Trouillot on rethinking "culture" (via Living Anthropologically)

Jason Antrosio has a great new post about Michel Rolf Trouillot’s chapter on culture in the excellent book Global Transformations.  It’s easy to misread Trouillot’s argument–so I think it’s important to really look closely at what he’s saying and why.

Trouillot’s chapter on culture is incredibly relevant these days.  Especially considering the fact that the concept has taken on endless new uses and meanings.  These varied uses often rankle anthropologists, who feel that the concept is somehow theirs and that there must be some way to right the wrongs that have been done to their blessed theoretical child.  Trouillot basically smashes this sort of thinking.

I read through this chapter the other day and it also reminded me of some of the issues that came up in Jason’s recent post about gang culture and court room anthropology.  What happens when people start using the idea of culture to make warped arguments about human behavior?  How can anthropology be used to counter these kinds of arguments?  Trouillot gets right into these issues and arguments in his chapter.  But I think people can easily misread Trouillot’s argument as some sort of dismissal of the culture concept.  However, that’s not what he’s doing–he makes a crucial argument about getting back to the “conceptual kernel” of the culture, basically what those early 20th century anthropologists were  trying to do with it in the first place.  In essence, get back to the point.  Get back to what they were trying to address with that concept.   This is fundamental.

I think that sort of move makes a lot more sense than trying to go around correcting the entire world for “getting it wrong” when it comes to culture.  How effective is it, really, to respond to a twisted use of culture with a lecture about the supposed “right” way to think about the concept??  It’s a dead end.  And nobody is going to listen.  I have been guilty of that sort of thing and it truly leads nowhere.

We as anthropologists–of all people–should know that ideas, words, and concepts shift in meaning–and how they are deployed for social, personal, and political purposes.  The concept has taken on a different life, and now has a range of (often very political) meanings that were not part of the original conception.  We should probably stop being surprised or taken aback by it all, and figure out another strategy.  Instead of doubling down (as Jason says) on the one that got away and trying to take back something that we can’t really own.

I also think Trouillot’s argument about the relationship between culture, race, and racism is of utmost importance, especially in instances when people start talking about “gang culture” or “black culture” or a “culture of poverty.”  Culture, as formulated by the Boasians, was meant to combat warped views about human race (and racism) that were rampant in the early 20th century.  We can all argue about the overall success of Boasian anthropology in this regard, but the point here is that culture had specific meanings that challenged race-based (and racist) ideas about humanity.

These days, however, the concept has sort of gone off the tracks (“out of orbit” as Trouillot says) and is often used in ways that are, basically, akin to racialist/racist thinking.  In short, it’s used to support thinking that is the polar opposite of what Boas and company were going for.  When someone like David Brooks argues that people in Haiti are poor because of the CULTURE, it’s pretty clear that the whole idea has gone off the deep end.  Trouillot mentions folks like Lawrence Harrison,  Sam Huntington, and Charles Murray, who are all making similar sorts of twisted arguments about culture (all tinged with various biased/racist assumptions).

But, as Trouillot says, all is not lost.  He says it’s a waste of time to go around trying to tell the world the “right way” to think about culture.  Instead, get back to the primary ideas behind the concept, and push forward in defense of THAT.

It’s a powerful argument.

But I have a feeling this won’t go over too well with a lot of cultural anthropologists here in the US (for obvious reasons).  Yet I’d argue it’s vital to really think through the implications of and reasons behind Trouillot’s argument.  Especially since anthropology seems to have so much trouble getting a foothold in the public sphere, and we often complain about how wrong certain pundits (and others) get it when they talk about human behavior, culture, and so on.  Maybe we need another strategy besides telling wider audiences that they “just don’t get it” when it comes to some of our core ideas.  I think Trouillot provides a way out of some of these dilemmas…if we’re open to his argument.


PS: Interestingly and coincidentally, reading this chapter also lead me back to Ingold’s arguments about anthropology and ethnography.  Jason brings Ingold into the argument as well.  Hmmm.  Serendipity I think not.


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.

One thought on “Trouillot on rethinking "culture" (via Living Anthropologically)

  1. What I find some what lacking in this whole discussion – and perhaps in many anthropologist’s addressing the question of culture – is the vital role of the economy within any culture system. The institutions, organizational forms, and ideologies of any given culture are most often readily seen as dependent variables whereas the economic activities and the resource base of that culture constitute behavioural and ideological adaptation to these activities that sustain every day existence. The term “culture of poverty” advances the idea that the people’s institutions and ideas are constrained by the poverty of their resources and opportunities to expand their economic activities. It was never meant to imply that this adaptation to these desperate shortages of land, resources, or income in some way were explained by the culture that arose as a result of them!

    Why did people confuse the direction of the causal error here? When it become a “blame the culture” game?

    That was not done by anthropological analysis, but by those whose interests lay in obscuring the hard reality that the economic anthropologist’s analysis laid bare.

Comments are closed.