Talking Culture

Thu, 3 Feb 1994 14:45:35 -0700

Bob Graber writes that he wants to be able to say that "Automobiles are a
feature of our culture." He complains that McCreery's definition does not
allow that, forcing him to say "Information about automobiles is part of our
culture," leaving the actual object out.

I would like to maintain the distinction between culture defined in mental
terms, i.e., defined along the lines of McCreery's definition, and material
culture. Thus, as I see it, culture includes knowledge about building,
repairing, or driving cars, using mathematical notation, calendars, or the
alphabet, and so on, but not the actual things. This does not preclude study
of material culture (as an archaeologist this is all I study directly), but
allows me to focus on the connections and disjunctions between the things
people make and the more-or-less shared knowledge and world view that causes
people to make and use things in patterned ways.

Graber prefers a definition of culture that subsumes both what I have called
culture and what I call material culture. I have no problem with this but I
think he then needs separate terms for what I call culture (maybe mental
culture, or shared knowledge, or...) and material culture.
The real trouble is that the term culture has been around so long, and used in
so many ways, that it tends to blur (or obliterate) the boundaries between
concepts that could usefully be kept separate. Maybe, instead of trying to
define the term culture (despite my rather weak attempt to define the term
above, I agree with James Carrier that the attempt is probably midguided), we
should try to identify the different concepts to which the term has been
applied. Once the concepts are identified we could then try to agree on what
terms to use to refer to those concepts, perhaps reserving 'culture' for the
whole collection, or maybe discarding the term altogether.

Some may object that they find it useful to define 'culture' in one way or
another, but this begs the question of whether it might be more useful to keep
the definition but apply a less ambiguous term to it.

Jim Allison
Northern Arizona University