Lecture 3 ( these notes have not been edited and material in italic bold was  added later and not actually covered in class for lack of time)



An excellent overview of the various ways the word "culture" has been used in different contexts: http://www.wsu.edu:8001/vcwsu/commons/topics/culture/culture-index.html . A graduate student overview of various anthropological theories is to be found at http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/anthros.htm



Basic purpose of socio-cultural anthropology: to account for the existence of and variability in cultural and social forms.


ethnology -- older world literally meaning " the study of peoples." Sometimes still used.

           ethnography -- used when referring to the description of another culture, eg, my ethnography of the Tausug.


Culture is the key concept in anthropology, but one must understand that it is a sensitizing concept rather than a very clear "thing" which can be identified by unambiguous benchmarks, like, say, the element oxygen in chemistry. That is, the concept has a core or central meaning which most anthropologists could agree upon, but the meaning begins to get a little vague at the edges.

First point the get clear: Anthropologists do not use the term culture in the way it is sometime used in popular usage: as "high culture" (going to good music, appreciating fine wine, listening to opera. Holding your fork a particular way, speaking "correct" English", etc. ) Culture lies as much in such simple mechanical tasks as how one peels a vegetable (do you peel outward or pull inward?)

Most definitions of "culture" in the history of American anthropology can be sorted into two kinds. Some definitions are behavioral in emphasis (for example, "behavior patterns that are learned and passed on from generation to generation"), and others are symbolic in emphasis (for example, "the beliefs and doctrines that make it possible for members of a group to make sense of and rationalize the life they lead"). Of course . cultural community is the beneficiary of both behavioral and symbolic inheritances, .


Culture: many different definitions. Tylor's (1870 or so) perhaps the most famous: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society".

Robert Redfield’s definition in 1941: "culture" as "shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact." Herkovits simple definition: "the man made part of the environment."  (note: do not try to memorize the names, just get the idea)


Tylor's definition does zero in that culture is acquired by man "as a member of society". Now the distinction between culture and society has perhaps caused more useless handringing among undergrads than really necessary.

One of the problems here is whether one thinks "reality" is basically a question of fixed "things" in the world, or whether it is basically a question of process and change. I myself am a philosophic heir to American pragmatism, which basically takes reality as a question of process and views entities as nothing more nor less than temporary results of ongoing processes. But this philosophy is beyond the scope of this course.




Process (constant change)

Thing ( result of process)


Society (as interaction, and the fact that as social animals we are constantly having to adjust our conduct to take account of the conduct of others)

A Society (as a network of people who are more likely to interact with certain others)

Mental Product

Culture (as capacity to create symbolic and material worlds – as distinguished from mere "Instinct")

A Culture ( a more or less integrated and shared material and symbolic world)



          Society  (as a process) refers to the process of adjusting one's conduct to gear into the conduct of others. That is, like all primates humans are intensely social creatures, in which there is a constant process going on in which we are always every so subtly and unconsciously, sometimes more consciously, adjusting our conduct so that it can effectively gear into or in some sense mesh with the conduct of others. (Note also that each human being is also in the process of adjusting his conduct not only to other others who are present but more importantly to those non present humans who are imagined to be present -- we are interacting with others in a sense even when we are alone). Note also that the processing of meshing our conduct to meet the conduct of others also includes conflict which is just as social as harmony.

A Society as a discrete thing rather than a process is simply some group or network of individuals who are more likely to be constantly adjust their conduct to each other than to persons outside the society. A society, therefore, always presupposes some network of communication, which can be a small as the obvious communication which exists in a face-to face group, to as broad as a society as large and anonymous as a computer bulletin board. In fact, modern society is chiefly characterized by the vast range of communication networks which exist outside of the face to face group. The most important global change in the nature of society in the last two hundred years has been the advances in the non-face to face means of communication. Although we sometime forget that writing itself was probably the first real new medium of communication, and was as revolutionary in its day (maybe more so) than the internet is today.

