Cultural Critique in Anthropology

Cultural critique, the use of anthropology to draw critical attention to institutions that readers take for granted, is as old as the origins of the modern discipline. It was a major purpose of Boas’s students, especially Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Its antecedents range from modernism to the critical theory of the Frankfurt school and the French surrealists between the wars; and the roots of critique lie in eighteenth century philosophy.

What is ‘cultural critique’? It is to examine the foundations of culture by having recourse to judgment. Judgment in turn is the ability to form an opinion on the basis of careful consideration; beyond that to discern relations linking particulars to more general principles. Although not indifferent to fact and logic, judgment requires consideration of worth. A judge is respected for his or her wisdom and apparent objectivity, that is for the ability to transcend mere opinion, even by giving expression to universal truth. A cognate expression is critic (which is, after all, derived from the Greek word for judgment). But criticism most often connotes for us the formation of opinions about works of art and the term ‘cultural critique’ suggests a direct link between anthropology and literary criticism. Indeed, critical anthropology has involved of late a shift in emphasis from life to text, reflecting a trend driven by post-structuralist discourse from the 1970s onwards.

Ethnography has been the dominant form of anthropological enquiry in the twentieth century. It literally means writing about peoples considered to constitute natural units, on the basis of extended participation in and observation of their societies. It arose in opposition to the method that preceded it, evolutionary history. This last sought to explain how the world came to be unified by western imperialism by postulating a racial hierarchy in which ‘our’ cultural superiority (having developed a machine technology based on scientific reason) was attributed to biological difference. The first world war undermined the credibility of this claim of western civilization to be founded on universal reason and opened up a space for anthropologists willing to assert the virtues of ways of life previously considered to be ‘primitive’ and inferior. Bronislaw Malinowski is rightly considered to be the pioneer of a new ethnographic approach stressing the integrity of contemporary exotic cultures. In Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski [1922] 1961) he made clear his aim to challenge the assumption that western economic norms were either universal or inherently superior. Subsequently Edward Evans-Pritchard drew on liberal myths of Saxon resistance to Norman rule to dispute the identification of political order with the state, finding ‘ordered anarchy’ among the Nuer of the Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1940).

The academic norm of scientific ethnography was made necessary by anthropologists’ drive towards legitimacy as a social science discipline. They eschewed fiction of all kinds. The basis of their truth claims was participant observation, the fact that they had joined the people in some exotic location and shared their life as a means of studying them. Students were encouraged to read the classical monographs as scientific truth. The exercise of judgment was unnecessary, since professional vetting of the empirical object was sufficient guarantee of a monograph’s validity. Within this framework of objectivity, ethnography was potentially critical of western civilization’s claim to universality. By stepping out of normal society, ethnographers pointed a sharp light on the assumptions of their readers, showing for example that witchcraft accusations made sense or that gifts may be instruments of domination. The general aim of anthropologists at this time seems to have been to discredit the racist assumptions underlying colonial empire. In America this trend was associated with a position known as ‘cultural relativism’: every way of life, however barbarous, has a right to exist and it is not for outsiders to judge it as inferior for any reason.

The founder of modern American anthropology, Franz Boas, was himself committed to educating public opinion (Boas 1929); but his students took this further by setting out to reach a general American audience with the surprising results of their own and others’ ethnography. Americans think of their culture as natural, i.e. inevitable; by showing them cultural variation elsewhere they are forced to ask if their own culture is malleable. This perhaps accounts for why Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), an impressive collation of cultural variety worldwide, was the anthropology bestseller of all time. Its subtitle is particularly instructive: an analysis of our social structure as related to primitive civilizations (italics added). In Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), her colleague Margaret Mead’s topic was adolescence. Americans think of teenagers’ turbulence as the natural result of sexual development; Samoan youth experienced adolescence more peacefully; so maybe Americans ought to think again about the reasons for teenage behavior. In a comparative work, Male and Female: a Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (Mead 1949), Mead piled example on example to demonstrate that the sexual division of labour thought to be natural in western societies was a special case. It is not hard to imagine how such a book might enter the campaign for female emancipation. Mead has been subjected to savage criticism of late for the inadequacy of her fieldwork and the exaggeration of her deconstructive cultural contrasts. These attacks have come precisely when the cultural critique she pioneered has sought to undermine the premises of scientific ethnography itself, as she never did.

Most recently, cultural critique in anthropology has been associated with an American school of ethnographers led by George Marcus. With James Clifford he published Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford and Marcus eds 1986), a book which has come to be seen as marking the postmodern shift in anthropology. At much the same time, Marcus published, with Michael Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: an Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Marcus and Fischer [1986] 1999; see also Marcus ed 1999). The growing prominence of cultural critique has been ascribed to a ‘literary turn’ associated with the work of Clifford Geertz since the early 1970s (Geertz 1988). Clifford has carved out his own contribution to resolving ‘the crisis of representation’ in a series of works, notably The Predicament of Culture (1988). Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (Rabinow 1977) prefigured the critical reassessment of ethnographic method. The journal Critique of Anthropology grew out of collaboration between radical anthropologists in Britain, Holland and the USA beginning in the 1970s.

