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Unbounded Culture

The Merriam Webster collegiate dictionary defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”. Social scientists within the fields of anthropology and sociology make the study of culture of different racial, religious and social groups the focal point of study. Historically, this study has taken the form of comparison between the current incarnations of a “primitive” and the “modern” society, or the tribal and the western, or even comparison between two western societies. The ultimate goal was to identify the primary factors which lead to both similarities and differences within societies in general. (ie- what causes one group to be matriarchal and another patriarchal? What factors lead to a polygamous verses a monogamous society?) It assumed that fixed boundaries separate different cultures and led to a vision of inherent cultural-autonomy. This type of scholarship also assumed a certain level of static-ness within cultures – that over time the basic elements of what gives a society its “culture” remain basically intact and unchanged. However, recently, this type of scholarship has been challenged and a shift in the field is taking place. Scholars such as Matory, Piot, Mintz and Phillips have suggested that there is in fact no “pure”, self-contained culture and thus the study of culture needs to be unbounded. The basic assumption in their argument is that, over both space and time, different “cultures” interact with, and influence each other. Attributes are both gained and lost. A culture will be vastly different if observed at two different point in its history because of these interactions (ie the USA 1860 to USA 2003). This worldview concerning culture can inform a new and different type of scholarship from what has been traditionally done: Different types of comparison must be made when attempting to study the origins of a culture, as well as the effects of regional boundaries as they relate to culture.

The relationship between the Americas, Europe, and Africa has been one of give and take for the past several centuries. A brief look at interplay between these three regions provides a clear example of the true depth of the interactions different cultures go through as they develop. Populations have moved, foods have moved, musical styles have been passed, assimilated, and then re-passed from one culture to another. John Phillips presents a brief but compelling argument concerning “Africanisms” within white American culture. These range from hand-slapping to rich sauces on foods and even words like tote (ie tote-bag.) These influences which pervade all of American society and trace their roots back to Africa “are one important way in which American culture differs from European” (Phillips 226). If one were to then ask “What is the origin of American culture?” one would be forced to account for influences from African areas as well as European areas and then for developments within Ameican society itself. Althoguh the typical lay person thinks that culture is something that you get from your parents, Phillips asserts that “The consequences of culture transmission along nonbiological roads need to be thought out.”(236). By bring the point that non-biological transmissions act upon and shape cultures to the forefront Phillips is attempting to cause a shift in the cosmology of culture.

Other scholars also bolster this argument. Mintz discusses the effects sucrose has upon the lifestyles of the less wealthy in Europe. “Tobacco, sugar, and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently” (Mintz 185). A key point in this argument is that the source of what was being consumed by the Europeans and thus turning them into something “different” was a group of people in another part of the World who were also turned into something different-namely a slave labor. Yet the heart of the mattered is that both cultures were greatly affected by the interaction and that an understanding of either culture cannot be reached without accounting for this interaction. Matory focuses his argument on the effect of a dispersed people on their homeland, but the basic principle remains the same. If taken to the ultimate conclusion, this theory points the fact that there is really only one Human culture. This supra-culture has a great deal of variation over the whole even as the Human Race, while one remaining species, has great physical variation in terms of height, skin tone, hair texture, and other attributes. Rather than variation in height however, the variation manifests as different marriage practice, different farming style, different clothing style, and other things. Yet in essence each variation is only a small portion of the larger supra culture.

But how then do we deal with this? How are we to study human society if not as singular autonomous units? The first step was obviously to remove the static boundaries around sub-cultures (sub-culture meaning an area which we traditionally thing of as a cultural center, ie: Southern America, Japan, etc) The next step is to identify the other sub-cultures which have the most interaction and effect on the sub-culture of study. These are the primary-interactors. A good analogy is to envision a computer network. Each workstation has access to and is effected by every machine on the network, yet the ones it is directly physically connected have the most effect on it. These computers would be the primary interactors. For example, if one studies the United States, then an obvious primary-interactor is Mexico and even greater Latin America. Over the past several decades, Millions of Mexicans have legally and illegally entered the United States and this has had a profound impact upon American culture. One small example of a direct effect this interaction has had is the current ubiquity of Spanish. McDonalds, the largest fast food vendor, lists the prizes on its scratch in win games in both English and Spanish. Another example is the interaction between Japan and the United States. There is a huge trade connection between these two cultures and as such much of what is American has transferred to Japan and vice versa. Pokemon and sushi bars are a small example of Japans effects on the United States development.

Knowing the primary interactors provides a basic starting point to study what types of things are more likely to be transmitted into a specific culture. This is a new type of comparison: A comparison between what a culture transmits outwards and has transmitted back into it. As opposed to comparing the way a sub-culture is currently to the way another sub-culture is currently, cultures should be compared with themselves at two different periods of time to see the effects of what is transmitted both to and from the sub-culture. A more complete picture of the sub-cultures development appears when viewed from this perspective.

The theory that Culture is dynamic and constantly interacting with outside force is revolutionary. It informs a new type of study concerning the basic questions “Why do they do that? Why are they different from us” which social scientists endeavor to answer. Culture cannot be looked at as a singular independent variable because culture is made up of such complex attributes which are never truly static. Rather, there is a vast web of interaction in which different attributes are transmitted back and forth constantly. Thus, the work of Piot, Matory, Philips and Mintz opens new possibilities for all of social science and hopefully will compel other scholars to delve into the mysteries of why we are the way we are.

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