Culture and the Cultural: New Tasks for an Old Concept?


Sep 8-15, 2000

Organized by

Richard Fox, Barbara King and Sydel Silverman


Hotel Villa Montaña, Morelia, Mexico


Anthropology Beyond Culture (Richard G. Fox and Barbara J. King, Eds.), Berg, Oxford, 2002.


  • Xavier Andrade New School University, USA
  • Bob Aunger University of Cambridge, UK
  • Fredrik Barth University of Oslo, Norway/ Boston University, USA
  • Christophe Boesch Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany
  • Penelope Brown Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands
  • William Durham Stanford University, USA
  • Richard Fox Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Kathleen Gibson University of Texas-Dental Branch, USA
  • Christopher Hann Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
  • Barbara King College of William and Mary, USA
  • Molly Mullin Albion College, USA
  • Yoshinobu Ota University of Kyushu, Japan
  • Anne Russon York University, Canada
  • Stuart Shanker York University, Canada
  • Sydel Silverman Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Christina Toren Brunel University, UK
  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot University of Chicago, USA
  • Richard Wilson University of Sussex, UK
  • Rita Wright New York University, USA
  • Sue Wright University of Birmingham, UK

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: A Wenner-Gren International Symposium on the concept of culture was held in Morelia, Mexico from 9-15 September 2000. The objective was to review current difficulties with this concept and to assess whether the anthropological understanding of culture should be conserved, revised, or abandoned. The symposium successfully raised the arguments for each of these positions, as a means to sensitize anthropologists and other scholars to both the baggage carried by the culture concept and the benefits it continues to offer. In reviewing the different positions in regard to the culture concept, the symposium revealed the intricate mix of scholarship and politics that enters into such judgments. Although no consensus emerged about what to do with the culture concept, the symposium participants did not find this lack of agreement disabling. Rather, they recognized that the culture concept was central for some anthropologists and not for others and that a valid anthropology, defined as the study of humankind in broadest compass, could be attained with or without the concept.

The symposium began by recognizing that anthropology usually claims “culture” as one of its central concepts. The concept defines both a subject matter and a means of analysis: that is, anthropologists study a culture at the same time as they put forth cultural explanations. In recent years, however, the culture concept has come under sharp attack from several scholarly directions. This attack is in some cases a direct critique of the culture concept. In other cases, refutation of the culture concept is only implicit in the way the scholarship has unfolded. In either case, however, the attack is on the traditional definition of culture within anthropology, by which culture is a highly patterned, cohesive, and coherent set of representations (or beliefs) that constitute people’s perception of reality and that get reproduced relatively intact across generations through enculturation. The assumptions of homogeneity and stasis implicit within this definition are false notions for those who lead the attack on the culture concept.

Yet, just as some anthropologists have grown wary of it, the culture concept has gained broad acceptance in public spheres. It has achieved a wide (and vapid) usage in popular expression, as, for example, in common terms such as “corporate culture” and “the culture wars.” More insidiously, certain groups have tried to appropriate the culture concept for their own political goals, for instance when attempting to justify anti-immigration or anti-minority policies or when claiming a homogeneous group-specific “traditional past” for support of nationalist policies. These uses of the culture concept have only fueled the attacks on it from some quarters within anthropology.

While acknowledging reasons to rethink the culture concept, some scholars nevertheless insist that discarding the culture concept would harm anthropology. In their view, the concept is uniquely powerful, particularly in enabling anthropology to address questions of evolution, patterning and continuity over time and across species. Reworking the traditional concept may be useful, these scholars admit, but retaining it is essential. Primatologists often fall into this group, and react against the glass ceiling that seems to attend the use of the culture concept by cultural anthropologists. That is, as primatologists become more convinced of the evidence for culture among nonhuman primates, they find cultural anthropologists changing the definition of the concept or retreating entirely from its use. Some of these cultural anthropologists come from scholarly traditions that have never taken the culture concept as central, and argue that all anthropological research can do—better—without the culture concept.

Even though the culture concept has been under attack, defense, and amendment for two decades now, and in some cases has been abandoned outright, proponents of these different positions have never come together to articulate their concerns to one another. Aiming for a new collective understanding of these issues, twenty international scholars came together in Morelia to work toward this goal. Some used the concept of culture in their research, whereas others studied the concept as used by international organizations or political movements. Other scholars studied social behaviors primarily, including those of nonhuman primates, and then as part of their analysis tried to judge whether these behaviors represented culture or behavioral precursors to culture. Almost all scholars from these diverse groups held firm, and often passionate views, about the worth or lack thereof of the culture concept. Cross-cutting these differences were divergent definitions of the constituents of the culture concept. Continuity in culture, its homogeneity, and its essential constitution were conceived in radically different ways.

