Patterns of culture in America

I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography as fundamental to any social science.

I have been imagining titles for a possible book where I would bring together my papers of the last few years, though perhaps with a new twist as I continue to re-read Boas, and some of the Boasian, as if he was a precursor of ethnomethodology, and thereby reconstruct ethnography as fundamental to any social science.

Thus I am tempted by a title that directly echoes Ruth Benedict (1959 [1934]) where “[PoC] in America” stands for the implicit “PoC [in human history]” where “in human history” could be said to be the “sub-title” of the Boasian call for acknowledging the local and historical aspects of any anchorings of human beings in particular times and places.  But, of course, I read Benedict’s title without the connotation that each pattern is a positive entity of some sort.  I would argue that what is sometimes labeled a “unit” in the book (e.g. in Boas’s introduction 1934) should be understood more as a “model” in Lévi-Strauss’s sense (or an “immortal fact” in Garfinkel’s sense).  But more on that some other time.

The important thing for me in my imagined title lies elsewhere.  It echoes another title by Boas “The interpretations of culture” (1938 [1911]: Chapter 10).  Note how both Boas and Benedict write of “culture,” in the singular.  They index “culture” as a general process and precisely not as an entity.  This is the way Lévi-Strauss always wrote, with culture as singular, and what radically distinguishes his work from Geertz who maintained a concern with “the interpretation of cultureS,” with “culture” in the plural.  Thus did Geertz reconstruct the substantive reality of, say, Java vs. Bali vs. Morocco while starting a deconstructing movement who taught us that we must also write “against culture” (Abu-Lugod 1991).

So, my title could not be “Pattern (in the singular) of cultures (in the plural) in America.”  This would be a fall into the misguided traditions that have tried to replace the metaphor of “melting pot” with the metaphor of “mosaic.”  Whatever the value of a now venerable critique of the first metaphor starting with Glazer and Moynihan’s famous Beyond the melting pot (1963), it ignores two realities: first, it ignores the hegemonic power of the ensemble of institutions and practices that derive from the state apparatus in the United States (including all three branches of government, from the federal to most local levels, as well as the “non-governmental” agencies such as the national media, the universities, etc.).  I remain convinced that this organized ensemble (historically produced, etc.) counts as a “culture” in Boas’ sense since it provides the most powerful constraints on the lives of all people in the United States (whether “native,” “immigrants,” “aliens, etc.) and indeed around the world.  Second, the critique of the melting pot ignores the ongoing production of new arbitrary, historically grounded, practical—that is cultural patterns built out of the materials provided by a “culture” that is also a most concrete environment.  Staying caught within the “multi-cultural” model for complex societies also lead one to assume that the culturing of America can only proceed along the lines of ethnic descent, thereby keeping alive the worst of the traditions of “culture” we inherit from the 19th century.

Let me give two examples of the matters that would concern me: Mexican men finding ways to survive working in Korean groceries in New York City (ongoing research by Karen Velasquez), and women in Queens organizing themselves to deal with the autism of their children (ongoing research by Juliette de Wolfe).  That the people mutually constituting a local pattern may only number a few dozens, and that what they build will be unique and temporary, is not an issue.  Actually, the “unit” in the second case brings together hundred of thousands of people (if not millions), though in an indirect fashion.

In their work, Velasquez and de Wolfe carefully document the ongoing work of the people to adapt themselves to the specific conditions they face.  In the Boasian tradition (as rewritten by Garfinkel and Latour), they eschew simple causal links (migration, the etiology of “natural” condition, neo-liberalism, or what have you) to document not only the effort of the people (and thus celebrate them) but also the conditions that they face—and thus teach us something about our own conditions and how to bring them out into meta-cultural discourse.  That is, ethnography reveals not only the imagination of human beings but also the conditions which, at a certain time, are the most consequential in their lives.  Neither imagination nor consequential conditions are imaginable by a priori theorizing.  This is the general statement that drives a century old tradition that it is now our task to reconstitute as the pre-eminent route to understanding humanity as it develops.

One thought on “Patterns of culture in America”

  1. I like to think of “pattern” as a variable, as in modern information theory. “Randomness,” then, is the complete absence of pattern. In terms of electronic transmission, randomness is static. The degree to which a temporal sequence of things is patterned is the degree to which static has been eliminated. The metaphor of static, however, does not work for a spatial arrangement.
    The first “metalogue” in Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” gets at spatial arrays:
    “Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?
    Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?
    D: Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling things. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.” (p. 3)
    So, degree of pattern in a temporal sequence = degree of absence of static. and degree of pattern in a spatial array = degree of tidiness, or degree of absence of muddle.
    The problem with what I have written is that it conforms to the (possibly destructive?) convention of writing about objects as if they were not constituted by subjects (persons). So for both a sequence and a spatial arrangement, I say that degree of pattern = degree of intelligibility. The problem with this is, of course, that what is intelligible to Jack might not be intelligible to Jill, leading to arguments about the degree to which any sequence or spatial arrangement is random or patterned.
    Sorokin’s distinction between “system” and “congeries” was his way of expressing the distinction between “pattern” and “randomness.” Because his works were my first introduction to serious thinking about the social sciences, I have never assumed that either the social relations among the members of a collectivity or their cultural environment constitute “systems.” Analogously, I do not assume that the cultural things that the members of any collectivity inhabit as part of their environment or use as tools for coping with with all aspects (cultural/natural) of their environment constitute are free of “static” or “muddle.”

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