When "culture" erases history

Sure, sometimes “culture” can tell us a lot about human behavior and differences.  But there are also times when arguments based upon the concept of culture can obscure just as much as they reveal.

Right now I am in the middle of going through all of my interviews, making notes, and looking for themes I can draw from for my dissertation.  Things are coming along.  I figured I’d share some of what I am doing…sort of let you in on the process as I work through it.  If you don’t already know, my research is about the conflicts over tourism development on the East Cape region of Baja California Sur.  These conflicts are, in part, about development.  Or, more specifically, about what type of development people want to see happen in the region.  Some of the area’s residents are in favor of large scale development, some root for something along the lines of “sustainable development,” and still others basically don’t want to see anything change at all.  I worked in a small coastal community in the heart of the East Cape, a place where land ownership is one of the most critical issues.

For the last several years, there was a massive project planned for the area which would have basically meant the creation of a tourism city the size of Cancun right smack in the middle of this region.  The proposed location was about 15 km from the community where I worked.  This project loomed large throughout my fieldwork.  Keep in mind that the biggest community around this part of the cape has about 5000 people (the next biggest has about 2500, and the rest of the communities along this part of the cape are much, much smaller).  The proposed project would supposedly bring upwards of 120,000 new residents.  It was big.  Unlike the other side of the cape, which is the home of the massive tourism development at Los Cabos, the East Cape remains relatively undeveloped.  This development project, known somewhat ironically as “Cabo Cortes,”* promised to bring considerable change to the region.  Some people were in favor of this change, and others were stridently against it.  If nothing else, Cabo Cortes was a lightening rod for conflict, debate, and disagreement.

But the social conflicts in the region also had some deeper, more historical roots.  They are literally about control of land–who has the legal rights to the land, and who doesn’t.  Whoever actually has legal claim to the land has a lot of say when it comes to development and the future of the region.  Obviously.  This issue has become increasingly more contentious in recent years.  Why?  Because the value of land went through the roof as the zone became more and more known as a potential site for tourism, development, and investment.  The same piece of coastal land you could buy for about $10,000 dollars in the 1980s is now worth upwards of $500,000 dollars.  Or more.  Hence the intensified conflicts over land title, ownership, and control.

In the community where I worked, there are some very specific–and often very personal–histories at the heart of the land battles between various factions.  The two primary factions are the Mexican residents, on the one hand, and the “gringos” on the other (aka the American and Canadian expats, second home residents, retirees, and others who live there full or part-time).  The histories of this place help to explain the roots of the land battles, and they also tell you a lot about some of the divisions that exist between the two sides of the community to this day.

But there’s something going on in some of my interviews and informal conversations that does a sort of sleight of hand with these local histories.  Despite a widespread knowledge of the history of the community, some folks still chalk up the social conflicts to “culture,” which I find both perplexing and intriguing.  For example, I just went through an interview with a non-Mexican resident who has been living in the community for more than a decade.  Let’s call her Barbara.**  Barbara knows the histories of the place quite well.  She recounted, in detail, some of the key aspects of the current disputes over land (which basically come down to whether a very large parcel of land was acquired legally, or whether it was stolen).  She knows all of the names, and knows what happened between different people.  She tells stories about long-running land battles, greed, land grabs, and deep, personal hatreds.  She knows her history.

At the end of the interview,  I ask Barbara about community relations over time, and what she thinks will happen between the two sides.  She starts off by telling me that the older generations of Mexicans, the ones who were around when the land disputes started, still harbor a lot of resentment toward the gringos.  She says that there are members of that generation who still feel that all the land is theirs, and that the gringos have taken it and sold it to others unfairly.  And, she tells me, they still make comments about someday getting all of it back, and somehow taking possession all of the houses the gringos/expats have built.  But, she continues, “they don’t have legal rights to the land and they should have got them, they could have, and now after this land grab happened, it’s too late.”  They sold out, she tells me, and now there’s really no going back.  And, to this day, she says, there’s a lot of animosity about what happened.  When it comes to the continuing relations between the two sides of the community, at best the Mexican residents “tolerate” the gringos, she tells me.  “[W]e’ll never really be a part of the community,” she says.

