Monday, January 16, 2012

What is Culture?

Excerpt from Michael Cole's Cultural Psychology (1996):
Culture, according to Hutchins, should be thought of as a process, not as "any collection of things, whether tangible or abstract." Culture "is a process and the 'things' that appear on list-like definitions of culture are residua of the process. Culture is an adaptive process that accumulates the partial solutions to frequently encountered problems." (Hutchins, p. 354)
Culture includes: artifacts, schemas, scripts, models, practices, heritages, history, activity systems

Excerpt from McDermott & Varenne (1995). Culture as Disability:

Anthropologists define culture as well-bound containers of coherence that mark off different kinds of people living in their various ways, each kind separated from the others by a particular version of coherence, a particular way of making sense and meaning. (p. 325)

The coherence of any culture is not given by members being the same, nor by members knowing the same things. Instead, the coherence of a culture is crafted from the partial and mutually dependent knowledge of each person caught in the process and depends, in the long run, on the work they do together. Life in culture, Bakhtin (1984[1940]) reminds us, is polyphonous and multivocalic; it is made of the voices of many, each one brought to life and made significant by the others, only sometimes by being the same, more often by being different, more dramatically by being contradictory. Culture is not so much a product of sharing as a product of people hammering each other into shape with the well-structured tools already available. We need to think of culture as this very process of hammering a world. When anthropologists instinctively celebrate the coherence of culture, they imply that all the people in the culture are the same, as if stereotyping is a worthy practice as long as it is done by professionals. Thick brush-stroke accounts of Samoans or Balinese, to stay with Margaret Mead, may give some hints as to what Samoans and Balinese must deal with in their daily life, but they can greatly distort the complexity of Samoans and Balinese as people. The coherence of culture is something many individuals, in multiple realities, manage to achieve together; it is never simply the property of individual persons. (p.326)

The anthropological instinct has been perhaps most destructive when applied to the divisions and inequalities that exist inside a presumed cultural container, that is, the culture “of which they are a member,” “to which they belong,” or “in which they participate.” The problem in assuming that there is one way to be in a culture encourages the misunderstanding that those who are different from perceived norms are missing something, that it is their doing, that they are locked out for a reason, that they are in fact, in reality, disabled. If it is distorting to describe Samoans and Balinese without an account of the full range of diversity to be found in Samoa or Bali, imagine how distorting it can be in complex divided fields like the United States.

When culture is understood as the knowledge that people need for living with each other, it is easy to focus on how some always appear to have more cultural knowledge than others, that some can be a part of everything and others not, that some are able and others not. Before entering the Country of the Blind, Nunez thought that sight was essential to being fully cultured and that having sight in a world of people who cannot see would net him the cultural capital of a king. The anthropological instinct teaches us that he was arrogant to think he knew better and foolish to not learn from his masterful subjects. The instinct gives us an essential insight, and we can be thankful that anthropology has taken its place in the human sciences.

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