Tag Archives: Sapir

Monaghan & Just – Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture

Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture

by John Monaghan & Peter Just

[Monaghan, John and Just, Peter. 2000. “Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture.” in Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. Pp. 34-52.]

Points & Quotes:

Universalized “culture”

“one learns a great deal that one is never explicitly taught.” (36)

“Boas described a human a kulturbrille, a set of ‘cultural glasses’ that each of us wears, lenses that provide us with a means of perceiving the world around us, for interpreting the meaning of our social lives, and framing action in them.” (38)

“At least three points of debate have continued to recur in the way anthropologists talk about the concept of culture.

    1. One has to do with the extent to which a ‘culture’ should be regarded as an integrated whole;
    2. the second has to do with the extent to which ‘culture’ can be seen as an autonomous, ‘superorganic’ entity;
    3. and the third has to do with how we can best go about drawing boundaries around ‘cultures’.” (43-44, formatting added)

To Durkheim and Mauss: “Society was not simply a model which classificatory thought followed; it was its own divisions which served as divisions for the system of classification.” (40-41)

“Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of ‘structuralist’ anthropology, would claim that human classification is indeed universal,but that it is universal because a human predisposition to making distinctions produced classifications that mutatis mutandis were but surface representations of a more fundamental ‘deep structure’ shaped by the binary nature of the human mind.”

  • “[l]f we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind … the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is onlypart of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not chaos.” (41)

“French philosopher Michel Foucault has popularized a new direction among some anthropologists, who have come to see the categories of meaning imposed by culture as a basis of inequality and oppression. In other words, they see the ability to control the content of cultural classifications as a primary source of power in society. This in turn makes the contestation of categories of social classification, such as ‘male’ and ‘female’, with all of the social, political, and economic associations that attend them, a primary mode of resistance to authority. ” (42)

“The idea that culture is an integrated and integrating whole is in part based upon the great modernist insight that underlying apparently discrete bits of belief or behaviour rests a more fundamental reality. For Karl Marx that determining reality was the mode of production; for Emile Durkheim it was society; for Sigmund Freud it was the unconscious; and for many in anthropology, following the lead of Boas, it has been culture itself.” (43-44)

“Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’ first students, conceived of a culture as a Gestalt, a total pattern … Although Benedict’s approach is now regarded as too simplistic and reductionist, because of its tendency to view cultures in terms of one or two key themes, it has continued to prove a powerful means for organizing and integrating the minutiae of ethnographic observation.” (44)

Clifford Geertz “used cockfighting – a popular form of entertainment in Bali – as an image that also serves to characterize beliefs and practices … In this way, Geertz is able to show how disparate elements of Balinese culture create a ‘fabric of meaning and belief’ that is consistent and mutually reinforcing. For Geertz, cultures can be read as texts, much as one might read a novel or a poem. The trick, according to Geertz, is to seek out cultural ‘texts’ that the people of the society themselves find compelling – as the Balinese are fascinated by cockfighting – and to not only understand them as they see them, but to see the ways the themes of these ‘texts’ illuminate other aspects of the society.” (44-45)

Some “refer to cultures as if they were autonomous things with lives of their own. Alfred Kroeber once compared culture to a coral reef, which is built up by the secretions of millions of tiny animals, but which existed before any of its living members, and will outlast them all, providing a structure within which future generations will be constrained.” (46)

“Anthony Wallace argued that the contents of the individual mind are in fact highly divergent, and that what culture does is not so much impose a uniformity, but provide a set of shared communicative symbols that organizes this diversity.” (47)

“The essentialism attributed to culture found itself expressed in ethnographies that routinely assumed ‘one people, one culture, one society’. But, as Arjun Appadurai recently asked, doesn’t this premise fly in the face of ‘unequal knowledge and the differential prestige of lifestyles, and discourage attention to the world views and agency of those who are marginalized or dominated’? ” (47)

Big Point!

