An Introduction to "culture"
building on Clifford Geertz's "'From the native's point of view'" (1976)

What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic' means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (Geertz 1976: 235)

These are notes for an introductory lecture on fundamental issues in classical anthropological approaches to the concept of "culture." [created: April 2, 1997]

  1. The title of Geertz's paper:

    "'From the native's point of view': On the nature of anthropological understanding"

    indexes a paradigm of concerns. First, in the title:
    1. native
    2. 's
    3. point of view
    4. nature
    5. understanding
    And then in the conclusion:
    1. knowing words (reading a poem)
    2. knowing minds
  2. The paper picks up one of the earliest and most famous statements about the goal of ethnography (understood as the best method to achieve anthropological understanding). This is the end of the introduction to Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific ([1922] 1961). In fact Malinowski outlines two goals
    1. a descriptive agenda
    2. and a general one "The final goal ... is to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. (p25)
  3. All this is problematic but remains the premisses that all anthropologists, in one way or another, work with
    1. native: where one is born makes a difference
      1. There is a "there" to all human lives, a particular (historical evolved) set of conditions that one finds at birth, on our emigration. Thus perennial interest in
        1. synchrony (cultural patterns and systems)
        2. diachrony (history)
      2. the historical, institutional "thereness" of human groupings makes a difference on the lives on individuals born (native to) there. This can be understood in quite different ways:
        1. as framing everyday life,
        2. as providing possibilities and constraints on personal careers.
        3. as shaping personalities (selves, identitities)
    2. point of view: particular cultures place people in different positions. This is to be understood both
      1. cross-culturally (here and there)
      2. intra-culturally (class, gender, etc.)
    3. "'S" (the possessive form as applied to culture) This is particularly problematic:
      1. does the native "possess" the culture (that he does he implicit in a whole range of social thinkers form Dewey, through Benedict, to the modern multi-culturalists.
      2. it is the culture that "owns" the native. This can be stated in many ways
        1. G.H. Mead and meaning being determined by the response of the others within a field
        2. Gramsci on hegemony
        3. Lévi-Strauss on myths "thinking themselves through men
        4. McDermott and Varenne on "Culture as disability"
    4. All this, of course, is reflexive since anthropologists, as natives are in the same positions as all other natives. They are at the same time
      1. constructed selves systematically blinded by their positions some where.
      2. "I" (in G.H. Mead's sense) who can see but cannot tell given limits in words (discourse modes, access to publication, constitution by audiences, etc.)

    Thus Geertz's pessimism about "knowing minds" and his somewhat muted affirmation that "words," that is customs, institutions, etc., are to be known (explored, described, etc.) for culture is a fact of life on the earth and it is knowable. Cultural limitations on anthropology do not make anthropology impossible).

April 2, 1997