This post forms part of a series of entries that discuss Anne Phillips’ re-definition of culture in her book Multiculturalism Without Culture (2007).
Criticism of this classic conception of culture, in which culture is treated as a thing, is now commonplace within academia. Edward B. Tylor’s definition of culture in 1871 is traditionally used as an example of this reified vision: “Culture or civilisation, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits required by man as a member of society” (Quoted in Phillips 42). The evolutionary models of the nineteenth century informed notions such as Tylor’s. In this vision, cultures were situated in different developmental paths. In this path, non-Western cultures were labelled as “primitive”and representative of the prehistory of European cultures in a remote past. Western cultures were labelled as “advanced”, and were seen as examples of here “primitive” cultures could eventually go.
At the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists rejected the hierarchical vision of cultures that can be observed in Tylor’s definition. These anthropologists observed cultures as unified wholes, coherent and consistent in their own terms, each worthy of respect. This anthropological culturalism became the opponent of biological racism, which was partly supported by definitions of culture such as Tylor’s. Anthropologists opposed to the idea that cltures could be described as more or less refined/advanced/etc. However, this new conception kept many of the problematic characteristics of the classical nineteenth-century definition:
- the perception of cultures as clearly separate and distinct from one another
- the idea that each culture is a cohesive and coherent whole
- the assumption that the internal values and rules of a culture are necessarily difficult to understand or sympathise with for outsiders
- the idea that cultures reproduce themselves with little to no influence from the outside, nor exchange with other cultures
- the idea that the behaviours and beliefs of someone from a different culture are likely to be mysterious and difficult to understand, since even when there is sustained interaction, some fundamental differences remain
- the belief that values within cultures are broadly shared by all the members of it, with no internal conflict
- the notion that culture stands as an explanation for why people do what they do. Under this view, understanding how someone behaves can only be achieve by understanding some mysterious fundamental principles of his/her culture, specially when that individual is member of a non-Western or minority culture.
The problematic ideas related to culture that are listed above persisted in twentieth-century anthropology. However, some anthopoligists have criticised them for many years. Although anthropology was a key discipline in the invention of culture, within the colonial mindset and interests, some of them argue this reification was the only possible approach to understand what was not understood.
The anthropological notions of culture affected the subjects studied by anthropologists too:
Terence Turner’s study of the Kayapo villagers of the Brazilian Amazon is a classic example. When Turner began his fieldwork in the 1960s, the villagers did not perceive themselves as having a culture—they just saw themselves as human beings—and partly under pressure from the missionaries, had started to evolve different practices, including adopting a more Brazilian style of dress (wearing shorts or trousers) when they went into town. Through contact with anthropologists keen to document the Kayapo way of life, but even more important, through coming to realise that their culture could be a resource around which to mobilise the support of environmentalists and human rights activists, the Kayapo later discarded some of their Brazilian ways, elaborated old and new rituals, and made effective use of the Western media in their struggle for survival” (Phillips 43).
In the case above, the invention of culture for the subjects studied had a relatively positive effect. However, this has not been the case every time. The invetion of culture for some societies has had negative consequences too. One of the most important is the fact that cultural borders between groups that were much more fluid before the invention of culture, were suddenly closed.
Feminist academics have also noted that those aspects that are more hierarchical, oppressive or misogynistic in non-Western cultures tend to be regarded by Western investigators as “essential” and “defining” for those culture, while liberal and egalitarian elements tend to fall into disuse and are not considered essential. This phenomenon has had negative impacts in policy-making:
in India, “counting Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Untouchables became a critical political exercise.” Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that this had the effect of simplifying and homogenising identities that people lived daily in a far more heterogeneous way. The irony is that the obsession with differentiating and counting arose partly from reasons of fairness: trying to ensure that economic resources and positions of political representation were distributed reasonably evenly between different groups. But “the sense of multiple identities that propels people in their everydayness is too complex for the rules that govern the logic of representation in modern public life.” People had to place themselves in one ethno-religious-cultural group or another—with what have sometimes been disastrous results” (Phillips 44).
