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When: A Conversation about Culture

Author(s): Robert Borofsky, Fredrik Barth, Richard A. Shweder, Lars Rodseth, Nomi Maya
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 432-446
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Kaneohe,HI 96734

of Anthropology
Boston,MA 02215

Committeeon HumanDevelopment
Universityof Chicago
Chicago,IL 60637

of Anthropology
University Utah
SaltLakeCity,UT 84112

Universityof SouthernCalifornia
Los Angeles,CA 90089

WHEN: A Conversation about Culture

For decades now culturehas been a topic anthropologistsargueabout:WHAT it does or does not mean, IF it shouldor
shouldnot constitutea centralconceptof the discipline.This essay stepsoutsidethese argumentsto rephrasethe issue and
ourapproachto it. It exploresWHENit makessense to use the culturalconcept:Shouldwe proceedinductivelyor deductively in constructingconnectionsbetweenthe conceptandourdata?And insteadof assertionsby one author,it utilizesa
debateformatto collectivelyraisepossibilitiesto ponder.[culture,induction,deduction,anthropologicalanalysis]

How does one get one's hands,conceptuallyspeaking,
aroundthe culturalconcept?It seems so definite-a term
referredto againandagainin boththe anthropologicaland
popularliterature.And yet, as one examinesthe concept,it
appearsincreasinglyillusive. Differentpeople perceiveit
in differentways, and, perhapsnot unexpectedgiven its
popularity,the conceptoftencarries-in its differentrenditions-various politicalovertones.
Withculture,the devil oftenappearsin thedetails.Many
peopleembracethe conceptin the abstract.But they argue,
sometimesheatedly,over what the term actuallymeans.

As Hatch writes: "Even though the term has been discussedin countlessbooks and articles,thereis still a large
degree of uncertaintyin its use-anthropologists employ
the notionin fundamentallydifferentways"(1973:1).
Take for example Kroeberand Kluckhohn'sfamous
Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions

(1952). Most readerswill recall Kroeberand Kluckhohn

discovering more than 150 definitions for the concept.
(Playing on Johnst'sfamous phrase-often attributedto
HermannGoering-Appiah writes, "when you hear the
word 'culture,'you reachfor yourdictionary.")And many
may approvinglynod at KroeberandKluckhohn'scontention that "cultureis the centralconcept of anthropology"

AmericanAnthropologist103(2):432-446. Copyright? 2001, AmericanAnthropologicalAssociation


(1952:36). But few will rememberthe definitionthe two

senior figuresofferedfor the concept. (It is quotedin full
by Shwederbelow for interestedreaders.)Theirdefinition
neverreallycaughton withinthe discipline.
Looking closer at Kroeberand Kluckhohn'swork, we
perceive a politicalagendaof sorts. The volume, with its
historicalbreadthanddepth,becamethe definitivestudyof
the subject.It remainedso foryears.In offeringa definition
for culture,KroeberandKluckhohnwere doing morethan
simply addinganotherto the pile producedby theirpredecessors. Their definition, they suggested, involved how the

concept "is now formulatedby most social scientists"

(1952:181)-a ratherdebatableassertion.But therewas an
importantimplicationhere: The two authorities,having
conductedauthoritativeresearch,were tryingto claim the
authoritativedefinition.As noted,it did not work.
Broadeningthese points, we see paralleldynamicsinvolved in variouspopularand disciplinaryusages of the
culturalconcept.Let me offerthreeexamples.
One sense of culture,repeatedlyreferredto, impliescumulativedevelopment.Beliefs, behaviorsand/orartifacts
are portrayedas developing throughtime, often toward
some progressive,positive end. One might cite Matthew
Arnoldin this regard:culture,he suggests,is "a pursuitof
ourtotalperfection... thebest whichhasbeenthoughtand
said in the world"(1950:viii).E. B. Tylor (as paraphrased
by Stocking 1968:79)wrote:" 'the phenomenaof culture'
... were the products of progressive development." Build-

ing on this, cultureis sometimesportrayedas the evolutionaryproductthatmakeshumans,broadlyspeaking,human (see, e.g., Geertz 1973:33-54; White 1949:33; cf.
Hallowell 1955:2-13). But what is progress?The definer
often framesthe answerin termsof a hierarchywith,to no
one's surprise,his or herperspectiveon top.
A second usage views cultureas antagonisticto certain
historicaldevelopmentscenteredin Europe.Christopher
Herbertnotes:"theidea of cultureappearson the scene as
the centralelementof a long, closely knitEnglishtradition
of social criticismdirectedagainstthe disintegratingand
(1991:22). Culture
debasing effects of industrialization"
(or cultures),in this sense,involves styles of life andlearning that run counterto the negative effects of modernization.This perspectiveremainscommon amonganthropologists: cultureis often portrayedas the beliefs and/or
behaviors people retain despite interaction with the
"West."Sahlins, for example, refers to "culturalism"as
"the claim to one's own mode of existence ... in opposi-

tion to a foreign-imperial
this sense, conveys resistanceto alien or alienatinglifeways. Or as he famouslyphrasesit: "localpeopleintegrate
the World System into somethingeven more inclusive:
theirsystemof the world"(1994:384).
A thirdsense of culture(or cultures)is still morepolitical and is often associatedwith Germannationalism.Norbert Elias writes, "the Germanconcept of Kulturplaces



special stress on nationaldifferences and the particular

identityof groups.... [It] mirrorsthe self-consciousness
of a nationwhichhadconstantlyto seek out andconstitute
its boundariesanew, in a political as well as a spiritual
sense"(1994:5). Anthropologistsoften drawon this tradition to emphasizea people's sharedbeliefs and behaviors
thatdistinguishthemfromothersand,at the sametime, offer thema sense of sharedmeaning.Many moder nationstatesdrawon this senseof culturein seekingsome formof
collective coherence(see Anderson1983). But as recent
news storiesmakeclear,the communionproducedby such
a national"culture"oftenseems illusiveif not illusionary.
Culture,then, is not a set term-some naturalphenomena thatone can consensuallydescribe(as tendsto happen
with hydrogenatoms, hamsters,and humans).Cultureis
whatvariouspeopleconceiveit to be, and,as these definitions make clear, differentpeople perceive it in different
ways for differentends. This point leads to another:The
culturalconcepthas probablyneverbeen definedin terms
thatall anthropologists,now and/orin the past, concuron
(see, e.g., Brightman1995:541;Ortner1984:126;as well
as Hatch [1973:1] above). This disjunctionof meanings
might be said to be the concept'smost enduringdisciplinarycharacteristic.Nor, as we saw, does the concept fly
free from political overtones. The concept takes up so
muchintellectualandhistoricalspace thatit almostseems
inevitablethatthe concept'svarioususages will be framed
by politicsandpoliticsby it.
Which leads to anotherpoint:Ratherthan seeking the
concepts'sunderlyingessence or reality,we shouldview it
as a conceptualtool thatcan be appliedin differentways
for differentends withdifferenteffectiveness.I wouldsuggest two ways anthropologistsgenerallyapplythe concept
The firstinvolves an affirmationof disciplinesolidarity.
Defininganthropologyas the studyof culture,as occursin
variousintroductorytextbooks,says less about what anthropologists do than about the politics of inclusion
whereby an authorseeks to find a common underlying
themefor a plethoraof disciplinaryprojects.It is usuallya
In a relatedandmoreeffectivesense, culturehas served
anthropologyfor manydecadesas a code word-within a
broaderdisciplinarypidgin-that allows Americananthropologists to speak to one anotheracrosstheirfragmented
and fragmentingspecializations.The conversationsoften
are limited;each partydoes not necessarilyembrace,or
even fully grasp,another'sresearchagenda.Nonetheless,
theyhavebeen ableto carryon some semblanceof conversationregardingissues and information,howeverrestricted, throughsuchsharedcode wordsthatimplythatthe parties involved possess, in some vague manner,a shared
project.Galisonnotes thatphysicistspossess similarcode
words;"electron"wouldbe one example.He writes:"Fragments of theoriesand bits of languageconnect disparate


* VOL. 103, NO. 2



groupsof practitionerseven when these practitionersdisagreeabouttheirglobalsignificance"(1997:54).Or again:

