Can (and Should) Anthropology Share Culture?

For me, the short answer to this question is obviously, yes. We want EVERYONE to know and love the concept that we consider to be our finest intellectual creation, the lynchpin of our diverse discipline. And yet, could it be the case that we have shared ourselves out of jobs, or worse yet, allowed our baby to be turned into the “working girl” of the social sciences? This is the undercurrent of Tony Waters’ opinion piece from the December 2006 issue of the AAA Newsletter entitled, “Who Stole Culture From Anthropology?”

Waters, a sociology professor at CSU Chico, has three major points he would like anthropologists to consider. These are as follows:
1) In not more carefully guarding culture as the intellectual purview of anthropology we are “Giving Away Curriculum.” He points out that students are just as likely, if not more likely, to hear about the concept of culture from professors in departments of “education, business, genetics, political science, psychology, history, or sociology.”
2) These professors, however proficient in their own disciplines, are unlikely to truly have a background in our discipline and this means we are, as Waters puts it, “Losing History,” and giving the impression that intellectual issues of “culture” can be taught by anyone who knows the word.
3) Anthropologists, he argues, are now suffering the practical effects of not stopping these intellectual leaks in the realm of “Academic Politics.” That is, because courses on culture have been “hijacked,” new faculty lines are not going to Anthropology Departments, but rather to all of those other departments “where culture is now taught.”

Now Waters, who says he routinely hires anthropology PhD’s as adjunct faculty in his department when he needs a course taught “about culture,” clearly loves anthropologists, for as he says, “Who but an anthropologist can talk about Durkheim, chimpanzee behavior, linguistics, archaeological stratigraphy, and mitochondrial DNA?” It’s true, and it warms my heart to say so, but why then, why, why, why, in an era when diversity, multicultural, and globalization are some of the most common buzzwords in forward thinking academic administration, do anthropologists not rule the roost?

Okay, by now it is probably obvious that the metaphor of culture as a beautiful, headstrong child we let run away for a life as an academic streetwalker came from me, not Waters, but you see it breaks my heart to see culture, our pretty baby, so misunderstood. Now she’s turning tricks for business and communications, selling herself cheap to evolutionary psychologists and literary analysts. Oh sure, all of these “others” think they know her, but they fail to grasp her complexity. They fail to see how she requires constant attention and stimulation; only thrives in a context of rigorous debate, and stagnates if you treat her as a utilitarian means to an end.

For one thing, although it may seem cliché, poor culture comes from a broken home: four parents, all in different sub-disciplines, and these days often refusing to speak to each other. I was a PhD student at Berkeley when Tim White (the famous palaeo-anthropologist) packed up and left Anthropology for Integrative Biology. I don’t recall anyone shedding a tear or suggesting family counseling. Well, except me.

I’m sure the question of the future of four-field anthropology is one to which I will return in this forum, because it preoccupies me greatly. But for now, let me say that culture without the “culture” of anthropology, is a poor culture indeed. It’s like eating pad thai and thinking you understand Thailand, watching sumo on ESPN and then writing a book on Japan (with apologies to Ruth Benedict), or collecting Kwakwaka’waka masks and then assuming you could hold your own potlatch. Or, indeed, wearing a Cesar Chavez t-shirt and imagining that you’re part of the revolution while you sit at Starbucks contemplating number 38 down in the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle over a chai latte.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above activities, but they illustrate something that American anthropologists have known since Boas et al. vanquished the museum model of the “hall o’ spears” and “hall o’ basketry:” cultural traits removed from their context lose much of their meaning (not to mention analytical power). Hula without knowing the context of Hawaiian spirituality it celebrates is a tiny bubble compared to the glorious and powerful religious artform it can be when thriving in its traditional context. Similarly, culture, without an understanding the full context and culture of anthropology, is impoverished.

Culture grew up in the crucible of the four-field tradition. She thrives on the continuing tension among perspectives of natural sciences, historical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Culture is a robust and beautiful analytical concept precisely because of its continued negotiation – it is the dialectic that keeps her alive and relevant. One day she is an algorithm, the next a web of significance, then a material culture trait list, or even a suite of behaviors – she is all of this and more, and that is why we love her.

For you see, culture is not only the concept most dear to us American anthropologists, but also the most contentious. Students do not leave my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology without learning at least four different definitions of culture. They understand that the one you chose to believe in and employ makes a very big difference in choosing a research topic, the nature of the questions you will ask, the data you will perceive as relevant to record, and the conclusions you will entertain as feasible.

When culture is imported to these other disciplines, it becomes static in their hands. Without the constant bickering of the four fields, culture starts to become reified. It goes into their “toolboxes” to be pulled out at opportune moments, but doesn’t really get the attention it deserves. Take the hula without understanding Hawaiian culture and it is still exciting, but you sure are missing alot. Take the culture without understanding the rest of anthropology and it is still useful, but you sure are missing alot.

So, should anthropology share “culture” with the rest of academia, not to mention journalists, educators, etc.? Absolutely. But, can anthropology share the concept of culture without giving away its (meaning anthropology’s) heart and soul? This is a harder question. It is also one we should face head-on, and not ignore. Waters concludes his essay by stating that “while the anthropologists were out in the field, the subject of culture was appropriated by others” and so were the jobs.

It’s time to fight for primary custody of culture and the holistic anthropological perspective she embodies. Sure she can visit those other folks, but unless anthropologists can convince the world that there is something truly unique and relevant about our holistic perspective and our insanely broad training (compared to other academics today), we are destined to become the “Roman Empire” of academia. Our culture, language, history, and even genetic material will be assimilated into daughter disciplines — hybrid cultures to whom we are a distant, dimly understood ancestor. Maybe that is an inevitable course, and maybe that is even better for culture (and anthropology?) in the long run, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One thought on “Can (and Should) Anthropology Share Culture?

  1. Wonderful post.
    Your essay should truly be a part of every Intro Anthropology course as it really underlines the necessity of the ‘unification’ of the four sub-disciplines, and emphasizes the importance of our intellectual interplay. The co-opting of the concept and transformation thereof into nothing more than a ‘term’ is something that causes me considerable heartbreak. As a new grad student in the field, this was exactly what I needed to read to center me once again ;)
    H Alexander

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