Eight sessions provided the organizational framework for the conference: Anthropology’s Culture, Biology and Culture, Culture and Nationalism, Cultural Learning, Cultural Pattern and Continuity, Cultural Variation, Cultural Innovation and Invention, and What to do with Culture? Here we report some of the central points to emerge during each of these sessions.

Anthropology’s Culture provided a starting point by tracing the culture concept’s roots and development over time within anthropology, and by outlining some of its uses and criticisms within current scholarship. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (the symposium discussed his paper even though he could not attend) sketched the development of the culture concept in the United States. Forged by twin needs, namely, to employ a central concept akin to “the state” or “the market” as used by sister disciplines, and also to hold the line against racialization within society, “culture” in the 1920s began to shift from an analytic concept to a reified “thing” that was taken to exist in reality. As a result, the culture concept, according to Trouillot, has now become irretrievably essentialist and (ironically) racialist, and incapable of comprehending power and history. Trouillot argues forcefully that the term “culture” should be discarded, but the distinctive “kernels” (basic understandings) it carries should be retained and given new non-essentialist labels such as “cosmology,” “desire,” “sensibility,” or “ideology.”

Christophe Boesch’s understanding of the culture concept, when contrasted with Trouillot’s, illuminates a very different notion of the role of this concept in anthropology and of the process of scholarship in general. Boesch reported that each well-known chimpanzee population in the wild has a unique cluster of behaviors, not environmentally determined, that is transmitted socially from one generation to the next. A chimpanzee that fishes for ants with tools; performs the parasite-killing behavior called leaf-grooming; and hand-clasps during social grooming is immediately attributable, for instance, to the Mahale, Tanzania population and none other. Further, the identical chimpanzee behavior carries different meanings in different populations—in Mahale vs. Tai for example. For Boesch, it makes sense to speak of “the Mahale culture” or “the Tai Culture” of chimpanzees, much as anthropologists have spoken of Trobriand culture or the Navajo. Further, features or “properties” can be abstracted from these populational profiles, to derive a picture of chimpanzee culture generally. Boesch therefore conserves a concept of culture that links it with a distinctive way of life based on learned behavior passed down over generations. The qualities that define his culture concept—continuity, pattern, and sharing—are the very ones that Trouillot regards as essentializing the concept. For Boesch, however, these qualities are not taken as givens as they would be for many anthropologists.  They must be shown to exist empirically and thus they are not essentialized.

Yoshinobu Ota finds fault with the culture concept as it developed under Boas and Benedict because it assumed that only the anthropologist could step back and study a culture with self-awareness. The Navajo, the Lapps, the Middletowners could only “be in culture,” but never “look at it” according to this culture concept. With “ethnographic modernity,” as Ota labels a new understanding of culture sponsored by reflexive anthropology and postmodernism, anthropologists must admit that all persons, not just they, can be in culture and look at it. The problems Ota finds with the culture concept therefore parallel Trouillot’s accusations against it. Ota’s conclusions differ radically from Trouillot’s, however. Rather than abandon the concept, Ota wishes to revise it precisely by recognizing how people now look at and employ their culture’s past meaning; especially they must recognize how it has led to political uses of the concept by indigenous movements. Anthropologtists cannot disown such movements for using a concept of culture that is essentialist.

Yet Ota’s revision of the culture concept through ethnographic modernity has the unintended effect of disallowing Boesch’s claim that there are chimpanzee cultures. So long as culture meant only “being in it,” chimpanzees might be shown to fit. Once culture also requires the capacity “to look at it,” chimpanzees no longer qualify.

The next session considered the relationship between Biology and Culture. Christina Toren argued against the separation of nature and culture and in favor of a microhistorical model that plots the development over time of the individual as both a biological and a social self or “mind.” Toren’s approach not only avoids a false polarity between nature and culture in the development of the self or person, it also recognizes that intersubjectivity, the mutual constitution of selves through the interactions of individuals, is the essential process by which societies are constructed. Toren’s model requires data on children, the very individuals who can best inform us about the process of coming to know the self through coming to know others (as Toren was informed when working with children in Fiji). Getting rid of dualisms like biology/culture, body/mind, and structure/process is also necessary. For Toren, the concept of culture impedes her sort of microhistorical analysis because it assumes cross-generational continuity and denies intersubjectivity.

