through human interaction (63). However, Kroeber maintained that cultures were linked to particular histories in keeping with Boas’s historical particularism (64).

During the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown created two schools of functionalist theory. Malinowski argued that culture was a complex system created through the functional fulfillment of biological, psychological and social needs (Moore 2012: 127). Radcliffe-Brown, however, described culture as consisting of social structures, which he described as regularized social forms or observable, repeated, and patterned relations between individuals (Wilson 2013). Malinowski’s student Edward E. Evans-Pritchard used Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalist perspective, but theorized structure as flexible, logical, cognitive “maps” or systems of form and meaning (Erickson and Murphy 2003:105).

In the 1950s, Americans Leslie White and Julian Steward, created theories of culture examining the ways culture functions to fulfill the environmental needs of society. White’s neoevolutionary theory of culture described culture as functioning to fulfill the needs of society, in contrast to Malinowski who saw culture as fulfilling the needs of the individual (Moore 2012:163). Like Kroeber, White argued that culture was suprabiological and, although initially rooted in the biology of humans, was external to the human body and consisting of technological, sociological and ideological elements (164). Unlike Boas, however, White saw culture as a universal system of evolution rather than linked to the particularities of a population. Steward’s theory of cultural ecology bridged White’s neoevolutionism and Boas’ historical particularism by dismissing the idea that all cultures progress through the same stages of evolution — opting instead for a multilinear evolutionary perspective — while criticising historical particularism for ignoring the linkage between culture and environment (174).

The 1960s and 1970s brought the rise of symbolism. Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the human mind was universally ordered to organize knowledge in similar ways across all of human culture (Kuper 1999:167-168) Thus, culture was best understood through the examination of cultural structures that are ordered by innate qualities of the human mind, such binary oppositions (Erickson and Murphy 2003:94). Although one of the earliest symbolic theorists, Levi-Strauss argued that culture was structured on the human mind, later symbolic anthropologists moved away from theories of culture that described culture as a universal trait or system, opting instead for theories of culture steeped in meaning, context and particularity (Moore 2012:206). Turner described culture as consisting of multivocal symbols, which were dynamically created and mediated through social action (228-230). Clifford Geertz, using the framework of semiotics, viewed culture as complex webs of significance and meanings constructed through the interaction with and creation of meanings and signs (239).

In contemporary anthropology, culture as a trait of humanness that follows universal laws has largely fallen out of favor (206). However, culture is also not a simple package of knowledge shared by a bounded people either. Eric Wolf, for example, has demonstrated through the study of peasant communities how cultures are layered and embedded within complex systems and institutions of economics, politics and ideology (310-314). Although no consensus exists, culture has come most often to be a heuristic term used to help anthropologists discuss the symbols, meanings, institutions, systems and behaviors of people, rather than a well defined theoretical project.

How is culture related to the individual?

In the late 19th century, French theorist Émile Durkheim argued that the relationship between the individual and culture was dependent on whether the society was structured so that individual members do not rely on one another for survival but maintain solidarity through shared social experience — mechanical solidarity — or if the individual members rely on one another for survival and are connected through institutions — organic solidarity (Moore 2012:46). In societies operating through mechanical solidarity, individuals are the holders of culture through a collective consciousness, which includes strict rules for behavior (49). However, among societies with organic solidarity, culture outside the individual is used to organize behavior, such as religion and politics (49).

In the United States, Boasians, particularly Kroeber, viewed culture as superorganic, having a life of its own outside the individual mind (Moore 2012:64). Using psychological theory, Margaret Mead outlined a theory of culture that connected the individual to culture through the process of child rearing (104). Mead described culture as shaping the individual as well as being “reinterpreted, re-expressed, and re-lived” (104-105) as it is passed from parent to child through child rearing practices and through individual growth to one’s own parenthood. Ruth Benedict — who viewed culture as society’s underlying meaning or the patterns of values that exists outside the individual — saw the individual’s role within culture to either act within the prescribed boundaries of culture or act in opposition to culture through deviance (76-77). This perspective placed the individual in a state of complacency or in opposition to culture. In contrast, Edward Sapir argued that both normative and deviant behaviors were cultural as both contributed to the ongoing construction of cultural consensus (86).

Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalism largely ignored the role of the individual until the individual became important as a part of regularize social relations and structures (Wilson 2013). Malinowski theorized the individual’s relationship to culture as a one needs and fulfillment, where the individual is little more than a vessel responding to biological and social needs (Erickson and Murphy 2003:104-105). Evans-Pritchard for most of his career, including The Nuer, also largely ignored the individual’s role in culture (Moore 2012:146).

