Tag Archives: Globalization

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.


Social Organization in the Postmodern World

Orangutan using a tool
Tool use at the San Diego Zoo

Near-instant communication, inexpensive travel, manufacturing, and trade have all changed the shape of the social world. Or have they? We’re still who we always were: a bunch of primates with language, tools, and a penchant for social organization.

Pundits talk with ease about a globalized culture, but many people in the world (including Americans!) wonder where their own cultures have gone. There’s no doubt we’re in a period of rapid change, with shifting meanings and mores. Some of the changes are for the better, some for the worse. It doesn’t seem like we get to pick and choose.

But there are other changes going on as well. With the development of social media, we’ve suddenly been able to divide our social links from our geography for the first time. We can build social networks farther and faster, creating connections that once would have been impossible.

True, almost everyone now lives in nation-states. But while the nation-state is a political reality, in many ways it is not an everyday social reality. While we might live in nations of laws, our relationships are–as always–with people. Though our cities have populations in the millions, we mostly live isolated in our own social networks.

Don’t Blame Darwin for “Evolution”

Early social organization theories in anthropology were evolutionary. The proponents declared that all human societies work their way up an evolutionary ladder, from less complex to more complex. They took a useful classification system (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states–more on that below) and mixed it with the ideas of evolution and progress, to come up with a way to make sense of the world that left the Europeans on top.

These “evolutionary” theories came out of the popular debates surrounding Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species, but that doesn’t address the question of where these ideas came from in the first place. First of all, On the Origin of Species doesn’t argue that evolution is linear and inevitable. It argues, rather, that all populations adapt to their environments. But somehow this idea of linear evolution got tied in.

These theories–which elide complexity, inevitability, and morality–didn’t come out of nowhere. These notions are deeply rooted in Western culture, and (as I have mentioned before) can be traced back at least as far as the Neoplatonists and the the Great Chain of Being.

E. B. Tylor
E. B. Tylor (1832-1917)

Perhaps that is why the theories of social evolution that we see, even (or especially) from such luminaries as E. B.  Tylor, didn’t change the world so much as justify its shape at the time. These ideas weren’t new. They were simply very old ideas dressed up in scientific clothing and given the weight of truth in an age when the meaning of “truth” was rapidly changing.

The older way of justifying colonial hierarchy had been religious and philosophical. With the rise of science as a belief system that could justify social action, the status quo needed to be dressed up in the clothes of science, or the whole system would fall apart. In other words, Colonialism needed science to prop it up. Evolutionary social theory provided that prop.

Levels of Social Organization

As far as anthropology can tell, humans are evolved to work in groups called bands. These groups of people are generally limited by cognitive boundaries and capabilities to about 150, though the “magic” number may be as high as 230. This number, known as “Dunbar’s number,” is the proposed number of social bonds that an individual can recognize.

General cultural anthropology theory defines four levels of social organization. As you look at these types of social organization, see if you can pick out how they relate to ways we still organize ourselves.

1. Bands
Bands are small groups, generally under 150 members, all of whom are usually bound by kinship. This kinship may be through blood or marriage, and may even in some cases be what is called “fictive kinship.” Relationships are managed through cultural rules. In other words, the relationships of the whole band come down to familial relationships, though they extend much further than the Western-normative nuclear family.

These same rules that governed “family” back then still do today. The authority, and responsibilities, of parents rests on their kin relationships. And yes, you do have to respect your uncle, simply based on the fact that he’s your uncle and your elder.

Crow Tribe
Crow tribal members

2. Tribes
Tribes, then, are groups of bands working together. Though there may be precedence both within and between groups, there is no inherited status; a child doesn’t get to be leader because his or her parent was a leader. Leadership statuses need to be achieved. This is known as “Big Man” and “Big Woman” leadership.

This level of organization is similar is some respects to sports leagues. If we think of individual teams as “lineages” within the larger tribe, then our fanatical, unthinking support of “our” group suddenly makes much more sense–even if it is the White Sox.

3. Chiefdoms
Chiefdoms are the next level of social organization. Not surprisingly, chiefdoms are led by chiefs. In a chiefdom, status is at least partly ascribed (or given, as opposed to achieved) based on kinship. A person’s ability to trace kinship relations with the chief, or leader, defines their place in the social hierarchy. The sibling of the chief, therefore, is more highly placed than the cousin of the chief, and an outsider has no way to trace their way into power, short of fictive kinship.

