Anthropology at the Crossroads

The art and science of anthropology is to recognize culture as a system that we humans use to act intentionally and to make sense of the world around us.

Anthropology is at the crossroads where Eric Wolf’s vision of anthropology as the most humanistic and scientific of the social sciences has long ago combusted, and pockets of anthropologists like asteroids wander with no direction home. It seems appropriate that these wayfaring clubs of anthropologists question the utility of the concept of culture given that there is no culture of anthropology that serves as the family home.

The art and science of anthropology is to recognize culture as a system that we humans use to act intentionally and to make sense of the world around us. We make and communicate meaning by utilizing culture. There must be an art or humanistic angle that is foundational to the study of culture, because there is an inherent opacity to the cultural concept in exactly the same way that Peter Carruthers (2011) argued the mind is opaque: we apprehend neither directly; we just infer them.

We cannot settle for simple answers as to how culture works, but understand the underlying mechanisms by which we perceive culture’s effects in our collective expectations of the shared intentions and meanings behind our behavior.

I think the theories of such famous scholars as Daniel Kahneman (2011), Daniel C. Dennett (1991), Ruth Garrett Millikan (2010), and even Paul Gilbert (2010) fail because they seek to understand the mind, and more specifically collective cognition, without taking culture into account! We anthropologists are better off because we do have a theory of collective thought. The mind is more subtle to have but two gears for thinking: slow and fast. Probably all mental states not produced by immediate sensory input, are infected with culture. To use Robert Levy’s theory of hypocognition and hypercognition, it is likely that the speed of thinking, except that which is reflexive (like pain or distress), depends on the degree to which perceptions are culturally hypocognized or hypercognized. One can see this as a continuum (not just emotions)—the more hypercognized, the more elaborate and the more cultural symbols can be infused into the thought, therefore the slower the thinking.

What Kahneman and other psychologists miss is a thoughtful well-developed theory of culture.

Culture is by definition collective yet it must reside inside the individual mind. There is no collective mind, but rather there are only individual representations of collective representations and this creates, in Kahneman’s words, a “cognitive illusion” that we can read other people’s minds. We “can read minds” only because we believe that we share, more or less, the same cultural models as they do. We interpret behaviors including thoughts as culturally produced, but we have no way of tapping into the culture part that produces those actions. We neither have a way of grasping the sharedness of an idea or act or word, nor of grasping our own knowledge of that idea or act. Yet we are just as aware of an act as appropriate, slightly inappropriate, or completely inappropriate whether we are the actors or audience. For instance, if I go into a class dressed in a tuxedo, the students and I would both know that this is inappropriate, but not as inappropriate as entering the classroom naked. I have in a sense equal access to how the class and I feel. I do not have privileged access to either my interiority or that of the students—but that is irrelevant—because I act as if I do and I believe that I do because of culture—and that belief serves me well through life. The absence of access to culture or mind, that is their dual opacity, is evident only from outside, sitting here writing about it. Inside, my individual model of the collective model works and because my model is perceived by me to be a collective model and this proposition or belief works for all of us most of the time. Only due to this illusion do I feel confident that culture exists and works in all of us similarly.

The notion of cultural models is like a weed notion—it has taken root in all fields of the social and behavioral sciences and humanities. Yet it is as if we were back on the crossroads of the marketplace: we can buy any and every kind of cultural model that ever was from any shop. The problem with that is we each take our own conceptions of cultural models and how to find and describe them without getting together and deciding what are the criteria by which we identify whether or not X is an adequate cultural model? And what types of cultural models are there? How do they work? How do we represent them and the range of variation within them—that is cultural models have volume, there is a range of variation within one—like appropriate to okay to deeply inappropriate dress on occasion X. How do we organize to go beyond conversations (like this) about cultural models? What sort of ontological or epistemological validity do they have?

The locus, composition, and causal generative force of culture is nowhere to be found; there is no “smoking gun” there are only the by-products of culture—our behaviors and thoughts. We are at the crossroads and have been there for a while, because we need to think deeper so that we can play that damned guitar with such mastery that we can engage with the complexity of the cultural concept. We need to get back to see that we are a family of enfranchised anthropologists working together to solve this issue because it is as important an issue as there is. We cannot settle for simple answers as to how culture works, but understand the underlying mechanisms by which we perceive culture’s effects in our collective expectations of the shared intentions and meanings behind our behavior. Many anthropologists have provided a wide-ranging, but not inchoate, foundation on which to develop criteria for what constitutes a cultural model (or an affordance) so we can move forward to reintroduce and update that noble troublesome concept of culture to its rightful place at the center of anthropology.

Victor de Munck is professor of the Institute of Asian and Transcultural studies, Vilnius University, Lithuania.  

Cite as: de Munck, Victor. 2020. “Anthropology at the Crossroads.” Anthropology News website, December 14, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1556

Comments

Stated very clearly – thanks for this. Another way to look at the problem is that for individuals, culture is neither completely conscious or totally unconscious. The real breakthrough in anthropology from this point of view, was Bourdieu’s recognition of this fact, and his argument (in Outline of a Theory of Practice) that it is partially accessible and partially taken for granted, and that some people are better at using it than others (I credit Fred Bailey for the best ever description of how people play by rules, but also break them and seek to change them all the time). Other disciplines want culture to be the way Boas and Ruth Benedict saw it – a totalizing bounded whole that makes humans into subjects (from Nietzsche, or most recently by conservative political scientists like Henderson and Huntington in their horrible book “Culture Matters”). Or as you say, they don’t want to see it at all. That our central concept is a “hybrid” (in Latour’s sense), a messy mix of objective and subjective, confuses those in other fields, but it is also a liberating source of our strengths and abilities.

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