Re: Anthros as policy wonks

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Thu, 16 May 1996 11:54:42 -0400

In a message dated 96-05-10 15:15:50 EDT, nesn-info@CCE.ORG (Holly Swyers)

>Part of my paralysis came from the realization that there is not really a
>single culture at work in the U.S. - or if there is, it's beyond my grasp
>right now.

Whether or not the U.S. has a single culture depends in large part on how one
defines the word "culture." My own preference is to define culture in broad
terms to include master symbols and underlying definitions and values (but
not social norms). At this level there is, in my view, "an American

Culture complexes and norm complexes are for me both ideological phenomena
and are expressed through discourse and behavior. The difference is that
while definitions and values establish the basic outlines of a meaningful
world, in norms I see the general ideas contained in these outlines as they
have been acted out and interpreted by groups of people. Norms possess a
degree of specificity that values lack. Moreover, norm complexes may shift
with each passing consensus reached by a social group about how basic
principles should be enacted. They may also differ in their particulars from
one social grouping to another within the culture.

This business about culture and norms can be very slippery. From an
ethnographic standpoint, we generally begin by studying particular groups.
So, in some sense, norms come first. There may be an element of faith in
the act of abstracting beyond norms to some more general, common (and
hypothetical) cultural level. Some people are comfortable doing this; others
are not. The best way to appreciate the reality of culture (as here defined)
may be to compare collections of social groupings that are very "different"
-- for example, if you compare a range of American communities with villages
from the Highlands of New Guinea, you will find that by comparison the
American groups actually share a lot in common, especially at the level of
master symbols and basic definitions of reality. In this way, one can get a
sense of what American culture is.

>How do you impose policy across cultures (especially bearing in
>mind a relativist stance)?

It might be more difficult across cultures, but a little less difficult
across contrasting social groups that, while possessing different norms,
share a common culture (see above). The idea would be to try to frame
policy more at the cultural level, while allowing for normative variation.
For example, rather than make it an article of American child protective
policy that all young children must be supervised according to middle-class
norms (e.g., under adult surveillance or kept in a confined space), it might
make more sense to talk about how effective supervision may be provided by a
variety of norms emanating from different social groups (e.g, using older,
more responsible children, a network of different housholds, etc.).
Obviously, writing policy in this way is not as easy as it might look, and
there may be limits beyond which policy makers would not want to go in
admitting norms. But I think the principle is a valid one and an important
one in this day and age, when "managing diversity" is emerging as a principle
challenge for American domestic policy. Moreover, it's an approach that an
anthropologist would typically think of. It does not capture, for me, the
typical mindset of most policy makers.

I think it needs to be kept in mind that the U.S. is not a hopeless
hodgepodge of contrasting cultural values. We do share basic notions. Hence
my belief that consensus policy is possible if it's done properly. By
contrast, policy across cultures would be much more difficult. For example,
I believe that (virtually) all American communities would agree in principle
that sexual activity with younger children is "wrong." But how would you
write policy in this area to cover both American communities and Highland New
Guinea communities in which sexual activity between older warriors and their
younger male apprentices is normatively accepted and culturally supported by
beliefs about the importance for growth of insemination with sperm (see
Gilbert Herdt's _Guardians of the flutes_. 1981)?

>Another thought - what does bureaucratic culture do to people? my roommate
>works for a company that hires people to stand in line at city offices (no
>kidding) in order to get permission to do something. When it takes days or
>months or years to do the paperwork to put a new window in a public
>and when someone has the authority to arbitrarily tell you "no," - doesn't
>this seem the recipe for complaint? I am constantly amazed at the levels of
>creative insubordination I have witnessed in my life, but insubordination
>comes with a risk. Just a curious question a little off the topic - in how
>many cultures is there a disparity between "by the book" and "the way we
>actually do things"?
Actually, your distinction between "by the book" and "the way we actually do
things" may refer to different norms for getting things done -- one more
"official," the other more "effective." Why we feel the need to do something
in the first place may be more cultural.

Mike Cahill