The vision of culture promoted in the first half of twentieth century had two large consequences still visible nowadays:
- the exaggeration of demarcations and boundaries between different cultural groups
- the tendency to determine the boundaries of cultures as the same of nation-states by appending “society” or “culture” to the name of a country (i.e.: Indian culture). This led to either the idea that living on one side of the border or another determined your belonging to a culture, or a “gradation of authenticity” in which those near the borders were less authentically from the national culture than those in the interior. Multicultural policies tried to address this problem by stating that nowadays migration had made it impossible to think of countries as boundaries for culture. However, this position still wrongly suggested that before these migrations there existed actual monocultural places.
Phillips contests the innacuracies of this antrhopological vision of culture:
The way the boundaries are drawn around each culture changes through time, as do the definitions of core practices and beliefs, with the first process often reflecting an outsider need to categorise and place people, and the second an internal struggle for power. Characterising a culture is itself a political act, and the notion of cultures as preexisting things, waiting to be explained, has become increasingly implausible. People draw on a wide range of local, national, and global resources in the ways they make and remake their culture. (So culture is not bounded.) There are always internal contestations over the values, practices, and meanings that characterise any culture. (So cultures are not homogeneous.) There is often some political agenda—reflecting power struggles within the group or the search for allies outside—when people make their claims about the authoritative interpretation of their culture. (So cultures are produced by people, rather than being things that explain why they be- have the way they do.) All these developments undermine the notion of a culture as defined by core values or underlying principles that differentiate it from all others” (45).
Against culturalist explanations
There is tendency to explain everything through culture, especially by those who rejected biological racism and economic determinism. The use of culture as an explanation for behaviour has turned into a way of justifying actions that otherwise one does not know how to explain. Culture has been usually invoked in cases where people seemingly behave in an irrational manner. In several of these cases, culture is invoked even though there are other much more plausible explanations for a behaviour. An example of this is what happened with female genital cutting in Senegal:
It [genital cutting] is paradigmatically cultural on the older materialist understanding, because it is hard to identify the economic purpose served by the practice. And it is paradigmatically cultural in Kuper’s “fallback” sense [used to explain irrational behaviour], because those who do not (or no longer) practice it usually find it hard to make sense of those who continue to defend it. In Mackie’s analysis, though, the persistence of genital cutting reflects the kind of collective action problem that can arise in any society, and it was overcome in the Senegalese example by the device of the collective pledge. He argues that the main reason the villagers continued with what they knew to be a dangerous and painful practice was neither ignorance of the dangers nor the overwhelming power of custom and tradition, but rather the knowledge that their own daughters would become unmarriageable if their family was the only one opting out. The women leading the Tostan [the nongovernmental organisation that fostered the end of female genital cutting] … persuaded villagers to sign themselves up to a date when they would all simultaneously abandon the practice. Faced with a reasonably reliable guarantee that others would follow suit, it became much easier for everyone to act, and in a snowball effect from 1997 onwards, one village after another collectively abandoned the practice. In 1999, the government—which had been supportive of the initiative—enacted legislation officially prohibiting genital cutting” (Phillips 46-47).
The case presented above showed female genital cutting prevailed in Senegal for practical reasons. The leaders of the tribes who supported the initiative did it for reasons any parent would understand (pain, health, dignity). However, they were afraid to make their daughters unmarriageable. There was no mysterious deep-rooted cultural meaning or irrational explanation to female genital cutting. Therefore, there was no need to rely on a complex cultural explanation to understand the problem and doing so was not going to solve it.
Phillips is clear when stating that this case does not stand as the final word for culture: practical, economic and social explanations are not simply opposed to cultural explanations. What Phillips tries to point out, however, is the fact that culture as a “fallback” explanation for unexplained phenomena is overused. Thus, Phillips stands for a resistance to “the ideological uses of culture, and a willingness to see similarities as well as differences in the ways we all organise our lives” (48).
So what’s left?
So why bother with culture? Why not abandon it as an absurd simplification or hopelessly compromised concept? In some of the sociological literature, the scepticism towards culture does come close to jettisoning it altogether. Many social theorists now stress hybridity, diaspora, border crossings, and translation, arguing that the characteristic phenomenon today is a mixture of cultural assertion and refusal, cultural borrowing and reimagining: a complex negotiation and renegotiation of identities that defies the simple categories of original or traditional culture” (Phillips 48).
