“In some cultures . . .” and other musings on the popular use of folk anthropology

You know those people who justify their lifestyle and/or ideology by saying “Well, in some cultures, this is considered normal”? Or the people who decontextualise arbitrary elements of various “exotic” cultures to illustrate what they perceive to be human universals? I see some of this in certain counter-cultural social circles such as neo-pagan groups, polyamorists, attachment parenting advocates and so forth. (Just so that we understand each other, here, I’m not putting any of these groups down or accusing their members of ignorance. In fact, I’m part of at least one of these counter-cultures).

The comments that I read in messages on various virtual forums or that I hear in various get-togethers often lead me to be the pesky anthropologist, raining on every body’s parade. For instance, whenever I hear polyamorists proudly claim that this lifestyle is normal and honourable because people around the world have been practicing polyamory since the beginning of time, I wince and then . . . rain on their parade. I feel that I have to mention to them that the term polyamory, just like the terms homosexual, bisexual and so forth, are historically and culturally situated and cannot be projected across time and space. Not in those words, of course.

On the other hand, I also get the “oh, but polyamory is different from polygamy” with the elaboration that the latter is disgusting and inherently degrading to women (because people often confuse “polygamy” with “polygyny”). Again, I have to intervene with my anthropological explanations.

Often, people are glad to be better informed. Other times, they are angry because I just went and messed with their scheme of things, which does tend to get people riled up. So I ask myself why I keep bothering.

Part of that self-questioning leads me to ask myself if I am much different from them. After all, anthropological study is what opened my eyes to alternate possibilities for my own life. My decision to adopt several elements of attachment parenting (i.e. nurse my son beyond the typical 6 months, co-sleep, carry him for many hours of the day when he was a baby) was largely based on reading ethnographies containing information on cross-cultural child-rearing practices.

However, unlike the above-mentioned generalisers (again, I’m not putting them down . . . some of them are my friends), I put the practices in which I am interested in context. If I adopted certain parenting practices that appealed to me in spite of them going against the mainstream North American grain, I did it with the understanding of why mainstream practices made sense to most of the people around me. This allowed me to be able to see where they were coming from in their arguments and to counter the arguments with my own. It also allowed me to be prepared for the somewhat marginal position that comes with adhering to alternate life choices.

Folk anthropologists, on the other hand, are often unable to make that link that is created by cultural relativity. They tend to take the facts out of context and become unable to back-up the practices that they are defending against the scrutiny of the cultural mainstream. They are therefore left with meaningless statements such as “In some cultures . . .” They also sometimes fail to see the cultural context that exists in their own society and that leads to people around them being so adamantly opposed to their way of life. Finally, they face emotional distress when faced with scorn or rejection, something for which they were not necessarily prepared because of the lack of awareness of cultural context.

So this musing answers my own question regarding why I bother. I bother informing people, even at the risk of being branded “the annoying anthropologist” (hey, it could be worse), because I fundamentally agree with some of their basic positions and want to equip them with better toolkits to defend their ways of life against the “moral majority”, if such a thing exists in Canada. I want them to be strong in the face of cross-examination. I want them to be able to offer content instead of fluff to those who would question their moral integrity.

Ideally, I do believe that cross-cultural knowledge should benefit everyone who is interested in it and that it should be accessible. However, it should also be presented in a way that is consistent with anthropology’s value of cultural relativity. Anthropologists who seek to inform the public about anthropological knowledge have fierce competition, though. Popular media, with their frequent lack of depth and integrity,have a nasty tendency to exoticise non-Western societies (yes, yes, I know this term is problematic). Even seemingly scientific documentaries often fool people into believing that they are being adequately informed about cross-cultural practices. It is this kind of exposure, the non-relativistic sort, that promotes a sort of folk, or pop, anthropology and I’m afraid this will lead to greater misunderstandings within and across cultures.