This is the point where she brings in culture.  She tells me, sure, people from the two sides will say hello to one another, but they aren’t going to be sharing dinner with one another anytime soon.  It’s just not going to happen.  Barbara continues:

So I mean they respect us, but it’s never going to be–it’s one of the sad things to me living here is that we’ll never be part of this community.  But you notice that in the United States too the Mexicans don’t really want to be part of the community there, it’s a cultural thing–it’s a Mexican mentality … and so I don’t know, that’s kind of sad, but that’s their culture, and I’m not here to change their culture, that’s for sure.

So, despite all of her very specific knowledge about the histories between the two sides of the community, in the final tally Barbara argues that the real heart of the problem is a cultural.  It’s a cultural thing, as she says.  She knows the histories, knows how certain conflicts came about.  She knows these details quite readily–this is undeniable.  But when it comes to seeking out a larger answer about the divisions in her community, she resorts to an argument based upon culture.  Why?  Well, that’s a good question.  At this point I don’t really have an answer, but I can say that similar versions of this culture-based argument came up fairly frequently.

Various people used culture-based arguments to explain differences between groups during my fieldwork.  Interestingly, as with Barbara, many these arguments often shifted back and forth between specifics (actual events, people, etc) to generalized statements about culture (ie the “Mexicans” tend to do X, Y, or Z).  Often there were cases in which specific grievances (e.g. a minor labor dispute) were explained away by generalizations about larger groups.  Culture played a key role in some of those explanations.  In Barbara’s case, cultural differences provide a deeper answer for why the two sides of the community cannot get along.  Maybe this sort of culture-based argument also provides an easier, or more convenient answer to a frustrating situation.  She seems to argue that there are intrinsic cultural tendencies or traits in “Mexicans” (she includes Mexican-Americans in this as well) that make it impossible for the two communities to get along, to deal with the past, and to find a way to sit down and break some bread.  So her views and ideas about culture somehow trump her knowledge of history.

I think this dismissal of history is critical, especially using culture as the ultimate explanatory tool.  And it’s actually not all that uncommon to see this sort of thing–the use of culture to displace, if not efface, very real histories.  I’m thinking of some of the “culture of poverty” arguments, and this instance in which David Brooks used the idea of culture to explain away poverty in Haiti.  I see similar uses of culture in the mainstream media, TV news, etc all the time.  Often, culture is seen as a deep, static, unchanging sort of quality that different human groups possess.  So culture is what helps to explain why people do things differently.  What’s the problem, you ask?  Well, the static version of culture that we often see in these sorts of public debates looks pretty outdated–if not outright wrong–from a contemporary anthropological point of view.  That’s because anthropologists, in general, tend to have a much more dynamic, less bounded view of what culture means these days.  The “culture” we hear about from folks like Brooks, and even in some of my interviews, seems to be stuck somewhere in the early part of the 20th century.  So why is it that this version of culture is so prevalent?  Why do we hear them so often?  That’s a pretty good question.  My theory: because anthropologists used to get their ideas out into the public quite a bit more, and the dominant–and very static–notion of culture that gets so much air time these days comes from the days of Boas, Mead, and Benedict.  Maybe this is another reason why our ideas need to find their way outside of the halls of academia.  When it comes to the idea of culture, I think the pop version could use a bit of an anthropological update.  It’s about 50 years out of date if you ask me.  Maybe more.

