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