The turn toward the sciences and materiality in the 1950s and 1960s, as theorized by White, Steward, and Harris, largely moved away from the individual in favor of  theories of law and generalization. This trend continued through Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and Turner and Geertz’s symbolism. However, the practice theories of the 1970s and 1980s as outlined by Pierre Bourdieu brought the theorized and debated individual back into theories of culture. Pierre Bourdieu wrote An Outline of a Theory of Practice (1995) amid growing unease among social scientists about earlier structural theories, particularly the work of Levi-Strauss (1969) (VandenBroek 2010:483). Postmodernists began to question the Western assumption that objective reality existed in a way that individuals experienced reality similarly or that social scientists could observe it (483). In An Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu added to and propelled this argument by suggesting that much of what is observed of reality is subjective and that culture is largely controlled by human agents who create, maintain and alter taxonomies through practice (483). Individuals play a central role in Bourdieu’s theory of practice because his view of culture was not a series of rules and codes but the action of individuals (Moore 2012:299).

After Bourdieu outlined practice theory, later practice theorists, such as Marshall Sahlins, Sherry Ortner, Anthony Giddens and William Sewell, created more nuanced relationships between culture as practice and the practicing or agentic individual (VandenBroek 2010:483-486). Additionally, postmodern critiques of agency, further complicated the role of the individual by questioning the assumptions that associated agency as freedom and autonomy with humanness (e.g. Bronwyn Davies 1991), defined agency as resistance from power, especially in terms of romantic American resistence, (e.g. Lila Abu-Lughod 1990), or overemphasized agency as intentionality (e.g. John and Jean Commaroff 1992).

Do we need culture?

Has culture changed since 1871? Tylor’s 1871 definition of culture is the “only one that most modern anthropologists can quote correctly and the one they fall back on when others prove too cumbersome,” (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:62 cited in Moore 2012:5). However, the discipline of anthropology has seen great change in the subsequent century in theory, critique, practice, methodology and subjects. Why then is the first definition of culture — with some “personal reservations in the margins” (Kuper 1999:227) — still the most common way anthropologists think about culture?

Is it that culture is too flawed, as postmodern critique suggests, because of its bounded, homogenizing, and static nature? This logic has led some anthropologists to seek out new ways of entering culture, such as symbolism (e.g. Geertz), tropes (e.g. Fernandez), and practice (e.g. Ortner). However, as British anthropologist Adam Kuper (1999) argued, these theories of culture, “formulated in ambiguous and weak terms, […] all say something that is now rather obvious, hardly remarkable, even if the diffuse light they shed may sometimes be helpful” (245). Kuper argued that any use of culture as a primary organizing concept of the discipline is faulty. Culture, he argued, is based on the premise of a single whole that is used to explain human life deterministically and separately from other factors, such as biology (246). He proposed that anthropology would be more productive if culture were to be broken into elements (e.g. religious beliefs or the arts), understood on their own terms rather than as a total bundle (245).

Or, is it that the new generation of anthropologists take for granted the concept of culture and the century of critique that is bundled with it in order to move beyond culture? The current generation of anthropologists — of which I am a member — are moving from remote villages to urban centers, adopting technology as method and subject, leaving academia and entering businesses, NGOs, and design firms, and asking questions that have little to do with finding “ that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom” (Tylor 1871:1). This work certainly benefits from the century and a half of theorizing and critiquing culture. However, after all this time, is there more to say? Should culture today be the subject of anthropological theorizing and practice? Or, can culture, embodying all of its history, become an artefact of anthropology that anchors the discipline but is no longer foregrounded, allowing anthropology to creatively tackle the problems of the 21st century without it?

Sources Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila
1990 The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17(1):41-55.

Beldo, Les.
2010 Concept of Culture. In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Vol. 1. H. James Birx, ed. Pgs. 144-152. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff
1992 Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder: Westview Press.

Davies, Bronwyn
1991 The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis. Social Analysis 30:42-53.

Erickson, Paul and Liam Murphy
2003 A History of Anthropological Theory. 2nd ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press.

Kuper, Adam
1999 Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account. Cambridge, MA: First Harvard University Press.

Moore, Jerry D.
2012 Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. 4th Ed. Lanham, MD:AltaMira Press.

OED Online
N.d. “culture, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press.
45746?isAdvanced=false&result=1&rskey=mUIaGG&, accessed December 13, 2013.

Tylor, Edward Burnett
1871 Primitive Cultures: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. Vol. 1. London: John Murray.

VandenBroek, Angela
2010 Agency and Practice Theory. In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Vol. 1. H. James Birx, ed. Pgs. 144-152. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilson, Thomas
2013 “British Social Anthropology: Structural-Functionalism; Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.” Class lecture, History of Anthropological Thought from Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, October 17, 2013.

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