Saturday, August 30, 2008

Roy Wagner: The Invention of Culture

("Anthropologist" in this case could refer to anyone applying/researching critically a culture and is attempting to understand how they shape/are shaped-by their studies)

Wagner, Roy. The Invention of Culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.

The idea that man invents his own realities is not a new one ... Nevertheless, the prospect of introducing this idea to ... a culture that wants very much to control its own realities (as all cultures do) is a difficult one. (Wagner, 1975: vii)

“Absolute” objectivity would require that the anthropologist have no biases, and hence no culture at all. (Wagner, 1975: 2)

We might actually say that an anthropologist “invents” the culture he believes himself to be studying ... Yet this explanation is only justified if we understand the invention to take place objectively, along the lines of observing and learning, and not as a kind of free fantasy. ... It is only through “invention” of this kind that the abstract significance of culture (and of many another concept) can be grasped, and only through the experienced contrast that his own culture becomes “visible.” In the act of inventing another culture, the anthropologist invents his own, and in fact he reinvents the notion of culture itself. (Wagner, 1975: 4)

This feeling is known to anthropologists as “culture shock.” In it the local “culture” first manifests itself to the anthropologist through his own inadequacy; against the backdrop of his new surroundings it is he who has become “visible.” The situation has some parallels within our own society: the freshman first entering college, the new army recruit, and anyone else who is compelled to live in “new” or alien surroundings, all have had some taste of this kind of “shock.” Typically the sufferer is depressed and anxious, he may withdraw into himself, or grasp at any chance to communicate with others. To a degree that we seldom realize, we depend on the participation of others in our lives, and upon our own participation in the lives of others. Our success and effectiveness as persons is based upon this participation, and upon an ability to maintain a controlling competence in communicating with others. Culture shock is a loss of the self through the loss of these supports. (Wagner, 1975: 6-7)

His efforts to understand the subjects of his research, to make them and their ways meaningful, and to communicate this meaningfulness to others, will grow out of his abilities to make meaning within his own culture. Whatever he “learns” from his subjects will therefore take the form of an extension or superstructure, built upon that which he already knows, and built of that which he already knows. He will “participate” in the subject culture, not in the way a native does, but as someone who is simultaneously enveloped in his own world of meanings, and these meanings will also participate. If we recall what was said earlier about relative objectivity, we remember it is the set of cultural predispositions that an outsider brings with him that make all the difference in his understanding of what is “there.” (Wagner, 1975: 8)

If culture were an absolute, objective “thing,” then “learning” it would be the same for all people, native as well as outsider, adult as well as child. But people have all sorts of predispositions and biases, and the notion of culture as an objective, inflexible entity can only be useful as a sort of “prop” to aid the anthropologist in his invention and understanding. For this, and for many other purposes in anthropology, it is necessary to proceed as if culture existed as some monolithic “thing,” but for the purpose of demonstrating how it is that an anthropologist attains his comprehension of another, it is necessary to realize the culture is a “prop.” (Wagner, 1975: 8-9)

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