‘Culture like Relativity‘ by Daniel Lende
One of the prominent ways to think about culture is as a system of symbols or beliefs. For example, Clifford Geertz wrote in 1973:
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, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning…
It is through culture patterns, ordered clusters of significant symbols, that man makes sense of the events through which he lives. The study of culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is thus the study of the machinery individuals and groups of individuals employ to orient themselves in a world otherwise opaque.
Recently Bill Dressler reiterated this belief-oriented approach to culture, emphasizing the shared and cognitive dimensions of significance of Geertz:
Culture is the knowledge we use to function in a given social system. As Searle has shown, cultural knowledge is of a special kind generated by a certain class of speech acts. These speech acts, which Searle refers to as constitutive rules, literally construct the world around us; and this is an ontological account consistent with what we know of our biological and evolutionary history.
This is an important approach to culture, with a long history in the social sciences. However, I view it rather like Newton’s approach to motion and to gravity. Newton’s view remains extremely relevant; we use Newtonian physics in many of our daily calculations and interactions. But it is not the only way to view the world.
I was struck by this idea again today, which brought back something I wrote in 2010 on Anthropology, Science, and Relativism:
To really understand what Dooglas Carl is saying, it is important to grasp relativism more directly. The easiest way is by analogy. Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us. Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.
Relativity has two major impacts. First, it changed the idea of “timeless laws” at the heart of the Enlightenment. “For example, it overturned the concept of motion from Newton’s day, into all motion is relative. Time was no longer uniform and absolute.” Much of social science still searches for uniform laws that apply across human societies. Franz Boas, a student of physics and founding anthropologist in the United States, introduced the study of society based on the history of that society. It was a relative approach to the study of humankind.
Second, relativity radically challenged the notion of the impartial, outside observer. First, the frame of reference of the observer mattered in being able to compare results. If two observers are moving relative to each other, their different motions shape how they observe the same event. Moreover, in quantum mechanisms, the actions of the observer are seen to shape the outcome of observations. The observation itself helps determine what actually happens.
Anthropology embraced this view earlier than any other social science discipline. Around the same time as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski was creating the core research technique of participant observation. Unlike previous “armchair” anthropology, where researchers got data from afar and assembled it to fit their own theories, participant observation required spending time with the people one was studying, and placed emphasis on getting their perspective on their lives. No longer was it just the outsider’s perspective.
To understand human society, it is imperative to recognize that we are already located within society. Just like in modern physics, our observations are relative, and help shape what is actually observed. Moreover, our frame of reference is based on our own movement, our own individual motion. Anthropologists’ main solution to this problem is to encourage reflexivity, an examination of our frame of reference in relation to what we are studying and our own personal and professional histories.
But there is one stark difference between modern physics and modern anthropology. In physics, observations are still done in only one universe. In anthropology, we study multiple societies, both past and present. We have to take relativity one step further.
What is that one step further? A report on recent work on Einstein’s relativity caught my eye.
General relativity describes gravity not as a force, as the physicist Isaac Newton thought of it, but rather as a curvature of space and time due to the mass of objects, Will said. The reason Earth orbits the sun is not because the sun attracts Earth, but instead because the sun warps space-time, he said. (This is a bit like the way a bowling ball on an outstretched blanket would warp the blanket’s shape.) …
General relativity works very well for gravity of ordinary strength, the variety experienced by humans on Earth or by planets as they orbit the sun. But it’s never been tested in extremely strong fields, regions that lie at the boundaries of physics. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]
The best prospect for testing the theory in these realms is to look for ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These can be produced by violent events such as the merging of two massive bodies, such as black holes or extremely dense objects called neutron stars.
Most contemporary anthropologists think of culture as akin to something like a force. There is “structural violence” or “friction.” These are useful ways to capturing the scientific phenomenon we study.
But I also think of culture as something closer to gravity in the way Einstein meant. It’s a curvature of human lives and history due to the mass of ourselves, because the ways we interpret – our language and meaning, those webs of significance – warp us.
It is not a system layered on top, something separate from ourselves. The regularities we observe are not because “culture attracts” but because culture shapes us, warps the very curvature of our lives. The search for universals, of the regularities of how we vary, has faltered largely because they have taken a Newtonian approach to culture, of some laws that are prior to ourselves. But that is not the only way to view things.
The above reflection on Einstein, and the type of extreme experimentation available now, also relates to anthropology’s long-term use of extreme examples to think about ourselves as humans. It is a powerful approach. Our brains are alien technology, and we’ve pushed them in some amazing directions.
Escaping from our categorical view of culture, of culture as akin to the force of gravity, is something we’ve struggled with ever since Durkheim set out social facts, different and privileged, as the object of study of social science. It works, and works well.
But there are certain things about culture, not as a complex whole, but as the particular historical warping of our lives that we haven’t theorized quite as well as we might have.
Or at least those are my thoughts late on a Saturday.
For relativity problem, much of the focus has been on the method – the need for reflexivity. This is important, vital. But it still doesn’t solve the theoretical problem, of what culture looks like from a relativist viewpoint. That is what Einstein, for me, captures as analogy. But we’re not only on the train, trying to observe the velocity, but we’re also helping to make the tracks and the ways we measure velocity in human systems. So it’s complicated. But the basic point stands. Anthropology’s “It’s complicated” is often about relativity (or cultural relativism) as a methodological point. I want it as a more substantive theoretical point.
One example here that I like is Bunzl’s reconsideration of Boas. Another is that we need to reconsider the “human” side, in ways outlined by Jon Marks in The Growth of Biocultural Thought or by me in Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue. I’d like to meld those pieces with Bunzl’s appraisal.
Still, not quite a theory. Or a relativistic update to Boas historical particularism and Geertz system of symbols.
One way this post can be taken is that “culture shapes us and warps the very curvature of our lives.” That is a fine anthropological point. But on the theory side, I would want to reverse that, or at least bring into equal consideration, that the curvature of our lives shapes and warps culture. In other words, I’d like a warped theory of culture.
Yet conceptualizations like a “system of symbols” or “habitus” often divorce themselves from the messiness of our lives. But I think our conception of culture would look quite different if we theorized it from a relativist position, rather than using a rationalist approach. Culture as a warped field, something we generate and in turn generates us. Perhaps something that attends more to a post-structuralist approach to get at that dual generation, yet still does the sort of work Geertz did four decades ago.
Where I’d like to take this is, or where this approach needs to go, is to distinguish how it offers something different than other cultural approaches. In other words, what sorts of insights, predictions, analytic purchase does this type of view of culture give you? If it’s just the same as other approaches, then maybe it’s a neat way of viewing culture, but not much more. I’m definitely open to suggestions on this point.