The concept of culture discussion

The concept of culture as acquired knowledge has much in common with sym- bolic interactionism, a theory that seeks to explain human behavior in terms of mean- ings. Symbolic interactionism has its roots in the work of sociologists like Cooley, Mead, and Thomas. Blumer has identified three premises on which this theory rests.

The first premise is that “human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.” 5 The policemen and the crowd in our ear- lier example interacted on the basis of the meanings things had for them. The geo- graphic location, the types of people, the police car, the policemen’s movements, the sick woman’s behavior, and the activities of the onlookers—all were symbols with spe- cial meanings. People did not act toward the things themselves, but to their meanings.

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The second premise underlying symbolic interactionism is that the “meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows.” 6 Culture, as a shared system of meanings, is learned, revised, maintained, and defined in the context of people interacting. The crowd came to

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5 Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 2.

6 Blumer, p. 2.

12 P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography

share their definitions of police behavior through interacting with one another and through past associations with the police. The police officers acquired the cultural meanings they used through interacting with other officers and members of the community. The culture of each group was inextricably bound up with the social life of their particular communities.

The third premise of symbolic interactionism is that “meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things he encounters.” 7 Neither the crowd nor the policemen were automatons, driven by their culture to act in the way they did. Rather, they used their cultural knowledge to interpret and evaluate the situation. At any moment, a member of the crowd might have interpreted the behavior of the policemen in a slightly different way, leading to a different reaction.

We may see this interpretive aspect more clearly if we think of culture as a cogni- tive map. In the recurrent activities that make up everyday life, we refer to this map. It serves as a guide for acting and for interpreting our experience; it does not compel us to follow a particular course. Like this brief drama between the policemen, a dy- ing woman, and the crowd, much of life is a series of unanticipated social occasions. Although our culture may not include a detailed map for such occasions, it does pro- vide principles for interpreting and responding to them. Rather than a rigid map that people must follow, culture is best thought of as

a set of principles for creating dramas, for writing script, and of course, for recruiting players and audiences. . . . Culture is not simply a cognitive map that people acquire, in whole or in part, more or less accurately, and then learn to read. People are not just map-readers; they are map-makers. People are cast out into imperfectly charted, continu- ally revised sketch maps. Culture does not provide a cognitive map, but rather a set of principles for map making and navigation. Different cultures are like different schools of navigation to cope with different terrains and seas. 8

If we take meaning seriously, as symbolic interactionists argue we must, it be- comes necessary to study meaning carefully. We need a theory of meaning and a spe- cific methodology designed for the investigation of it.

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Review Questions

1. What is the definition of culture? How is this definition related to the way an- thropologists do ethnographic fieldwork?

2. What is the relationship among cultural behavior, cultural artifacts, and cultural knowledge?

3. What is the difference between tacit and explicit culture? How can anthropolo- gists discover these two kinds of culture?

4. What are some examples of naive realism in the way Americans think about peo- ple in other societies?

7 Blumer, p. 2.

8 Charles O. Frake, “Plying Frames Can Be Dangerous: Some Reflections on Methodology in Cognitive Anthropology,” Quarterly Newsletter of the Institute for Comparative Human Development 3 (1977): 6–7.


2 Eating Christmas in the Kalahari Richard Borshay Lee

What happens when an anthropologist living among the !Kung of Africa decides to be gen- erous and to share a large animal with everyone at Christmastime? This compelling ac- count of the misunderstanding and confusion that resulted takes the reader deeper into the nature of culture. Richard Lee carefully traces how the !Kung perceived his generosity and taught the anthropologist something about his own culture. *

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The !Kung Bushmen’s knowledge of Christmas is thirdhand. The London Missionary Society brought the holiday to the southern Tswana tribes in the early nineteenth cen- tury. Later, native catechists spread the idea far and wide among the Bantu-speaking pas- toralists, even in the remotest corners of the Kalahari Desert. The Bushmen’s idea of the Christmas story, stripped to its essentials, is “praise the birth of white man’s god- chief”; what keeps their interest in the holiday high is the Tswana-Herero custom of slaughtering an ox for his Bushmen neighbors as an annual goodwill gesture. Since the 1930s, part of the Bushmen’s annual round of activities has included a December

* From Richard Borshay Lee, “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” Natural History , December 1969, pp. 14–22, 60–64. Reprinted from Natural History December 1969; copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 1969.

14 P A R T O N E Culture and Ethnography

congregation at the cattle posts for trading, marriage brokering, and several days of trance dance feasting at which the local Tswana headman is host.

As a social anthropologist working with !Kung Bushmen, I found that the Christmas ox custom suited my purposes. I had come to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the !Kung, and to accomplish this it was essential not to provide them with food, share my own food, or interfere in any way with their food-gathering activities. While liberal handouts of tobacco and medical supplies were appreciated, they were scarcely adequate to erase the glar- ing disparity in wealth between the anthropologist, who maintained a two-month inventory of canned goods, and the Bushmen, who rarely had a day’s supply of food on hand. My approach, while paying off in terms of data, left me open to frequent accusations of stinginess and hardheartedness. By their lights, I was a miser.