The critique launched by Writing Culture had as its focus three aspects of the ethnographic enterprise: poetics, politics (both in the subtitle) and epistemology. By ‘poetics’, attention is drawn to the fact that ethnographers make up what they write. Geertz had been more or less explicit about his ambitions as a creative writer for over a decade before. Language, in such a perspective, is never simply descriptive, but persuasive also. If ethnography is literature, the strident assertion by positivists of its factual (non-fictional) basis must be questioned. The ‘politics’ of ethnography refers to a triadic relationship between anthropologists, their subjects and their readers. The political economy of global inequality must be foregrounded in ethnographic descriptions and author/reader relations are more problematic than the original formula allows for. Who are the monographs for and what possibilities for collaboration exist beyond the stereotype of the ethnographer as a lone ranger in a pith helmet? Finally, the status of ethnography as a source of knowledge (epistemology), its methodology and configuration of knowledge as power, are called into question. Cultural critique in these terms examines the very intellectual foundations of modern anthropology.

What then have been the poetic and political purposes of the cultural critics and how effective was their epistemological critique? First, they were Americans who wished to engage more directly with American society. That is, they proposed to carry out ethnographic fieldwork in and write about mainstream activities and institutions. This required developing experimental methods, summed up as ‘reflexivity’, the need for the ethnographer to be continuously self-monitoring in the light of feedback from society. Their aim was similar to Mead’s in seeking to disturb conventional assumptions about America’s place in the world. Techniques of authorship proved hard to subvert in practice. Although the boundary between fact and fiction became blurred, few anthropologists have openly embraced the novel as a model. The radical rhetoric of the cultural critics, their attempts to develop new constituencies and forms of collaboration ran up against the continuing dominance of the universities as anthropology’s institutional home. The ideal of the ‘citizen ethnographer’, boldly synthesizing fieldwork-based research, critical theory and political commitment at home, remains a somewhat distant goal. If we can no longer read ethnographies as factual truth, how do we acquire the judgment to make sense of them, especially when cultural relativism has told us we should not judge others as the Victorian imperialists used to? Much postmodern writing adopts an ironic tone and perhaps this is because it straddles unresolved contradictions of this kind. For critics are by definition judgmental, yet convinced relativists have nowhere to stand.

The main controversial aspect of this programme is thus its confrontation with the realism, naturalism and objectification inherent in the positivist tradition of scientific ethnography. The traditional premise of ethnography, the study of other cultures for the sake of our own self-enlightenment, became more untenable under postcolonial circumstances. It fell to Marcus and his associates to make explicit the faults of a paradigm that had been unravelling for decades. The value of this American movement is much debated. Although the protagonists have sometimes tried to distance themselves from the ‘postmodern’ tag, preferring to speak of ‘high modernism’ or ‘reflexive modernity’, cultural critique has been seen by its positivist detractors as evidence of a postmodern collapse into fragmentation, confusion and extreme relativism (Gellner 1992). Others seem to agree that we have entered a postmodern age and that cultural critique is an appropriate response to it..

Cultural critique has not been absent from the other main national traditions of anthropology. Indeed, in France the public’s reception of intellectuals has always been readier than was ever the case among the Anglo-Saxons. Moreover, French anthropologists have never embraced a narrow cultural relativism, preferring to keep alive the Enlightenment’s legacy of an appeal to universal reason. The recent publication of Marcel Mauss’s political writings (Mauss 1997) shows how deep-seated this public engagement was for him. As his principal successor, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote a popular classic, Tristes Tropiques, and exposed to critical view the central institution of French culture, table manners, (Lévi-Strauss 1976, 1978). Among contemporary anthropologists, Marc Augé (e.g. 1995) has successfully bridged the gap between the academy and popular culture, explaining the symbolic significance of Princess Diana’s death and other contemporary events to readers of the serious newspapers. Britain produced the only systematic critique of contemporary civilization by an anthropologist so far in Edmund Leach’s brilliant BBC lectures, A Runaway World? (Leach 1968). His attempt to address general fears concerning the explosion of machine production was premised on the need for his listeners to come to terms with their human potential and for anthropology’s scope to match that potential. No-one has come close to doing that since.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, feminist anthropology has been in the forefront of cultural critique. Indeed the absence of women from Writing Culture provoked a justified response (Behar and Gordon 1995). It was after all the women’s movement that declared in the 1960s that ‘the personal is political’ and launched a devastating critique of western institutions on grounds of the invisibility, exclusion and exploitation of women. These broader criticisms were readily applied to anthropology. An example of the sophistication reached by feminist and post-feminist discourse is Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (Strathern 1988), where the confounding of western gender stereotypes in Melanesian cultures is taken as a point of departure for a much wider critique of such core conceptual pairs as individual/society and nature/culture. The 1980s were a decade of deconstruction, what Hegel called ‘negative dialectic’, in which the conventional categories of the modern synthesis became confused and discredited. Both inside and outside the academy, this task was performed to a disproportionate extent by women scholars.

