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.

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