Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What's Wrong With Anthropology Students?

I'll tell you!

In a classroom of over 30 people, who are all upper-division anthropology students NOT A SINGLE PERSON (including the professor! for fuck's sake!) could define the word: culture.

Meanwhile Franz Boas is rolling in his grave.

Yes, this is a serious problem. This is the kind of stupidity I have to deal with day by day at my university. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm even in college, because too often I have to watch as my peers and professors continue to act completely idiotic.

By the way, for your information, the definition of culture is: humanity's extra-somatic means of adaptation.

(However, my professor was unable to comprehend this, and actually needed me to define extra-somatic for him -- only he couldn't understand the definition. Same problem occurred when I defined "theory" for him. Using the word "framework" in a definition apparently makes him become super-literal.)

Y'know, this really makes it so much easier to believe that our country is getting stupider. When students can't define the subjects they study, and professors don't understand metaphors or nuance. This is the kind of place where damn dumb shit is definitely going down.

As for me, I can't help but shake my head and keep it moving.


6 footnotes:

Mira said...

Wait a second, Zek.

Boas' definition of culture, or anybody else's for that matter, is just that... A definition of culture. It's not absolute. It's not "true" in any objective sense of the word.

Plus, I am sure you are aware of the fact European and American authors usually have pretty different ideas on what culture actually means, and, as far as I know, they still haven't reached a consensus on that one.

In short, nobody knows what culture actually IS. I know this is a paradox, since culture is, arguably, a single most important anthropological term. But to quote Thad, anthropologists don't know what culture is; however, they know what culture ISN'T.

So I am shocked you are expecting students, or even professors, to know a definition of something that is still not defined.

By the way, for your information, the definition of culture is: humanity's extra-somatic means of adaptation.

Eh. Not really. It's just ONE of the ways you can look at it.

Zek J Evets said...

@Mira: You raise some good points, but the fact remains that my professors and fellow students were unable to successfully define culture. Not even on an individual basis.

Besides, the provided definition does kinda cover a broad sweep. It basically says culture isn't genetic, and that's about it.

Yeah, the term is hot contested, but I still expect better of anthropologists. This isn't an introductory course; this is an advanced ethnographic methods course. Because I expect people to be able to define something they want to study, even if that definition is only a personal one. But sitting there with blank faces and awkward silence? Bleh!

I'm curious now though. What is the commonly used European definition(s) of culture?

Mira said...

Well, it all depends on the school of thought. Europeans and Americans often had a different ideas about what culture is, depending on the most popular paradigm that was "in" (for example, Levi-Strauss' structuralism was more popular in Europe, particularly France).

There's no dominant paradigm at the moment, I believe. My professors are quite diverse when it comes to this, but I've noticed many have a soft spot for postmodernism.

All in all, current definitions of culture tend to go along the lines of culture as a symbolic system and the whole Geertzian Theory.

Still, I do believe Thad was onto something when he talked about this; instead of focusing on what culture IS, maybe we should try our best to define what culture ISN'T, given the fact the word is used and abused in everyday's context and even general population has some (quite wrong) ideas about it. This might be particularly important in the US, where some people (as far as I can tell) see culture as nothing but a PC term for "race".

That being said, of course culture is not genetic (who claims that it is?!?!) but we still don't know what it is. (Because, let's face it, it isn't something truly real... It's a construct defined by anthropologists so they could have a common term for different phenomena that occur with humans and so they could make their research easier.)

Zek J Evets said...

@Mira: I'm down with defining what culture isn't. It's a common trope in Jewish mysticism when trying to describe God. They mostly spend their time telling us what he isn't, or comparing crazy things and telling us how they're not even close to... God.

But that said, the most common definition that I've heard in practically every anthropological paper I've read has been my above definition. I mean, it's so often repeated it's almost a mantra. Of course, I'm only limited to English-language papers.

Sure, different disciplines within anthropology (which in the US includes archaeology) focus on different definitions, but it always seems to come back to the idea that culture is everything that's not genetic.

Which is actually a very Boasian thing to say, now that I think about it.

Despite this, some people -- notably in Australia -- people still claim culture as genetic. You see this a lot in the health community surrounding treatment for Aborigines.

As for postmodernism, I hope it dies soon. I get so tired of postmodernity with all its wishy-washy overly abstract and obscure blahness.

I want the New Sincerity to ascend already =/

Anonymous said...

I know this is six years later, but what the hell. My only comment would be that your present definition of culture ("humanity's extra-somatic means of adaptation") is Lewis Binford's, in his 1962 work, Archaeology as Anthropology. From a social anthropological perspective, it isn't actually a definition, but a theory. It either: theorises that everything we call "culture" (language, opera, house design, kinship structure, religion) is evolutionarily adaptive (something many evolutionary specialists would disagree with); or defines as "culture" everything extra-somatic and human that can be seen as adpative (which is a bad definition, since the category of "what is adaptive" is contested - after all, even Darwin didn't view everything as adaptive, some stuff is just random mutation). The issue here, it would seem to me, would be whether you are substantiating culture as something that is inter-generational - in other words, that it has survived for some period of time, which would make it a reasonable (but only reasonable) candidate for being adaptive. Binford's definition is largely rejected by social and cultural anthropologists because it's derivation from Binford's home discipline of archaeology is the shadow background to it: generally, archaeologists, precisely because of the conditions of their work, concentrate on remaining MATERIAL culture, and exclude somatic forms of culture such as bodily habitus (Mauss, Bourdieu, etc.), language, religious disciplines, etc. This may also be why your tutor was unaware of Binford's definition: it isn't that widely used outside ethnoarchaeology.

Also, be careful here: somatic does not necessarily equate with genetic.

Hope that helps, even if rather post-hoc!

Martin Mills, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

Zek J. Evets said...

Mr. Mills,

Belated, but still appreciated! Thanks for the insight =)