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Cultural contexts for global forces

Cultural contexts for global forces

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of April 12, 2021 (Week 6)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2021/6

Main reading: Englund and Leach (2000)

Flux and order: Two frames for human life

Anthropology has changed a lot from the early 20th century to now, but the changes reveal a deeper tension between two ways of seeing society and social forces:

  • A search for a logos, or a reason for things
  • An acceptance of the inherent flux of reality, including people and their communities.

Universalism and particularism

Both flux and order are part of the culture concept as an explanation of human diversity.

  • To the claim that all people are violent, anthropologists show that some societies are peaceful.
  • To the claim that men always dominate women, some anthropologists show that genders are equal in some societies.
  • To the claim that all people act as individuals who seek to rationally maximize the utility of their choices, anthropologists can point to societies based on the obligations of reciprocity.

This is not the flux of historical change; This is an argument that seeks to show that people do not have a constant, universal essence, but are defined by their capacity to be molded by their social environment.

This is the critical edge of the culture concept. It challenges the dominant explanations of human behavior.

Continuity and change

Anthropology also seeks to discover a logos that would supercede the explanations based on individual biology and psychology.

Implied in the critical edge of the culture concept is the universal claim that all people are incomplete without the input of culture.

  • Clifford Geertz
  • Emile Durkheim’s homo duplex, or the structuralists’ sense of a symbolic structure as a synchronic whole.

Arguably this is an essentialization of human difference that denies the contradictions that human societies produce in history.

(A lesser argument against the synchronic, holist logos is the claim that individuals have agency.)

Old and new

Things change. But so what? Why is it that in some societies, change is so important?

The emphasis on change is culturally conditioned in Western societies:

  • New things are inherently good.
  • History moves from the old to the new in a line.
  • Or, the new replaces the old, rather than develops or extends it.
  • Old things are inherited from the past; new things are created by individuals who want to create them.
  • This is a bias reflect in some schools of thought in anthropology as well.

Narrative and metanarrative

  • Narrative: A logical ordering of ideas in a linear sequence that has a beginning and an end.
    • First, A.
    • Then B.
    • And then C.
    • That’s why there’s D.
  • Metanarrative: A standarized type of narrative.

Culture gives its members a set of narratives—metanarratives—that they apply to themselves as specific instances of a general type.

Modernity is a metanarrative

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

  • Progress, development, from tradition to utopia
  • Crisis, revolution, transformation
  • Poverty, dependency, inequality

If modernity is a meta-narrative, who are its stock characters?

Who is the hero?

Who is the villain?

What is a type of person?

  • What is the quality of being a person, rather than a person itself? That is, what is personhood in general?
    • Are dogs persons? Why or why not?
    • Are refugees persons? If so, why don’t we treat them like people?

Auhelawa: Yams are people too

  • Auhelawa gardeners must work continuously in yam gardens for several months to produce yams.
  • This, however, is not work in the sense of productive labor. It is care. If yams are neglected, or mistreated, by gardeners, they will feel shy, and will not produce tubers.
    • Yams are people too, but not because yams have rights. Yams and humans both need to be cared for, and respond to other people’s treatment of them.
  • What does the Western metanarrative of modernity sound like to an Auhelawa gardener?

References and further reading

Englund, Harri, and James Leach. 2000. “Ethnography and the Meta‐Narratives of Modernity.” Current Anthropology 41 (2): 225–48. https://doi.org/10.1086/ca.2000.41.issue-2.

2700/2021/6.txt · Last modified: 2021/04/12 01:17 by Ryan Schram (admin)