Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology

By Igoe, James | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology


Igoe, James, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology. By Kate Crehan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. x, 220. $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Since the middle 1980s the notion of culture has come under attack in the field of anthropology. Critics of culture argue that it has become as "essentializing" as the genetic explanations for human variation that it replaced in the late nineteenth century. From their perspective, culture has come to be seen as an immutable trait of human beings, while some cultures are deemed to be superior to others. These critics advocate for a new problematic, which focuses on the ways in which ideologies of difference simultaneously create and conceal inequality. As a result, the concept of "power" has challenged "culture" as the unifying concept of anthropology.1 Not surprisingly, theories of power quickly came to center stage within the discipline, and a generation of anthropologists scrambled to read and understand the works of theorists like Althusser, Bourdieu, Debord, Foucault, and Gramsci. These scholars discovered what others before them already knew: the works of these theorists were for the most part dauntingly obtuse. Knowing (or at least appearing to know) these theories became valuable symbolic capital not only within anthropology but more generally throughout the social sciences and humanities-and the multidisciplinary field of African studies is certainly no exception.

Of all these difficult theorists, none perhaps is more difficult than Antonio Gramsci. The central difficulty with Gramsci is that his writings are highly fragmented. Most of his early writings are political essays addressing issues like trade unionism, education, and relationships between urban workers and rural peasants. For the most part, these works do not attempt to develop larger theoretical arguments. Gramsci's later writings, which do attempt this, were produced during his imprisonment by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. They are largely working notes from Gramsci to himself, rendered obscure by his use of code to mystify those who might interfere with his work. Unfortunately, Gramsci died before developing these notes into a comprehensive theory of culture and power.

Kate Crehan's Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology grapples with the difficulties of Gramsci's corpus and seeks to highlight their relevance to cultural anthropology. This book is an excellent introduction to Gramsci's ideas and their relevance to the study of power within the social sciences and humanities. The early chapters give the reader useful background on Gramsci's life and work, and accessible overviews of some of his ideas. Crehan's comparisons of anthropological ideas of culture to Gramsci's ideas of culture are also accessible and useful.

In other places, however, Crehan's discussions are nearly as inaccessible as Gramsci's most opaque prison notes. In part, this is because she is highly critical of what she sees as facile interpretations of Gramsci's ideas. She is especially critical of Jean and John Comaroff, whom she sees as the main purveyors of "Hegemony Lite." By seeking a "tightly specified theoretical argument," Crehan argues, the Comaroff s and others have destroyed the essentially protean nature of the most celebrated of Gramscian concepts: hegemony. This crime is committed, according to Crehan, by reducing hegemony to ideologies that obscure power relationships by presenting them as a sort of natural order. …

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