This is the second in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class Communication and Culture.


Transition notes
Starting with "community" was a way of pointing at the intersection between "communication" and "culture." A concern with "community," in my perspective is a concern with what people do when they find themselves together, WITH (cum) each other. This leads both to a concern with the processes of togetherness ("communication" theories), the product of these processes ("culture" theories), and the productivity of these processes (theories of "education")

The sources of the (anthropological) obsession with culture
(for example: mental health)


[Note that this is an alternative way of presenting to the way Duranti does it, while making most of the same points.  The two ways are fully compatible even though I stress different aspects of the tradition of concern with "culture"]

Why "culture" got to be known as the organizing concept of anthropology
(vs. "society" for sociology or "the psyche" for psychology)

  1. on humanity (13th to 18th century, more or less)
      [One should also mention Greek historians, as well as Ibn Khaldun as others who speculated about some of these matters but mostly outside this tradition]
    1. natural law
      1. in its religious aspect
      2. in its political/philosophical aspect (particularly in the writing of the political theorists of the 18th century
        1. "all human beings are fundamentally alike": French enlightenment and the foundation of modern democracies (later articulated as the theory of "the psychic unity of mankind")
    2. the evidence of human diversity
      1. the European travels around the globe
      2. the more or less temporary conquests of various populations
      3. and the continuing hegemony of certain forms of discourses about humanity
    3. the consequences of human diversity for
      1. philosophy (and eventually all behavioral sciences)
      2. politics (and justice)
      3. practice (including the economic)
  2. Interpreting and explaining (away?) the evidence of human diversity

    By the end of the 19th century, the various theories proposed to explain observed human diversity, and through them, human nature can be classified into four (at least) major traditions:

    1. "some human beings are more developed than other human beings": theories of differentiated biological evolution, now mostly discredited as racism
    2. "not all human societies are equal in what they can provide for humanity. Some are more developed than others": an application of Darwin to human societies (not human individuals), these theories are at the basis of all marxisms, socialisms, and in liberal economism is the fundamental argument for talking about "development" when talking about the industrialization of non-European societies.
    3. "human beings in group develop different cultures and are thus different from each other": this was originally articulated most strongly by American anthropologists, supported by American philosophers like John Dewey, who were themselves building on the German philosophical reaction against French universalism. This has now become the basis of much theorizing about "multi-culturalism."
    4. yes, but, all human beings are really alike. This remains at the core of much if not most anthropology (the limits of relativism), economics, linguistics, psychology, etc.
  3. Specifically, Boas and the evolution of "cultural historicism"
    1. Boas and the constitution of anthropology as a separate discipline
      1. a reaction against racism and nativism,
      2. Human diversity is a contingent product of historical accidents (diffusion vs. evolution). There are no grounds that would allow for the ranking of societies as more or less primitive or developed. All human beings are equally removed from the first homo sapiens sapiens. All have histories of the same length. All groups borrow heavily from each other, genetically, materially, and ideologically.
        1. Note the implied critique of theories of "authenticity." Note also the prefiguration of what is now known as "post-modern" "hybridity."
      3. Because of Boas roots in Germany, and the strong influence of German philosophical writings on American pragmatism, it made paradoxical sense for many of Boas's American students to build on the historicist argument and continue to work on the assumption that participation in a particular historical period in a particular geographical place intimately transformed the child growing into a person.
      4. Thus starting with "the psychic unity of mankind" (a Boasian phrase) and combining it with a strong historical sense, one moved towards models of the psychic diversity of mankind that characterized research into "culture and personality," particularly in the work of Ruth Benedict's, as it was interpreted by Margaret Mead, and later, by Erik Erikson. All this produced a general consensus that culture could be defined as

        Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action.Kroeber & Kluckhohn (1952: 357)

      5. In recent years, this has led to radical hypotheses by some "cultural psychologists" (Shweder, etc.) about irreducible difference between differently socialized people.
    2. The generalization of cultural anthropology in its relationships with the other constituted social sciences, particularly Freudian and cognitive psychologies, the sociologies directly building on Max Weber and others.
      1. The most significant of these, in the 1940s and 1950s, is the attempt to come up with a "general theory of action" that would place culture in its systematic place within the explanations of human activity Talcott Parsons and his students, became the common sense understanding of "culture" as

        "an entity internal to a personality system which controls a system of concrete orientations and actions aimed at securing for the personality certain relationships with objects" (Parsons & Shils 1951:159).

      2. This generalization is also implicit in Bourdieu's sociology, particularly in his definitions of habitus
      3. it is also quite commonly used in interpretations of some of Foucault's main ideas, particularly of his take on the consequences of the "panopticon."
    3. Clifford Geertz and the recasting of culture as a matter of "meaning" for a public. The anthropological task then becomes a matter of "interpretation." In the post-modern version of this tradition, cultural anthropology becomes part of the humanities and separates itself from the (social) (behavioral) sciences.

    1. Duranti's categories
      1. Culture/nature (and the philosophical roots of the conversation): Kant
      2. Culture as knowledge
        1. Goodenough and individual cognition
        2. Lave and distributed knowledge
      3. Culture as communication
        1. Lévi-Strauss
        2. Geertz
        3. Indexicality
      4. Culture as mediation (tools between nature and human beings) 
      5. Culture as a system of practices: Bourdieu
      6. Culture as a system of participation (?Duranti?)


    2. Duranti does not give a good sense of the interaction between the various traditions (and there are probably less than he makes it appear) and the extent and focus of the polemics between the major figures in the field.
  4. and what about (human) "nature"? Recasting the problematics
    1. classifying behaviors as either "culture" or "nature" and then assigning their study to this or that discipline (anthropology or biology)
    2. the resistance and the renewal of (socio-)biologism: the direct challenge to anthropologists as biologists claim that they can handle both human universality and human diversity
      1. human reproduction, selfish genes and the different interests of males and females of the species
      2. genes, diseases, skin color: human evolution and human ecologies
      3. lactose tolerance: human evolution as related to the human transformation of human ecology
    3. the resistance and the (still to come) renewal of cultural anthropology as a scientific response to biologism
  5. Culture as production and substitution

    "Culture is not merely juxtaposed to life not superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it, to bring about the synthesis of a new order. " Lévi-Strauss (1969 [1947]: 4)

    This is not a statement about the mental state of human individuals (though it may be read as being also about this) but about the conditions of life of all human beings. It addresses the artifacts of human history including objects, customs, laws and regulations, artistic and discursive forms, religious practices and creeds, etc. For example, consider:

    1. from sex to marriage (Lévi-Strauss on the incest taboo) and the practices of "gender"
    2. from the sociobiology of courtship to romance (Romeo and Juliette, Pride and Prejudice, and your favorite take on these matters)
    3. from lactose tolerance to cheese and the "Appelation d'Origine Controlée 'Roquefort'"
    4. from the voice box to singing in a choir in a particular form.
  6.  Recent developments. Culture as practice in a world of (human made) things:
    1. Lave, etc. and the emphasis on participation
    2. culture as social faction (construction) and as the process of resistance (Varenne and McDermott 1998)
    3. Latour
  7. To summarize Questions a painting by Cézanne might raise:
For other versions of this lecture, you can check
Some questions
  (in the context of this course)
  • Give a brief example to illustrate what "culture substitutes itself to nature" might mean.
  • Assuming that "race" is a cultural matter, how would some of the authors on culture presented by Duranti develop this assumption?
  • How would a concern with class (inequality, etc.) be handled within a cultural framework?  
  • Which of the theories might make it difficult to deal with social stratification?