Monday, February 15, 2010

Culture Matters

The eminent cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once stated that "The debate over the patterns of social change...has recently taken a strongly 'economistic' turn, either in the form of Neomarxist 'modes of production' theory or Neoclassical 'rationalisation of factor use' theory. This has led to the 'externalisation' of the cultural dimensions of change as 'mere ideology' or forceless social decor and to a heightened indeterminacy in our picture of what is now happening. Only the restoration of interest in the cultural dimensions of change can correct this development."

He was talking about development and social change in Indonesia over twenty years ago, but I was reminded of his words while reading this and this post, and the responses to it, over at the very helpful Anthropologyworks blog. If you want to keep up a little with what is going on in the world of cultural anthropology this is a great place to stop by.
These two posts however reminded me of the diversity in the field. In them Dr. Miller (the blog's author) collectively highlights three op-eds about Haiti's "problems." Two of them deal primarily with Haiti's culture while the other one fits pretty well into Geertz's "economistic" category. Both of the culturally focused articles argue that certain aspects of Haiti's culture, voodoo for one, are "progress-resistant." While the last article focuses on the effects of the drug trade and corruption on Haiti's development.
Surprisingly Dr. Miller praises the last one and finds much fault with the more culturally focused op-eds. I say surprising not because she disagrees with their assessment. From my point of view neither op-ed is particularly persuasive, though I know next to nothing about Haiti. Rather I was surprised by Dr. Miller's reaction because she seemed offended at the very suggestion that culture matters. And therefore that Haiti's culture could be damaging (or helpful) to its development prospects. Instead she preferred talking about how the real culprits for Haiti's desperate situation are drugs, imperialism, capitalism, etc. Now certainly these factors had a (large) role, but why, as a cultural anthropologist, would you be disparaging of people who are interested in looking directly at the role that some other cultural practices, such as voodoo (or whatever) might have played?
And if you are skeptical of their conclusions, why not simply point out why with supporting data rather than accuse them of participating in the "destruction.. of cultures through economic, political, and cultural imperialism."

That kind of talk is a good way to scare away a lot of inquisitive minds.

Perhaps another "restoration of interest in the cultural dimensions of [social] change..." is in order?

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