The Strange Career of the Concept of Culture

by Thomas Wren

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Note to students in the Marginalization and Social Justice class: This essay is unfinished in several respects. Because of time pressures, some of the references are incomplete, a few illustrative quotations have yet to be typed in, and the final third of the essay is somewhat shorter than it should be. However, I am offering it to you now, at the beginning of our course, since it consolidates a lot of information that has direct relevance to our course. I am also offering it to give you a clue as to where Walt and I are "coming from" as we discuss culture — though I hasten to add the usual disclaimer that the ideas expressed herein are mine and Walt should not be blamed for whatever problems or errors you might discover. (In fact, he will be reading this essay for the first time along with the rest of you!) One final point: Read this essay selectively, but do try to get to the very end even if you have to skip some of the more fine-grained discussions in the middle. Many of these ideas will resurface several times over the next several weeks, so don't worry if you don't follow every word in this essay. Just get the big picture. — T. W.


Except for social scientists, most people who use the term "culture" are surprisingly nonchalant about its meaning. However, there are some generalizations that one can make, at least as far as the way the term has been used in the United States. As I read the literature and my own memory bank, until about 1960 (give or take a decade), most people who spoke of "culture" thought of it as either coextensive with the fine arts or as denoting a well-formed pattern of collective thought and action. As their two titles indicate, the best-known and prototypical instance of the former usage is Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1873), whereas that of the latter is Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934/1989). However, these two conceptions no longer dominate either the professional educators' talk of culture or the scholarly discourse of anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and the now-thriving discipline of cultural studies. Within each of these four scholarly domains one finds enormous diversity and change, not only regarding the notion of culture but even in the way they conceive their own methods and purpose. Those who would move among these domains find between them both bridges and barriers. However, allowing that generalizations (such as this one) are doomed the at the outset to be superficial at best and often profoundly misleading, I would note that in all four areas the trend has been toward self-referential analysis (thinking about what it is trying to do), greater politicization (relating its contents and conclusions to structures of power in the "real world"), tolerance of internal ambiguity (no longer ruled by the criteria of rigor and systematicity associated with the exact sciences and the great philosophical systems), and eclecticism (incorporating ideas from the other three domains, albeit sometimes rather simplistically). In what follows I will draw primarily from anthropology and to a much lesser extent from sociology, literary criticism, and cultural studies, in my attempt to clarify the notion(s) of culture operating within the multicultural educational practices of today.

The Strange Career of Culture: Early Days

As is often pointed out, the history and etymology of the term "culture" is based on the inherently developmental notion of cultivation. It was, therefore, a short step from the original, biological idea of cultivating crops and other sorts of organisms (including the human body, the object of what used to be called "physical culture") to the psychological idea of cultivating a person's mind or character — a process whose methods and standards of success were supposedly provided by the classics and the Christian tradition. This developmental sense of "culture," which dominated 19th and most 20th century intellectual life in the West, has its prototype in Wilhelm von Humboldt's notion of Bildung, the humanistic cultivation of basic intuitions about human nature. During the decades following Humboldt, it was projected beyond the developmental career of the individual onto the history of the social group. It corresponded fairly closely to the notion of "civilization," picking up the latter notion's Hegelian connotation of a dialectical evolution from an early primitive stage through "barbaric" stages toward an ultimate stage of high civilization that was considered the same for all societies. (1)

Anthropology's Founding Father: E. B. Tylor

It was at this point in the history of the concepts of culture and civilization that the modern academic discipline of anthropology was born. The birth occurred when the British founder of anthropology, E. B. Tylor, transformed the concepts of civilization and culture by rejecting the two major developmental paradigms of the 19th century: the Hegelian dialectic of spirit or Geist (Hegel, 1807) that still flourished in Germany and parts of England, and the more or less Darwinian model of biological evolution promulgated by Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and others. In the first case, the rejection was tacit. Like most Englishmen, Tylor was not familiar with Hegel (even though his colleague at Oxford, the philosopher F. H. Bradley, was one of the world's leading Hegelians). What was central for Tylor was neither Hegel's Geist nor the equally theoretical construct of economic class (Marx's inversion of Hegel), but rather the basics of practical social existence, i.e., language, tools, food, family, and so on. Even now, more than a century later, anthropology texts typically introduce the concept of culture (hereafter marked as CC) by citing the opening lines of Tylor's monumental Primitive Culture:

CC1: Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it is capable of being investigated on general principles, is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action. On the one hand, the uniformity which so largely pervades civilization may be ascribed, in great measure, to the uniform action of uniform causes; while on the other hand its various grades may be regarded as stages of development or evolution, each the outcome of previous history, and about to do its proper part in shaping the history of the future. (Tylor, 1873/1958, p. 1)

As this passage shows, Tylor was concerned with the general question of how "the conditions of culture" (note that he does not speak of "cultures") developed in various societies. Like most social theorists of his time, he cheerily subscribed to a developmental model of change, which has its own suppositions and logic (on the general logic of development, see van Haaften & Wren, 1997). In our present context, this means that Tylor understood the task of anthropology (or as he preferred to say, ethnography) in terms of a single linear sequence from less to more complexity. As he put it, "By simply placing nations at one end of the social series and savage tribes at the other, arranging the rest of mankind between these limits ... ethnographers are able to set up a rough scale of civilization — a transition from the savage state to our own" (ibid.).

Tylor was not unique in his use of a developmental "scale" to compare societies with each other — after all, by the end of the 19th century evolution was an extremely popular concept in scholarly circles — but he was definitely unique in his rejection of the then-current notion that racial heredity is the motor of cultural change. Tylor spoke of his theory as evolutionary anthropology, but it was cultural and not biological evolution that he had in mind. (2) Even so, his evolutionary model had the direct and momentous implication that the peoples of the earth could be ranked or (in the first of the two passages just cited) "graded." Since for him Civilization was a univocal concept, some societies were simply more civilized than others. Furthermore, although the passage in question talks about knowledge and belief as well as custom and art, Tylor's notion of culture as civilization was focused mainly on relatively noncognitive and seemingly modular behaviors and practices — anthropologists call them cultural "traits" — such as weaving or using bows and arrows, which could be easily passed on or (to use more of the anthropologists' jargon) "diffused" from one group to the next.

Tylor himself did not pursue the idea of diffusion, since like most 19th century anthropologists he was primarily concerned with evolutionary explanations — always with the proviso that what evolved was the practical life and organizational structure of the group, not the genetic structure of individual organisms. However, his immediate successors split into the diffusionist and evolutionist camps, whose respective metaphors were the spatial picture of ever-wider concentric circles (change as geographical movement) and the temporal picture of ever-greater organic complexity (change as historical growth). In either case, though, cultural change was described at the surface level, with little or no reference to the underlying social or cognitive structures specific to those groups. True, Tylor proposed that cultures be studied in terms of "general principles" of social development that fashion stages according to "the laws of thought and action"; however, the form and content of these stages were by no means culture-specific. On the contrary: cultural stages were rungs on a universal ladder. Tylor did not think all social groups had passed through every stage or rung, but he did think they were all are moving upward more or less quickly on the same ladder. Hence he conceived of the task of anthropology as the search for the general principles ( "the uniform action of uniform causes") according to which societies moved up the ladder.