Back in 1982, Eric Wolf wrote an essay called “Culture: Panacea or Problem?”  This essay became part of the 2001 book Pathways of Power.  His goal in the essay was to explore the idea of culture, and to raise questions “about how cultures were assumed to be integrated and to persist over time, seemingly immune to the turmoils of history and unaffected by the implications of power” (2001: 307).  Wolf interrogates what he calls the “old culture concept,” arguing for a view of culture that accounts for unfolding processes, history, and power.  Wolf argues that culture is surely not some “panacea” that can explain away human behaviors and differences at the drop of a hat.  Instead, it’s a starting point: “It’s value is methodological: ‘Look for connections!’  It still takes work and thought to discover what these connections may be and, indeed, whether any connections exist” (308).  One the strongest points he raises is that notions about static, isolated cultures can only be sustained “as long as one abjures any interest in history” (310).  History is key, for Wolf, in revealing the complex interconnections that exist between human groups–even those that are often thought of as clearly defined cultural groups.  “For example,” he writes, “even a little pinch of history would make the society and culture we call Iroquois more problematic and less securely grounded than it has been in our anthropology books” (310).  What I find particularly powerful about Wolf’s argument is his insistence on viewing culture not as a “master plan” to be assumed, but rather as something that is continuously in a process of “construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, under the impact of multiple processes operative over wide fields of social and cultural connections” (313).  Culture should be seen as a problem to be explored, rather than as some inherent, assumed quality of particular human groups.

This brings me back to my interview with Barbara.  Her use of culture skirts the histories she knows so well.  What does this mean?  I think it’s pretty fair to say that the tensions between the two sides of the community are much less a “cultural” problem than they are a matter of specific disputes over land (and money).  Now, I have to make it clear that sweeping generalizations are by no means unique to one side of the community.  I heard plenty of talk from the “gringos” about how “the Mexicans” supposedly act, but there was also more than enough talk about the nature of “gringos” coming from Mexican residents.  Stereotypes know few bounds.  So the bias/prejudice issue is certainly a two-way street.  But I really only heard the specifically cultural argument from the gringo/expat side of the community.  That is unique in this case.  I am still in the process of figuring out what this means, where it comes from, and how I am going to address it in my writing.

One of my goals with this research is to understand the conflicts in this community, and this means listening to how people talk about social tensions, conflicts, and disputes.  How did Barbara come to her understandings and beliefs about the role of culture in shaping the relations in her community?  Why, considering all of her knowledge of the conflicts and disputes between people, would she use culture as the ultimate explanation?  Well, these are empirical questions that deserve more exploration, and this is one trajectory that I am working on chasing down.  It’s not exactly the dominant theme in my research, but it’s a key subtext that lies beneath some of the ongoing conflicts and relationships.  Again, as I said above, at this point I don’t really have any grand answers.  This use–or misuse–of the idea of culture is quite common, and I think it’s a clear case that calls for some more anthropological engagement.  Because culture is, after all, one of our bread and butter concepts–even if it has run a bit wild on us (all the more reason to get back into the game, no?).  In the end, I think one role for cultural anthropology–in this specific case and other related instances–is to point out when culture is a viable, meaningful explanatory factor, and, just as importantly, when it’s not.  Granted, sometimes culture can tell us a lot about human differences.  Sometimes culture is the answer.  But when culture is used to make an end run around history (and politics), well, maybe it’s time to take a closer look.

*It’s ironic because the project gets its name from Hernan Cortes, who was able to sack the Aztecs in 1521, but who failed to conquer the rugged Baja peninsula in the 1530s.

**Not her real name.


Wolf, Eric R.  2001.  Culture: Panacea or Problem?  In Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World.  Berkeley: University of California Press.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

13 thoughts on “When "culture" erases history

  1. Ryan, thank you for this fascinating piece of ethnography. I wonder what the important is of this being an area of potential touristic development. “Culture” and cultural difference is part of what makes tourism tick, in that people are traveling in part to see different cultures. Touristic appeal is predicated in part — to a greater or lesser extent depending on the specifics — on cultural difference. Are these gringos in favor of tourism development? If they are, then maintaining the idea that Mexicans really are different might be part of maintaining the touristic value of the place. And that presumably would fuel the value of the homes they purchased and may eventually sell to other gringos.

    I’m speculating here, of course. I love your “slight of hand” metaphor and think it fits perfectly. But I wonder what the explanatory power of culture accomplishes for the people who invoke it.

  2. Look at psychology’s attribution error/correspondence bias. The finding is that people tend to believe that other people act because of who they are (culture?) and not what they face (history?), with the reverse belief for explaining one’s own choices and actions. A parallel no?

