Re: Definitions of culture

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 11 Aug 1996 12:09:06 +0900

>Halloway comments:
>>"... and [culture] that complex whole ..blah blah per Tylor, AND IN WHICH
>I think Halloway has identified a crucial aspect of culture--the
>arbitrariness (and I assume here he means "arbitrary" in the way
>mathematicians use the term, not arbitray in the sense of "irrational") of
>phenomena identified as "cultural." I am struck by his comment because it,
>of necessity, grounds culture in the operation of the mind, not in the
>consequences in the form of behaviors which we can observe. The problem
>with the "learned behavior, social learning" kinds of definitions is (in my
>view) their failure to identify what is the underlying process/operation
>that is at issue and makes culture a distinct kind of phenomenon.

I think that Dwight's concern with "underlying process/operation" is right
on the mark. Still I wonder if thinking in this area is best served by
focusing on definitional issues that assume at the outset that culture is
"a distinct kind of phenomenon"? Wouldn't it be more productive to set out
a few "working definitions" of things we find interesting and get on with
trying to explain them.

Thus in my own run at "religion." I make no claim that a definition of
religion focused on ritual exhausts the meaning of the subject. I would
claim, however, that it is likely to be more productive than
intellectualist or phenomenological approaches. Here, of course, I mean
productive in a scientific sense: productive of more powerful explanations.
To a believer who is interested in cultivating a deeper faith or someone
who sees religions as analogous to works of art, to be studied with an eye
to appreciating their "inner" values, this will not seem productive at all.

It does, at least, have the advantage of being able to say,
"See, overthere, there are people engaging in non-routine, stereotyped
behavior, which involves what are to us invisible forces, and is
specialized for communication in agonistic situations. Now why is that?"
The first two elements in the working definition are rooted in a widely
shared fieldwork experience: people stop doing what they usually do and
insist that what they do instead has to be done in a certain way. The
reference to invisible forces excludes training in specialized skills, like
playing the piano or practicing a martial art. It is, however, insufficient
to exclude, for example, a doctor engaged in treating an infectious disease
or a car mechanic trying to puzzle out the unobvious source of a rattle.
When, however, they speak to the germs or machine in question and treat
them as sentient agents involved in an agonistic situation, we are clearly
on the border of what we have identified as ritual (a.k.a. religious)

The question then arises, where to we find such behavior? The suggestion
that what is going on is drawing intellectual boundaries is interesting,
but hardly sufficient. In _Purity and Danger_ Douglas suggests that ritual
tends to arise at points where experience violates boundaries. It is clear,
however, that not all possible boundary violations result in ritual
responses. Ritual occurs where boundary violations are *important* to the
people in question. Why should they be important? In _Natural Symbols_,
then, Douglas goes a step further, noting that what is important may be
either "group" boundaries or criteria defining positions in hierarchical
"grids." It is, however, possible that one or the other or both *will not
be important*. Group identity may be a casual thing, nothing to make a
great fuss about. To serious eqalitarians, concern about grid is a no-no.
What, in fact, is going on in particular cases has to be determined

Are we done, then, with cognitive issues? Of course not. A deeper
understanding of the syntax of ritual and the meanings ascribed to it
demands a more sophisticated model of cognitive processing than "Hey guys,
people draw boundaries."

Do note, though, how interesting things become when we pick some working
definitions and get down to serious investigation of emprical variation.
That's science. Fun, too. :-)

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo