Culture, Society and Subsistence Ethnocentrism vs cultural relativism



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Culture, Society and Subsistence

Ethnocentrism vs. cultural relativism

Tylor’s Definition of Culture

“Culture ...taken in its widest... sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, and custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Features of Culture

Definition stresses that culture is:

1) a whole: complex with many interdependent parts.

2) acquired: not inborn (distinct from race) capacity for culture is inborn (large brain, speech mechanism).

3) culture depends on an ongoing society for existence.

Additional points not in definition

  • Culture includes behavior as well as ideas. Practices are significant even if not conscious and not explained. People can not explain all of their own culture (Like language)

  • Culture is symbolic. Culture is a system of meanings. Meaning results from relations between different areas of experience, e.g., religion and subsistence.

Consequences of the Features of Culture

  • The social aspect of culture is linked to its function as an adaptive strategy

  • Culture as a systemic whole is shown in the relation of subsistence and politics.

  • Since culture is acquired, cultures vary.

Culture is Social

  • Living in social groups that transmit culture is the adaptive strategy of humans.

  • All humans have learned transmitted skills for acquiring food called subsistence techniques.

Cultures are complex wholes

  • Parts of a culture are interrelated.

  • E.g., subsistence limits or enables politics.

  • Without a surplus there are no full time leaders.

Culture is Acquired and
Varies by Group

  • Since culture is acquired it varies.

  • Even biological needs are met in different ways.

  • Shelter is a biological necessity but it shows cultural identity.

Mbuti huts are made new every camp. Related families camp in neighboring huts.

Trobriand village houses are for small families. Kin (through mothers) are likely to be neighbors.

Darfur Homes are Compounds in Villages

  • Home and village reflect gender relations and relations with outside

  • Precolonial Darfurians lived away from major roads to avoid predation

  • Um Hemeda

Azande homesteads are interconnected reflecting kinship. Narukuari and Ortenzio have satellite homesteads that are connected Uku’s home by paths.
They are all in the same clan (kin group), related through fathers. Uku and Narukuari are first cousins in English kinship terminology.

Anthropological Axioms

  1. Culture determines much of our attitudes, rules and action. (Cultural determinism)

  2. Cultures are diverse, evidenced by the wide variety of ways doing things and reactions to situations.

  3. Cultures provide evaluative frames that are not appropriately applied to each other. (Cultural Relativism)

Ethnocentrism vs.
Cultural Relativism in Methodology

  • All humans are inherently ethnocentric.

  • Culture supplies us with values which we need.

  • The basis of ethnocentrism is application of values to people who do not share them.

  • Applying outsider’s values usually leads to conclusion of outsider superiority.
  • Cultural relativism avoids applying outsider values.

  • Suspending judgment is necessary for understanding.

  • Evaluation of cultural practices should be in terms of values of the actors.

  • Values are relative but truth need not be.

  • Science seeks explanations through observation

  • Observations are made intersubjective by careful procedures.

Ethnocentrist vs. Relativist

  • Masai culture is inferior to American culture since a Masai man may have several wives.

  • Bena Bena culture is inferior to American culture because people touch genitals in greeting.

  • Masai value multiple wives.

  • Bena Bena value touching genitals.

Subsistence and Values

  • People generally consider their own subsistence mode the best.

  • Our industrial subsistence mode uses machines.

  • Our way of life threatens others.

  • Other subsistence modes define “traditional cultures”

  • Foraging (=hunting and gathering)

  • Horticulture (gardening)

  • Pastoralism (herding)

  • Agriculture

Traditional Cultures are Scarce

  • They are actually persisting despite predictions of eradication.

Ethnocentric Assumptions of Industrial Societies

1. The Materialistic values of industrial civilization are cultural universals

2. Tribal cultures are unable to satisfy the material needs of their peoples

3. Industrial goods are, in fact, always superior to their hand-crafted counterparts.

Dhaka, Capital of Bangladesh

  • Industrialized areas have industrial values of consumption, growth and expansion.

  • Rural areas have values of sustainable relation with environment

  • Urban areas need the resources of rural areas

Chittagong Hills, Bangladesh

  • Government planners were ethnocentric.

  • Farmers failed to make “optimum“ use of resources.

  • Optimal uses are unsustainable.

  • Farmers must become wage earners.

  • To support the urban population.

  • 400,000 settlers in 1982 protected by 30,000 troops

  • Forests logged, rivers dammed

  • “optimal use”

  • 185,000 traditional people killed

  • Doomed for failing to “optimize”



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