The idea for a Wenner-Gren conference on the culture concept was first suggested to me in January 1987, at the first symposium I participated in as president of the foundation. At that symposium, “Gender Hierarchies,” anthropologists from the four fields found a number of common interests, especially around processes of social learning, and it seemed that the beleaguered culture concept might still have a role to play in exploring such cross-field concerns. A conference that would reexamine the concept and ask whether we still need it, and why, seemed timely. The idea was not pursued then, but over the subsequent years I continued to look for potential organizers who might realize it. It was finally in 2000, following upon a proposal from Richard Fox and Barbara King, that a conference on culture came to fruition. It was the last Wenner-Gren symposium initiated under my watch.
In 1987 as in 2000, anthropologists (primarily the American variety) were beset by “culture worry,” the theme of this book: the uneasiness, apprehension, or defensiveness felt by many at what they perceived as threats to their core concept, culture. Such threats came from criticisms of the concept from within the discipline as well as from its appropriation and, too often, misuse in other academic fields, in public discourse, and in political contexts. Then as now, anthropologists often carried on debates with colleagues without explicitly defining the concept, under the assumption that they, at least, knew what they intended by it, at the same time they complained that others who adopted the term did not understand the anthropological meaning. Yet every anthropologist knows that there is little agreement within the discipline on exactly what is meant by culture. Why, then, do anthropologists care so much—worry so much—about the fate of a concept whose meaning they do not share?