Historical Approaches to Understanding Culture

Michael K. Wilson
February 2012
Pre-History of the Culture Concept 1
 6th cent. BC, Pindar: “Nomos is king over all!” Nomos =
written + unwritten “law”, incl. customs.
Ancient Greeks: Which is primary – phusis (nature) or
nomos (convention)?
Cultural relativism of Sophists and threat to
foundations of Greek morality.
Socrates vs. Crito: mustn’t undermine nomos.
Greek rhetoric: ethos = “character” + “usage”, “custom”,
“way of life”, as per LXX 1 Ki 18:28 + Jn 19:40.
1 Kings 18:28
 “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with
swords and spears, as was their custom (ethos), until
their blood flowed.”
John 19:40
 “Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with
the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance
with Jewish burial customs (ethos).”
Pre-History of the Culture Concept 2
 Socrates: to be human being = to be a citizen.
 Heraclitus: defend city’s nomoi as though defending
city walls.
 Socrates: nomos = “soul” or “ordering principle” of city.
 paideia // “enculturation”, “socialisation.”
 Examples of incipient ethnography: Herodotus re
Persians; Tacitus re Germans
Pre-History of the Culture Concept 3
 Marco Polo (AD 1298): Description of the World
 Roger Bacon (1214-1294): Recognising cultural
differences in different localities. Quote
 Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406): Culture distinguishing man
from animals. Founder of sociology?
 Gutenberg Printing Press (1450) + Great Voyages of
Discovery (1400-1600): printing of exotic tales re other
 Montaigne (1533-1592): cultural relativism; vs.
“barbaric” and “savage”
Roger Bacon
Opus Majus
 And we see that all things vary according to different
localities of the world not only in nature, but also men
in their customs; since the Ethiopians have one set of
customs, the Spaniards another, the Romans still
another, and the Greeks yet another. For even the
Picards, who are neighbours to the true Gauls, have
such a difference in customs and language, but that we
cannot but wonder at such diversity in neighbouring
Pre-History of the Culture Concept 4
 Giovanni Batista Vico (New Science 1744): father of
ethnology: culture = sets of linguistic and physical
symbols holding society together.
Ann Turgot (1750): transmission of culture. Quote
Matthew Arnold (1870s): articulated concept of
culture. Quote
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): culture – civilised life vs.
state of nature.
Edward B. Tylor (1871): foundational definition of
culture. Quote
Anne Turgot
 “Possessor of a treasure of signs which he has the
faculty of multiplying to infinity, he [man] is able to
assure the retention of his acquired ideas, to
communicate them to other men, and to transmit
them to his successors as a constantly expanding
Matthew Arnold
(“High Culture”)
 Culture is “a pursuit of our total perfection by means
of getting to know, on all the matters which most
concern us, the best which has been thought and said
in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a
stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock
notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but
mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in
following them staunchly which makes up for the
mischief of following them mechanically.”
Edward B. Tylor
 “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad,
ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which
includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom,
and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man
as a member of society.”
Historical Approaches to
Understanding Cultural Differences
First Encounters: All Are Sinners (16th century)
2. Second Thoughts: Romantic Innocence. Quotes
3. Anthropological Approaches.
Pierre de Ronsard
 Indigenous Brazilians: “innocently and completely
untamed and nude, as naked in dress as they are
stripped of malice, who know neither the names of
virtue nor vice...”
 “Live, happy, you people without pain, without cares.
Live joyously: I myself would wish to live so.”
Anthropological Approaches
Cultural evolutionism
New Evolutionism
Historical particularism
Dialectical Materialism
Cultural Materialism
Psychological Approaches
Symbolic (Interpretive)
Cultural Evolutionism
Auguste Comte (1798-1857): founder of sociology.
Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
E.B. Tylor (1832-1917)
David Hume (1711-1776)
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)
Social Darwinism (19th century)
Anthropological Approaches
Auguste Comte
Positive Region Stage
(scientific principles; pure reasoning)
Metaphysical Stage
(critical thinking)
Theological Stage
(primitive religious thought)
Friedrich Hegel
All will be free
(European constitutional monarchies)
Some were free
(Greek city states)
One man free
(Asiatic tyrant)
E.B. Tylor
David Hume
Primal Polytheism
Lewis Henry Morgan
Social Darwinism
 “Not only were the cultures of modern-day Europe and
America seen as the pinnacle of cultural progress, but
the white race (especially its male half) was seen as the
pinnacle of biological progress” (Harris)
 Most influential representative = Herbert Spencer.
Herbert Spencer
Industrial Societies
Dependence on contractual relations, and voluntary cooperation,
justice and peace, freedom and individual rights, achieved status,
social mobility, and cultural values of mutual respect,
independence, individual initiative and truthfulness.
Militant Societies
Dependence on force (external warfare and internal coercion and
regimentation), constraints on liberty (little protection of
individual rights), ascribed status, and cultural values of loyalty,
obedience, faith in authority and discipline.
Slave Society
Primitive Communism
Historical Particularism:
Franz Boas
 All cultures different but equal.
 Promotion of ethnographic fieldwork
 Cultures are “a patchwork of elements derived from a
haphazard series of borrowings among near and
distant peoples” (Harris).
 all social institutions or structures - family, education
system, political system, economy, etc. - cohere to
provide a stable, functioning social system.
 Assumption: value consensus: commonly held beliefs
bind society together and provide social stability.
Psychological Approaches:
“Culture and Personality”
 A subset of functionalism which links
cultural beliefs and practices with
individual personality and seeks to
connect individual personality with
cultural beliefs and practices.
 Main proponents:
Ruth Benedict
 Ruth Benedict: culture is a larger version
of the individual personality.
 Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead
New Evolutionism/Modernisation
 The modernising process is due to some form of
technological or economic development:
 Leslie White: capture and application of energy
 Levy: greater use of inanimate power and tools
 Smelser: technological advancement, industrialisation
and urbanisation
 Moore: individualistic, future-oriented, secular and
achievement-based values, urban lifestyles, a complex
division of labour, nuclear family structure, the
extension of education, a high degree of social mobility,
and achieved status.
Dialectical Materialism
 In all societies there is fundamental contradiction
between the means of production (roughly, the
technology) and the relations of production (who
owns the means of production).
 This clash eventually produces a synthesis, i.e.
Cultural Materialism
Marvin Harris
 All peculiarities of culture explicable as local variations
in man’s adaptation to the physical environment
 Marvin Harris saw cannibalism as an adaptive
response to protein deficiency!
(Claude Lévi-Strauss)
 Cultural differences of thought and behaviour, no
matter how great the range of technological and
abstract sophistication, are only apparent differences.
 Under the surface are psychological uniformities due
to the structure of the human brain and unconscious
thought processes.
Symbolic (Interpretive)
Anthropology (Clifford Geertz)
 A cultural system of meaning is shared by members of
the same society, being made up of the ways in which
they understand and interpret both their environment
and other members of their society.
 People’s interpretations of meaning determine all their

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