Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 1: What is Actual Culturalism?


Last summer, when The Korean from Ask a Korean! wrote his bit about Malcolm Gladwell, the Asiana crash, and culturalism -- a tour de force piece that managed to get Malcolm Gladwell himself over to The Korean's site to answer criticisms, one of my friends who's in Anthropology got very frustrated with the whole thing.

Because before The Korean started using the word "culturalism" with the meaning he gave it (in this post)... it was kind of already an actual thing.

It happens from time to time that academic terms get co-opted, or re-"coined" or re-conceptualized by someone who isn't part of the conversation where it first came up (for example, Soft Power has suffered a lot of meaning creep since being co-opted by China's "Peaceful Rise" narrative, and now it can mean anything from all non-military nation-to-nation bullying, to nation branding) or a word gets so much baggage piled onto it in the public imagination, that it's hard to use it academically anymore. (For an example, look at The Metropolitician's attempt to re-explain racism in such a way that it's possible to discuss it again without knee-jerk defensiveness.)

And here's a definition of culturalism, as per Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, who are the two names that come up a lot when you search it on Google Scholar and stuff: 
Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. [One type of] Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections – even if at the same time they violate individual rights.
Basically, to develop public policy, or understand social structures, as a bureaucrat or anthropologist might want to do, one must decide how to group together the subjects of your study, and class, income, age, region, education -- these can all be useful. But if you decide culture is more important than all these other groupings, that, in its broadest definition, is culturalism.

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt back away from the definition above by separating culturalism into two kinds: hard and soft. (explanation in this summary)

Hard culturalism is the one above -- where culture is constructed as the be-all and end-all, and cultural lines are imagined to be rigid and impassable. I can't define myself outside of the culture I was raised in. Taken far enough, Hard Culturalism is the basis of arguments that cultural groups should be allowed to put their community's laws above the laws of the land they live in, or that anybody unwilling to assimilate into their host country should be sent "back where they came from." This is where Eriksen and Stjernfelt's critique lies. Hard culturalism becomes politicized, and they describe it in places as an ideology, arguing that individual and human rights should always come before cultural rights.

And where exactly to draw those lines between respecting a cultural or religious group, and ensuring the human rights of members of that group? Does a doctor violate one's religious rights by saying, "I respect your religion, but I'm still giving your child a blood transfusion!" What if it's not the child, but the parent?

Soft culturalism, according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, aren't incompatible with a modern cosmopolitan society. In soft culturalism, we can find our identity or self-expression in a culture, but the standards and norms of a culture don't supersede the values of a modern secular society -- human rights, rule of law, etc..

To over-simplify, Eriksen and Stjernfelt would probably say that you should be allowed to wear a cross or a hijab in school as a symbol of your identity (soft culturalism), but would reject a domestic abuse defense that "where I'm from, it's normal for parents to hit their kids," and oppose Muslim communities in Europe following Sharia law.

If you take Eriksen and Stjernfelt's definition of culturalism above: "that individuals are determined by their culture, that they have no free will to influence the course of their lives," I don't think The Korean would take issue with it. The difference is how each applies it: E&S explain how putting people into overly rigid groups leads to problematic policies and "culture wars," and The Korean explains how that same conception of culture causes problems in cross-cultural personal experiences and judgments, where it results in "Racism of the 21st Century."



It's just too bad they're giving different meanings to the same word, as they discuss two different, but interesting and important ideas.

If you're interested in Eriksen and Stjernfelt's concept of culturalism, here's more reading material:
This excellent article by Milan Vukomanovic hits most of the important points.
This is another good summary be Eriksen and Stjernfelt themselves.
This article, and the six recorded interviews below it expand on the key issues.
This article about the Anders Breivik verdict (that Norwegian mass-murderer) also talks about the tension between culture and human rights.
And if anyone wants to send me a gift copy of Eriksen and Stjernfelt's book, "The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism" I'd be thrilled.

Culturalism's place in the history of ideas is kind of mixed: one of the earlier cases of culture being used as a level of analysis was among colonizing countries, which used academic rhetoric to justify colonizing civilizations they had deemed "primitive," in order to "civilize" them. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Culturalism is usually not used in quite such a patronizing way these days. Arguably.

Culturalism is also a required prerequisite to multiculturalism: you can't construct a policy of respecting cultural differences, if you don't first imagine that cultural groupings exist, and are important enough to warrant specific policies and programs.


So while I have to take issue with The Korean using the term "Culturalism" because that's already a thing, the thing that he wishes to describe with his term is something very much worthy of discussion, and I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

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