Toward a Richer Description and
Analysis of Cultural Phenomena
To clear the way for taking on new tasks with the concept of culture, we need to review old uses and their weaknesses and then construct an alternative so compelling that people will be forced to adopt it and discontinue their old ways of thinking. Given the currency of the concept in a wide range of disciplines outside of anthropology and in various areas of public discourse, we are left little space to pursue this task within an isolated and protected anthropological discourse. Anthropologists no longer have the influence to determine the “proper” definitions and uses of the term “culture,” and any usages practiced by others will continually reinvade our own writing and thinking. Yet if we wish to repair culture as an analytical concept, we have no alternative but to build on our own disciplinary experience and strengths and try to improve its power, rigor, and consistency as best we can.
In this chapter, I focus on the present construction of culture as a category and discuss its complexity and some unfortunate forms of reasoning to which it leads, before moving on to what might be done about it. Clifford Geertz recently commented that because of the way anthropology’s concept of culture was taught in the 1940s and 1950s, “we were condemned, it seemed, to working with a logic and a language in which concept, cause, form and outcome had the same name” (Geertz 2000: 13)—echoing his previous critique of this same “theoretical diffusion” (Geertz 1973: 4). I submit that the diffusion is still with us, despite Geertz’s efforts to develop a semiotic perspective on culture. Even in his own writings, as in those of others, a holistic template of culture still serves both to represent and to explain human behavior—