Books: A liberal crusade against culture

BASEBALL AND the Hearst newspapers for the American anthropologist RH Lowie; Cowes and boiled cabbage for the anglicised TS Eliot: the broad redefinition of "culture" to embrace these things has been one of anthropology's successes. But it is a pyrrhic victory. Everyone from management consultants to health ministers now talks of "changing the culture", but the point of culture in this sense is that it has roots that are not easily got at.

Now, cultural studies in the universities steal some of anthropology's thunder. Some anthropologists have tried to refine their understanding of this extremely tricky word; but if you try to clean up a coin by polishing it, you may find yourself wearing it down rather than making its markings clearer. Others try to use the word as sparingly as possible.

Normally, Adam Kuper belongs to the latter category, but in this new book he gives a historical analysis of the usage of "culture" and kindred words since the period of German and English romanticism. Then he examines the consequences of the decision by an influential school of American anthropologists to adopt "culture" as their professional specialty. In 1958, Talcott Parsons the sociologist and Alfred Kroeber the anthropologist met in northern California and reached a demarcation agreement under which problems of "society" and "culture" would be separately dealt with. It was described, in oddly military terms, as a "truce" or "temporary condominium". Those were days of optimism in American social science, especially at Harvard. Kuper quotes a John Updike character recalling them: "There had been a time, in those Fifties, when sociology, combining psychology, anthropology, history, and statistics, seemed likely to save the world from those shaggy old beasts tribalism and religion."

Kuper, a professor at Brunel University, joins a tradition of transatlantic joshing between British and American anthropologists, enlivened by his own familiarity with European schools as well. He takes on three American doyens: Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, who died in 1995, and Marshall Sahlins, perhaps the most prominent cultural anthropologist today. It is as if, for Kuper, these three have been on an academic cloud nine, divorced from the gritty facts of politics, economics and biology.

Geertz appears to have been taken aback by the massacres in Indonesia under Suharto's army in 1965, despite his extensive fieldwork in Java and Bali in the Fifties, and his claim that human actions could be read like a book. Schneider argued that kinship was a form of symbolism that had no grounding in the biological facts of procreation. Sahlins has devoted gladiatorial energies to a dispute with another anthropologist, Gananath Obeyesekere, as to whether Captain Cook was taken to be a god when he met his death in Hawaii in 1779. According to Obeyesekere, Sahlins is the last victim of the colonial delusion that natives thought white people to be gods - whereas the historical facts are simply unverifiable.

Kuper hits several golds in showing that these big three have all written unwise things, but the same could be said of Claude Levi-Strauss, Edmund Leach and most other theoreticians who have excited a generation of anthropologists. Besides, anthropological theory does not always seem to age well, whereas many of the best field ethnographies still bear re-reading despite the outdated theories that informed them. Some anthropologists seem to need theories as clairvoyants need tarot cards, as a mental device to help them arrive at true insights into people's lives.

The two last chapters are a lucid polemic against current mutations: post-modernism, the celebration of identity politics, and cultural studies. Since his book is in a format attractive to the general reader, it is a pity that Kuper did not find more room to expound his own preferred alternatives. I found his critique a little too hard on one word which in its time has done yeoman service, especially in helping to rebut scientific racism.

There is a clue in Kuper's preface, where he admits that he may have been biased against "culture" because of his early education as a South African of liberal background. It is an almost universal reaction when people are oppressed that they fall back on revaluing positively those traditions that have been stigmatised. This rational path of resistance for black South Africans was pre-emptively robbed from them by the apartheid policy. As Kuper says, it used cultural theory to manipulate and divide, establishing its own school of Afrikaner ethnology. Kuper has always been a bit of a stirrer, since his history of British social anthropology was published in 1973. He has not lost his sharpness of touch.

Jonathan Benthall

The reviewer is director of the Royal Anthropological Institute