Now this definition of a society is very broad indeed. Some anthropologists give the word a more narrow definition (which is not inconsistent with the one above), defining a society as a group with in some substantial sense can fulfill all of the fundamental functional imperatives of human existence throughout the life cycle, that is one could live ones entire life in the society and the society provides for all the needs which would be necessary for the fully range of the human life cycle. Kroeber [a prominent American anthropologist through the late 50's] referred to monasteries, cowboys, etc. as "part societies" precisely because one could not live an entire life in them.

Another usage is implied in the distinction between the German words gemeinshaft (community - small face to face group of people interacting with the totality of their social selves) and gesellshaft ("society" as a voluntary large association).

So the term"society" has a number of different, though not inconsistent, meanings.

Culture as a process refers to the human capacity to create various products of the mind (the knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and other capabilities" referred to in Tylor's definition). Now the term material culture is used to refer to actual objects (tools, buildings, art objects etc) but it is clear that objects have no intrinsic meaning apart from that which people give them so it is still really the mental fact which is important, not the thing itself.

A Culture refers to some set of products of the mind which are associated together, usually with some particular society or group of people who participate in the culture. When the anthropologist uses the term culture in this sense, you must be alert to the social context in which the term is being used.

           the culture of Western Europe

           the culture of the English speaking peoples

           American culture

           the culture of the Northeast US

           the culture of Boston

           The culture of Bostonians of Italian background

           The culture of the North End

The culture of North End high school students

          the culture of the boys who hang around the corner of Hannover Streets.



Each of the "levels" identifies a culture associated with a particular society. The emphasis is usually on the uniqueness, that which sets the culture off from other societies. Thus, when we talk of the culture of Boston, we can mean either l) everything cultural found among Bostonians, in which case it would include a lot of cultural stuff we share with other Americans (and Europeans, and humans everywhere), or 2) that which is unique about the culture of Boston, in which can it would exclude everything that we share with the rest of the country.

Point here: be aware of this ambiguity. It is a trap for the unwary.


Variability in Culture

The idea of culture also does not imply passive acceptance of received practice and doctrine or that human beings are robots or putty or blank slates. Culture always allows for some degree of variability. One of the most interesting differences between cultures is the amount of variability which is normally allowed in any given type of activity. To take a trivial example: disposal of the dead. In our culture there is some variability allowed: burial vs cremation. In others (such as the Tausug) there is only one highly prescribed method.


What Individual Does not Understand

In spite of importance of knowing the "native's rationale" for any kind of conduct, this is certainly, not the end all of anthropological research. As Karl Marx once said: if everything were actually as it appeared to be, then there would be no need for science at all! Important here to distinguish between:

manifest function: the purpose of an institution or practice as understood by the people themselves. Eg the manifest function of Aztec human sacrifice was the need to please the Gods and their desire of human victims in order to insure that the world would not be destroyed, as it was potentially subject to every 52 years according to the Aztec calendar.


latent function: the unanticipated effects of an institution or practice, which are not necessarily known to those who practice it (although every culture has its share of thoughtful people who might take an objective view of their own culture). Thus " The family that prays together stays together" -- The unanticipated effect of family religious rituals is to increase social solidarity. Or (possibly) the unanticipated effect of Aztec human sacrifice was to increase the supply of meat (the victims were eaten) at least for certain politically important classes under circumstances in which meat was in chronic short supply -- but this is very controversial theory and may not be correct.

Very often when ask natives why they do something, they will just shrug shoulders and say something like" it is the way of the ancestors" or "it is our custom" etc. Ask Eskimo why he gives a dead seal a drink and you are likely to get such an explanation. Or ask Tausug why he places a shell over door, and you get the explanation "adat " (custom).


Great deal of culture is adhered to just because people have always done things in a certain way. This is complicated by the fact that people often will give you concocted reasons -- "secondary rationalizations"-- for their conduct.