We see here the same attitude toward other cultures that was to resurface almost a century later as what multiculturalists now call the cultural deficit model. Just as reform-minded educators of the 1960s believed that minority children have trouble in school not because of their racial constitution but rather because their home cultures do not properly prepare them for academic challenges, so Tylor believed that the "lower races" are lower only because their ways of life were not (yet) suited for the technological, religious, and other sorts of practices associated with "more civilized" peoples. The main differences between Tylor's view and the cultural deficit model were that (1) the latter focused on individuals (schoolchildren) rather than on the group and still more significantly, (2) its purpose was to intervene — to speed up the children's developmental clock, so to speak. Tylor had no such focus or purpose: he considered himself a scientist, not an educator or social engineer (like most anthropologists then and now, he had profound misgivings about missionaries in the field). Consequently, he was interested in understanding the march of civilization, not changing it.

Anticipating the reflexive turn of so-called postmodern ethnographers such as Geertz and Clifford, he recognized that changes are introduced into a group's cultural style when any outsider, even an observing ethnographer, comes on the scene. (3) To his great credit, Tylor also realized that the history of a people is full of such intrusions: investigation always revealed that many words, tools, artifacts, and practices of the people under investigation were imported rather than invented, and so in making sense of their data the ethnographers' first theoretical challenge — after confirming that the observation activities in the field had not significantly distorted the way of life they were studying — was to separate the imports (cultural diffusion) from the inventions (cultural evolution in its strict sense). Having done this, their next challenge was to catalog and compare these inventions with the multitudinous inventions of other peoples in the world, in hopes of establishing which products and practices were not only invented but also universal and, even more to the point, whether these products and practices evolve in the same way everywhere.

However, although Tylor thought of himself as an objective scholar, not a social reformer, one finds in his scholarly work a moralistic concern that less civilized people not be written off as terminally barbaric. In this respect he sounds much like the early advocates of the Head Start program, who insisted that every child has the same educational potential, and the same right to the environmental conditions for realizing that potential. Like Tylor, they disconnected race and culture, but they also — again like Tylor — assumed that both race and culture were "facts." From our current perspective, in which race and culture are both understood as social constructions, this assumption seems naive (and it was), but we must not shortchange either Tylor or the educators I have just mentioned. In both cases they saw through the pretensions of the biological explanation of human behavior that was then firmly in place notwithstanding its manifest and vicious racist implications. It is for this reason that I ascribe to Tylor a moralistic concern that he probably would disown if he were alive to read these pages. Consider, for instance, how he dealt with this question in one of his earliest scientific works, which bears the formidable title Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865). In a chapter entitled "Growth and Decline of Culture," Tylor sharply criticized "the late Archbishop Whately," who had claimed that self-improvement (i.e., cultural evolution, understood at this point exclusively as invention) was impossible for "the lower races." (How, one might ask in passing, did Whately think civilization got started in the first place? The answer is simple: by "supernatural revelation." Remember, he was an archbishop.)

To refute Whately, Tylor marshalled ethnographic data, not moral arguments. In the course of doing so he considered an anthropological remark made by none other than Charles Darwin, to the effect that the practical skills of the Fuegians (people of Tierra del Fuego) had apparently stopped evolving, since even their most ingenious work, the canoe, had not changed over the last 250 years. Commenting on Darwin, Tylor offered the following ethnographical account (hereafter marked as EA) to show that it is environmental conditions, not limitations inherent in the people themselves, that account for this arrested development:

EA1: But it must be noticed, that neither is the wretched hand-to-mouth life of the Fuegians favourable to progress, nor can a bark canoe ten feet long, holding four or five grown persons, beside children, dogs, implements, and weapons, and in which a fire can be kept burning on a hearth in the rough sea off Tierra del Fuego, be without tolerable sea-going qualities. As to workmanship, the modern Fuegian bark canoes are intermediate between the very rude ones of the Australian coast and the highly finished ones of North America, and it does not appear that their build may not be considerably better (or worse) than at the time of the visit of Sarmiento de Gamboa, in the sixteenth century. But the most remarkable thing in the whole matter, is the fact that the Fuegians should have had canoes at all, while coast-tribes across the straits made shift with rafts. This was of course a fact familiar to Mr. Darwin, and in the very next sentence after that quoted above, he actually goes on to ascribe to the Fuegian race the invention of their art of boat-building. "Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, whence have they come? What could have tempted, or what change compelled a tribe of men to leave the fine regions of the north, to travel down the Cordillera or backbone of America, to invent and build canoes, and then to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe?" Of this part of Mr. Darwin's remarks, however, Archbishop Whately did not think it necessary to take notice. (Ibid., p. 162)

I have called this description by Tylor an "ethnographic account" because that is what it is. However, it was not exactly his account, since like most of his anthropological data it was derived from other people's field experiences. Though he had traveled extensively, Tylor was mainly an armchair ethnologist, if only because his comparative method involved information about literally hundreds of different peoples, including those of antiquity, pre-modern Europe, and the newly "discovered" New World. In the tradition of British empiricism, Tylor understood his task to be one of comparing and correlating data that, quite literally, were "givens" (recall that datum and data are substantives of the past participles of the Latin verb do, dare, and mean "that which is given"). Travelers, missionaries, occasionally an itinerant anthropologist would send him reports of what they had seen, and Tylor would order this information in hopes of establishing patterns whereby certain features of social evolution such as the practical skills of the Fuegians would emerge. These reports, it hardly needs to be said, did not include what Clifford Geertz (1973), following the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, would later recommend as "thick description" of a culture. (4)

The Boasians

Looking back from today's multicultural perspective, it is not surprising that after Tylor the next major shift in anthropological theory was, in its first phase, the rejection of the implications of the 19th century views concerning ranking and, in its second phase, the winding down of the whole diffusion vs. (cultural) evolution debate in favor of discussions of patterns vs. functions. In the United States, the reaction first came from Franz Boas and his students, which took place from around the turn of the century through the postwar years (Boas himself died in 1943). The influence of Boas on anthropology in this country was profound, which is why he is regarded as the founder of American anthropology. For our purposes, his most important contribution was the way he revised the notion of culture held by Tylor and other British scholars, a revision which can be traced back to his ground-breaking The Mind of Primitive Man, published in 1911 (on Boas's own development in this matter, see Stocking, 1966). Unlike these scholars, Boas understood culture not as civilization but rather as local context, within which a specific group's social life was meaningful. It was

CC2: the set of beliefs, customs, and social institutions that characterize and individuate different societies. (see Stocking, 1966; probably the one created by Boas in 1930, which seems to be cited in the Kroeber and Kluckhohn list [1952:151])

Boas did not construct a formal definition of the term "culture" until 1930, well after he had established the concept by simply using the word with increasing frequency in contexts that left no doubt of his semantic intentions — which certainly did not include any desire to represent culture as synonymous with civilization. Not only did he regularly use the word "culture" in the plural (whereas Tylor never did), but he wrote highly detailed ethnographic studies of individual groups, always describing their customs in the concrete historical contexts rather than as moments in an abstract evolutionary process.

