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Can one 'culture' ever be explained by another 'culture'?

Years of attempted explanation of ‘culture’ have resulted in the creation of false representations. To explain something implies the presentation of something else in greater detail; to make the unclear, clear. Culture has not been explained as neutrally as this. Instead, culture has been ‘reconstructed’. The bias' and the backstories of those attempting to ‘explain culture’ backdrop the entire explanation leaving room for alternative meanings of the original ‘cultures’. Culture is also being ‘essentialised’ instead of being explained with provided sets of prescribed characteristics. This results in many aspects of culture being missed and rids opportunity for flexibility as culture is being so bounded. 


But, what actually is culture? “A system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms” (Geertz)? Or is culture “paramount as a determinant of human behaviour” (Boas)? Or does culture actually not “denote any concrete reality, but [live as] an abstraction” (Radcliffe-Brown 1960)? How can one ‘culture’ ever be explained by another ‘culture’ if the concept does not have a fixed definition? After arguing how culture is being reconstructed and essentialised instead of being explained, I will ironically go on to argue that while attempts have been made, it cannot be done. Culture is not tangible enough to be explained in the first place due to its undefinability.

One ‘culture’ can never be explained by another ‘culture’ because of the bias’ that inspire ‘reconstructions’ over explanations. “Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates and reconciliations amongst various non-Western and West intellectuals”, Harrison asks, building on this as it questions the authenticity of explaining culture. The reference to ‘intellectuals’ regards this bias, drawing on reconstructions happening so often because of power dynamics of those ‘explaining’. Harrison refers to this as, “global apartheid” (Havliland 1990), discussing white supremacy as a principal problem with a minority holding positions of power, and majorities remaining in poverty. Explanations have traditionally always been presented by a ‘white’ minority who hold the power of being heard, allowing these reconstructions to take place. 


This is evident in the investigation of Aboriginal identity in Western Sydney by Cowlishaw in 2012 during a time of cultural revivalism. ‘Koori Hour’, is a session in schools where aboriginal children “learn their culture” (400). They are told to make Totems where they can choose their animal, however the teacher’s “evocation of the totem bears little relationship to any social reality outside the classroom … free of ancestral power” (400). There is a major lack of traditional cultural reality, demonstrating the reconstruction of a ‘culture’ without anything organic. The 'Northern Territory Emergency Intervention’ is the movement aimed at reviving Aboriginal culture; or attempting to do so. In this attempt to explain and revive a ‘culture’, authorities have designed guidelines of what Aboriginal culture should look like, for example: the totems. This notion is represented in the analogy of these totems as the ‘master signifiers’, which describes one meaning replaced by another. The totem was the ‘master signifier’ but now these totems are being assigned by choice rather than by kin; ancestral focus is lost and the meaning of totemism replaced. This is reflected in Australian society as Aboriginals are being taught their own culture with prescription. How is this explanation of culture when it has rules upheld by someone not part of that ‘culture’? Abu-Lughod suggests that “‘culture’ operates in anthropological discourse to enforce separations that inevitably carry a sense of hierarchy” (1991, 466), which makes a powerful connection to culture being explained through difficult power relations. At the core of cultural explanation exists this self / other distinction, demonstrating how it is too difficult to explain culture from a neutral grounding with such power contrasts. Those whose ‘culture’ is being explained, in this case the Aboriginals, are still being considered the ‘other’, the ‘non-West’ or even the ‘native’, reconstructing their culture and leaving them unheard. Their theories are placed “on tenuous ground” (Harrison, 6), allowing reconstruction to still take place as there is no authenticity able to seep through.


As well as being ‘reconstructed’, culture is also being ‘essentialised’ instead of being explained. Essentialisation is the process of reducing culture down to minimal ‘essentials’ or providing a given set of generalised characteristics. This allows many aspects of culture to be missed and takes away opportunity for any potential change. Geertz believes that explaining ‘culture’ is the translation of key symbols, which he demonstrates with his study of Bali. ‘Teknonym’ is the Balinese aspect of referring to people by their relationship with others; people are not referred to as particular individuals but by their social position (e.g. sister, step-father, etc.). This brings about conceptions of personhood and the idea of playing a role in society, which Geertz describes as “the pan-Indonesian culture” (1993, 410). As though not only Bali contains this cultural description, but the entirety of Indonesia does too. Geertz has not accounted for the fact that although one part of Indonesia may have these cultural beliefs of personhood, the rest may not. Culture has been essentialised in an attempted translation of key symbols. There is too often the assumption that “cultural, epistemological and theoretical perspectives outside of the Eurocentric canon are less adequate” (Harrison, 6), enabling these power minorities to essentialise culture based on their perceived understanding and present inauthentic meanings. This causes major “anxiety about manufactured culture” (Cowlishaw, 406); ‘manufacturing’ further highlighting the entire lack of cultural explanation.