       Example: In American Jewish HHs children may ask why they are not supposed to eat pork or shellfish. In Orthodox HHs they may be given a "This is just the way we have always done it" sort of explanation, but in more liberal HHs there may be a complicated pseudo historic explanation involving supposed notions of hygiene : "pork and shellfish, if not prepared correctly can be sources of disease". This may make superficial sense, except that if one wants to explain the prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus, one must explain the whole system of prohibitions and not just one or two. Thus why is dog prohibited, or monkey, or certain kinds of locusts but not others, etc? No medical reason here. 

       Point here: there is much in any culture which is covert, and which lies outside the conscious awareness of people, and the anthropologist must seek explanations which go beyond the natives understanding


          Interpretation of symbolism

       One of the great contributions of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim at the turn of the century was to emphasize how various kinds of complex symbolic actions in society (rituals in particular) have a covert meaning which can only be understood -- not by asking people what things means (because most of the time they may not know) but by analyzing the patterning of these things in the total social context:

       Example: take a simpler symbol like flowers in American culture -- clearly an arbitrary cultural symbol (American Indians rarely used flowers symbolically at all). Cannot just ask people "what is the meaning of flowers" - just a silly question. But must look at the total patterning of the ritual uses of flowers and infer the meaning from the use in ritual context: flowers are used at life-crisis rites -- births, christenings, marriages, birthdays, anniversaries, illnesses, and death. The meaning seems to be wrapped up with flowers as symbols of these transitions. (But not all transitions: not appropriate at sentencing of a criminal, for example).

Notice that flower symbolism is not just a set of rote rules that people just sort of memorize. Rather than learning a bunch of specific rules we pick up a sense of the logic of flower giving as it is practiced in our culture and on the basis of this we can generate new kinds of flower giving conduct depending on the circumstances.


       Further point about society. There is a paradox here: " man is a social animal but is never completely socialized". What I has in mind here is underscored by comparing man to the social insects in which it would seem that the individual is always completely and totally integrated into the structure of the group . In human (and primate) societies the individual is always to some degree at odds with the group and there is a constant and complex interplay between the two. Also in insect societies sexuality usually occurs outside the group, while in primate societies sexuality is always a part of the structure of the group. The idea that the "purpose" of sex is basically for reproduction is, from the point of view of primates, pretty simplistic. Sex serves all sorts of functions in primate (and mammalian) societies.

Eg: Bonobos (pygmy chimps) use sex as a means of defusing social tension.

       Now starting with basic definition of society as the process of adjusting ones conduct to meet or mesh with the conduct of others, it is important at this point to recognize that there are two very fundamental ways of doing this:

    1. We can interact with others as actors playing out conventional roles as defined by our culture. (mother, father, President, teacher, student, priest, playmate, good friend, etc). We can call this conventional status-roles. They vary from one culture to another. E.g. We have informal friendship roles in our culture, but there are some places that have an institutionalized role of "best friend". "Compadre" in some Hispanic cultures.

       2. We can interact with others as unique human beings, that is, the process of interaction depends on qualities of personality which are specific to the individuals involved and not necessarily shared with others. We can call this interpersonal role.

       These two types of interaction are always present to some degree in combination in any human encounter, but the importance of each clearly varies with the situation.

       In a relationship between lovers of close friends the unique qualities of the persons are usually paramount, and conventional role is usually minor.

       In a highly ritualized situation conventional role is paramount, and the unique qualities of the individuals may make no difference at all. In the inauguration of the President of the US, it makes no difference to the social outcome of the ritual whether who the participants are.

       In general interaction between persons in most cultural defined situations proceeds in terms of conventional defined roles, that is sets of expectations as to mutual behavior. In interaction between unique persons, interaction is primarily structured in terms of sentiments and emotions.

Returning to the definitions of culture and society: what is the relation between the two? Obviously one cannot have culture without society or vice versa.

To the extent that people participate in a common network of communication (that is, society) to that extent they are more likely to build up shared understanding and expectations and culturally defined meanings. At the same time, of course, to the extent that people initially share common understandings it is easier to construct a society. So there is a very close mutual effect.


