What's it all about?

John L. McCreery (jlm@TANUKI.TWICS.CO.JP)
Wed, 26 Jan 1994 11:50:37 JST

Personally, I am sad to see this list turning to discussion of who
insulted whom; a form of interaction to which the medium seems all too
prone. Could we, perhaps, get back to doing anthropology? Do note my
assumption that there is more to "doing anthropology" than the
passionate pursuit of what's wrong with other people's attitudes, ideas,
values, personalities, etc. I agree absolutely with those who see in
cultural relativity the modest claim that in dealing with any group of
people we ought to suspend judgment long enough to hear what they
have to say, assess where they're coming from, and consider the
circumstances in which they live, before, in an always tentative way,
venturing to assert what we think we've understood.

That said, I'd like to pick up two threads in recent posts and try tying
them together. Some of Foss's recent posts point to a very real
definitional problem. Two people meet, interact, begin to share a
definition of the situation. At what point are we willing to call their
shared understanding a "culture." As I read Foss, examples like, say,
60s' student movements, avant-gardes, cults, become "cultures" when
certain markers (distinctive forms of language, dress, ritualized
behavior, body art, etc.) come to signify membership in the group.
There is no assumption here about the way the group is organized. The
only thing assumed is consciousness that certain markers mean "us,"
not "them."

In his latest post, Read writes,

"As I recollect, this was, roughly, the goal of the ethnoscientists. (e.g.,
Frake's How to ask for a drink.... type of work). But to say that culture
= expectations leads one to asserting that culture = predictive model
and that easily leads to inclusions of things that should not be included.
It seems that "expectations" are a consequence, not a distinguishing
feature, of what constitutes culture."

To me saying that "expectations" are a consequence, not a distinguising
feature of culture suggests the alternative view that culture is
composed of precisely those things which a group's members TAKE
FOR GRANTED; assumptions of which they may be conscious, or then
again they may not.

Combining these two views leads me to the premise that

(1) The existence of "us" vs. "them" distinctions is prima-facie evidence
that a culture exists, and

(2) That job No. 1 for ethnographrs is trying to sort out the
assumptions behind the existence of "us."

(3) The evidence from which we infer the assumptions that constitute a
culture includes everything we can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and
feel about the members of the group in question. Deciding which
particular bits of evidence either support or contradict our
interpretations is the basic epistemological problem we face in planning
research and assessing its results.

Yours truly, John McCreery.