Although some stand for suppressing the notion of culture altogether, anthropologists have been careful in doing so. They present three major reservations when abandoning the use of the term culture:
- Abandoning culture and supposing there was nothing there before the invention of the notion is giving too much power and credit to Western thinking. Some anthropologists believe that saying culture is a complete external creation is supposing those subjects who adpoted the concept had no power but just reproduced and transformed what Westerner investigators introduced. Phillips, in this case, opts for a more moderate position. She speculates that boundaries between groups were there before, but may have been more fluid that after the taxonomical divide created by colonial anthropology.
- To negate the existence cultural difference does not coincide with the perceived reality of difference. Although Pihllips’ books is centred mostly in pointing out the problems of cultural exoticism, which make people believe they have largerer cultural differences than is the case, she does point out everyone cannot be reduced to “people just like me”, with the exact same motivations and values. Acknowledging the diversity and complexity of human societies is necessary, and there must be a way of doing it without exaggerating the differences.
- According to some anthropologists, even though the critiques of essentialised culture are well grounded, essentialist culture cannot be wiped out as completely wrong. Many people already know and live with this notion in their minds. Therefore they interprete their own behaviour within a reified and essentialist notion of culture. This phenomenon makes essentialised culture a social reality.
Considering these reservations, Phillips proposes a “multiculturalism without culture”. This multiculturalism would be one without unhelpful notions of culture, but that still accepts individuals are cultural beings:
Culture matters to people in many different ways. Some people actively endorse the cultural norms that have helped form them, believing that these represent a good way of living, and some may be quite strident about this, believing that their ways are not just good but the best. Others live their norms without thinking much about them, hardly even noticing that there are people who operate in a different way. Some will reject with indignation the suggestion that what they are doing is culturally inspired, insisting that this is not a matter of culture but religion, or not of culture but their well-grounded political beliefs. To say something is cultural makes it seem unthinking or unchosen, imbibed from the atmosphere rather than a position we can actively defend. But even when people have the most acute sense of themselves as autonomous, transcendent, self-propelled individuals, their beliefs, values, and choices will be pervaded by cultural assumptions and norms. Everyone is shaped, in some ways that we recognise and others of which we remain largely unconscious, by the norms and practices through which we have become the people we currently are” (52).
Culture, ethnicity, religion and race
Phillips identifies two problems still to be addressed in the prevalent conception of culture: 1) the confusion between culture, ethnicity, religion and race; 2) the tendency to equate culture with non/Western or minority groups.
- Confusion between culture, ethnicity, religion and race
According to Phillips, “culture” is now in Western societies a word used as an acceptable substitute for “race”. Moreover, Phillips states that, in some cases, racist people hide behind this language of “culture” in order to make their statements socially accpetable. However, people that are not racist also seem to refuse to use the word race, fearing any use of it will be racist or imply that the person believes races are a biological fact. The substitution of the word race, ethnicity and religion for “culture” has led to an exaggeration of cultural differences, since “culture” is used to refer to any differences found between societies. For Phillips, this is extremely problematic:
When culture is employed as a euphemism for either race or ethnicity (and ethnicity, being thought to be more cultural, is itself commonly employed as a euphemism for race), this can encourage policymakers to propose cultural solutions to problems that are better understood as social or economic” (54).
