Joana Breidenbach and Pál Nyíri have just published a book, Seeing Culture Everywhere: From Genocide to Consumer Habits, (Washington University Presss, 2009).

In an excerpt from a note on the book, they write:

>In his book Foreign News, anthropologist Ulf Hannerz lamented the inability of anthropologists – the professional students of human cultures – to respond adequately to "one-big-thing" books such as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations by presenting alternative visions that were clear and accessible. “Leaving an intellectual vacuum behind is not much of a public service,” he wrote. In fact, Hannerz may have been charitable: alas, anthropologists rarely make as much as a dent in the armour of grand simplifiers like Huntington, much less leave behind a vacuum. A growing number recognize this as an urgent problem. In a recent debate on the subject, Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson wrote that “we need vigorous translation work” from the language of anthropology into a publicly accessible one “to explain that Islam is malleable and diverse, that Egyptian peasants are part of a globalized economy, and that ethnicity is always in historical flux”.

We felt that the bandying about of the word “culture” by well-meaning but clueless officials and corporate executives was an opportunity to do just that. After decades during which decision makers listened to political scientists and psychologists, wasn’t this a chance for anthropologists to talk about the subject they knew best? As a first step, we began working on a course, entitled “How Does Culture Matter?”, intended to help government and corporate managers without a background in anthropology to make critical judgements in debates involving cultural claims. The course became a core unit of the applied anthropology curriculum at Macquarie University in Sydney and spun off a popular blog, Culture Matters."<

It seems that culture may not matter so much after all, except for anthropologists and a growing segment of the publicity industry who, by harping on about culture, succeed only in confusing themselves and the rest of us.

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Comment by Ranjan Lekhy on January 1, 2010 at 9:15pm
When I was still an undergraduate student of anthropology, I used to think, why only culture if anthropology is all about human beings? Can a culture explain all the facets of human being? If anthropology is a holistic study then it must comprise all the dimensions of human being and human society. But 'How' ? we must want want to know!
Comment by Keith Hart on January 1, 2010 at 1:11pm
This must be catching. Alex Golub ('Rex') calls his valedictory Savage Minds blog post for 2009 Screw culture shock.

Some excerpts:

"For some anthropologists, experiencing ‘a different culture’ or, to put it another way, ‘cultural difference’ is key to being an anthropologist. Why I’m not sure.

"The downsides of making anthropology necessarily a culture-crossing encounter are legion. It reifies the notion of cultural boundaries, for instance, driving us further away from the Boasian recognition of culture’s fluid nature. It makes people who study themselves a tremendous problem, rather than recognizing that such a thing is perfectly natural—whether it be ethnographies of white urban first worlders, or Native anthropologists who are Taking The Theory Back. In so narrowly imagining the field as rich whites visiting poor browns, it reduces an ethics of connectivity to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologist can help those poor, poor people.

"So rather than giving up on fieldwork as a method, or giving up on single-site research, or giving up on the culture concept, what I think we really need to give up on is the underlying notion of grounding our discipline in the phenemonology of culture shock."

So culture is OK, but exotic ethnography is problematic. Mayve 'culturalism' is the problem, at home or abroad.

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