The Progress of Culture by Even Keith Eppich Anthropology, Southern Methodist University
Anthropology and the tools of thought
Science and culture possess a synergistic relationship. While the concerns of the larger society are addressed through a scientific methodology, science itself makes innovations and discoveries that profoundly alter the larger society that spawns it. The creation of knowledge exists as complex phenomena, simultaneously social and scientific. Darwin might have profoundly altered a mid-nineteenth century worldview, but his discoveries also served to explain its existent inequalities (see Tambiah 1990: 17-18, 140-144; Trigger 1998: 63-73). In our own time, we can easily see how scientific studies are used to support societal practices as well as challenge them. The breakthroughs of technology change the way in which a society conducts itself, thus altering its very fabric.
Anthropology possesses an enormous scope of research, being nothing less than the totality of the human condition, past and present. As such, it seems extraordinarily sensitive to the manner by which society perceives itself. Trigger (1998), in particular, has argued how the changing economic fortunes of the middle-class appear to have determined the theoretical orientation of the discipline. When society is riding a crest of economic prosperity and confidence, he argues, anthropology has portrayed human history as evolutionary and progressive. When the position of middle-class society feels threatened, anthropology has adopted much more pessimistic views, abandoning the notion of a progressive social evolution. It is within this context that anthropologists have built their overarching theories of human society. Central to such theory-building processes are the tools with which anthropologists have used to redefine their discipline. As the theory has changed, so have the basic concepts, the basic definitions that are discussed. Definitions can be seen as a manner by which scientists can control the function of words and reduce ambiguity among colleagues (Cafagna 1960: 114-115). They are conceptual instruments manufactured “to render experience intelligible” (White 1954: 463). Redefinition of a single word possesses profound ramifications for the discipline, and hence, for society. It is important to pay close attention to language and to ask what is meant by “progress” or “technology.” These words are tools and tools that scholars shape and reshape to fit their own research goals. They are “channels as well as tools of thought. Some lead us into blind allies; others, to fertile fields” (White 1959: 53). Following these changing definitions may be able to illustrate the manner by which these theoretical frameworks themselves change (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 36).
Words exist as potent and conceptual entities. Within the science of anthropology there is no word more potent, nor more conceptual, than that of “culture.” The focus of this study is to track the use of that word through a selected literature in the history of anthropological theory and to examine its relation, when applicable, to notions of evolution, progress and technology.
As per the Merriam-Webster Online Language Center (www.m-w.com/dictionary.htm), the definition of culture is as follows:
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin cultura, from cultus, past participle.
Date: 15th century
1: CULTIVATION, TILLAGE
2: the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
3: expert care and training <beauty culture>
4 a: enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training b: acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
5 a: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, beliefs, and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group c: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation
6: cultivation of living material in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation
Culture as the gradual perfection of man
To speak of “our culture” or “Eskimo Culture” or even a “Culture of Technology” is to use the meaning of the word as given to it by an anthropologist. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was the foremost anthropologist of his day and for much of the late nineteenth century, anthropology was known simply as “Mr. Tylor’s science.“ He was the first English anthropologist to receive an appointment at Oxford University in 1875 and the first to become a full professor in 1896. He was the first “compleat anthropologist“ and was instrumental in establishing anthropology as a branch of the British Association, serving as President of the Royal Anthropological Society in 1891. In 1912, he was knighted (Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 61-63). Before Tylor, what anthropologists as there were generally spoke of society, or of race, or even the “human family.” After Tylor, they would speak of culture.
Tylor’s famous definition, which forms the basis of our modern understanding of the term, makes up the first sentence of his most influential work, Primitive Culture (1871).
Culture… taken in its widest ethnographic sense, 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 condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it is capable of being investigated on general principles, is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action.
The use of culture in its ethnographic sense, number 5 in the Merriam-Webster definition above, did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary of 1893. It would not appear in any dictionary until the Webster’s New International of 1929. It is added to the Oxford Supplement of 1933 (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 33-34). By the 1930s, this use of the word culture had entered into common usage. By 1950, it appears in comic strips (ibid: i35).
