Culture and Ethnography
Culture, as its name suggests, lies at the heart of cultural anthropology. And the concept of culture, along with ethnography, sets anthropology apart from other so- cial and behavioral sciences. Let us look more closely at these concepts.
To understand what anthropologists mean by culture, imagine yourself in a for- eign setting, such as a market town in India, forgetting what you might already know about that country. You step off a bus onto a dusty street where you are immediately confronted by strange sights, sounds, and smells. Men dress in Western clothes, but of a different style. Some women drape themselves in long shawls that entirely cover their bodies. They peer at you through a small gap in this garment as they walk by. Buildings are one- or two-story affairs, open at the front so you can see inside. Near you some people sit on wicker chairs eating strange foods. Most unusual is how peo- ple talk. They utter vocalizations unlike any you have ever heard, and you wonder how they can possibly understand each other. But obviously they do, since their be- havior seems organized and purposeful.
Scenes such as this confronted early explorers, missionaries, and anthropolo- gists, and from their observations an obvious point emerged. People living in various parts of the world looked and behaved in dramatically different ways. And these dif- ferences correlated with groups. The people of India had customs different from those of the Papuans; the British did not act and dress like the Iroquois.
Two possible explanations for group differences came to mind. Some argued that group behavior was inherited. Dahomeans of the African Gold Coast, for exam- ple, were characterized as particularly “clever and adaptive” by one British colonial official, while, according to the same authority, another African group was “happy-go- lucky and improvident.” Usually implied in such statements was the idea that group members were born that way. Such thinking persists to the present and in its most malignant extreme takes the form of racism.
But a second explanation also emerged. Perhaps, rather than a product of inher- itance, the behavior characteristic of a group was learned. The way people dressed, what they ate, how they talked—all these could more easily be explained as acquisi- tions. Thus a baby born on the African Gold Coast would, if immediately transported to China and raised like other children there, grow up to dress, eat, and talk like a Chinese. Cultural anthropologists focus on the explanation of learned behavior.
The idea of learning, and a need to label the lifestyles associated with particular groups, led to the definition of culture. In 1871, British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued that “Culture . . . is that complex whole which includes knowl- edge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” 1 The definition we present here places more em- phasis on the importance of knowledge than does Tylor’s. We will say that culture is the learned and shared knowledge that people use to generate behavior and interpret experience.
Important to this definition is the idea that culture is a kind of knowledge, not behavior. It is in people’s heads. It reflects the mental categories they learn from oth- ers as they grow up. It helps them generate behavior and interpret what they experi- ence. At the moment of birth, we lack a culture. We don’t yet have a system of beliefs, knowledge, and patterns of customary behavior. But from that moment until we die,
1 Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, 1958; originally published by John Murray, London, 1871), p. 1.
P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography 3
each of us participates in a kind of universal schooling that teaches us our native cul- ture. Laughing and smiling are genetic responses, but as infants we soon learn when to smile, when to laugh, and even how to laugh. We also inherit the potential to cry, but we must learn our cultural rules for when crying is appropriate.
As we learn our culture, we acquire a way to interpret experience. For example, Americans learn that dogs are like little people in furry suits. Dogs live in our houses, eat our food, share our beds. They hold a place in our hearts; their loss causes us to grieve. Villagers in India, on the other hand, often view dogs as pests that are useful only for hunting (in those few parts of the country where one still can hunt) and as watchdogs. Quiet days in Indian villages are often punctuated by the yelp of a dog that has been threatened or actually hurt by its master or a bystander.
Clearly, it is not the dogs that are different in these two societies. Rather, it is the meaning that dogs have for people that varies. And such meaning is cultural; it is learned as part of growing up in each group.
There are two basic kinds of culture, explicit and tacit. Explicit culture is cul- tural knowledge that people can talk about. As you grow up, for example, you learn that there are words for many things you encounter. There are items such as clothes, actions such as playing, emotional states such as sadness, ways to talk such as yelling, and people such as mother. Recognizing that culture may be explicit is important to the ethnographic process discussed below. If people have words for cultural catego- ries, anthropologists can use interviews or observations of people talking to uncover them. Because so much culture is explicit, words—both spoken and written—become essential to the discovery and understanding of a culture.
Tacit culture is cultural knowledge that people lack words for. For example, as we grow up we learn to recognize and use a limited number of sound categories such as /d/, /e/, and /f/. Although anthropological linguists have given sound categories a name (phonemes), nonlinguists lack such a term. Instead, we learn our sound catego- ries by hearing and replicating them and we use them unconsciously. No parent said, “Now let’s work on our phonemes tonight, dear,” to us when we were little.
