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Writing for Culture: Why a Successful Concept Should Not Be Discarded

Christoph Brumann
Current Anthropology
Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? (February 1999), pp. S1-S27
DOI: 10.1086/200058
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/200058
Page Count: 28
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Writing for Culture
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Abstract

In the past decade, the idea that speaking of a culture inevitably suggests an inordinate degree of boundedness, homogeneity, coherence, and stability has gained considerable support, and some cultural/social anthropologists have even called for abandoning the concept. It is argued here, however, that the unwelcome connotations are not inherent in the concept but associated with certain usages that have been less standardized than these critics assume. The root of the confusion is the distribution of learned routines across individuals: while these routines are never perfectly shared, they are not randomly distributed. Therefore, “culture” should be retained as a convenient term for designating the clusters of common concepts, emotions, and practices that arise when people interact regularly. Furthermore, outside anthropology and academia the word is gaining popularity and increasingly understood in a roughly anthropological way. Retaining the concept while clarifying that culture is not reproduced unproblematically, has its limits in the individual and the universal, and is not synonymous with ethnicity and identity will preserve the common ground the concept has created within the discipline. Moreover, it will simplify communicating anthropological ideas to the general public and thus challenging mistaken assumptions.

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