BASEBALL AND the Hearst newspapers for the American anthropologist RH Lowie; Cowes and boiled cabbage for the anglicised TS Eliot: the broad redefinition of "culture" to embrace these things has been one of anthropology's successes. But it is a pyrrhic victory. Everyone from management consultants to health ministers now talks of "changing the culture", but the point of culture in this sense is that it has roots that are not easily got at.
Now, cultural studies in the universities steal some of anthropology's thunder. Some anthropologists have tried to refine their understanding of this extremely tricky word; but if you try to clean up a coin by polishing it, you may find yourself wearing it down rather than making its markings clearer. Others try to use the word as sparingly as possible.
Normally, Adam Kuper belongs to the latter category, but in this new book he gives a historical analysis of the usage of "culture" and kindred words since the period of German and English romanticism. Then he examines the consequences of the decision by an influential school of American anthropologists to adopt "culture" as their professional specialty. In 1958, Talcott Parsons the sociologist and Alfred Kroeber the anthropologist met in northern California and reached a demarcation agreement under which problems of "society" and "culture" would be separately dealt with. It was described, in oddly military terms, as a "truce" or "temporary condominium". Those were days of optimism in American social science, especially at Harvard. Kuper quotes a John Updike character recalling them: "There had been a time, in those Fifties, when sociology, combining psychology, anthropology, history, and statistics, seemed likely to save the world from those shaggy old beasts tribalism and religion." Kuper, a professor at Brunel University, joins a tradition of transatlantic joshing between British and American anthropologists, enlivened by his own familiarity with European schools as well. He takes on three American doyens: Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, who died in 1995, and Marshall Sahlins, perhaps the most prominent cultural anthropologist today. It is as if, for Kuper, these three have been on an academic cloud nine, divorced from the gritty facts of politics, economics and biology. Geertz appears to have been taken aback by the massacres in Indonesia under Suharto's army in 1965, despite his extensive fieldwork in Java and Bali in the Fifties, and his claim that human actions could be read like a book. …