M2: Additional points on culture

M2: Additional points on culture


As a follow up to Dr. Petersons lecture,
Id like to make a few additional points on the culture concept in anthropology. I
also want to discuss how we do cultural anthropology: First, how we undertake fieldwork. Second,
how we write descriptive and analytical accounts of culture called ethnographies. And third,
how we use ethnography to address broader theoretical questions.
Here, I am in the field in northeastern Gabon, Africa, undertaking an interview with a Gabonese
elder who had worked on a nearby proposed iron mine site. This site was originally developed
by an American steel company but never put into operation. I was interested in the way
locals viewed this site in relation to their marginalization in the global economy. I also wanted to know how they saw the potential development of this rain forest region.
Let me make a few additional points about the culture concept, a central concept in
anthropology and this course. You may be able to use some of these ideas in your upcoming
ethnographic assignments. Because the subject matter of cultural anthropology
is so vast, there is no easy way to summarize what cultural anthropologists do. Here are
a couple of definition. Many cultural anthropologists approach culture
and human cultural practices from a scientific perspective. Here is a scientific definition
of cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is the description and explanation of the
similarities and differences in thought and behavior among groups of humans. This definition
emphasizes the scientific approach to cultural anthropology, meaning that it treats information
as a test of explanations of cultural phenomena in terms of general principles.
Other anthologists approach culture from a more humanistic perspective. From a humanistic
perspective, cultural anthropology is the interpretation and appreciation of other peoples’
ways of life. Humanistic cultural anthropologists strive to understand, engage with, and sometimes
celebrate defend, or protect another way of life rather than to explain it scientifically.
Now lets turn to a few additional definitions of culture. Again, there is considerable
variation in the ways cultural anthropologists have approached the culture concept, but also
substantial underlying commonalities. Edward Burnett Tylor, who taught at Oxford University
in England, was a founder of academic anthropology. He defined culture as that complex whole
which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities
and habits acquired by man as a member of society. This definition, although dated,
is still widely cited. A key aspect of this definition is that culture is a complex
whole, which suggests that we must conceive of it holistically. At the sometime, we acquire
or learn by being members of a particular society.
Contemporary anthropologist Eric Lassiter defines culture as a shared and negotiated
system of meaning. He also sees culture as the lens through which we all view the
world. For Lassiter, culture is shared but also generates our differences.
Douglas Rogers, of Yale University, defines culture as the set of meanings, thoughts,
and behaviors by which human beings relate to each other and to the world around them.
Rogers makes a number of important points about how culture both unites and divides
us. All human beings have culture, but particular cultures are shaped by membership in nations,
genders, ethnic groups, classes and other social groups to which we belong. The shared
meanings of specific groups lead to important cultural differences between groups.
According to Rogers, cultural anthropologists seek to understand the similarities and
differences that unite and divide humans as makers of culture.
One simplified way that cultural anthropologists have approached cultures as complex wholes
can be represented in a pie chart model. Using Western or etic categories, anthropologists
have divided culture into a number of interconnected fields, including Ecology, Economy, Kinship,
Gender, Politics, Law, Religion, Worldview. When we seek to describe a particular culture
or society, we sketch out each of these systems, and then show how they operate and how they
are interconnected. Most introductory textbooks in anthropology
are organized in this way with individual chapters on each of these fields. This course
is also partly organized in this way, with modules on economy, politics and law, kinship,
and religion, for example. Another way to approach culture is to focus
on different dimensions of human cultural life. David Haines outlines three key approaches
anthropologists have taken: First, materialism, which focuses on the adaptation
to the environment, technology, as well as material production, and how access to resources
generates inequality. Second, social structure or systems: In the
20th century and even today, many anthropologists focused on social structure or social organization.
They have sought to understand and explain how human social groups, from tiny kin-based
groups and villages to empires and global organizations are organized and how they operate.