"Farfrommeltinginto a homogeneousentity,the different
groupsoften maintaintheirdistinctness,whetherthey are
electricalengineersand mechanicalengineers,or theorists
andengineers,or theoristsandexperimenters.The pointis
instrumentsand their characteristicforms of argumentation, can nonethelesscoordinatetheir approachesaround
specific practices"and, I would add for anthropologists,
specificconceptualaffirmations(1997:805-806). It allows
them-however temporarily, however imperfectly-to
We might look at variousargumentsregardingthe cultural concept-such as Kroeber's difference of opinion
with Sapir (regardingthe superorganiccharacterof culture) or Goodenough'sdifferenceof opinionwith Geertz
(regardingthe locus of culture)-in this light. They affirm-above the fray-a sense that anthropologistsshare
certaincommonconcerns.Even if they find it hardto articulatethem,theycan at leastargueover whatthey are.
Since the late 1960s-for a varietyof intellectual,historical, and demographicreasons-cultural anthropologists graduallyhave turnedaway fromcultureas a central
code word andbegunemphasizingalternativewords.The
dominantcode words from the 1970s through1990s-to
the degree we can perceive a pattern-tend to draw on
Europeantheoristsbeyond the discipline. Once anthropologists spoke of cultureand readersacross a range of
specialtiesand perspectivesperceived a vaguely defined
set of issues. More recentlyculturalanthropologistswrite
of Marx,Foucault,andBourdieuwith a similarresult.
A second disciplinaryapplicationbesides disciplinary
solidarityinvokescultureas a tool of analysis,as a way to
make sense of certaindata. This seems an obvious, selfevidentusage.And,indeed,it is a widely affirmedposition
withinthe discipline.But therearetwo importantcautions.
First,as we haveseen, the conceptcontainsconsiderable
intellectualbaggage, so individualsare not free to use it
when and how they wish. Recent critiquesof the cultural
conceptemphasizesuchbaggage:Critics,Fox writes(1999),
have gone "so far as to say thatthe cultureconceptat present ... [is] neither useful for scholarship nor politically

progressive... some of the reasonsbeingthatit dehumanized (Abu-Lughod1991), that the shrink-wrapped

packages of traditionit theorizedneededto be 'dis-integrated'
(Fox 1995), andthatit silencedsubalternhistories(Trouillot 1995,Wolf 1982)."
A secondcaution:With differentpeople using the term
in a host of differentways thatmay or may not overlap,we
mightreasonablyask whatis gainedby using an anthropological concept when an indigenousone might serve as
well or, even perhaps,better.Does calling something"culture" really facilitate communicationtoday? (Williams

refersto cultureas "oneof the two or threemost complicatedwordsin the Englishlanguage"[1976:76].)

The followingpaperscome at the use (andabuse)of the
culturalconceptfrom a differentdirectionthanusual. Insteadof beginningwith if one shouldapplythe conceptor
what form of the conceptone might best apply-the two
ways the issue tends to be generallyphrased-it begins
withwhento applythe concept.Assumingthatthe concept
has value,andfew disagreethatit has valuein certaincontexts for certainpurposes,we explorewhenone mightbest
drawthe concept-as an intellectualabstraction-into an
analysis.Does one lean more towardinductionor deductionin applyingthe culturalconcept?
This is the tension between Barthand Shweder.Barth
suggestsholdingoff on applyingit. Collectthe data,he asserts.Examinehow people act. Discover the interconnections;determinethe constraintsin how they behave,what
theybelieve. Then,andonly then,considerthe valueof using the culturalconcept to frame the analysis. Then, and
only then, ask whatthis model adds or subtractsfrom the
analysis."Ourprimaryempiricaldataneed to be locatedas
muchas possibleoutsideor beforeour majorabstractions,
and interpretations,"
he writes,
"so as to give us thatcrucialchanceto transcendourestablishedways of understanding
andtest the powersandlimits of our concepts."Shweder,given what he deems the
successfulapplicationof the termby scoresof anthropologists, prefersto begin with the culturalconcept. "Bottom
up induction,"he asserts,at times "canbe an overwhelming task."Culturedirectsourattentionto certainideas,certainbehaviors,certainpointswe need consider."Thereare
times,"he writes, "whencomplex and contingentbehavioralsystemsarebest understoodby an appealto a simple
model of 'historicallyderived and selected' ideas." Or
again:"Theideaof culture... directsourattentionto those
ideas aboutwhatis true,good, beautifuland efficientthat
areacquiredby virtueof membershipin some group."The
culturalconceptorientsus, he asserts,towardinvestigating
the questionswithwhichanthropologists
positionsrespectively.Rodsethemphasizessuch concepts
as agency and variationoften get lost in the rushto label
somethingas culture-especially if one leans towardculturaldeterminismor culturalholism.Despitepresentproclamationsto the contrary,Rodsethobserves,this is exactly
whathas happenedin anthropology.Simply stated:If one
focuses on culture-without first taking into accountan
action-orientedapproachto knowledgeandhumanexperience-important dynamicstendto get shuntedto the side.
Stolzenberg,'a legal scholar,suggestsBarthis seekingprecision when he should be acceptingambiguity:The cultural concept's vagueness fosters a range of stimulating
questionsif not necessarilydefinitiveanswers.Forher,culture constitutesa productiveplaceholderfor a set of inquiriesthatraisethe centralquestionswe need all address.


Why not start,then,with cultureas a governingconceptfor

The otherareain which the papersbreaknew groundis
in encouraginga sustaineddiscussionon a centralanthropological issue-by differentscholarswith differentperspectives-within a single AmericanAnthropologistarticle. Normally,intellectualresponsesfollow months(if not
section.Susyears)afterin the journal's"Commentaries"
tainedengagementsin which writersdirectlyaddresseach
other'spositions-in the same article-are relativelyrare.
CurrentAnthropologyoffers one formatfor engagement.
Herewe exploreanother.The pieces arepresentedas a debate, with Barthand Shweder offeringthe primarypositions that are then respectivelysecondedby Rodsethand
Stolzenberg(followingthe modelof Ingold'sKeyDebates
in Anthropology,1996). Any form of exchange has its
limitations. As with most anthropologicaldiscussions,
each side in this piece prefersto drawthe otherintoits own
frame of reference rather than engage directly on the
other's terms. (It is how anthropologistsgenerallyargue
aboutbig issues.) Still, the debateformatensuresthatthe
discussionremainsfocusedon a particularconcern,allowing readersto maketheirown assessmentsof which position they prefer.Drawing seconds into the discussionratherthanlimitingit to two seniorscholars-emphasizes
anotherpoint:We hope readerswill add their own comments either in the AnthropologyNews (if one wishes a
quickturnaroundtime) or theAmericanAnthropologistitself (if one does not mind the longer delay). In brief, we
collectively offer these pieces as a forum and form for
thinkingabout a central anthropologicalconcern.Please
join in!

Rethinking the Object of Anthropology

Any carefulreadingof the anthropologicalliteratureof
the last hundredyearssuggeststhatsocial andculturalanthropologistshaveexpendedmucheffortrediscoveringold
insightsandrepeatingold mistakes.I thinkthistendencyto
stubbornlyreturnto squareone springsfromobstaclesthat
may be deeply lodged in some of our centralwords and
usages. If so, we need to critique our theories on the
metalevel of the words and concepts we most take for
grantedand the kinds of unfoundedassumptionsthey allow, or even encourage.A greaterwillingnessto abandona
few ill chosensymboliccausesmightalso be helpful.
Our most importantobstacle in my view is the widespreadand persistentidea thatthe objectof our discipline
is "culture."2
Yes, the idea of cultureprovidesa powerful
to understandfeaturesof humanexistwith
ence (Geertz 1973:33-54). But cultureis an abstraction
from innumerableoccurrenceswhere people act in complex social and physical contexts. These actions are furthermorealways associatedwith cognition,and with will



