All Kulturvölker Now?:
Anthropological Reflections on the
Christopher M. Hann
Both inside and outside anthropology, culture has long been an “essentially contested concept.”1 Its history can be grasped only when culture is set alongside other key terms, which range from civilization, race, and society to nature, reason, and structure. The wider context must include long-term changes in global social organization and their consequences for different intellectual traditions. In this chapter, I do not attempt a comprehensive review of the culture concept but focus on what I take to be the most problematical aspects of currently pervasive usages.2
I begin with a definition. According to Karl Marx’s version of the labor theory of value, capital can be viewed as “congealed labor.”3 By analogy, I define culture as congealed sociality. The range of animals exhibiting patterns of behavior that they acquire socially is broader than formerly suspected (Box and Gibson 1999). It is useful to have a word for this patterning, but the concept of culture derives from a primary concept of sociality and must be used with care. Nearer to my own subfield, social anthropology, the word has had a richly muddled trajectory. In many disciplines, concern with “high” culture, in Matthew Arnold’s sense, has been partly or wholly displaced by culture in Raymond Williams’s more popular sense (see Eagleton 2000). In many parts of the world, these two kinds of culture are hard to disentangle. For example, many small towns and even villages in Eastern Europe still have a “house of culture,” with a museum devoted to the local or regional culture close by.