Sunday, October 23, 2011

Defining Culture

Today begins the official start to the process of reviewing the literature writing the paper I will present on November 16 at the AAA conference. (And yes, I have only 24 days)

I was reading Heewon Chang's book AutoEthnography as Method more in depth and I was really impressed by her summary of the main definitions of culture and her own proposed idea of culture.

For as long as anthropology has existed as a discipline, everyone has been trying to define exactly what is meant by culture. Indeed, there may be some truth in the adage that for every person writing about culture, there are at least two definitions of culture. Chang (2008) views the arguments about culture as belong in primarily two camps: those who believe that culture exists outside the individual and those believe that culture exists in the heads of the individuals.

The first group sees culture as bounded whole, with identifiable boundaries. "Individual differences are minimized at the expense of a coherent picture for the whole, and culture is seen to be observable and presentable as a public facade of a group" (Chang 2008: 18). She also identifies three positions within this group, but I won't go into detail. Please check out her book for a more detailed discussion.

The second group locates culture within the minds of the group and acknowledges the agency of each member. "Human beings are regarded not only as bearers of culture, but also as agents who create, transmit, transform, and sometimes discard certain cultural traits" (Chang 2008: 20). She also recognizes three different positions within this group.

The disadvantage of the first group, the one that identifies culture as located outside of individuals is that it ignores the real peoples associated within it. It also presents culture as static - unchangeable, lifeless, and constant.

The disadvantage of the second group, which locates culture within the individuals' minds is that it neglects the collectivistic nature of the groups in which individuals exist. It also tends to blur the difference between anthropology and psychology.

To solve these issues, Chang proposes seven premises of culture:

Individuals are cultural agents, but culture is not all about individuality.
Individuals are not prisoners of culture.
Despite inner-group diversity, a certain level of sharedness, common understanding, and/or repeated interactions is needed to bind people together as a group.
Individuals can become members of multiple social organizations concurrently.
Each membership contributes to the cultural makeup of individuals with varying degrees of influences.
Individuals can discard a membership of a cultural group with or without "shedding" their cultural traits.
Without securing official memberships in certain cultural groups, obvious traits of membership, or members' approvals, outsiders can acquire  cultural traits and claim cultural affiliations with other cultural groups.
Without describing each of these in detail, let me explain briefly why I think this new, multifaceted description of culture is valuable. First, I find it very interesting that she uses "badges of membership" such as age, sex, gender, ethnicity, race, etc, as  ways in which culture shapes an individual. These seem almost to be another functional use of categories in which to describe an individual in the same way that functionalism uses institutions and cultural categories to describe a culture.

I like that she allows for these memberships to be variously influential at various points of a person's life. So, for instance, a particular religion could be very important to an individual at one point in life only to be discarded later partially or entirely.

In addition, it's important that she allows for a more complex understanding of "shedding" one's memberships. For instance, I've always thought it important to include in an understanding of class mobility that one does not simply move from the working class to the middle class completely. The person would still retain elements of her working class background even while at the same time taking on elements of her new middle class identity.

And, of course, it's necessary to allow for someone to enter into another culture and be able to "empathize" with that new group in order for an anthropologist's endeavors to be worth anything. If it is impossible to understand another culture without being a complete insider, or as she calls it, and "innate membership", then it's not worth studying other cultures at all. However, she does allow that possibility. (Not everyone agrees on this point, and it hinges on whether one accepts a positivist epistemology that there is a real world that can be discovered, or if one accepts a relativist epistemology that the world exists in the eye of the beholder - this is a very complex issue that I won't go into at the moment.)

Anyway, I found her discussion of culture to be very valuable because I have found that as someone who has completed an AA in anthropology and who is in her final year of a BA in anthropology, I still don't have a very good idea of what culture really is. I'm not sure that the arguments about culture within anthropology can really be divided into two groups so neatly, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Chang, Heewon
2008   Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

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