I find it useful to think of role primarily in relation to the expectations that other people have with respect to the duties an individual has who occupies a particular position in any specific situation. Status , on the other hand, refers to the rights which an individual has to demand of others by virtue of the fact that he occupies a certain position.

Thus, there is a complementary between status and role with respect to the rights and duties associated with a particular position. My status as a teacher consists of those things which I can legitimately demand of you because I occupy this position (a certain amount of deference and respect, expectations that you will show up for class on time, etc). But you as students also have a status vis a vis me (that is, the right to demand that I show up for class, give an intelligible lecture, behave toward you in a fair and equitable manner, etc.). Thus my status is your role, and your status is my role. There is a complementarity of rights and duties here.

All rights in any society always imply corresponding duties, and the imposition of a duty always carries with it some connotations of corresponding rights. Admittedly, this is a legalistic perspective on the concepts of the status and role, but it seems to me to be useful.


Role and Audiences - roles and status must be played out to audiences (even if the individual is his own audience)

        The question is, to what extent do we, inasmuch as we all play many roles and wear many different "hats" do we play out all these different roles to the same audience, or on the other hand play them out to different audiences which are kept segregated from each other.

This is the basis for a very important polar distinction in social anthropology: multiplex roles vs uniplex roles.

       multiplex roles -- we wear different hats at different times, but the audience we play them out to are often the same people. The headman of a Tausug community is a political leader in certain roles, a military leader in others, a religious leader in some roles, a rich man and economic mobilizer in others, and a kinsman in others. The audience that he plays these various roles out to, however, are substantially the same people. Multiplex roles are very characteristic of small scale face to face societies, and in rural America, small towns, etc) The family itself in our culture is a classic multiplex role situation, with each family member wearing different "hats" at different times to the same people.


       uniplex roles --- great audience segregation. We play out our different roles to different audiences.

       Teacher-student relation in American society is classic example of uniplex role. One clearly defined role, with one audience carefully segregated from the others. For all any of you know I could be a practicing poet in Bolivia, or a California real estate broker. But you do not see me in any of these other roles, so you cannot know about them. Contemporary society, on the whole, is very heavily characterized by uniplex roles, although this is clearly more apparent in urban settings

Implications of all this:

       1. In uniplex system conflicts can be "settled" by avoidance or severing the relationship. Pick up your marbles and leave. (Americans are very prone to this). In multiplex systems severing the relationship is much more difficult. Tausug who has a fight with his neighbor may find it difficult to break the relationship if the neighbor also happens to be a kinsman as well.


       2. In contemporary society in uniplex settings there is a very great need for stereotypes in order to structure interaction with relative strangers. We are all constantly called upon to interact, both superficially and fairly intensely with people who we do not know in any total social capacity or as unique human beings. It is a bit like picking up hitchhikers -- you must make your decision in a split second based on admittedly very inadequate information. Much contemporary life is like this, particularly in urban settings.



The Concept of Culture

In American anthropology the concept of culture has figured more prominently than the concept of society, which has sometimes been seen as more the province of sociology. This distinction and division of academic labor, as it were, is a bit of a red herring. There is a great deal of cross fertilization between the fields, although anthropology clearly has much stronger roots in the humanities (music, art history, literature, philosophy) and biology than sociology does.


There are fundamentally four characteristics of culture which it is convenient to identify, and we will deal with each in turn. Your text identifies four characteristics

Culture is 1) learned

                    2) shared

                    3)based on symbols

                    4) integrated

 Culture Is Symbolic

There are of course primary symbols in any cultural tradition – the cross to a Christian

Classification Systems and Symbolism 

Ethnographic Semantics: One very common technique for getting at the natives point of view is just to ask a series of questions designed to elicit the meanings of key words in the native language ( a key word is a term which is very ripe with cultural and symbolic significance).

