Adam Kuper argues in Culture: The Anthropologists' Account
that his discipline's turn toward cultural explanation over the past few decades has reduced contemporary social theory to a politically dangerous idealism. Just as Marx accused Hegelian philosophers of believing that a drowning man could save himself by abandoning the idea of gravity, Kuper contends that contemporary anthropologists have attempted to "wish away ... political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes." In other words, these academics explain culture on its own terms without reference to other, more material, aspects of life. Kuper's work is a rehearsal of the big question: Are the forces that animate our lives better understood as ideas or material forces? Marx answered this question in order to change things; Kuper in order to rebuke his fellow academics.
Kuper appraises the most important anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, treating them as the heirs of Talcott Parsons's program of explaining social and cultural life as a set of interacting systems. Clifford Geertz's attempt to collapse social systems within systems of culture emerges as the work of a traditional connoisseur of religion and high art. David Schneider appears as a father-haunted academic who deconstructed biology and kinship relationships because he had not come to terms with his own family. Marshall Sahlins's work is counted as a failed, if brave, experiment in combining materialist and cultural explanations. James Clifford and Renato Rosaldo become obscurantist academic survivors in the struggle for tenure.
So what is Kuper's answer to the big question? Anthropologists, he concludes, must explain culture with reference to material forces, and the heirs to Talcott Parsons have botched the job. In fact, they have contributed to the creation of a world in which idealistic relativism destroys attempts at good communication between people. Kuper further argues that this state of academic affairs is consistent with the way racists and corporate boards like to keep things. However, he does not actually show how the academic ideas are systematically related to those structures of domination to which he alludes. Marx showed how ideas were related to their material conditions--that is why he continues to be counted as a revolutionary and a great thinker, and why Kuper will be counted only as an academic. --James Highfill
From Library Journal
Kuper (social anthropology, Brunel Univ., U.K.) takes a penetrating look at the concept of culture, moving from antecedents in 18th- and 19th-century thought to focus on its meaning within post-World War II social sciences in America under the leadership of Talcott Parsons. Kuper examines the mid-century ethnographic work of Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, and Marshall Sahlins to determine how they applied theories of culture in the field and concludes with observations on the generation of anthropologists who were graduate students in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Kuper concludes that "the more one considers the best modern work on culture by anthropologists, the more advisable it must appear to avoid the hyper-referential word altogether, and to talk more precisely of knowledge, or belief, or art, or technology, or tradition, or even of ideology." Written with verve and fascinating insight into the ins and outs of modern cultural anthropology, Kuper's book will appeal to students of anthropology and intellectual history.AJoan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L.
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