and purpose.In view of the complex and poorly understoodinterplayof thesemanyaspects,it mustsurelybe unwise to concentrateour attentionon that one abstraction,
culture,andelevateit to a positionas the definingobjectof
our inquiry,therebytaking a very restrictiveposition on
what needs to come under our intensive scrutiny.No
doubt,an analogousrestrictionhas long been successfulin
defining the object of linguistics. But that comparison
merelysuggeststhatthe idea of a code of communication
may happento define an objectmore readilyand systematicallyseparablefromthe rest of life thandoes the nebulous rangeof ideasevokedby the wordculture.
Attemptsto resolve this by clarifying and sharpening
our definitionof culturehave repeatedlyfailed and can
serve as just one more exampleof our tendencyto return
endlesslyto old perplexities.Ourethnographicexperience
shouldmakeus acknowledgethatwhatwe abstractby any
definitionof cultureis only manifestin empiricalevents
composedof many,various,andvariableotheraspectsbesides the cultural.A decontextualizedaccountof the culturalaspect will then captureonly fragmentsof events,3
with a questionablepotentialfor systemicmodeling.As an
empiricaldiscipline,anthropologyneeds, on the contrary,
to have a robustobservationalbase in phenomenathatare
simply identified, sufficiently separable, and internally
connectedin orderto be felicitousfor the discoveryof interconnectionsand determinedconstraints.Culture detachedfromthe contextsof humanactionin whichit is embeddedcannotsatisfythisrequirement.
We needdatathatcan offerresistanceto ourdeepestassumptionsandconventions.If we thinkof the objectof anthropologyas acting subjects,or in a simpler language,
"people,"we better secure the benefits of an empirical
study-that we shall be able to critiquetheoreticalassertions by confrontingthem with the simple objection:"But
look what these people do." Our primaryempiricaldata
needto be locatedas muchas possibleoutsideor beforewe
and interpretations
so as to give us that crucialchanceto
transcendour establishedways of understandingand test
the powersand limits of ourconcepts.It seems to me that
too muchpreparatory
abstractionhasbeeninvestedin what
we call "culture"for it to servetheseneeds.
Our second majorrequirementis that the definitionof
ourobjectof studyshouldbe fruitfullylinkedto a practicable epistemology.Here any study of humanphenomena
with rigorousand objective ambitionsmeets its greatest
challenge.The objectivityof positivist science-i.e., describingonly thosefeaturesthatcan be directlyestablished
by replicableobservations-does not providethe methodology we need,given the very constitutionof humanlives.
Since people interpretthe worldand act on those interprein the sense
tations,we need to access theirinterpretations
of their subjectivelyexperienced world-the meanings
they ascribe, the purposes they embrace-to

know even


* VOL. 103, NO. 2 * JUNE2001

the simplestfacts of whatis happeningbetweenthem.But

these facts cannot be establishedby transparentlyobjective, replicableobservations.
Yet at least since Weber and Malinowski we have
knowna solution.As ethnographers
we can attaina degree
of access to the world of othersthroughthe humble apof sortsin
prenticeshipof becominga participant-observer
those otherpeople's lives. Because it is time-consuming,
ways to bypass this imperfectart-as it turnsout, always
withflawed results.Thereseems to be no alternativefor us
but to dependheavily on our personal,social capacity,so
as to achieve that degree of resonance(Wikan 1992) and
thatgives accessto ourprimary,empirical
data on what people are indeed doing-that is, their subjectively purposefulandmeaningfulacts.4
These two majorconsiderations-the first ontological,
the second epistemological-come together. The very
process by which we obtainour data turnsout to be one
whichengagesthe broadersituationof peopleactingin the
world-in which case we can hardlydefend a theoretical
programto attendonly to one aspectof these events.Even
for those who see culturealone as the focus of theirinterest, theirpurposeis poorlyservedby endlesseffortsto construct concepts to describe the patternsof an ideational
world in isolationfrom practice.The study of culturerequiresa robustway of ascertainingmeaning,and it is by
locatingourobservationsbackin the contextwhereculture
is mademanifestthatwe securethe opportunityto triangulate our readingsof meaning from the multiplecomponentsandconnectionsof meaningfulacts.5
But a muchbroadertheoreticalagendais servedby this
view of our object of study,one that,it seems to me, can
encompass our diverse interests ranging from political
economy and human ecology to the anthropologyof
knowledgeandthe study of cognitionand emotion.In focusing on action,we focus on the locus wherepeople deploy culturalmaterialsto interpretthe situationin which
they act and design their action to have an effect on the
world; where they interpretthe meaningof each other's
actsin termsof purpose,task,context,andexpectedeffect;
and whereculturalmaterialswill be reproducedor modified throughexperienceandleaming.6These processesare
connected in the fulcrum of social action: that moment
when the variousaspectsrepresentedby culture,social relations,cognition,meaning,purpose,andmaterialcontext
becomemanifesttogetherandcombineto affecteach other
and shapeoutcome.It in herethatwe can find those interconnectionsthatwe most need to studyto expandanthropologicaltheory.
This image of a fulcrumalso offersthe advantagethatit
defines our objectby meansof a prototypeor schema,not
an objectivistenumerationof supposedlynecessary and
sufficientfeatures(Lakoff1987).Thatmakesit morereadily applicableas a resourcefor thoughtandgives it a wider

latitudeof relevancefor our variouslysituatedstudiesand

Proceedingfrom there, we need to sharpenour discipline by recognizingour fundamentaldependenceon being ableto provideaccurate,rich,andsystematicempirical
descriptions.An empiricaldiscipline that cannotpresent
specimens,cadavers,or textsas objectsforinspectionmust
rely on descriptionfor the presentationof its evidence.In
such disciplines,a good descriptionis one thatallows the
object describedto be reconstructed,within agreed parameters,fromthe descriptiongiven. Anythingthatis not
retrievedin this way is lost as data.In ourlongingfor subtler accountsof humanlives andthoughts,anthropologists
repeatedlytrespassthis boundaryandemulatethe methodologies of the humanitiesby adaptinga languageof commentary,allusion, and evocation. This is inadequatefor
many of our purposes,since it was designed for readers
who arealreadyfamiliarwiththe objectsin questionandso
do not need to be systematicallyinformedof the empirical
featuresof thoseobjectsto be ableto reflecton them.
When anthropologistsso often have battledto produce
descriptionsthat abstractculturalmaterialsfrom theirsocial embeddedness,they may have been drivenby a felt
need to simplifyso as to be able to give a holistic account
of culture.But this misdirectedideal of holism, besides
servingas an obstacleto our explorationof crucialinterconnections,encouragesthe idea that we should striveto
be comprehensiveand encompassing,and resultsin models depictingpatternand structure.Instead,we shouldfavor partialand open models, which can depictsignificant
connectionsembeddedin a context of circumstancesoutside the model.Thereby,we are enabledto shift ourfocus
to the cross-connectionsbetween the differentaspects of
action.Indeed,I know of no otherdesignthatcan provide
the requirednaturalismand make room for the pluralism
neededin a worldwhereall knowledgemustbe perspectival.
Because our descriptionsand subsequentmodeling so
swiftly eclipse our empiricalobject, it is furthermoreurgent thatwe give properattentionto the ubiquityof variation in all ourmaterials.Currentconventions,on the contrary,prettymuch obliteratemost forms of variationby a
mindlessuse of typologicalrepresentations.
Perhapsin anof
task of providticipation
ing comparisons"between"culturesor societies to depict
one perceivedlevel of humanvariation,each unit of such
comparisonsis schematizeddownto a single-form,holistic
On thispointalso, ourdiscoursehasproved
remarkablystubbornin its returnto the practicesof essentializingandhomogenizing,despitecompellingcriticisms
(Vayda 1994). Promisingefforts to take on this crucial
models of
chargecurrentlyseek to develop "distributive"
culture(Rodseth1998;Schwartz1978a, 1978b).Thisconverges with the broaderawarenessin contemporaryanthropologyof the importanceof social positioning,which