Third, many anthropologists also focus on cultures as systems of meaning. They
tend to focus on the emic perspective and seek to interpret how human beings, as members
of particular cultural groups, use language, symbols, and ritual to create meaningful lives.
In this course, we’ll look at culture from all three of these perspectives. In fact,
the core units of the course are organized around materialism and the global economy,
social organization, and systems of meaning. Today, many anthropologists take a holistic
approach by approaching culture from all three vantage points.
Let me give you just one example of how anthropologists combine materialist, social, and interpretive
or meaning-centered approaches. Anthropologist Beth Buggenhagen has studied Muslim families
in Dakar Senegal. From a materialist perspective she is interested in how global migration
(primarily for economic reasons) is impacting economic life in Dakar. In particular she
looks at how families in the Senegalese capital have been changed by sending their sons and
increasingly their daughters abroad. With some of the funds that emigrants send back
home, women invest in expensive cloths that shape the women’s networks they belong to
while also expressing what it means to be women in contemporary Senegal. Emigrants also
send money to Muslim clerics, who invest these funds in Koranic schools, mosques, and religious
rituals, thereby reaffirming the meaning of Islam in global Senegal.
Lets return to the culture concept for a moment.
Culture is not only about complex wholes. The very culture concept itself is complex.
First, Culture is shared but also contradictory. What I mean by this is that in any culture,
people differ and disagree on what the fundamental values are. In the U.S., for example, we are
deeply divided on such issues as whom we should be allowed to marry, whether we should be
allowed to end pregnancies, whether we should be able to buy marijuana at the corner store,
or whether the wealthiest citizens should pay more taxes.
Second, culture is both bounded and open. Anthropologists have often portrayed
specific cultures as highly bounded, or closed systems. The pie chart model represents culture
in this way. And indeed, when you cross the US-Mexico border from El Paso to Juarez, you
immediately find yourself in a different cultural world. But at the same time, in the age of
globalization, no culture is an island. Culture: people, ideas, goods, and practices are constantly
on the move. In this sense, local cultural identities, from southwestern Ohio to Syria,
are shaped by global processes. Third, as already suggested, culture both
unites and divides us. By this I mean not only that different cultural groups are divided,
but that cultures are of course also divided internally.
Yes, culture is ordinary. In the nineteenth century British poet and social commentator
Matthew Arnold defined culture as the best that has been thought and said in other
words, High Culture. Most anthropologists, however, follow Raymond Williams assertion
that culture is ordinary. In other words, we look for culture in everyday practices,
such as the fast-food industry, drug culture, shopping malls, the suburbs, and so on. We
can find culture not just in the opera house or art museum, but wherever human beings are
up to something. Lets turn briefly to what cultural anthropologists
do. We’ll go more into depth on fieldwork and ethnography in module three, but I want
introduce this here, especially given that your first out-of-class writing assignment
is designed to get you doing some cultural anthropology on your own. So first, we undertake
fieldwork. Second, we write ethnographies, or descriptive
and analytical accounts of cultural practices. Third, we engage in anthropological theorizing
to address more general concerns about human social and cultural life.
This diagram shows that fieldwork, ethnography, and theory are related to one another. When
anthropologists enter the field, they do so having studied enough anthropological theory
to help them frame questions about cultural life. While in the field, they gather information
they will use to write ethnographic texts about the people they have been studying.
They use their ethnography to address more general theoretical questions and seek to
produce new theoretical or conceptual insights. According to anthropologist Peter Metcalf,
fieldwork entails three basic aspects. Long-term residence. Language competence. Participant-Observation.
