Musings about the Theft of Culture from Anthropology


Some years ago, I asked the question, “Who Stole Culture from Anthropology?” in a brief essay in  Anthropology News in 2006. I raised the question because many anthropologists had complained to me since about 1987, about how they had trained “too many” anthropologists with the result that they were unemployed.  The discipline seemed to be in a perpetual depression, wallowing in its own insecurities, seemingly like no other.  This bothered me though, in part I guess because I was a victim of this insecurity.  Indeed, it was in 1987 that I first applied for graduate study in Anthropology because I thought the subject of culture—which anthropology has a special claim on—was among the noblest.  My application was rejected, and I was told by some old grizzled anthropological veteran that I was lucky not to be going into the field since, after all, there were too many anthropologists, and no one really cared about culture anyway.

But when I looked around me, I  found that many many people were “doing” the core subject of anthropology, culture.  At the university, these people were found in almost any department except anthropology.  Thus there are classes on culture and marketing, multi-cultural classrooms, genetics and culture, multi-cultural social work, culture and the law, and in my own discipline of sociology classes like popular culture, and cultural contacts/conflicts.

Many of these courses are well-done, but they do not keep culture at the center of what is taught.  Nor do they keep ethnographic observation, or cultural anthropology at the center of things.  Rather, they are expressions of their own disciplines, which is perhaps as it should be.  Thus, a class on culture and marketing focuses on how to sell in modern multi-cultural societies, the multi-cultural classroom course focuses on delivering a curriculum to a diverse audience.  Social workers learn how to offer services to people who have different understandings of “the system”, and biologists speculate about how culture selects for particular genes and not others.  In sociology, where we have the closely related concept of “society” and a strong emphasis on survey research, culture is often reduced to a box checked on a survey form.  But missing are the traditions of anthropology, including emphasis on field work, ethnographic writing, four fields approach, and the rich traditions of people like Malinowski, Boas, and Durkheim.

Chico State where I teach is right now engaged in an overdue dividing up of the “general education” curriculum.  Consistent with trends in higher education, we are developing seven (or eight or ten) pathways which students can select for their general education program.  There will presumably be pathways for internationalization, sustainability, communities, technology, health, and a range of other subjects which cut across disciplines.  Culture probably will not be there, though I suppose it should be.  But I wonder, if it was there, would our student body be served any better?  The range of courses they would be required to take would come from almost anywhere except anthropology, and it is still unlikely that our undergraduates would be required to read any of the anthropological greats, or listen to someone who has experienced the loneliness and anomy of anthropological fieldwork.

Cindy van Gilder once asked on this blog when anthropology’s wayward child—that is culture—would come home.  When will anthropology’s child ever finish flirting with the Business School, Education School, Sociology Department, or Biology Department?  Or in other words, when will Cultural Anthropology be given the same weight in the curriculum of the different disciplines as Accounting in Business, Classroom Management in Education, Statistical Methods in Sociology, and Genetics in Biology.  When this happens, maybe all those under-employed Ph.D.s from Anthropology will begin to claim their discipline back.

26 thoughts on “Musings about the Theft of Culture from Anthropology

  1. I actually thought about this a few months ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I took a Culture Studies class that focused on the globalization of terrorism. The teacher however, was not too familiar with ethnography and other methods that anthropologists uniquely claim. You would think that this might have crippled the course and created a handicap since he was just an English professor. It did not. He presented literature (Don DeLillo, Appadurai, & Terrio) that engaged the topic in a way that was full of culture. It’s like the 80-year-old janitor who is dismissed as not being “cultured”, yet he has a lifetime full of knowledge and experience.

    The best part about this is that anthropologists can learn from these professors, as well as all other people who “know” culture, to accurately shape an idea of what a particular culture may be. Great post!

  2. I’m a sociologist. I study culture. Have I “stolen” it from anthropologists? If it didn’t study culture, what exactly would I study? “Social interaction”? Perhaps. But I imagine that social interaction *is* culture when understood as enduring patterns of social relations. Perhaps also sociologists study power *within* a cultural milieu. Anthropology hasn’t got the conflict-theory history of Marx to guide it through understanding power differences.