“Perhaps it would be best to join with most anthropologists today, who tend to view culture not as a thing in itself, but as a learning device for uncovering meaning in social life.” (47-48)

“the anthropological concept of culture has been our discipline’s most significant contribution to modern thought. In uncovering the fundamentally arbitrary and learned basis for the differences among and between human communities, the culture concept has been a powerful weapon in combating racism, national chauvinism, and the ‘scientific’ racism’ that characterized much of anthropology in the nineteenth century” (48)

Cultural Relativism (really good breakdown)

  • We start from the premise that our beliefs, morals, behaviours – even our very perceptions of the world around us – are the products of culture, learned as members of the communities in which we are reared.
  • If, as we believe, the content of culture is the product of the arbitrary, historical experience of a people, then what we are as social beings is also an arbitrary, historical product.
  • Because culture so deeply and broadly determines our worldview, it stands to reason that we can have no objective basis for asserting that one such worldview is superior to another, or that one worldview can be used as a yardstick to measure another.
  • In this sense, cultures can only be judged relative to one another, and the meaning of a given belief or behaviour must first and foremost be understood relative to its own cultural context.
  • That, in a nutshell, is the basis of what has come to be called cultural relativism. (49, formatting added)

“In addition to these aspects of cultural relativism we must also entertain the moral dimensions of cultural relativism … Behaviour that might be nonsensical, illegal, or immoral in one society might be perfectly rational and socially accepted in another … do we deal with the stranger in our midst when that stranger’s culture is morally different from our own? At what point are segments of a given community entitled to a claim of cultural distinctiveness that demands autonomy and respect? Are soccer hooligans or terrorists entitled to claim the protection of cultural relativism?” (50-51)

“One wonders, ultimately, if it is logically possible to simultaneously subscribe to both the notion of universal human rights and a belief in the relativity of cultures.” (52)

“we note with Clifford Geertz that the crimes committed in the name of cultural relativism pale in comparison to those committed in the name of cultural and national chauvinism or, for that matter, almost any other ‘ism’. His stance is one of ‘anti-anti­ relativism.” (52)

bricolage—kind of collage in which the odds and ends of culture are turned to uses for which they may never have been intended but which fit into an underlying pattern
embodiment—when we act, we act not simply as minds but also as physical bodies
Some anthropologists on “Culture”:
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Bauman & Briggs—Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power

Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power

by Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs

[Briggs, Charles L., and Richard Bauman. 1992. “Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2: 131–72.]


“grasping the complex intertextual relations that underlie genre, along with the way these relations are closely linked to social, cultural, ideological, and political-economic factors, can offer insight into why studies of genre have proved to be so problematic” (132).

Genre styles—”are constellations of co-occurrent formal elements and structures that define or characterize particular classes of utterances. The constituent elements of genre styles may figure in other speech styles as well, establishing indexical resonances between them. Additionally, particular elements may be abstracted from recognized generic styles and employed in other discursive settings to endow them with an indexical tinge, a coloration, of the genres with which they are primarily associated and the social meaning that attaches to them” (141).

“Beyond the fact that it has been put to a wide range of analytic and descriptive uses, practitioners have generally simply assumed that they and their audiences know what genres are and what makes them work” (145).

  • Bakhtin, however, “sees linguistic dimensions of genres in terms of their ideologically mediated connections with social groups and “spheres of human activity” in historical perspective (1986:65)” (145).
  • “Bakhtin was one of the first to replace the static hewing out of texts with a model where literary structure does not simply exist but is generated in relation to another structure. What allows a dynamic dimension to structuralism is his conception of the “literary word” as an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee (or the character), and the contemporary or earlier cultural context. [Kristeva 1980:64-65, emphasis in original]  […paragraph] Two facets of this characterization are crucial. First, structure, form, func- tion, and meaning are seen not as immanent features of discourse but as products of an ongoing process of producing and receiving discourse. Second, this process is not centered in the speech event or creation of a written text itself, but lies in its interface with at least one other utterance.  […paragraph]  Bakhtin’s interest in a “translinguistics” that is vitally concerned with2 intertextuality has clearly provided part of the force that lies behind the recent interest in reported speech evident in linguistic anthropology and other fields” (146-47).

