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Putting the concept of culture to work

May 14, 2010

The concept of culture is notoriously hard to put to work. It has been defined in so many different ways both in academia and beyond, that many social scientists are wary of it. Although most anthropologists are happy to use this notion (often surreptitiously, slipped in under cover of phrases such as ‘cultural practices’ or ‘cultural norms’), when pressed about its definition or usefulness we get all defensive and flustered.

Worried that we may be accused of ‘cultural essentialism’, we quickly reach for the nearest social constructivist metaphor to hand. So instead of asking what the main features of British or French or Bolivian culture may be, we say things like ‘Britain is an imagined community’, which is an unhelpful way of avoiding the question.

This is how I suggest we could put the concept of culture to good use:

1. Instead of getting bogged down in endless definitional debates, when putting culture to work we should lend this notion precise historical and geographical coordinates in accordance to our research priorities, e.g. Spanish culture 1939-1979, Catalan culture 1900-2010, Central European (Mitteleuropa) culture 1914-2010, Indonesian culture 1945-1998, and so on.

2. We will then be in a position to disaggregate this composite notion into its constituent parts. For example, in the case of Spanish culture 1939-1979:

  • regional variants (Galicia, Basque Country, Madrid, Valencia,…)
  • main fields of cultural reproduction (education, media, business, politics, art, literature…)
  • urban centres vs. rural hinterlands
  • mainland (Peninsular) vs. insular Spain (Balearic islands, Canaries)
  • diasporas (in Mexico, Venezuela, France, Germany…)
  • transient populations (both Spaniards abroad and foreigners in Spain)
  • the near abroad (Andorra, Gibraltar, Portugal…)

etc.

3. Finally, we could apply a diachronic tool to avoid ending up with a timeless construct, e.g. timeline maps that track the changes and continuities in these various cultural components over the chosen period, in this case 1939-1979.

4. … and we can use this approach to compare two or more culture areas.

In sum, I am suggesting that we stop discussing culture as if it were some transempirical entity floating in mid-air and put it to work in specific historical and geographical contexts. As I hope this brief presentation will have shown, Spain (or indeed Britain, Bolivia and Mitteleuropa) are far more than ‘imagined communities’.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 11:19 am

    “In sum, I am suggesting that we stop discussing culture as if it were some transempirical entity floating in mid-air and put it to work in specific historical and geographical contexts. As I hope this brief presentation will have shown, Spain (or indeed Britain, Bolivia and Mitteleuropa) are far more than ‘imagined communities’.”

    I agree on the level of being brave enough to discuss collectivity, but there is a question of “how”.

    If you are in the mode of mapping down from a universe of “cultures” to a specific temporal or geographical moment, you are methodologically moving in a way that is contrary to the mode in which at least part of culture emerges.

    Indeed that is the problem, if one is using the “naturalist” lense of taxonomising objects it can interfere with questions such as:

    “to what extent do cultural notions / social aggregates emerge in from ‘local’ i.e. thinly interconnected but numerous, situations, and how much do they emerge from nodal i.e. thickly connected situations?”

    So yes, we need to be able to address collectivity for sure, “practice” theories can involve an avoidance of questions of common purpose or view, or an odd disconnect between materia (etic) and discursive / intersubjective (emic) views of the social (by defining some part, often by assumption, as analytically prior).

    But we need to avoid the naturalist fallacy of the subtle fixation of objects at the same time, and an attempt at specificity does not necessarily focus one in on how the very dynamics of cultural emergence are often constitutive, because it can force one into an implied sense of moments instead.

    This is not to disagree with what you say however, but I think the how is still important.

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