Thursday, May 31, 2012

Culture: Is it of any scientific value or just a hollowed out concept?

I have posted a link on several anthropology groups on LinkedIn which lead people to this blog and my posting,  "Anthropology needs a common professional vocabulary”.  I have received some interesting responses. One, in particular, states
"As life is dynamic, sop [sic] is the evolution of terminology [sic] to handle the changes involved. to abandon the meaning of established terminology is to abandom [sic] the research done using those terms, ..."
leads me to the following response.

This is a great observation but it doesn't go far enough. There are unintended consequences as well. As the terminology changes it also sucks out the underlying insight that promoted its use in the first place. The terms either become "hollow" or "rarefied" to the point that they are meaningless.

Take "culture" as used today by the profession. "Culture" has had a very important role in the evolution of anthropology and our interpretation of humanity as more than a species of animal in biology's taxonomy of life. When Tylor defined the term, it meant all of those traits that seemed to distinguish "humans" from other animal species. Today, culture is used as an excuse or justification for differences in behavior especially for minorities (that is ANY sub-group within a larger group).

Kroeber, borrowing from Spencer, defined "culture" in terms of its locus in human experience as something that is "Superorganic". That is, culture is something which exists outside the organic individual human animal. This insight builds on two terms -- Culture is the term that Tylor applied to non-literate and pre-literate peoples for "civilization" and the Superorganic placed the emphasis on Tylor's concept of "shared values".

Malinowski and his contemporary, Talcott Parsons, expanded the definition further by linking the organic (biological and psychology needs) to the Superorganic as the mechanism for "sharing" and "capturing and preserving" experience. For Malinowski it is the "institution" and "institutional complex" where this takes place. The "institution" builds on Tylor and Kroeber by laying the foundation for structuring the elements in Tylor's "culture" into a researchable and analytical object defined in terms of its output/function/purpose in supporting the individual and the group. Culture is to be found in the institutional Chart.

Parsons and his colleagues took a slightly different approach. They focused on the behavior that leads to the satisfaction of organic needs and how these are institutionalized in society to form an action system -- a flow of energy and function that serves to maintain a social system. And Culture is found in the those elements that make up the Pattern Maintenance function.

All of this is built on the Tylor definition of "Culture". If we were to take the present day term "culture" we might and do come to the same conclusion that differences in "culture" produce differences in behavior at the organic and societal (supra-organic) level. But today's definitions will not explain "why?".

Why is this? I would hypothesize that it is because structural/functionalism fell out of favor in the 1960s and on. It lost its favor because the stress or focus was on stability. The question was "Why do cultures persist despite strong environmental pressures from other cultures to force change?" This is the heart of the work of Edward H. Spicer's "persistent culture" concept.

In the mid 1960s, in light of the Viet Nam war, civil rights movement etc. structural/functionalism became associated with a philosophical position which favored the status quo. Culture is conservative. The world and its problems of inequality, in the view of many, called for a radical solution - a solution that would break the gravitational pull of tradition and culture. The question changed from a "Why?" question to a "How? question. The question thus became a solution. “How can we
propel mankind into a more equitable and "just" orbit?” (The space age was just emerging at this time).

Marxism and other theories that focused on power relationships took over the social sciences. "Power" replaced "culture" as the ideological style of the social sciences and has found a strong home within academic anthropology and its institutions. Rather than scientific, these theories are divisive. They are loaded with ideological content. 

Anthropology has become fragmented into philosophical camps and concepts, such as "culture", "structure" and "function," have become just so many hollowed out or rarefied words.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Anthropology needs a common professional vocabulary

Earlier this year, while surfing through the American Anthropological Association group on LinkedIn, I came across the following question by Patricia Ensworth in reference to standardization in Ethnographic Methods:

 Based upon my work as a business anthropologist and my role as a faculty member of the American Management Association, I believe it might be useful to explore the possibility of creating an Ethnographic Body of Knowledge similar to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge, the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge, etc. The organizations that administer training and certification in these fields help establish professional standards and practices outside academia and explain the disciplines to the general public. What do members of this community think of the idea?

In the real world, the replication of uniformity (See AFC Wallace or WardGoodenough) is what distinguishes Order from Chaos. Standardization is a goal that society and culture strive for since it provides the base from which the next step of evolution or progress begins. If you are always looking back because you can't trust the past, then you can never make any real progress to a future.

Standardization provides a reference point. It is not an end all. It is a beginning. Anthropology has benefited by the "standardization" that John Wesley Powell called for in the training of field anthropologist back in the 1870's and which Boas introduced in his training program at Columbia that created the first generation of professional anthropologist.

In recent years, it seem that we have drifted away from a set of professional standards and into the realm of the "eclectic, fashionable, stylish." This is a trend that seems to parallel the over-production of PhD graduates and the shrinking and transformation of the academic market place -- especially for anthropologists which began in the 1980 and continued. It has severed the tentative academic/applied connection where the former generated theory that the latter might test in practice. It also served to drive some of us out of academia into the real world.