    I felt a big smug when you said Durkheim, of course. We all know he belongs to sociology. Heck, he’s even a quant head if you read his study on suicide.

    Sure, there are quant sociologists, but are there not quant anthropologists?

    What is the difference between an anthropologist and a sociologist? I suppose there is more epistemological diversity in sociology. But I must stress that if we adopt the interpretivist position, we most certainly study ethnography — and other qualitative methods.

    I haven’t “stolen” anything. I have much more in common with anthropologists than I do with scholars of literature. But my canon is slightly different.

  3. The problem with Glenn’s perspective is that institutions have divided the intellectual labor of of research and scholarship, and the components — usually academic departments representing disciplines — compete for scarce resources. When English faculty teach de facto anthropology or sociology courses, or do research on anthropological and sociological topics, why have anthropology or sociology in the institution?

    Inter- and multi-discipline work is great, and can be highly productive (Cognitive Science is the great example), but social sciences should feel threatened when humanities programs work to replace them.

  4. Hi Sam:
    I’m a Sociologist too, and no I don’t think that we have “stolen” culture, except perhaps in the way the university curriculum is organized. I think too, that parts of sociology are closely related to anthropology, which is why we share Durkheim, and will occassionally borrow ethnographic techniques. For that matter, cultural anthropology on occassion borrows quantitative techniques, as well as Marx and Weber. THis probably happens more commonly in Germany and the UK where the new field of “Culture Studies” is emerging as something of a melting between cultural/social anthropology, communication studies, sociology, and ethnography.

    On the other hand the four fields approach of anthro here in North American does have its advantages, too. Most important (in my mind) are the ideas that language and linguistics are important for understanding humans, and so are the objects they create. Linguistics and archaeology play only minor roles in sociology departments I’ve seen either in the US or Europe. This does I think make the four fields approach unique.

    One place where anthro and sociology do overlap quite a bit is with the respect given ethnography. But, the places we choose to study are often different. Anthropologists are most likely to be found out in a remote villages struggling with languages and the loneliness of being the other in ways that sociologists rarely do. On the other hand, there has been some great ethnographies done of urban locations by sociologists, too.

  5. “What is the difference between an anthropologist and a sociologist? ”

    Holism is what separates the disciplines. Organization studies folks utilize the hell out of culture, but to them culture is something ideational only. Ultimately it depends on the particular researcher, because there are plenty of science hating anthros out there, who largely stick with an ideational theory of culture. I feel that it should encompass the four fields in at least a basic way, though. Sociologists do not have to study linguistics, pre-historical societies or spatial awareness, genetics, evolution, etc… They can, they simply don’t have to to get a BA in sociology.

    I think Eric Wolf outlines the splitting of the social sciences early on (Europe and people without history. Early on sociology separated the social field from the political, or economic one. An omnibus definition of culture, one that’s accepted by most anthropologists, is not (to my knowledge) taught the same way in other disciplines. However, in actual practice many anthros do not actually utilize an omnibus definition of culture when they conduct the work of anthropology, so it’s probably better to look at what is actually done in the name of culture than what is taught. For me, my subject is humans and everything that more than one human does in a patterned way. That isn’t just society, that’s everything. I “steal” consistently from all other sciences, social or otherwise, to do that.
    I think this comes from the discipline’s history. We were basically the sociologists of “primitive” peoples. Since we did everything for that purpose, we had to incorporate all social sciences, genetics, and environmental sciences to do that. Sociologists rarely had to learn the language of a people in a field, because there was no writing of it anywhere.

    Geographers use culture a lot, but they separate it as something that happens in people’s minds from other things. They also have absolutely no field methods for actually doing anything but knowing it’s there. Marketers think of culture as something static that “Hispanics” or “African Americans” have to sell them things. Multicutlural marketing means minority marketing, because European Americans don’t have culture to marketers. Organizational folks talk about corporations that either have or don’t have culture. To us, humans can’t function as humans without culture, which is something as responsible for our biological evolution as our physical environment was.

  6. To Sam:

    I don’t know about other schools, but mine suffers from a lack of a cultural studies program. This is more of a problem with resources than the extinction of anthropology/culture studies. Additionally, this professor (and most who are not experienced in the field of anthro) did not speak about unique methodologies specific to anthropology. So, all my professor was doing was teaching a class on culture using modern literature. There is an immense future for anthropology, especially with hypermedia, so the idea of culture being stolen from anthropologists is absurd. There is always something to study.