Anthropology does not stand alone within an academic division of labor that has recently added Cultural Studies to its ranks. An enhanced focus on the contemporary forms of cultural production has revived interest in the Frankfurt school of Adorno and Benjamin. Their concern with exposing the uses of culture in masking the contradictions of capitalism remains a powerful one. Perhaps even more relevant to critical anthropology is the work of the West Indian writer, C.L.R. James (Grimshaw ed 1992; see also Grimshaw and Hart 1993). In American Civilization (James 1993), he identified a growing conflict between vast anonymous bureaucracies and people’s aspirations for an extension of democracy into all areas of their lives, an aspiration that could only be met indirectly through the movies and other forms of popular culture. For James, this was a crisis for modern society as a whole, most acutely revealed in America; and he addressed it through a critique ranging from Hollywood films and comic strips to psychoanalysis and the classical novels of Herman Melville.

As long as ethnographers reached the remotest corners of the planet, their work could claim to be anthropology in the sense of providing the widest possible context of cross-cultural comparison. It is not easy to see what is anthropological about the indigenous critique of American societies, when the term ‘ethnography’ is also used by geographers, sociologists and literary critics. The limitations of cultural critique so far could be said to lie in two weaknesses. The epistemological critique of ethnographic method has been somewhat introverted, an in-house discourse maintained by a minor academic profession, when the issues raised are potentially of universal significance. And the aspiration to grasp the human condition in general seems to have been abandoned in favour of competing for public attention in the United States. Both of these deficiencies might be redressed if critical ethnographers examined their roots in the eighteenth century philosophy that launched modern anthropology, as well as the notion of critique.

            This is not the place to explore how Kant developed his original conception of critique, most notably in his great Critique of Pure Reason, but also, for our purposes, in the Critique of Judgment (see Cassirer 1981 for an inspiring introduction to each). In seeking a metaphysical ground between reason and understanding, Kant emulated Copernicus’s revolution, showing how, instead of the object revolving around the spectator, the spectator could be seen as revolving, while the object remained at rest. There are so many echoes of Kantian subjectivity in the anthropological moment of cultural critique. What is missing is the aspiration to a universality of method. This is doubly inexcusable in that Kant invented the term ‘anthropology’ in its modern sense (Kant 1978). Surely a discipline with the remit of offering knowledgeable guidance on human teleology should not content itself with a jester’s role, épater les bourgeois.

            No-one would dispute Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s standing as the founder of modern cultural critique. He showed that a critical perspective on society, a refusal to take as inevitable things as they are, requires us to devise new methods of studying and writing about a transitional present. The boundary between fact and fiction has to be blurred if we are to talk about the evolution of possible worlds out of the actual one we live in. In developing a revolutionary critique of politics, education, sexuality and self-identity (Le Contrat Social, Emile, La Nouvelle Héloïse, Les Confessions), Rousseau came up with a different genre of writing for each topic. Critical anthropologists today might emulate his example, were they not forced to justify themselves to the academic bureaucracy. The two discourses that launched Rousseau’s career, however, are the principal sources for a renewal of critical anthropology, combining as they do a critique of corrupt civilization with an anthropology whose aim is to redress global inequality. In particular, his Discourse on the Origins and Foundation of Inequality among Men (Rousseau [1754] 1984), which has inspired anthropologists from Morgan and Engels to Lévi-Strauss, deserves to be seen as the first great work of the modern discipline.

            Cultural critique has been an invigorating stimulus to new thinking in anthropology. It is uncertain whether it can flourish while its practitioners remain securely locked up in their academic enclaves. It is time in any case for a return to the universal outlook of the eighteenth century pioneers.


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Behar, R. and D. Gordon eds 1995 Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Benedict, R. 1934 Patterns of Culture: an Analysis of Our Social Structure as Related to Primitive Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books.

Boas, F. 1929 Anthropology and Modern Life. London: Allen and Unwin.

Cassirer, E. 1981 Kant’s Life and Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Evans-Pritchard, E. 1940 The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Constituencies, Changing Agendas. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Marcus, G. and M. Fischer [1986] 1999 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: an Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mauss, M. 1997 Ecrits Politiques (M. Fournier ed). Paris: Fayard.

Mead, M. 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Mentor Books.

Mead, M. 1949 Male and Female: a Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: Dell.

Rabinow, P. 1977 Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rousseau, J-J. [1754] 1984 A Discourse on Inequality. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Strathern, M. 1988 The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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One thought on “Cultural Critique in Anthropology

  1. Martin Holbraad

    Dear Keith – superbly useful piece – citing it in my book MS (has it appeared elsewhere or should I cite it as is here?)

    Hoping you’re well,

    Martin (Holbraad)

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