“Viewed synchronically, genres provide powerful means of shaping discourse into ordered, unified, and bounded texts. As soon as we hear a generic framing device, such as “once upon a time,” we unleash a set of expectations regarding narrative form and content. Animals may talk and people may possess supernatural powers, and we anticipate the unfolding of a plot structure that involves, as Propp (1968(1928]) showed us long ago, an interdiction, a violation, a departure, the completion of tasks, failure followed by success, and the like. The invocation of genre thus provides a textual model for creating cohesion and coherence, for producing and interpreting particular sorts of features and their formal and functional relations all the way from particular poetic lines to the global structure of the narrative” (147).

  • “Genre thus pertains crucially to negotiations of identity and power—by invoking a particular genre, producers of discourse assert (tacitly or explicitly) that they possess the authority needed to decontextualize discourse that bears these historical and social connections and to recontextualize it in the current discursive setting” (148).

“When viewed diachronically or vertically, the fit between a particular text and its generic model—as well as other tokens of the same genre— is never perfect; to paraphrase Sapir, we might say that all genres leak” (bold added,149).

  • “The process of linking particular utterances to generic models thus necessarily produces an intertextual gap. Although the creation of this hiatus is unavoidable, its relative suppression or foregrounding has important effects. One the one hand, texts framed in some genres attempt to achieve generic transparency by minimizing the distance between texts and genres, thus rendering the discourse maximally interpretable through the use of generic precedents. This approach sustains highly conservative, traditionalizing modes of creating textual authority. On the other hand, maximizing and highlighting these intertextual gaps underlies strategies for building authority through claims of individual creativity and innovation (such as are common in 20th-century Western literature), resistance to the hegemonic structures associated with established genres, and other motives for distancing oneself from textual precedents” (149).


“In this article we have critiqued views of genre that draw on purportedly immanent, invariant features in attempting to provide internally consistent systems of mutually exclusive genres

  1. We presented an alternative view of genre, one that places generic distinctions not within texts but in the practices used in creating intertextual relations with other bodies of discourse …
  2. we argued that generic intertextuality is not an inherent property of the relation between a text and a genre but the construction of such a relationship …
  3. We accordingly suggested that generic links necessarily produce an intertextual gap; the strategies used for constructing intertextual relations can seek to minimize this gap,maximize it, or both.
  4. Choices between intertextual strategies are ideologically motivated, and they are closely related to social, cultural, political-economic, and historical factors (bullets added, 163).

“Our goal in this article is thus not to “rescue” the category of genre from these difficulties or to assert its centrality to research in linguistic anthropology. Any attempt to champion—or to dismiss—the concept of genre would have strong ideological underpinnings. We have rather tried to use our discussion of genre as a means of raising some basic is- sues regarding discourse production and reception. In an earlier article (Bauman and Briggs 1990) we argued that discourse analysis cannot best proceed either by (1) studying (socio)linguistic elements and processes apart from the process of discourse production and reception or by (2) studying social interactions as analytic microcosms. We rather pointed to the fruitfulness of studying discourse vis-a-vis the way it is transformed in the course of successive decontextualizations and recontextualizations and of exploring the process of entextualization that provides the formal and functional basis for such transformations (164).


This article addresses the relationship between discourse, textual and social order, and power by means of an examination of the concept of genre. It begins with a critical review of the way genre has been used in linguistic anthropology. A distinction is delineated between approaches that take for granted the status of genre as a tool for classifying and ordering discourseand those that contend with elements of generic ambiguity and dynamism. Proceeding to outline a new approach to genre, the discussion analyzes awide range of intertextual relations that are deployed in constituting genericlinks. A series of examples contrasts strategies for minimizing gaps between texts and generic precedents with strategies for maximizing such gaps. A final section points to the ways that investigating generic intertextuality can illuminate questions of ideology, political economy, and power.

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Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]


“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

Continue reading Kohn—How Forests Think