    If you are talking about being able to make a living while studying culture, then yes, YOU might feel threatened, but I would not go so far as to say the social sciences should feel threatened by the humanities.

  7. “I don’t know about other schools, but mine suffers from a lack of a cultural studies program. This is more of a problem with resources than the extinction of anthropology/culture studies.”

    Rather than others stealing anything from anthropology, which borrows as much from any other field that borrows from us, it is a matter of misrepresentation. For example, the conflation of anthropology with “studies.” Culture is nothing more or less than what we say it is. It is whatever we observe or measure with various ethnographic methods, regardless of the discipline.
    Culture studies programs assume particular cultures with particular properties, a priori. The concept of stable and bounded cultures isn’t the present of anthropology, it is our past. Rather than culture, concepts analogous to nationality, ethnicity, race, or class are mixed together and labeled “culture.”

  8. Culture studies programs assume particular cultures with particular properties, a priori. The concept of stable and bounded cultures isn’t the present of anthropology, it is our past.

    So you are saying that culture studies focuses on grounded, or territorialized aspects of culture rather than globalized, deterritorialized culture?

  9. “So you are saying that culture studies focuses on grounded, or territorialized aspects of culture rather than globalized, deterritorialized culture?”

    No, that is not what I’m saying. Actually, the idea of somehow drawing distinctions between local and global processes are semantic and pragmatic, rather than actual.

    What I’m saying is that anthropologists do not, for the most part, have culture as something which is produced as a product of the discipline. We utilize the culture concept as a theoretical given in a broad study of human behavior, patterns, evolution, pre-historic and historic past, and language.
    One can look at whether other disciplines utilize the culture concept as a given, and how the concept is defined. This is also true within anthropology itself. The concept has not been used by all anthropologists historically, nor in the same way or to the same degree.

    Culture studies broadly outline various groups and label them as Latino or Hispanic, African American, Asian, etc… I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what is taught about these groups in every program, but merely demarcating and conflating nationality, ethnicity, race and geographic region, sets up students to think that these amalgamations are solid groups. They don’t fully reveal the massive internal variation in these groups, or they tend to over sell the degree of variation between groups. I admit this is an assumption on my part using third party information. The degree to which they do or don’t do this, really determines how closely they would align with modern cultural anthropology.

    For example, in any US city the single group of “Hispanic” is comprised of various interest and socio-cultural backgrounds and experiences, which can be at odds with each other. The fact that there is no actual term for this supposed group of people that can accurately define them is problematic. If they Hispanic, then they are European. If they are Latino, then they are defined as Spanish speaking, which is tantamount to calling every English speaking person English. The fact is that these groups are largely defined by existent social networks which can be measured. Some of these groups have more in common with groups that would be defined as “White,” than other groups labeled as Hispanic. They also tend to push the dubious notion that people with less skin pigment in the US comprise a single group, with shared values and experiences. This group is either labeled as “Anglo,” (even though Anglos are a minority in the US; there are far more people of German and South European decent in the US), or they are labeled as “Caucasian,” which is an old race term, and would be exactly like calling Blacks, Negroids, or Asians, Mongloids, which are the terms used for these groups on the same list that Caucasian, or Caucasoid, is on.

    The AAA is spending a lot of SFA money to educate people on these things:

  10. Ah. I see what you’re saying. I have yet to actually encounter a culture studies program that generalizes certain cultures in the way that you speak about. In fact, scholars like Stuart Hall & Raymond Williams spent a great deal of time trying to deconstruct and demystify notions of one singular culture. The culture studies I understand may notice commonalities in a particular culture, but there is an understanding that different lived experiences produce different representations of that culture.

    Diasporas are a good case. Tibetans, for example, may be seen as “one” people based on historical and spiritual beliefs, but a Tibetan in Dharamsala may have nothing in common with a Tibetan in the People’s Republic of China. Even inside Dharamsala there are bound to be difference between Tibetans.

  11. Glenn:

    First, I have been teaching anthropology for 30 years in two major research universities, and my observations are not based on imagination or speculation, but on direct experience.