opens for a constructive way of linking cultural variation

directly to a model of social relations.Efforts to refine

these formsof descriptionseem to me to have greatpotential.
Criticaland constructiverethinkingof the natureof anthropology's object along such lines holds a promise of
greatereffectivenessand directionfor our disciplinaryefforts.
Rethinking the Object of Anthropology and Ending
Up Where Kroeber and Kluckhohn Began
RichardA. Shweder
Thereare only two differencesbetweenFredrikBarth's
views of the aims, methods,and object of anthropology
and my own. FredrikBarthseems to believe that his desiredends and means for our discipline(develop a robust
observationalbase; pay attentionto agency, to contested
meanings,to the way people interprettheirworld,to nonculturalas well as culturalconstraints;anddo not conflate
commentarywith description,or placetabooson the study
of economy, ecology, emotion,and cognition) are somehow incompatiblewith the aims of culturalanalysisas articulated,for example,by severalgenerationsof American
culturalanthropologists.And he is dubiousaboutthe role
and importanceof analyticor abstractmodels for helping
us understandwhatpeople"actuallydo."My aimhereis to
try to convince FredrikBarththat he can have his cake
withoutbeing anticultural-the many "sins"attributedto
theoristsarenot inthe idea of "culture"by "post-cultural"
herentin the conceptof culture.And I wantto suggestthat
the analyticmodelingof the culturalcomponentof behavior can be a good thingtoo. Thereis no essentialopposition
betweenthe studyof cultureandthe studyof whatpeople
feel, think,anddo.
Most definitionsof "culture"in the historyof American
anthropologycan be sortedinto two kinds. Some definitions are behavioralin emphasis(for example, "behavior
patternsthatare learnedandpassedon from generationto
generation"),and othersare symbolicin emphasis(for example,"thebeliefs and doctrinesthatmake it possible for
membersof a groupto make sense of and rationalizethe
life they lead").Of courseanygenuineculturalcommunity
is the beneficiaryof both behavioraland symbolicinheritances, and the challenge for theorists in anthropology has

been to formulatea definitionof culturethatdrawsourattentionto thatfact.Thatchallengewas successfullymetby

RobertRedfieldin 1941 whenhe conceptualized"culture"
as "sharedunderstandingsmade manifestin act and artifact."It was successfullymet againin 1952 when Kroeber
andKluckhohnunifiedvariousdefinitionsof cultureinto a
single formulationfocused on both the symbolic and the
behavioralinheritancesof a culturalcommunity:"Culture,"they wrote, "consistsof patterns,explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquiredand transmittedby



symbols, constitutingthe distinctiveachievementof human groups,includingtheirembodimentsin artifacts;the

essentialcore of cultureconsistsof traditional(i.e., historically derivedand selected) ideas and especially their attachedvalues; culturesystems may, on the one hand, be
consideredas productsof action,on the otherhand,as conditioningelementsof furtheraction"(p. 357).
Clifford Geertz (1973) famously carriedforwardthis
KroeberandKluckhohn"symbolsandmeanings"or interpretiveapproachto the understandingand explanationof
behavior.Many othershave formulatedcognateconceptualizations of "culture,"which are just variationson the
Redfield/Kroeberand Kluckhohntheme.In my own variation(1991, 1996, 1999, 2000; also see D'Andrade1984;
Shore 1996) I have defined the intellectualobject called
"culture"moreor less this way:By "culture"I meancommunity-specificideas aboutwhat is true,good, beautiful,
and efficient. To be "cultural,"those ideas about truth,
goodness,beauty,andefficiencymustbe sociallyinherited
and customary,and they must actuallybe constitutiveof
differentways of life. Alternativelystated,"culture"refers
to whatIsaiahBerlin(1976) called "goals,valuesandpicturesof the world"that are made manifestin the speech,
laws, androutinepracticesof some self-monitoringgroup.
Thatis what I shall meanby "culture"in this responseto
FredrikBarth'sessay, andthatis whatI thinkseveralgenerationsof Americananthropologistshave meantby it as
FredrikBarthis characteristically
he says, politely nodding in the direction of Clifford
Geertz,"the idea of cultureprovidesa powerfulconcept
withwhichto understandfeaturesof humanexistence."He
then moves on to whathe sees as the real task at hand,to
suggestthatthe veryidea of cultureandthe veryattemptto
abstractout thatcomponentof behaviorthatis attributable
to the "culturalsystem"have been hazardousto the health
of our discipline. As one might expect from one of the
greatest luminaries of our discipline (Barth is both a bril-

lianttheoristanda very experiencedethnographer),

his argument,althoughcompressed,is lucid, thoughtful,and in
manyways convincing.In my humbleview, however,the
most impeccably sensible points in the essay have no nec-

essarylinkto a critiqueof the idea of "culture."

As a preludeto my response,I thinkit is worthnoting
thatthereare many anthropologiststhese days who either
wantto disownthe conceptof cultureor do not wantanyone, including themselves, to do anything with it (see, for
example, Abu-Lughod 1991; Clifford and Marcus 1986;

Kuper 1999; Wikan 1996). This emergencefrom within

anthropology of an "anticulture"or "postcultural"position

is a ratherironic twist in the fate of the cultureconcept,

because outside the discipline of anthropology-among
public policy analysts, and even economists-"culture"


* VOL. 103, NO. 2 * JUNE2001

has become an increasinglylegitimateandpopulartopicof

gan "It's not 'cultural'it's [fill in the blank:criminal,oppressive,barbaric,inefficient]"has become a rallyingcry

Thereare manyreasons,some good and some bad,that
for global moral interventionistsof all kinds, including
the idea of cultureis in the air outside anthropology.In
some schools of culturalanthropology.Indeed,there are
psychology,wheretherehas been a resurgenceof interest
anthropologistswho seem to take an interestin otherculin "culturalpsychology" and "indigenouspsychology"
tures (especiallytheir family-lifecustoms, genderideals,
and reproductivepractices)mainly as objects of scorn.
(see, e.g., KitayamaandMarkus1994;Markus,Kitayama,
and Heiman 1996;PrenticeandMiller 1999; Yang 1997),
They arguethatthe idea of "culture"reinforcesauthoritarthe reasons are mostly good, and there have been some
ianpowerrelationshipsandpermitslocal despotsto deflect
of restrictiveor repressivesystems of controlby
modes of thought,
is ourcustom"or "thatis the way we have alsaying
et cetera.
thingsin ourculture."Accordingto these advoIn economicsthe reasonsare morecomplex andpotencates the idea of cultureis a conservativeforce thatstands
in the way of theirpoliticalgoals.
tially in conflict. For example,one sign of the times was
the recent (October4-7, 1999) World Bank conference,
It is not my aim to commenton specific politicalgoals
held in Florence,entitled"CultureCounts."At thatmeetor moralcrusades.It is importantto recognize,however,
thatvalid social criticismandquestionsof moraljustificaing, which featuredkeynoteaddressesby the presidentof
the WorldBank,by severaleconomistsandeconomichistion are not ruledout by the idea of "culture."Nothing in
the Redfield/Kroeber
torians,by ministersof cultureandfinancefromaroundthe
thatthe thingsthatotherpeoplesdesirearein fact trulydeworld,and,ultimately,by HillaryClinton,therewas a split
betweentwo kindsof voices. Therewas the voice of those
sirableor that the things that other peoples think are of
who believe that globalizationmeans "Westernization," value are actuallyof value.Consensusdoes not add up to
which(it is believed)is a necessaryconditionfor economic
moraltruth.The conceptof cultureperse is not a theoryof
the "good,"althoughculturalanalysisis probablynot posgrowth.Thosewho adoptthispositionseem to like theidea
that"culturecounts"in partbecauseit is a discreteway of
sible withoutrelianceon some kind of moralstance,even
the limitingcase) if thatmoralstanceis the stanceof the
telling "underdeveloped"
"Westernizeor remainpoor."
emotivist or subjectivistwho believes there are no such
Therewas also the voice of those who like the idea that
things as objective values and that only might (power)
"culturecounts"becausethey believe thatsocial and ecomakes right.In otherwords, even from a moral point of
nomic problemscan only be solved withinthe framework
view we need not throwout the conceptof culturejust beof local traditionsof practice,meaning,andvalue.Happily
cause some tyrantputsthe word"culture"to some nefarithereare more thana few economiststhese days who are
ous (mis-)use.
The idea of culturealso does not imply passive accepturning anthropologists
"thickdescription."They areeagerto figureout why some
tance of receivedpracticeand doctrineor thathumanbebehaviorsseem "sticky"or "inelastic"or resistantto incenings are robots or putty or blank slates. FredrikBarth
tives. They want to learnmore abouthow to estimatethe
rightly makes much of cognition,emotion, purpose,and
value of thingsin morethanor otherthaneconomicterms.
will in accountingfor humanbehavior.I myself have arSo they wantto talkto anthropologists.Imaginetheirsurguedthatrationality(reasoningaboutmeansandends,reaof ends, reasoningabout
prise when they lear thatmanyanthropologiststhinkethsoningaboutthe appropriateness
the categoricaland causal structureof experience,as carnographyis impossibleandthatothersarein the processof
ried out in particularcommunities)and intentionalityare
renouncinga major part of their intellectualinheritance
essential elements in culturalanalysis. Culturetheorists
(the conceptof "culture")."Isn'tanthropologyshootingitself in the foot?"they ask.
ought to analyzebehaviormuch the way sensible econoOf coursethereare reasonsfor the recentemergenceof
mists do, as the joint productof "preferences"(including
or "postcultural"
critiqueswithinangoals, values, and ends of varioussorts)and "constraints"
thropology.But arethey good reasons?Forthe mostpartI
(including"means"of varioussortssuch as causalbeliefs,
thinknot. Why?Becausethe Redfield/Kroeber
andKluckinformation, skills, and material and nonmaterialrehohn conceptualizationof "culture"does not carryany of
sources),all mediatedby the purposivestrivingsof human
the implicationsthatarethe supposedgroundsfor various
agents(see Shweder1995). Some social scientiststend to
privilege"preferences"and otherstend to privilege"conFor example,the idea of "culture"does not imply that
straints"in their explanationsof behavior.Nevertheless
"whateveris, is okay."Thereareplentyof anthropologists thereis much thatis "cultural"on both sides of the equathese days who want to promotepoliticalagendasof one
tion (for example,causalbeliefs area type of "constraint,"
sortor another:Westernegalitarianagendas,cosmopolitan
and in substantialmeasurethey are "cultural").It is truly
liberalagendas,free marketlibertarianagendas.The slobizarreto see the conceptsof "agency"or "intentionality"


