Museum Blog

Chasing Margaret Mead's Ghost (Part II)

Posted 1/25/2011 12:01 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

Continued from Part I ...

If you had lived in London or Denver, say around 1860, culture had just one meaning. Culture meant to be cultured; it implied to be civilized in the terms of upper class Western Europe, contrasted to savagery and barbarism. "Whether in the humanist or the evolutionist sense," historian of science George Stocking Jr. has written, culture was then "associated with the progressive accumulation of the characteristic manifestations of human creativity: art, science, knowledge, refinement."

In that era, culture was deemed to be progressive (you could acquire culture); it was singular (there was only one culture); and it was unequal (you either had culture or you didn't).

The birth of anthropology, the study of humankind, presented English speakers a new way of thinking about difference. In 1871, E.B. Tylor published Primitive Culture and defined culture as 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 implication of Tylor's work was that everyone had culture--merely culture of a different kind. Understand: in 1871 this was a revolutionary proposal. Culture was suddenly relativistic, plural, and equal. So began anthropology's core concept, and the gradual shift from one culture to many world cultures.

At the dawn of the 20th century, anthropologists saw their main job as describing cultures, breaking down societies into Tylor's parts. Typical anthropology texts depicted a culture's art, or described laws, or summarized a single culture in its totality covering everything from what people ate to how they buried their dead.

Over time, though, anthropologists grew worried that maybe cultures weren't so static, like a puzzle with perfectly fitting pieces. Clifford Geertz, the pioneering scholar, captured the spirit of these doubts, when he offered a new definition of culture. He proposed that, "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun … [and culture is] those webs." This poetic formulation propelled anthropology away from the natural science mode, which framed culture as fixed, towards the humanistic mode in which culture is fluid.

So while a century ago anthropologists labored to insist that Tibetans and Zulus had a culture, today's researchers focus on how multiple and fluctuating cultural forces shape human lives.

Let us consider a hypothetical woman (not much exaggerated in this age of globalism) born in Mexico to a Maya mother and German father, sent to high school and college in Boston, who now oversees Coca Cola's Internet business in China, and speaks fluent English and Spanish and conversational Mandarin. Previous anthropologists would have puzzled over which "culture" to study--Maya culture, German culture, Hispanic culture, American culture, Chinese culture, consumer culture, Web culture?

Contemporary researchers embrace how lived experience is a kaleidoscope of shifting cultural positions. This is a more accurate way of interpreting human interactions, but as a result anthropologists have given up their intellectual claim to culture.

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Strangely, just as anthropologists have abandoned the culture concept, it has been discovered by just about everyone else.

Consider, for example, the New York Times. An informal experiment, I recently searched the paper online for the word "culture" over the previous two weeks. I found the term used to describe more than 24 social phenomena, including (quoting here my favorites): popular culture, American culture, corporate culture, clubhouse culture, drug culture (in baseball), culture of secrecy (in government), democratic culture, campus culture, gang culture, vernacular culture, mall culture, consumer culture, company start up culture, Web culture, 1950s oppositional culture, schoolroom culture, celebrity culture, female culture of play, and culture-war bugaboos!

Everywhere, popular interpreters have picked up Mead's hefty mantle of conveying the meaning of culture. Anthony Bourdain is joined by a legion of personalities and public thinkers and marketers that are all too happy to explore, explain, and exploit human diversity. There's the hit documentary "Babies" and the Mel Gibson Maya epic "Apocalypse." There's National Geographic and and the geographer Jared Diamond doing anthropology and Malcolm Gladwell articles in The New Yorker.

To the public, real PhD-certified anthropologists may seem as real as unicorns.

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Back to TV.

Scanning Netflix recently, an episode of Bizarre Foods featuring my native home, Arizona, caught my attention. As the introduction began, I knew I was in for a rough trip. The narrator, in summarizing Arizona's cultures said the state is "home to Native Americans as far back as 2000 BC." That claim is off by--oh, roughly speaking--some 8,000 years.

Another revelation: While the far majority of anthropologists have stuck their heads in the deep sands of academia, people like Gladwell and Diamond and Bourdain have been figuring out how to make culture interesting and important. But the price to be paid by these popularizers of anthropology is that they often get it wrong.

What the scholarly pursuit of anthropology does right is provide a systematic method and theory to understand human difference. Anthropologists are always acutely aware of how the presentation of other people is a form of power-making. Anthropologists have a vast arsenal of theories to explain--and not simply make mysterious--the human story. Anthropologists know that a lot can happen to people in 8,000 years, and so getting such facts straight matters.

This blog is my attempt to connect these two successfully ways of presenting culture. It's an experiment to combine anthropology's popular appeal with the grounded scholarship found in anthropology's ivory towers. With such attempts, anthropologists today can search for, and maybe even find, Margaret Mead's elusive ghost.

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