Abstract definitions

James G. Carrier (jgc5p@UVA.PCMAIL.VIRGINIA.EDU)
Wed, 2 Feb 1994 14:35:58 EST

2 February, 1994

Dear Folks,

Periodically the people on anthro-l go through a bout of trying to define
`culture'. And just as periodically I find myself suspecting that the
exercise is wrong-headed.
It is easy to see the allure of casting about for definitions of terms
that are important for an academic discipline. However, I do not think that
the result will be what anyone thinks it is.
The basis of my concern is that the debate revolves around a definition
of `culture' in the abstract. However, neither academics nor anyone else
(except perhaps lexicographers) use definitions in the abstract. Rather, they
use them in context. In the case of anthropology, the context is
problem-solving or (empirical) investigation more generally. The definition
in the abstract will have to be applied to practical cases; it will have to
be _used_.
This use will (if anything I have learned is even close to the truth) do
two things. First, it will change our sense of the definition. That is, we
will know what it means in a way that we did not before. Second, it will give
us a realistic way of evaluating the definition. That _realistic way_
revolves around: Does this definition allow us to make sense of our subject
matter better than we had before? Does it allow us to do interesting things?
In short, the recurrent debate about the definition of culture seems
relatively useless absent any detailed application of the proposed definition
(or absent any invocation of work that has used the proposed definition to
produce interesting results). In other words, it looks too much like
arm-chair theorizing.


James G. Carrier

29, University Circle / Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903
(804) 971-2983 / jgc5p@virginia.edu