used as synonyms for "resistanceto culture"in the distheorists.Even fully rational,fully

course of "anticulture"
empowered,fully "agentic"human beings discover that
membershipin some particulartraditionof meaningsand
valuesis an essentialconditionfor personalidentityandindividualhappiness.Humanbeings who are"liberationists"
are no more agenticthanhumanbeings who are "fundamentalists,"and neitherstands outside some traditionof
It is preciselybecause behavioris the joint productof
preferencesandconstraintsthatabstracthypotheticalmodels are important.The case for modelingis not a case for
focusing only on culture;it is a case for distinguishingbetween sources of variationso that a complex behavioral
system can be betterunderstood.It is not surprisingthat
meteorologists, geologists, and economists are model
builders;bottomup inductionof the behaviorof a stormor
a volcano can be an overwhelmingtask. Simple models
can be helpfulin this regard.It is an openquestionwhether
predictinghumanbehaviorin contextis morecomplicated
or less complicatedthanpredictingthe behaviorof a storm
or a volcano.
Moreover,in buildinga model of humanbehavior,the
constructionof the culturalpart of the model often goes
hand in hand with the identificationof nonculturalconstraints.Culturalanalysisis not the only gamein town,and
it is probablyplayedbest (andis most convincing)whenit
is not playedonly on its own terms.Forexample,mostculturalanalysesof "whosleeps by whom"in the family(e.g.,
Caudill and Plath 1966) recognize that sleeping patterns
might be caused by physical space constraints(a fact of
ecology). The culturalpart of the analysis involves the
identificationand validationof "traditional(i.e., historically derivedand selected)ideas"(in this instancean orderedlist of valuepreferencesandassociatedcausalbeliefs
aboutthe consequencesof, for example,requiringa child
to sleep alone or permittingor requiringhusbandandwife
to excludeall childrenfromtheirbed). But thistype of cultural analysis only makes sense after the "limitationsof
space"explanationfor sleepingpatternshas beenruledout.
Usuallyit canbe ruledout.
For example,in our own researchon sleepingarrangements in the temple town communityof Bhubaneswar,
Orissa,India(Shweder,Balle-Jensen,and Goldstein1995),
we beganwithobservationsanddescriptionsof behaviorin
context, and we collected a sample of one-nightsleeping
patternsin 160 families. Yet these data were quite complex. Familiesvariedin size and in the age, sex, and generationdistributionsof family members.Moreoverthere
was no single, uniform,or fixed sleeping patternin the
community.In one family(on thatone night)the fathercoslept with his six-year-olddaughterwhile the motherslept
with her four-year-oldson andthree-year-olddaughter.In
anotherfamily (on that one night) the fatherslept alone,
and the motherslept with her fourteen-year-olddaughter,



eight-year-olddaughter,andthree-year-oldson. Nevertheless, despite all the varietyof "on the ground"behavior

across160 cases, it was possibleto builda simplemodelof
local ideasaboutwhatis good andefficient(ideasaboutincest, protectionof the vulnerable,the importanceof female
chastity,and respectfor the status of superiors)that accountedfor mostof thechoicesthatculturalagentsmadein
decidingwhereto sleep at night.Thereare times-not all
times but manytimes-when complex andcontingentbehavioralsystemsarebestunderstandby an appealto a simple modelof "historicallyderivedandselected"ideas.
The idea of culturealso does not imply the absenceof
debate, contestation,or dispute among members of a
group. Nor does it necessarily imply the existence of
within-grouphomogeneityin knowledge,belief, or practice. Every culturalsystem has experts and novices; one
does not stopbeinga memberof a commonculturejust because cultural knowledge is distributedand someone
knows muchmorethanyou do abouthow to conducta funeralor apply for a mortgage.One does not stop being a
memberof a common culturejust because there are factions in the communityor becausethereare two opposed
wings (a left-wing and a right-wing)whose disputeswith
each otherhelpdefineyourway of life. It usuallytakestwo
wings to build somethingthat can fly. The claim of between-groupculturaldifferencesneverhas impliedthe absence of withingroupdifferentiation.
Thereis a difference
between the varianceof a distributionand its mean or
mode.The basicpointis thatthe idea of "culture"does not
implythateveryitemof cultureis in the possessionor consciousness of every memberof that culture.The idea of
culturemerely directsour attentionto those ideas about
whatis true,good, beautiful,andefficientthatareacquired
by virtue of membershipin some group.Not everything
has to be sharedfor a "culture"
to exist. Onlyenoughhas to
be sharedfor a peopleto recognizeitself as a culturalcommunityof a certainkindand for membersof thatcommunity to be able to recognizeeach other as recipientsand
custodians of some imagined traditionof meaning and
value. Membersof a culturalcommunitydo not always
agreeaboutthis or that,butthey do takean interestin each
other'sideas aboutwhatis true,good, beautiful,and efficient because those ideas (and relatedpractices)have a
bearingon the perpetuationof their way of life. The critiqueof the conceptof "culture"thatstartswith the observationof internalvariationandends "thereforethereis no
culturalsystem"shouldhavebeena nonstarter.
The idea of culturealso does not imply thatotherkinds
of peoples are aliens or less than human. We live in a
multiculturalworld consisting(as JosephRaz has put it)
"of groupsandcommunitieswithdiversepracticesandbeliefs, includinggroupswhose beliefs are inconsistentwith
one another."The aspiration-s-}not to lose your cultural
identity,(2) not to assimilateto mainstreampressures,(3)
not to be scatteredthroughoutthe city, country,or world,


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(4) not to glorify the diaspora, and (5) not to join the highly
individualistic and migratory multinational, multiracial but
(in many ways) monocultural cosmopolitan elite are real

and legitimateaspirations,andthose aspirationscannotbe

properly understood by treating them as illusions. They are
certainly not the only legitimate aspirations in a multicultural world; there is much that can be said in favor of a liberal
cosmopolitan life. Nevertheless, life in the diaspora takes
on meaning in partbecause not every member of the ancestral culture is wandering here and there.
Of course multiculturallife can be hazardous, especially
for immigrant or minority groups and for members of different cultures who are in geopolitical conflict. And it is a
truism that without the existence of cultural and ethnic
groups there would be no cultural conflict and no ethnic
hatreds, which does not necessarily mean that the world
would be at peace. Nevertheless, despite the hopes of some
migratory "enlightened" hyper-individualists, cultural
communities and ethnic groups are not going to disappear.
One looks to anthropology for a useful concept of "culture" (one that increases the chances for mutual understanding and tolerance in a multicultural world), not for no
concept of culture at all (see Shweder, Minow, and Markus