    There are specific, tangible ways in which humanities disciplines, especially English and Comp Lit, have threatened social sciences through discipline creep.

    One way has to do with hiring. The most recent example: when our College of Arts and Sciences decided it wanted a new India specialist, it gave Comp Lit the position, and got someone whose work has nothing whatsoever to do with literature, but sounds very much like anthropology. Comp Lit then gets the grants, the graduate students and the credit for teaching (our dean counts enrollment credit hours) and anthropology does not. Worse, the Comp Lit India specialist does work that looks just like anthropology, but is viciously critical of anthropology as a colonialist enterprise. Our dean listens. We have to backfill just to maintain our credibility. This is a scenario that has been repeated over and over. Why, our dean asks, should we give Anthropology a new faculty position, additional graduate assistantships, etc, when English and Comp Lit seem to be doing your work? Anthropology is never as powerful as an English department.

    Or consider the Gender Studies Program that was established a decade ago, which tried to introduce new courses on gender, sexuality, etc. Can’t do it, the Comp Lit department objected – Comp Lit already teaches those subjects, and we don’t like competition. And Comp Lit was right; the syllabi for the comparable Comp Lit courses on gender, sexuality, etc, didn’t include ANY literature; they sounded exactly like social science courses, with a bit of philosophy thrown in.

    Cultural Studies as widely seen in U.S. universities as a way to rescue English and Comp Lit from irrelevance in a late 20th century dominated by rapid advances in science and technology – when Harvard considered its new undergraduate general education program the observation was made that every Harvard undergrad had read all of Shakespeare but few knew the difference between genes and chromosomes. English was always the core of a general liberal education for gentlemen, and literature remained at the core of the liberal arts for American universities for decades. No longer; but the response of literature programs in the U.S. was to re-invent themselves into Cultural Studies, to expand their scope to include all of ‘culture,’ moving ever farther from the literary core of the discipline. Some recent work by English and Comp Lit faculty: an ethnography of gay clubs (no literature to be seen anywhere); genocide in Rwanda (important topic, but not focused on the literature of genocide); American fascination with serial killers.

    Again, in an ideal world social sciences would welcome these as expansions of social science perspectives and frameworks into other fields. In the real world they pose challenges to social sciences ability to complete for grants, journal space, graduate students, and control of the means of production of scholarly work.

    Sorry to go on – you may have guessed that I am concerned about this trend….

  12. “I have yet to actually encounter a culture studies program that generalizes certain cultures in the way that you speak about.”

    I see. If that’s the case then my previous criticisms aren’t as valid. I wonder how standardized these programs are. I know very little about university level programs. I started looking into these things recently with the passing of new Arizona legislation on the subject, and I was wrongly assuming that they followed a similar structure of curriculum. Mea culpa.

  13. “One way has to do with hiring. The most recent example: when our College of Arts and Sciences decided it wanted a new India specialist, it gave Comp Lit the position, and got someone whose work has nothing whatsoever to do with literature, but sounds very much like anthropology.”

    The same thing is happening outside of academia as well. I’m a practicing anth, and when I look for new jobs or consulting gigs with search terms like: ethnography, qualitative/quantitative research, etc… Very few mention that they are looking for anthropologists. Most are looking for MBAs, social psychologists, and other backgrounds that have training in these traditionally anthropological methods or field practices.

    What this means is that the “discipline creep” are are witnessing in universities, is having a direct effect on the public and private sector beyond the academy. If a discipline has a demand outside of academia, then the dept. is going to get more funding, more students, and the professors are going to get hirer pay.

  14. Wow! Great post by Tony, but scary and a little befuddling for a recent social science graduate trying to determine whether grad level sociology or anthropology would be best for me. Not that I haven’t been struggling with this for awhile anyway, but the post and subsequent comments did not give me any answers. Barbara: I will stick to getting the majority of my cultural education in the social sciences rather than the humanities, as I believe your point is well-taken. Perhaps an anthro student could study the trend and what it means. Wherever you teach, would you like a new grad student??!!