Also discussing children, Shanker showed how biology and culture are forced into opposition when paradigms clash. Children with specific-language impairment or autistic-spectrum disorders are considered by some scholars to be genetically disabled; that is, as unable to use language or interact socially in a normal fashion because of pervasive genetic defects. These very same children, however, are viewed as—and shown to be–quite capable of recovery by other scholars, who find good evidence that these problems can be lessened by social interaction. This debate, Shanker tells us, is actually about ways of conceptualizing what language is and whether the human capacity for language is inherent or can be learned. Specifically, it pits maturation (in which genetically pre-set capacities merely unfold) against development (in which the child’s skills are socially learned and socially constituted, allowing for social molding of the biological profile). For Shanker, ape-language debates are driven by the very same clash: whether one believes that apes can acquire facets of human language is largely decided by the way one views whether those linguistic skills arise from uniquely human genetic precoding or from complex social interaction. . By extension then, Shanker considers the question of ape culture, as well as ape language, to be more than just the empirical one that Boesch would identify; one’s position on ape culture too is heavily determined by one’s views about the influence of maturation versus development.

Hann revisited, in the session on Culture and Nationalism, the potential dangers of the culture concept. He began with a short review of some important recent European and American scholars to show that their work did not use the culture concept as a significant analytical tool. Hann then shows how, in his own research areas of central Europe and Turkey, nationalists use an essentialist culture concept as a means of legitimation. Anthropologists, he believes, cannot stand idle in the face of this appropriation of the culture concept. They must first of all study these political uses of the culture concept by nationalist and ethnic nationalist movements. Secondly, they must abandon the notion of cultures as separate unitary ideational systems. Like Trouillot, then, Hann sees the culture concept as placing anthropology in a morally dangerous position in relation to current nationalist and indigenous movements. Like Trouillot, too, Hann believes that an anthropology freed of the culture concept can recombine studies of ideology with the social and political.

By contrast with Hann, Susan Wright wishes to retain the culture concept even though she studies similar public appropriations of the concept. Wright hopes to revise successfully the concept by making process central to its definition. For her, culture is a verb, an active process of meaning-making through contestation. Recognizing this human agency is critical to grasping how the culture concept is deployed in today’s world. Wright identifies five major historical meanings of culture, the first of which claimed that humans were engaged in a universal process of development, leading inexorably toward the “pinnacle” of Western civilization. Wright’s concern is that this first meaning, cloaked as a push for diversity, will again come to dominate, subsuming all subsequent meanings. Support for this view comes from her study of UNESCO, which currently invokes “culture” in its attempt to cope with rapid global change. Proclaiming the idea of a  “culture of peace,” UNESCO claims to offer a way to stabilize global values, whereas in reality it imposes its own Western liberal values on the world.

Xavier Andrade also analyzed the intersection of culture and power. Via a case study of how public images are manipulated in Ecuadoran politics, Andrade showed how a “language of maleness” is used by the powerful and the subjugated alike to culturally typecast others, particularly during political contests and across regions (e.g., between the two major cities, one on the coast, the other in the mountains). The images chosen—both linguistic and visual–serve to racialize and sexualize specific individuals, a point Andrade brought home to conference participants by projecting startling images taken from recent Ecuadoran publications. For Andrade, this public, contested use of culture indicates that anthropology’s engagement with the culture concept must continue. The concept’s deployment by both those in and those out of power necessitates that anthropologists continue to address it directly, and they should refuse to be content with a shift to the kinds of alternatives called for by Trouillot and Hann. Andrade leaves open how that necessity requires reform or abandonment of the culture concept by the anthropologist.

Shifting to a consideration of enculturation, Barbara King opened the Cultural Learning session by discussing gesture and culture in African great apes. Researching bonobos and gorillas in captive settings, King finds that infant apes come to use intentionally communicative gestures to coordinate their own actions with actions of their family members.  The infants learn to comprehend and produce meaningful gestures of the head, limbs, hands and feet through “patterned interactions” (e.g., the mother or an older sibling guides the infant’s first attempts at walking), which are akin to cultural routines in human families. The social use of gesture emerges from the social relationship: the infant and its partner do not respond to each other’s communicative signals in linear sequence, but rather construct communication together as their interaction unfolds. This unfolding proceeds via a process called co-regulation, in which each ape continuously adjusts its actions to its social partner. King doesn’t claim to find “culture” in the apes she studies as Boesch finds it in wild chimpanzees. Rather, she suggests that primatologists should look for patterned interactions and shared meanings—not just populational variants of tool use, communicative signals and grooming—in ape groups just as Toren does in human groups.

