Culture Is a Myth, or If You Prefer, a “Category of Analysis”

Over the past century and a half, as anthropology developed, the field began to understand that we needed a whole lot more objectivity if we were ever really going to understand what culture is.

We’ve spent significant amounts of time trying to develop more objective approaches. And we realized, eventually, that perfect objectivity is impossible in studying humans –because we, too, are humans, and have our own culture.

It all comes back to the original, perhaps unanswerable question:

What Is Culture?

Nuer Boy
Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, probably didn’t have one-tenth the idea of what it means to be Nuer as this young boy.

The first, often unspoken truth of anthropology is that other cultures exist. When we look closer at them, however, we find that they don’t! “Culture” is a word that we use to describe things. It’s a tool of analysis.

Back in the old days of anthropology, people believed that cultures were complex but relatively unchanging (and often hierarchical) sets of behavior. Maybe what individuals did changed, but that was often seen to be the effect of outside influence.

Among academics, there was an assumption that outside the West, cultures suffered from some kind of social inertia. Later researchers came to understand that cultures don’t change, thus making people change. It’s quite the other way around. People make choices; cultures don’t. Cultures are an aggregate of behavior, belief, and interaction with the world. In other words:

Culture Is What People Do

On the face of it, already we know that cultures aren’t static systems of unchanging beliefs. We know, from history as well as from observing the world around us, that cultures change.

Modernization and globalization — words that conjure images of cultures “dying out” in the face of outside impact — aren’t strange monsters that attack from the outside. They are culture itself, under the effects of choices and changing technologies.

In other words it’s impossible, on the face of it, to accomplish the most obvious goals of anthropology. We can’t sit down and record what it means to be Diné, Indonesian, or Nuer.

Our lack of ability, as Western academics, to write it all down in ways that are both perfectly descriptive and coherent, comes from two grim realizations:

1. Culture is just a category of analysis.

Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902 - 1973)
Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902 – 1973)

Anthropology has a hard time even saying what exactly culture is. How can that be? Culture is what people do, and early understandings of culture approximated the things that are true about “people X” that make them different from us. (“Us,” then, was meant in the most Victorian sense possible: white, middle-class people with access to education.)

Cultures, cultural interaction, subcultures, and culture change are all ways of talking about something that is anything but static. Culture encompasses sets of behavior that are both too complex to understand with any one approach. An ethnography can’t help but take a snapshot of a culture: a single moment, and from a single perspective.

2. Culture, as a label, is polyvocal.

Wait, poly-what? Polyvocal means “many voices.” What it means here is that when we take a label and apply it to a culture, we’re really naming a bunch of related (and often conflicting!) aspects of behavior.

Canada 2010 Winter Olympics OT celebration
Is this all it means to be Canadian?
In a word, no.

It’s a hard idea, but here’s an example. Let’s say that we want to talk about Canadian culture. What does it mean to be Canadian? Beer, hockey, and politeness? Living in Canada? Can English Canadians and French Canadians both be Canadian?

All of those aspects are sometimes true. But there’s no magic formula to determining a person’s Canadian Quotient (CQ). Being Canadian, or being American, or being Nuer, is an experience of identity that goes beyond words, and is some combination of self-identification and social recognition.

In other words, culture is something that we can try to describe, try to understand, and try to make sense of. But in the end, it’s not a list of adjectives. It’s an experience.

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