Cover image for Culture : the anthropologists' account
Culture : the anthropologists' account
Kuper, Adam.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xv, 299 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN357 .K87 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Suddenly culture seems to explain everything, from civil wars to financial crises and divorce rates. But when we speak of culture, what, precisely, do we mean? Adam Kuper pursues the concept of culture from the early twentieth century debates to its adoption by American social science under the tutelage of Talcott Parsons. What follows is the story of how the idea fared within American anthropology, the discipline that took on culture as its special subject. Here we see the influence of such prominent thinkers as Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, Marshall Sahlins, and their successors, who represent the mainstream of American cultural anthropology in the second half of the twentieth century--the leading tradition in world anthropology in our day. These anthropologists put the idea of culture to the ultimate test--in detailed, empirical ethnographic studies--and Kuper's account shows how the results raise more questions than they answer about the possibilities and validity of cultural analysis. Written with passion and wit, Culture clarifies a crucial chapter in recent intellectual history. Adam Kuper makes the case against cultural determinism and argues that political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes must take their place in any complete explanation of why people think and behave as they do.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

"It would hardly be a fish who discovered the existence of water," wrote anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn. His comment points up how difficult it is for us to see the custom that constitutes the stuff of our social lives. Today, as multiculturalists champion minority cultures and cultural studies spew trendy ideas, the culture concept, long a tradition in American anthropology, enjoys a fashionable new appeal. Kuper's work traces the genealogies of the concept, sparking discussion of its uses and limitations. He looks first at the role of culture in the grand theoretical project of sociologist Talcott Parsons. Then he summons the spirit of anthropology from its own stamping grounds: the natives' turf. Three prominent ethnographers are featured: Clifford Geertz, for whom cockfighting in Bali makes grand opera; David Schneider, who finds the core symbol of American kinship in (what else?) sexual intercourse; and Marshall Sahlins, who interprets Captain Cook's death at the hands of Native Hawaiians as an acting out of cultural scripts. A thoughtful account of an important idea in Western intellectual history. --Philip Herbst

Library Journal Review

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.ÄJoan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Kuper assesses theories of culture in US anthropology since WW II. He argues, and this reviewer agrees, that cultural anthropology in the US is deficient because it subsumes social organization, economics, and politics under the rubric of culture. The opening chapters deal with the concept of culture in 20th-century European thought and the influence of Talcott Parsons on culture theorists in the US. Succeeding chapters are reasoned and perceptive critiques of Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, and David Schneider. The final two chapters discuss a number of American cultural anthropologists. Throughout, Kuper argues for ethnographic work that embeds behavior in economic and organizational matrices. He is a sound critic of identity politics, cultural determinism, and the interpretive bias in American ethnography. For an even sharper critique of the uses of the idea of culture in US anthropology, see Micaela di Leonardo's Exotics at Home (CH, Jan'99). It goes further than Kuper's study in recognizing that the American focus on culture has concealed the realities of power and class in the ethnographic treatment of the US. Upper-division undergraduates and above. R. Berleant-Schiller; University of Connecticut

Table of Contents

Culture Wars
PART2 Genealogies
1 Culture and Civilization: French, German, and English Intellectuals, 1930-1958
2 The Social Science Account: Talcott Parsons and the American Anthropologists
PART Experiments
3 Clifford Geertz: Culture as Religion and as Grand Opera
4 David Schneider: Biology as Culture
5 Marshall Sahlins: History as Culture
6 Brave New World
7 Culture, Difference, Identity