Fieldwork can also be unstructured. By unstructured, we mean that often anthropologists engage
in deep hanging out, as one colleague puts it. In other words, as we go through
the rounds of daily life with the people we’re studying, we wait to see what unfolds rather
than trying to shape events. Often, we refer to fieldwork as ethnographic
fieldwork, which means fieldwork with the purpose of writing ethnography. Initial fieldwork
is usually for an extended period, often 6 months to two years. Because most fieldwork
is intensely local is tends to emphasize local behavior, beliefs, customs, social life, economic
activities, politics, and religion, rather than developments at the national and global
level, which are harder to see on the ground. At the same time, since cultures are not isolated,
ethnographers must investigate the local, regional, national, and global systems of
politics, economics, and information that expose villagers (and others) to external
influences. One way to think of the ethnographic accounts
is as writing culture. As already noted, ethnography sometimes refers
to the process of doing ethnographic fieldwork. But here, an ethnography is a written account
of a culture or set of cultural practices. Here are just a few examples of ethnographies.
Food gathering strategies among Hunter-Gatherers in Tanzania. Religious Practices, Illness
and Healing in contemporary Gabon. Work and family among Sudanese women in the town of
Sennar. Immigrants from Michoac in Mexico and the American Midwest.
Dr. Cameron Hay-Rollins is a medical anthropologist who teaches at Miami University. Currently
she is undertaking research on doctors, patients, pain and suffering in the United States. But
she originally undertook field research on the Indonesian island of Lombok. Her research
resulted in an ethnography on illness and anxiety among impoverished rural Indonesians.
Leighton Peterson teaches linguistic anthropology and ethnographic film, also at Miami University.
Dr. Peterson has undertaken extensive fieldwork among the Navaho in Arizona. In addition to
speaking fluent Navaho, he has also produced a number of ethnographic films.
Philippe Bourgois currently teaches at anthropology the University of Pennsylvania. His initial
research was on economic inequality and exploitation in Central America, but he has also undertaken
extensive research in the United States on drug culture, including crack dealers in Spanish
Harlem and Homeless drug addicts in San Francisco. We’ll be reading a short article on his
New York based research. Dr. Homayan Sidky of Miami University has
written numerous ethnographic works, particularly on Central and south Asia. Here we see ethnographies
on healing and Shamanism. He has also written a textbook on Theory in Cultural Anthropology,
Perspectives on Culture. Dr. Sidky thus illustrates the important connection between theory and
ethnography within anthropology What do we mean by theory in anthropology.
People use ethnography to develop more general conclusions (theories). We also seek to engage
the arguments made by other anthropologists based on their field research. Theories in
turn motivate new fieldwork. Particular ethnographies tend to ask particular sorts of questions
For example, some anthropologists may ask about the impact of colonialism, globalization,
or external domination in particular societies. Let me give just one example:
French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that ceremonies or rituals create society (or social
groups, because when people perform rituals, people symbolically worship society.) An obvious
example might be singing the national anthem before a baseball game. This reminds that
all the fans and players are united in a single national community.
We won’t spend a lot of time studying theory in this introductory course, but theoretical
perspectives will come up in the reading assignments, lectures, and writing assignments.
In closing, let me talk about your upcoming ethnographic assignment that you must complete
by the end of unit one. Already, you can apply the three-part fieldwork-ethnography-theory
model we have just discussed to think about this assignment.
First, you need to choose an appropriate field site (and then get there). You should already
be thinking about that. Second, you need to observe and then adequately
describe the setting, the people, and relevant cultural interactions.
Third, you don’t yet have a lot of anthropological theory under your belts, but you can already
discuss the culture concept and try to explain what is going on culturally.
Here’s another way to think about this three-step process.
First, during your fieldwork, you can observe by watching and listening to what’s going
on around you. In some cases, you may also participate actively in the scene.
Second, based on the notes you take either during or immediately after your fieldwork,
you should write a descriptive ethnographic account of what you have observed. During
this phase of the writing, I’m asking you to suspend judgment, in other words to adopt
a relativistic perspective. Third, when it comes to theory, I am asking
for some incisive cultural analysis. What is going on culturally? How can you analyze,
interpret, and reflect on your fieldwork? That’s it for now. Subtitles by the Amara.org community

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