What is also crucial to understand in light of essentialism, is how culture is not always bounded by geographical location - we see this assumption with Geertz. It has often been assumed that culture is rooted in a place but ironically, “the ‘distance’ between the rich in Bombay and those in London may be much shorter than that between different classes in the ‘same’ city” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 50). Class, race and gender differences are inevitably going to live in the same area making culture something more flexible than what it is often being bounded to be. Culture has too often been essentialised to exist as something specific to its location, furthering how culture cannot be explained by another if the ideas of these cultures are being essentialised and labelled on categorised boxes. It takes away reality by not explaining what culture really is. 


Finally and most ironically, one ‘culture’ can never be explained by another ‘culture’ because the concept is too abstract to be explained at all. What is actually being explained? There are many definitions, which make it difficult to draw the line with where one culture ends and another begins. I admit, it is hypocritical to talk about culture (as talked about above) when we cannot consistently define the term, but years of attempted ‘explaining’ of culture cannot be denied.


Tylor believed humans differed “widely in the degree in which they were ‘cultured’” (1903 cited in Stocking, 869), following the singular English definition of culture. The belief stood that ‘primitive’ people were not as cultured as ‘civilised’ people, that culture was a development of humanity. Boas emerged later and reshaped the definition of culture, introducing the German romantic view and the plural definition saying “all men are equally cultured” (Stocking, 868). This period of change was shaped by how culture was defined and redefined to exist as many different things over time. Boas never came up with a specific definition of culture, instead preferred “to focus on the ambiguity of the meaning … and the historical process of its definition” (Stocking, 867). This majorly opposes Tylor’s understanding of culture as well as Radcliffe-Brown’s who was influenced by Durkheim. They believed in focusing on the collective rather than the individual, in understanding how social phenomena such as law, language, morals and religion led to the production and maintenance of social structure. Radcliffe-Brown went on to use the analogy of the human body as a reference for how to study society, “the discovery of the general characteristics of social structures of which the component units are human beings” (1940, 2). He generalises ‘cultures’ to better make descriptions of societies also demonstrating the ‘reconstruction’ and ‘essentialism’ argument above. However, what Tylor, Boas and Radcliffe-Brown never realised they shared, was the obsession with the abstraction of culture. None of these definitions ever came to any concrete reality. None of these will hold any consistent truth for the future. They subconsciously highlighted that what ‘culture’ is will constantly take new shape. The definition of culture developed and transformed immensely and will continue to do so demonstrating how culture will never stand on firm enough ground to be explained. 


This essay has emphasised how one ‘culture’ can never be explained by another. Culture is at risk of being reconstructed and essentialised to such high degree that it impossible to simply be explained with the neutrality that the word suggests. Ironically however, culture does not even have the grounds to be explained in the first place as it is extremely abstract and has too many varying definitions. 

Works Cited 

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. "Writing Against Culture" 43: 466 - 479.


Cowlishaw, G (2012) “Culture and the absurd: the means and meanings of Aboriginal identity in the time of cultural revivalism” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18: 397–417.


Durkheim E (1915) Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George and Allen Unwin. Conclusion, pp. 415-447.


Geertz, C (1973 [1966]) “Person, Time and Conduct in Bali.” In Geertz The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, pp. 360-411.


Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson. 1997. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference” In Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. London: Duke University Press.


Harrison, F V (1997) “Anthropology as an Agent of Transformation: Introductory Comments and Queries”. In Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Virginia: Association of Black Anthropologists American Anthropological Association. 


Radcliffe-Brown, A (1940) “On Social Structure” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 70(1): 1-12.


Stocking, G (1966) “Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective” American Anthropologist, 68(4): 867-882.

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