Culture: The Anthropologists' Account

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9780674179578: Culture: The Anthropologists' Account

Suddenly culture seems to explain everything, from civil wars to financial crises and divorce rates. But when we speak of culture, what, precisely, do we mean?

Adam Kuper pursues the concept of culture from the early twentieth century debates to its adoption by American social science under the tutelage of Talcott Parsons. What follows is the story of how the idea fared within American anthropology, the discipline that took on culture as its special subject. Here we see the influence of such prominent thinkers as Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, Marshall Sahlins, and their successors, who represent the mainstream of American cultural anthropology in the second half of the twentieth century--the leading tradition in world anthropology in our day. These anthropologists put the idea of culture to the ultimate test--in detailed, empirical ethnographic studies--and Kuper's account shows how the results raise more questions than they answer about the possibilities and validity of cultural analysis.

Written with passion and wit, Culture clarifies a crucial chapter in recent intellectual history. Adam Kuper makes the case against cultural determinism and argues that political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes must take their place in any complete explanation of why people think and behave as they do.

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Review:

Adam Kuper argues in Culture: The Anthropologists' Account that his discipline's turn toward cultural explanation over the past few decades has reduced contemporary social theory to a politically dangerous idealism. Just as Marx accused Hegelian philosophers of believing that a drowning man could save himself by abandoning the idea of gravity, Kuper contends that contemporary anthropologists have attempted to "wish away ... political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes." In other words, these academics explain culture on its own terms without reference to other, more material, aspects of life. Kuper's work is a rehearsal of the big question: Are the forces that animate our lives better understood as ideas or material forces? Marx answered this question in order to change things; Kuper in order to rebuke his fellow academics.

Kuper appraises the most important anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, treating them as the heirs of Talcott Parsons's program of explaining social and cultural life as a set of interacting systems. Clifford Geertz's attempt to collapse social systems within systems of culture emerges as the work of a traditional connoisseur of religion and high art. David Schneider appears as a father-haunted academic who deconstructed biology and kinship relationships because he had not come to terms with his own family. Marshall Sahlins's work is counted as a failed, if brave, experiment in combining materialist and cultural explanations. James Clifford and Renato Rosaldo become obscurantist academic survivors in the struggle for tenure.

So what is Kuper's answer to the big question? Anthropologists, he concludes, must explain culture with reference to material forces, and the heirs to Talcott Parsons have botched the job. In fact, they have contributed to the creation of a world in which idealistic relativism destroys attempts at good communication between people. Kuper further argues that this state of academic affairs is consistent with the way racists and corporate boards like to keep things. However, he does not actually show how the academic ideas are systematically related to those structures of domination to which he alludes. Marx showed how ideas were related to their material conditions--that is why he continues to be counted as a revolutionary and a great thinker, and why Kuper will be counted only as an academic. --James Highfill

About the Author:

Adam Kuper is a Fellow of the British Academy.

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