           Example: Say you were an ethnographer from outer space and you wanted to find out about the way certain items are classified in a Burger King. If you asked a series of questions you might come up with the following classification of the larger category of "sandwiches":













































(Regular) hamburger


Double hamburger





Point here: meaning of key concepts always understood in a structure of contrast. The word "hamburger" does not have just one meaning – it has many meanings depending on what it contrasts with. One of the most difficult things to understand in another culture is not what key ideas mean in a positive sense, but rather what they implicitly contrast with. Now hamburgers are relatively easy, but religious key concepts may be very complex indeed. But try doing this kind of analysis of the Christian Holy Trinity.

Take concept of "freedom" in American culture. Its meaning is a least partially a question of what we contrast it with. Freedom is usually contrasted with "constraint", and is the absence of constraint. The Russian idea of freedom (if I am right in reading Tolstoi and Chekov) is not the absence of constraint, but the practical opportunity of individual self fulfillment. These are subtle, but very important, differences.


Each of these characteristics, however, presents a number of very special problems:

In the remaining time we will only have time to deal with the first.

CULTURE IS Integrated

The notion that culture is not just a random assortment of traits – a laundry list of items.. Things  do seem to fall together  and it is notjust randomness.

Functional integration  -   idea that cultural items serve certain functions in the culture as a whole culture and are often ands are often causually related.  “The family that prays together stays together  - the various aspects of  prayers etc contributed to the maintenance of the social order.

Logico-Meaningful integration.  The culture items seem to make a pattern is an almost aesthetic sense. Most ethnographers try to give the reader a sense of how the culture falls together meaningfully as a  coherent way of life.  I  could list all the traits in Tausug culture and leave it at that as merely a kind of “laundry list”   When ethnographers have tried to do that their writings are usually just plain boring. The more interesting problem: What is a like to be a Tausug?  What is the style of Tausug culture?



Culture is basically learned conduct, and it is certainly a truism among anthropologists that culture is learned and not inborn or genetically based, although the capacity for culture certainly has a biological basis.


Fashionable some years ago (in the 30s and 40s) to speculate on what a "natural man" would be like. That is, if you could strip off the cultural learning and overlays which all socialized humans have, like peeling off the skin of an onion, what would you find at the center of it all?

Now of course the problem here is that all this is really very speculative, because you cannot ever find such a creature. Most of the examples of so called "wolf children" have been unsubstantiated. We do have a few well documented cased of severely deprived children --- kids who have been chained to the attic bedpost from birth until say 12 or so, that sort of thing. Many of these kids turned out to be severely retarded at birth or suffering from birth defects, but even those who were in all other respects "normal" at birth cannot really be termed "natural" in any sense of the word.


Tsar Nicholas I is said to have devised an experiment in which children were raised apart from human society (apart of attending to their basic needs) to see what would happen. What happened is that they all died, in spite of being well fed and otherwise cared for. Most orphans who came to l9th century orphanages as infants also died before the age of two.

What these kids are not basic or natural men, but sort of a pathetic ape which is missing some of its marbles, an incomplete primate as it were. The reason is that man has had culture for so long, that the capacity for it is part of our biological heritage. A "natural man" is a will of the wisp -- culture is part of our "nature" if you will.


One very important part of the evolution of man has been the extraordinary growth in the importance of learning and learned behavior. Humans come into the world with far fewer specific instincts than any other animal. Almost everything we need to survive and prosper will have to be learned from other human beings who are living at the time we are born, and with whom we will eventually come to share this cumulative heritage of learning.

Bear in mind here however that learned shared cumulative behavior is not totally unique to man. Other mammals, and particularly the higher primates (chimps, gorillas, baboons, etc) actually it turns out (due to an enormous growth in field studies of primates in the last 30 years) have some considerable capacity to innovate new behaviors, learn these behaviors from others, and share them within the social group in ways which partially distinguish one primate troop from another. Thus, chimps have been observed "inventing" techniques like using rocks to break open fruit, washing food in a particular river, etc and these things then are learned by other members of the troop and become a kind of "local custom" as it were.

But the main difference between this kind of thing and human culture is that the chimps are not nearly as totally dependent on this kind of learned shared behavior as humans are.


