Unit One – Studying Culture and Society

What to Do for Unit One

Please make sure that you save everything before you post.

Recommended to do this assignment in small groups, create a blog, and post your visual and written material.

1) You are a group of visual anthropologists/ethnographers coming from a society/planet where there is no institution of formal education (no formal schooling, no schools, no teachers/students, no grading, no diplomas, …). You are studying higher education in the U.S.  You are doing your ethnographic fieldwork on the BC campus (or any other campus of your choice, or a variety of campuses, what is referred to as multi-sited ethnography). And you are representing the cultural aspects of higher education (on the campus) to your audience in your society. By doing cultural  research, you are focusing on the ways people think, the ways people act, and their material culture, and how these three aspects are interrelated. 

Your perspective is holistic and non-essentialist.

Holistic: You are studying and representing the campus in the larger context (larger whole) of other U.S. colleges and the U.S system of formal education, and/or in the larger context of construction of socio-economic class relations, and/or gender relations, and/or ethnic relations, and/or generations, …..

Non-essentialist: You are studying and representing your topic as not having a fixed and uniform (monolithic) essence. You are looking at it as a something that is changing, you are dealing with a process that is itself part of a larger process of change. And, you are looking and representing diversity internal to your topic of study (BC campus, higher education, formal education).

And you are representing your topic to your audience in your society in the form of visual ethnography (focus is on the visual material/data, but you also include a couple of short paragraphs or more for each picture or short video.

Post your ethnographic posts (visual and written) presenting the cultural on the campus. Include at least 3 pictures (or short video clips) per group member. Include information on the visual material (where, when, etc.) and describe it briefly.

2) Choose one of the episodes of the “Reality TV” show called “Meet the Natives: USA” (You can do this assignment either individually or in small groups). You can use Canvas to post, if you wish, for this assignment, but my suggestion is to do it on your blog. 

Indicate the episode you watch, describe how the “natives” and the “Americans” were represented in the video you watched




Unit One Notes

1) Review a companion website for an anthropology or cultural anthropology  introductory course Learn about what is anthropology, what anthropologists mean by culture, what is an anthropological perspective, and what are the methods cultural anthropologists use.




2) Read the following about the Nacirema



Roman Bathrooms 

Roman Bathrooms


Bunuel – The Dinner Scene



Toilets and Ideology
Slavoj Zizek

3) Read and review the following on studying the USA as an anthropologist

Toward an Anthropology of America: Dangers, Challenges, and Opportunities



RSA Animate – Changing the Educational Paradigm 



Unit One – Culture

On Culture

NOTES on the concept of Culture

Culture is the central concept of cultural anthropology.

The culture concept emerged in anthropology in the early decades of the 20th century to offset the racism and ethnocentrism of most of the 19th century Western social thought.

Approximately during the first half of the 20th century (gradually):

Cultural differences came to be viewed as differences in social learning not biology. Biological makeup and culture were viewed as independent phenomena.

Cultures were viewed as coherent sets of shared customs, values and ways of thinking belonging to distinct societies.
Recent Criticisms and Debates: In RECENT YEARS (approximately last two decades) many anthropologist have questioned the validity of viewing a complex society as a single “culture.”

The concept of Culture has been criticized for being overly reifying, making a fixed “thing” out of a culture.

Related Criticism: “The concept of culture fetishizes cultural differences.”

Human Agency? Agency refers to individuals reflecting on their “taken-for-granted” cultural practices and taking alternative practices and goals. Agency refers to being active agents in making one’s life conditions.

Shapers or Bearers?
The concept of culture diminishes the individual subjects or social actors to mere bearers of their culture rather than its shapers.

History? -“Loses its dynamism and is reduced to the recapitulation of the same or very similar structures of thought.”

CriticismMonolithic? Uniform? No community of human beings could be characterized by a singly coherent set of norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes.

Rather than looking at cultures as homeostatic communities with fixed social structures, more and more cultural anthropologists look at cultures in process, or rather cultures as processes, and emphasize internal multivocality (existance of various voices in any society), diverse discourses, interpretations and subjectivities internal to each of the communities they study.

Cultures as Bounded? Anthropologist have become increasingly aware of the conceptual, methodological and political issues of drawing boundaries around a culture.

Anthropologist now question, rather than assume, what any particular set of cultural boundaries mean. They look at how cultural identities and boundaries are constructed, imposed, resisted, negotiated, and reconstructed. They study various interpretations of a set of cultural boundaries and their power and gender aspects.

Too Generalizing? How Representative? Anthropologists have become more aware of problems and challenges of taking the view of one subgroup of a larger society as representative of the “culture “ of that society as a whole.

It has been recognized that a concept of culture as a unified and integrated whole could provide support for inequality (e.g., when a subgroup within a larger society insists on its version or interpretation of the tradition as the only correct version or interpretation).


Culture is LEARNED, but the “kind of culture” and “the way it is learned” is shaped or informed by power relations.

CULTURE as GENDERED--A related emphasis in recent decades has been on the gendered aspects of cultural practices and ways of thinking.

Even within relatively small, homogeneous societies members may disagree with one another about what “their culture” actually is.




Culture is always in the making, under construction. It is a process, always changing. Even when culture is constructed as “tradition” or “heritage,” it is today’s reconstruction of the “tradition.”

THE GLOBAL and THE LOCAL: “Global” power relations and cultural forms have been increasingly present at the local communities and cultures.

At the level of local communities and cultures, global cultural forms are actively reconstructed, indigenized or localized in multiple ways–resisting, subverting, and reconstructing the global, homogenizing, and “Western” cultural forms and values.

Counter-Criticism: Cultural Voluntarism?

Culture for the critics of the concept culture has become an epiphenomenal, a dependent variable, a mere instrument in economic and political struggle, rather than the ideational framework in which these struggles find their significance.


PERSPECTIVES – Theoretical Approaches

Social Construction of Reality; Cultural Construction of Reality; Socio-Cultural Construction of Reality
The above phrases basically mean the same thing: as members of particular cultures and societies, we live in historically- and culturally-specific “realities.” This perspective is also referred to as constructionism.


Different socio-cultural constructions of Whaling

Constructions of Whaling among the Makah compared to the “American” popular culture (Moby Dick) around 1900

Constructions Whaling among the Makah compared the “American” popular culture (Free Willy) around 2000

Other Examples: different socio-constructions of Veiling, Possession, Depression, ….

A classic work is by Berger and Luckmann on Constructionism:

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1966).

It is a work influenced by the philosophical school of phenomenology (social phenomenology).

They looked at the reality of everyday life, the way it is experienced, coordinated and organized.
Their emphasis is that everyday world is an inter-subjective world (constructed among subjects or individuals that are members of a socio-cultural community). Everyday world is based on a commonsense knowledge that is culturally constructed and taken for granted. There is a temporality to consciousness.
Contemporary Constructionism has largely abandoned the social phenomenology and social structural analysis of its former years. Contemporary constructionism draws primary from recent media, communication, and ideology studies, post-structural literary theory, cultural studies and social studies of science.





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