Of course, Fredrik Barth is far more evenhanded and
less extreme than many other critics of the culture concept.
Nevertheless, as far as I can judge there is nothing in the
Redfield/Kroeber and Kluckhohn idea of culture that
should lead him to be anticulturalat all. Indeed, one of the
ironic features of Fredrik Barth's essay is that it expresses
views that are not totally unlike those of Clifford Geertz.
Be interpretive, not positivistic in your understanding of
behavior. Do not study ideas in isolation from practice.
Place a premium on "accurate,rich, and systematic empirical descriptions" (Barth p. 436). Be sensitive to context.
The essay could easily be read as a call for "thick description."
That is not to deny that there have been some notorious
cultural anthropologists who have either treated "culture"
as everything or have placed a taboo on the study of anything that is not "cultural,"or have failed to understandthat
the study of culture is compatible with the study of human
agency. Yet why should we conflate their misappropriation, misunderstandings, and exaggerations of the culture
concept with the idea of culture itself? There is more than
enough that is "cultural"to go aroundand to supply anthropology with a worthy and distinctive object of study. If I
was a cynic I might suggest that with enemies like Fredrik
Barth, the culture concept does not need friends. Instead allow me to conclude more enthusiastically, with a hopeful
eye on the future. The time is right, I believe, for anthropologists to stop beating up on the culture concept. Perhaps
it is even high time for us to make use of (some of) Fredrik
Barth's suggestions to put the idea of culture to the good
uses she deserves.

Another Passage to Pragmatism7

Lars Rodseth
Is Fredrik Barth "beating up on the culture concept"?
Most of Richard Shweder's critique seems to be directed
not at Barth's position but at the anticulturalist arguments
of Abu-Lughod, Clifford, Marcus, and others. Yet the flaws
(or the merits) of these anticulturalist arguments need not
detain us here. What Barth is arguing for is human action
in all its dimensions, including the cultural, as the object of
our discipline. In action is culture put to the test, used, rejected, reproduced, or modified, yet this is the case precisely because action involves much more than culture. In
action, cultural understandings combine with social organization, cognitive processes, emotional experience, material conditions, and power relations, among many other
analytically separable phenomena, "to affect each other
and shape outcome" (Barth p. 436). Why should anthropologists fix upon culture, close it off from these other phenomena, and attempt to model it solely in its own terms?
What Barth urges instead is the development of "partial
and open models, which can depict significant connections
embedded in a context of circumstances outside the
model" (p. 436). This ought to have convinced Shweder
that Barth is opposed neither to the culture concept nor to
the building of models but only to the extraction of culture
from the wider context of human action in which we find it.
Shweder also contends that "several generations" of
American anthropologists have followed a mode of cultural analysis already in line with Barth's suggestions. A
successful formulationof the culture concept, in Shweder's
view, was provided by Redfield (1941) and Kroeber and
Kluckhohn (1952). The Kroeber and Kluckhohn approach
was "famously carried forward"by Clifford Geertz, while
"many others" have developed "variations on the Redfield/Kroeber and Kluckhohn theme" (Shweder p. 437).
With the exception, then, of "some notorious cultural anthropologists" who have misappropriatedand exaggerated
the culture concept (Shweder p. 440), the rest have apparently been doing (or at least saying) all along what is now
advocated by Barth and other "anticulturalists." From
Shweder's account, it would seem that for 50 or 60 years
most anthropologists have been paying close attention to
agency and contested meanings, to the way specific, socially positioned actors interprettheir world, and to "noncultural as well as cultural constraints"(Shweder p. 437).
If this seems a novel and extremely selective reading of
anthropology's history, Shweder's account is not alone in
this regard. Marshall Sahlins, in his recent Huxley Lecture
(1999:404-405), similarly claims that the "codgers" or
"old-timers" of American anthropology were well aware
that cultures are not rigidly bounded, are constantly changing, are less than perfectly integrated, and are often replete
with individual variation. Like Shweder, Sahlins acknowledges the excesses of a few "vulgar cultural determinists"


-Leslie Whitein particular(Sahlins1999:409-410)-yet

these are cast as exceptions.The mainstreamof 50 or 60
yearsago would seem to have been dominated,according
to this account,by sensible Boasians,includingGoldenweiser,Herskovits,Radin,andSapir,all of whom stressed
the oppositionof individualand society and thus avoided
any notionof people as culturalautomatonsor of cultures
as highlyintegratedwholes.
For both Shwederand Sahlins,then, Americananthropologists of the past have gottena bad rapand, with surprisingly few exceptions, deserve to be cleared of the
In response,let it be
chargesleveled by the anticulturalists.
anthropology obviouslya very
diverse traditionor cluster of traditions(e.g., Fox 1991;
Stocking 1992). There were Boasians,such as Radinand
Sapir, who tended to emphasize individualagency and
variationwithin any humanpopulation.There were also
Boasians,such as Kroeber(early on) and Benedict (later
on), who tendedto downplaysuchagencyandvariationin
favor of culturaldeterminismand holism. Merely noting
such a diversityof approaches,however,does not tell us
which of these came to dominatein Americananthropology.
On both sides of the Atlantic,as it turnsout, the 1940s
and '50s saw culturaldeterminismandholismprevailover
earlierapproachesthat would have kept agency and variation at the center of the analysis. Thus, in the United
States, Benedict's style of cultureand personalitytheory
came to eclipse the Sapirianalternativeemphasizingthe
individualas the carrierof culture(Darell 1986). Around
the same time, Radcliffe-BrownreplacedMalinowskias
the leading figure in British social anthropology(Kuper
1996:64). Despite the obvious differencesbetween their
approaches,Benedictand Radcliffe-Brownsharedan emphasis on macrolevelintegrationand the subordinationof
the individualto the whole. The same emphasiscould be
foundin otherschools of thought.Even White's neo-evolutionism,whichin some ways representeda decisive shift
of the superorganic.In the 1950s,FortesandParsonswere
there to pick up the cudgels of structural-functionalism,
while Levi-Straussset out to replace one hypercoherent
model(the social organism)with another(thegrammatical
mind).Howeversignificantall of thesetheoristsmay have
been in otherways, they did littleto restorea sense of individualagencyandvariationto the anthropological
of culture.
At the same time, of course, there were dissenting
voices. These includedthe "new"cultureand personality
theorists,MelfordSpiro(1951) andAnthonyF. C. Wallace
(1952, 1961), andthe neo-Malinowskians,RaymondFirth
(1951, 1954) and EdmundLeach (1954, 1961). The budding of Marxiananthropologyat ColumbiaandManchesterhelpedenhanceawarenessof conflictandanti-structure



in the earlyworksof Mintz,Wolf, Bailey, andTurner(reviewed in Vincent 1990: chap. 5). Yet these anthropolopositions
gists were stakingout theirown "anti-structural"
in the discipline,andtheyknew it.
In the 1960s, it was FredrikBarthwho took the lead in
developingan action-orientedanthropologythatpromised
for a while to restore agency to the theoreticalagenda
(Barth1966, 1967, 1969). Yet Barth'sapproachachieved
at best a subalternstatus,helpingto establishwhatOrtner
(1984:144)called a "minoritywing" in a field still dominatedby systems-and-structures
approaches(see also Vincent 1990:357-362). Throughoutthe 1970s, the lingering
influenceof Parsoniansociology andFrenchstructuralism
ensuredthattherewouldbe no Barthianrevolution,at least
not within the anthropologicalmainstream.In Wolfs
(1982) assessment,anthropologyin the early 1980s was
still hauntedby the myth of the primitiveisolate,the idea
of non-Westernculturesas neatlyboundedunits,internally
coherentand historicallyinert.By the time Ortner(1984)
drew attentionto the growing influence of "practicetheory,"an action-orientedapproachcould be depictedas a
radicallynew departurefor anthropologists-andone that
was initiated,accordingto Ortner'saccount,almost entheoristssuch as Bourdieu,Gidtirelyby poststructuralist
WhatI have sketchedis, of necessity,an oversimplified
version of anthropological history, yet it is much closer to