Suppressing the term race from policy makes it impossible for policy makers to give benefits to groups historically oppressed by the false perception of race. For instance, giving quotas in universities to African Americans in the US was difficult, since it had to be proven that they brought something new to the university in terms of cultural diversity. Giving benefits for belonging to a racialised group was not considered fair and was not perceived as beneficial to institutions as was cultural diversity. Thus, the only solution was to represent African Americans as culturally different, exaggerating the little to no cultural difference they presented from other Americans, in order to make possible integration to U.S. universities withint a policy that avoided using the word “race”. In the end, this provoked a strengthening of the stereotypes multiculturalism was supposed to be challenging. As Phillips explains:
Turning racial difference into cultural difference is, then, problematic. It can mean buying into racial stereotypes we would do better to challenge, substituting bland talk of cultural diversity for a more pointed analysis of racism, and obscuring what may be significant distinctions between those who live a chosen identity that enlarges and enhances their life and those who are discriminated against on the basis of their presumed identity. And while talking of cultural rather than racial difference avoids assumptions about biological determination and conveys no obvious implication about some cultures being better than others, it does not there by avoid all hint of racism. Indeed, it will often reproduce the fixity that has been the marker of more classical racism. When culture is treated (as in much popular usage) as something from which we can predict a whole swath of human behaviour, this edges disturbingly close to the racist treatment of skin colour or physiognomy as predictors of human behaviour. When people speak of the dangers of their culture being swamped by the migration of too many people from another, or it being better to keep some distance between cultures because of a natural human preference for living with one’s own, this is not so different from the fear of miscegenation. In what Balibar terms a “racism without races,” the dominant theme is “not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences,” not “the superiority of certain groups or people in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompati- bility of life-styles and traditions.” That the discourse employs the language of culture rather than race does not ensure its innocence” (56).
Although this problems exist, Phillips resorts to Tariq Modood’s differentiation between cultural racism, the vilification of someone for cultural her/his practices, and colour racism. Modood explains that there is a tendency to think of cultural racism as a mere undercover form of colour racism. However, according to Moddod it is possible for colour racism to dissapear without the dissapearance of cultural racism. For Phillips, however, this distinction is founded in a very narrow definition of colour racism. Phillips argues that colour racism as treating someone as lower because of their skin colour is surely almost extinct. For Phillips, this definition of racism is not useful to attack the problems people of colour face on a daily basis. Phillips prefers a broader and more complex definition of racism, taken from Balibar:
[racist are all the] practices (forms of violence, contempt, intolerance, humiliation, and exploitation), in discourses and representations which are so many intellectual elaborations of the phantom of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve ‘one’s own’ or ‘our’ identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion) and which are articu- lated around stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices).” (quoted in Phillips 58).
Both Balibar and Modood, however, coincide in their perception of a shift in which discrimination is increasingly focused in cultural and/or religious characteristics, rather than colour. Increasingly, religion is being considered a central and critical part of the cultural definition of groups in UK policies. This has made religion a non-negotiable part of their identity Phillips argues this is a reccent change, since religion was not used before as a fundamental aspect of cultural identity in UK policy-making. The intermixing of country of origin, religion and other cultural aspects is turning the problem of culture, race, religion and ethnicy even more complex. According to Phillips, the truth is that religion, race, ethnicity and culture cannot be separated, since they do not exist as things, which makes their distintion subject to political conditions.
2. Culture as non-Western or minority
According to Phillips, the second greatest problem with popular notions of culture is that culture tends to be equated with what takes place in non-Western and minority societies.
Normally people are so used to their own behaviour that they only see it is cultural when confronted to others. In general, Westerners describe what they do as belonging to “society”, while the word “culture” is reserved for what non-Western or minority groups do. This happens because what belongs to culture tends to stay invisible for those who are part of the hegemonic group. In consequence, hegemonic groups more easily observe how class and gender affect their actions and rarely cite culture as a reason for the way they do. People from minorities, on the other hand, seem to be constantly exposed to the labelling of whatever they do as cultural. Moreover, minorities themselves tend to consider culture as something essential for their identities, because it works as a way of contesting and defying hegemonic power. This identification of non-Western and minority societies with culture affects individuals from minorities directly:
it makes the cultural specificities of people from majority groups less visible, it encourages them to treat their own local practices as if these were universal rules of conduct, spawning much indignation against newcomers, foreigners, or immigrants who fail to abide by the rules. Cultural difference then becomes loaded with moral significance; being different equates with being wrong. Moreover, in many cases the individual from the minority or non-Western culture disappears as a moral agent, so that being different comes to be viewed as a reflection of a morally distasteful culture, rather than anything to do with individual judgment and choice” (64).
From Culture to Cosmos?
Critics of multiculturalism noramlly base their criticism in two points 1) that multiculturalism treats cultures as discrete wholes; and 2) that multiculturalism hopes to install a fake sense of purity of “cultures” that is not possible in the contemporary world. Phillips completely agrees with critique (1), but what about (2)?
