September 8, 2014

GUARDADO | Why Culture Matters

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Though much of recent U.S. concerns on Afghanistan have been about elections and guaranteeing the country’s stability in the long-term, there is a long-standing issue that has not garnered much attention: women’s rights. It might be surprising to find out that Afghanistan is still “one of the worst places to be a woman.” This stems from various factors, such as the persecution of women for “moral crimes” like “running away from a forced or abusive marriage” or having sex outside of marriage in the case of rape. The fact that such persecution still exists today seems incredible, but part of it is due to what people believe are engrained cultural attitudes and practices. But is culture the real culprit?

Anthropologists have struggled to define the concept of culture since the term began to be widely used in the late 19th century. Even today, its common usage is not always clear. We say people are “uncultured” when they lack certain knowledge; we use the category “popular culture” to talk about certain films, books, songs and other mainstream ideas and phenomena; and we compare our own cultures by talking about language, beliefs and food. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc. of a particular society, group, place or time” as well as “a particular society that has its own beliefs, way of life, art, etc.” and “a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).”

If precisely defining the word clearly gives us so much trouble, why do we bother? Because anthropology is a discipline that concerns itself with power relationships, and because definitions of culture often reflect particular interests. When a term like culture (and often civilization) can be used as a justification for oppression and inequality, its definition becomes highly relevant.

Edward Tylor was one of the first to give a professional definition of culture. He considered that “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” (1871). A couple of interesting features stand out. First, Tylor equates culture with civilization, a term which may also mean multiple things (civilizations as opposed to savagery, civilization as progress, civilization as a particular society), and may also be manipulated to justify certain behaviors. In fact, colonialism was often justified by stating that it was the colonizing power’s moral duty to bring people out of the state of savagery and into civilization. But who decides what is savagery and what is civilization?

Second, Tylor states that culture is acquired, rather than innate, which implies that morals, laws and other capabilities vary across societies rather than being universal human characteristics. Though this relativist position is important, it is imperative not to suspend all moral judgment.

Clifford Geertz, a more contemporary American anthropologist states, “Believing with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs…” (1973). What is most important about this definition is that Geertz implies that individuals are constantly “creating” culture, like a spider constantly spins its web. In this respect, Geertz steps away from an idea of culture as fixed traditions and towards a more flexible idea of culture.

Even more recently, Sally Engle Merry wrote about a new understanding of culture, which “envisions a far more fluid, contested, and changing set of values and practices than that provided by the idea of culture as tradition” and explained culture as “unbounded, contested, and connected to relations of power” (2003).

In her article, “Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way),” Merry discusses powerful reasons why culture matters. Essentially, she argues that seeing culture as static, homogenous and as “tolerance without limits” is dangerous and wrong. One example Merry gives is “an incident in Pakistan which resulted in a gang rape of a young woman, an assault apparently authorized by a local tribal council.” Similarly, Merry cites the practice of female genital cutting/mutilation.

While it is tempting to look at both practices as “tradition” and as part of the culture, it is clear that this is not what culture is about. Thus, while culture seen in a narrow and distorted sense can be an excuse to sit back and allow such practices to continue, a more nuanced understanding of culture provides the tools to fight against these human right violations.