Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems

Abstract

Arguing that without a differentiated and relational notion of the cultural, the social sciences would be crippled, reducing social action to notions of pure instrumentality, in this article, I trace the growth of cultural analysis from the beginnings of modern anthropology to the present as a layered set of experimental systems whose differential lenses create epistemic objects with increasing precision and differential focus and resolution. Arguing that culture is not a variable—culture is relational, it is elsewhere or in passage, it is where meaning is woven and renewed, often through gaps and silences, and forces beyond the conscious control of individuals, and yet the space where individual and institutional social responsibility and ethical struggle take place—I name culture as a set of central anthropological forms of knowledge grounding human beings' self-understandings. The challenge of cultural analysis is to develop translation and mediation tools for helping make visible the differences of interests, access, power, needs, desires, and philosophical perspective. In particular, as we begin to face new kinds of ethical dilemmas stemming from developments in biotechnologies, expansive information and image databases, and ecological interactions, we are challenged to develop differentiated cultural analyses that can help articulate new social institutions for an evolving civil society.

Editorial Footnotes

Over the last twenty years, Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays that historicize and critically engage the culture concept. See, for example, Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson's "Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference" (1992), Anna Tsing's "From the Margins" (1994), Robert Brightman's "Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification" (1995), and Richard Handler's "Raymond Williams, George Stocking, and Fin-de-Siècle U.S. Anthropology" (1998). 

About the Author

Michael Fischer's webpage

Editorial Overview

MIT Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies Michael Fischer has published an essay in the current issue of Cultural Anthropology that provides new perspective on the history of the concept of "culture," emphasizing how cultural analysis has been linked to social reform in different periods.

Titled "Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems," the essay traces the growth of cultural analysis from the nineteenth century through the present, showing how the concept of culture has evolved and enabled cultural analysis to operate as an "experimental system" that both codifies knowledge, and creates fundamentally new insight. In casting cultural analysis as an "experimental system," Fischer suggests similarities between cultural analysis and the natural sciences, highlighting how both create new knowledge though structured engagements between established theory and empirical data that cannot be sufficiently explained in terms of such theory.

Fischer also highlights the importance of recognizing "culture" as an analytic tool rather than as a variable that can be blamed for social problems, or used to explain "the clash of civilizations." "Culture," Fischer argues, is "where meaning is woven and renewed," by professional cultural analysts as well as by the people they study. The continuing challenge of cultural analysis, Fischer argues, "is to develop translation and mediation tools for helping make visible differences of interests, access, power, needs, desires, and philosophical perspective. In particular, as we begin to face new kinds of ethical dilemmas stemming from developments in biotechnologies, expansive information and image databases, and ecological interactions, we are challenged to develop differentiated cultural analyses that can help articulate new social institutions for an evolving civil society."

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