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Sunday, November 20, 2011


The Concept of Cultural Systems:
A Key to Understanding Tribes and Nations
by Leslie A. White
p. 1975
Columbia University Press

    The title of this book should actually be "The Concept of Cultural Systems: From The Perspective of An Anthropology Professor."  White is a crucial figure in the second generation of American social scientists, who helped elevate the so-called social sciences from rank Darwinian influenced mumbo jumbo to something approaching a useful, non-racist perspective on human society.

   Writing in 1975, White was writing as someone who had been rewarded for his progressive views- he was the chair of the Anthropology Department of the University of Michigan after World War II- which was a comfortable place to be.  In 1975 the transition from using a metaphor of Darwinian/Biology to using a Systems/Functionalist approach to describe human culture was firmly in effect, and The Concept of Cultural Systems works as a kind of short summary of that specific transition- the how and why of intellectuals ceasing to describe society as a kind of biological organism, and beginning to describe it as an interdependent system.

    One distinction is important to maintain if the concept of cultural systems is to be useful:  Cultural systems are not people and do not possess morals and ethics like individual humans.  Rather, systems are subject to the influence of vectors- which in this book means "groups of people with common interest."  White's repeated use of lobbying examples drawn from the Federal Government of the US in the New Deal era to illustrate the impact of vectors on cultural systems is a clear indicator of his perspective.

  White's repeated description of a cultural system as an integrated whole stood in opposition to the first generation of American anthropologist- Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict- who were similarly obsessed with the way cultures allegedly transferred traits from one to another.

  The transition from biological metaphor to systems metaphor is documented by White but not really examine, however considering the role of technology and business in 20th century life it's easy to see how an anthropologist might spend more time thinking about society as a kind of integrated system.

  One later insight that White is either ignoring or did not agree with is the critical role that the State plays in any society that possesses a state- he often alludes to the lobbying of the state by business interests as an example of how "vectors" influence cultural systems, but he fails to acknowledge that the very fact that businesses bother lobbying the state is a testament to the state's importance in their "mind."

  White's emphasis on analyzing cultural systems without attaching moral judgments about those systems being good and bad is well taken- and that seems to me to be a foundation of the new social sciences of the late 20th century- analyzing cultural systems and vectors without judging those same systems.

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