Culture, Genuine and Spurious: SMOPS 5

This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Edward Sapir’s essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” is worth reading for several reasons: it demonstrates the way anthropological theory can be applied to ethical issues; it exemplifies the way Boasians founded public anthropology by weighing in on the great issues of their day alongside cultural critics like Randolph Bourne or George Seldes; it gives us insights into the opinions of Boasians on cultural imperialism and the exploitation of labor; and above all, it presents us with a set of questions — and answers — that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series #5 Culture, Genuine and Spurious by Edward Sapir, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

What kind of a good thing is culture? In asking this question, Sapir describes the role that culture can play in the flourishing lives of individuals, as well as the communities that they are part of. His answer to this question, although inspired by anthropology, also draws on his wider education. As a result, Sapir’s essay presents us with an example of how anthropology can become a form of cultural criticism.

Sapir wrote this essay with modern American culture in mind. On the one hand, he was appalled by the demands industrialization made on workers and depressed by the cheapness and vulgarity of the mass consumerism that was meant to satisfy them. On the other hand, he found American elite’s uptake of European high culture snobbish, artificial, and inauthentic. For Sapir, both ossified ‘high culture’ and the new consumerism were ‘spurious’ forms of culture.

In contrast, Sapir considered culture ‘genuine’ when it drew on the past in order to enrich the lives of people in the present. It was honest, deeply involved people in its production, and created a deep sense of community. Authenticity in culture, from Sapir’s point of view, is more about the mode of cultural production than the contents.

There is much more to say about Sapir as a cultural critic, and I hope to explore his work in future SMOPs. Ultimately, however, I believe that Sapir’s argument is so interesting that it rneeds no introduction.

The version of “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” in this SMOPS has been lightly edited, from about 12,000 words to 8,500. My main goal in presenting this paper has not been to slash it down to a readable size, but to trim some of the more excessive prose and, above all, to help bring attention to this remarkable essay. I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

6 thoughts on “Culture, Genuine and Spurious: SMOPS 5

  1. Hi Alex, thanks for introducing me (and everyone) to these gems of earlier anthropology.

    I was wondering a little about the editing – particularly for those who don’t know what they are missing…and also wanted to ask – would it be possible to put some dot dot dots “…” or other indications in places where you have cut out text? In some cases almost half the text has been cut and its hard to know if it is whole sections, sentences, words within sentences and so forth…


  2. Thanks for that question Haidy. I think there are connections between Sapir and the VKS which you can probably see. Do you know Friedman’s “Will The Real Hawaiian Stand Up”? It develops Sapir’s themes in the context of Hawai‘ian sovereignty politics. Its also OA.

    I thought a lot about including ellipses to indicate editorial excisions in these articles to give the reader a sense of what I’ve done, but ultimately decided against it. First, most of the intended audience (students and others who are not historians of anthropology) will probably not care for the details of how the piece has been cut. Second, because the cutting is so thorough, indicating cut passages would seriously detract from the readability of the pieces. Often times I’ve tried to smooth out the prose by removing scholarly equivocation (e.g. removing the ‘probably’ from “It’s probably true that…”) and multiple adjectival clauses (“This central and no doubt important issue….” becomes “this central issue”) that clutter much of the prose of this period. Because I’m trimming words here and there, rather than just excising whole passages, adding ellipses would make reading it difficult.

    Thirdly and finally, one of the goals of the paper is to get readers interested in the original source material. So if you feel like you might be missing something… by all means read the original! It is easily available (in the case of SMOPS 5, under a JSTOR early content license, I believe) and I’ve included the full citation to it. “Culture, Language, and Personality” (the shorter of the two volumes of selected essays by Sapir) is available in full view mode on Google Books and includes this essay and many others. Finally, for more info probably the most relevant source for you on Sapir is Richard Handler’s “Critics Against Culture”, a collection of essays which does a great job explaining Sapir’s position as a cultural critic in the US.

    Hope this helps!

  3. Hi, all, I do not often comment here, but given Haidy’s reasonable question, I wonder whether the reduction of, for example, Sapir’s text to Rex’s rendition of it is rather fascisitic (and I know I’m ramping up the dialogue, but I have found all of the “let me tell you what you should know about the Boasians rather distressing in its removal of context). Is this not claiming something not one’s own and, in so doing, violating the tenets of academic integrity? Of course, we could go to the original text (as Rex recommends that we do, without much verisimilitude). But, if students did this, without some clear indication of what was theirs and what was e.g. Rex’s. wouldn’t we object? Might it not have been better if a.k.a. Rex had told us what Sapir might have taught us without editing it for us? I’m grumpy this evening, but I do find this all terribly hegemonic.

  4. I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you there, Deborah. I’m a fascist who lacks academic integrity because I produce abridgments of public domain works? Do you think McGee and Warms and others who produce abridgments for theory texts are fascists who lack academic integrity?

  5. Well, concerning academic integrity, I assume McGee and Warms (whose text I do not use although I yearly teach the history of anthropological thought and it would be much cheaper for my students if I liked their selections and their abridgments) have been peer-reviewed by those who have read the whole texts (as in Boas etc.). My assumption is that McGee and Warms have convinced said reviewers that theirs is a vision and an abridgment which serious scholars could agree upon. I do not know this for a fact. But, I rather doubt that anyone has vetted your abridgments which is why ellipses would be welcome and, in their absence, issues of hegemony may be legitimately raised. Vetting can, of course, be problematic. But, it might be better than nothing. Also, the fact the those you abridge are in the public domain does not mean that, at least ethically, you can do what you want with them.

  6. Well what can I say? You’re an adult and can do whatever you want. If you think I am a terrible person for undertaking this project, then so be it. You are entitled to your opinion, and should feel free to convince other people not to read these papers because they are hegemonic, fascistic, and unethical. I’ve released this work under a CC license, so you should feel free to put ellipses back in the text and rerelease it if you like.

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