What is culture?

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

All of my social science professors have asked the class to define “culture” and no one is ever able to give a concise or satisfying answer. If a culture is discretely bounded and object-like, how do we understand the culture of people in borderlands, or migrants, or residents of big complicated places like New York City? Calling anthropology as “the study of culture” is not so much a description of what anthropologists do so much as it describes “the politics of inclusion whereby an author seeks to find a common underlying theme for a plethora of disciplinary projects” (Borofsky et al, 2001).

Culture Club

Is culture just the beliefs and behaviors that have survived contact with industrial capitalism? Were those beliefs and behaviors ever stable or geographically bounded to begin with? Or is the tribe, defined as an unambiguously bounded unit with a single leader and stable traditions, is an invention of the colonial administrative state?

Unlike Europe, precolonial Africa did not have a history of the absolutist state: authorities were always in the plural, legislating conventions in various domains of social life – clan committees, women’s groups, age cohorts, craft guilds and so on. Once a single chief – always a male and an elder – was exalted as the sole traditional authority, it was a short step to define tradition, too, as unitary, non-contradictory and binding (Mamdani, 2012).

In European tradition, savages are in a state of nature because they have “no state, no religion, no clothes, and no shame.” In North American anthropology, people are “primitive” because they have “no complexity, no class, and no history” (Trouillot, 2003). Cultures were always complex and evolving webs, in which case colonialism simply enacted “the displacement of one form of interconnection by another” (Gupta & Ferguson, 1992).

Mamdani points to Henry Maine’s proto-ethnography in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as an example of the way that colonial powers defined the natives in contrast to themselves: “If the settler was modern, the native was not; if the settler was defined by history, the native was defined by geography; if modern polities were defined by legislation and sanction, those of the native were defined by habitual observance.” In the European thematic trilogy of civilized/savage/utopia, culture belongs to the “Savage” slot  (Trouillot, 2003). Anthropology’s authority over the concept of culture only extends to the “Savage slot.” But if savages do not have class or history, then neither does culture.

Colonialism invented tribes in much the same way that racism had previously invented race. In North American anthropology, culture emerged as an “anticoncept” opposed to race. “Launched as the negation of race, culture also became the negation of class and history. Culture was meant to protect anthropological thought from the power dynamics intrinsic in the concept of race. However, anthropology then gradually lost its interest in any issues of power and inequality. “Culture became what class was not, what evaded power, and what could deny history” (Trouillot, 2003). This poses a major problem for the understanding of America’s “savages,” black and Native Americans, whose culture has been intrinsically wrapped up in their unequal status with whites. Thus it is sociologists, economists and other social scientists who have taken on the task of examining our own culture.

There is a longstanding correspondence between the savage and utopian slots, one that continues into the present, which we can see most clearly in the way that white Americans romanticize Native Americans as noble savages. We imagine life for black ghetto residents to be more of a dystopia, but we romanticize the freedom we imagine they have from constricting Puritanical mores. Natalie Portman talks in interviews about how much she loves dirty rap like the Ying-Yang Twins, taking evident vicarious pleasure in their sexual frankness and performative insubordination.

Trouillot quotes Ashley Montagu’s statement that the meaning of a word is the action it produces. The meaning of the word “race” is in its political use, and the same could be said for “culture.” We might be better served by viewing culture not as a thing unto itself, but as “the fulcrum of social action: that moment when the various aspects represented by culture, social relations, cognition, meaning, purpose, and material context become manifest together and combine to affect each other and shape outcome” (Borofsky et al, 2001). It is convenient to refer to the San as a people who are native to the Kalahari and who have a nomadic lifestyle that stretches back into human prehistory. But it would be more accurate to consider how colonialism constituted them as a people, by taking away their property and relegating them to the desert.

If anthropology abandons the word “culture” entirely like it has abandoned the word “race,” the field will free itself to look at more specific aspects of social life. For example, instead of understanding capitalist hegemony as “global culture,” the field could ask what fuels the global production of consumer desire. We could view the “return” to religious fundamentalisms as a reinstatement not of what once was, but as a continual process, more like “respirations or returns of breath, after a pause, to a changed state” (Fischer, 2009). If we question a pre-given world of separate and discrete “peoples and cultures,” and see instead a difference-producing set of relations, we turn from a project of juxtaposing preexisting differences to one of exploring the construction of differences in historical process (Gupta & Ferguson, 1992).


Robert Borofsky, Fredrik Barth, Richard A. Shweder, Lars Rodseth and Nomi Maya Stolzenberg (2001) WHEN: A Conversation About Culture. American Anthropologist 103(2): 432-446.

Michael M.J. Fischer (2009) Postings from Anthropologies to Come: Pebbles, Sparrows, Labyrinths, and Ethnographic Vignettes. In Anthropological Futures. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 244-271.

Akhil Gupta & James Ferguson (1992) Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 6-23.

Mahmood Mamdani (2012) What is a tribe? London Review of Books 34(17): 20-22.

Michel Trouillot (2003) Anthropology and the Savage Slot: the Poetics and Politics of Otherness; Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises. In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 7-28.