Tylor was heavily influenced by the writings of German philosophers of the period, especially the works of the historian Gustav Klemm. In the German, kultur, was stressed as a unifying body of folk customs, beliefs and language. It was a definition that tended to de-emphasize the role of governing bodies, if not ignore them completely. The German writers attempted to foster the unity of the German people at the mid-century and outside of the odd example, tended to use the word exclusively in reference to Germans (ibid: i10-19). Tylor extends this German definition to include all human populations, while maintaining the spirit of the extent English definition of the word.
The famed Victorian writer, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), wrote in 1869, that “culture is, or ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection; and that of perfection as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light…” (ibid: 29; Buckler 1958: 458-476). This use of the word is that of the progressive sense, highlighting the means by which individuals seek improvement in their own aesthetics or intellect. In short, the means by which individuals becomes “cultured.” Tylor does not stray far from this. He (1871: i27) writes,
civilization may be looked upon as the general improvement of mankind by higher organization of the individual and of society, to the end of promoting at once man’s goodness, power and happiness… a transition from the savage state to our own would be, practically, that very progress of art and knowledge which is one main element in the development of culture.
Culture therefore possesses a function, a goal and the relative progression towards this goal the measure by which societies may be ranked. The development of mankind proceeds hand in hand with a continuous improvement of knowledge, the arts, and the combined standards of intellectual and moral advance. Tylor sees Victorian society not so much as the end-product of human development, but the one furthest along the scale of development (ibid: i28-29). Indeed, the very function of a science of culture is to act as a reforming science, to “expose the remains of crude old culture… and to mark these out for destruction.” Because of the anthropology, “where barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with clear view.“ (emphasis added, Tylor 1871: ii453).
Tylor admits the difficulty, if not impossibility, of being able to measure a group’s intellectual and moral progress. He is interested in a science of culture, on those qualities which can be “observed as a matter of fact.“ To do this, he argues at length on how the advance of moral progress is inexorably linked to the advance of society in its entirety. While certain aspects of a society may remain backwards and primitive, “on the whole the civilized man is not only wiser and more capable than the savage, but also better and happier.“ Hence, analyzing one aspect of a culture will give some indication as to its position within an evolutionary hierarchy. To establish a ranked scale of civilization, “The principle criteria of classification are the absence or presence, high or low development, of the industrial arts, especially metal-working, manufacture of implements and vessels, agriculture, architecture, &c” (Tylor 1871: i26-31). The proxy by which Tylor suggests that cultures will be ordered is that oftechnology. After all, he argues, one can easily see the progression in firearms from a clumsy wheel-lock through various stages to the breech-loading rifle of his day. “Mechanical invention supplies apt examples of the kind of development which affects civilization at large” (ibid: i15).
In this of course, Tylor was not alone, and many of his contemporaries emphasized the progressive nature of aspects of technology (see Trigger 1998:74-82; McGee and Warms 1996: 5-82). Lewis Henry Morgan, in particular, based his 1877 hierarchy of civilization almost entirely upon technological criteria, with the bow and arrow differentiating Savagery from Barbarism and iron-smelting separating the Upper and Middle Statuses of Barbarism (Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 38). In his 1875 lecture, George A. Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers sees in the inability of apes to fashion tools “a clearly defined starting-point for the commencement of culture” (Pitt-Rivers 1906: 32). Tylor’s definition of culture is then necessarily linked to that of improvement and specifically technological improvement. Culture has a function, being this gradual improvement of man, and the various societies of mankind can be grouped according to how well they fulfill this function technologically. Technology serves as the scale by which cultures are ordered with the word itself serving as an indicator of progress.
164 definitions for a word
Trigger (1998: 83-85) reasons that by the first few decades of the twentieth century the increasing and seemingly insurmountable social problems of industrial society invalidated an evolutionary approach to culture. The horrors of the First World War certainly served to disassociate any relation between morality and technology. Even the concept of progress seemed to have little relation with the human condition. If evolutionary progress led anywhere, it would lead to the kind of socialist paradise being praised in the streets. Both Marx and Engels were heavily influenced by the social evolution espoused by Morgan (ibid: 76, 93). In one of the little ironies of history, Morgan, an American anthropologist, is cited inThe Communist Manifesto, chapter one, first sentence (Marx and Engels 1848: 9).