  3. A really interesting post, Ryan, which I’ve duly shared via our Media and Social Change site (http://mediasocialchange.net/2013/04/17/when-culture-erases-history/). I haven’t read that particular essay by Wolf but I’m having difficulties with your summary of Wolf’s take on the concept of culture. Despite my strong sympathy with Wolf’s historical anthropological, I find this approach to culture rather muddled and not very helpful – I’m not sure what it means, or what I could do with it.

    My own working assumption is that there must indeed be significant cultural differences between the North American and Mexican residents in everything from the style and content of their linguistic repertoires to the way they dress or how they carry out their domestic chores, and indeed to how they regard property ownership – as well as quite a few overlaps, too (partly owing to migratory flows, the [uneven] Americanisation of Mexican popular culture via TV, movies, music, etc. over many decades, and other factors).

    Cultural differences matter. We know, for example, that the British and the Germans have different ideas about home ownership vs. renting. As a result, Germany avoided the property market boom and bust in 2008.

    These differences must surely *make a difference* when it comes to local conflicts over property, land development, etc, in Baja California. They may not explain everything, but we cannot ignore them. OK, some local residents resort to crude cultural stereotypes when trying to explain what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean that *more subtle* cultural differences are not playing a part in the conflicts (which remains to be seen).

    In sum, let’s not erase culture in our efforts to denounce cultural stereotyping.

  4. Very thoughtful, meaningful post, well expressed, so thanks. As I see it, the problem has a lot to do with the opposition between the extremely vague notion of “culture” and the much more precisely defined and understood term, “history.” If we substitute for “culture” a term that’s hardly ever used anymore by Anthropologists, i.e., “tradition,” then I think we have a better chance of expressing what strikes me as the missing element in this debate. For example, tradition can be understood as not so much the opposite of history, or even another way of thinking about the past, but more importantly, as that which actively resists the forces of history. Understood in this manner, as a reflection of the power of tradition to undermine history, to reject it and continually defy it, we can hope to arrive at something closer to what is so often referred to, by both sides (though often with very different meaning) as “culture.”

  5. I took an Intercultural Communication class last year that grappled with the idea of culture. We focused a lot on Scollon & Scollon and nexus analysis, on specific social actions instead of “culture.” But doing descriptive research without invoking “culture” is extremely hard- more of a disciplinary ideal than a practical notion. That idea came up again yesterday in a Language Contact class, when spoke about the usefulness of the nation state. Again, it makes for good research ethics to think outside of these frames, but it’s deeply integrated into the way we think and act- so much so that we see it even when it’s not there and invoke it even when trying to debunk it.

    As a researcher, these notions can be particularly difficult, because you almost find yourself translating between frameworks as you work. It’s one of those tangled rabit holes that keep us up at night…

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry it took a while for a few of them to get posted–the spam filter with the temporary SM site is a bit more aggressive for some reason so I have to approve each one. Anyway…

    @Clare: Ya, the tourism/culture angle is interesting in this part of Baja. Unlike many other tourism sites around Mexico (Yucatan, Q Roo, Oaxaca, etc), “culture” is not really the big draw in Baja. It’s more ecotourism and luxury tourism. It’s interesting really. The “culture” you come across in the tourism zones in Los Cabos, for example, focuses a lot on a sort of generalized version of Mexican culture, which means ceramics, tequila and other goods from various parts of Mexico. Baja has a unique, somewhat marginalized history in Mexico, and I don’t see a ton that really builds a lot on the actual histories of the place. There’s a bit, including some interest in the missionary period and all that. Another factor, at least in the southernmost part of the cape where I was working, is that the native groups there were pretty much wiped out. So most of the residents there are fairly recent transplants from the mainland who came over via land grants in the late 1800s or so. Anyway, overall culture isn’t really the main thing that pulls in tourists.

    Interestingly, some of the gringos/expats I have talked with have actually complained about what they refer to as a lack of “culture” in the cape region. I think they expect to see a certain kind of generalized “Mexican” culture here, like something that resembles northern Mexico, etc. Of course, there’s plenty of culture and history in the region–the ranchos, the fishing communities, etc–but it’s often not what people expect when they hope to see Mexican culture.

