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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Notions of culture


Given the fact that Anthropology has usually been defined as the study of other cultures, it is not surprising to find ‘culture’ to be one of the most crucial concepts of the discipline. The focus of anthropology is upon the diversity of ways in which human being establish and live their social lives in groups, and it is from this diversity that the anthropological notion of culture, at least in the twentieth century is derived. Among a diverse range of several approaches three clearly identifiable approaches are the totalist, mentalist and symbolist perspectives of culture.

The Totalist perspective:

The idea of totalitarianism is rooted in the idea that culture is singular. It means everywhere human beings possess more or less advanced version of the same heritage, an interpretation began in eighteenth-century European thought (Williams 1983a). This singularity is framed through evolution minded anthropologists like Tylor, Morgan and Spencer. The concept of “psychic unity of mankind” is most frequently advocated. It means that everywhere people possess same fundamental mental and intellectual components. Therefore, everywhere different societies over time would follow the same course of socio-cultural evolution. The evolutionists therefore assumed that a universal scale of progress will take place and that civilizations developed through time. With increasing closure to the civilization, human being would be more creative and more rational, i.e. people’s capacity for culture will be enhanced.

Although the use of the term totalist is not in standard practice, it denotes a phase in cultural thought most prominently advocated by Edward Burnett Tylor and other evolution minded anthropologists. Culture, Tylor (1871) wrote, is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." The totalist perspective comes first from his idea of the “complex whole.” Although it is hotly debated, the holistic notion powerfully integrates all human capabilities and habits together. It means that vast areas of human life, spanning everything from techniques of food production to abstract ideas of after life have some coherence and a distinct logic that can be discovered by a single discipline.

The totalist perspective articulates a number of different views. Anthropologically important views include that of Spercer’s, Morgan’s and Tylor’s schemes. Herbert Spencer (1876) formulated a general law of cultural evolution. He asserted a tendency of all societies to change from a state of incoherent homogeneity to a state of coherent heterogeneity. Spencer identified four evolutionary types of human society: simple, compound, doubly compound and trebly compound. Louis Henry Morgan (1877) in Ancient Society identified three major ethnical periods in human history, viz. Savagery, Barbarism and Civilisation. He divided human history of progress in this particular scheme on the basis technological changes. Edward Burnett Tylor (1871) uses the concept of “survivals” as a basis for demonstrating evolutionary sequences. According to this theory, human culture had originated at a fairly "high" level, after which some cultures "degenerated" to "lower" levels while others "rose" to yet "higher" ones.

The mentalist perspective:

Tylor’s explanation of culture as learned and learnable essentially describes the mental dimension of culture. As culture is something based on socially and mentally rather than biologically. However, strictly the mentalist perspective is rooted in Boasian rejection of evolutionism, which insisted that cultures must always be understood as cultures not as culture (Franz Boas 1911). The assessment of a particular culture should be done within its particular context. Each culture pertains to a specific ensemble of artifacts, institutions and patterns of behaviour. He argued that complex form and patterns of human life, when investigated through fieldwork, were so various that they could not arise from a uniform process of social or cultural evolution. From here on, the investigation of mind and society began. Later scholars like Sapir, Kroeber, Mead and Benedict elaborated his idea of historical particularism and relationship between culture and personality.

The fundamental argument of the mentalist is that, despite of more or same biological heritage, human nature is so plastic that it can sustain kaleidoscopically different sets of values, institutions and behaviours in different cultures. They investigated culture’s role in patterning individual mind, modal personality types and people’s perception of culture. The differences between people in various societies usually stem from cultural differences installed in childhood. In other words, the foundations of personality development are set in early childhood according to each society’s unique cultural traits. They described distinctive characteristics of people in certain cultures and attributed these unique traits to the different methods of childrearing. The aim of this comparison was to show the correlation between childrearing practices and adult personality types.

A more recent mentalist position is that of Cognitivists. The cognitivists focus on the knowledge which people employ so as to make sense of the world and also the ways in which that knowledge is acquired, learnt, organized, stored and retrieved. It covers the major modalities of human experience: the ways in which people think, feel and sense, and so make their lives meaningful and more or less ordered. Study of scholars like Frake (1980) and Atran (1993) have showed that logic of reasoning and rationality is historically and culturally specific. The study on the processes of language acquisition, social learning and continual transformation of existing knowledge has increasingly focused on the underlying, universal cognitive principles. Culture is then seen as a matter of the same cognitive principles being applied on a range of limited alternatives to create limited variations.

The symbolist perspective:

The symbolist perspective of culture began with Leslie White (1940), who argued for the symbolic dimension of human behaviour that was perhaps remained unseen before him. Later he asserted that, in some hypothetical beginning, “Between mand and nature hung the veil of culture, and he could see nothing save through this medium… the meanings and values that lay beyond the senses.”

Later two different views of culture developed. First, is to treat culture as systems of symbols that included language, art, religion, morals and anything else that appears organized in human social life. This has the effect of giving to culture some of the orderliness and concreteness that one observes, and can study systematically, in language. An alternative to this focus on culture as symbol has been to take as an object of study those material dimensions undervalued by symbolic anthropologists, such as food production, crafts and relationships t the physical environment.

The 1960s onwards was a move away from the earlier emphasis upon culture as customary or patterned behaviour, to a stress upon culture as idea systems, or structures of symbolic meaning. Each culture was understood in this later view to consist of a shared system of mental representations. David Schneider (1976) found culture consisting of elements which are defined and differentiated in a particular society as representing reality – the total reality of life within which human beings live and die. In this view culture is not just shared, it is intersubjectively shared (D’Andrade 1984). With this shift, culture became a conceptual (mental and symbolic) structure made up of representations of reality, was understood to orient, direct, organize action in systems by providing each with its own logic. The view which considers culture as conceptual category and symbolically reliable guide to perform social action makes a methodological shift. The earlier emphasis on detection of concrete, objective and stable system of collective representation is no longer valid (Wagner 1986, 1991). As Ingold (1994) says that we do not find neatly bounded and mutually exclusive bodies of thought and customs perfectly shared by all who subscribes to them. The methodology as Clifford Geertz (1973) noted should be interpretation of meaning of webs within which human beings live.

Further reading:

Barfield, Thomas. (1997). The dictionary of anthropology. Oxford: Blackwell.

McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms. 2004 Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw Hill.

Moore, Jerry D. 1997 Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Rapport, Nigel and Overing Joanna. (2004). Key concepts in Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Routledge.

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