In short, the best way to understand Boas's concept of culture (5) is in terms of its opposition to Tylor's evolutionary concept. For this reason alone (there are others too), Boas's concept can be thought of as a template for the educational agenda of Cultural Pluralism as conceived by multicultural reformers in the early 1970s. Their agenda, like that of Boas and his ethnologist followers, had so much internal diversity (or less kindly, was so full of contradictions) that it is virtually impossible to make a general statement about what its adherents all assert. But it is quite easy to say what they all deny. Culture is not a biological (racial) phenomenon, there is no absolute form of culture (civilization) that sets a standard for ranking and "improving" the way other people live, and it is impossible to understand any component of a culture without understanding its relationship to the culture as a whole. Positive assertions about just how one goes about identifying these components and tracking these relationships, not to mention how one apprehends the cultural "whole," are harder to come by. These questions have no single answer, as is evident from the internal debates among Boasians in the early 20th century and among multicultural educators in the late 20th century. Even so, it is important for today's multiculturalists to see what sorts of answers have been proposed, not only in their own literature but that of cultural anthropology. Let us return, then, to the story of how Franz Boas transformed the concept of culture.

His critique of evolutionism began in the 1890s with a series of critical articles, and by 1904 it had developed into the positive — though still quite general — assertion that "in place of a single line of evolution there appears a multiplicity of converging and diverging lines which it is difficult to bring under one system" (Boas, 1904, pp. 522; cited in Stocking, 1966, p. 871). These "converging and diverging lines" were what he investigated in his ethnographic studies, and can be categorized here as geographical and historical lines: geographical in that Boas subscribed to the diffusionist view of cultural change as borrowings from other (usually neighboring) peoples, and historical in that he regarded cultural practices, i.e., custom, as rooted in a largely forgotten historical past (see Stocking, 1968, pp. 876-877). Let us briefly consider each of these two "lines."

Geographical lines of cultural formation. Boas never developed a technical logic to explain how in the course of diffusion certain cultural traits clustered together and others did not, but he clearly believed that diffusion was not an arbitrary process. Quite to the contrary: a given trait or artifact could only be understood in its cultural context, which is to say in terms of the relationships it had to the other main traits of that culture. Conversely, it was only because the context was as it was at the time of diffusion that the trait in question could be incorporated into the culture. There may not be any general nomothetic (law-like) schemes for predicting the patterns of definition, but patterns there are nonetheless, and they can be made intelligible by careful ethnographic fieldwork and analysis. These abstract principles are illustrated in a little story about the young Boas that on the surface looks like a fussy local academic squabble but in reality affected the way generations of museumgoers would encounter other cultures.

Shortly after taking up permanent residence in the United States, Boas rather audaciously published two articles in the prestigious journal Science, strongly criticizing the prominent curator of ethnology at the United States National Museum for the way certain artifacts in its Northwest Coast collection were exhibited (Boas, 1887a, 1887b). The museum used a Tylorean classificatory system to group together certain kinds of artifacts from various regions, such as tools or musical instruments, and then subgroup them according to the level of civilization they represented. In this way, the curator thought, museum visitors could see how generic human needs such as the need for music were satisfied, first by the lower and then by the higher societies. Boas, in contrast, said that no museum specimen could be understood apart from its history. A rattle was not simply a noisemaker. It also was (or maybe it wasn't — that would be an important fact too) something people with a certain history used according to their customs and religious conceptions, such as how to invoke or drive away spirits. Like any artifact or specimen, a musical instrument could have a number of different inner meanings, which varied from region to region, tribe to tribe, age to age, and so should be exhibited accordingly. This holds equally for the instruments of primitive tribes and those of modern orchestras, he insisted: "The character of their music, the only object worth studying, which determines the form of the instruments, cannot be understood from the single instrument, but requires a complete collection of the single tribe" (Boas, 1887, p. 586; reprinted as Boas, 1974, p. 63 [Stocking's collection]).

Historical lines of cultural formation. As noted above, Boas regarded customs as rooted in a largely forgotten past. Unlike Tylor, who thought early societies consciously constructed their specific beliefs and practices to match their elemental understanding of the natural world (it was the inadequacy of this proto-cosmology that made their beliefs and practices so quaint or "savage"), Boas thought that traditional beliefs and practices arose unconsciously from the concrete situation in which a group found itself, and that the reasons for their origin became even more unconscious as time went on. Furthermore, as those reasons became more unconscious they also became more emotionally laden, since — according to Freud and other psychologists whom Boas had read — to break with a habitual way of acting or thinking generates negative affect. For later members of the group to justify this essentially noncognitive reaction to the prospect of cultural innovation, rationalizations and romanticization had to be constructed for the custom in question. (6)

It was for this reason that Boas spent so much time examining the origins of languages and myths. Unlike his Victorian predecessors, he had little use for armchair ethnology, and insisted that anthropologists must go into the field themselves to gather as much concrete information as possible about the so-called primitive societies that he, like every anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century, took to be the primary subject matter of his discipline. However, instead of the more common method of participant observation, his preferred style of data collection was gathering and reporting texts. For instance, in his report on the mythology of the Bella Coola Indians of the Northwest Coast, Boas established that certain myths were passed on (diffused) from one tribe to the other, but were associated with tribal rituals in quite different ways, depending on the unique history of each tribe. One of the more interesting cases concerned the k'siut, a practice used by the secret societies of the Bella Coola and a few other tribes. The k'siut, which included a ceremonial ritual of mock cannibalism, was enacted in the respective tribe's secret Cannibal Society. The meaning of this ceremonial (which was itself borrowed) is explained differently in the Bella Coola tribe than in two other tribes having virtually the same ritual. That is, each of the three tribes had its own story associated with the k'siut ritual. The Bella Coola had a story involving the sun, whereas the Tsimshian told of a forest spirit who initiates new members into that tribe's Cannibal Society, and the Kwakiutl said that a white bear took a hunter into a cliff and revealed to him the existence and ceremonies of this and other secret societies of the tribe. Boas provided the following ethnographic account of these stories:

EA2: It appears, therefore, that the same ritual which is practised by three distinct tribes is explained by three fundamentally distinct myths; and we must conclude that in this case the ritual is older than the myth, — that the latter has been invented in order to explain customs that were borrowed from foreign tribes, so that the ritual is the primary phenomenon, while the myth is secondary.... After they [the Bella Coola] removed to their new home, a mass of foreign ideas had come into their possession through contact with their new neighbors. While these new ideas were being remodelled and assimilated, they stimulated the minds of the people, or of a few members of the tribe, who were thus led to the formation of an elaborate concept of the world. The concept which they have developed agrees in all its main features with those created by men of other zones and of other races. The mind of the Bella Coola philosopher, operating with the class of knowledge common to the earlier strata of culture, has reached conclusions similar to those that have been formed by man the world over, when operating with the same class of knowledge. On the other hand, the Bella Coola has also adopted ready-made the thoughts of his neighbors, and has adapted them to his environment.(Boas, 1898?)