    You wrote: “But I wonder what the explanatory power of culture accomplishes for the people who invoke it.”

    Exactly. That’s part of what I was trying to get at in the post above. There’s something meaningful in how people are talking about culture, and it’s really fascinating. Thanks for summing up a really key issue that I was sort of dancing around above!

    @aepxc: Ya, that’s interesting. I need to look into that. Especially the part where the belief is reversed when it applies to oneself. Thanks for this lead.

    @John Postill:

    Thanks–some of your questions have been good for getting me to think through the role of culture a bit more, which is a good thing, especially considering the stage of writing that I’m in. You are absolutely right that culture matters. I was thinking after I wrote this that I might be read as saying that culture doesn’t matter–but that’s not my point at all.

    Re: Wolf: It’s possible that my short summary has muddied the waters. It’s a good essay. My take on his point is that sometimes a bit a history can help break down certain assumptions or ideas about human differences that get explained with weak arguments about “culture”. But it’s important to keep in mind that Wolf wrote the piece in the early 1980s, and was talking about “the old culture concept” at that point in time. I brought it up though because I think the David Brooks-esque version of culture is actually quite similar to that older, more static version of culture that comes from an earlier time in anthropology.

    There are indeed all kinds of subtle cultural differences that play a key role in creating divisions and boundaries. One very obvious barrier is language and communication–despite living side by side for decades, lots of folks do not speak the others’ language. Many don’t try. And this has absolutely affected things But there are other more subtle things going on as well–differences in social norms, use of space, expectations about time and social visits. Even cultural differences in the kinds of expectations people have about their houses, how they are laid out spatially. Beyond that, and getting more to the issue of the land disputes, one of the fundamental things going on is that the switch from informal land tenure to formalized, mapped, titled land is where things really went awry. This happened in the 1970s. Before that people used, sold, gambled, and gave away land in a very loose way. Those practices set the stage for serious conflict when people started wanting to buy land according to more formal rules, laws, etc. So ya, you’re definitely right that cultural practices are key. And that’s some of the other stuff that I’m trying to sift through in my notes and interviews.

    My point in this post was just to highlight a specific set of cases in which a very vague version of “culture” was used to explain away conflicts/problems even when people actually know the events and histories that led to conflict. When “Barbara” shifts from talking about the land disputes to her argument that the two sides just cannot get along because of some vague way in which Mexicans supposedly aren’t willing to join a community, I think that’s a pretty interesting shift. I don’t even think it’s really all that intentional, but I have seen a few similar cases in which very personal/specific issues are basically papered over with this vague culture-based argument.

    @Victor: Bringing in a notion of tradition might help parse things out a bit. I agree with you that “culture” is often used in incredibly vague ways. It’s interesting to me that you frame tradition as something that resists history–I suppose that would depend on whether or not we assume that the passing of time always results in change, no? How would you define tradition? My quick definition would be something like “how things have always been done.” Anyway, thanks for the comments.


    You know, I go back and forth with the whole culture thing. There are times when I think it’s so convoluted–at least how people use it–that it can become almost worthless as a concept. But overall I do think there’s something there with culture…but we have to really take care with how we think and talk about it. Anyway, when I started this project “culture” wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my questions, but it was kinda forced into the picture by 1) people like “Barbara” who use the term quite often; and 2) a need to explain certain practices and differences in how various groups use and think about land, space, places. But ya, it can all definitely start heading down a rabbit hole real quick! You’re right about that.


    Thanks again for the comments folks. Lots of good questions/thoughts. This is great, and definitely appreciated!!


  7. I really enjoyed your post and analysis. The discussion about the use of “old” and “new” concepts of culture reminded me of an article by Susan Wright that you might find interesting to continue analyzing your material: ttp://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/rai/AnthToday/wright.html
    Good luck with your work!