14 thoughts on ““In some cultures . . .” and other musings on the popular use of folk anthropology

  1. Somehow your post reminded me of this scene in Animal Crackers:

    Capt. Spaulding: [to Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead] Let’s get married.
    Mrs. Whitehead: All of us?
    Capt. Spaulding: All of us.
    Mrs. Whitehead: Why, that’s bigamy.
    Capt. Spaulding: Yes, and it’s big of me too.

  2. I’m having difficulty imagining how outré practices could be culturally situated using a layman’s terms. What rationalization can you offer that sounds convincing enough and yet is not too deterministic or teleologically false?

  3. Well, I think it’s fairly feasible to explain these things to people who are moderately educated and aware. And remember, it’s as much about helping people understand the basis for the mainstream mentality against which they’re struggling as it is about explaining cross-cultural variation in “exotic” practices. I don’t think there’s necessarily a standard rationalization that’s useful in all contexts; it requires a bit of thinking on one’s feet.

    What has your experience been like?

  4. I don’t want this to become about me, but my most recent experience was a seminar course on the Korean minority in Japan—overenrolled and largely filled with children of Korean, mainland, and Taiwanese parents. I’d thought at least we wouldn’t have to overturn the usual prejudices about immigration and immigrants, but time after time we ran afoul of students who very firmly believed that immigration should be severely limited; that immigrants were icky and dangerous folks; that illegals had no claim to social services, human rights, etc.; that discrimination based on ethnicity is alright because “it’s their choice if they want to keep their culture”; that a national language should be enforced; and so on, ad nauseam. It was even worse then usual, because I couldn’t even use the (unfair) retort about “not knowing what it’s like.” As a cbild of immigrant parents myself, I was fairly disgusted to see people “tread water” like that, and I hope I did a good enough job concealing my emotions.

  5. Interesting. If I understand correctly, people of Korean descent in Japan had antagonistic feelinds toward more recent Korean immigrants to Japan?

    That is and is not surprising at the same time. On one hand, there is that reaction of “How could they?” On the other hand, there may be all kinds of factors such as “We’ve adapted, so why shouldn’t they” or even some internalised hatred of sorts.

    About hiding the emotions: I get that a lot when I hear students bash French Canadians (I teach at an anglophone college and have a French name but the students forget that I’m francophone because of my fluency in English). It’s hard to stay objective so I usually just let them talk and rant and then remind them that they know at least one francophone that doesn’t behave the way they describe. Then they blush.

  6. I had a friend who did some pharmacological research in the Amazon back in the mid 70s. He told of getting a guide to take him in fairly deep to meet some folks who didn’t have much contact with others. When he arrived at this particular village, the first thing he noted was a guy wearing a baseball cap. The first communication Fred had with these folks was with the cap wearing guy who wanted to know why he, Fred, wasn’t wearing a baseball cap.

  7. Wimbrel and Nancy’s exchange about second generation immigrants despising first generation immigrants reminded me of Gandhi’s purported negative feelings toward his own countrymen (and local Africans) when he was a lawyer in South Africa.

    Like Gandhi, who was proud to be a British subject and believed in the liberal ideals of the imperium, Wimbrel’s students perhaps also felt a blinding love for the ideals of freedom and democracy — the American Dream — that the U.S. should be practicing.

    Here a discussion about self-hate and double consciousness (Dubois and Fanon, for example) are really in order. And I’m sure similar emotional conflicts of identity are at work in the way Nancy’s polyamorists think about themselves.

    Also what are, if I may ask, the political consequences of the “doctrine” of cultural relativity? I think Nancy’s original post touches on this issue and begs the crucial question: is the political valence of “cultural relativity” neutral? (That was badly worded, maybe someone else can do better…)

  8. Newbie to this site. Looks quite cool.
    Fellow French-Canadian anthro here. Also observed unwitting FC-bashing. Rather annoying, especially when it comes from people who “should know better.” Thing is, Francophones do it too. An old example (ca. 1992) but quite telling, IMHO. Methods class taught by John Leavitt at U. de Montréal’s anthro dept. We’re asked to do an observation session in a cultural community in Montreal. Can be any community as long as it’s not our own. John advises those of us who are «Québécois francophones» to work on Anglophones. Reaction from the class: “But they don’t have a cultu… OOOPS!” 😉
    Teaching in the US, people’s ideas about Québécois culture were blurry enough that it was possible to show them how open-minded we can be. In fact, being the sole Québécois anyone knew made things quite easy, overall.

