The Study of Culture at a Distance

The Study of Culture at a Distance

The Study of Culture at a Distance

The Study of Culture at a Distance

Excerpt

This Manual is concerned with methods that have been developed during the last decade for analyzing the cultural regularities in the characters of individuals who are members of societies which are inaccessible to direct observation. This inaccessibility may be spatial because a state of active warfare exists -- as was the case with Japan and Germany in the early 1940s; or it may be -- as is now the case with the Soviet Union and Communist China -- due to barriers to travel and research. Or the inaccessibility may be temporal, since the society we wish to study may no longer exist. It may have been physically destroyed and the survivors scattered, as is the case with the East European Jewish small towns; it may have been altered by drastic revolutionary changes, as is the case in Indonesia and Thailand. We then face a situation in which we have access on the one hand to many living and articulate individuals whose character was formed in the inaccessible society and on the other hand to large amounts of other sorts of material -- books, newspapers, periodicals, films, works of popular and fine art, diaries, letters -- the sort of materials with which the social historian has learned to deal without the benefit of interviews with living persons. By combining the methods of the historian with those of the anthropologist, who is accustomed to work without any documented time perspective, we have developed this new approach.

It is important to realize, however, that the value of this method lies in the extent to which it gives us access to information which we need and can get in no other way, not in its suitability for theoretical purposes. Anthropologists who wish the best research conditions for their theoretical problems must continue to go to living primitive societies; historians who wish to work on problems of method or theory will correspondingly choose the best-documented periods. This method is applicable when it is essential, either for exigent political reasons or in order to obtain background for some other piece of work, to know something about a period or a culture that is not accessible but from which there are still living representatives who can be interviewed. By extension, we may hope that some of the methodological insights can be used in the interpretation of periods so remote in time that no living representative can be found, but for which the simultaneous handling of document and informant will have provided a new model of analysis. However this may be, it is certain that for the rest of the twentieth century we shall be dealing with types of change that are so rapid and so revolutionary that we shall be in continual need of methods for reconstructing the cultures of a quarter of a century or even ten years ago. . .

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