A Montessori classroom- children independently working

How Am I 'Culture'?

Anthropology has many goals. When we really begin to deconstruct and think about what those goals and aims are, the scope of those goals actually seem a bit absurd. However, I’m going to try and simplify a couple of them for the purposes of presenting a point. Anthropology is chiefly concerned with what is means to be human. What does it mean to be human to you?

If you immediately started thinking about that question, I want you to add a bit of self-awareness to it. What I mean by that, is to consider that no matter what you answer, it is correct because you are human and you are thinking about your humanness from your point of view.

I’m going to make this really complex now. Think about what it is to be a man or woman.    Are your answers the same as your answers regarding what it is to be human? If you can cite differences in your responses, what you are really showing off is your cultural experience.

I’m going to take it a step further. What does it mean to be a modern man or a modern woman?

Did you add in some stuff about iPads, internet, the right to vote, democracy, science and tech, insurance, a car, maybe manicures and capitalism?

You did?! Well, isn’t that a bit egotistical of you? What makes you think that modernity happens in the same way, at the same time, all over the world? And have you considered why your examples are the bench marks of modernity as opposed to the props of social order as dictated by a ruling class? Popular culture? What’s hot on E! television?

What I’m attempting to give you an example of is what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “webs of significance”.

Image from Prof. James A Forte, Salisbury University
Slide from Prof. James A Forte, Salisbury University

Prepare yourself- I’m about to get a bit book-wormy, but this is important and deep foundational anthro stuff…

Geertz was interested in providing a framework for not just looking at culture, but identifying what the heck we should be looking for and how we should read it. Anthropologists don’t just observe, but they read, or analyze what they’re seeing- the symbols.

Here’s an example from Geertz:

The setup: While in Bali, Geertz would observe these cockfights. While one group of people may say, “those are just some dudes that like to watch roosters peck themselves to death,” Geertz was like, “Nah, man. There’s so much more to this.”

He thought about who was involved, the rules for the fight, he rules of the governing law (because those can be different), and he was really interested in the human interaction surrounding these cockfights.

What he uncovers by observing and analyzing what he saw was a complex of actions that related to social ideas of manhood, a colonized people trying to hold on to traditions and ways of life that was being threatened by the colonizers, an extension of social and kinship ties. This is a lot more interesting than “some dudes that like to watch roosters peck themselves to death”. This particular event that Geertz viewed was rich with meaning and significance. He saw culture as being filled with these types of symbols that could be read and interpreted as “culture”.

Geertz was onto something. The whole point is to consider our daily thoughts, actions, traditions, beliefs, etc., as all products of culture, not nature. What is a way of life, is not the only way of life. And when these ways interact with each other, government, weather, etc., they change, morph, strengthen, weaken, adjust, dissolve.

These changes are scary, and people act in weird and sometimes unreasonable ways. They wage war, fight, hide, dance, have cosmetic surgery, convert, revert, etc.

Here’s a story from my personal arsenal of experiences that created the culture that is me:

I went to Montessori school from age 2 until age 7. My mom couldn’t afford it once we moved to NY, so I was placed into a parochial school that was governed by these religious beliefs that were absolutely foreign to me. I was used to some level of autonomy and exploratory learning. I certainly wasn’t prepared for levels of strictness that included spanking if I even TALKED! This was a really hard and devastating adjustment. My mom moved me the following year, but by then the damage had been done. I went from being a happy, confident, school loving girl, to shy, reserved, scared to speak in class. That year became a turning point in my educational career that took yearssssssss for me to square with. But what I’m describing is culture shock in something as routine as elementary school. My solution was to hide, avoid sticking out in anyway. To this day, I am still a fairly shy person, and being outspoken and outgoing, requires proactive, conscious work on my part.

A Montessori classroom- children independently working

What I am inviting you to think about now is your life- with awareness and deliberateness, think about where a cultural shift changed your perspective- positively or negatively. Was it a transition from single to married? Student to teacher? With make up to without? Jeans to dresses?

How did this change make you feel? Older? Younger? Accomplished? All these events do have meaning and may signal a life or role change to others. Something as simple as complying to a particular standard of beauty is a move towards a cultural peculiarity.

This has been a long post, but I hope it’s made you say, “Hmmmm…”

Read Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” Clifford Geertz (Reprinted from The Interpretation of Cultures) http://itu.dk/~miguel/ddp/Deep%20play%20Notes%20on%20the%20Balinese%20cockfight.pdf

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  • I lived most of my childhood in Poland (about 10 years) and then moved to Canada when I was 16. The contrast between the people and their way of being was starting! I was used to conservative, ‘mind-your-own-business attitude and when I got to Canada (specifically the East Coast) people where so open and nice. They would say hello while walking past me and it made me so confused! I ended up loving Canadians so much more than Pols because of that. I felt more free and at ease with my own values for the first time.

  • That sounds like a pretty big shift. Do you ever go back to Poland, or have you been back? And if so, did you find yourself shifting you habits, maybe even your body language to fit in more to that society, or did you bring some your new ‘Canadian’ behaviors with you?

    • I definitely brought back my Canadian ways, once I visited Poland again. I was strongly aware of the contrast between the two cultures, but I chose to stick to being Canadian, although it irked a lot of people. Their reactions ranged from telling me “you lost your Polish heritage, you’re too Canadian” to “I like your attitude, you make me feel at ease”

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