reality,I would argue,than the revisionistaccountsprovidedby ShwederandSahlins.The pointis thatanthropology was dominatedfor a very long time-from about1940
to about1980-by a clusterof traditionsemphasizingculturaldeterminismandholism to the neglectof agencyand
variation(cf. Lewis 1998).Fromthis perspective,thereare
good reasonsfor FredrikBarthand othersto criticizethe
way culturehas been conceptualizedand studied,and it
will notdo simplyto cite a few pastanthropologists,
definitionsof culture,thatseem to have buckedwhatwas
the prevailingtrendin the field for nearlya half century.
arelikelyto recognize individualagency and variationamong the people
they study, the idea of each cultureas a bounded,integratedwhole, perhapswith its own specialVolksgeist,has
hardlybeen eliminatedfrom anthropology-or from the
minds of the public,where severalgenerationsof American anthropologists
helpedto plantandnurtureit.
Thiskindof culturalessentialismdoes indeedhavedeep
roots in Americanthought,but so does the Sapirianalternative advocated by Barth (1992, 1993, 1994) and a
numberof other recent culture theorists (e.g., Borofsky
1994; Hannerz1992;Mannheimand Tedlock 1995;Rodseth 1998). Beyond Sapir-in fact, beyond anthropology
altogether-Barth'sapproachfinds a still deepersourcein
Americanpragmatism,the philosophicalmovementthat
influencedthe social sciences of the early twentiethcentury in much the way that postmodernismdoes today.


* VOL. 103, NO. 2 * JUNE2001

Stressingthe provisionalnatureof knowledge,the pluralistic natureof reality,andthe capacityof humanbeingsto

constructtheirown social ordersandhistories,the classical
pragmatistsat the same time did not succumbto nihilism
or extremerelativismbut embracednaturalisticinquiryin
the broadestsense as ourmost reliablemethodof knowing
andengagingthe world.Thus,whatFredrikBarthis urging
among anthropologiststoday is not unlike what William
James and John Dewey were urgingamong philosophers
almosta centuryago. A pragmatist,wroteJamesin 1907,
turns away from abstractionand insufficiency,from verbal
solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles,
closed systems,andpretendedabsolutesandorigins.He turns
towardsconcretenessand adequacy,towardsfacts, towards

This action-orientedapproachto knowledge and human

experience, having undergone an impressive revival
throughoutthe 1980s and '90s, now seems as vital and as
promisingas ever (e.g., Dickstein1998;HollingerandDepew 1995; Rorty 1999; Rosenthal,Hausman,and Anderson 1999).Perhapsanthropologists,
whereKroeberandKluckhohnbegan,"shouldbegin again
whereJamesandDewey left off.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Culture
Nomi Maya Stolzenberg
What do we mean by "culture"?A myriadof things.
FredrikBarthlimitshis considerationto "theanthropological literatureof the last hundredyears,"and the historyof
the subjectdoes not extend so very far beyond that. Althoughwe can trace its intellectualroots back to Herder,
Vico (Williams [1981]1982:15),Montesquieu,and even
Herodotus(Clifford and Marcus 1986:2), the academic
disciplineof culturaland social anthropology,as we know
it, does not reallybegin untilthe end of the eighteenthcenturyanddoes not fully emergeuntilthe nineteenthcentury
(Clifford1988:26-28). Practitionersof the disciplinehave
been arguingaboutthe meaningof cultureandits utilityas
a conceptforjust aboutas long. Indeed,as RaymondWilliams showedmorethanfourdecadesago, the modemusage of the termcultureandthe focus on differentcultures
as the objectof scholarlystudyemergedtogetherin the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Williams
[1958]1983:ix-xvi). Before that time, accordingto Williams, culture "meant,primarily,the 'tendingof natural
growth,'and then, by analogy,a processof humantraining"; it was only in the nineteenthcenturythat linguistic
usage shiftedfromthe idea of a cultureof something(as in,
the cultureof crops)to the ideaof a culture"asa thingin itself' (Williams [1958]1983:xvi,[1981]1982:10).Among
the meaningsattachedto thisnewly discovered"thingin itself' were (1) "a generalstate or habitof mind,"(2) "the
generalstateof intellectualdevelopment,in the societyas a

whole,"(3) "thegeneralbodyof the arts,"and(4) "awhole

way of life" (Williams [1958]1983:xvi). It is the latter
conceptof a "wholeway of life"thatbecamethe objectof
the anthropologicaldisciplineto whichFredrikBarthnow
FredrikBarth'sobjectionstems fromthe very "rangeof
ideas evoked by the word" analyzed by Williams. In
Barth'sview, the wide rangeof meaningsattachedto the
word makes the concept "nebulous."But Barth's complaintis not confinedto the nebulousnessof the word per
se; he is chiefly concernedaboutthe consequencesfor the
practiceof anthropologythat,he believes, resultfromthis
nebulousness.Accordingto Barth,the lack of "sharpness"
in the definitionof culturelends itself to abuse.It permits
anthropologiststo commit the sins of "essentializingand
homogenizing"in the formof "amindlessuse of typological representations."It leads anthropologiststo eschew
"accurate,rich,and systematicempiricaldescriptions"for
the type of abstractmodel-buildingthat fails to "provide
the requirednaturalism."By reifying an abstraction,the
culture concept reinforces our assumptionsratherthan
confrontingthem with the convention-defyingactions of
real people. It simultaneouslydenies the existenceof real
(i.e., physical)constraintson humanaction
and the agency of individualhumanbeings. And by promotingthe simplifyingstrategiesof modeling,the culture
conceptreplaces"the pluralismneeded in a world where
all knowledgemustbe perspectival"with false generalizations."Stopthe vagueness"couldbe FredrikBarth'srallying cry.
RichardShweder'sresponseto this battlecry is, essentially, "don't throw out the baby with the bath water."
Agreeingwith Barththatanthropologistsarevulnerableto
als both of individualagency and of nonculturalenvironmentalconstraints-and furtheragreeingwith Barththat
theseareintellectualpositionsto be avoided-Shweder insists thatthe cause of these errorsdoes not emanatefrom
the linguisticusage of the concept of culture.He rightly
of 'culpoints out that the prevailing"conceptualization
ture' does not carryany of the implicationsthat are supposed groundsfor variousanticulturalcritiques,including
FredrikBarth's"-that the concept implies neither"that
humanbeings are robotsor puttyor blankslates,"lacking
will andintentionality,northatculturalactionis free from
physicalconstraints."Nordoes it necessarilyimplythe existence of within grouphomogeneity"or "theabsenceof
debate,contestationor disputeamong membersof a subgroup."Drawingthe basic and importantdistinctionbetween the use and abuse of a concept, Shweder argues,
contra Barth,that we should not "conflatethe misappropriationand exaggerationsof the cultureconceptwith the
idea of cultureitself."
I agreewithRichardShweder'sargument,
andI wouldlike
to takeit a step further.Shwederspeculatesthatacademics