The framework that originates from critique 2 is normally referred to as “cosmopolitanism”. Phillips quotes Jeremy Waldron’s definition of this movement:
cosmopolitanism is built on the multiplicity of allegiances that characterise any one person, the ways that “bits of culture come into our lives from different sources” with “no guarantee that they will all fit together … Waldron rejects the notion that the world divides up into separate and distinct cultures, arguing that in this age of mass migration, formed by empire and trade, cultural influences are radically dispersed. In his reading of it, multiculturalism is overly wedded to the idea that individuals find their sense of themselves through their communities, and to a vision of these communities as sitting side by side on a flat plane, touching perhaps at the edges, but not otherwise engaged. Cosmopolitanism is the better—and in the context of the modern world, the more authentic—alternative” (quoted in Phillips 68).
However, Phillips does not totally subscribe to Waldron’s position, arguing that:
- It comes from the vision of an elite that can fly regularly, do cultural tourism, and dip in different cultures at will, because of its wealth.
- It gives too little importance to local attachment and the problems that “not feeling part of a community” may produce in an individual who chooses one form of life over another.
Other version of cosmopolitanism solve these problems in diverse ways (Phillips quotes the work of Bruce Ackerman, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martha Nussbaum). However, Phillips concludes, there is no reason to work on the frame of cosmopolitanism, that has its own faults and problematic versions, if it is also possible to work in an improved version of multiculturalism. Keeping the term multiculturalism avoids falling into a problematic political position:
My reasons for coming down on the side of a revised multiculturalism are partly theoretical and partly political. For both reasons, I think the task many have set themselves—to differentiate the new discourse of cosmopolitanism from an older one of universalism—is likely to prove beyond them, and that despite all the qualifications, cosmopolitanism will revert to a rather arrogant form of cultural imperialism” (69).
Finally, one last problem with cosmopolitanism as a substitute for multiculturalism is that the first one tends to be associated with an attitude while the second one is associated with policy. An attitude is more likely to put one culture over another, as Phillips explains:
To be cosmopolitan is generally understood as being capable of taking a critical distance from one’s habits or assumptions, willing to engage positively with those who are different, and able to adopt an attitude of reflective openness that frees you from the tyranny of the pure. I have no quarrel with the attributes, which I find highly attractive, but they are almost certainly going to develop more easily in some circumstances than in others” (70).
For Phillips, the fact that these attitudes develop more easily in one group or another tends to create a hierarchical vision of cultures, as she explains:
People vary enormously in their capacity for reflecting on their own taken-for-granted assumptions, partly for reasons bound up in the particularities of personal history, but also because of the cultural, religious, moral, and political influences that shape their lives. Certain ways of thinking or living your life are more conducive to critical reflection than others; it would be an odd kind of cultural relativism to deny this. … Yet if cosmopolitanism is going to be defined by reference to an attitude, it is clearly committed to the view that some attitudes are better than others, and (despite Waldron’s endeavours) is likely to encourage the view that some cultures are better as well. At this point, one begins to wonder about the much-vaunted openness to difference” (71).
This Western-centric tendency of cosmopolitanism is the root of the political problems that cosmopolitanism faces when used as a framework for policy. Cosmopolitanism is egalitarian because it believes in the equality between human beings. However, it has no stance regarding the relationship between majority and minority cultures. For instance, cosmopolitanism tends to assume that the establishment of a common language will be an advantage for all communities, without addressing the fact that this will be more advantageous for some communities than others. Thus, cosmopolitanism does not address the fact that “all cultural groups have a role to play in shaping the identity of the country they live in, that those who got there first or who currently constitute the numerical majority do not automatically gain the right to impose their own cultural preferences on the others” (Phillips 71). Moreover, there is a political problem with working within the cosmopolitanism frame. Multiculturalism is currently under attack too from people that support a return to more strict and narrower visions of national identity. Against this backdrop, Phillips prefers a multiculturalism without culture rather than a cosmopolitanism with an improved sense of cultural diversity. According to Phillips, this is not a time to retreat from everything that multiculturalism stands for, but to improve it by supressing reified notions of culture and that refuses to subject right of women to supposed cultural traditions.