    Now, to address the issue of the post itself. Yup, it does happen quite a lot. People use pop-anthro to justify practices. What’s worse, some people (including some contemporary anthros) call that “cultural relativism” and then go about blasting it into oblivion. Quite sad, really. In intro classes, one strategy is to get them to understand a concept of culture as more of a dynamic process than a collection of “cultural traits.” It takes a bit but, once it clicks, they really get it… With higher-level classes, it might be easier to go about it through the critique of cases where the concept of “cultural relativism” has been abused, although that’s kind of a risky strategy if you don’t know your class well enough. Used it to good effect this past semester, mentioning a case in Quebec a few years back involving the concept of sexuality in Haïti.
    With people in general, the best practice is probably to let go, unless specifically asked for a “professional” opinion. In that case, getting them to reevaluate their perspective isn’t so hard.

  9. Wow! Thanks for the great replies! I will answer them individually.

    Lonely Donut Man: this brings to mind the way that Westerners are stereotyped probably to a similar extent than Westerners stereotype non-Westerners (again, I’m very ambivalent about the Western/non-Western distinction but you catch my drift). The Cree of James Bay were always incredulous when I told them I wasn’t wealthy.

  10. Tak: Interesting parallel you make with Gandhi. I can’t say that I know much about that but I do think that much of this might also come with differential acculturation between immigrants and their children, who are acculturated into the host society to a greater extent than them. The antagonistic feelings may sometimes be remnants from late childhood and the teenage years when the youths are torn between what their parents try to instill in them and the values they are getting from peers and the outside world.

    I’m just guessing, though . . .

    As for your question: “is the political valence of “cultural relativity” neutral?” If I understand correctly, you are pondering whether the act of being culturally relative in the understanding of cross-cultural practices is neutral in the sense that it can be used for negative as well as positive ends. If that *is* what you are asking . . . I’m not sure.

    I think that when misguided and uninformed people attempt relativity, they may have the unfortunate tendency to glorify “the other”, as in the case of the occasional poly person that I’ve met who has claimed that polyamory existed in ancient Europe and that it was all wonderful, etc etc etc. I don’t feel that this is actually relativity because the people who do this don’t usually go and get the whole picture.

  11. Salut Alexandre!

    You’re right, francophones do it too and it makes it very hard to be a “franglophone” around here – you get it from both sides. (By the way . . . John Leavitt . . . met him at the CASCA conference at McGill back in 2001(?) and heard him talk. Fascinating! Lucky you, having taken a course with him!)

    As for your comment on “to understand a concept of culture as more of a dynamic process than a collection of “cultural traits.” I like this a lot. I guess that’s pretty much what I was circling around with my post . . .that people need to see the connections between the traits in which they are interested and the rest of the cultural context and not just stick their hands in a cultural bag and come out with some random trait that just hangs there on its own. It is a challenge for me to get this across to students; mine are younger than the ones you teach probably as I teach in a Cegep (so cool that I can say this and I know that you know what I’m talking about! Anyone who is reading this and doesn’t know, it’s a step between HS and uni that exists only in Quebec).

    Now, you got me curious about the case of the concept of sexuality in Haiti . . .would you care to elaborate?

    Finally, I know that sometimes, it’s better to let go when faced with those that use “pop anthro” knowledge to ill effect but in some cases, I feel that I have to speak up, especially when there is a risk that these same people are misinforming others.

    Thanks for your comments in any case!