Orangutans, the Asian great apes, are the focus of Anne Russon’s work on how individuals innovate new social behaviors. Studying foraging behavior among ex-captive “rehabilitant” orangutans, Russon has devised a stage-related model of social transmission to show how a life-history perspective is useful for the culture concept. Orangutans must learn to cope with difficult-to-process foods such as hearts-of-palm and certain fruits. The parameters of this type of foraging problem change with age and with social context in a linked way. Juvenile and adolescent orangutans, for instance, encounter new foraging problems just as they shift their home ranges and experience increased sociality. Opportunities for learning from peers are greatly enhanced in this life-history stage as compared to either earlier or later stages. Analysis of patterns of social transmission in rehabilitant orangutan groups suggests that primatologists must consider community-level factors, not just individual abilities and social learning, in their models of enculturation. Russon emphasizes that neither enculturation nor cultural transmission is unique to humans.

Two of the attributes commonly associated with the culture concept, Pattern and Continuity, were addressed first by Robert Aunger, who emphasized the role of artifacts, such as material objects, in creating continuing cultural configurations. Aunger identified as unique to humans a technological process that results in artifacts usable only as means to an end. Human artifacts, although on a continuum of “made things” in the animal world, differ significantly from those made by other animals. They include external stores of information and mediators of communication, and are partly responsible for the “ratcheting up” of human culture because they enable complex human social arrangements to evolve. The recent focus on representations by those who employ the traditional culture concept–that is, on ideas and values rather than on material culture, even within archaeology—is, in Aunger’s view, oddly incomplete because much of what makes us human is “out there.” The culture concept therefore must be revised to embrace material culture and the implications of the human technological evolution, and this revision may actually conserve the way the concept was understood in an antecedent anthropology, before culture was essentialized.

Analysis of material culture is also central to Rita Wright’s work incorporating the culture concept from within archaeology. As a practical matter, Wright notes, it isn’t conceivable for archaeologists to abandon the culture concept; recognizing patterns in the archaeological record is the only viable way to reconstruct past lives, and such recognition itself requires the culture concept. Given others’ real concerns about the political use of the concept, Wright advocates that anthropologists enter into dialogue with culture—a process in which many archaeologists are already engaged. Wright clarified this engagement through archaeological case studies. Her work on grey ware pottery from the Indo/Iranian borderlands suggests, for instance, that technological boundaries likely symbolize social identities. Archaeologists, in short, choose to talk about cultures not by default but because their data direct them to do so.

Like Aunger and Wright, Penelope Brown finds the concept of the culture pattern usefully analytically and descriptively, but in contrast to the other two, her patterns are representational, not material. Brown’s data from Mexico concern Mayan Indians’ use of space and their conceptualization via language of that use. Brown finds that there is a characteristic and widely shared pattern of representing space and spatial relationships, and it is passed down through social learning from parent to child. For this reason, she wishes to conserve the culture concept because it validates the key concepts of patterning, sharing, and transmission. Key to her research are questions about the universality of spatial language and spatial thinking: to what extent and in what respects do these vary cross-culturally? Like Toren, Shanker, King, and Russon, Brown incorporates data from children to understand developmental aspects of her research topic. She has found that clear links exist between the way spatial understanding is expressed linguistically and how people actually think about space; that spatial linguistic systems vary cross-culturally in their underlying frames of reference; and that children attend from very young ages to the particularities of the semantic spatial categories in their languages. Children are constructivists, for they build concepts as they learn their language, a conclusion that leads Brown to understand culture as public representations.

Fredrik Barth took up the theme of Cultural Variation as it relates to mental representation. Starting with the claim that ideas, not material objects or even human behavior, are the “stuff” of culture, Barth argues that the variable relationship of ideas to social groups and social actions is at once critical to anthropology and too often ignored by anthropologists. In striving to produce pattern and order, anthropological accounts reify the central tendency and lose the variation. A radical shift is needed to place variation as the fundamental feature of human ideas and human actions. This shift can be accomplished  by going beyond verbal accounts, i.e., by seeking insight into people’s everyday actions through “on the ground” fieldwork. Culture, for Barth, emerges as people interact, communicate, and cope with daily events of life, and will be understood only when we link up ideas with daily actions, and come to understand variation in these at every level. His prescription of such everyday accounts therefore is very similar to Toren’s call for microhistories and Russon’s use of a life-history approach. Whether Barth’s prescription can be accomplished by revision of the culture concept or only by its abandonment was a point of much discussion.

