This week’s Savage Minds Occasional Paper (SMOPS) is Edward Sapir’s “Culture in the Melting-Pot”. In this brief piece, Sapir asks: What would it mean to have a uniquely, authentically American culture? One free from its roots in Europe and anchored in the lived reality of Americans? This is just as pressing a question when Edward Sapir addressed it in 1916 as it is in today’s era of reactionary conservatism. But in truth, the points raised in Sapir’s brief comment are relevant to any settler colony, and hence is of interest far beyond the United States.
“Culture in the Melting-Pot” is hardly Sapir’s definitive answer to this question. Rather, his full treatment of this topic is his paper “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” (SMOPS #5). Instead, “Culture in the Melting-Pot” is one Sapir’s earliest attempts to combine anthropology with cultural criticism. In it, he responds to a piece by John Dewey (a leading thinker and philosopher of education) which itself deals with these topics. I’ve chosen to republish this short piece because it is difficult to find (it has been reprinted only once since 1916, in the very important but prohibitively expensive Collected Works of Edward Sapir); it is a lovely little piece that deserves a wider readership; and finally, because Sapir demonstrates the relevance of Boasian anthropology to contemporary political debates, he provides a nice illustration of the main ‘theoretical moves’ that Boasians make.
Contra Dewey, Sapir insists that it is wrong to assume that European culture must be extirpated from American lifeways in order to produce an authentic American culture. Culture traits, he emphasizes, flow across political borders, and are rarely congruent with them (Ira Bashkow’s article on Boasian concepts of culture boundaries (2004) is excellent on this point). It is wrong to assume that one nation equals once culture.
For this reason, Sapir argues, creating a genuinely American culture would be part of a wider project of reforming the entire culture area America in embedded in — the “Occidental world” as Sapir calls it. It would, for instance, mean supplanting English as the primary language of Americans. It is hard to tell whether Sapir find such a radical project congenial (as many would today) or believes its scope signals its impracticality.
Just as national boundaries are not coterminous with cultural boundaries, so too does Sapir argue against the idea that nations are not ‘organisms’ whose parts are functionally connected. This is in stark contrast to structure functionalism, which makes just the opposite assumption. The explanation for a culture trait, says Sapir, is the history that produced it and not its function in society. For this reason, we should not insist that culture ‘adapt’ to industrialism. If anything, Sapir seems to thinks it should be the other way around. Like Weber, Sapir believes that the growth of culture is the result of a complex history of interacting factors, and is suspicious of ‘monistic’ worldviews that reductively see one aspect of reality (genetics, the environment, the mode of production) as the cause of the all the others.
In the end, then, Sapir does not believe that America will develop a culture free of external influences. He does not believe the development of an American culture will happen automatically. His vision for America is one of, if not shreds and patches, a messy process of diffusion, integration, and (perhaps) functional coherence.
In conclusion, I should say that there is a lot not to like about Sapir’s arguments. Like those of other intellectuals in the period, it seems completely impossible to him that a uniquely American culture could involve the influence of Native Americans — something that seems particularly jarring given his own extensive work with Indians. Just as his arguments are relevant to today’s arguments, so too are his exclusions still with us in public discourse — an absence that should be noted.
Much has been written about Edward Sapir and I’ve learned a great deal by the scholars who specialize in his work. In particular, I’d recommend the work of Richard Handler (2005) to those interested in learning more about Sapir as a cultural critic.
This version of “Culture in the Melting Pot” has been transcribed form the original article that appeared in The Nation. It has been very lightly edited. 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.
Bashkow, I. 2004. A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries. American Anthropologist 106 (3): 443-458.
Handler, Richard. 2005. Critics Against Culture: Anthropological Observers of Mass Society. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.
Culture in the Melting-Pot,