Standardization and the process of helping to create (discover) best practices is a rich area for applied anthropology and applied anthropologists. Program evaluation, which is applied research, was, for me, a very profitable career path during the early stage of my own career development as a consultant and coach.

The public does not want "new" as much as it wants to know "what works." What is valid and reliable, not novel. Standardization makes answering the latter question a lot easier.

It might be that the suggestion made by Patricia, above, is one direction to go, if there is a major input from the practitioner branch of the discipline and representative of the many contexts in which one finds ethnographic work. There is a similar dimension for the other sub disciplines such as archeology.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

MEME: Concept or Toy?

 "Meme" as Dawkins' intended the term, as the second replicator and meme as it has become popular culture's new word for "fad" or trait are two entirely different concepts. My focus is on the former and I see the latter as the "toy" phase of the concept. As we know, many of our human innovations begin as toys before they are translated into real products and practical knowledge.

I believe what Dawkins was getting at is that at some point the gonads produced a genetic set that altered the way a species could adapt to a rapidly changing environment. That change took place in the way the brain or central nervous system processes information. The change reorganized the way and the capacity to receive and process input from the sensory systems. This resulted in a change the way individuals learn from experience and to store memories. It enables the individual to recall past experiences and correlate these stored memories with an immediate environmental challenge or problem.

Such recall (memory) would enable the organism to response more efficiently and effectively to opportunities and/or threats -- increasing its chance of survival over others without such an adaptation.

That memory is what I would consider to be the "meme". Initially, it might take the form of a simple S -> R (stimulus -> response pattern) or even an instinct triggered by external or even internal sources.

"Meme" in this context would be the behavioral response to emotions generated by the stimulus. The behavioral responses in higher animals would include learned behaviors. Learned by individual experience as when a new born begins to explore its body and learns where its body ends and the world begins; and social learning as when a lioness teaches her cubs to hunt.

"Meme" may have a genetic base but it is more than a "trait." It is an advanced adaptation of the gene, to continue Dawkins Self Gene analogy, to insure its success in competition with other genes. It is the transcendence of a chemically based DNA sequenced gene to a superorganic neuron sequenced "gene" or what is defined as "meme".

There are many interesting questions and potential answers that the "meme" concept offers -- especially for anthropologists -- as it relates to the success of Homo sapiens over the other hominids. And for biology, it could help in our understanding the success of animals over plants. Learning is a critical adaptation for life forms that are free to move in their environment and play a role as both predator and prey in that environment. Further, it can link the principles of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology to the evolution of language and culture.

Meme provides an analogous mechanism to the gene as the mechanism for non-biological social and cultural evolution. It brings back something we need to reconsider, the lamarckian evolutionary model. Our theories of cultural and social evolution imply an evolution by means of acquired characteristics which is based on a biological agent (human) but advanced by a supra-organic entity, which Malinowski defined as the institution.

While children play with their internet memes we are learning something about the process whereby they emerge, become manifest, develop, evolve and die. Link these with the advances in ethology and neuroscience and we may gain a real understanding of culture or the super-organic as a derivative of the meme.

There is a place for the "meme" in our understanding of human development.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

REBRANDING ANTHROPOLOGY Part 1 -- What happened to culture?

According to the American Anthropological Association

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present.

This definition is somewhat different from the usual and traditional discourse we encounter about anthropology. The traditional approach placed “culture” at the center of the anthropological paradigm.  Anthropology’s brand and identity within the social sciences has traditionally been the concept CULTURE. Today, that is no longer true as the above definition clearly shows.

In a recent posting (October 2011) I made to the AAA site on LinkedIn I asked the following question, 
"What definition or metaphor do you find most helpful when you are defining "Culture?"

In 1963, A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn published a book entitled "CULTURE: A critical review of concepts and definitions" In their study of the term and it's history and use, one finds a wide range of ideas about what is the core concept of anthropology. These definitions are, in a way, a road map of the intellectual development within anthropology up to the mid-20th century. Now fifty years later, the concept of culture has changed with the times, the metaphors and the theories of  the profession and prejudices of its students.

What is your definition? What are your metaphors? How do you describe "culture" to your students, colleagues, and clients?

Since then, I have received a total of 8 responses. None of them truly addresses the question except in the most general of terms. It seems that culture is no longer the central organizing principle around which the four fields of anthropology, ethnology, physical/biological, archaeological, and linguistics orbit.

Yet when you ask anthropologists and practitioners, “What is anthropology?”, the most frequent response is “the study of culture.” As a practicing applied anthropologist for the past 30+years, I find that this response has not changed. Most anthropologists coming out of academia appear to think that the concept of “culture” is anthropology’s biggest selling point. Ethnographic research is the new and improved TIDE when it comes to applied social science.

These anthropologists seem to think, or feel, that they are the possessors of the great secret. It is a secret that every potential employer needs to know in order to succeed. As the bearers of this secret, these anthropologists seem to feel that they will be immediately embraced and employed to share this secret. The secret, of course, is – “culture.”

