Letter: For 'civilised' read racist

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The Independent Online
ANTHROPOLOGISTS, and among them, ethnologists, have only lately been waking up to the distance between their field and public debates on contemporary issues. Alberto Manguel drags ethnologists into his review of A History of Civilisations by Fernand Braudel ('The shape of things past', Review, 6 March) and makes it clear just how far anthropological concepts, even one as central as 'culture', remain from the popular domain. Which ethnologists, for example, have provided Manguel with the offensive notion that 'certain societies are 'civilised', that is to say materially advanced, while others are merely 'cultured' '?

Anthropological definitions of 'culture' - and there are many - do vary, but all disagree with Manguel's notions of it. 'Culture', as used by ethnologists, is a human universal, though its variations are infinite. Anthropologists and ethnologists tend to see 'civilisation' as an inherently ethnocentric, bordering on racist, term in the ways it has been used: eg, more advanced societies have achieved it; others have yet to do so. This is a variation of social Darwinism which we presumed had long ago died a well-deserved death.

Susan Pattie, Ruth Mandel, Lin Foxhall, Allen Abramson

Department of Anthropology

University College

London WC1