Anthropologist Edward Hall pioneered the study of tacit culture. He noted, for example, that middle-class North Americans observe four speaking distances—inti- mate, personal, social, and public—without naming them. (Hall, not his informants, invented the terms above.) Hall also noticed that people from other societies observed different tacit speaking distances, so that a Latin American’s closer (than North Amer- ican) personal speaking distance made North Americans uncomfortable because it seemed intimate. Because it is unspoken, tacit culture can be discovered only through behavioral observation.
Ethnography is the process of discovering and describing a particular culture. It involves anthropologists in an intimate and personal activity as they attempt to learn how the members of a particular group see their worlds.
But which groups qualify as culture-bearing units? How does the anthropolo- gist identify the existence of a culture to study? This was not a difficult question when anthropology was a new science. As Tylor’s definition notes, culture was the whole way of life of a people. To find it, one sought out distinctive ethnic units, such as Bhil tribals in India or Apaches in the American Southwest. Anything one learned from such people would be part of their culture.
But discrete cultures of this sort are becoming more difficult to find. The world is increasingly divided into large national societies, each subdivided into a myriad of subgroups. Anthropologists are finding it increasingly attractive to study such
4 P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography
subgroups, because they form the arena for most of life in complex society. And this is where the concept of the microculture enters the scene.
Microcultures are systems of cultural knowledge characteristic of subgroups within larger societies. Members of a microculture will usually share much of what they know with everyone in the greater society but will possess a special cultural knowledge that is unique to the subgroup. For example, a college fraternity has a mi- croculture within the context of a university and a nation. Its members have special daily routines, jokes, and meanings for events. It is this shared knowledge that makes up their microculture and that can serve as the basis for ethnographic study. More and more, anthropologists are turning to the study of microcultures, using the same ethnographic techniques they employ when they investigate the broader culture of an ethnic or national group.
More than anything else, it is ethnography that is anthropology’s unique contri- bution to social science. Most scientists, including many who view people in social context, approach their research as detached observers. As social scientists, they ob- serve the human subjects of their study, categorize what they see, and generate theory to account for their findings. They work from the outside, creating a system of knowl- edge to account for other people’s behavior. Although this is a legitimate and often useful way to conduct research, it is not the main task of ethnography.
Ethnographers seek out the insider’s viewpoint. Because culture is the knowl- edge people use to generate behavior and interpret experience, the ethnographer seeks to understand group members’ behavior from the inside, or cultural, perspec- tive. Instead of looking for a subject to observe, ethnographers look for an informant to teach them the culture. Just as children learn their native culture from parents and other people in their social environment, ethnographers learn another culture by inferring folk categories from the observation of behavior and by asking informants what things mean.
Anthropologists employ many strategies during field research to understand another culture better. But all strategies and all research ultimately rest on the co- operation of informants. An informant is neither a subject in a scientific experi- ment nor a respondent who answers the investigator’s questions. An informant is a teacher who has a special kind of pupil: a professional anthropologist. In this unique relationship a transformation occurs in the anthropologist’s understanding of an alien culture. It is the informant who transforms the anthropologist from a tourist into an ethnographer. The informant may be a child who explains how to play hopscotch, a cocktail waitress who teaches the anthropologist to serve drinks and to encourage customers to leave tips, an elderly man who teaches the anthro- pologist to build an igloo, or a grandmother who explains the intricacies of Zapotec kinship. Almost any individual who has acquired a repertoire of cultural behavior can become an informant.
Ethnography is not as easy to do as we might think. For one thing, North Ameri- cans are not taught to be good listeners. We prefer to observe and draw our own conclusions. We like a sense of control in social contexts; passive listening is a sign of weakness in our culture. But listening and learning from others is at the heart of eth- nography, and we must put aside our discomfort with the student role.
It is also not easy for informants to teach us about their cultures. Culture often lies below a conscious level. A major ethnographic task is to help informants remem- ber their culture.
Naive realism may also impede ethnography. Naive realism is the belief that people everywhere see the world in the same way. It may, for example, lead the
unwary ethnographer to assume that beauty is the same for all people everywhere or, to use our previous example, that dogs should mean the same thing in India as they do in the United States. If an ethnographer fails to control his or her own naive real- ism, inside cultural meanings will surely be overlooked.
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