This level of social organization mirrors how many companies are run. Leaders are clearly labeled, and closeness to that leadership often defines both privileges and duties. The kinship ties have been replaced, but the overall structure is similar. All we need to do is stop thinking in terms of lineages, and replace them with departments. And, yes, Susan got promoted because she’s been with the company longest.

4. States
States are considered the most complex level of social organization. States have social classes and formal systems of government. This is where “traditions” become “laws.” All states are theoretically autonomous, and have a number of social powers:  the ability to enforce borders and determine membership (citizenship), to determine laws, to keep people under arms to enforce the borders and the law, and to levy taxes to pay for it all.

The original evolutionary theories of social organization assumed that these forms were exclusive–each “people” had one form of social organization. But the truth is that they can all be in play at the same time. I can be a member of a family, root for my hometown team, work for a company led by a chief (executive officer), and live in a nation-state.

Why “Teaching to the Test” Is Shortsighted, and Necessary

The profession of teaching has been undergoing a crisis over the past fifteen years. In universities, there has been a move from tenured professors to part-time faculty, to the point that approximately half of university faculty are part-time, and probably don’t make a living wage.

In public schools, teachers are losing ground, with both their economic stability and classroom autonomy constantly being eroded. Essentially, teaching is being moved from a professional model to a factory-production model. Teachers are being moved from respected members of the middle-class into less stable and more regimented jobs.

Teaching to the Test

A Teacher and His Pupil by Claude LefèbvreIt’s become critically important for schools to “teach to the test.” This hasn’t been done for any reason associated with actual teaching. It relates to changes in the cultural value of the actual teaching experience, and also to the changing needs of our culture.

The move toward “teaching to the test” is tied to more and more limited educational funding, the increased power of administration in education, and the need for resources to be used to adjust to a changing economy and increased globalization.

Education funding has, in many states, not recovered to its pre-recession levels. Further, what education funding does come through is often offered with requirements for “measurement” that may or may not reflect actual teaching.

With this increased measurement, power (and money) is being moved more and more away from the actual teachers and toward administrators. Yet administrators are not the “big bad” here. Like police who must enforce an unjust law, they are caught between doing their duty and their commitments to education. And, like the teachers they administrate, opening their mouths to complain is a surefire way to end up on the unemployment line.

Digging Deeper

But if it’s not the administrators who are driving the changes, then who or what is? Two external factors are at work here.

First, the lower levels of education funding available force administrators to make decisions about who goes and who stays. Even if no one likes the decisions, a lack of cash requires that these decisions be made. The rising pressure on this area of the workforce means that people who increase an administrator’s stress level are walking a thin line. Some of them are pushed over it.

Second, an increased reliance on teaching technology requires more capital investment, and that money has to come from somewhere. We might complain about unfair treatment of teachers, but we’re also loathe to pay more taxes. We’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” and both of them are responsible for training our children. It’s a shortsighted maneuver that we’ve forced onto the administrators.

Needed Changes in Education

Like many other areas of the economy, education is undergoing changes that are linked with the digital revolution. The very real pains of teachers, the brutal and sometimes nonsensical decisions required of administrators, and the incessant testing of students are all part of a huge effort at social engineering.

No one seems to talk about education as necessary social engineering. But if we look below the surface, we can quickly recognize that we’re trying, successfully or not, to adjust to a Brave New World. Whole swaths of jobs have evaporated and are not coming back. Management has been streamlined, paperwork has been automated, and face-to-face relationships with customers have been priced out of the market.

The changes in teaching aren’t separate from this radical shift. As a culture, we’re making teaching less personal, and investing in technology. In other words, we’re reflecting the rest of the economy. Students are becoming less “people” and more “collections of numbers.” This isn’t a shift in education. It’s a shift in the meaning of “personhood” in the digital economy. Serving students comes more and more to mean making sure that they have the “right” numbers.

Are these changes going to benefit us, as people and a culture, in the long run? Probably not. But we can’t just react to these changes in the world piecemeal. The massive changes in the American education system haven’t been adopted because of some primal drive for standardization and efficiency. They’re a reaction to a changed, and changing, situation.

Creating an education system that will prepare us for this uncertain future is going to require commitment, cash, and a clear vision of what America not only wants to be, but needs to be, in the coming years.

What Anthropologists Know (and you should, too)

Sure, anthropologists know lots of disparate facts about far-flung places, like those anthropologists we see on TV. In our professional training, we study other cultures, and eventually go to live in places that are not so familiar to us. We know lots of details that make fun conversation starters at cocktail parties.

We know that the San (who don’t like to be called Bushmen) were traditionally hunter-gatherers who were moved to a farming lifeway as a result of government intervention.

We know that the Jivaro followed a similar path, moving from their famous, head-hunting, traditional way of life to something more influenced by modernization.

Balinese Performer in MaskWe know that Indonesian religion (agama) interplays with the country’s many cultures in interesting and unexpected ways, and for that reason the semantic category hardly ever means the same thing twice.

We know that “traditional” lifeways are being heavily impacted by Globalization.

Culture Is Something We Do

But we also know that while these lifeways are changing, cultures always change; that’s what they do. Through anthropology, our understanding of the word “culture” has changed. “Culture,” as an idea, has gone from something relatively static to something that, through the choices and will of members, changes in relation to the rest of the world.

In other words culture, while a noun in the English language, isn’t simply a thing that can be poked, prodded, examined, and stored. It’s something that people do. It’s the choices we make, but it’s also something that’s tied into how we’re wired.

Culture changes through “organic” processes, and can’t just be changed with the flip of a switch. Attempts at social engineering are met with resistance, negotiation, and unexpected results.

Culture Is Deeper than Belief

ChimpanzeeWhen people talk about what one culture or another “believes,” we’re taking a system of actions and beliefs and reducing it to only beliefs, as if we know for certain that belief precedes action. Yet we can also see that even that assumption is probably a result of Western beliefs about the nature of the world (e.g. orthodoxy and Neoplatonism).

In other words, we’re grossly simplifying the situation so that we can function in a complex world. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are trained professionally to delve into that complexity and see where the holes in our everyday models are. Otherwise, our models get old and stale. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

We Are All Primates

Growing up in a golden age of post-Western Culture, it has seemed both odd and fitting to me that our current everyday ways of thinking about human behavior depend so much on earlier models. The models I’m talking about are not the ones that necessarily come from the hallowed halls of academia (though some do), but the ones that everyday people use, the ones that children learn at their parents’ knees.

In other words, I am not planning on looking at the world of cutting edge science; we do not, by and large, live in that one. Instead I am speaking of the cultural truths that shape our lives and our decision-making. When we want to get at understanding people, we need to look at both the rational person and that underlying biological stratum.

ChimpFor all that we believe in, or at least depend on, “science” and its answers, as I look around, I see that we are terribly dependent on pre-scientific ideas of the person in our everyday lives. Our ideas of people as “rational actors” or “inherently good” or “genetically predisposed” to various behaviors, are all things we have inherited from some part of Western Culture. Yet at the same time, we are not rational about these ideas at all.

It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a conceit to think of ourselves as somehow beyond all that.

Living in Tension

Our spoken models of human behavior, the ones that we subscribe to in our everyday speech, and the ones we enshrine in our laws, policies, and business decisions, speak of people as rational products of 16th century enlightenment, 18th century political liberalism, and 19th century notions of progress. We tie these all together with 20th century ideas of modernization and globalization to become “modern” people.

Western culture is not simply a product of these new ideas, but something that ties back thousands of years to Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the first cities in Babylonia.

But there is another side to being human. We are not just these cultural constructions, however ancient, but also messy biological animals. Our “selves” are not one or the other, but exist in a tension between these two positions—the rational thinker driven by choice and the often territorial, instinct-driven primate.

Rationality Is a Duck


One of the traditions that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is a rejection of the “animal” side of ourselves. We speak as if, by rejecting that half of ourselves, we can become somehow more “pure.”  This is not as successful as we would like it to be. Instead, by forcing these parts of ourselves into hiding, we create a more complicated landscape where truths we have closed our eyes to shape our movements and inform our decisions.

As any advertiser knows, putting an attractive woman in the picture with a car makes it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is not rational, but it works.

When we try to analyze human behavior under the assumption that it is rational, and that we make choices for reasons, we trip ourselves up. Sure, I have reasons, and you have reasons, but in the end, when we look at aggregate patterns of human behavior they indicate that there are some things going on that have more to do with non-rational decision-making.