In spite of his dissatisfaction with cultural evolutionism, Boas felt that this case illustrated the close relation between the comparative and the historic methods of ethnology, as his reference to "the same class of knowledge" suggests. But he was even more interested in what it showed about the need to analyze the whole culture. "The growth of the myths of the Bella Coola can be understood only when we consider the culture of the tribe as a whole," he concluded. "And so it is with other phenomena. All traits of culture can be fully understood only in connection with the whole culture of a tribe. When we confine ourselves to comparing isolated traits of culture, we open the door to misinterpretations without number" (Boas, 1898?).

Boas and most of his students were sometimes criticized by their British counterparts (such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown; see below) for not providing comprehensive frames for the data they discovered. That criticism was not entirely groundless, since the American research practice (7) was to collect first and try to explain later. Explanations, when they were given, were often ad hoc. Cultural traits were seen not as reflections of differences in collective mental development (as Tylor thought) but rather as by-products of differences in physical environments and other "accidents of history." Nevertheless, Boas insisted on the importance of reconstructing the unwritten historical record of the peoples he studied, gathering folk tales as well as bits of oral history in order to tap into their collective sense of who they are as a people, what they have borrowed, and what distinguishes them from their neighbors.

From Diffusion to Pattern: Ruth Benedict

The question that originally preoccupied Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and the younger group of Boasians such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, was how beliefs and social practices spread from one culture to the next. They painstakingly investigated cultural distribution mechanisms such as diffusion, trade, and conquest, and yet — perhaps because they discovered so much — they blithely assumed that individual cultures were aggregations, mere collections of "shreds and patches." (8) They hypothesized that the spread of mythologies, taboos, hunting and fishing methods, and other cultural traits was largely regulated by the antecedent living conditions of the tribes who, upon encountering these traits, adopted them, but for the early Boasians this was enough supposition. To establish their hypothesis that cultural traits were learned through interaction with other people, and were not biologically inherited, they sought only to trace the lineage of cultures and their traits. They did not yet feel a need to provide comprehensive or systematic accounts of why any given set of cultural traits came together in the way that they did. But as their research agenda matured, Boas and his followers came to realize that their non-hereditary hypothesis had an important corollary: that the content of each culture could be thought of as a single reality ("a way of life," said Kroeber) and that this reality was best regarded as a property of the society as a whole rather than of its individual members.

It fell to Kroeber to develop this corollary formally and technically, using the idea of culture as a "superorganic entity. " Though he introduced this idea as early as 1915?, its impact was not felt until several other students of Boas, including Benedict and Mead, became dissatisfied with the diffusionist views which assumed each culture was a happy but essentially ad hoc combination of disparate elements. For this and other reasons (such as their respect for the dignity and intelligence of their subjects), they reconsidered the question of just how contingent these configurations of cultural traits really are, coming eventually to regard cultures as integrated wholes rather than jumbles of features that happened to be mutually compatible. With this seemingly slight change in the attitude of the ethnologists toward the people they studied, the concept of culture was transformed. Culture was now an organic or aesthetic unity that could not be graded as better or worse than other cultures (though it could be evaluated as more or less well integrated, and so in that sense could be ranked against itself). The classic statement of this view is found in Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934, p. 53):

CC3: A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action. Within each culture there come into being characteristic purposes not necessarily shared by other types of society. In obedience to these purposes, each people further and further consolidates its experience, and in proportion to the urgency of these drives the heterogeneous items of behaviour take more and more congruous shape. Taken up by a well- integrated culture, the most ill-assorted acts become characteristic of its peculiar goals, often by the most unlikely metamorphoses. The form that these acts take we can understand only by understanding first the emotional and intellectual mainsprings of that society.
Note that the organizing principle of the cultural whole is a "characteristic purpose." In terms much like those used in the 1980s and early 1990s by Afrocentric educators and others for whom the main goal of multicultural education programs is to promote "cultural identity" — i.e., to create a special character and sense of solidarity for their own ethnic groups — Benedict insisted that it is "in obedience to this purpose" that a people constructs itself as it does. This is not a blind obedience, nor is the purpose unconscious: Benedict's ethnographic work consisted in discourse with articulate members of the groups she was studying, in order to tease out the ideas which — precisely because they were ideas, not noncognitive urges — directed the behavior patterns of the individuals within the group. Hence she was able to say, adapting Plato's view of justice in the Republic, that a culture was the personality of its individual members writ large. This is seen in her description of the cultures of the Plains Indians and the Pueblos, which are her best-known ethnographic studies. There she brought her literary and anthropological talents together and used Nietzsche's concepts of Dionysian and Apollonian societies in order to contrast their two ways of life, which were shaped respectively by the ideas of love and knowledge. She used these broad philosophical categories as explanatory constructs for cultural analysis in the grand manner prefigured by the aesthetic idealizations found in such 19th century cultural studies as Matthew Arnold's treatment of Hellenic, Hebraic, and Philistine (i.e., naturalistic) civilizations and other, sometimes explicitly Hegelian descriptions of classical and modern world cultures. Consider her famous ethnographic account of Ramon, who was nostalgic for the old ways of his people:
EA3: A chief of the Digger Indians, as the Californians call them, talked to me a great deal about the ways of his people in the old days. He was a Christian and a leader among his people in the planting of peaches and apricots on irrigated land, but when he talked of the shamans who had transformed themselves into bears before his eyes in the bear dance, his hands trembled and his voice broke with excitement. It was an incomparable thing, the power his people had had in the old days. He liked best to talk of the desert foods they had eaten. He brought each uprooted plant lovingly and with an unfailing sense of its importance. In those days his people had eaten "the health of the desert," he said, and knew nothing of the insides of tin cans and the things for sale at butcher shops. It was such innovations that had degraded them in these latter days.

One day, without transition, Ramon broke in upon his descriptions of grinding mesquite and preparing acorn soup. "In the beginning," he said, "God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life." I do not know whether the figure occurred in some traditional ritual of his people that I never found, or whether it was his own imagery. It is hard to imagine that he had heard it from the whites he had known at Banning; they were not given to discussing the ethos of different peoples. At any rate, in the mind of this humble Indian the figure of speech was clear and full of meaning. "They all dipped in the water," he continued, "but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now. It has passed away. (Benedict, 1934, p. 33)

The richness of Benedict's description reveals as much if not more of her own narrative skills as it does those of Ramon. Indeed, it is easy to criticize her for mixing her own views in with Ramon's. (Did he actually say that he "liked best"to talk of desert foods, or did she infer that preference from the way he spoke? Was it he or Benedict who said canned food "degraded" his people? Whose idea was it that Ramon was a "humble Indian"?) But perhaps some mixing of this sort is inevitable when cultures meet, and not just in formal ethnography. More significant, though, is what happens in her account when the interview stops and the commentary starts. First Benedict applies to Ramon's narrative her general point about cultural integrity, telling us: "These things that had given significance to the life of his people... were gone, and with them the shape and meaning of their life." The cup was broken, and could not be repaired, since it "was somehow all of a piece. It had been their own." Then she reconstructs Ramon's personal situation in terms of that general point: the values and ways of thought of the two cultures he must straddle are incommensurable. "It is a hard fate," she concludes (p. 34).