Stewart (1956: 70), on the other hand, argues that the collapse of evolutionary thought was brought about by epistemological flaws within the theory and an influx in new research. The new data did not fit the technological hierarchies. Groups simply possessed the wrong sets of attributes. Confusing the issue further was the discovery that populations often borrowed some practices and technologies from neighboring groups instead of inventing their own. Situations where a culture could have literate members yet not possesses iron-smelting, or even agriculture, were impossible under an evolutionary hierarchy. The theory simply collapsed of its own weight.
Whatever the reason, the first quarter of the twentieth century saw a rejection of a progressive evolutionism. The scholar usually credited with this is the New York-based, German-born Franz Boas (1858-1942). The contributions of Franz Boas to the field of anthropology are far too impressive to list here (see McGee and Warms 1996: 128-130; Trigger 1998: 97-99). Suffice it to say he is easily described as “a sort of funnel through which all American anthropology passed between its nineteenth-century juniority and its twentieth-century maturity” and “the founder of modern field work“ (Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 81-83). Virtually every anthropologist educated in America is removed only a few degrees from Boas. Boas can be said to open the scholarly critique on evolutionism in this 1896 article, “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology” (in Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 85-93). There he points out that often diffusion and migration can more easily explain the widespread occurrence of cultural traits. Commonality in technology, such as fire-starting, does not necessarily imply commonality in evolution. The comparison of cultures “will not become fruitful until we renounce the vain endeavor to construct a uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture” (ibid: 93).
It was the students of Franz Boas who most enthusiastically engaged in the debate. The period 1909-1916 saw a series of critical papers attacking the various aspects of cultural evolution (Rowe 1975: 157). The school of thought that replaced nineteenth-century evolutionism came to be known as Boasian anthropology, or historical particularism. The Boasians stressed the intensive study of a single culture, characterized by long periods of fieldwork where the anthropologists would live with those they studied and learn their language. There could be little use in comparing differing cultures and Boas is directly attributed the concept of cultural relativism. All cultures were seen as unique, particular, and in no manner could they be placed on a hierarchy of evolution (McGee and Warm 1996: 129).
This, however, creates a problem with word culture. As we have already seen, Tylor’s definition is intrinsic with progress and evolution. By discarding Tylor’s theory, the Boasians are, to a large extent, discarding his definition as well. The elimination of Tylor’s definition immediately begs the question, what then is being studied?
It is doubtful whether this would have even seemed a problem to Boas. After all, in Germany, the word kultur lacked any precise definition, being used mainly by philosophers and historians whose interests were often mystical and irreducible. Kultur is described in a 1922 philosophic dictionary as “a mode of being of mankind,” die daseinsweise der menschheit(Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 27). In nineteenth-century German, kultur functioned as essentially an undefined operative unit (Meinander 1981: 107-108). Boas, educated at various universities in Heibelberg, Bonn and Kiel, would have known what is meant by culture and felt no great impatience to define it. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952: 151) describe him as being “interested in dealing with culture, not is systematically theorizing about it.” Boas does write a definition for culture in 1930, at age seventy-two, for theEncyclopedia of the Social Sciences. He writes, “Culture embraces all the manifestations of social habits of a community, the reactions of the individuals as affected by the habits of the group in which he lives, and the products of human activities as determined by those habits” (in Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 43).
It can surely be no coincidence that, in this period, the number of definitions of culture begin to expand at an exponential rate. Tylor’s 1871 definition is not followed by another in the anthropological literature for thirty-two years and even to 1916, only six additional definitions appear. Not that the word is not being used, it’s simply that the definition is understood. But between 1920 and 1950, there appear in the anthropological literature one hundred fifty-seven separate definitions (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 149). Boasian anthropology didn’t particularly need a commonly held definition of culture, as there was no significant cross-cultural comparison. The result was that not only was each ethnic group held to be unique, but the definition of the culture of each ethnic group was held to be practically unique. This leads to the situation in 1952, with anthropology possessing 164 definitions for a single word.
There were even more than 164. In the early twentieth century, debates between German and Scandinavian archaeologists demanded some measure of comparison and the scholars involved adopted to calling sets of widely associated artifacts an “archaeological culture” (Meinander 1981: 101). It isn’t until V. Gordon Childe’s The Danube in Prehistory (1929) that a formal definition for an archaeological culture is penned.