William Durham advanced a radical methodology for anthropology but one that he believed could be accomplished by revision, not abandonment of the culture concept. Durham emphasized not variable individual representations but change in the frequency of cultural variants within populations over time. Thinking of culture as consisting of the distribution of cultural items or practices within a population—that is, as “particulate” rather than unitary and integrated—is a key aspect of the revised culture concept that Durham offers. The culture of a human group can be represented by the frequency distribution of its variants – a claim illustrated by Durham’s case study of the Nuer incest taboo. Ideas and behaviors change over time, so that evolution occurs when changes occur in relative frequencies of the variants. To those who ask anthropologists to reject the culture concept, Durham replies that anthropology’s approach to culture can be reinvigorated by a focus on evolutionary questions, as long as such questions are properly understood to be about ways in which cultural evolution parallels genetic evolution (and not about either unilinear evolution or genetic determinism).

An evolutionary view is central to Kathleen Gibson’s work as described in the Cultural Innovation and Invention session. Culture for Gibson is unique to humans, but with significant evolutionary continuity in some of its components. Many mammals have social customs, defined as socially transmitted patterns that can lead to behavioral differences across populations. Only humans (and possibly chimpanzees, Gibson notes, in a nod to Boesch) have symbolic systems that incorporate both behavior and belief. This innovation is made possible, according to Gibson, by humans’ hierarchical mental constructional skills. That is, humans have evolved the ability to mentally take apart and recombine concepts, thus allowing creation of customs and symbolic culture.

Richard Wilson concluded the individual presentations, and brought the group full circle, by discussing a topic fundamental to Trouillot’s paper: the relationship among race, power, and the conception of culture. Wilson wishes anthropology to turn itself to the task of developing a comparative ethnography of rights. To that end, anthropologists must develop better ways to understand power relations and inequality in society. The culture concept itself is irrevocably tainted by linkage with oppressive regimes and even after these regimes are replaced by democratic polities, it can still play a retrograde role in public discourse. According to Wilson, we can see in post-apartheid South Africa, direct results of the attempt to recognize “culture” in the creation of national identity but relegate “race” to the private regime. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, for instance, dismissed the possibility of any linkage between oppressive acts and racist political motivations, leading to an absurd situation in which a stark dualism is maintained between public and private racism. For Wilson, anthropology must focus on the way in which power gets institutionalized through various legitimizing discourses, including that of culture or heritage. He urges the culture concept be abandoned because it fetters rather than advances this goal.

Following the individual presentations, participants met again to consider What to do with Culture? Over the course of the symposium discussions, the possibilities had become quite simple in principle but quite complicated in the matter of choice: the culture concept–meaning that culture was widely shared, strongly patterned, and generationally transmitted—could be conserved, it could be revised, or it could be abandoned. Participants had gained greater appreciation, for instance, for the potential political consequences attendant upon conserving or revising the concept. Continuing to employ the culture concept may feed objectionable causes related to the politics of identity. But what happens if, recognizing this, anthropologists decide to rework the culture concept? In what “space” could such reworking proceed, given the tangled history of the culture concept within both academic anthropology and the public sphere? What alternatives or “kernel” concepts might be employed that could shake off future co-opting by the very same forces now at work on the culture concept? How far can an ostensible revision proceed before the concept is fundamentally altered and substantially unlike the original?

Proclaiming the culture concept a failure, and abandoning it, may weaken the analysis of anthropologists who study premodern time periods, other species, or other evolutionary systems. How could archaeological or evolutionary analysis proceed without recourse to studying cultural boundaries, cultural patterning, and cultural transmission? (Might these be studied even though the culture concept itself were discarded?)  Will we not run the risk of excluding great apes as culture bearers precisely as anthropologists discover the degree of intraspecific variation and complex sociality in these primates? And finally, what consequences would accrue from abandoning the essential animal/human boundary altogether, and refusing to be concerned with whether culture is uniquely human or where humans might fall on a continuum of “animal culture”?

As these questions indicate, the culture concept faces unprecedented challenges at the start of the 21st century. Anthropology will benefit when these challenges are be brought to light and addressed in a diversity of ways. A second step toward this goal–following the first step of the Morelia gathering–is a book now in preparation that will reflect the range of analyses presented at the symposium.

Wenner-Gren Symposium #127

Seated: S. Shanker, B. King, W. Durham, C. Boesch, F. Barth, M. Mullin, B. Aunger, R. Wilson, C. Toren, X. Andrade. Standing: C. Hann, S. Silverman, P. Brown, S. Wright, Y. Ota, A. Russon, R. Wright, R. Fox, K. Gibson, M. Mahoney.