Last week I gave my students a classic think and reflect question: what is the relationship between culture and economics. Three particularly good responses stick in my mind, and I want to share them with ethnography.com.
The first student thinks like Mark, likened culture, economics, and politics to a car. The engine is economics, politics is the fuel, and the wheels are culture. The car needs the fuel of politics to keep going. If you have the right fuel the car runs well. If you have the wrong fuel, you can ruin the engine. But irrespective of whether you have a motor or fuel, the car rolls forward, only if the are wheels that are culture are on the car. Presumably there needs to be some air in the tires too, if they are to grip the road well.
A second student cited an short paper written by, of all people, the anthropologist Franz Boas, and sociologist Talcott Parsons which published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1958, and called “The Concepts of Culture and of Social System.” In other words, they had the same squabble back then about the difference between culture and society, too. Their conclusion is still relevant, though: “As in the famous case of heredity ‘versus’ environment, it is no longer a question of how important each is, but of how each works.” If only the many biological reductionists seeking explanations for culture only in genes and/or competitive advantage would reflect on this quote, the discussion would be more productive.
The third student had perhaps the most straightforward comment about the controversy between economics and culture. His response went something like this: “Which came first, society or economy? About this I won’t speculate; it is a question better left to the metaphysicists.”