Re: Definitions of culture

John Cole. (jrc@TEI.UMASS.EDU)
Mon, 12 Aug 1996 23:44:22 -0400

I have not followed every item on this thread, so I hope I'm not just
re-treading. One reason a number of anthropologists stress "behavior" as part
of culture (aside from the fact that it *IS* :) ] is historical. There was
quite a long time when culture seemed to get defined as nothing but mental
constructs, contrary to and ignoring "founding definitions" by Tylor, Boas,
Morgan, Marx, et al. We latter-day materialists felt the need to reintroduce
the material world, since to us it *was* in fact there--sometimes, it seemed,
contrary to some structuralists, hyper-Freudians, etc. As part of my
discussion of the "material" in material culture, I ended my dissertation with
a quote from that prominent cultural materialist, Alphonse Capone: "You get
more with a smile and a gun than with a smile alone." (And if I've misquoted
myself and Al, sorry--tomorrow perhaps I'll sue me.) As an archaeologist
dealing with "the crunchy parts of culture," I believe my subject matter is
more tangible than the "fossilized ideas" concept implies re: artifacts.

But yes, consult Kluckhohn and Kroeber--and use a critical eye to be sure not
to rule important aspects of culture out of bounds or non-existant.

One further note: the debate about "animal culture" is no debate unless one is
a "human exceptionalist" anxious about proving we're "not just animals."
Various animals have degrees of culture, from tool-making to imposition of
arbitrary forms on the environment to shared learned behavior to emotions to
ritual.....etc. Humans do a lot of these things MOREso, but the evolutionary
continuity should be obvious--and to me, at least, even comforting in that it
suggests that we have very great plasticity and yet extended "kinship" with
other species!

--John R. Cole