Hard for whom, we might ask: Ramon the straddler, or Benedict the exegete? In discussing this question sixty years after Benedict wrote Patterns of Culture, Michael Carrithers (1992) suggests that it was Benedict, not her informant, who was distressed. On the whole, I agree. But before we leave Benedict, let us do a little reconstructive ethnography of our own: what is she really saying, and what is there in her "cultural situation" (as a member of the Boasian tribe) that leads her to say it this way?

My own answer to these questions is as follows. Although Benedict was theoretically committed to the idea that cultures are "incommensurable," she could not sustain that commitment and do serious ethnography at the same time. Obviously, she thought there were some commensurabilities between cultures, or she would not have gone out into the field in the first place. Presumably it is on these assumed pockets of commensurability that ethnographers base their hope to understand other cultures — be it by empathy, analogical thinking, or projection. On the other hand, everything in her professional training and previous field experience made her keenly aware that serious ethnography is hard work, and that failure is always possible because the cultures under investigation are so different from the ethnographer's home culture (though fieldwork in one's own back yard is not easy either). Like Ramon, the Christian Digger Indian, she too had to "straddle," and knew that this was her own "hard fate." In order to carry out her mission as an ethnographer, she not only accumulated information but also projected her own feelings of discomfort and inadequacy onto Ramon — who for all we know may not have shared her view that his was a hard fate. Whether this is really a productive strategy for any ethnographer is, of course, another question altogether.

Are there similarities between the kind of straddling that must be done in anthropological fieldwork and that done in multicultural education, and if so, can they help us understand the motives underlying Benedict's ethnographic discourse? The answer to both questions is "yes," if I am correct in correlating her latter-day Boasian view of culture as pattern with the strong, difference-oriented version of Cultural Pluralism found in many schools. Consider the actual case of a beginning music teacher (a white female) in an all-black high school, who tried to tell her African American teenagers something about the relationship between rap and other forms of music. The normally placid students loudly and rudely resisted her efforts to tell them about "their music," eventually reducing her to tears. Later the principal (a strong cultural pluralist) criticized her — again, more tears — for having failed to respect the cultural uniqueness of rap: "It's their thing," she was told, in a way that implied her music lesson was an invasion of privacy.

Echoing Benedict, the principal and students believed the values and ways of thought embodied in black and white music to be incommensurable, and felt that the only respectful way to acknowledge the incommensurability was simply to avoid discussing a genre not of one's own culture. But as the instructional literature of multicultural education shows over and over again (e.g., Purves, 1997), there are many effective ways for teachers to present other cultures to a class, though simply "telling" about those cultures is probably not one of them. A more experienced white teacher could have asked her black students to share their understanding of what rap is all about, and then worked with them to compare their musical insights with her own insights about "white" music. Incommensurability would have been reduced, though perhaps not completely eliminated, as teacher and students "straddled" their respective cultures. Then, perhaps, being a white music teacher in a school would not be such "a hard fate." We may hope that as our tear-stained music teacher gained experience and self-knowledge about her own cultural situation, she became more successful in treating topics from other cultures. Similarly, we may conjecture that as Benedict grew in her own professional role of participant-observer, she became less anxious about the cultural differences between her and her informants, and hence less likely to ascribe to them problems they did not actually have. The latter conjecture is supported by her later book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), written to help the American people understand Japanese culture. But let us return to our main theme, which is the evolution of the very concept of "culture."

From Pattern to the Superorganic: Alfred Kroeber and Leslie White

Benedict's conception of culture has probably had a greater influence on the general public, and in consequence on educators concerned with multiculturalism, than have the theories of any other anthropologist, living or dead (her Patterns of Culture was the first anthropology book to be published in paperback). However, she was only one of many in her generation of anthropologists to insist on the internal unity of cultures. Other students of Boas also held that cultures had distinct "patterns," though they differed as to whether the pattern in question was primarily "phenomenal" (observable features of a culture such as its customs, social institutions, and artifacts) or "ideational" (the beliefs, motives, and other attitudes of the people of that culture). One of these was Kroeber, whose view of culture as a "superorganic entity" was mentioned above. He originally developed this idea as a corrective to the tendency shared by ordinary people and intellectuals (but interestingly enough, not by biologists of the time) to regard culture and society as governed by biology — or better, by tendencies that individuals inherited in the full biological sense of that term. The term "superorganic" was actually coined several years earlier by Herbert Spencer, who conceived society entirely in biological organic terms. (9) Even so, it was from Spencer that Kroeber took the distinction between the social organization of ants and humans, the latter being distinguished by conscious objectives.

The terminology is tricky here. Following the usual practice, Spencer and Kroeber both used the term "society" in a broad sense that did not set it off from culture. A similar conflation is found in their use of the term "organism," which could refer to the biological organism or the psychological organism, depending on the context. In his later works, Kroeber was more precise when he employed these terms, but he never quite sorted out the difference between psychological and cultural processes, or the relationship between them. As he grew less interested in diffusionist accounts of how cultures spread, he became more critical of the psychologism that accompanied those accounts. For instance, he felt his mentor Boas tended to explain the movement of cultural traits in terms of how people thought about them, as when a tribe adopted the long bow or some other weapon because it satisfied a felt need on the part of its members for aggressive activity, or when a myth took hold because it corresponded to the awe people felt toward their environment or to ideas they already had about the right way to live. Kroeber allied himself with Benedict when she described cultures as patterns, but could not accept her view that culture was personality writ large. And yet he demurred when Leslie White argued for his own strongly anti-psychologist version of culture as "superorganic," saying that

[Quote to be inserted]

Kroeber's view of culture as a superorganic entity is relevant to multicultural education in at least three ways, all indirect. The first is that it enhanced the holistic notion of culture propounded by Benedict, whose own theorizing in this area (like that of her friend Margaret Mead) asserted that cultures were more than the sum of their parts but did not go on to claim that the concept of a cultural whole was irreducible. Today's cultural pluralists do not usually cite Kroeber on this point — even Benedict and Mead are usually mentioned only in passing, though their influence on this literature is clear — but the discourse of multicultural education typically reifies cultures, especially the home cultures of the children in the classroom. That is, cultures are discussed at various levels of multicultural discourse as though they were "things" one has, objects of affection, causes that affect other things in the world.

The second way in which Kroeber's notion of the superorganic is relevant to multicultural education is that, for all his ambivalence about the relationship between mental processes and cultural forms, Kroeber's view emphasizes the influence of culture on psychology rather than the other way around. Unlike White, he was not prepared to abandon the notion of personal agency altogether, but he believed that one's personality is shaped by one's culture, a shaping process that is discussed by cultural pluralists under the headings of cultural identity and self-esteem. The third way that Kroeber's notion is relevant concerns history. A culture exists before and after individuals are born, grow up, live, and die "in it." Its history is not a chronicle of events ("one damned thing after another") but a story. And it is our story, not because it is about you and me, but because is it is about something greater than us, something that has made us what we are and which culturally sensitive educators teach the next generation to cherish.