The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the cooperation of the past year; and since it was to be our last Christmas in the field, I was determined to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy, insuring that the feast and trance dance would be a success.

Through December I kept my eyes open at the wells as the cattle were brought down for watering. Several animals were offered, but none had quite the grossness that I had in mind. Then, ten days before the holiday, a Herero friend led an ox of astonishing size and mass up to our camp. It was solid black, stood five feet high at the shoulder, had a five-foot span of horns, and must have weighed 1,200 pounds on the hoof. Food consumption calculations are my specialty, and I quickly figured that bones and viscera aside, there was enough meat—at least four pounds—for every man, woman, and child of the 150 Bushmen in the vicinity of /ai/ai who were ex- pected at the feast.

Having found the right animal at last, I paid the Herero £20 ($56) and asked him to keep the beast with his herd until Christmas day. The next morning word spread among the people that the big solid black one was the ox chosen by /ontah (my Bush- man name; it means, roughly, “whitey”) for the Christmas feast. That afternoon I re- ceived the first delegation. Ben!a, an outspoken sixty-year-old mother of five, came to the point slowly.

“Where were you planning to eat Christmas?” “Right here at /ai/ai,” I replied. “Alone or with others?” “I expect to invite all the people to eat Christmas with me.” “Eat what?” “I have purchased Yehave’s black ox, and I am going to slaughter and cook it.” “That’s what we were told at the well but refused to believe it until we heard it

from yourself.” “Well, it’s the black one,” I replied expansively, although wondering what she was

driving at. “Oh, no!” Ben!a groaned, turning to her group. “They were right.” Turning back

to me she asked, “Do you expect us to eat that bag of bones?” “Bag of bones! It’s the biggest ox at /ai/ai.” “Big, yes, but old. And thin. Everybody knows there’s no meat on that old ox.

What did you expect us to eat off it, the horns?” Everybody chuckled at Ben!a’s one-liner as they walked away, but all I could

manage was a weak grin. That evening it was the turn of the young men. They came to sit at our evening

fire. /gaugo, about my age, spoke to me man-to-man.

C H A P T E R 2 Eating Christmas in the Kalahari 15

“/ontah, you have always been square with us,” he lied. “What has happened to change your heart? That sack of guts and bones of Yehave’s will hardly feed one camp, let alone all the Bushmen around /ai/ai.” And he proceeded to enumerate the seven camps in the /ai/ai vicinity, family by family. “Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the point of death.”

“Look, you guys,” I retorted, “that is a beautiful animal, and I’m sure you will eat it with pleasure at Christmas.”

“Of course we will eat it; it’s food. But it won’t fill us up to the point where we will have enough strength to dance. We will eat and go home to bed with stomachs rumbling.”

That night as we turned in, I asked my wife, Nancy, “What did you think of the black ox?”

“It looked enormous to me. Why?” “Well, about eight different people have told me I got gypped; that the ox is noth-

ing but bones.” “What’s the angle?” Nancy asked. “Did they have a better one to sell?” “No, they just said that it was going to be a grim Christmas because there won’t

be enough meat to go around. Maybe I’ll get an independent judge to look at the beast in the morning.”

Bright and early, Halingisi, a Tswana cattle owner, appeared at our camp. But before I could ask him to give me his opinion on Yehave’s black ox, he gave me the eye signal that indicated a confidential chat. We left the camp and sat down.

“/ontah, I’m surprised at you; you’ve lived here for three years and still haven’t learned anything about cattle.”

“But what else can a person do but choose the biggest, strongest animal one can find?” I retorted.

“Look, just because an animal is big doesn’t mean that it has plenty of meat on it. The black one was a beauty when it was younger, but now it is thin to the point of death.”

“Well, I’ve already bought it. What can I do at this stage?” “Bought it already? I thought you were just considering it. Well, you’ll have to

kill it and serve it, I suppose. But don’t expect much of a dance to follow.” My spirits dropped rapidly. I could believe that Ben!a and /gaugo just might

be putting me on about the black ox, but Halingisi seemed to be an impartial critic. I went around that day feeling as though I had bought a lemon of a used car.

In the afternoon it was Tomazo’s turn. Tomazo is a fine hunter, a top trance per- former . . . and one of my most reliable informants. He approached the subject of the Christmas cow as part of my continuing Bushman education.

“My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen,” he began, “is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat. When we hunt we always search for the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat: fat that turns into a clear, thick oil in the cook- ing pot, fat that slides down your gullet, fills your stomach and gives you a roaring diarrhea,” he rhapsodized.

“So, feeling as we do,” he continued, “it gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing as Yehave’s black ox. It is big, yes, and no doubt its giant bones are good for soup, but fat is what we really crave, and so we will eat Christmas this year with a heavy heart.”

The prospect of a gloomy Christmas now had me worried, so I asked Tomazo what I could do about it.

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