Understanding Culture

By Razib Khan | February 10, 2013 2:26 am

In light of my two jeremiads against cultural anthropology, some readers may be curious if I have any positive vision, in the sense of any alternative model. To get a sense of my own orientation, Explaining Culture by Dan Sperber and The Origin and Evolution of Cultures by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd would be sufficient (Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust has been highly influential in my thought, but it is a rather dense work whose central topic may not be of interest to everyone). If books are not to your liking, see the resources at the Culture and Cognition Institute. Just to be explicit, an understanding of evolution or genetics is not necessary to gain a first order understanding of the nature of the phenomenon of human culture, but cognition is. When I say cognition, I mean the cognitive revolution and its rivals. An anthropology which binds disparate aggregate social phenomena and explains the variation which we see to any satisfaction must be rooted in what we know of the science of the mind.

This does not mean that specific factual detail is unnecessary. If you are a long time reader of this weblog you are likely conscious of the reality that I have a life long compulsion in the domain of collection of factual detail of incredible obscurity. But, that detail must cohere to be more than the sum of its parts. The empirical input must be the raw material which analytic frameworks can produce abstractions which impart to us deductive insights.

And it is at the empirical element where modern American cultural anthropology tends to be problematic. Good science is a messy synthesis of theoretical system building, empirical observation and experimentation, and a critical skeptical component which serves to sharpen one’s inferences and helps to reject spurious conclusions. Jared Diamond arguably does not engage in enough skepticism of his own numerous propositions. But many cultural anthropologists engage in such a tsunami of skepticism about definitive propositions, semantic shadow-boxing which ends in a flight toward solipsism, that they end up saying very little about the broader objective relevance of their subjects, aside from the negative (e.g., population X disproves universality Z; for skeptics of “science” modern cultural anthropologists often seem to strangely behave like insane Popperians). As nature abhors a vacuum the discussion then moves toward more well defined normative considerations, as well methodological analysis. This produces a confusing muddle to outsiders, even if insiders are able to discern the distinctive strands within the intellectual gumbo.

MORE ABOUT: Anthropology
  • http://twitter.com/DIYPostStructur DIYPoststructuralism

    Facts are nice, but I don’t think you’re quite getting to grips with the epistemological differences/arguments/dilemmas of cultural research such as the tension between critical realism and critical relativism.

  • ohwilleke

    * I strongly concur with you that cultural anthropologists are to timid in jumping to conclusions and developing analytical frameworks are wider applicability. The failure of the discipline to generalize and develop a canon of empirically well established conclusions in an easy to digest form is one of its greatest shortcomings.

    * As studies of genetics, linguistics, archaeology, political behavior, economic development, folklore, and cultural history have shown, the notion of “a culture” as a unit of analysis is useful, well defined and powerful was to summarize and understand expansive fact rich sets of data, even though it has to be defined in ways that have fuzzy boundaries that admit the possibility of intracultural variation and subcultures. Operationalizing the definition of culture and classifications and documentations of particular cultures in a way that can be consistently replicated by researchers working in isolation is the most critical link that needs to be strengthened in the field IMHO.

    * If we are brave enough to name them, we can identify quite a few empirically supported conclusions about cultural ethnogenesis, persistence, transmission, change, morbidity, critical content, internal interrelationships of content components, and evolution in relationship to particular kinds of external resources, circumstances, history and pressures.

    * This said, I am not at all clear about why developing the concept of a culture as a product of cognitive function is so important. Simply developing it as a tool for taxonomy akin to those of zoology, and developing principals describing them both as units and in their internal structure and evolution, in a black box model in which rules governing cultures are linked to cognitive traits only on an ad hoc and after the fact basis when the connections are discovered (e.g. linguistic cultural transmission and ages of cognitive plasticity in language learning) rather than from a first principles bottom up approach, seems very fruitful.

    * In other words, it seems to me that one can do perfectly good anthropology without much psychology or neuroscience at all.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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