Play -- one extremely important fact about man which is closely related to the importance of learning is the extraordinary development and necessity of play in human life. Humans (both adults and children) play more than any other animal, and we particularly play at those things which have been important to us in our evolutionary history.

          One example --- throwing things. All children in all societies play very intensely at throwing objects. This is very easy to learn (we are anatomically very well adapted for throwing objects) Human children in all cultures throw things (whether it is a spear or a baseball does not matter much) and become terribly good at it. Now actually, chimps and gorillas have the anatomic capacity to throw almost as well as we do (if you compare trunk, torso, and arms of chimp and man you will see very close similarities), but they do not normally play at throwing things, so they never get very good at it. .

          So humans play more in childhood than any other animal, and, of equal importance, play behavior in humans goes on in various forms throughout life (which seldom happens in non-domesticated mammals). Humans play at everything and play is actually a very important component of learning, and adapting to new situations.

          Adult humans also play a lot more than adult chimps and gorillas.

          The nature-nurture controversy. The question of how much human behavior is "inborn" and how much is the result of social learning is one of those interminable questions about which debate seems to go on and on. .

          First of all we should recognize that the question whether there is an instinctual "human nature" is almost always when popularly discussed a question which has a political kicker. If you want to convince people of the importance of not changing things and adhering to the status quo, one of the easiest ways is to maintain that the status quo is somehow rooted in human nature (men are by nature dominant, therefore women must keep their place, whites are smarter by nature than blacks, therefore blacks should be happy with what they have, war is part of human nature, therefore there isn't much we can do about it --- the list goes on and on.)

          If on the other hand you want to change things, then it makes sense to stress the malleability of man and the importance of learning. Revolutionary societies, at least in recent times have tended to emphasize the plasticity of man. [Stalin practically destroyed Soviet biology by treating classical genetics as subversive)


       Actually, of course, the idea of a fixed human nature is not always conservative. The American revolution was at least in part based on the idea of a certain fixed vision of human nature.


          Main point here: the term "nature" is one of the most loaded terms in the English language. Whenever you hear it, bells should go off in your head -- "whose ox is being gored here?"


          Actually, the concept of nature as a cultural category is Western European thought is extremely complicated. Thus we believe that nature is something to be overcome in relation to non-human and material entities --- "we triumph over nature", but nature is also conceptualized as something to be lived in harmony with. We believe that it is natural for mothers to love their children, but nobody would suggest that this is something which should be overcome, like we harnessed the Colorado river.


Instinct -- does the concept of instinct have no place at all in the study of man? Are we really just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) upon which culture just writes its varied messages? I know of no anthropologist who believes anything so drastic.

Actually the modern trend is to do away with the concept of instinct as a set of fixed and immutable behavioral characteristics at least in relation to man. The emerging position is that all behavior is learned (with the exception of some simple reflexes and such like), but there is some variation in the ease of learning, that is, some things are easier for humans to learn than others.


Some examples:

          1. Being afraid of the dark, throwing behavior – easily learned

          2. language itself very easy to learn

           3. reciprocity and the sentiment of gift giving and most sentiments and emotions generally – easily learned.

          4. learning to be bored, learning not to run away in the face of danger (Tausug) -- these are rather difficult to learn.

aside: one main function of mass public education is to teach kids to be bored – and to learn to accept petty infringements on their selves for purposes of order (raise hand to go to bathroom, etc.). Teaching kids to put up with boredom and not make a fuss is difficult – some kids never learn it (they often end up either in jail or the more creative innovators in our culture!)

 Main point: some things more easily learned, some things more difficult to learn and there are developmental patterns which must be taken into account. 


Question: granted that every society asks its members to learn some things which are difficult to learn and a lot of things which are relatively easy to learn, do some culture make greater demands on their members to learn more difficult to learn material? That is, are some cultures just more difficult to learn, period. Is American culture as a whole more difficult to grow up into than Tausug culture, or Eskimo culture, or vice versa? Most anthropologists I suspect probably intuitively believe that there are overall differences between cultures in this respect, but the problem is that it is very difficult to prove or disprove these theories in any satisfactory way.