A New Duty Arises
A new duty arises. No longer can we keep the search for truth the privilege
of the scientist.
The conceptual kernel behind the word “culture,” as deployed in North American anthropology, provides a useful and fundamental lesson about humankind. Yet the word culture today is irretrievably tainted by both the politics of identity and the politics of blame—including the racialization of behavior that it was meant to avoid. Contrary to many of the critics reviewed by Robert Brightman (1995), I do not see the concept as inherently flawed on theoretical grounds. I agree with Richard Shweder (n.d.) that something akin to a culture concept remains necessary to anthropology as a discipline and to social science in general. The distinction between concept and word, however, is central to my argument. So is a related emphasis on the sites and processes in which the word and concept are deployed and on the modes of engagement that mediate between concepts and words. For if concepts are not just words, then the vitality of a conceptual program cannot hinge upon the sole use of a noun.
Culture’s popular success is its own theoretical demise. Its academic diffusion has generated new institutional clusters on North American campuses: cultural—and multicultural—studies. Culture has also entered the lexicon of advertisers, politicians, businesspeople, and economic planners, up to the high echelons of the World Bank and the editorial pages of the New York Times. Culture now explains everything: from political instability in Haiti to ethnic war in the Balkans, from labor difficulties on the shop floors of Mexican maquiladoras to racial tensions in British schools and the difficulties of New York’s welfare