The problem, seen by these anthropologists, is that the potential employer lacks an understanding of the role culture plays in his/her business. What the employer needs is a staff anthropologist, or at least an anthropologically trained consultant, to research and provide answers to “cultural” problems in the business. What they don’t seem to understand is, that outside of academia, the “culture” concept no longer is the exclusive cache of anthropologists.

They are often surprised to discover that the term “culture” has long been accepted and integrated in the popular vocabulary of the employer and most other applied social and behavioral sciences serving the business community. As generally used, “culture” defines the fact that there are “differences” between Us (the business) and Them (Stakeholders).

Meanwhile within the profession, which has defined itself mainly as an academic discipline, the concept itself has lost its unique centrality and meaning.

Dating from the 1940’s, the profession has been struggling with question, “What is anthropology?”

Is anthropology the study of humanity or culture?
Why is anthropology a four field discipline and should it be?
Is the natural focus of anthropology the study of preliterate society?
What is anthropology’s role in the sciences and/or humanities?

Lacking any consistent answer other than “Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present,” it seems that American Anthropology has lost its brand identity.

It may be time to reposition the brand.

What Do We MEME in Anthropology

A recent article in the Atlantic  "Are LOLCats Making Us Smart?," describes the popular fad of LOLCats and how this phenomenon is drawing the attention of academic researchers at such events as the ROFLCon, -- a conference devoted to Internet memes and the mini-celebrities that have emerged. The Atlantic, in another article, entitled "Memes are people too ..." describes the conference.

The "meme" is an extremely important concept for anthropology as the science of humanity (the human species). The term, coined by Dawkins in his "The Selfish Gene", addressed a very real problem in human/social/cultural evolution, "How do you explain the super-sonic development of humanity as the dominant species on the planet from an evolutionary (biological) point of view?" The answer he suggested is that you don't. You have to look to something that while it acts like a gene (encapsulating basic fundamental information for a biological organism) but which is not physically (chemically) based. This he called the "meme."

When Darwin (& Wallace) discovered the principle and mechanism for species evolution -- "survival of the fittest", it took the rediscovery of Mendel’s pea experiments to demonstrate how that process works (although it was long understood in agriculture and animal breeding on a practical level). Almost a century later, Watson and Crick, and Rosalind Franklin, aided with by the technological invention of x-ray crystallography, discovered the double helix nature of DNA, the basis of the gene. This has produced a explosion of understanding and application of the concept of the genetic technology.

But despite attempts to extend the power of the gene into the field of social organization of species and especially the human species, through sociobiology, such explanations are inadequate given the relativity short time period of Homo sapiens existence as just one of a variety of Hominid species to today being the dominate species on the planet.

The "meme" is a concept that helps to explain how this could and can happen -- which was Dawkins' point. Memetics is a relatively new field of study and considered by many as a fad. In the context of the internet, the term "meme" has taken on a superficial meaning of graphic images that has gone viral. The concept is still in a "toy" stage as the Atlantic stories demonstrate, yet I suspect in time will be given the serious attention it deserves.

To understand "culture" and the role that it has played and does play in human existence and evolution, we need a concept that explains the spread of cultural elements across populations and generation and even within populations and generation independent of the biological constraint of passing on of an individual's genetic material to the generation where it will come to dominate the population over time and under the given environment conditions that favored it.

The "meme" is such a concept and worthy of more serious attention than it is currently receiving. The technological advances in brain sciences and neurology may help us to bridge the gap. On the practical side -- understanding the nature of the meme has tremendous implications for education, marketing, advertising, and propaganda.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Where does anthropology fit in this Brave New World

Anthropology has long had a holistic and historical focus on its subject matter. Culture is historical in the sense of the generational transmission of societal experience and values. When we enter periods such as today and forget or ignore the lessons of the past.and as we anthropologists enter the real world of marketing and seek to build our careers in it, what are we bringing with us in terms of anthropological values and ethics. And what are we giving up to make a buck? 

Recently Bill Moyers addressed this question indirectly in an interview with Marty Kaplan, director of USC’s Norman Lear Center and an entertainment industry veteran. The title of the show is Full Show: Big Money, Big Media, Big Trouble

 I found the questions Moyers is asking here to be a real challenge to the science of anthropology and to our professional ethics as we move into the world of consumer behavior both academically and as practitioners. As Moyers points out in his talk with Kaplan, "... taking news out of the journalism box and placing it in the entertainment box is hurting democracy and allowing special interest groups to manipulate the system."

This is a bigger question than just TV journalism. Journalism has been, at its best, the public record and the first cut at history of a community and a society. For the historian and anthropologist journalistic reports have been and are a starting for digging into the great and the mundane issues and facts that we rely upon to build a history of the events and context of our studies. The facts reported also help those of us who are practitioners  to understand and interpret the context of our practice and enable us to respond accordingly.

Moyers and Kaplan raise important questions, I feel, for modern anthropology as a profession and a discipline

What are we doing to study this phenomena? 
How is it shading and influencing the way we understand the events and context of the times?
How are we preparing students, especially those who are training for careers in marketing and media, to deal with the ethical issues they will be facing?
And, most of all what does this tell us about the social and cultural forces that are shaping the world's impression of what the world is?

I am interested in your responses.