A scholarly biography of Alfred Kroeber would reveal that he had a very wide sphere of influence during his long career. He shaped the thought of many social scientists (especially sociologists such as Talcott Parsons) as well as that of his fellow anthropologists. He is still influential, mainly because of the careful definition of culture that appears in a book that he and sociologist Clyde Kluckhohn wrote a half century ago, entitled Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952). This elegant work, which actually lives up to its ambitious title, is often cited today but alas, seldom read and used with profit, mainly because it is only now coming back into print. Kroeber & Kluckhohn's now-classic definition describes culture as pattern, but not as a single pattern. For them and the other researchers whose work they are summarizing,

CC: Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of actions, on the other as conditioning elements of further actions. (p. 645)

Back to Britain: Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

At the same time — roughly the interwar years — that the Boasians were discovering that cultures had the formal unity characteristic of aesthetic patterns, British anthropologists were discovering for themselves the systematicity, or as they preferred to call it, "functionality" of culture. Actually, two competing notions of function were operating in the literature of that time. The first was launched by Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish emigré who was as powerful a personality in England as the German-born Boas was in the United States (and who was generally sympathetic to Boas's work). He understood the functionality of cultures as the way cultural practices shaped and satisfied basic human needs such as hunger and sex, as well as more complex ones like the need to deal with death. Thus he defined culture as

CC4: the vast instrumentality through which man achieves his ends, both as an animal that must eat, rest, and reproduce; and as the spiritual being who desires to extend his mental horizons, produce works of art, and develop systems of faith. Thus, culture is at the same time the minimum mechanism or the satisfaction of the most elementary needs of man's animal nature, and also an ever-developing, ever-increasing system of new ends, new values, and new creative possibilities. (Malinowski, 1941-2/1962, p. 196)

The overall function of culture was understood by Malinowski and his followers as a set of specific subfunctions of specific institutions (e.g., funeral rituals), each of which was to be analyzed in relation to the psychological and biological properties of individual men and women. His ethnographies were devoted to showing this relationship, which consists in "the dependence of social organization in a given society upon the ideas, beliefs, and sentiments current there" (1927, p. vii). Malinowski regarded the social organization itself as an objective fact, something to be discovered in fieldwork which, when carried out with due care, would leave the ethnographer with not only photographs, transcripts of interviews, and descriptions of discrete behaviors and practices, but also an objective understanding of the social structures underlying these phenomena. For Malinowski, once the anthropologist had done this ethnological spadework it only remained to establish which "ideas, beliefs, and sentiments" underlie these structures. Some of these ideas are the so-called savage views (often "quite unexpected and far-fetched") about natural processes like sex and reproduction, such as those Malinowski explored in his short monograph on the matrilineal society of the Trobriand Islanders (1927). Others are the ideas and desires the people being studied have concerning the social structures themselves. Consider the account in his famous Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1927) of the seemingly odd way in which the Trobriand people store their yams and other foodstuffs. In contrast to the prevailing view that primitive people have no sense of private ownership, he claimed that the Trobriand Islanders had a very acutely developed sense of mine and thine, with regard to both the necessities of life and its luxuries.

EA4: [Foodstuffs] are not merely regarded by the natives as nourishment, not merely valued because of their utility. They accumulate them not so much because they know that yams can be stored and used for a future date, but also because they like to display their possessions in food. Their yam houses are built so that the quantity of the food can be gauged, and its quality ascertained through the wide interstices between the beams. The yams are so arranged that the best specimens come to the outside and are well visible. Special varieties of yams, which grow up to two metres length, and weigh as much as several kilograms each, are framed in wood and decorated with paint, and hung on the outside of the yam houses. That the right to display food is highly valued can be seen from the fact that in villages where a chief of high rank resides, the commoners' storehouses have to be closed up with coco-nut leaves, so as not to compete with his. All this shows that the accumulation of food is not only the result of economic foresight, but also prompted by the desire of display and enhancement of social prestige through possession of wealth. (1927, p.35?)

Malinowski freely admitted that his description of the ideas underlying the Islanders' accumulation of foodstuffs refers to "the present, actual psychology of the natives" (ibid.). However, he also believed that anthropology should provide a non-individualistic analysis, showing that the social institutions themselves are interrelated, since cultural systems involve totally integrated ways of life. (10) For instance, he stated that the really difficult task in fieldwork such as his investigations of the Trobriand Islanders was not collecting facts but trying to "systematize them into an organic whole" (Malinowski, 1952, p. 322). For this reason, he believed, as did Benedict and other Boasians, that small changes in a cultural practice could have profound, often very negative, effects throughout the whole cultural system, much as chaos theorists today see small changes causing repercussions on a global scale.

An alternative conception of "function" was developed a little later by another British anthropologist, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who rejected Malinowski's individualistic approach to the function(s) of culture in favor of a more collectivist and more systematic functionalism (see Radcliffe-Brown, 1935/1955). (11) For him culture was

CC5: [Quote to be inserted from Radcliff-Brown's "On the Concept of Function in Social Science," American Anthropologist, 37 (1935)]

In this view, what was important was not the contribution that a cultural practice made to the lives of individual people, but rather what it did for the life of the society itself. To carry out this project, which was largely inspired by the French sociologist Emil Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown focused on the specific social institutions (families, schools, governments) that provided the context and structure for interpersonal relationships, rather than on culture in general. His best known ethnographical work is probably his account of kinship relations in East Africa, where he writes:

EA5: [Quote to be inserted]

Because Radclilff-Brown was not interested in the usual contents of culture — customs, art, religion, and worldviews of other sorts — he called his work "social anthropology" in contrast to the more woolly "cultural anthropology" practiced in the United States. For a while there was some debate as to whether Radcliffe-Brown was really doing anthropology or sociology, but that issue faded as anthropology became more sure of itself as an academic discipline and, in consequence, better able to tolerate methodological diversity.

Culture as System: The Parsonian Synthesis

These two forms of functionalism (Malinkowski's functionalism of individual needs, and Radcliffe-Brown's functionalism of preserving the collective) do not exhaust the list of functional explanations (see Buckley, 1967; Nagle, 1960?, Abrahamson, 1978), but they were the principal contenders in the debate over cultural functionality in the second quarter of the twentieth century. That debate led to a third functionalist model that eventually dominated the discussion on both sides of the Atlantic during the third quarter of the century. This was Talcott Parsons's grand synthesis of the three interpenetrating domains of culture, society, and personality. The theory of action produced by this synthesis was primarily a sociological theory, in that its central thesis was the claim that individual needs and cultural traits (general beliefs and values) are socially determined. For Parsons, social institutions do not exist for the sake of your needs or mine, nor do they exist to preserve our common cultural heritage, though they do in fact promote all these things. Basically, he thought, social institutions exist for the sake of society itself, which is to say for preserving a stable equilibrium among the component structures of the society. With this, Kroeber's belief that culture is a superorganic entity was transformed from an anthropological claim to a sociological one, and the discipline of anthropology was loosed from its structuralist jargon. (12) In consequence, it began to move from a scientific or quasi-scientific study of determinate facts to a much more fluid, and contentious, form of discourse, although in recent years there has been a renewal of Parson's model under the label "post-Parsonian sociology."