  15. I am reminded of the way that English has a monopoly on “freshman comp”. Everyone has to take it, and take it from an English Department, even though many other disciplines also teach it. Same goes for introductory math (typically statistics or calculus) everyone needs to take one of these from a math department,not the other departments where various versions are taught. Culture, on the other hand might be taken anywhere in order to satisfy diversity requirements in GE. As Barbara points out, this has meant that the humanities have been starting to snatch up tenure track positions which might have otherwise gone to the social sciences, and specfically anthropology.

    When I mentioned Culture Studies in Europe, I had in mind the work of Stuart Hall, as Glenn pointed out. There is a strong element of media studies in Culture Studies, and it is all the rage in Germany where Culture Studies programs are popping up, and staffed by former sociologists and anthropologists. Doctorate degrees in Culture Studies are now being taught, and hired in Europe. This has not yet happened in the United States as far as I know. In fact, I think a PhD. in Culture Studies would befuddle a search committee at a US American Department of Anthropology or Sociology.

  16. At my last university the dept. made deals with other departments to get more anthros in. A visual anthropologists got a position at the tv, radio, and media dept. They were able to hire two new enviro. anths. instead of one, because one was shared with the environmental philosophy dept. An ethnomusicologist was hired into the music dept. There was also an archaeologist that got housed in the geology dept. Taken together they were able to create a pretty large dept. in an informal way. I always thought this was a savvy way of filling more seats with anthros, and making sure that other depts. that taught the culture concept were teaching it from a holistic perspective.
    It seems like this is a pragmatic way to deal with the problem.

  17. This post created quite a stir–I guess there is still a great deal of interest in culture across the curriculum. I guess that it is also the case that English, Sociology, Business and so fort are still nudging their way into the subject. This is good thing in some ways as some of the posters point out. But it is also a problem in the broader context of university politics.
    Even a medium sized university like mine can’t have more than a few faculty positions across the campus specializing in China, Japan, India, Africa, etc. After all diversity is important! But that means when English gets one of these positions to teach about literature (or business gets one to teach international marketing), it is often one less area specialization available to teach in an anthro department about culture. Academic politics have very real consequences for how subjects are approached and disciplines develop!

  18. “Academic politics have very real consequences for how subjects are approached and disciplines develop!”

    I think this is switching the causality of what’s going on. It’s the demand and role of anthros outside the academy that is going to be a driving force if academics want more sway. What has hurt anth in the academy is the rejection of so many academics to work outside the academy. The more jobs are available for graduating anthros, the more students will choose the degree as a major, and the more influence academic depts. will have. Professors will get paid more, just like business profs, because they will have options and the universities will have to compete with the private market. What’s being suggested is that somehow the superstructure has the ability to radically change the infrastructure through the force of will, which makes no sense at all.
    The AAA needs to push the anthropology brand among public and private industry if they want any respect at all.

  19. I think that nobody stole “culture” from anthropology but researchers shift their focus and went away (because of their actions) from the “anthropological eye”. We now study our own modern societies and many anthropologists do not distance themselves from the research subjects. Many are transformed to sociologists, museologists, culture counsellors, social psychologists, etc and that is because of inter-disciplinary awareness. It is sure that academic anthropology is a closed “society” where communication and interactions appear only through conferences, academic journals, workshops, within the premises of universities.

    Anthropologists need again to discover their discipline and to come closer to local societies, to place again anthropos (humans) at the centre, to promote anthropological theories and methods, and of course, there is the need cultural (social) anthropology to be included in primary and secondary education, in public schools.

    Each anthropologist can give a different definition over the concept of “culture”; we are far away from Tylor’s (1871) definition… in our days there is the “culture of internet”, Facebook, YouTube, and other social networks, “visual culture”, “social culture”… thus, there is the need to place anthropological concepts of culture in new contexts (there is vast bibliography on it, not only by anthropology but from cultural studies too). Not any discipline can claim “culture”, it is not an issue of professional “ownership”; but, anthropologists are best equipped to understand and explore cultures and that is because of the holistic approach and our field-research processes in collecting the ethnographic material.

    To sum up, our world needs anthropology because the “Other” is now next to us…

  20. Wonderful paintings! This is the kind of information that should be shared across the web. Disgrace on Google for now not positioning this publish higher! Come on over and seek advice from my web site . Thank you =)

Comments are closed.