  8. I always enjoy your posts regarding the subject of your fieldwork Ryan. Congratulations, and while I’m at it, hoping this is not too off topic, here’s a link to a recent article by a rather important architect/urban historian regarding the history of Acapulco seen through the lens of tourist development and runaway urban growth. It doesn’t address the issues of land and culture directly, but provides an important perspective on the fact that the tourist beach emporia in Mexico are less about sleepy town-boomtown-bust than about a sort of spiral of concatenating booms and busts which generate a sort of layered, hence historical, landscape whose past is easy to gloss over in view of seemingly lineal developments. It may be of interest to you and perhaps others on this forum.


  9. Speaking as an outsider the post confuses me.

    “Sure, sometimes “culture” can tell us a lot about human behavior and differences. But there are also times when arguments based upon the concept of culture can obscure just as much as they reveal.
    …The ‘culture’ we hear about from folks like Brooks, and even in some of my interviews, seems to be stuck somewhere in the early part of the 20th century. So why is it that this version of culture is so prevalent?”

    You’re referring to the “concept” of culture not the fact of it. Culture and history help explain everyone’s behavior. The question regarding one or the other depends on how reductionist you want to make your determinism. You were born in the early 1980’s in the US. You’re the product of that era.

    It’s predictable that people now would use the language of pop anthropology to defend their own prejudices, as it makes sense that a gringa would talk about tensions with locals as if she were competing for land on Mars and not Mexico. It’s an aspect of the culture of the powerful seen in negotiation with the weak: we as citizens of the US (or ancient Athens), have culture as idea; they, as foreigners (or “barbarians”), are products to it. Brooks is similarly predictably self-serving.

    “His goal in the essay was to explore the idea of culture, and to raise questions ‘about how cultures were assumed to be integrated and to persist over time, seemingly immune to the turmoils of history and unaffected by the implications of power’ ”

    The culture of the US has both persisted and changed. Arguments over how we’ve become what we are are central to scholarship and intellectual life at large. The same debates were central to the history of the Catholic church even before Vatican II. There are now 6 Catholics on the SCOTUS and 4 of them are reactionary. That is they assume that the language of the Court is or should be, “immune to the turmoils of history and unaffected by the implications of power”.

    It bothers me that anthropologists can still write as if they were culture-less.
    There’s no such thing as value-free science, especially in the social sciences. The post is the product of culture, even its naiveté is the product of culture and history.

  10. @mercepic: thanks for that link.

    @salul: thanks for the link about acapulco–that sounds good. especially the part about moving a bit past the “sleepytown boom/bust” thing, which is a story that gets told a lot when it comes to tourism. i am especially interested in your mention of how easy it is to gloss over the histories of the places that become tourism resorts–this is very much the case, i think, in places like los cabos.


    You wrote:

    “You’re referring to the “concept” of culture not the fact of it.”

    Yes, I am talking about the concept of culture, and how people take on that concept, understand it and use it as a sort of rationale to explain any number of things. Sometimes I think these kinds of culture-based arguments are very useful, and sometimes they aren’t. The David Brooks example is a good case in which “culture” arguments can lead things astray a bit. But that doesn’t mean that I think culture is somehow a worthless concept. Of course it’s not.

    “Culture and history help explain everyone’s behavior. The question regarding one or the other depends on how reductionist you want to make your determinism. You were born in the early 1980′s in the US. You’re the product of that era.”

    Yep, culture and history help explain behavior. But they don’t tell us everything. I was born in the 1970s (not the 80s) and surely that shaped a lot of who I am. I am a product of that era, at least in many ways. But I’d argue there are other factors involved that have shaped who I am as well. Small, particular histories and events matter…and biology is in there somewhere as well. Big histories matter too. It’s all in there. And ya “it’s all very complex,” but that’s what makes trying to understand humanity interesting.

    “It bothers me that anthropologists can still write as if they were culture-less.”

    Nope—that’s not my point here at all. Culture matters. My point here is just to point out some problematic uses of the broad concept of culture–I should have been more explicit about that. I am not arguing that culture has zero explanatory value. Of course it does. Again, I am talking about specific instances in which arguments based upon the notion of culture basically sidestep critical historical events.

    Thanks again for the comments everyone.

  11. yeah its just a discourse strategically covering up prejudice. “urban culture” etc as a way to blame african americans for their poverty. probably all flows out from the southern strategy and its repercussions.

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