Cultural Critique: Anthropological – by Keith Hart

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. Cultural critique is a less powerful force today in anthropology than it was in the 1980s, and the lines that separate it from social criticism are more blurred now. As a result, the present article takes a historical view of its subject rather than offering a contemporary survey.

What then 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 for a time involved a shift in emphasis from life to text, reflecting a trend driven by poststructuralist discourse from the 1970s onward.

The world is currently going through a major transformation, driven by the new digital media, that is social, technological, and cultural in scope. It has fundamental consequences for the human condition and hence for anthropology. The best way to learn about these developments is to take an active part in them. There are analogies between the print revolution and today. For most of human history, information was hard to come by and had to be sought out. With printing, information became omnipresent. This was the origin of critique, since people had to learn how to be selective in what they read. Once choosing not to read something became socially acceptable, the way was open for the mass media. But the relationship between sender and receiver was still asymmetrical. The Internet and especially social media, commonly referred to as Web 2.0, have made available easy-to-use tools that provide a plethora of options for anyone to become engaged with the medium as a communicator in their own right. New social forms adequate to handling this unprecedented freedom of self-expression are at best incipient. They are, moreover, compromised by Web 2.0 being dominated by an outmoded bureaucratic capitalism whose command-and-control system and intellectual property regime continually provoke vigorous demands for more open access to information and for the democratization of its production, distribution, and consumption.

Early Twentieth-Century Ethnography

Ethnography was the dominant form of anthropological inquiry 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, 1961[1922]) 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 toward 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, that is, 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 labor 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. (to be continued…)


Cultural Critique, Anthropological Keith Hart, London School of Economics, London, UK; and University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa 2015 Elsevier Ltd.

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