Debates concerning culture

Published: December 22, 2017
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The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

Given the cultural misunderstandings which beset our world, the importance of paying more attention to the issue of culture remains paramount. Several important anthropological contributions have helped shaped understanding of culture over the past century or so. This article will, however, draw attention to some of the more recent developments aiming to grapple with the essence of culture.

Culture in the anthropological sense is not limited to the notion of ‘high’ culture associated with affluence or high education, but it instead represents all forms of knowledge shared among members of a group. Since culture is learned rather than being genetically inherited, this means that the colour of our skin does not determine what kind of cultural values we adopt. Moreover, it needs to be understood in a holistic manner. Thus, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the traditions we practise are equally important parts of our given culture.

Anthropologists who study cultures around the world have also adopted different approaches to understand it. On the one hand, attempts to study culture have been driven by the search for patterns. Cultural evolutionists, such as Leslie White, even advocated the need for a general science of culture, instead of thinking about different cultures. Such anthropologists tried to describe culture in scientific terms. Asserting that all humans must capture energy to survive and reproduce, White equated cultural sophistication with the ability to capture. Societies that capture more energy, ranging from nutritional energy to energy needed to drive machinery, were considered to have a competitive advantage over societies which are not able to capture enough of it.

Cultural materialists, such as Marvin Harris, have also described culture as a response to practical problems of earthly existence, such as the need to produce to ensure survival. It is this underlying material aspect of our existence which anthropologists, such as Harris, considered to be the driving force behind creating different cultures in response to different circumstances.

It is problematic to think about culture from a materialist perspective alone, or trying to reduce cultural development to the ability of producing and consuming energy. Ecological concerns for one pose major challenges to such assertions. The mere fact that a society produces and consumes a lot of energy does not necessarily imply that there is also sociocultural depth and political sophistication within their cultures.

Post-modern interpretations of anthropology since the past 30 years or so have tried to get beyond rigid categorisations and argued that any attempt to describe culture as being coherent, static and isolated is misplaced. These latter-day anthropologists have pointed instead to the many layers of subculture which exist within a single culture. They have stressed the need to recognise differences of opinions, conflicts and contestations between individuals within a single culture.

Interpretive anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz, have tried to focus on what meaning culture gives to the lives of people, rather than trying to search for generalisations within or across cultures. Deeper understanding of other cultures is, however, not easy, it requires recognising the specific and local contexts in which specific acts are made meaningful. Many anthropologists from the developing world have also become increasingly prominent and engaged with debates concerning the issue of culture. These include Muslim women anthropologists, such as Saba Mahmood, for instance, who rejected Western feminist descriptions of Muslim women. Anthropologists from other parts of the developing world have taken to task the NGO-isation of the developing world. Further discussion of these diverse voices will, however, need to be taken up later. For now, let us end on the note that there remains a dire need to think more about such issues in our universities and have more meaningful discussions about culture within our print and electronic media. Currently, our understanding of the world and its immense diversity remains both stereotypical and superficial.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2017.

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