While it is impossible to deal with the even the majority of the 164 definitions, a few general comments can be made about the relative similarity between them. Culture tended to be viewed as being mostly mentalistic in nature, that is, originating from and consisting mostly of mental abstractions (White 1954: 467). This conception of culture held its object of study to be subjective in nature, particular to a specific ethnic group in a particular time and place. Cultures are mostly incomparable and are possessed of some degree of statistical patterning (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952: 167). “We thinking culture is a product; is historical; includes ideas, patterns, and values; is selective; is learned; is based upon symbols; and is an abstraction from behavior and objects of behavior” (ibid: 157). Kroeber (1959: 398) himself regarded culture to be a subset within a larger society with data limited by “biotic and individual psychic factors.” Cultural relativism was considered “both indispensable and productive.” A closer examination of Kroeber’s research will prove illuminative of the type executed by anthropologists of this period. Kroeber viewed anthropological research as scientific and anthropologists entering the field to “invent hypotheses in order to test them” (ibid: 404). While the study of kinship and social structure seems the order of the day, Kroeber applied this approach to aspects of technology. He argued that larger patterns of art and technology operated independently of the individuals that produced them (McGee and Warms 1996: 129). Whereas Tylor (1871) used the “mechanical arts” and firearms and Pitt-Rivers (1875) weaponry, Kroeber (1919) uses a series of eight measurements to study the changing rhythms in the design of women’s dresses over the preceeding 75 years. Kroeber uses the changes in the fashion of dresses to argue that social change is regular and cyclical and beyond the control of the individual. To Kroeber then, the material (i.e. technological) arts are not progressive but cyclical, with such innovations as there are occurring randomly. He applies this to culture as a whole, seeing in civilizations “a sense of historic necessity, of rhythmic inevitability,” which he likens to “the wheel of fortune” (Kroeber 1919: 139). There is no progress necessarily associated with technology at all, only cyclical rhythms of material fashion.
Culture as an extrasomatic means of adaptation
During a period of undisputed British ascendancy, British anthropologists, for the most part, argued for a view of culture as evolutionary and progressive. It appears then as no surprise that after the Second World War, it would be American anthropologists who would reintroduce ideas of evolution and progress into anthropological theory. This is Trigger’s (1998: 124-125) thesis, that the unrivaled power of America and the economic prosperity of its middle-class supported this view of human culture in an effort to reify their own position in the world. The post-war period also saw a dramatic re-emphasis on science and many anthropologists of the day saw in a Boasian approach a fundamental lack of scientific creditability. This drive towards the ‘scientizing’ of the discipline should be seen in the context of the Age of Sputnik, when the U.S. government poured federal monies into science and science education, leading to “an overemphasis on science and technology, to the detriment of the humanities” (Clowse 1981:13).
There were, however, real problems associated with conducting Boasian anthropology. Stewart (1956: 70) described the anthropology of the period as lapsing “into a methodology of ‘shreds and patches’” becoming “fervently devoted to collecting facts.” One of the problems with such an approach was the lack of coherence for the meaning of “culture.” A.R. Radcliffe-Brown writes in 1937 that “the word culture has undergone a number of degradations which have rendered it unfortunate as a scientific term” (in White 1954: 462). There is a vigorous debate within the anthropology of the 1940s and 50s concerning the word culture (see Gamst and Norbeck 1976). Indeed, one of the products of this debate is the 1952 Kroeber and Kluckhohn volume itself. Kroeber and Kluckhohn did not, however, attempt to settle the debate, simply presenting a “taxonomy of definitions” as a “gauge of the development of explicit conceptual instruments in cultural anthropology” (ibid: 36). In true Boasian style, they present the data, believing “each of our principle groups of definitions points to something legitimate and important” (ibid: 157). They are not, as has been argued (White 1954: 462), attempting to clarify the concept. There were other attempts for conceptual unity, particularly Bidney (1944: 43-44), who argued that emphasis on only a few select aspects of behavior, i.e. reductionism, would lead only to a distorted view and create what he terms “cultural fallacies.” Culture is therefore an inclusive whole with “neither natural forces nor cultural achievements taken separately” (ibid: 44). Others took the opposite view, writing that culture is not capable of being defined, existing only as a subjective classification of observed phenomena (Haring 1949: 26).
