- Lévi-Strauss, Claude "
and culture," Chapter 1 of The elementary structures of kinship.
Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 1969 .
Alessandro Linguistic Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University
Press. 1997. (Chapter 2)
OF RELATED INTEREST:
- Smelser, Neil "Culture: coherent or incoherent."
in Münch, Richard, and Neil Smelser, eds. Theory of culture, 3-28.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1992
Milton "The concept of culture." International Encyclopedia of
the Social Sciences 3: 527-543.1968
- Some definitions,
classical and recent.
- Do check Duranti's undergraduate version of a
course in "Culture and communication."
|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
(for example: mental health)
Why "culture" got to be known
as the organizing concept of anthropology
(vs. "society" for sociology or "the psyche"
- on humanity (13th to 18th century, more or less)
- natural law
- in its religious aspect
- in its political/philosophical aspect (particularly in the writing of the
political theorists of the 18th century
- "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")
- the evidence of human diversity
- the European travels around the globe
- the more or less temporary conquests of
- and the continuing hegemony of certain forms of discourses about humanity
- the consequences of human diversity for
- philosophy (and eventually all behavioral sciences)
- politics (and justice)
- practice (including the economic)
- 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:
- "some human beings are more developed than other
human beings": theories of differentiated biological evolution,
now mostly discredited as racism
- "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.
- "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."
- 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,
- Specifically, Boas and the evolution of "cultural historicism"
- Boas and the constitution of anthropology as a separate discipline
- a reaction against racism and nativism,
- 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.
- Note the implied critique of
theories of "authenticity." Note also the prefiguration of what is now known as "post-modern" "hybridity."
- 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
- 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
- In recent years, this has led to radical hypotheses
by some "cultural psychologists" (Shweder, etc.) about
irreducible difference between differently socialized people.
- 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.
- 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
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).
- This generalization is also implicit in Bourdieu's sociology, particularly
in his definitions of habitus
- 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."
- 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)
- Duranti's categories
- Culture/nature (and the philosophical roots of the conversation): Kant
- Culture as knowledge
- Goodenough and individual cognition
- Lave and distributed knowledge
- Culture as communication
- Culture as mediation (tools between nature
and human beings)
- Culture as a system of practices: Bourdieu
- Culture as a system of participation (?Duranti?)
- Duranti does not give a good sense
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.
- and what about (human) "nature"? Recasting the problematics
- classifying behaviors as either "culture" or "nature" and then assigning their study
to this or that discipline (anthropology or biology)
- 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
- human reproduction, selfish genes and the different interests of males and females of the
- genes, diseases, skin color: human evolution and human ecologies
- lactose tolerance: human evolution as related to the human transformation of human ecology
- the resistance and the (still to come) renewal of cultural anthropology as a scientific response to biologism
- 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. "
(1969 : 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:
- from sex to marriage (Lévi-Strauss on the incest taboo) and the practices of "gender"
- from the sociobiology of courtship to romance (Romeo and Juliette, Pride and Prejudice, and
your favorite take on these matters)
- from lactose tolerance to cheese and the
"Appelation d'Origine Controlée 'Roquefort'"
- from the voice box to singing in a choir in a particular form.
- Recent developments. Culture as practice in a world of (human made) things:
- Lave, etc. and the emphasis on participation
- culture as social faction (construction) and
as the process of resistance (Varenne and McDermott 1998)
- To summarize
Questions a painting by Cézanne might raise:
For other versions of this lecture, you can check
(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