In 1958 Kroeber and Parsons collaborated on an article entitled "The Concepts of Culture and of the Social System," but Kroeber had argued as early as 1917 that culture is superorganic because it exists before and after individuals are born, grow up, live, and die "in it." Its existence, like that of individuals, is governed by principles, but these are not to be confused with the psychological or biological principles governing individual persons. Instead, the existence of culture is governed by principles that are at "a higher order of phenomena," as he tried to show in his later studies of patterns of clothing styles (Kroeber, 1948, 1957) and other quasi-sociological essays. Individuals might be acutely conscious of skirt lengths, he argued, but not (usually) of the "fact" that this phenomenon is part of a larger story of recurring regularities and discontinuities.

Three Mid-Century Shifts

Patterns, ways, organisms, structures, functions, systems, superorganic entities . . . These and other holistic concepts were recycled over and over again by anthropologists well into the 1960s, as though the only alternative to the view of cultures as determinate unities were the "shreds and patches" view that regarded culture as a jumble of unrelated or at most extrinsically related features, any one of which could be changed with no impact on the others. Everyone knew that cultures were integral wholes, so the question was only how to represent their unity. However, toward the end of that decade there occurred a couple of major shifts whose aftershocks are still being felt. The first was a shift toward what I previously called the ideational order, perhaps not exactly a paradigm shift in the scientific sense of that term (Kuhn, 1965?) but a distinctly new emphasis nonetheless. For lack of a better term, I will call it the literary shift, although it could also be described as a new way of understanding the ideational order. Heretofore, anthropologists — even those most interested in the way people think rather than in how they behave or what they make (the phenomenal order) — assumed that beliefs and motives were like objective phenomena, except that they were more subtle, covert, and otherwise harder to investigate. But authors such as Clifford Geertz and later James Clifford and other post-modernists (I use the latter term very loosely here!) Argued that ethnography was "interpretation all the way down" and that anthropologists ignore this epistemological premise at their peril.

The second shift was also a shift in emphasis, important but by no means anything like a paradigm shift. It was more of a scale change, since the new unit of cultural analysis was a large geographical area such as the Pacific Rim or, looking back to antiquity, the Mediterranean World, rather than a single national or ethnic group such as Japan or ancient Greece. Of course groups of the latter sort usually had some internal diversity — modern Japan is very complex, and as Thucydides showed long ago, the customs of Sparta were very different from those of Athens, not to mention those of Greek colonies such as Syracuse. But the diversity is magnified exponentially when the geographical area is widened to include several national or ethnic groups. In his later work, Kroeber (1948, 1952, 1953; see also Hewes, 1961) wrote quite sensitively on this point, though he seems not to have recognized its destabilizing implications for the superorganic notion of culture. Cultivating the example of the ancient Mediterranean World, he introduced the term ecumene (adapted from the classical Greek oikoumene, which he also employed), and used it holistically to denote any relatively large region of multiple cultures. These are regions like the original Oikoumene of the Mediterranean area, where several civilizations interact with much cultural diffusion, as well as with important and frequent changes in their social and conceptual systems — including their religious and philosophical orientations. Thus Kroeber considered "the holistic concept of the Oikoumene as a genuine historical unit of interconnected development of higher civilization in Asia, Europe, and North Africa" (Kroeber, 1953, p. 267).

I have characterized this view as a scale change, but that is not entirely correct, since Kroeber's ecumene is not simply a very large culture. Kroeber himself clearly thought of it as a web or network, whose nodes are cultures in the familiar Boasian sense — but with somewhat faster rates of change than Boas himself envisaged. It is also worth noting that Kroeber was talking about the development of "higher civilizations," which presumably had a far greater complexity and fluidity than did the societies Boas had described nearly fifty years earlier.

The third shift, foreshadowed by Kroeber's cryptic characterization of the Oikoumene or ecumene as "a genuine historical unit," is what I simply call the historical shift. (13) When Tylor founded anthropology as an academic discipline, the universal assumption was that social groups are best studied synchronically, that is, without reference to whatever history (if any) they might have had. Since the populations who were the usual subjects of anthropological research were very small, very distant, and very primitive at least in the sense of having no written records, this assumption was quite convenient for those who would study them. In fact, scholars used the expression "people without history" interchangeably with "primitive cultures," not because these people had no temporal history but because the anthropologists studying them had neither the resources nor the desire to learn how the people came to live as they did. They further assumed, entirely without justification, that the people themselves had no interest in their history. This view, it might be added, fit very well with the view of cultures/peoples/societies as integral wholes, as can be seen in the choice of metaphors that anthropologists as different as Benedict and Radcliffe-Brown used to explain cultural diversity (see Carrithers, 1992, p. 75?).

Whether Kroeber himself realized that he was significantly thickening the historical dimension of anthropology is unclear, but a generation later Murray Wax, who had the advantage of having read Clifford Geertz's accounts of cultures as shared symbol systems, picked up on this theme and eventually applied it to multicultural education. By 1993, Wax, who by then had developed something of a reputation as an educational ethnologist, reconstructed Kroeber's original insight by suggesting that the amazing productivity of Europe and America over the last several centuries is evidence of the functioning of a "North Atlantic Ecumene," and that a comparable surge of intercultural and economic growth is now taking place around the Pacific (Wax, 1993, p. 108). In each of these international and near-global cases, as well as in the case of America itself — which though a single nation-state is now thought by many if not most multiculturalists and global educators to be more like an ecumene than a culture in the older anthropological sense — cultures interact and interpenetrate. Since this process is intrinsically historical, it cannot be described ahistorically or, what is almost the same thing, as the ad hoc diffusion of cultural traits that are themselves without historical significance. (14)

One of the works Wax cites to illustrate his point is R. Canfield's (1991) anthropological history of Turko-Persia, to which I would add the philosophical-historical study by Peter Karavites and myself of non-Greek influences on Homeric and post-Homeric morality (Karavites and Wren, 1992). These and similar works resist easy classification, since they involve several academic disciplines, but they are unmistakably historical. In each case they go beyond the older, mechanical methods of accounting for cultural change and instead describe it as a "cultural efflorescence" (Wax, 1993, p. 108) that is itself culturing in the sense of bringing about a new cultural reality, one that is more than an eclectic jumble but less than a full-blown synthesis or "integrated whole" à la Benedict.


What is the implication of all this for practical social programs, such as multicultural education or, by extension, other projects motivated by the hunger and thirst for justice? Here Wax is refreshingly but misleadingly blunt, declaring: "In short, the Boas-Benedict legacy of plural, separate, distinct, historically homogeneous cultures is both scientifically misleading and educationally irrelevant. When elaborated into the curricular rhetoric of multiculturalism, it may express a struggle for political empowerment or dominance, but it has no relevance to the historical realities of the development of world civilization" (1993, p. 108). This claim seems to me correct as far as it goes, but I would go beyond it to make the normative claim that the Boas-Benedict legacy should be irrelevant in the way Wax indicates. I would also add that this legacy is, and should be, equally irrelevant to the political and psychosocial realities of our own national scene. However, I cannot pursue these themes here. For now, I will only note that in the passage just cited, Wax's main concern is with the global side of the local-global dimension. Teachers in multicultural education programs should, he insists, rearrange their categories to reflect the ecumenical, rather than national, character of their subject matter. (15) But his point has domestic implications too. Reversing Plato's famous device in The Republic of projecting the structure of personal virtue onto a social-political screen, I would reconstruct Wax's point by saying that an American schoolchild is an "ecumene writ small." Nowhere, but especially not in contemporary society, are the identifying traits of a child (or for that matter an adult) isomorphic with those of a specific culture or sub-culture, using the latter term ethnically or otherwise. Admittedly, at any moment there will be some children who have recently arrived in the United States from some remote land (remote from America, that is), and who are so deeply and exclusively conditioned by their home cultures that it may not seem wrong or at least not grossly misleading for an observer (or teacher) to equate their personal identity with their cultural identity, and to act accordingly while helping the children adjust to the American scene. But even when immigrant children have not yet had the opportunity to take on any cultural features of their new home, the two sorts of identity are not logically or psychologically coextensive, and neither should be thought of in essentialist terms. The child is male or female, confident or diffident, slow or quick, loved or neglected, rich or poor, befriended or lonely, and so on, regardless of how fully he or she has internalized the old ways and cultural traits and continues to maintain them.