The harshest critic of the Boasian concept of culture was the University of Michigan professor Leslie White (1900-1975). Harris (1999: 105) has even referred to him as “Boas’s academic nemesis.” To White, the intangibilities of an abstract view of culture were contrary to scientific inquiry. “When culture becomes an abstraction it not only becomes invisible and imponderable; it virtually ceases to exist. It would be difficult to construct a less adequate conception of culture” (White 1959a: 228). He argued that anthropology should examine real and tangible objects, not mental conceptions which cannot be measured scientifically. “The subject matter of any science is a class of objectively observable things and events, not abstractions.” Continued dependence upon a mentalistic concept of culture would serve little purpose other than “delaying and making more difficult a return to the scientific tradition of a direct and immediate concern with objective things and events: Culture as a class of things and events in the external world” (White 1954: 467; but see also Osgood 1951). To White, the Boasian approach lacked scientific creditability. “Science, “ he wrote, “is not a body of data; it is a technique of interpretation” (White 1949: 4).
Leslie White became convinced that the evolutionary approaches of Edward Tylor and Lewis Morgan were fundamentally sound, but had been formulated with inaccurate data (see Stewart 1956: 70). He promoted their books, editing several himself. Additionally, White was powerfully influenced by Marxist theory and deeply impressed by a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s (Peace 1998: 84-85). He would incorporate the historical inevitability of Marxist thought into this theories although remained careful about citing Karl Marx in Post-War America. Together with Julian Stewart, Leslie White is credited with the mid-century reintroduction of social evolution into anthropological discourse (see Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 319-322, 333-335; McGee and Warms 1996: 221-223). The body of work that these two men produced remains impressive.
Finding none of the previous definitions of culture acceptable, White set about constructing his own. He crafted a complex argument centered around the concept of symboling, that is, the assignation of meaning to objects (White 1962: 26). While the specifics of how this exactly worked are not important here, suffice it to say that White viewed as the focus of a scientific anthropology the study of the objects that become symbolically transformed into culturally meaningful units. Like the relationship between words, he argues (1959: 233-234), the relations between symboled units can be studied quite apart from human beings. Indeed, human beings are not the focus of a scientific anthropology, only culture is. While White’s definition subtly changes throughout his career, the most succinct one he gives is;
Culture, then, is a class of things and events, dependent upon symboling, considered in an extrasomatic context. This definition rescues cultural anthropology from intangible, imperceptible, and ontologically unreal abstractions and provides it with a real, substantial, observable subject matter. (original emphasis, White 1959a:234).
The precise language of his definition does change and continues to evolve throughout his career. Indeed, for a theorist quoted as often as Leslie White, the year of the quote makes a significant difference. It was a definition that was not without debate, the most significant critique originating from A. L. Kroeber (see also Cafagna 1960: 128-129). Kroeber (1948) writes that White’s concept of culture is reductionist and overly simplistic. To Kroeber, culture is not extrasomatic, but psychosomatic.
White’s meaning of the word divorces it from human beings, situating the locus of scientific inquiry upon the symboled objects themselves and the relationship between that which is symboled (White 1959a: 235-236; White 1959b: 363). White’s concept of culture places it beyond the control of humans as well. After all, humans are unable to affect changes in their own language much less the larger structure of culture. This leads to White’s (1949: 279) famous quote about the influence of the Pharaohs on Ancient Egypt, “the general trend of events would have been the same had [Pharaoh] Ikhnaton been but a sack of sawdust.” This critical shift in focus allows researchers to “eliminate the human organism from our considerations entirely” (White 1949: 36). Culture exists solely as the organizational principle which binds humans together, serving as “a cooperative enterprise which has been made possible by symbols” (ibid: 78).
This organizational structure, culture, exists as a thing unto itself, a thing sui generis (Lowie 1917, quoted in White 1959a: 239). As such, it makes human cooperative possible and serves as the principle by which humans can adapt to their environment, as “an elaborate mechanism whose function is to make life secure and continuous for groups of human beings.” The security and contiguity of life is explicitly linked to material and adaptive means.
