Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973).

Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in a slightly different light as I also read the final draft of something I am writing with Michael Scroggins currently titled “Does (a) culture recapitulate itself?”.  It is actually about the Phoenix like nature of the “culture of poverty” argument. The paper starts with a complaint I have made elsewhere against the move among the leaders of anthropology to distance themselves from “culture” (concept? ideal-type?). I had not noticed that Geertz was already complaining about what may then have been the beginning of the distancing:

The term “culture” has by now acquired a certain aura of ill-repute in social anthropological circles because of the multiplicity of its referents and the studied vagueness with which it has all too often been invoked. (Though why it should suffer more for these reasons than “social structure” or “personality” is something I do not entirely understand.). ([1996] 1973: 89)

More importantly, I had not noticed what follows as Geertz develops what looks very much like a definition:

In any case, the culture concept to which I adhere has neither multiple referents nor, so far as I can see, any unusual ambiguity: it denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. Of course, terms such as “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” cry out for explication. ([1996] 1973: 89)

Note that, for Geertz, the difficult words are “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” (he could have added “knowledge,” “attitude”). These are words which, to me, connote a state of mind. Geertz, after all, worked with Parsons’s understanding of Weber as codified in Toward a theory of action (1951). Thus the phrase “cultural system” in the title of the paper.

But it is the other words (“transmission,” “inheritance,” and “embodiment”) that I noted last week.  They are the words that may have had the most powerful life in the following decades, starting with Bourdieu’s development of habitus, and continuing with the literature on “embodiment,” all in the name of “history.”

If these words did not “cry out for explanation,” then it is no wonder that Oscar Lewis’ response to various calls for cultural anthropologists to address “poverty,” the major policy issue of his days (and ours), should have taken the form of hypotheses about the embodiment of attitudes transmitted and inherited through symbolic forms.

If that is what “culture” is to be all about then good riddance! And good riddance to “embodiment of inherited conceptions.”

But, as McDermott and many others keep arguing, “culture” is not about reproduction but about wild thinking in cantankerous collectivities hashing out disagreements about what to do next. In the process, as Boas, and then Garfinkel (even probably Lévi-Strauss), tried to teach us, the unimaginable by university professors appears in history.  The unimaginable then become, for a while, and for a population, a thing, event, fact that they must deal with, even if they deplore it. In a recent post I wrote about “Islanding assemblages of haecceities” (February 2016). This was in homage to Ruth Benedict, Bruno Latour, and Harold Garfinkel, whom I like to bring together. I think I could go even further into reconstituting culture as whatever arises when human beings get together into “community of intelligence” (Rancière [1987] 1999 : 58) and propose something like “temporary immortal and islanding assemblage of consequential haecceities” to add the historical and political aspects of making this particular fact with those earlier facts for this population to deal with in these circumstances.

By the way, while using Google to get to my post on islanding, I discovered that “islanding” is a verb used in electric power grids where it is often a difficult to diagnose problem to be detected and repaired. Among many see “Islanding detection…” This does sound like something human beings would produce!


Parsons, Talcott et al   1951     Toward a general theory of action. New York: Harper and Row.

Geertz, Clifford   [1966] 1973     “Religion as a cultural system.” in The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 87-125.

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