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.