In order to perform these functions, culture must harness energy in one form or another and put it to work. Culture is, therefore, a thermodynamic system in the mechanical sense. Culture grows in all its aspects- ideological, sociological, and technological- when and as the amount of energy harnessed per capita year is increased… (White 1949: 166)
These subsystems of culture are not equal. Philosophy serves to reify the existing social structure which is itself situated to most efficiently extract energy from the environment. The means by which this energy is extracted therefore has primacy over all else. White (1949: 366) writes, “The technological system is basic and primary… We are now in possession of a key to an understanding of the growth and development of culture: technology.” In the story of the evolution of man’s culture and society, “Technology is the hero of our piece” (ibid: 390).
Progress is then the means by which cultures become more efficient. As in the manner one can measure certain machines by their efficiency, so one can rank human society by its degree of energy efficiency, placing the obvious nation at the top of the list. This is the core of White’s argument on sociocultural evolution, “…culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased. Both factors increase simultaneously of course” (White 1949: 368-369). White’s own manner of expressing this efficiently takes the form of a formula with E equaling the amount of energy multiplied by T, the level of technology, resulting in C, the degree of cultural development. He expresses it thusly,
E x T ® C
One of the problems with viewing culture primarily as an extrasomatic means of adaptation, other than nihilism, was a marked tendency to result in a kind of environmental determinism. This logic is present within the writings of Leslie White but never directly addressed. Culture is never active, only reactive, being little more than “the response of a particular type of primitive organism to a particular set of stimuli” (White 1949: 146). Even the invention of new technologies is held at a constant, “when an invention becomes possible it becomes inevitable” (White 1959b: 16). The only variable aspect left becomes environmental. The study of culture then becomes little more than the study of adaptive technologies, reactive only to climatic change. Hence, to study cultural change one simply studies environmental change (see also Stewart 1955).
Regardless, White’s view gained popular acceptance within the discipline. This was not to the total exclusion of alternative models, but for the decades following the Second World War, it could be argued that neo-evolutionism represented the dominant theoretical perspective. Within the subdiscipline of archaeology, its emphasis on the primacy of material culture proved irresistible and formed the core of the “New Archaeology“ of the 1960’s and 70’s (see Kushner 1970; Martin 1971). The idea that culture as a complex adaptive system saw widespread use (see Sahlins and Service 1960; Buckley 1968; Cohen 1968). While substantial modifications have been made within the larger body of theory (see Boyd and Richerson 1985), it is not at all uncommon to see anthropologists refer to culture as an extrasomatic means of adaptation and focus their energies accordingly.
Culture as symbolic communication (if anything at all)
Trigger (1998: 152-153) makes a cogent case that as the pace of technological change quickened, the world seemed comprised of mysterious and unintelligible entities. Unforeseen vicissitudes in technology and the economy produced a growing sense of dismay and helplessness. Beginning the 1970s, severe doubts were formulated about progress and technology. As in previous times, artists and scholars turned away from objective reality and towards romantic and idealistic portrayals of the human condition. Through the course of these changes, intellectuals have denied that there is objective knowledge. This latest form of romanticism takes the form of postmodernism. Objective knowledge becomes impossible and yet another form of Western cultural domination. Truth is inherently relative, local, plural, indefinite, and interpretive. It becomes a “persuasive fiction” (Harris 1999: 154-156). In anthropology this “means in effect the abandonment of any serious attempt to give a reasonably precise, documented and testable account of anything” (Gellner 1992: 29). There was a near-complete loss of interest in social evolution, progress, technology, and, in some cases, culture. It should be noted that it is a term which, of late, seems to have acquired a distinctly derogatory status (Pomo; see Harris 1999).
