The Relevance of Culture

The Relevance of Culture

The Relevance of Culture

The Relevance of Culture


Culture, once a center-stage concept in anthropology, is now being discussed by talk show personalities and journalists and included in a wide range of academic disciplines. In view of the myriad uses and abuses of the concept, The Relevance of Culture sets the record straight through a careful survey of the development of the concept of culture, and the arguments and continuing relevance of it to theoretical discussions. The authors illustrate its roles in such diverse areas as risk and technology, nursing and health care, evolution, criminology, information, economy, geography, and even the understanding of suicide.


Morris Freilich

Every decade or so it is necessary to retool. Old concepts which have died must be buried. New concepts which are vibrant must be mastered. The question is: Which of the old have actually died, and which of the new are actually vibrant? I limit my remarks to one old concept: culture. Is culture dead, as some say? Most scholars find culture very much alive. To them, I hasten to say: I come to praise culture, not to bury it. But critics of culture must be answered, and their ancestry revealed. Culture, just recently, was the central, integrating idea in anthropology, a construct which gave anthropology a distinctive personality within the social sciences. But as more and more disciplines were sold on the value of culture, the sellers broke rank. Let me begin with a few examples.

Chapple and Coon (1942) wrote a sophisticated text book in which "even the word 'culture' was expunged except for a few oversights" (Kroeber 1952: 34). Hallpike (1971) claimed that society rather than culture was the central concept in anthropology. Murdock (1972), at a Huxley Memorial Lecture, proposed that ideas such as culture were "illusory conceptual abstractions." Laughlin (1972) proclaimed that culture was dead. Moore argued (1974) that culture was an ideological position, not a scientific concept. And Wolf, in a Distinguished Lecture in America (1982), presented culture as more of a problem than a panacea. What happened to culture, triggering responses such as these? What is happening to culture, giving it the vigor of a young concept?

The historical question "What happened to culture?" will be given two different answers. The first is based on a structural equation: concepts grab meanings the way endomorphs grab food. Both concepts and endomorphs, it is suggested, tend to grab indiscriminately. Therefore, for both these systems, size is a function of age: the older the system, the larger it tends to be. Culture is an old concept. Necessarily then, it must be big or overflowing with meaning. Such a fat concept impedes rather than aids the development of a human science. In short, the "old concepts get fat" thesis concludes that culture is no longer relevant as a scientific concept.

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