Obsessed with Formulating Culture- Why?

As one dives deep into the theorists of anthropology’s past, it is clear that one major question that has been posed time and time again is, What is the root of culture, and how does it change over time? It is a question that seemingly cannot be answered in one nicely wrapped answer, and it can be more telling about the theorist than culture itself.

The original theorists (the OTs, if you will) relied heavily on lineal evolution to help better understand not only what culture is, but why culture is. They posited that cultures can be ranked on a scale from primitive to advanced, with white Western society being the prime example of an ‘advanced’ society and culture. This may seem to be morally unjust now, but makes a lot of sense when looking at the times that these theorists were living in. Racism and bigotry were rampant, and even the norm. We now know that the white Western civilizations of the world are no more ‘correct’ than any other culture, but back then, it was actually scientific belief that the white man was not only more evolved than other groups, but had the right to systematically control and abolish other groups and their cultures. The OTs, then, were looking at the evidence that they had through very biased eyes.

Moving forward from those dark times, we see a big movement away from lineal evolution, towards a more holistic view. The first actual formula to explain culture is presented by Leslie White, who illustrates it as: energy x technology= culture. Though this is a great attempt, and very much a paradigm, it does have its flaws. White’s theory is riddled with oversight and he time and time again explains away any neigh-sayer with a ‘yeah, but I’m not really interested in that’. White is very much interested in energy as the very root of culture, and instead of saying that one culture is inherently better than another, he compares them using terms such as ‘low’ and ‘high’ state of evolution, referring to a degree of complexity. This is a very refreshing attempt at formulating culture, but as stated before, not without its faults.

One might ask themselves, Why even bother trying to explain why culture came to be? In explanation, it is probably due to the human tendency to try to understand how things in our world work. It is the root of all science to try to understand and explain what we are seeing. Anthropology is in no way an exact science, and this can cause several issues in itself. Unlike chemistry or math, there is no one perfect answer that can be found over and over again by plugging in an equation. This can be very frustrating, especially when your entire life’s work is based in trying to find the culture equation.

Humans, in themselves, are unlike anything else on Earth. We suffer from sentience, and a need to seek out patterns and explanations. It is no wonder then, that culture, something that is innately human, is not easily explained. So, should we just give up? Is anthropology a career for the insane? Well, no.

Just because culture cannot be explained and formulated in one easy step, does not mean that we should not try. Cultural theories all have some good aspects, and some bad. Perhaps, then, we must pick out these little good aspects and put them into a holistic explanation? If anthropology has taught us anything, it is that holistic views are often the most fruitful. Studying different cultures in an attempt to figure out the root of all culture, has allowed us to learn more about humanity in general. We do not only see what is different about us, but what unites us. And, maybe we will even get that one formula in the future. For now, we must appreciate how far we have come in understanding each other, and how much further we may get if we keep the similarities between us in mind.

At the risk of sounding like a rambling mad-woman, I believe this exercise is important. It can be confusing to think about why a question came to be, and it can be almost as confusing as the answer itself. Human beings are not cut-and-dry, and we should not expect ourselves to be. Through the search for understanding, we discover who we really are, and this always breeds new questions. Culture is definitely just as complex.

4 thoughts on “Obsessed with Formulating Culture- Why?

  1. This was a really interesting post. I like the idea that while White was too prone to say “Yeah, well I’m not looking at that” (SO Leslie White), we are still responding to things he said. For instance, we now do acknowledge difference in (technological) complexity of societies as a key element in typologies (foraging band, horticultural tribe, etc.). It’s not superior or inferior, but it IS qualitatively different. I’m pretty sure that White didn’t care for ‘qualitative’ differences – he wanted to quantify – but it is a thing we need to ask about. For me, I’ve gone far more into looking at levels of complexity as a matter of adaptations – to the environment, to economic conditions, and so on. It gives us a start for analysis. Typologies are not always RIGHT, but like White’s theory, it gives us interesting questions to ask!

    BTW, do take a look at the lecture, where I mention Service and Fried’s attempt to combine Steward and White. Service & Fried are who we have to thank for the Band/Tribe/Chiefdom/State typology that’s still taught in intro anthro courses to this day!

  2. We always talk about context in all of these classes when it comes to cultures and societies but it’s important to remember you also have to look at what these theorist are saying in their context as well. Just think how many changes happened for some of them, if not probably all, in their lifetime and always having to update and change what they are saying to fit the new norm. I think that might drive me crazy because people can look back at your old stuff even from one week ago to years ago and judge you for something that was the norm then but suddenly changed, and that happens a lot now of days with social media.

  3. I believe we still struggle with racism and bigotry are still an issue, to some degree, today. Some people in Western societies see themselves as superior, still. For example, I was watching the movie Hotel Rwanda yesterday, and one of the characters said something that really stuck with me. The movie is a true story about the Rwandan Civil War in the 1990s. At one point, a white United Nations general told the main character, a black Rwandan, that the western countries were not going to help because they were Africans. He said the west viewed them as less than the “N” word. They were lower than that because they were Africans. This thought really stuck with me because we can sometimes be blinded into thinking that was an old way of thinking. That is not true. It is still around today. I think anthropology has helped lessen that thought process, but it is still an issue, even if it is not as noticeable.

    1. I think that one of the things anthropology adds to our solving problems of racism, Michaela, is to show that it’s not inherent to human nature. It only occurs in stratified societies. And, of course, racism is a very very powerful form of stratification because it says that some people are inherently “Other” and “Less Than.” That’s what we fight against!

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