This last statement is a concrete and eminently practical claim. It points to the moral dimensions of culture theory that I have not discussed in the previous pages but which are implicit in everything that has been said. The implication is actually bidirectional. How we treat individuals, be they immigrant children or marginalized groups within our own society, depends on how we understand what it means to be a member of a cultural group. However, how we understand concepts like "culture" is itself dependent on how we treat people. I will conclude on that note, with the promise to revisit this theme in a more analytical essay.


1. I say the terms corresponded only "fairly closely" for two reasons. First, civilization is, etymologically speaking, a feature of the city (civis), which suggested to anthropologists influenced by E. B. Tylor that civilizations are later and hence higher sorts of culture. Second, non-anthropologists such as Max Weber who were influenced by Karl Marx as well as by Tylor tended to regard civilization as the structure of a society's material life, and culture the structure of its moral and symbolic life (see Becker, 1996).

2. Tylor's notion of cultural evolution, never entirely dead, has recently been reincarnated by Richard Dawkins (1976) and E. O. Wilson (Lumsden & Wilson, 1981) as a quasi-mathematical model analogous to contemporary genetic theory, with "memes" — analogues of genes — as the unit of analysis. The most effective opponent of this view is the well-known geneticist R. C. Lewontin (1999). It seems unlikely that this debate will affect the literature and practices of multicultural education, owing to its highly technical nature as well as its apparent irrelevance to curricular and instructional issues. However, one never knows in advance how intellectual currents will affect each other or how they will enter into public discourse about society and education.

3. "It happens unfortunately that but little evidence as to the history of civilization is to be got by direct observation, that is, by contrasting the condition of a low race at different times, so as to see whether its culture has altered in the meanwhile. The contact requisite for such an inspection of a savage tribe by civilized men, has usually had much the same effect as the experiment which an inquisitive child tries upon the root it puts into the ground the day before, by digging it up to see whether it has grown" (Tylor, 1965, p. 159).

4. Thus Franz Boas complained two decades after Tylor's Primitive Culture appeared in 1871: "The descriptions of the state of mind of primitive people, such as are given by most travellers, are too superficial to be used for psychological [and ethnological] investigation....The observers who really entered into the inner life of the people ... are few in number and may be counted at one's fingers ends." (Boas, 1894, pp. 318-319).

5. I refer here and elsewhere to his matured concept, often called the "anthropological concept of culture," which was to reshape itself over and over again in the work of Boas's students and others influenced by him. Since Boas himself was a transition figure, one can find (especially in his early work) many instances in which he reverts to the evolutionary or "humanist" concept of culture as civilization. This view of Boas as a transition figure is presented quite persuasively in Stocking (1966). However, even at the end of his career he was willing to allow the possibility that cultural evolution contained some small kernel of truth (see Cook, 1999, ch. 6).

6. Note that Boas is here explaining cultural formation in psychological terms, which as we will see led his student Alfred Kroeber to accuse him of psychologism, the forerunner of what is today called methodological individualism. A similar fate befell Boas's British counterpart, B. Malinowski, whose psychologism was source of confllict between him and his former student A.R. Radcliff-Brown (see below).

7. And also that of certain German and Austrian ethnologists who, after gathering as much anthropological information for a geographical region as they could, then explained their data by their Kulturkreislehre (culture-circle doctrine), which hypothesized that cultural forms radiated outwards geographically, forming concentric circles on the world's map (see Graebner, 1911; Schmidt, 1939).

8. This famous characterization of the way diffusionists viewed cultures (which was drawn from Gilbert and Sullivan) was suggested to Benedict by another student of Boas, Robert Lowrie. It is also worth noting that Benedict's own dissertation, written under Boas a decade before Patterns of Culture, was firmly in the diffusionist tradition. On the transformation of her view of culture between 1923 and 1934, see Handler, 1990.

9. Though Spencer was a sociologist, not a biologist, Kroeber called him "one of the greatest champions of biological heredity " (Kroeber, 1917, p. 37).

10. "When I speak about ideas underlying accumulation of food stuffs in the Trobriands, I refer to the present, actual psychology of the natives, and I must emphatically declare that I am not offering here any conjectures about the 'origins' or about the 'history' of the customs and their psychology, leaving this to theoretical and comparative research." (Malinowski, 1927, p. 169; italics added). As the italicized phrase indicates, Malinowski strongly insisted on a division of labor, with the "field ethnographer" gathering the data and the armchair anthropologist developing the theories. The division he had in mind was not among the scholarly laborers themselves but rather between the two sorts of roles a responsible anthropologist must assume. For Malinowski, the fact that fieldwork involved generalizations (such as about the social structures associated with specific practices) made it all too easy to confound these roles: "Because a statement is very general, it can none the less be a statement of empirical fact. General views must not be mixed up with hypothetical ones. The latter must be banished from field work ; the former cannot receive too much attention" (ibid., p. 168n).

11. "On the Concept of Function in Social Science," American Anthropologist, 37 (1935), reprinted in Radcliffe-Brown, ed., Structure and Function in Primitive Society (NY, Free Press, 1955).

12. Except for those influenced by the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (19??). Although he began writing in the 1940s, his work was not read in the English-speaking world until at least a decade too late for it to have an impact on the anthropological mainstream, which by then was rapidly moving away from structuralist models of culture. One wonders how Levi-Strauss's work would have been received in the United States if it had been confronted by Parsons or Kroeber.

13. See also Kroeber's more direct remark that "Within what the Greeks knew as the Oikoumene, the traced and specific interconnections are now so many that a really separate history of any culture can no longer be thought of" (Kroeber, 1953, p. 267, italics added).

14. Though it is that too: after all, it would be foolish to deny that modern communication, especially television, has brought about diffusion on a massive scale of cultural traits such as cuisine, technologies, and folk arts. Are these really as disconnected as they first seem? The fact that jeans are worn all over the world is surely related to the popularity of McDonald's restaurants, but what is the significance of that relationship? Probably considerable.

15. "The task is to change our basic terminological approach and see a historical sequence of ecumenes in each of which an intermixture from various sources of crafts, technologies, arts, and scholarship resulted in a cultural efflorescence. This would mean that we would stop claiming that Western civilization was in fact western, when the participants and contributors have been global for decades and even centuries" (Wax, 1993, p. 108).