  12. Salut Nancy!

    Actually, John was my M.Sc. thesis co-advisor with Kevin Tuite. Had several classes with him. In fact, he got me to help out with the CASCA/AES/SCA committee in 2001. Got to see the other side of conferences and we all had a great time with, among others, Michael Silverstein.
    Cegep: you know, I kept telling people about this, in the US. I sincerely think that Cegeps are a very good system as it prepares students for university and it’s the ideal place to do all the mistakes we need to do while socialising as young adults, instead of wasting time and money on unnecessary university training.

    Sexuality and Haitians. Didn’t want to be too specific not to offend anyone. IIRC, a (female) judge had acquitted two young men from Haïti who had been accused of rape because, she said, sodomy wasn’t considered sexual in Haïti. AFAIK, she used the concept of “cultural relativism” in that case. Which gives a bad name to a very useful concept while giving no support to a very bad decision. Actually, this might be my confusion over two similar cases where cultural differences have been used in court. Interestingly, even that piece confuses cultural relativism with ethnocentrism!! Kid you not!

    Now you might understand why it took me so long to start blogging… 😉

  13. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for repying to my comments. I wanted to make two points.

    1. I do understand your concerns about people who may exoticize cultural difference that ends up serving their own needs.

    But ultimately, doesn’t that describe the profession of anthropology itself? Aren’t we profiting (that is, if we’re lucky enought to have jobs and grants) from writing about other cultures? Who’s more guilty here, the polyamorists or the anthropologist?

    2. The politics of cultural relativity

    Here is what you wrote:

    As for your question: “is the political valence of “cultural relativity” neutral?” If I understand correctly, you are pondering whether the act of being culturally relative in the understanding of cross-cultural practices is neutral in the sense that it can be used for negative as well as positive ends. If that is what you are asking . . . I’m not sure.

    I guess I was thinking of the ethics of “cultural relativity.” Some scholars have argued that “cultural relativity,” if taken to its logical conclusion, is an expression of or promotes the worst kind of neoliberal capitalism. I am simplifying the argument to be provocative, but basically this argument is akin to the philosophical criticism against ethical relativism.

    Also there have been times when cultural relativity has been questioned by anthropologists themselves. One famous instance occurred when students of Boas repudiated cultural relativity in favor of fighting against Fascism during World War II. Ruth Benedict, to take an example from my own field of Japan Anthropology, wrote an essay on why in times of war anthropologists need to rid themselves of cultural relativity…and hence, her Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

    Just some thoughts. Great post & comments. Thanks!

  14. Hi Tak;

    Thanks for the comments. To respond (again, because I can’t help it) to your two points:

    You wrote: “doesn’t that describe the profession of anthropology itself? Aren’t we profiting (that is, if we’re lucky enought to have jobs and grants) from writing about other cultures? Who’s more guilty here, the polyamorists or the anthropologist?”

    Two things:
    1- I don’t really blame the polyamorists or members of other counter cultures who’ve used cross-cultural “facts” to their own ends; I mostly blame those who disseminate cross-cultural info in a haphazard (sp?) form without putting things into context (eg. documentaries that go for shock value rather than quality).

    2- The writings of anthropologists, in principle, should lead to an understanding of human behaviour. Yes, some have profited, or continue to do so, in the sense that they advance their careers and so on and so forth. I have to say that I’m a strong advocate of anthropological work that somehow serves the community in which one works, or at least that leads to greater public awareness of certain issues.

    You also wrote: “Some scholars have argued that “cultural relativity,” if taken to its logical conclusion, is an expression of or promotes the worst kind of neoliberal capitalism.”

    In extreme cases, of course we can’t justify practices like genocide with cultural relativity. However, we can still use relativity to *understand* how a practice works, how it becomes embedded in the social fabric, how it is established and maintained and so forth without falling into the trap of saying “Well, it’s OK because of cultural relativity”. To change something, one needs to understand it’s function, and to understand something’s function, relativity is needed.

    Thanks again for your thoughts . . . discussions like these are great!

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