21A.100 – Professor James Howe
September 14, 2004
The culture concept is fundamental to anthropology
Years ago, we used to have more trouble introducing the concept, because people tended
to think of the other meaning of culture, i.e., high culture, esp. art, music, refinement.
But today the anthropological meaning is pervasive.
Accepted all over the world
It is used in the popular media to explain almost everything: What was the problem with
The culture at NASA.
One hears of corporate culture, academic culture,
the culture of just about anything.
But it wasn’t always so.
Culture concept arose, mostly in 19
century, as way to talk
about systematic nature of human thought and action.
Previously, many explanations of human actions and thought were put in terms of
Why do people in Alps believe in witches?---because of the
thin mountain air.
Why are people in Latin America or Indonesia inferior to us
Their hot, unchanging climate doesn’t challenge them like our cold winters
The famous essayist Montesquieu said Northerners were brave, vigorous, insensitive to
pain, weakly sexed, intelligent, and drunkards.
Another Frenchman of the Enlightenment
said Northerners faithful, loyal to government, cruel, undersexed.
malicious, crafty, wise, expert in science but bad in government.
Another said northern
languages have lots of consonants, because people afraid to open mouths and let in cold
It sounds silly now, but was very common, still pops up today.
At other extreme, many things explained in terms of some basic traits common to all
humans, so-called human nature, or else by traits thought to vary biologically from one
population to another.
With development of racial and biological
thinking human nature was thought to be in our blood or genes.
So explanations of human action were caught between external nature, the environment,
and internal nature, heredity
There was a vague sense that there was something in the middle, neither biologically nor
environmentally determined, called custom / tradition / lifeway / mentality / habit / usos y
But unclear just what this middle area consisted of, how to think about it.
Then, in the 19
century, word culture adopted.
Borrowed from art/music, expanded to
Most often associated with early British anthropologist, Edward
He said it was a complex whole that humans carried with them and passed on