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05 August 2010

When I hear the Word "Culture" ...

... I ask "What do you mean?"  Because everyone seems to mean something different when they use the term (as can be seen here). 

And yet, I'm not quite ready to give up on the concept of culture.  I think it's still a valuable idea because it conveys the sense that, in every interaction, there is something more than just the people interacting.  That there are many other agencies involved. 
Culture, to me, is the composition of reality - the progressive piling up or entangling of different agencies.  When I interact with another individual, there is always something more going on than just the interaction between two people.  There are always multiple different agencies at work in those interactions - the color of our skin, our sex, the structure of the room or building, the clothes we wear, the objects we carry with us, and so on - goading the two of us into particular behaviors (either by constraining or enabling certain pathways).  Of course, we always have a choice to ignore those other agencies and act in a different way all together, but it's often easier to simply follow the path offered by them - the path of least resistance as it were.
These agencies don't merely exist, they are composed over time.  So, for example, the fact that I am white, the fact that white is a category at all, and what that means for how I interact with the world around me has been composed over the years by hundreds, thousands, or millions of interactions that came before.  And they always could have been composed differently.
Cultures change, too, of course.  Everything changes, all of the time - nothing is ever truly static.  Cultures change when associations are no longer practiced, when they fall out of use and begin to decay.  Cultures also change when new associations are composed - when new agencies arise.  But when you want to change culture, you can't simply do so out of thin air.  You have to use the agencies and associations that already exist. 
I think culture may remain a useful kind of short-hand, perhaps, for that weight of external factors (much like the Social for Latour).  But, in practical terms, it may often be best to describe the various agencies involved rather than to simply talk about "cultural factors."  So, when I hear the word "culture," I don't quite reach for my gun (assuming I had one to reach for), but I do try to figure out what exactly is meant in the particular context.


Maximilian C. Forte said...

A gun is on its way in the mail. Nobody should have to enter this debate unarmed :-D

The way you are using "culture" here, in terms of agencies and associations, to me sounds as if it is invoking the sociological concept of social structure. The emphasis is on agency of course, and change (so history as well). I am not sure where culture is in this, and if you therefore have not already pushed it aside, having found the terms that you really want for discussing what in your view matters the most.

Some fear that once "culture" goes as our premiere concept, and everyone else is doing ethnography, that our two most prominent features will be washed away, leaving us with...? My view is, so what, that's not our fault, we never created that agenda (by "we" I mean those of us who came into anthropology recently, so you and I) it just means we will move on to something new that we fashion.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks, Max - out here in Nevada, a gun might come in handy. Everyone else has one.

Rereading the post, I think it comes off a bit vague, and I'm not even sure what I'm saying. I also may have convinced myself in writing it that Culture is a useless, and potentially problematic concept. I guess the important thing in the concept that I want to maintain is the sense that every interaction, every association, is overflowing. Maybe it would be better, as I mention in the end, to describe the actual agencies involved rather than abstracting them as culture.
And, maybe, in some ways, this resolves some of my confusion when thinking about cultural change. I'm not so concerned with preserving the discipline - as you know - I don't mind if there's nothing distinguishing me from an environmental studies major or a sociology major (though hiring committees might, and I do still harbor the illusion of one day becoming a professor). My interest in preserving the concept comes only from whatever practical use it might serve in terms of understanding and implementing change (i.e. creating a more just, sustainable society). I may have convinced myself that it has no such value, but I'm not quite sure yet. I'll have to do some more thinking.

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