outside the field of anthropologywould be surprisedto

learnaboutthe proposalto renounce"culture"as an object
of study at a time when they are makingmore and more
use of the concept.As an outsider[i.e., legal scholar]looking in, I can confirmthatthe proposedprojectof renunciation does seem like "anthropologyshooting itself in the
foot."It is not thatI am surprisedby the desireto eliminate
a word lackingin precision.As a legal scholar,I am well
acquaintedwith effortsto rid ourvocabularyof vagueand
ambiguousterms.Consider,for example,the widespread
criticismof the SupremeCourt'sdefinitionof-or rather
refusalto define-obscenity in termsof "I know it when I
see it."8Similarcriticismsaboundconcerningsuchnotoriously vague legal terms as "privacy,""sovereignty,"and
"religion."9The frequentcrusadesto rid legal vocabulary
of such terms are reminiscentof the early-twentieth-century movementin Anglo-Americanphilosophyto replace
metaphysicalinquirieswith the linguistic
analysesof logical positivism,andthe generalturnin academia towardpositivisticscience and the delimitationof
the objects of scholarly study to empiricallyfalsifiable
Thereare good reasons,in law as well as in philosophy
and otherrealmsof scholarlyinquiry,to worryaboutconcepts, like "culture"(or "obscenity"or "soul"),thatresist
all efforts at clear definition.It would seem to be a "nobrainer"thatclarityand precisionare to be desiredin our
ambiguityareto be reproved.No one could seriouslydeny
that "culture"is an exceedingly vague and ambiguous
term. (Even Richard Shweder, who recommends the
widely acceptedformulationsof the definitionof culture
offered by, inter alia, Redfield, and Kroeberand Kluckhohn, would, I imagine,agreethatthese "successful"formulationsare nonethelessvague.) Why, then, retainthe
concept of culture?Why not, as FredrikBarth recommends, abandonthe termin favor of the study of "social
action," "meaning,"and "people,"as he variously suggests? Why hang onto any concept which is, admittedly,
hazy, fuzzy, blurry,andvague?
I wantto suggestthatit is preciselybecauseof its lackof
precisionthatcultureremainsa usefulconcept,forbothanthropologistsandthose outsidethe field. It is worthnoting
thatthe many effortsto combatvague terminologyin law
(e.g., obscenity,privacy,etc.) have failed more often than
they have succeeded.The recordof success for the project
of clarificationin the realm of academiais more mixed.
Analytic philosophy largely succeeded (in the AngloAmerican realm) in displacing"mushy""metaphysical"
philosophicalinquiriesandremainsentrenchedas the prevailing mode of philosophy.In otheracademicdisciplines,
however, an initial enthusiasmfor positivist science has
given way to a curiousadmixtureof positivistandantipositivist approaches.Such a combinationis perfectly illustratedby FrederickBarth'spleathat"anthropology



a robustobservationalbase in phenomenathatare simply

identified and sufficiently separableand internallyconnectedto be felicitousforthe discoveryof interconnections
and determinedconstraints"and his simultaneousinsistencethat"theobjectivityof positivistscience-that is, describingonly those featuresthatcanbe directlyestablished
by replicableobservations-does not providethe methodology we need."The backlashagainstpositivismindicates
that,while we may have good reasonsto avoidvague concepts,we have at least as strong-perhapseven strongerreasonsto acceptthem.
As the parallelexampleof retainingvague legal terms
suggests,it appearsthatthereare some undefinableterms
that we simply cannotdo without.WhenI mentionedthe
subject of this present debate to a legal academic colleague,his immediateresponsewas "Don'tthey know you
can'tlegislatelanguageby fiat?"I takethisis as a reminder
thatpeople use wordsto serve needs-regardless of their
susceptibilityto crisp definitions.In this respect,I take it
thatanthropologists,andotherscholarswho avail of themselves of the cultureconcept,are no differentfrom other
people. Academics are, after all, people, and, notwithstandingtheirrarifiedvocabulary,they use wordsin more
or less the same way thatotherpeopledo. If we areserious
aboutfocusingon "whatpeopledo,"we shouldbearthis in
"Culture"serves a need notwithstandingthe difficulty
we havein supplyingit witha sharpdefinition.In fact,over
the last two and a half centuriesit has serveda varietyof
differentneeds. Williamscontendsthatthe termemerged
initiallyas a foil to the IndustrialRevolution.In this capacity, it servedto name"amodeof humanexperienceandactivity whichthe progressof society seemedincreasinglyto
deny"(Williams[1958]1983:39).The idea of culturerepresentedthe lastline of defenseagainstthe ideathatsociety
consists of nothingmore than mechanistic,market-based
transactions,"with 'cash payment as the sole nexus' "
(Williams [1958]1983:83). In the context of the revolt
againstindustrialization,culturereferredvariouslyto the
organic"spirit"of a people (considerthe GermanGeisteswissenshaften),to the spirit(or "genius")of an artist,and
to artitself.
These Romanticistresonanceshave not been entirely
lost. "Culture"continues to stand as an alternativeto
strictly mechanistic and behaviorist accounts, on one hand,

and to overly individualisticand volitionalistaccountson

the other.Likewise, it continuesto play its traditionalrole
as an antidoteto the self-interestedeconomic actorof the
marketplace,carryingthe concept's historicassociations
with the "higher"and "inner"realmsof values, feelings,
meanings,and,darewe say it today,"spirit."
Of course, not everyoneuses the termculturein these
senses. Scholarsof culturedivideover the perennialissues
of idealismversusmaterialism,
individualismversus collectivism, and free will versus


* VOL. 103, NO. 2 * JUNE2001

determinism. The beauty (and the attraction)of the concept

of culture is that it transcends-or better, embraces-all of
these hotly contested positions. Some cultural analysts favor a symbolic approach, while others favor a behaviorist
one; some stress the agency, or free will, of the individual,
while others deny it. Culture is a valuable concept because
it permits all of these various metaphysical views. Adopting "culture"as a governing concept does not commit us to
any particular one. By contrast, accepting Fredrik Barth's
recommendation would precommit us to a nondeterministic account of human "action" and thereby preclude alternative views. While there may be much to commend this
particularview,?1there is surely no warrantfor legislating it
as an anthropological practice.
Even if we were to attempt to do so, the rival philosophical positions would no doubt creep back into the newly
minted vocabulary. FredrikBarth favors retaining the concept of "meaning" to signify the interpretive aspect of human experience that cannot be captured by positivist accounts. But there is every reason to expect that the range of
meanings currently attached to the culture concept, rather
than vanishing, will simply transpose itself to accepted
terms such as meaning."
The concept of culture serves the basic need of naming
such ineffable and inexplicable features of human existence as "meaning" and "spirit" and living together with
others. Perhaps we may become more comfortable with
the intractable ambiguity of "culture"if we cease to think
of it as the name for a thing and come to view it instead as a
placeholder for a set of inquiries-inquiries which may be
destined never to be resolved. If, as the saying goes, there
are two kinds of people in the world, there are surely two
kinds of academics: those who think the only questions
worth asking are the answerable (i.e., empirically verifiable) ones and those who think the questions most worth
asking are the ones for which we have no final answers. If,
like me, you belong to the latter persuasion, you should
celebrate the continued usage of a term-"culture"-that
reminds us of the mysteries of human existence and the
wide range of controversial solutions that are subject to
that quintessentially cultural institution: endless debate.

1. In an effort to enlargethe conversation-reaching out to
the borderlandsanthropologyshares with ot her disciplines
(cf. Keesing 1994:307-310; Shore 1996:311-373)-I purposely included Stolzenberg,who specializes in legal studies
2. Or in some schools of anthropology,"Society."This alternativeusage makes surprisinglylittle differenceand can be
criticizedin very similarways.
3. And indeed,probablyonly a disorderedassemblyof modalities of cultures,cf. Barth1995.
4. Wikan cites the urgingof Balinese acquaintancesduring
fieldwork and emphasizes the need for the person to create

resonance within herself by opening up for the other's situation, intentions, thoughts, and feelings and going "beyond"
the other's words. We seem indeed to be dealing with the
other side of the same dynamicsthatG. H. Mead identifiedas
the way a person's own awarenessof self is produced.
5. Compare Paul, who draws a clear distinction between
informationand semiotic systems, on the one hand,and meaning and purposiveaction, on the other:"Agency, the initiation
and execution of goals andpurposes,which is the basis of motivationand hence of meaning,is somethingthat can be attributed only to persons.It cannotbe in culture,or symbols, or society or history, since these are not open, self-governing
feedback systems with goal-setting abilities and the skills to
act on them and monitorthe results"(Paul 1990:445, emphasis added).
6. I set out some of these substantiveand ontological arguments at greaterlength in Barth 1993, especially chapter10.
7. I'd like to thank HerbertS. Lewis of the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, for (re-)introducingme to American
8. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) (Justice
Potter Stewart's concurringopinion). For analysis, see David
Cole, "Playing By Pornography'sRules: The Regulation of
Sexual Expression," 143 U. Penn. Law Rev. 111 (1994);
James Lindgren,"Defining Pornography,"141 U. Penn. Law
Rev. 1153 (1993).
9. On privacy, see Ruth Gavison, "Feminismand the Public/PrivateDistinction,"45 StanfordLaw Rev. 1 (1992).
10. I confess I have more doubts than Richard Shweder
does aboutadoptingan "agency"-centeredview.
11. CompareWilliams's analysisof how the meaningshistorically associated with "culture"were transferredto "ideology" (Williams [1981] 1982:26-30).

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