Clifford Geertz (1926-present) occupies a unique position in terms of this debate. He is variously characterized as a postmodern anthropologist (Trigger 1998: 154; Harris 1999: 157) or not (Gellner 1992: 40; McGee and Warms 1996: 430, 480). Under the rubric of symbolic anthropology, Geertz, together with Victor Turner, represents a move away from evolutionary or objective concerns and towards the study and analysis of cultural meaning. Given by Geertz (1973: 89), his concept of culture is one that “denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” In this circumstance, culture is treated exclusively as a mental phenomenon (McGee and Warms 1996: 430). It is a multilateral mental phenomenon with the focus of the anthropologist’s research resembling that of a mental archaeology, where “a culture is exposed and explicated layer by layer until a mental image of it appears to the reader” (Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 530). This is best exemplified by Geertz’s (1973: 50-51) own analysis of the cathedral at Chartres;
Chartres is made of stone and glass. But it is not just stone and glass; it is a cathedral, and not only a cathedral, but a particular cathedral built at a particular time by certain members of a particular society. To understand what it means, to perceive it for what it is, you need to know rather more than the generic properties of stone and glass and rather more than what is common to all cathedrals. You need to understand also- and, in my opinion, most critically- the specific concepts of the relations among God, man, and architecture that, since they have governed its creation, it consequently embodies. It is no different with men: they, too, every last one of them, are cultural artifacts.
One has, then, a web of symbolic meaning that includes all the participants in a culture and the material of that culture as well. The locus of culture is then located both within humanity and without and the impetus for culture change can originate from either. It is a systemic view of culture, but with each aspect of it possessing a variable importance at different times. Geertz (1973: 408) likens the movement of a culture over time to the movement of an octopus with different aspects moving at different speeds, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. The evolution of culture is “if not wholly unpredictable, very largely so.”
Within such a schema one can have change in size and complexity, but not progress. Geertz does use the word progress, but in a purely temporal sense. In fact, culture serves no function in Geertz’s concept, only the means by which humanity attempts to make sense of its surroundings, thus abrogating any kind of intellectual or moral progress. The development of technology is, more or less, irrelevant, and material culture is investigated only for its embodied symbolic meaning.
Geertz (ibid: 89) does use the word, however, writing, “The term ‘culture’ has by now acquired a certain aura of ill-repute… because of the multiplicity of its referents and the studied vagueness with which it has all too often been invoked.” Since the 164 definitions of Kroeber and Kluckhohn, meanings for the word culture have multiplied tenfold. Among anthropologists, it has become virtually a matter of personal interpretation. “Culture” itself seems to have lost any single specific scientific meaning (as per Cafagna 1960). Victor Turner avoids its use altogether (Bohannan and Glazer 1988: 503). Postmodern writers assail the word for its part in the objectification of the other in a context of power, which “facilitates the construction of these others as simultaneously different and inferior” (Abu-Lughod 1993: 8-9, see also Appaduri 1988). The word itself serves as nothing more than a distasteful instrument of Western cultural imperialism and is accordingly avoided.
The use of conceptual tools of thought
A few words need to be spent on the twinned concepts of evolution and progress. Progress implies improvement. Evolution is the process of change, usually, but not necessarily, from the simple to the complex. As has been indicated in the past, the two concepts are not necessarily connected (see Stewart 1956: 70). Even in biology, increasing complexity of organisms is an “incidental consequence” of evolutionary pressures (Gould 1996: 197-198). There is no directionality to evolution, cultural or biological. The tendency of some technologies to improve with time has lent potency to this illusion of directionality. Any theory on the general evolution of human culture must be free of overall notions of progress or implied directionality (see Barton and Clark 1997). This is not to deny directionality to individual human cultures, some of whom work quite hard at achieving very specific goals. If our own culture did not believe that an ever-growing body of knowledge would fail to help it manage itself, what use would science be? Science is necessarily progressive and every scientist, in his or her own way, contributes towards this progression. In this light, “progress” is a culturally relative value and has little to do with a search for general laws of human social evolution.
The purpose of this paper was not to clarify the concept of culture; it wasn’t even to create a taxonomy of definitions. The goal of this paper was to show how the concept of culture has been employed in the creation of theories in anthropology, especially those relating to sociocultural evolution. As a conceptual device, the word “culture” has not become more efficient, if anything it seems to have become less so. The use of it in the scientific discourse uncomfortably resembles less the onward progression of Tylor’s firearms and more the cyclic fashions of Kroeber’s dresses. But the term has fulfilled its role, to Tylor, White, Boas, or any other anthropologist who chooses to use it. It has aided in the progress and evolution of anthropology itself and in anthropology’s own creation of knowledge. This body of knowledge have proven useful to society at large, which has adopted key aspects and concepts. One concept it has taken up, and out of anthropology’s control, is the concept of “Culture.”
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